Tuesday, June 28, 2011

All a part of the job

I've had a sad case this past week.  This 18 year old American citizen moved to Belize when he was 9 or 10 with his adopted family.  After a falling out with his adopted mother, he has basically been on his own since he was 14 or 15.  He recently found some of his biological siblings and has arranged to move in with a sister back in the States.

As we were preparing all the paperwork, he asked me how he flies - what does he do at the airport, etc.  I spent ten minutes talking to him about how to go through an airport and then wrote down instructions for him.  I feel so bad for this kid - no one should have to go through what he has gone through.  And kids ask their parents what to do in an airport, not me.

The worst part about all of this is that he is getting his hopes up that all of his problems will go away when he gets together with his biological family, but the odds of that seem small to me.  This is definitely one of those times when I am glad that I can help, but I wish I could do more.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Panama Pictures

Casca Viejo - the old part of Panama City

Shelley ran into a bunch of pigeons and then got scared

Panama City has a fantastic skyline with more sky scrapers than most US cities

The view from my friend Alison's apartment.

Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal

The locks in operation

I am not kidding you when I say that this ice cream was the highlight of the trip.

This picture was taken during the 1/2 hour I spent at the beach during my WEEK in Panama.  Yes, it is raining.

This is the back of my knee after I was stung by the fire coral.

Shelley and I at the 4th of July celebration on Friday night.
(Note that I am smiling because I am no longer in Panama)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My awesome bid list

While my vacation in Panama sucked (see yesterday's post), I did get the bid list just before I left.  I honestly could not have asked for a better list for what I want in my second tour.  Second tour bidding is different from the first tour, so I will give you a brief run-down.  All told, there are approximately 300 open positions.  All first-tour officers departing their post in May, June, or July 2012 will bid on this list.  Each officer must submit a list of 30 posts, ranked numerically.

I can't just pick the 30 best places, I have certain requirements I must meet.  For example, all officers must speak a second language by the end of their second tour.  As I am still on language probation, I MUST bid on positions that are language designated.  So, say good bye to London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canberra, and Dublin.  All officers must spend at least one year in consular, so those officers who did political, econ, PD, or management on the first tour must only bid on consular jobs.  If you were in a non-hardship post (10% differential or less), half your bids must be at hardship posts (15% or greater).  If you've served your consular tour, then you must bid on at least 6 'in-cone' positions.  You cannot be in training for more than 78 total weeks for your first two tours (this generally means if you got a full language course before your first tour, you won't get one before your second tour).  For me, I am  required to bid on any language designated position in any job with at least 6 consular bids; I have no restrictions on hardship or training time.

Despite all the above restrictions, the real challenge is figuring out the timing.  I have to look at the time that I will leave post (somewhere between June 1 and June 30, 2012), add my home leave (between 1 month and 6 weeks), functional training such as pol/econ or public diplomacy training (anywhere from 0 weeks for consular jobs to 12 weeks for GSO jobs), and language training (between 24 weeks for world languages and 36 weeks for German and 'super-hard' languages like Mandarin) and then calculate which month I can arrive.  If I can arrive the exact month that the position is vacant than it is a 'valid bid.'  If I can arrive one month after the position opens or finish training two months before it opens, then it is an 'imperfect bid.'  If the timing doesn't work, then it is an invalid bid.  I must submit 30 bids, at least 22 must be 'valid' and up to 8 can be 'imperfect.'  I cannot submit any 'invalid' bids.  Fewer than 100 of the almost 300 bids are 'valid' or 'imperfect.'  So, goodbye Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Slovenia, Madrid, Havana, Mexico City, Bogota, Caracas, and Athens.

Here is where I got really 'lucky' on my bid list.  I prefer to learn a more unique language rather than one which is used in lots of countries.  So, I would rather not learn Spanish, French, Russian, or Arabic, which are used in dozens of countries.  Lots of other officers feel differently about this and want to learn these languages, but I like the idea of the more boutique languages.  So, when the list went from 300 jobs to less than 100 possibilities due to the timing issues, I was ecstatic to see that many of the posts that were eliminated were the posts I didn't really want to go to anyway.

