Monday, January 22, 2018

What Happens in an Embassy When the Government Shuts Down?

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard that the U.S. government shut down this weekend. I saw a lot of chatter about the shutdown and its effects back home, but very little about what effect it's having abroad. So what actually happens in a U.S. Embassy overseas when the government shuts down? Well, I have a very "State Department" answer to that question: it depends!

It depends on a lot of factors: the laws of the host country government, the roles of specific employees at Embassies, the diverse funding mechanisms for different offices, and what events or programs are planned. Here, many American employees (including myself) are being furloughed, just like many of our counterparts stateside.

What does it mean to be furloughed? Well, it's basically unpaid leave* you have to take whether you want to or not. If you had regular, paid annual leave scheduled, then that leave is cancelled.

This is one of the areas where host country government laws can come in for an Embassy. In Kenya, for example, you can't legally furlough Kenyan employees the way you can furlough Americans. Therefore, our Kenyan colleagues (who make up the majority of Embassy Nairobi's workforce) will be continuing to work their regular hours throughout the shutdown.

Because I'm furloughed and because the U.S. government is technically not allowed to accept unpaid work from its employees, I'm not supposed to come into work** or check my work emails (or even have my work phone on until the shutdown is resolved). My office can't even post on the Embassy's social media accounts until we're funded again.

Now, not everyone at Embassy Nairobi will be doing the same. Some positions (such as Consular jobs) are not dependent on Congressional appropriations and can continue to operate while they fund themselves. Other jobs are considered "essential" and excepted from furloughs, most often because of national security. It seems (admittedly from my entry-level perspective) that these excepted jobs are quite strictly defined and that most jobs are considered "nonessential" for furlough purposes.

Most interestingly, even when we have essential American employees and all of our local staff in the office, we're limited as to what work can be done. We can't hold external meetings or even arrange future meetings. Grants we've already disbursed can continue to operate as long as those operations are carried out by the grantee - not us. We can't spend any additional money. As a result, there are quite a few calls and emails we make to our contacts to cancel meetings, explain the delay on action items, and share that we won't be in touch until we hear on the news that we can get back to work. (Yes, we find out the shutdown is over at the same time as everyone else - by watching the news.)

So although I began this post with the notoriously ambiguous "it depends", I hope I've shed a little light on what happens in a U.S. Embassy during a government shutdown. Maybe I even helped a few people think of their representatives overseas at this time - after all, I know I didn't when I was in the DC area for the last federal shutdown in 2013. Now, if only we could bring some of those deals for furloughed federal government employees in DC to Kenya...

*Although we're not paid during the furlough period, Congress has usually chosen to back-pay most federal employees for lost wages following the past few most recent shutdowns. Still, it's not a guarantee.

**There is a bizarre quirk: I have to come into work on morning of the first workday of the shutdown, so I can be formally told that I am not an "essential" employee and I need to go home.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fun History: A Tale of Two Secretaries

I've been looking forward to writing this post for a long time. For a bit of fun (and a break from the recent slew of travel posts), I'll share a few tidbits about two Secretaries of State from our past.

Pop quiz: who was our first Secretary of State? If you answered "Thomas Jefferson," you're right! Your history teacher would be proud.

Pop quiz on hard mode: who was our second Secretary of State? If you answered, "I have no idea" or mumbled the names of the first few other Founding Fathers who popped into your mind, then congratulations! Your guess was about as good as that of everyone else in my A-100 when this question came up in diplomat school.

Well, our second Secretary of State was this guy: Edmund Randolph.

Why don't we know who he is? Well, one reason might be that his term faced an ignominious end: think political intrigue, corruption accusations, and some classic Britain-France commercial competition. You can read more about that saga here.

I would also like to highlight a much more recent Secretary of State: Lawrence Eagleburger. First of all, he has the most amazing name. It doesn't get more American than "Eagleburger".

In all seriousness, though, Eagleburger is interesting as the only Secretary of State the United States has ever had who was a career Foreign Service Officer. Although he only served as Secretary of State for about a month, he spent a distinguished 27 years at the Department.

For more about Secretary Eagleburger, check out his historical profile here.

I'll put in a plug here for the State Department's Office of the Historian as a whole, too. There are some top-notch historians working hard not only to preserve our foreign policy record but also to lend their historical analysis to questions with present-day policy implications. I'm grateful (as a State Department employee and as a member of the public) for their work and their availability as a resource.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Where Crocs Fight for Chicken Legs

Sticking with the catching-up-from-Mombasa trend and my last post on Fort Jesus, I had to write a little bit about Haller Park. It was one of the last places we visited in Mombasa, and you can tell we were kind of dying from the heat at this point in our photos.

Haller Park is an amazing experience for families in particular, because it's a cross between a forest and a zoo where you can walk around a series of trails and see some animals behind fences while others just walk freely around you. (Do you spot the animal in the photo below?)

Luck isn't so much a factor at Haller Park, as you're pretty much guaranteed to see many different animals, but there aren't lions or other dangerous predators roaming around, either. We even enjoyed the company of a huge tortoise that must have been quite old.

