Monday, October 15, 2018

Camping with Wild Flamingos in Nakuru

After over a year of missing countless opportunities, we finally went camping in Kenya! We spent a weekend at Makalia campsite in Lake Nakuru National Park, and it was a wonderful time.

The landscape was stunning: it's been raining, so the grass was lush and the wildlife was abundant. Thankfully, the weather cooperated with our visit and we only had a light sprinkling of rain a few times. We had awesome game-viewing, and we drove ourselves through the park. The clear highlight for us, though, was the huge flock of beautiful flamingos mixed with pelicans and other birds in the lake (the first photo of this post). We also saw quite a few monkeys, including the rare, black-and-white Colobus monkey we hadn't seen before. There was also a near-constant stream of baboons. A baboon even jumped in our friends' car! We later learned that the baboons in the area are known for their cleverness and mischief.

As we were leaving the park, we casually saw two lionesses right next to the road. They were so close, we almost could have reached out and touched them (but of course, we didn't try).

It felt so good to be able to spend a weekend relaxing with friends, away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. We highly recommend camping in Kenya as a way to relax and experience this one-of-a-kind country in a new way.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Working a White House Visit

We've had a crazy few weeks at U.S. Embassy Nairobi preparing to support what was my first White House visit. The First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) Melania Trump came to Kenya as part of her four-country Africa tour. You can read about her visit in more detail here.

So what did I have to do? I was the Embassy's press site officer for three events, meaning I worked closely with White House press staff to execute the media plan for each of my sites and manage our relationship with the journalists there on the big day. These journalists were a mix of traveling press, who actually accompany the First Lady on her plane and in her motorcade, international press based in Nairobi, and local Kenyan press. As you can see in the photo below, this added up to quite a few people to inform and assist and direct and keep happy (at least as best as we could).

Although I have worked quite a few visits during my first year as a Public Diplomacy Officer, this one was very different. The Embassy staff really took a backseat to our White House counterparts in the sense that, although we leveraged our on-the-ground expertise and contacts and provided our best advice, at the end of the day we deferred decision-making to the White House. In other words, we had more of a supporting role, especially once the advance team (i.e., the people who arrive before the visit to finalize plans and preparations) arrived.

By all accounts, Mrs. Trump was a wonderful guest. She truly seemed to enjoy spending time with Kenyan children and baby elephants. The Kenyans, as always, were splendid hosts - from Mrs. Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, to the institutions at each site. Thankfully, the trip went off without a hitch and it was all over before we knew it. Mrs. Trump had the opportunity both to learn more about Kenya and to champion her BE BEST initiative focusing on children's issues around the world. Now that's a success for everyone!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Quiet Day in Brackenhurst and Tea Fields

Our good friend B suggested we spend a few hours at Brackenhurst. At first, a hotel and conference center seemed like an odd place to enjoy a Saturday morning, but we learned it's a great way to pass a quiet half day. We started it off with a tasty breakfast outside at the Muna Tree Cafe.

The best part was definitely the light hike we took after breakfast. The trails were lovely and virtually empty. It was an easy enough walk, given we were all wearing shoes with enough traction. (Last time we went hiking, I wore my indoor sneakers and wiped out going downhill on the trail. I've learned my lesson.)

That area is known for its tea fields, and tea is a major export of Kenya. The fields were a feast for the eyes in the morning sun. I felt so at peace there. We live fairly close to a beautiful forest, but the tea fields were a refreshing change of landscape.

Our biggest takeaway? You don't always need grand plans to have a great weekend. Sometimes, a departure from the hustle and bustle of daily life and a walk through nature is all you need.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Nairobi National Park Adventures

WARNING: This post contains graphic content. Scroll at your own risk!

We finally made it to Nairobi National Park! My wonderful Public Diplomacy (PD) mentor was in town, so we wanted to give her a memorable experience... and I think it's safe to say we succeeded. Nairobi National Park is a great option for those who are strapped for time or cash - even tourists only have to pay $42/person in park fees for the day, you can drive yourself, and we saw some amazing things.

