Saturday, December 29, 2018

So You Want to Try Arabic?

You may recall I did a previous post on recommended resources for intermediate and above Arabic learners, but I've been meaning to do one for true beginners as many have asked me where to start. I started Arabic class in college, but I realize many don't have access to university resources or diplomatic training. As a result, I've tried to focus on more public and accessible options here.

As always, I highly recommend the free app Anki, which I wrote a separate blog post for here. You can enter your own vocabulary or download decks others have already created.

With all that being said, here are my top recommendations for true beginners:

  • Learn the Arabic alphabet and sounds. Arabic is a phonetic language with a non-Latin alphabet. You need to learn the letters and sounds before pretty much anything else. How you do this will vary based on personal preference. If you want a textbook, I recommend Alif Baa (the first in the famous - or infamous - Al Kitaab series used in almost all university Arabic classes). There are also plenty of free guides online including webpages like this and videos like this.
  • Check out your local mosque. No, seriously. Arabic is the language of Islam and the Holy Qur'an, so many mosques offer reasonably priced or even free Arabic lessons. I've found many mosques extend this opportunity to non-Muslims as a means of sharing culture and religious knowledge, as well.
  • Subscribe to ArabicPod101. ArabicPod101 is a podcast that starts from a true beginner level with useful conversation phrases. You can sign up on their website for free or just subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Support refugees with NaTakallam. There's really no substitute for conversation practice and cultural exchange with a native speaker. For $13/hour (as of the writing of this post), you can sign up for Arabic classes online with native speaker refugees on NaTakallam.
  • Read the Transparent Language blog. This blog has great cultural and language information about Arabic, but the posts are written primarily in English for maximum accessibility.

There are a few additional options I'm aware of specifically for people in the Washington, DC area. These include:

  • Join the Global Language Network. You can take in-person beginner classes from the Global Language Network, which opens classes for registration each semester. Their first class is called "Foreigner" and they offer an Arabic Foreigner class every semester. You can see their schedule and registration information here. Each semester costs only $85 (as of the writing of this post) if you have good enough attendance to get most of your deposit refunded. You can see more details about the pricing model here.
  • Apply for a scholarship at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC). The SQCC in DC (supported by the Government of the Sultanate of Oman) offers a range of Arabic classes, including a summer intensive session and an after-work course schedule. I took one of these classes myself while I was home and loved it, and they offer a full range of skill levels. If you earn a scholarship, it's completely free! You can learn more here.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any favorite recommended resources for beginners I missed!

Monday, December 24, 2018

In Praise of Relaxation Vacations

Not every vacation has to be an "adventure vacation." Sure, backpackers or extreme sports enthusiasts might scoff at that, but there's nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned tranquil escape. Don't let anybody tell you that you have to do x, y, or z to have a "proper" vacation. Everyone has a different style and it's important to do what you enjoy because at the end of the day it's your time and money!

This was our attitude towards our very brief stay in Eswatini on our way back from Lesotho. If you're unfamiliar with Eswatini, it might be because the country only just changed its name from Swaziland this year - yes, 2018! Apparently the king is an absolute monarch and can just do that unilaterally. (You can learn more about that here.)

We stayed in a little slice of paradise called Summerfield Botanical Gardens. It was a luxurious resort that definitely lived up to its name with a beautiful collection of flora clustered around winding stone paths. The rooms were huge, and the place was full of delightful surprises like this peacock whose silhouette I snapped hanging out on top of our breakfast room.

So take it from someone who truly, deeply loves adventure vacations: sometimes a relaxation vacation is just what the doctor ordered... and there's no shame in that.

Monday, December 17, 2018

10 Things I Learned from a Week in the Mountain Kingdom

I just got back to Nairobi from a jam-packed week of training and learning and working in Maseru, Lesotho (also known poetically as the Mountain Kingdom) under the tutelage of my stellar mentor M. From an official U.S. military visit to a celebration of over 50 years of Peace Corps in Lesotho to a World AIDS Day event, there were plenty of activities to keep us busy. Here are a few things I learned (or had reinforced to me) this week:

  1. No two embassies are alike. They adapt to everything from local circumstances to the leadership style of the Ambassador.
  2. Diplomacy is different when you're a bigger fish in a smaller pond. For example, the King or Prime Minister attends Embassy events in Lesotho much more frequently than the President does in Kenya.
  3. People can make or break a post, but this is especially true at a small post. Thankfully, the current cast of Embassy Maseru seems wonderful.
  4. It's possible to know everyone who works at an Embassy. The biggest perk of this is avoiding the coordination issues you find at a very large, interagency Mission - most people know what everyone else is doing at work!
  5. At a smaller post, every person wears more metaphorical hats. My mentor, a Public Diplomacy Officer, had to take detours throughout the day to do Consular work and other things she would likely not do at a larger post.
  6. I will never take Nairobi restaurants or entertainment for granted again. There's no movie theatre in the whole country of Lesotho, and the food scene in Maseru was... very limited. Americans and local staff drive to South Africa for a weekend for entertainment, salons, or even some groceries!
  7. Every country has hidden gems. Even without going to Semonkong Lodge or a major tourist attraction, I was blown away by the beauty of the mountains in Lesotho. (Fun fact: one of Lesotho's claims to fame is having the highest point of lowest elevation of any country in the world!)
  8. Life is different without a DPO (diplomatic post office). My mentor and her colleagues receive mail once a week instead of daily as we do in Kenya.
  9. Any name will be difficult somewhere. I have a pretty common Western first name, but in Lesotho people really struggled with it! It honestly made me feel so much better butchering all of the local names.
  10. Mentorship is crucial in work and life. I'm so lucky to have awesome mentors like M who empower me, support me, and tell it like it is! Everyone benefits from great mentoring.