The park also has scheduled feeding times, so it's less of a true wilderness experience but you do get to see the animals very close. The highlight of the park and its most famous attraction is the crocodile feeding. We were shocked at the vast range of crocodile sizes, including the largest one we'd ever seen. They competed for a series of raw chicken legs dangled over the water by one of the park rangers. We were very impressed by how high they could jump and learned that the sound of crocodile jaws snapping shut is a surprisingly little "pop"!

It's easy to see why Haller Park is such a hit with locals and tourists alike. It's inexpensive, safe, and especially exciting for children. We would definitely recommend dropping by for anyone visiting Mombasa (and especially those traveling with little ones).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Fort Jesus: Italian, Portuguese, British, Omani, or Kenyan?

The title of this post is kind of a trick question - I would consider Fort Jesus all of the above!

Visiting Fort Jesus was one of my favorite parts of visiting Mombasa, and I'm finally getting around to documenting it! It's one of those sites that you would know is historic even if all you did is walk past it. For about $10 per person, we enjoyed a private guided tour. If you visit, I recommend going earlier in the morning. When we started, we were the only ones there.

Fort Jesus was built in the 16th century and stands as a testament to the history of the Swahili coast in the last few hundred years. It was originally built by an Italian by order of the Portuguese King, then was captured and recaptured through the ages by the Sultan of Mombasa, the British, the Portuguese again, Oman, the local population again, the British again during the colonial period, and finally Kenya after independence.

The Portuguese named it Fort Jesus, in part because the architecture was modeled after the Renaissance ideal of the human form (see above). I get the symbolism, but to me, personally, the chosen pose looks like the fort is busting a move.

The inner courtyards of Fort Jesus were filled with constant reminders of its proximity to the Indian Ocean. An entire (apparently young) humpback whale skeleton was on display (pictured above), and traditional anchors (including the one below I thought looked like a cartoonish baby elephant face) were scattered throughout the exhibits.

I was amazed at how freely we were allowed to roam at the fort, not only in the museum but on the walls and grounds in general. At many historical sites that ancient, I would expect more areas to be restricted.

Fun fact: I can't remember its name, but this majestic tree right outside the fort apparently treats malaria. Good to know!

There were also some cool cannons that had held up to the ages and the elements with varying degrees of success. I snapped photos of the some of the nicer ones (Scottish crown and Arabic calligraphy, respectively):

There was also a tiny but interesting museum in the Fort Jesus courtyard with a diverse collection of artifacts, including Chinese pottery and ceramics and traditional instruments with Arabic calligraphy (ignore the tourist reflection):

Another big draw for history nerds are the wall drawings and writings. We saw some ancient, preserved Arabic text and some unusual depictions of everything from maritime trade to deformed human figures!

At the end of the day, I would describe Fort Jesus as a must-see in Kenya for history nerds and a must-see in Mombasa for all.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Happy New Year from Amboseli!

Happy New Year! We hope everyone had as great of a time as we did, especially with our first guest from home staying with us! We woke up bright and early on New Year's Day to head to our second safari in Kenya - Amboseli, known for its elephants and views of Kilimanjaro (the highest mountain in Africa, located right across the border in Tanzania). It did not disappoint.

So how did Amboseli compare to the Maasai Mara? Well, they were very different. In the Mara, we saw animals much more frequently. Yet in Amboseli, we enjoyed unique landscapes like marshlands (and of course, the majestic Kilimanjaro) and got some very unique photos once we did see animals (like those dueling wildebeest).

Of course, the most iconic shots included a snow-capped Kilimanjaro. I grabbed photos of a few running giraffes in the foreground of the mountain in addition to the elephant in the first photo of this post. Can you spot the giraffes in the picture above?

Amboseli also definitely lived up to its reputation as a home for elephants. (Amboseli-phants?) We probably saw more elephants than anything else while we were there. A fun fact we learned on this trip is that you can tell whether a mature elephant is left- or right-handed based on which tusk is more worn down from greater use.

We also had a few moments of hilarity. Check out the smooth operator we dubbed the "James Bond" bird, or "tuxedo" bird, looking at us above.

Our guide informed us that the water we saw bubbling up from the ground in the wetlands was fresh water runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro. I was amazed by how clear it was in many areas of the park.

Thankfully, the weather was superbly cooperative, creating some beautiful scenes in the sky, like the rainbow above and the rippling clouds in the sunset below.

We also had luck on our side when it came to sightings. Even the fly that got stuck in the window of our car on the way back to Nairobi was beautiful!

So would we recommend Amboseli? Absolutely, but it's worth noting there's always a risk with the weather. It would have been a major disappointment if we had been stuck inside the whole time because of rain and couldn't see the top of Kilimanjaro because of the clouds. All we can say is that we're glad we took our chances.

