Tuesday, July 30, 2019

5 Things I'll Miss Most from Kenya

Two years went by in a flash, and it's time for us to say kwaheri (goodbye) to Kenya. I struggled a bit writing this post because I didn't know how I could pick just five things I'll miss from our time here, but I thought I could give readers at least a taste of what makes this beautiful country so unforgettable. So here's just a snapshot of the top five things I'll miss once we're gone:

  1. The People: Kenyan people are some of the warmest I've ever met. Far from being treated as an outsider because I was foreign and didn't speak the local language, I was often welcomed into people's homes and shared the intimate aspects of life here from weddings to funerals. If I'm being honest, it was easier in the beginning to make Kenyan friends than it was to make American friends! I know I've made some lifelong friends here.
  2. The Nature: I now know why Kenya's tourism slogan is #MagicalKenya. From the savannah sunsets to the wildlife to the white sand beaches to the forest hiking trails, the nature in this country is as stunning as it is diverse. There's truly something here for every taste and budget - whether you're a rugged backpacker looking for a place to pitch your tent and dig your latrine to a first-class experience seeker planning your luxury safari.
  3. The Weather: I did not miss real winter a single day while living in Nairobi. For readers back home, a Nairobi winter might drop as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and it doesn't snow. Thanks to the altitude, Nairobi is also spared from the notoriously sweltering heat of much of the rest of Africa. The moderate temperatures were a delight.
  4. The Arts: Kenya is such a cultural powerhouse for the region, and it was such a treat to get a small taste of that over the past two years. My favorite Kenyan music artist is Nyashinski, I purchased some classic street art from the Maasai Market, I collected a number of beautiful traditional fabrics and clothes, and I was lucky enough to participate in a number of cultural events for work. Nobody can deny the richness of Kenyan culture after experiencing it firsthand.
  5. The Work: Doing Public Diplomacy in Kenya for my first tour has been truly special. I've met thousands of Kenyans and expats from all walks of life, grown so much personally and professionally, and had a lot of fun along the way. I can't imagine a better first tour, and so far the Foreign Service is everything I hoped it would be: challenging, rewarding, and always exciting. I have such deep respect for my colleagues - Kenyan and American - and I hope I have the opportunity to work with them again.

We haven't even gotten on the plane yet and I already can't wait to come back. I don't know how or when, but I'm determined that this won't be my last time in Kenya. Tutaonana tena, marafiki wangu!

Friday, July 19, 2019

EER Tips, Round Two

Last year when I did my first Employee Evaluation Report (EER), I wrote a blog post explaining what that is and how to write your first one. I just completed my second EER, and this year I had two additional benefits: the opportunity to serve on an EER panel and a reviewer who had just returned from a promotion panel in time for my EER. So in addition to what I wrote last time, I though I'd add a few more tips:

  • Have a positive attitude towards constructive criticism. Nobody likes trying to give feedback to someone who bristles at any criticism or is so attached to their writing that they refuse to make changes. After all, there's always room for improvement.
  • Volunteer for an EER Review Panel. All EERs are reviewed by a panel, which confirms the EER does not include inadmissible comments (i.e., things you're not allowed to reference in a performance document per the Foreign Affairs Manual here), checks for errors, and makes suggestions. This is a great way to read a large number of EERs and learn what makes a strong and weak one.
  • Take the time to correct typos - even in your rater's and reviewer's statements. It's worth it to make sure that simple mistakes like different numbers of spaces between sentences don't distract the reader. Some might even take errors as a sign of a lack of attention to detail.
  • Your statement really sets the tone. A fantastic rater and reviewer statement is not enough to carry the water for a weak rated employee statement - especially because yours is the first one the reader sees.
  • You can use the "Special Circumstances" box if there were actual special circumstances. This time, I wrote about the unique challenges of the security environment in the wake of the January 2019 Nairobi terror attack in the Special Circumstances section at the encouragement of my reviewer. It saved me a lot of precious space in my statement but still gave necessary context.
  • You don't have to overcome a monumental crisis to have a fabulous EER. I loved these words from my supervisor. Your EER is what you make of it, and you should be able to illustrate your accomplishments with interesting examples no matter what job you did or where you served.

I know it's not the main EER season right now, but I hope this helps some other off-cycle Entry-Level Officer with their evaluation. For now, I'm mostly relieved mine is done!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

6 Types of Fliers

I've learned through many travels that there are (at least) six consistent archetypes one might encounter on a plane. The chances of finding all of these on a major international flight are very high.

The Professional Flier (First Class Edition)

This person probably just stepped directly from the VIP lounge into their seat on the plane. They have platinum elite status on most airlines and don't even use the few where they don't. They are perfectly coiffed, fashionably dressed, and presentable when they step off the plane, no matter how long and harrowing the flight was for everyone else. It's been so long since they've flown coach that they've forgotten what it's like.

The Professional Flier (Economy Class Edition)

Everything this person needs fits in a rugged old backpack they've used for at least 100 couchsurfing trips already which happens to perfectly fit under the seat each time so they don't need to put anything in the overhead luggage bins. They always get an aisle seat and are the first to unbuckle and stand while the plane is still taxiing. Some of their travel gear probably came from Kickstarter.

