Saturday, April 27, 2024

Hiking in the UAE: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah

During summer, the weather outside in the UAE is unbearably hot and so our time to explore the great outdoors this season was running out. While I was on leave from work for a few weeks, I wanted to make sure we got a taste of what was out there before it's too late. We ended up doing four hikes total in four different places: Hatta Wadi Hub, Wadi Shawka, Wadi Al Helo, and Wadi Abadilah.

One thing we quickly learned is that people who hike in the UAE must be quite fit in general, because every review of every hike we did in the past few weeks was rated "easy" on Wikiloc (the crowd-sourced outdoor hiking trail website and app, essential in the UAE in my opinion because so few trails are properly marked and otherwise you could get lost or find yourself on dangerous ground). Even though the hikes were rated easy, it always took us longer than the people leaving the reviews needed and we took plenty of breaks along the way. Our hikes ranged between 1 and 3.5 hours, and sometimes we struggled to find the trail on Wikiloc and ended up striking our own path back. Of course, we were limited because we brought S along with us in the hiking backpack and that prevented us from doing too much scrambling on the rocks or going too fast.

Hatta Wadi Hub had the most activities of the four, and they even had food trucks and amenities the other sites did not have. This is a popular destination for recreation and socializing, and it was easy to see why. The hike was okay and definitely the easiest of the four we did, but the trails definitely prioritized mountain biking. I would love to return with friends and try paddle boating and some of the other activities next time. The ice cream stand (called Glacee) was also phenomenal. I'm sure it helped that I was tired from the hot hike, but it tasted like some of the best ice cream I've had in my life.

Wadi Shawka was gorgeous, with sloping white steps up the side of the mountain leading to stunning views of the water below at Shawka Dam. I really appreciated the stops where we could catch our breath. Once we got to the top, we went down from the peak and took a turn so we could have a different view through the valley hiking back. Unfortunately, I did stumble on some loose rocks and of all the places I could have fallen I landed on an acacia thorn bush. It tore right through my hand and I spent the rest of that day plucking thorns out of my palm. (Just Google "acacia thorn" to see what stabbed me!) If you're going hiking in the UAE wilderness, I highly recommend at least a basic first aid kit - especially if you're clumsy like me! I thankfully got all the thorns out, and my hand healed nicely. What a relief!

Undeterred, we embarked on our third hike a few days later: Wadi Al Helo. You may have noticed that all of these hikes happen to be at places with "Wadi" in the name, and that's because "Wadi" means valley (traditionally a river valley but with the climate what it is it's often dry unless you go right after it rains), the best place to hike in a hot climate like the UAE. "Wadi Al Helo" is "Sweet Valley," and it was a sweet hike. This one had more archaeological significance than others, with a few (recreated?) ruins scattered around and a restored Islamic watchtower on the first peak of the hike. I imagine that part of the site is much more meaningful if you go with a local guide, as there wasn't much signage explaining the history or significance of what we saw. It was still a nice view, though. We tried to follow the Wikiloc entry I found on Wadi Al Helo exactly, but I think the farmer at the bottom of the mountain got tired of people hiking through their land. Since the Wikiloc was written, they'd erected a barbed wire fence and if that wasn't enough they reinforced it with sharp, high thorn bushes! Thankfully, M and I were able to walk parallel to the thorny fence until we made it back to the road and eventually back to the car.

We ended our hiking adventures with a trip to Wadi Abadilah. It's a good thing we ended on this one, too, because M said I won't be able to convince him to do another for a while after that experience! Wadi Abadilah was the greenest hike we did, with a start through some farmland and even running water. (We even saw some folks going for a swim in the water, but M told me not to go since we couldn't be sure the water was safe for swimming. I decided to spare him the stress.) The path that was described on Wikiloc was unavailable after a certain turn, so we tried to figure things out on our own. This resulted in not one but two extensive, rather steep ascents that ended up going nowhere - we ultimately had to turn back and retrace our steps to the beginning of the hike. M was not a fan of the high exertion and low payoff combo of those attempts to find the correct path, and we spent a couple days at home relaxing with no outside commitments as our reward.