Of course, I got the iconic Nairobi National Park picture as the first photo of this post: wildlife with skyscrapers in the background. We didn't recognize what this animal was at the time, but it kind of looks like a rare Bongo antelope - which we haven't seen before. (If any hobby zoologists out there are certain, please let me know in the comments below!)

Please don't get too attached to the zebra above, as the graphic photo I warned you about is coming up imminently... Because we were right next to a pride of lions devouring a freshly killed zebra. There were eight lions total - the most we had seen together on any safari! The stench and sight of the lions attacking the inside of the carcass was revolting and fascinating and so natural all at the same time. We felt like we had front row seats to National Geographic.

After we finished our safari, we drove to Boho Eatery, which is conveniently located right next to the park. They had an excellent selection of largely healthy breakfast, lunch, and drink options. The ambiance was perfect, too, combined with the sunny weather. Just check out our table:

A proud millennial, I ordered the most advanced avocado toast I have ever seen: avocado spread on seeded bread with crispy kale chips, red pepper hummus, and pomegranate seeds. The portion was massive, but I devoured the whole thing.

The whole day was an awesome finish to a lovely visit from my mentor. (Isn't woman-to-woman mentorship so powerful?) I also have to share the beautiful gift she brought me from her post of Lesotho: a traditional necklace of beads and fabric. I can't wait to wear it as a statement piece soon!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

5 Awesome (Free Online) Resources for Arabic Learners

As I previously mentioned, I take a Distance Language Learning class with the Foreign Language Institute (a.k.a. FSI, the Diplomat School) to try and maintain some level of Arabic while living in a non-Arabic speaking country. I do enjoy the class, but there's always a gap between semesters. This post is for all the Arabic learners out there like me who want to preserve or enhance their skills. Thankfully, Arabic is a popular enough language that there are plenty of free online resources for students. (I'm not including Anki, because I wrote a whole separate blog post for that. I'm also not including FSI resources, because those aren't really publicly available.)

Without further ado, here's my list of top five free online resources for Arabic students looking to maintain their skills (or even take them to the next level):

  • Reverso Context Dictionary: There are an infinite number of free online dictionaries out there, but I've chosen to highlight Reverso because it uses actual, real-world Arabic-English and English-Arabic translations to add context to recommended words. That way, when you look something up, you can see how professional translators chose to translate that word (as opposed to the crowdsourced translations of Google Translate) and see the surrounding sentences to get a better idea of how it is most commonly used.
  • MohCoolMan: I don't know who MohCoolMan is or why he does so many amazing videos, but his YouTube channel is full of excellent Arabic language videos with subtitles in full Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and the English translation. He does everything from classic Arabic music to Disney songs. It's an unparalleled resource. Plus, who doesn't want to know "Let It Go" in Arabic?
  • All the Arabic You Never Learned the First Time Around: This is exactly what it sounds like. It is especially helpful for students like me who have a smattering of different types of Arabic classes scattered over many years with a lot of gaps in between sessions.
  • DLI Language: There is an astounding compendium of Arabic lessons available from the Defense Language Institute online, focusing on listening and reading. You can filter for specific topics or difficulty levels (all of which are fairly high). The modules are very technically accessible (though a little old-school in design).
  • Gospel Principles: If you're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or just interested in what we believe or interested in learning some Christian vocabulary), there's a great series of full Arabic lessons on Gospel Principles available on YouTube.

These recommendations are designed for those who are already at least at an intermediate level of Arabic, but I hope to do a future post with resources for true beginners. If you have a favorite resource I didn't mention, be sure to share it in the comments below!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Making the Most of Too Little Travel Time

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to travel. I touched on this a little bit in my post about our Christmas in Ethiopia last year, which a lot of people teased us about for being too short. There are plenty of reasons why you might be stuck traveling without a lot of time to spare, though: maybe you don't get a lot of vacation time or want to lower your budget for hotels or can't spare the extra days for personal reasons. My advice to all jet-setters is: not only is that completely fine, but it can still be a great travel experience!

We recently experienced the exact same conundrum in San Diego. We were there for a wedding, but we decided to maximize our time visiting family and friends back home in Virginia instead of building in a lot of tourist time in California. As a result, we discovered we simply wouldn't have time to fully enjoy most of the places we had originally planned, from the USS Midway Museum to the San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Between the driving time and the hours we'd rather spend not feeling rushed, we decided against all the main attractions.