The Scared One

Every flight is the flight of fear. No matter how many times someone has flown, something about the turbulence and the helplessness at altitude forces this person to have intrusive thoughts of every missing plane and horrifying crash they've ever heard of pretty much every time they travel. If your flight were a horror film, this person would be the last one left standing, just to keep the suspense alive.

The Guardians of Littles

They either have small children or pets with them, and by golly they are going to get them from Point A to Point B whether it's in one piece or not, come what may. They may feel apologetic or embarrassed when one of the littles has a meltdown, but really 99.9% of everyone around them either understands exactly what they're going through or is very, very grateful they don't.

The Cinephile

The Cinephile will intentionally seek out longer flights in total hours that are multiples of two or three to maximize movie watching time. They tend to favor quantity over quality, and so will begin before even takeoff frantically browsing through the movies trying to decide how many they can cram into one trip. They always have backup headphones in their carry-on bag. This is M.

The Hibernator

The Hibernator person takes the ever-increasing discomfort of airline seats as a minor challenge to be overcome in the quest for slumber. They can sleep through anything, including the meltdown of The Guardians' Littles. They also sometimes exhibit snoring, drooling, or other unattractive sleep-adjacent phenomena. This is me.

Did these resonate with your experience? I hope it at least gave you a good laugh. Are there any stereotypes I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hiking Kilimanjaro via Rongai with Zara Tours

My dad and I climbed Kilimanjaro! There are many tour companies, possible routes, and hike durations to get to the top of Africa's highest mountain. We did a lot of research before we settled on Zara Tours, and the 6-day Rongai route. Although Zara was the most affordable option we considered, they ended up providing such an awesome experience we're glad we chose them. As for our trip, I've broken it down day-by-day below.

Day One

After a short flight (1 hour from Nairobi) and a night at a hotel in town, we were ready to start our journey. The Rongai route we chose starts from the north side of the mountain, so we drove there and began our hike through the rainforest. One of the coolest parts about hiking Kilimanjaro are the multiple climate zones, as you'll see throughout this post. At the camp, there was a hut for rangers working in the park, but we slept in tents.

Day Two

On day two, we passed from the rainforest into moorland. What really makes hiking Kilimanjaro accessible is the impressive team of porters and guides. Here you can see the porters carrying up to 20kg each, mostly on their heads. Every day, the porters would wait until we left camp, pack everything up, pass us on the trail, and have everything set up at the next site by the time we arrived.

Day Three

On the third day, we crossed into the alpine desert and camped at the base of the second-highest peak, Mawenzi. We also caught great views of the summit where we were headed. In the afternoon, we took a short acclimatization hike to help our bodies adjust to the altitude. As an aside, I took altitude medication the whole trip and my dad didn't, but neither of us got altitude sickness.

Day Four

By the fourth day, we were really feeling the loss of comforts like seated toilets and running water. The first photo in this set shows the "toilets" we could use in the camps. I will say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the food cooked by the chef who accompanied us. This was the shortest hiking day, as we made it to base camp and went to bed early in preparation for the summit hike the following day.

Day Five

The longest day started just before midnight with a quick meal before we began our hike that would take us all the way to the summit of Kibo, the highest peak. As it was pitch black, headlamps were required but we still couldn't see anything around us. While the whole trip was a slow climb, this day by far was the slowest. The zig-zag hike to reach the crater rim seemed like it would never end, but we got there before sunrise and turned around to see a string of lit headlamps trailing down the mountain behind us. The temperature was below freezing.

We passed through Gilman's Point (5,685m) and Stella Point (5,756m) on our way to Uhuru Peak (5,895m), the highest point of Kilimanjaro. By that time the sun was up and we had a nice vantage point above the clouds of the rest of the mountain, including its glaciers and the crater. In broad daylight we could finally see the rough terrain we had hiked up that morning, but thankfully much of our hike back was a matter of gliding straight down through the scree. It was honestly the most fun part of the trip. It took us 7 hours to get from base camp to the summit, but only 2.25 hours to cover the same distance coming back down. After a short rest at base camp and a quick bite to eat, we continued our descent for several more hours before pitching camp for the night.

Day Six

The last day was brutal. To our surprise, going down the mountain was much harder on our bodies than going up in the first place. My knees were aching from the impact of marching down such uneven ground for so many hours. When we finally saw the park exit gate, we were exhausted and ready to be done with our hike. We gratefully hopped into the tour company's trucks to head back to the hotel and get a proper night's sleep.

Now that it's over, both of us agree that this trip was absolutely worth it - especially since we both made it to the summit. We had heard some horror stories about altitude sickness and bad weather, but we were extremely lucky and suffered neither the whole trip. We also had an amazing guide, William, who was very experienced with and knowledgeable about Kilimanjaro. With the entire Zara team, we were well taken care of and couldn't have imagined a better Kilimanjaro trek.