Monday, March 22, 2010

The Ultimate Road Trip

One of my classmates in A-100 is a former FS Specialist.  Before joining A-100, he was working in Belmopan. He has been a wealth of knowledge about Belmopan.  He gave me the names of several people who I will be working with.  He made sure that I realized how small the town is - there is no movie theater and no dry cleaner in town.  He suggested the type of car I should get (small SUV), clued me into the Embassy dress code (no suits, slacks and short-sleeve shirts), described all the great SCUBA and deep-sea fishing available, and informed me that there is a difference between rice & beans and beans & rice.  He also met his wife (another FSO) there, so that makes me feel better about the dating scene.

But, the biggest, most amazing thing he told me, "You know you can drive to Belize, right?"  No, I didn't know that.  But, I love the idea.  First, let me explain a few of the practical reasons for driving to Belize:  (1) I will not be limited to airline restrictions on what I can bring with me initially.  UAB can take several weeks to get there and HHE several months.  Having more than two suitcases worth of stuff would be nice.  (2) I would have my car right away.  It can take several months for my car to arrive if I ship it from DC.  While I am sure I can get around Belmopan without a car for a few weeks or months, it is not something I look forward to.  (3)  I won't have to ship Bailey in a plane to Belize.  He will have to do this eventually, but if I can put it off for two years, that is great.  Plus, given the time of year (late May/early June), there may be airline restrictions on shipping him.

So, those are all the rational reasons for thinking about doing this.  Then, I have the true reason - a State Department sponsored road trip across half the United States and Mexico just sounds AWESOME.  By State Department regs, I have to travel around 300 or 400 miles per day (I don't remember the exact number).  Based on Bing Maps, the trip would be around 3200 miles or 8 days.  The Department will pay for most/all of the gas and they will put me up in a hotel and pay for my food.

I would not do this trip by myself - that would just be foolish.  Rather, I asked my friend Sam to go along.  Sam is one of the best road trip companions ever.  We can have conversations for days (which would be necessary).  He doesn't complain about anything.  He would do his fair share of driving.  He speaks Spanish (for the Mexico portion of the trip).  The only problem is that he is officiating a wedding around the date that I wanted to be on the road.  I may have to delay the trip a day or two (if possible) to accommodate his schedule.

There are some practical considerations that detract from the trip.  First, safety is an issue in Mexico.  While I tend to downplay the issue, it is there and I need to consider it.  Second, the time to get to post is also considerable.  I believe my predecessor is leaving at the beginning of May and I want to get to work quickly without too much of a gap.  Third, while driving for 3200 miles can be fun, it can also be a long hard drive.

In all honesty, the decision whether or not to road trip will probably come down to what my Post says.  If other people have done it recently and they don't mind the time spent driving, then I am all for this.  If they balk for safety or time reasons, then I will probably do the boring thing and take the six hour flight down there.

So, what do you think?  Is this an awesome idea?  Is this a crazy idea?  Or is it a crazy AWESOME idea?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Flag Day

So, it all comes down to this.  I have been dreaming and speculating where I would be going with the Foreign Service for months, if not years.  For the last 3 weeks or so, the list had been narrowed down to a few dozen places.  Finally, yesterday I would find out my destination.

The day started off early.  We had to be at FSI by 730 for a field trip to the CIA.  You have to give them credit.  On the day where the coordinators know we will not be paying attention, they take us to the one place where we actually will pay attention because its cool.  And it was cool.  For at least 45 minutes I forgot that my life would be changing dramatically that afternoon.

The big rumor of the day was about a mysterious e-mail that people had received Thursday afternoon.  The e-mail was confirming people's enrollment in a training course called Pol/Econ, which all officers going to either a Political or Economic job have to take.  Well over half the jobs on our list was one of those courses.  So, when I got back, I checked my e-mail and I had nothing.  Uh-oh.  I looked at my bidlist.  Of my 16 high posts, 12 of them were Pol/Econ jobs.  I had four 'highs' left - Recife, Brazil; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Belmopan, Belize; and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

Once we finally got started, the first thing they do is tell us all of the posts that they are NOT filling from our class.  The bid list has more posts than members of our class, so they had to 'boot' several jobs.  As they started on the boot list, I was okay.  Then, they took out Maputo (my dream location)... and then they just decimated Brazil taking out two of my highs.  Of my top 7 posts (in my mind), they booted 5 of them.

The flag day ceremony itself is fun, but nerve-racking.  We had a few games going on, including Bingo and a form of hot potato (a gift is passed around the room, moving person to person each time a post is called.  Whoever has the gift when the post written on the outside is called wins the gift).  We were all wearing Mardi Gras beads.  But, your life is changing within the hour and there is nothing you can do.

Three flags in is Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago - one of my two remaining high consular bids... someone else is called.  Uh, oh.  By this point, I figure it is either Belmopan or I am not getting a 'high' bid.  I start looking at the consular posts that I bid medium.  Posts in India, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mongolia are jumping out at me.  Not that any of these are bad posts but I don't think I had prepared myself properly for going to one of those posts and I definitely had not prepared my parents for me going to one of those posts.