So, where did I want to go?  You may recall my ranking of all the posts I did a few months back.  Five of my top seven posts made it on to my bid list as valid or imperfect bids.  I would like to go to Europe for my next post, but honestly didn't consider it likely.  Now, almost half of my bids will be in EUR.  While I still doubt I will be able to get my top choice (revealed below), I've seen how hard it can be to make a desired post a valid bid.  So, even if someone with higher equity WANTS to go where I want to go, he or she may not be able to make it work with all of the timing and other restrictions.

My list isn't due until a week from Monday, but here is my unofficial top 30.  After seeing this list, you will now see why I think it is so awesome.  I have bids to every region except SCA and jobs in every cone but management.

  1. Rome
  2. Budapest
  3. Prague
  4. Berlin
  5. Prague (different job)
  6. Rio
  7. Frankfurt
  8. Oslo
  9. Bangkok
  10. Rio
  11. Paris
  12. Sao Paolo
  13. Bucharest
  14. Ankara
  15. Warsaw
  16. Tirana, Albania
  17. Warsaw
  18. Phenom Penh, Cambodia
  19. Tel Aviv
  20. Vilnius, Lithuania
  21. Tirana (different job)
  22. Beijing
  23. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
  24. Shanghai
  25. Seoul
  26. Brasilia
  27. Nairobi
  28. Bangkok (different job)
  29. Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (formerly Saigon)
  30. Hanoi, Vietnam
Pretty awesome list, huh?

Friday, June 17, 2011


I should have realized this was not going to be a good vacation when my flip-flop broke on me as I was headed into the airport.  As it turned out, this was just one of the many things to go wrong on this vacation.  The vacation did have some highlights - I got to see two movies and won $90 in two casino visits, for example - but overall the trip was a bust.

There isn't much to see or do in Panama City.  The canal is obviously the big attraction.  I have to admit it was pretty awesome, but we were there at a time when only a few small boats were going through the locks.  There was also a cool museum on the Canal (not the one at the Canal but in the old town).  Other than the Canal, there was Casca Viejo, which was the old Spanish part of town, where we got roped into a tour by an old Panamanian.  Everything else was just sky scrapers, malls and roads.  No beaches, no real walkable shopping areas (besides the malls).  We spent 2 1/2 days in Panama City and could have seen everything in 1.  Personally, I enjoyed seeing civilization again after the last few months in Belize, but I know my sister was not enjoying it as much as me.

On Sunday afternoon, we headed to Bocas del Toro.  I had been told by one friend that Bocas was "Belize in Panama."  My little sister absolutely loved the place when she visited during her semester abroad in Costa Rica.  I have to admit, under other circumstances, this could have been an enjoyable trip.  Bocas is a cute little town on the edge of an island.  Many of the restaurants, shops and hotels are literally built over the water (they are clearly not worried about hurricanes there).  Unfortunately, there is no beach anywhere in town.  You either have to take a bus, a taxi, or a water taxi to get to the beach.

A few highlights (and many lowlights) of the trip:

  • It rained every day - literally every day.
  • SCUBA diving was pretty awesome, even though visibility was pretty low.  I spotted a shark 8 feet from me like only two minutes after we went down.  The diving wasn't as good as Belize, but it was still nice to be under water again.  I did get a blister on my big toe from the fins.
  • Our second full day, we planned to take one of the snorkel beach trips.  There were enough guests to split us into two boats and we got the shitty boat.  The other boat was full of people our age, including these three cute British girls.  Our boat was full of old people who were no fun.  They had a guide who managed to coax the dolphins to jump out of the water; our guide let us bake in the hot sun while waiting for us to point out the fins to him.
  • When we got to the first snorkel spot, our guide said we could just jump right in - it was deep enough.  I was hot (from waiting for the dolphins) so I jumped right in, pulling my legs up in case it wasn't as deep as he said.  I immediately landed on some coral on the back of my knee.  It hurt like hell, but I figured it was just a scratch, so I snorkeled around for a while.  When I got out, I was bleeding on the back of my knee and the stinging pain had not gone away.  According to one of the girls on the boat who has dived a lot, she said it looked like "fire coral."  (According to wikipedia, fire coral looks just like coral, but is related to jelly fish, hence the massive pain).  And the boat guide did not have a first aid kit or anything.
  • By the time we made it to the beach (after 4 1/2 days in Panama), it started to rain.  We still went into the water where large waves were crashing in the rain.  It had been so long since I've been anywhere near real waves.  Belize has almost no waves due to the barrier reef.  So, I had to go out and play in the surf despite the rain and the pain in my leg.  Right was I was about to get out, I got caught by a large wave, flipped about in the water and slammed my left shoulder into the ground.  I thought for a moment, I might have dislocated my shoulder or broken my arm, but I think I just bruised it badly.
  • That night I became feverish and my body was sore all over.  I was shivering and then clammy.  I don't think I slept more than 4 hours.  I spent almost the whole day in the hotel room, feeling miserable.  My sister headed to starfish beach, where she had a beautiful day at the beach with no rain.  
  • That night, after a huge storm, I managed to make it out to dinner with my sister and some American girl she had met that day at the beach.  I went home after dinner and they went out.  After falling asleep at 1030, I woke up around 2 and she wasn't home.  I was surprised but not worried and went back to sleep.  At 530, I woke up again and she still wasn't there.  I began to worry, but didn't think there was anything I could do then.  By 730, I was really worried.  At 830, I asked the front desk clerk to call the hospital and police to make sure she wasn't injured or arrested.  She misunderstood me and called the police to report a missing person.  The arrived quickly and I explained the situation and showed them a photo, etc.  About 30 minutes after they left, she came back to the hotel.  When she arrived at the hotel during the night, the door was locked and she couldn't get in, so she crashed at the hostel of the friend.
  • Thursday we returned to Panama City (and I got to see X-Men: First Class).  We got up at 430 this morning for our early flight and the trip was mercifully over.  (It was raining in Panama this morning)
  • The blister on my toe got infected, probably from all the dirt and sand.  I am now taking anti-biotics for the infection.  The fire coral sting has never really stopped hurting, but has been worse today than before.  As it is on the back of the knee, it hurts whenever I extend or flex the knee.  So, on the bright side, it only hurts if I stand, sit, or walk.
The one really good thing about the trip is that my bid list, which I got just before leaving, is amazing.  I don't want to spoil the bid list post with the horrible vacation, so I will blog about that later.  Let's just say that the list is so awesome that Paris doesn't even make the top 10!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An update on Chantrix, bidding and other things.

I've been on the medicine for a week.  I've advanced past the first week starter kit (smaller doses to make sure you don't go psychotic and kill someone, which has apparently happened in the past) and I am now on the regular regiment.  I was surprised to see that the small pills were no longer white, but a soft shade of blue.  As I took my medicine this morning before work, I was really hoping that they hadn't accidentally put in the wrong small, blue pill.

Although the pill has a number of scary side effects in rare cases, I have been relatively side effect free.  No weird, vivid dreams.  That's not entirely true - I normally have fairly vivid dreams, but I have not noticed any uptick in either the vividity or the strangeness of subject matter in my dreams.  No psychotic episodes.  No nausea or diarrhea.  The only side effect I have noticed is that I get hunger pangs when I should not be hungry.  Like right now - I just finished lunch 30 minutes ago, but I feel hungry.

In terms of the stated purpose of the medicine, it is definitely working, but not in the way I expected.  Everyone who I have talked to who has taken this medicine has told me by the end of the first week, when it is time to quit, they don't really want a cigarette anymore.  So, I fully expected my cravings to go away, but they haven't.  I still have all the same cravings - after a meal, in the morning, when I get home from work, when I am drinking.  The difference is that smoking a cigarette doesn't satisfy this craving in any way.  Smoking a cigarette is just not enjoyable.

For someone who has never smoked, this can be hard to understand.  As far as you are concerned, they probably just smell gross and cost too much money.  But for a smoker, cigarettes are relaxing.  A cigarette would calm me down when I was really stressed out.  It would settle your stomach after a big meal (seriously).  It would give you something to do when you were waiting or bored or at a party where you didn't know anyone (this is honestly my favorite time to smoke).  Much of this is purely psychological, but as I have learned this week, it is partly physical too.

Imagine if you will, being stuck in the middle of the proverbial desert, when an oasis appears in front of you.  You reach the oasis and immediately begin to gulp down water.  Now, all of your experience in life has taught you that when you are thirsty and drink water, the thirst goes away.  But with this medicine, the thirst does not go away.  Your thirst remains forever unquenched.  You could continue to drink in order to satisfy your unquenchable thirst, or you can give up drinking the useless water.  About half way through this past week, I didn't want to quit smoking, I wanted to quit Chantrix.