Finding ourselves in Fallbrook (where the wedding was held) with beautiful weather and only half a day to spare, we did some quick online research for a short activity to get us out of the hotel. We stumbled upon Batiquitos Lagoon, which was a short trail not too far away. We went there on a whim and enjoyed a lovely walk and wonderful views. We also encountered this bizarre sculpture called "The Creature from Batiquitos Lagoon" that kind of looked like an early ancestor of a chicken. Surprisingly, it has yet to make an appearance in my nightmares.

Once we had worked up an appetite, we stopped by a restaurant called The Crack Shack, known for chicken. We may have gotten a little carried away with our orders, but the service was fast and the food was tasty.

We followed that up with some homemade ice cream nearby that really reminded me of my beloved Moo Thru from back home.

Best of all, our more relaxed program gave us plenty of time to get back to the hotel and get ready for the wedding that evening. Of course, there are things we'd have loved to see that we couldn't, but that doesn't make the trip a waste - no matter what others say. It happened to be the right plan for us for now. (Plus, it just gives us another reason to come back again!)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Au Revoir, Virginia

Just like that, our first visit home since we moved to Kenya is already over. I spent my last night in Virginia with one of my best friends, K, who (conveniently) doesn't live far from the airport. She agreed to drop me off to catch my flight early the next morning, and we made a relaxing and fun girls' night out of it. (Her neighborhood is gorgeous, too, as you can see from the photos!)

After a whirlwind two weeks with family and friends, it was wonderful to have a quiet evening at home. (I did go a little crazy at the grocery store, but this was my last chance to enjoy an American grocery store for another year.) The food was so good, I forgot to take a photo. We made roasted brussels sprouts; a vodka sauce with onion, garlic, spinach, and kielbasa over cheese tortellini; caramel apple sparkling cider; and dark chocolate fondue with strawberries and pretzels. It was perfect.

Thankfully, K lives in a suburb with close, easy access to the nature I so vividly associate with home. It's crazy how quickly we can adapt to our surroundings. I was really moved to see several deer on our neighborhood walk because I'm no longer used to seeing them, whereas I've surprised myself in Kenya with how desensitized I've become to zebras and other "exotic" (by our standards) animals.

It helped that we came across this rare white deer. It wasn't albino (as it had a few light brown spots), but it was an extraordinary color I don't think I've ever seen before. (You can learn more about white deer and the superstitions surrounding them here.)

The water in the area was also a treat for the eyes, from the lake we drove by pictured in the first image of this post to the smaller pond below. I couldn't think of a better way to end this precious time in my beautiful home state of Virginia. Until next time!

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Drum Roll, Please: Where We're Going Next!

We're (finally) ready to announce where we're going after Kenya! Confession: we've known for a while but were waiting until we could finish telling family while we're home. We're going to Baghdad, Iraq!

Okay, if I want to be completely accurate, I should say: I'm definitely going to Baghdad. M is most likely going to Baghdad, but it's not confirmed yet. Baghdad is what's called an unaccompanied post, which means you can't bring family with you. The only way M can join me is if he gets a job at the Embassy, which we're very optimistic he'll be able to do (a lot of spouses aren't interested in going to Iraq or even can't go because of children or medical reasons).

Just to get it out of the way (and especially because so many have asked): yes, we wanted this. No, we are not being punished. You don't get sent to a PSP (Priority Staffing Post) in a conflict area like Iraq without volunteering for it. We had plenty of reasons for asking to serve there, and the benefits for places like Baghdad don't hurt, either. (At some point, I'll do a separate blog post about PSPs explaining some of these.)

So what will I do there? I'll be doing Consular work, which is currently a requirement for all Foreign Service Officers in either their first or second tour. Since I'm doing my first tour in Public Diplomacy, I knew my second tour had to be Consular. I don't really have a lot of information yet about what kind of Consular work I'll be doing, but chances are I'll be interviewing Iraqis all day, every day for visas to the United States.