About ten minutes later, they announced Belmopan, Belize (pause) "Alfred..."  That's all I heard.  He probably butchered my last name but I didn't hear him.  I walked down the stairs, collected my flag, shook hands with the Ambassador Mentor and picked up my training folder.  My knees were shaking so bad that when I was climbing back up the stairs, my right leg gave out for a second and I stumbled into the wall.

I looked into my folder to see when I would be leaving and my training ends in Mid-May.  I have to admit that freaks me out just a bit.  I fully expected to in DC through the summer and into the fall for language training.  But, Belize is a (mostly) English speaking country, so I won't be learning a language this time around.    Instead of being here all summer, I am leaving before summer even starts.  I'm just glad I didn't go ahead and buy tickets to events that I will now not be able to go to (including a few concerts, baseball games, and football games).

To be perfectly honest, as I sat there I couldn't remember why I bid Belize high.  I didn't hate it by any means, but it was definitely one of my lower 'highs'.  I finally came out of my trance about 10 flags later and enjoyed the rest of the ceremony.  Two people on either side of me got European posts, three of my good friends are going to Hyderabad together (India doesn't know what's coming with those three).  There were many, many happy people and a few upset ones (though you couldn't really tell at the ceremony though).  The most dramatic moment was when the announcer called out the wrong name for a post.  Fortunately, it was corrected quickly and both people were much happier with the actual posts than the one he called out.

When I came home to change and call my parents, I started looking at my research and remembered why I bid Belmopan so high.  It is a 20% differential (hardship) pay, which is great.  It is also a 20% COLA (cost of living).  Moreover, it is a consular job working in the American Citizen Services section.  (In general consular officers do two things (1) process visa applications and (2) Help US citizens abroad.  I joined consular because I liked that aspect of the job.  But almost all entry-level consular jobs are visa jobs.)  I am very excited about that.  And, oh yeah, Belize has things that look like this

Some interesting things that I did not know about Belize or Belmopan until yesterday evening.
  • Belize is home to the second largest Barrier Reef in the world (behind only Australia's Great Barrier Reef) and thus has some of the best scuba diving in the world.  I definitely plan to learn how to SCUBA.
  • Belize is still apart of the British Commonwealth and has only been independent since 1981.
  • Belize City was twice destroyed by hurricanes within 30 years, so the country decided to move the capital to Belmopan, which is about 50 miles inland.
  • The people have not really followed the government as only about 15,000-20,000 live in the "city."
  • I have lived almost half my life in towns smaller than Belmopan, so I think I will be well suited for this post.
  • The US Embassy has only been in Belmopan since 2006 and only four embassies are located there.  All of the others remain in Belize City.
  • While English is the official language and spoken by most of the population (55% speak it well and 80% speak some), both Spanish and a form of Creole are also spoken.
  • Belize is a common place for wanted Americans to come hide out because it is English speaking.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Going to Belmopan Belize

A few quick facts with more info later

  • I leave in May
  • With a population of 7100, Belmopan is the smallest Capitol in the world
  • They speak English in Belize

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Just get here already

For some reason, this week has decided to go by as slowly as possible.  It just might have something to do with the life-changing event this Friday.  FRIDAY IS FLAG DAY.  I truly believe that I will get a high post (one of 16 that I bid high).  I will be really ecstatic with any of those highs.  But two of them are starting to freak me out. These are both English-speaking posts.  That means that I will be leaving for post soon.  Like, I could be leaving in MAY.  I have not entirely wrapped my head around that idea.  For 19 months, this process has moved at a snail's pace (this week included).  If I get one of those two posts, I will be leaving really soon.

(Let me be perfectly clear, I WANT both of these posts, I am just freaked out about the timeline).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A fair warning to my family

Flag Day is coming up on Friday.  During this ceremony, we are given a flag for the country of our post.  One of my top choices is Maputo, Mozambique.  When I looked up the flag of Mozambique, I was surprised to see that it had an AK-47 on it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Woods and Language Testing (Updated)

I participated in two of the more unusual aspects of A-100 this past week.  Last Friday, I took my full Italian language exam and then we started this week with out off-site retreat known simply as "The Woods."  (It is actually the name of the resort.  While it is wooded, the actual location is not nearly as nefarious as the name suggests).

Language Testing

One of the most important aspects of the Foreign Service is speaking a foreign language.  Every entry-level officer (ELO aka junior officer) is on language probation until they receive a passing score.  A passing score varies based on the agency, but the scoring system is uniform throughout.  In general terms, a '0' is no ability.  A '1' is tourist ability (can ask where the restroom is, read a menu, etc).  A '2' is will allow you to have basic conversations.  A '3' is "professionally fluent."  You can talk about most things, but may not be able to converse outside your areas of expertise.  A '4' is full fluency.  You understand it all.  A '5' is the equivalent to an educated native speaker.  They also use '+' to designate when a person is in between levels.  So a 2+ is almost, but not quite a 3.