The worst part about this medicine will be my inability to enjoy my final cigarette.  There is something I find pleasureable in enjoying what I know will be my final cigarette.  Smoking the final cigarette, but not actually enjoying it will be disappointing.  But, knowing that I won't enjoy a backslide cigarette should definitely help going forward.

I leave for Panama tomorrow and I should be more excited than I actually am.  Between the quitting smoking, the upcoming bid list and the fact that the only guide book I have that covers Panama doesn't provide much info, I haven't really planned at all.  As of now, I plan to meet my sister at the airport tomorrow night and then we will stay at one of my A-100 friend's apartment.  We will spend Friday and Saturday in Panama City.  Our tentative plan is to then take a flight to Bocas Del Toro (near the Costa Rican border) and then work our way back down the isthmus.  This itinerary is completely subject to change.

Pictures and stories will be posted when I get back

On Monday, I got an e-mail from my Career Development Officer, letting us know we'd be getting the bid list this week.  The instructions were to come out Tuesday and the actual list tomorrow.  Bidding for your second tour is a bit different than the first tour.  As you recall, on the first bid list we had just over 100 posts and we ranked each 'high', 'medium', or 'low.'  We then listed three preferences and the CDOs worked their magic.

For the second tour, I will get a list with about 200 jobs on it.  I have to rank, in numerical order, my top 30 bids.  I will also write a line or so about each of my bids explaining my rationale.  Since I am still on language probation, I will have to bid on only language designated positions.  This means no London, Singapore, or Wellington in my future.  Since I have already done a consular tour, I can bid on any job, but my colleagues who did non-consular tours must bid only on consular tours for this tour.  As part of a new requirement, I do have to make at least 6 in-cone (Consular) bids.

The big hang-up on second tour bidding is timing.  Each position has an estimated time of arrival and required training.  If your expected date of arrival (based on when you leave, amount of home leave, and what training you need) doesn't fit with the position, then you can't bid it.  There is some leeway built into this.  For example, my expected departure month is June 2012, which can be the beginning or end of the month.  I can then take between 20-30 work days of home leave.  This means that I could start training as early as July 1 or as late as August 15.  Plus, not all of my bids have to fit perfect timing.  I am allowed 8 imperfect bids, which allow me to finish training two months early or one month late.

Before the last bidding cycle, they did all six months of summer or winter bidders together.  This meant that there was a strong chance that your dream post could be on your bid list, but even with all the leeway, you still couldn't make it work.  Now, they split each bidding cycle into two tranches.  Everyone who is bidding with me is expected to leave their post between May and July 2012, which means that almost all of the bids should be able to work out one way or the other.

One of the other differences in second tour bidding is equity.  For equity, they combine your hardship differential and your danger differential to give you an equity score of between 0% and 70%.  They try to assign those with the higher equity to their posts before those with lower equities.  Those who have a 20% equity or higher will have all their posts assigned first.  Those posts are then removed from the bid list and those with 0%-15% turn in their bid lists.  Belmopan, at 20%, just makes the cut into the first group.  While I may not get my first choice if someone from Nigeria wants the same post, I will get my choice ahead of those with lower equity.

My final bid list is due on June 27, so I will have just over a week back from vacation to finalize it.  The lower equity individuals are due on July 13, so I should have my next posting sometime in early July!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Bid List #2

My bid list for my second post comes out this week.  Most likely on Thursday - the same day I leave for a week vacation in Panama.  God knows that I will be SCUBA diving in the Pacific and thinking "Vilnius" or "Rio"?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I smoked my first cigarette when I was 13 years old.  Although I had moved from Omaha when I was 11, I was back visiting Tyler, my best friend from elementary school.  From 1st through 5th grades, Tyler and I were inseparable.  With Tyler, there was always an adventure to be had.  Riding our bikes across town - outside the zone set by our parents.  Discovering the sewer tunnels that ran under the city.  Ducking into the pawnshop to buy Chinese flying stars.  Sneaking out of his house (and later my house) to go see girls after curfew.  As a young kid, Tyler was just cool.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I smoked my first cigarette at Tyler's house.  (A couple years later I drank my first beer there, too).  We were standing in the back of his house over by some bushes where a few years earlier we had gotten in trouble for playing with matches.  In my memory, Timmy and Brent were there too, but that may be wrong.  The cigarette was a Marlboro Red.  Is there anyone out there whose first cigarette wasn't a Marlboro Red?  I am sure I coughed my lungs out, but I still remember getting that light-headed nicotine high.  I felt cool.