If you're living in or visiting the UAE, that doesn't mean you have to give up the great outdoors. There is incredible nature in this country that is well worth exploring any time you can escape the sweltering summer heat. I love the opportunity hiking gives us to bond as a family, get some fresh air outside of the city, and experience other parts of the UAE besides Dubai. It's quite different than it is back home, but it wouldn't be any fun if everything everywhere was the same, anyway.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

A Two-Week Staycation Plus One-Week Eid Holiday in Dubai

I took some much-needed time off of work these past few weeks. However, unlike most of my vacations where I travel to some far-flung locale, this time I decided to do a staycation at home. It was so nice! I had time to do so many things I've been putting off, as well as restart some habits I mean to keep up with but sometimes run out of time to do. (For example, I'm using Anki, Duolingo, and Drops - my favorite language learning and refresher apps - consistently again.)

M and I used the time to play a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. We have so much nostalgia for the Legend of Zelda games, which we played as kids, but they've gotten so much better over time. The storyline of this game moved me more than any other one I can remember. I love exploring the world and solving the puzzles and M loves nabbing all the collectibles as we go. We make a great team.

We got to explore a few sights in Dubai that we normally find it difficult to make time for around my work schedule. We went to Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary and saw wild flamingos. S was thrilled!

We also visited The Green Planet, an "indoor rainforest" and nature conservation and education site tailored to families. We saw lemurs that reminded me of the PBS show Zoboomafoo (any other 90s kids have nostalgia for this? M didn't!) and some unique birds, frogs, snakes, and other animals.

It was also really nice to have the chance to learn things that have nothing to do with my job. I spent a little time learning how to look at art thanks to a free, self-guided art course from the art historian who created the DailyArt app, which gives a summary of a new piece of fine art every day. My break also happened to overlap with General Conference, a semiannual broadcast of spiritual messages for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), like me. I had some church friends over to watch, and it was so nice.

We had the chance to celebrate Easter, including S's first-ever Easter egg hunt eggsecuted (hehe) by yours truly. I filled reusable Easter eggs with mini M&Ms and Easter-related Bible quotes and hid them around our apartment. S sprinted as fast as his little legs could carry him all over the place and tried to pick up as many eggs as possible at once. It was so cute. I don't know what he was more excited for: finding the eggs, shaking them, or eating the chocolate.

Then, we had a week-long public holiday for Eid Al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan, for which we went to an Emirati restaurant, Al Fanar, to see fireworks over the water in the part of Dubai called Festival City. It wasn't the first time we took S to see fireworks, but it was the first time he was aware enough to see what was going on and be actively impressed. I'll never forget his little "wooooooooow" at the sight.

Amazingly, it happened to be S's birthday during this break, as well, and I can't believe he's two! We spent a long time teaching him to say "two" instead of "almost two" when people ask him how old he is. (Of course, usually he's too shy to say anything when somebody asks, but at least we tried.) We decided to do a family staycation at a local beach resort in Dubai with a kids' club, playground, and wading pool, and S loved it. We went for long walks on the boardwalk together as a family, tried delicious food in multiple different hotel restaurants, and watched S fall in love with the wading pool (with me, the other water lover of this family, by his side).

We also did some hikes together as a family as half-day trips, exploring a bit of the emirates but returning to Dubai each day. I'll do a separate blog post on all of our recent hiking adventures, or this one will get very long very quickly! Suffice it to say I feel much more recharged, restored, and ready to get back into the workweek when I return.

I hoped to disconnect more fully from work during my break, but for my last week I was assigned to be a control officer for someone landing in Dubai the day I get back to the office - so I had to do some work preparing for that person's arrival in advance. In classic control officer fashion, that same person's visit ended up getting cancelled - thankfully before my planning got too far. All in all, though, I was able to get the rest I needed, so I feel good about going back. I hope everyone reading this can also find a moment of peace and rest in their life.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Tips for Acing the DEIA Question in Foreign Service Interviews

Image by Nick K from Pixabay

This year, I have the luxury of not bidding (i.e., what we call applying for our next post of assignment) and somehow I find it easier to be reflective and think about the best bidding advice I've received and learned when I'm not under the pressure of finding a job just yet myself. I've previously shared my informational interview red flags and green flags, as well as how M and I narrow down our bid list. I even did a miscellaneous bidding advice roundup. But something I've been asked a lot recently and haven't yet done a post on is how to ace the DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) question we all expect these days in interviews. The question is usually some variation on "What does DEIA mean to you?" or "How have you supported DEIA?" or "Tell me about how you've advanced DEIA in your current role."