One of the best parts about this job is that it's an Arabic one! Since I passed the language test last year, I get to go straight to Baghdad without language training. Those of you familiar with Arabic may be asking: wait, don't you at least get trained in the Iraqi dialect? And the answer is: nope! I think the Foreign Service is still trying to figure out how best to handle Arabic, and for now my score in Modern Standard Arabic is sufficient for me to go to Iraq. (Thankfully, my Distance Language Learning teacher is Iraqi and has already taught me a few crucial things, like "shako mako"!)

Our second tour will be a major shake-up from our first tour: we'll live in a tiny apartment on a massive compound where we will work, eat, live, sleep, exercise, and play. We're looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity to serve!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Feeling at Home in Shenandoah

One request I make every time I'm home in Virginia is to take a day trip to Shenandoah National Park. There's a road called Skyline Drive where you can experience the majesty of Virginia's natural beauty only a couple of hours from Washington, DC. The best time to go is in the fall (September-November), when the leaves are changing colors, but I've always found it worth visiting year-round.

So naturally, our first full day back in the United States we took the day trip to Shenandoah with my family. We were originally destined for Skyline Drive but decided to take a detour to Shenandoah River State Park instead. There were plenty of things to do, including tubing, zip lining, and camping, but we kept things simple with a drive to an overlook (pictured above), a bento box picnic, and a hike.

I had found a tick on me the previous day, so I was even more careful than usual in the forest. I wore long sleeves, avoided walking outside the marked trails, and checked thoroughly for ticks after we got home. I don't need any tick-borne diseases in my life - especially not Lyme disease. Thankfully, we didn't have any issues with ticks that day.

After enjoying the stunning views at the park, working up a sweat, and finishing our picnic, we headed back home. Along the way, there's an amazing place on the side of the road called The Apple House. Part souvenir shop, part Virginia pride store, and part restaurant, it's a must-see on your way to or from Shenandoah. I recommend everyone try the signature apple donuts coated in cinnamon sugar, served fresh and hot. My mouth is watering just remembering how delicious they were!

We rounded off the day at my mom's house making mandu: Korean dumplings. When I was young, my family would gather in the kitchen to make mandu together, which could take an entire afternoon. We'd cook and eat the early batches as we continued to make more - at least, until we ran out of either wrappers or filling. (Above, you can see the ones we were still making on the left and the boiled ones on the right.) This time, we filled our dumplings with a classic combination of pork, finely chopped napa cabbage, garlic, and crumbled tofu and dipped the finished product in a soy vinegar sauce. There are many ways to cook mandu (and I've found most prefer fried), but my favorite has always been boiled. We ate until all of our stomachs hurt and still had leftovers. There's something magical about coming together to make and enjoy food, especially when nostalgia comes into play! It was the perfect end to a pretty perfect first full day back home.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Day in Frankfurt: More than a Layover

We extended our layover in Frankfurt, Germany to 24 hours, visited some colleagues from my A-100, and enjoyed our first day of vacation. Some might ask, "Why would you choose to stay in Frankfurt?" Poor Frankfurt has a reputation as a boring city, only good as a transportation hub or bank headquarters. After this trip, we can't say we agree.

We started our day with a quick breakfast (see sausage roll, one of the very many tasty things we ate, above) and a 2.5-hour free walking tour of Frankfurt by a local student guide. The main attractions of the city were fairly concentrated, but the tour was full of great stories and humor so the time really flew. It was interesting learning about which buildings had been completely destroyed in World War II, which ones were partially destroyed, and which had remained intact. By the end of the tour, we were much better at telling by sight. The train station below was the largest building in Frankfurt that was spared at that time, a fact which our tour guide attributed to the foresight of Americans who wanted to leverage Frankfurt as a commerce hub in the future without having to rebuild the station.

Our guide then took us on a quick detour through the red light district. I didn't expect to see much considering it was 10am on a Friday, but we actually saw people buying drugs, clusters of drug users gathered together, some ethnic gang-managed clubs and restaurants, and a string of brothels. It was really bizarre for us as Americans to see so much of that in broad daylight, but our guide explained that prostitution is legal there, as is drug use at designated legal injection sites, where people can access clean needles and social services.