Thanks to all who made this trip possible, and thanks for reading!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

(Only One) Day in Durban

We stopped through Durban, South Africa en route to Lesotho for a work trip for two nights, so we really only had one day to experience this lovely city. Thankfully, it was a gloomy and rainy day, which made me feel better about choosing not to go with a surfing lesson or lounge on the beach. We did enjoy a scenic walk along the beautiful section of beach known as the Golden Mile.

We spent most of the day doing something uber-touristy: the aquatic theme park called uShaka Marine World. We started the day with a fun zip lining and ropes course at Chimp and Zee, which was pretty short but not too expensive.

After working up an appetite, we went a little nuts with a three-course lunch at the Cargo Hold. It was definitely worth booking way in advance and reserving a tank-side table where we could see sharks and fish right next to us as we dined. The food was scrumptious, especially the homemade gelato trio: lime, mango, and wild berry. My mouth is watering just remembering how delicious everything was.

We wrapped up the day with some chill (literally and figuratively) time with the park's water slides, lazy river, and animal viewing. There was a SeaWorld-style dolphin show, which we had never seen before, but those types of performances are fraught with ethical concerns and raise many moral questions for me. (You can learn more about the philosophical debate surrounding performing captive animals like dolphins here.)

The time flew way too fast, but we're glad we decided to make this stop and see another part of South Africa from Johannesburg, where we stayed last time. Who knows, maybe someday we'll even make it to Cape Town!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

(Inter)National Day of Mourning

President Trump designated December 5, 2018 as a National Day of Mourning for the loss of President George H. W. Bush. He also directed us to fly our flags at half-staff for 30 days. What does this mean at an Embassy? Well, it's technically being treated as a holiday for all federal employees (including all of us overseas) except those who "cannot be excused for reasons of national security, defense, or other essential public business."

There are some other things I learned about how such a high-level, official mourning period is observed, too, that I never knew before. For example, we (and other embassies) put out formal condolence books for foreign dignitaries to sign. We've received a number of heartfelt sympathies from around the world, including the many who knew President Bush personally or benefitted from what many characterize as his steady hand in international affairs.

I'm not here to discuss or evaluate his policies, performance, or legacy, which are extremely controversial and politically loaded topics. I think it's worth noting that even his harshest critics respected him as a statesman, public servant, and legitimate leader. I find that a level of civil discourse and mutual respect worth emulating broadly, regardless of who's in office.

Politics aside, in a world and especially in a government where it always seems so easy (and so fashionable) to be a cynic, I admire how President Bush let his exceptional optimism shine. Here are a few quotes from him I found that embody his hope and idealism (sources here and here):

  • "We are a nation of communities...a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."
  • "And I do not mistrust the future. I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless."
  • "No definition of a successful life can do anything but include serving others."
  • "I'm conservative, but I'm not a nut about it."
  • "American is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle."

Rest in peace, Mr. President.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

#LightTheWorld: One Small Act of Kindness at a Time

I love the Christmas season - don't you? Every year, I try to participate in the #LightTheWorld campaign with my church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You may have heard of this via the famous "giving machines" (i.e., charity vending machines) that I hope stay an annual tradition. We got off to a great start this year with an activity organized in our area to collect donations for long-term patients at our local public hospital. We gathered items including diapers, toiletries, toys, blankets, and books for babies, children, and mothers.

We arrived at our chapel early to pack bags with our missionaries (who hail from the United States, DRC, South Africa, Togo, and more). The gift bags and tissue paper were lovingly decorated by our local Senior Missionary Couple. (When most people think of missionaries, they tend to think of very young single adults, but we have a lot of retired, older missionaries who serve as couples, too.) We learned that they are actually finishing their 18-month mission and leaving Kenya in just two weeks.

The effort was part of the Mormon Helping Hands initiative (which is simply the name we use for church-organized volunteer service), so we snagged a few nifty vests to help identify us with the group of volunteers. I had seen these signature yellow shirts or vests on the news before, but this was our first time wearing them.

The moment we had finished packing the gift bags, it began pouring rain. We had all planned on walking over originally, but we decided to be safe and ran the presents with those who had enough foresight to bring umbrellas to cars so they could be driven to the hospital. We waited for the shower to lighten up and then split into driving and walking groups.

Kenyatta National Hospital was just a short walk or drive from the chapel. Once we arrived, we split into groups - some donated blood while others delivered the gifts. More volunteers met us there, and we had so many we couldn't all fit in the children's small cancer ward and had to take turns visiting. It was awesome to have so many friends old and new joyfully catching up in the corridor and waiting to shower love and presents on the kids in the next room.

It was wonderful to gather together with volunteers from all over Nairobi to perform this small act of kindness together. There are so many ways to serve our fellow human beings - whether it's participating in effective altruism or sparing some time for community service or even taking a moment to share a smile or a kind word with someone who needs it. Of course, we should do all we can to help make one another's burdens light year-round, but the spirit of the holidays is always a helpful reminder.