This is not a purely cynical question I'm hearing from people who don't care about DEIA and want to fake it 'til they make it to their dream post. DEIA questions can be difficult even for the most dedicated employees because it's hard to know what's admissible versus inadmissible, what hiring managers are looking for, and how you can stand out from all the other candidates answering this question. With the caveat that this is merely one mid-level Foreign Service officer's opinion and it should be taken with a grain of salt, I wanted to consolidate my personal advice for answering this question effectively after a few rounds of mid-level bidding experience, lots of practice with others both more senior and junior to me, conversations I've had with hiring managers including regional bureau DEIA advisors, and sitting in on interviews including with some Chief of Mission (i.e., Ambassador) interviews. Here's my advice roundup in no particular order:

  • Don't confuse DEIA with affirmative action. One hiring manager told me, "You'd be amazed at how many men proudly announce in response to the DEIA question that they have hired a woman and therefore they are champions of DEIA." This not only demonstrates that you don't know what DEIA really is but also makes an insulting implication that women can't be hired based on merit. Crucially, it is illegal to make a hiring decision in the Foreign Service based on protected categories like race or sex. This is an unacceptable response.
  • Don't feel like your example only matters if it's about race or sex; use the best example you have. Too many people think about DEIA only in terms of race or sex when your best example of what you've done to advance DEIA might be advocating for better accommodations for people with disabilities or ensuring equitable policies for LGBTQIA+ people or whatever it might be.
  • Some people say they are so overwhelmed with their basic day-to-day essential tasks that they don't have time to invest in DEIA initiatives that are worth talking about in an interview (or even in an EER). I think this is a mistake. Although it's wonderful if you can volunteer on your post's or office's DEIA Council (what were previously called D&I Councils), that's not a prerequisite to doing DEIA work. The best employees incorporate DEIA into their regular work anyway. If you're a press attaché, you could look at including journalists from outlets with different perspectives than the safe, U.S.-based ones you already know well. If you're a cultural affairs officer, you could conduct outreach, prioritize grant proposals, and seek out exchange applicants in marginalized geographic areas. If you're a reporting officer, you could make sure your contact lists and invitation lists include more people from underrepresented groups and your meetings with friends and allies include more than just the stereotypical Western European diplomats. If you're a management officer, you can make sure all religious holidays and observances are respectfully and appropriately accommodated with policies such as floating holidays or ensuring employees have a private place for prayer and meditation. If you're a consular officer you can use norming sessions (i.e., meetings where you make sure all interviewing officers are on the same page) and validation studies (i.e., research the Department does on consular outcomes for those who receive and travel on U.S. visas) to advocate that visa decisions be made on substantiated evidence and not unconscious bias.
  • Try to talk about the outcome of whatever you did. Instead of just saying you invited more women to a reception, you can say, "As a result of my efforts to diversify the economic section's contact list, we gained insights from women entrepreneurs who underscored additional barriers they faced obtaining capital in country. Our team wrote a front-channel cable reporting on the discrepancy and incorporated talking points about empowering women entrepreneurs into all engagements with the Ministry of Economy, which increased host government outreach and programs for women and other marginalized business owners. In addition, our initiative inspired other posts in the region to investigate and identify gaps, as well." It doesn't always have to be that grand, either. For example, sharing that people who attended your event said they never realized how much the language they were using hurt people from rural areas or that people with invisible disabilities contacted you later to say they were thankful you stood up for people like them in front of the team makes your example more meaningful.