To get off language probation, you have to get a 3/3 (a '3' in both speaking and reading) in a world language.  World languages include Spanish, French, Italian, German, etc.  For harder languages - generally those with a non-Roman alphabet - you have to get a 2/1 (a 2 in speaking and a 1 in reading).  Superhard languages, such as Korean, require a 2/0.  IF YOU FAIL TO GET OFF LANGUAGE PROBATION WITHIN 5 YEARS, YOU WILL BE KICKED OUT OF THE FOREIGN SERVICE.  So, it's a big deal.

In order to see whether we speak a language already and/or how much training we will need to get to the required proficiency, they test us.  (Since so many people speak 'some' Spanish, we all had much shorter conversations with the tester.  My Spanish was so bad, I got a 0+).

Friday, after lunch, I went up for my Italian test.  For those of you who don't know me, I've lived in Italy for about 18 months total.  I spent 6 months immersed with an Italian host family a decade ago.  The rest of the time I either lived, studied or worked with other Americans, so I would spend as much time speaking English as Italian.  I also took one year of intermediate Italian in college.  

The test was broken down into two parts - speaking and reading.  The speaking part is broken down further into three sub-parts.  The first sub-part is a general conversation between me and the tester.  (There are two people in the room with you.  One speaks to you in English, the other speaks to you in the testing language.  They are both native speakers of the language and they both grade you).  It lasted about 5-10 minutes.  I think I did fairly well on this part.

For the second part, I had to speak at length about an issue.  They give you five possible topics and you pick 1.  You get a few minutes to prepare and then you talk about it for at least 5 minutes.  I was not very good at this part.  I picked a topic that I knew some things about, but I did not know the vocabulary for this topic.  I should have chosen another topic that I would have had better luck with the vocabulary.

The third part is a general translation.  I am required to ask the tester about a subject in Italian.  He answers for about a minute or 90 seconds.  Then, I would tell the other person what he said in English.  This turned out to be my best part.  I got a subject that I was fairly familiar with.  I could anticipate what the tester was going to say, because he was echoing general sentiment about this topic.

Overall, the speaking part went better than I expected.  I would grade myself at either a '2' or a '2+'.  I should get the official results some time this week.

The reading part did not go as well.  It is broken down into two parts.  In the first part, I got a sheet of paper with six very short items on them.  I had 6 minutes to read them all.  After that time, I had to explain to the two testers, in English, what they were about.  I knew what one of these things said.  Some of the others I had a general idea and a few I was clueless about.

For the second part of the reading, they gave me 5 newspaper articles.  Each one was probably about 20 column inches or so.  I had to choose one of these.  I then had 7 minutes to read the article.  When they returned, I had to explain to them about the article.   Then, they picked one of the remaining four articles and I had to do the same thing.  The long articles went better than the short ones, I think, because I could get at least get the gist of the article.  But my vocabulary and grammar are awful.  I would probably grade myself at either a 1+ or maybe a 2.

This language test is important for me, but not that important.  If I am sent to a language post, they will train me in that language - likely to a 3/3.  I don't think I am exposing anything by telling you there were not any Italian language posts on my bid list.  But, in the future, they may see that I have some Italian language skills.  I may get a posting there and would require less training than someone starting from scratch.

(UPDATE: I got my official results today.  I got a 1+/1+.  That was a bit worse than I had hoped for on speaking but about where I expected for reading.)

The Woods

One of the parts of A-100 you hear the most about is "The Woods."  People will talk about it before you go, then former A-100 people will ask you about your experience in The Woods.  It honestly sounds much cooler than it turns out to be.  Essentially, it is a team building and leadership retreat.  

You are split into teams (each one named after a large embassy) and over two days you are given 5 tasks.  They each have their unique challenges and are fun if you let them be.  Quite a few of them are creative tasks.  You really get to know your team pretty well during these tasks.  And many personality traits become quite prevalent  - for example, everyone in my group knows that I am overly competitive now.  My only complaint about the group was that I actually knew most of the people in my group.  For much of A-100, you sit in alphabetical order.  So I know most of the As, Bs, and Cs in my class.  For some unexplained reason, most of my team was from the beginning of the alphabet.

I did get to know more people outside of the official activities.  And really, the social aspect of The Woods is the best part.  I tried to sit with different people for each meal, so I got to know more people this way.  After we finished with the group activities on Monday, everyone headed to the bar for a bit.  We took a break from the bar for the Follies.  The Follies were really quite hilarious - much funnier than I expected.  After the Follies, it was back to the bar.  One of the coordinators brought a Karaoke machine.

I probably drank one or two too many, but so did most of the group.  As far as I know, no one did anything too damaging.  There were no walks of shame and everyone made it to breakfast the next day.  I did hear about a few falls and at least one 2 AM drunken phone call to a spouse, but that was the extent of the damage.  Many people looked a lot less vibrant on day 2 than they did on day 1, but we still made it through the day.  (At least one person insisted that the entire retreat was just to see if we could make ourselves get up on the second day after a night of drinking, an important diplomatic skill).

The most important thing at the Woods actually happens behind closed doors.  Our CDOs (career development officers aka the people who tell us where we are going) come to the Woods to make assignments.  I have been assigned to a post somewhere in the world - only I have no idea where it is.  But, it is only 9 more days until Flag Day!