This is the result of a bundle of policies affectionately dubbed by locals "The Frankfurt Way" - a combination of policing drug dealers while tolerating and supporting users. Although the concept was a long way away from the policies we're more familiar with in the United States, it seems like public health advocates agree that The Frankfurt Way works. Frankfurt's number of drug users on the street dropped dramatically from about 3,000 to about 300 in a matter of years, and diseases have been more controlled. It's certainly possible that many more cities will be doing the same thing soon.

It wouldn't have been a proper German city tour without at least one reference to Goethe, so here we were admiring a Goethe statue. We also discussed his humanist ideals that informed not only German culture but even the German constitution, where the first article begins with: "Human dignity shall be inviolable."

There were delightful little moments sprinkled throughout our tour, too, like catching a wedding procession of a firefighter through an actual firehose:

And stumbling upon beautifully restored buildings and old churches:

The most unique experience we had in Frankfurt, though, was a "Dialogue in the Dark" tour at the DialogMuseum. For one full hour, a blind guide led us through four rooms of complete darkness - and when I say complete darkness, I mean there was literally no difference between having your eyes open or closed. We had to use all of our other senses (plus a cane they provided) to find our way around and experience the environment. It was insanely difficult for sighted people like us, but our blind guide was amazing. He not only navigated the rooms easily without a cane, but could tell just by the reverberations from our voices where each of the approximately ten of us on the tour were and where we needed to go. At the end, we got to a "Viennese coffee shop" where our guide became the bartender. He counted payment by feel and didn't even seem challenged satisfying a dizzying array of orders and options.

We were surprised to learn that they have locations all around the world, so you don't even necessarily have to go to Frankfurt for this experience. (You can see all their locations here. Sadly, there are none in the United States as of the drafting of this blog post.)

So if you pass through Frankfurt like we did, why not take the day and really enjoy it? At least for us, we found there's plenty to do, eat, see, and more to make your stay worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Breathtaking Korean Photos at the Nairobi National Museum

Last weekend, I attended a Korean photography exhibit at the Nairobi National Museum* with my friend and colleague J. We had received invitations through work and volunteered to go represent the U.S. Embassy there. High-level diplomats naturally receive many event invitations, and they certainly cannot attend everything. Sometimes, the Embassy needs to decline attending the event entirely, but other times another representative can be sent in the invitee's place. In this case, J and I were the substitutes - and we feel lucky to have these kinds of opportunities even as entry-level officers.

The exhibit, titled "Korean Fantasy", featured three artists: Jaemoon Yang, B.T. Kim, and Chunho Won. The art was all beautiful, but our clear favorites were Jaemoon Yang's snapshots of Korean traditional dancers mid-performance. Luckily for us, he was actually there and we were able to grab a photo with him and his work!

Amazingly, all the visitors walked away with one free print from each featured artist. Both J and I agreed we'd be framing ours as soon as possible and hanging them in our homes. It was such a generous gift for those who came to show support for the exhibit launch!

The whole program was made possible by the Korean Embassy in Nairobi, and I've written about their skillful public diplomacy work before. They do a wonderful job of bringing Korean culture to people who might otherwise never encounter it. (As an aside, isn't the below piece stunning? I really thought it was a moon over the ocean at first, until I realized the "waves" were dancers.)

I was so obsessed with Jaemoon Yang's work, I didn't even realize until I got home that I failed to get sufficient pictures from the collections of the other two artists. B.T. Kim and Chunho Won had beautiful photos featuring city- and landscapes familiar to those who have spent any time in Korea - including snow, traditional architecture, and signature flora. Here is just a taste of those (almost all monochromatic in delightful contrast to the overwhelmingly vibrant colors of the other pictures I've shared):

Anyway, the Korea Fantasy exhibit will be running at the National Museum through August 2018, so I highly recommend it to all my friends living in or passing through Nairobi in the near future! If you make the time to go, you won't regret it.

*I'm embarrassed to admit this was my first time there even though I don't live far away. It's a lovely venue and I'm now determined to make the time to enjoy the main museum soon.