  • If you have the opportunity to show DEIA leadership, do it - but it's not necessary to share if you are a member of an underrepresented group. For example, you can say something like "As vice president of one of State's largest employee resource groups representing x individual members spanning the globe, I learned that many of our members faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace for their identity from managers and colleagues who misinterpreted U.S. opposition to certain countries and governments as antipathy for entire ethnic groups. As a result, I spearheaded programs to set Department-wide policy on inclusive and precise language, including the first-ever ALDAC on the subject, that empowered people to have official guidance to point to when pushing back on discrimination in the workplace. Many employees have written to me in the months since expressing their relief and gratitude for official guidance that gives them the top cover they need to feel empowered and effective at work. Y% of employees from this demographic said in the recent Stay Survey that they struggle seeing a future for themselves in the Department, and although we have a long way to go I'm proud that initiatives like the one I made a priority will help to change things for the better." (An ALDAC is a cable sent from Main State, what we call Department of State headquarters in DC, to all diplomatic and consular posts around the world.) Notice in this example the actual identity of the person talking is unnecessary. The hiring panel shouldn't be hiring you because you're a member of a marginalized group; they should be hiring you because of what you've accomplished. It's worth practicing highlighting your accomplishments without referencing your identities, if possible. They're important in the real world but incidental to the hiring manager's decision.
  • Always think about how what you've done can build the institution. One of my examples was I pushed for my post to have newsletters accessible to people with visual impairments for the first time. How can I take that benefit even further? I can share the results with others through employee resource groups or with a cable so other posts that don't yet have accessible newsletters can make the switch, too, and learn from what we did. That not only makes a better interview example, but more importantly it actually benefits more people.
  • Stay away from topics of reverse discrimination or underscoring historically privileged identities. I wish this could go without saying, but I've heard Foreign Service people complain to me that the real victims of modern DEIA efforts are straight, white men and that they should be the priority. I've also heard complaints of reverse racism, accusations that bidding and promotions are now skewed in favor of underrepresented groups, and that it's so hard to be Christian nowadays. People have a right to their personal opinions, but these hot takes have no place in a professional interview of any kind and definitely not in response to a DEIA question.
  • Use specific examples of your accomplishments, regardless of the question. Sometimes the question is so abstract and general (e.g., "What does DEIA mean to you?") that people are tempted to give an abstract and general answer. This is never as effective as an answer backed up by specific examples. You can say, "DEIA is the very foundation of the strength of the United States, and I support it not only because science has demonstrated over and over again that DEIA is more creative and effective and productive but also because it's the right thing to do. That's why when I was a section chief and learned that women and Muslim entry-level officers at my post felt left out and disadvantaged because the DCM would host whiskey and cigar nights with only their male, alcohol-drinking counterparts, I decided to take action..." This is just a hypothetical example, but I wrote it out to illustrate how you can address the abstract question very quickly but make it a stronger answer by backing it up with a concrete example.
  • The best DEIA examples take personal investment and courage. (Warning: this is probably my most controversial piece of advice here.) If you want to stand out from other bidders, I don't think it's usually enough to say you organized a webinar or made a flyer or planned a single event on a very safe DEIA topic that everyone who attended already agreed was good and important. Our institution changes very slowly, and there are a lot of necessary and overdue DEIA changes that will require some friction. If you stood up to your boss on a DEIA issue, that shows you were willing to take a level of personal risk for integrity that a lot of Foreign Service personnel wouldn't. If you stood up to your boss and it was successful and you got the change implemented and an apology, that shows that you're not only brave but diplomatic and effective (and I think it speaks volumes about the professional maturity of your boss, as well). This is just my two cents, but I think DEIA leadership requirements are moving in this direction because our organization sorely needs this level of commitment. I've had countless mentors since I joined the Foreign Service tell me when I was going through something discriminatory or unfair and say, "That's really horrible. But if I were you I'd put my head down and not make a big deal about it. I'm conflict averse and the Department doesn't reward people who go against the grain." With all due respect to those mentors, I think many of us newer folks are not willing to spend the rest of our careers putting our heads down and accepting the work culture this attitude fuels. As I've said before and will say again: more often than not I've found entry-level cowards become mid-level cowards and mid-level cowards become senior-level cowards. Courage has to start somewhere.

I hope this is helpful advice, but remember I'm just one person with one opinion. Best of luck to everyone bidding, and I hope you work hard to move forward DEIA not just during interview season but all year round!