Friday, December 29, 2017

At the Top of the Ngong Hills

For anyone who has seen the classic film "Out of Africa," it's hard to forget Meryl Streep's recurring line as Karen Blixen: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Well, we finally hiked the Ngong Hills - all seven of them (though it seemed like many more than seven)! You can tell the photo above was taken at the beginning of the hike, because neither of us is limping or drenched in sweat or sunburnt.

We paid a small entrance fee and then booked a security guard, which is recommended because of the potential threat of both wild animals and thieves. Fortunately, we came across neither, but it was nice to have the peace of mind that came with a guard.

The hills were fairly windy, so it made sense that they had windmills. These are the first I've seen in Kenya. The landscape was generally amazing, especially because it had been raining enough in the preceding weeks for the hills to be beautifully verdant.

Seriously, the views made the whole three-hour hike worth it. Even though we went on a Saturday, it wasn't crowded at all, either. We even had plenty of options to choose from for our hilltop picnic.

It's easy to see why churchgoers come to the Ngong Hills to worship. We even saw a group of worshippers beating a large drum, singing praises, reciting scriptures, and dancing their way across the hills together while we were there. What was most impressive was that even older members of the party and those without proper shoes or even some barefoot participants happily joined the hike! I was blown away by their strength and faith.

Hiking Ngong Hills was definitely a special experience that I would recommend to anyone in Nairobi who loves nature and a good workout! Thanks to our dear friend R, who made this day out his last request before leaving Kenya.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas in Ethiopia

Okay, the title of this post is a bit misleading, as I learned that Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January! (They also have 13 months in a year, and their calendar is about seven years behind ours! Isn't that cool?)

Anyway, we spent a long Christmas weekend in Ethiopia. It seemed everyone I know who has been to Ethiopia told me that one weekend is nowhere near enough, and that you need to fly to Axum or Lalibela. Although it's true that we missed many of Ethiopia's wonders this time around, we still had a chance to experience enough amazing things that I would argue the trip was entirely worth it.

We spent a day in Addis itself and visited the Red Terror Martyrs Museum, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the National Museum. (We didn't visit Africa's largest open-air market, called Mercado, because M gets very tense in crowded environments like that.)

The Red Terror Martyrs Museum was a true gem, and it was free. I wish there had been more of an explanation of the historical context, as it seems the exhibits assumed some knowledge of Ethiopian history. Nevertheless, I found the art depicting the pain and suffering of the Red Terror very moving. For instance, the photo above is of a painting depicting the agony of a mother whose four children were slaughtered in one day.

After that, we were off to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was a lovely church that looked like it could have dropped out of Europe (above). The contrast was made even more stark by the fact it was right next to another beautiful Ethiopian church in a completely different style (below).

Then, we made our final stop for the day at the National Museum. It was smaller than I expected, but I was delighted to have the chance to view the main attraction: a cast replica of the bones of none other than Lucy the Australopithecus herself! (The real bones are also stored in the museum but aren't on public display.)

When traveling in a modernized East Africa, it's easy to forget it's the location of humankind's birth. (That is, if you support the "replacement theory", also known as "African Eve", which states that humans came out of Africa and overtook near-hominids in other parts of the world. A competing theory suggests that humans evolved in multiple regions simultaneously. You can read more about the two theories here.)

We were reminded of that the next day, when we visited the ancient sites Melka Kunture, Adadi Mariam, and Tiya. Melka Kunture is an archaeological site with an attached museum sharing some of what we know about human evolution. We visited an excavated area (pictured above) that contained remnants of civilization 800,000 years ago!

Similarly, Tiya - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - contained ancient grave sites and standing tombstones that tell us a lot about our ancestors. For example, they carved swords on the tombstones to represent the number of enemies the person buried there killed. Also, Christians were buried horizontally west to east (in preparation for resurrection upon the Second Coming of Christ), while Animists were buried upright.

I was especially grateful we were able to see Adadi Mariam, the only one of the famous, Lalibela-style rock-hewn underground churches easily accessible from Addis. From far away, the church itself looked like a grassy hill. Up close, though, it was clear the rock inside the hill had been cut to form the church and stairs leading down into it.

Inside Adadi Mariam, there was a preacher delivering a sermon in Amharic that sounded beautifully musical and many worshippers were gathered there, as we went on a Sunday. We concluded that these sites are a must for history, religion, and science nerds.

We spent our last full day in Ethiopia taking a day trip to Wenchi Crater Lake, formed in a dormant volcanic crater, which was breathtaking (as you can tell from the first photo of this post)! We hiked, rode horses, and took a boat across the lake to an island monastery.

We saw all kinds of cool things, including a waterfall, actively bubbling hot springs, a traditional water mill (above), and plenty of wild horses.

Of course, we also made time for authentic Ethiopian food (and we ate properly with our hands), with a bonus of traditional music and dance performances at Yod Abyssinia. All of the performances were amazing, and it was a full house the entire time we were there. The hours flew by as tourists and locals alike drank, ate, and were merry together.

Although it was tough to spend Christmas away from family for the first time, having such a wonderful trip made it at least a little bit better.