Sunday, January 28, 2018

Oh My, Dubai!

We spent a long weekend in Dubai, and I'm finally getting around to blogging about it (especially now that I'm back to work - and yes, we will get paid)!

So we decided to visit our dear friends, R & S, who are also in the Foreign Service and who are posted in Dubai. N had been to Dubai a few times before, but it was M's first time. Like the three-part series we did for Mombasa (here, here, and here), I think I'll have to break out this trip into three posts again: this one about our trip in Dubai generally, a separate one for the Miracle Garden, and a last one for the Global Village.

With no shame, we admit a few of our first stops were satisfying our gross American cravings: Five Guys burgers and then Cheesecake Factory! The greasy burger above and the chocolate chip cheesecake below were so perfect... I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little emotional. (When you live abroad for a while, you really start craving the things you can't have! Kenya has burgers and cheesecake, but they are quite different from the ones we know and love. For burgers: the bun-to-meat ratio is much higher in Kenya, the buns tend to be harder, and the meat is well done by default. For cheesecake: well, I have yet to find cream cheese here - which should tell you something.)

We did branch out a little bit when it came to our culinary experiences, though. Our friends took us to Gordon Ramsey's restaurant on The Palm, a set of artificial islands on the coast of Dubai, which definitely lived up to the hype. (We also had authentic Arab food that I failed to photograph because I was so distracted by how mouth-wateringly delicious it was.)

By far our biggest flavor adventure was date-flavored camel milk. The only way I can describe that taste is... very, very strong.

Moving on from the food, Dubai has a reputation as a hyper-developed, cosmopolitan metropolis. That's how I remembered it, and it definitely still resonates. (It's honestly one of the reasons M was looking forward to this trip so much.) It didn't hurt that our friends had an apartment with a stunning view of the giant LED screen that makes up one of the sides of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (and the same one in the background of the first picture of this post).

We were also blown away by the Dubai Mall, which is at the foot of the Burj Khalifa and which we visited pretty much every day of the trip. It was much grander than I remembered - but then again, I hadn't been since 2014. The mall boasts some beautiful art installations, like these divers against a running water backdrop:

It also contains a full-sized aquarium you could pay to enter, but visitors could enjoy a fantastic view from the outside for free, too:

Despite the hyper-developed nature of pretty much every building and street we experienced during our short trip, there was clearly a concerted effort to pay tribute to the city's Arab heritage, as well. Store names were written in English and stylized Arabic script, and the mall even had a little section called "The Souk" ("market" in Arabic) featuring decorative, strategically placed, Instagrammable fake camels.

For the tourists, they had a pop-up majlis here and there ("majlis" is Arabic for "sitting room", a traditionally decorated receiving area for guests and a place where you can eat, lounge, and drink tea or coffee with friends and family), complete with props for visitors to use (and, of course, pay for the resulting photos).

This was definitely one of our favorite vacations we've taken in a long time. Everything was so new, clean, shiny, modern, and fun! I've heard from those who are not fans that "Dubai has no culture" - but M and I have to respectfully disagree! I can't wait to share more from the highlights of our trip: the Miracle Garden (which was, in fact, miraculous), and the Global Village (in some ways global, and in some ways not) - but those are stories for another time.

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).

Saturday, January 6, 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.