Saturday, April 21, 2018

President Nelson Came to Kenya!

This week, President Nelson, prophet and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) - who many non-Church members might recognize as an internationally renowned heart surgeon and medical researcher - came to Kenya! Even if you're not Mormon, it's still a big deal when someone who heads a global religion with over 16 million members visits your city. As I described him to my co-workers when explaining I was taking half the day off to go get a good seat, "he's like the Mormon Pope!"

The analogy to the Catholic Pope isn't really a good one because our theologies are so different. (One joke goes: "Catholics say the pope is infallible but don't really believe it; Mormons say the prophet is fallible but don't really believe it.") I only make the comparison to highlight that the LDS Church is a centralized one with a clear hierarchy and single line of authority. President Nelson is our spiritual and administrative leader on Earth, and we believe his authority comes from God.

So what was it like to hear from President Nelson (pictured above), Elder Holland, one of our apostles who accompanied him on this visit, (pictured below) and their wives in person? Amazing. About 2,000 people crammed into Bomas in Nairobi, some of whom travelled days from across East Africa to be there. The spirit of community and fellowship was so strong in the room even as we waited for the speakers to arrive.

Being so close to the speakers, it was easy to notice details like Elder and Sister Holland sweetly holding hands in between their talks or President Nelson's vigor and lack of notes or teleprompter. I was also happy that Sister Holland and Sister Nelson (pictured below) were included in the program, not merely to sit next to their husbands on the podium (which is not a lectern) but to provide their own spiritual insights and wisdom, as well.

Although the talks were not published or broadcast, Deseret News has decent coverage of them here. There were some serious messages I didn't expect, including the spiritual importance of education, peace among ethnic groups, and even a recommendation to do away with the cultural practice of the bride price, or dowry, if it holds back righteous, loving couples from marriage.

At the end of the talks, President Nelson and Elder Holland gave all in attendance a special blessing. I feel so lucky to have been a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and to have heard from these inspired leaders.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What's a Duty Officer?

Imagine you're an American citizen, and something bad happens while you're in a foreign country. You need help, and you're not sure how the local system works. You may not even speak the local language. What do you do? Sometimes, the answer is, "Call the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate." If you call during working hours, someone in the Consular section who works in American Citizen Services will assist. If you call on off-hours, though, a Duty Officer picks up the phone.

There's no one set person (or even office) who is always responsible for the Duty Officer role, as the hours are tough: after-hours on weekdays and the entire weekend for a full week. So we at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, for example, take turns. Last week, it was my turn.

While I was a Duty Officer, I was responsible for a duty phone. (Of course, it's an iPhone. The State Department is crazy about iPhones.) I would receive calls on that phone (usually redirected from the generic Embassy number), and I'd have to verify that the caller was a U.S. citizen, gather essential information, analyze the situation, and address it or refer it to someone else.

Serving as a Duty Officer made me appreciate just how tough Consular work can be, and I didn't even get the most labor-intensive (e.g., going to visit someone in prison) or most technically difficult (e.g., U.S. citizen needs help but doesn't speak English) cases. I did take a call at 1:17am on a Saturday, deflect questions from a guy trying to get medical advice out of me, help find a missing soldier and get him home, and assist a grief-stricken spouse whose husband died. It's interesting but stressful work requiring a lot of compassion and patience.

It was all worth it, though, just to hear someone on the other end of the line say, "I'm so glad there was an American here I could call." After all, it's one of the most important reasons the U.S. government bothers to send diplomats overseas - so we're there when there's an American in need. Although I won't deny a huge sense of relief at handing the duty phone to someone else, I'm proud to have contributed my own small part to the Consular effort.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

When Things Go Wrong (Travel Edition)

We are very lucky to travel frequently and to many different parts of the world. Regardless of where we go, though, some "travel truths" remain constant. One of those truths is that things don't always go as planned, no matter how much planning you do in advance. I post many of our vacations on this blog, but I usually don't dwell on the things that went wrong. In some way, I feel I might've contributed to the overall effect of our era of social media, blogs, and travel lust: filtering our life experiences in the rosiest possible way and obscuring the challenges.

Well, here I am doing my part to bust that myth! M and I have missed trains we booked in advance, showed up to restaurants that were closed, trekked to the top of famous vistas only to find the clouds were so white and thick we couldn't see anything, and chosen a hike we thought would be nice only to get bogged down in mud halfway. Our most recent iteration of this phenomenon was our venture to Whakapapa in New Zealand. I was so excited to try the scenic chairlift ride to the top of Mount Ruapehu and to dine at the highest cafe in the country... But we learned the day we arrived there that the lift and cafe were temporarily shut down due to visibility and safety issues.

We tried our best to make the most of our excursion (and the fact that we were already in the area) and took a short walk from the base of the non-functioning chairlift to Meads Wall, where they filmed part of Lord of the Rings and where we were hoping to catch a glimpse of Mount Doom. Of course, as we were walking, a freezing rain picked up and we could barely see anything due to the clouds and mist. I only captured one photo (above), where you can (kind of) tell that the terrain is similar to where Isildur cut off Sauron's finger along with the One Ring.

When you travel enough, it becomes inevitable that you run into these situations. They usually become funny stories later, but at the time they can be so disappointing! So, my advice to fellow travelers is this: especially if you're a planner, make back-up plans (especially when nature and weather are involved). When things go wrong, it's totally fine to be frustrated. You don't have to force yourself to be happy about it - there was probably a reason you included whatever it was in your plan from the beginning.

Once you've allowed yourself some time to process your disappointment, I've found it's easier to move on and discover something different and interesting to do with your newfound time. Perhaps you'll even find a hidden gem you couldn't have planned in advance, whether it's a tucked away nature trail or charming café or newfound friend. Who knows? Whatever life has in store for you that day might be even better than you planned.