I didn't start smoking two packs a day or anything, but I would smoke occasionally over the next few years.  When I was a freshman in high school, my family hosted Marta - an exchange student from Italy who smoked.  We bonded by smoking late night cigarettes and talking away the hours.  I still remember one night when my Mom, who was an early riser, woke up while Marta was still in my basement room.  We freaked out that she would think we were doing something other than smoking if we were caught.  We stayed quiet until we could hear my Mom go to take a shower and Marta could sneak into her room.

I started smoking regularly when I was 16 and moved to Italy as a high school exchange student.  Most of my Italian friends smoked.  It was legal for me to buy cigarettes.  I attempted to hide it from my host family, but I assume they knew.  This was the first time in my life when I smoked every day, but it would not be the last.  I quit when I went back home, so I could play football, but once the season was over, I began to smoke regularly again.

Somehow, I managed to request and receive a smoking room during my freshman year in college.  This amazes me now that a state college allowed smoking rooms (it was the last year).  This was probably my favorite time as a smoker.  Our room quickly became the room for people to hang out in.  There were times that I would come home and my room would be packed despite the fact that neither Paul nor I was there.  A few times, our guests even went so far as to clean our room.  (It was disgusting).  Because our SA refused to come into the room, we could drink in there too.  By this time, I had a pack-a-day habit.

I did manage to quit my last semester in college.  I cut back at first and then quit entirely after my 22nd birthday.  After college, I moved back home and started working at the local grocery store.  After about six months at home, I was planning to move to Italy to work as a tour guide.  On the day I was leaving, my friend Sam dropped me off at the airport.  I was flying stand-by (my sister is a flight attendant) and I didn't get on the flight.  I didn't have a cell phone and neither did Sam.  I couldn't get a hold of anyone on the phone (at the time, I still knew people's phone numbers).  In my imminent frustration (the least of which was not getting to Italy in time for an interview I had set up), I bought a pack of cigarettes.  Although I only smoked two cigarettes, the pack was in my pocket when I got to Italy and I became a smoker again.

After I left Italy, I started law school.  Like it was in college, I made most of my friends through smoking.  I quickly made friends with Toni, Matt, Lauren, and Tim smoking in between classes.  These people became my best friends through law school.  Others in our class knew us as the smoking group.  Rightly or wrongly, smoking defined me at that time.  Plus, smoking was great for studying.  As I got to the end of my third year, I knew I wanted to quit, but I knew I would have to wait until after the bar exam.  I finished the bar exam on July 30 and smoked my last cigarette on August 1.

Following the bar exam, I soon moved to DC.  In DC, I was a non-smoker.  I was helped by not having friends who smoked.  The bars in DC were smoke-free and I rarely went out to smoky bars in Virginia.  Once the nicotine was out of my system and I didn't have any habit cigarettes in DC, it wasn't hard to be a non-smoker.  When I lived in Fredericksburg for a few months, I was even able to go play poker in a very smoky bar without much temptation.

Things changed when I started with the Foreign Service.  I was going out a lot with my classmates and many of them smoked.  I don't remember the first one I had, but I'm sure I was drunk.  I bummer a smoke off someone one night.  Later it would be come two cigarettes in a night.  Then, I bought a pack so that I wouldn't always be bumming.  I never was more than a social smoker, but I was definitely back in the habit.

When I finally got to Belize, I vowed to not smoke.  That lasted five days.  Once again, I started being only a social smoker, but then I bought a pack.  And then I smoked a cigarette at home on my back porch.  And then I was a smoker.  It got bad enough that I decided I need to quit again.  Just before I went home for Christmas, I quit cold turkey.  Again, I had no problem at first, but a few months went by and I got really frustrated when I couldn't get my new TV to work.  I smoked a cigarette and felt better.  (I wish smoking didn't make me feel better, but it really did).  The same cycle repeated itself and I am now a smoker again.

I started taking Chantix today.  Chantix is a quit-smoking drug that is designed to turn off the sensors that make smoking enjoyable.  During the first week, I can keep smoking, but I am to set a quit date for a week out.  I have decided to make next Thursday my quit date. I will smoke my last 'last cigarette' on Wednesday night.  I will be headed to Panama for a week vacation and I should have the nicotine out of my system.  I will stay on the Chantix for 3-6 months in order to prevent those urges down the road.

Wish me luck.