Wednesday, September 19, 2012

reflections on a difficult week

It has been a hard week for those of us in the Foreign Service, a week filled with sorrow and anger and anxiety.  I am actually back home in DC on leave right now, and was on my way to Walt Disney World when I got the news about the attacks in Benghazi.  It was an absurd contradiction- I was on my way to "the happiest place on earth" while my organization was mourning the loss of four our own.  I did not know any of those we lost, but Facebook posts and email traffic made it clear they were dear to many of my friends.  In an organization as small as the Foreign Service, an attack like this has an impact on every member.

I was in A-100 (our orientation/training class) back in 1998 when our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed.  It was a shocking and sobering welcome into the Foreign Service.  I remember serving a shift on the phone, answering calls from fellow officers checking on friends and colleagues in Dar and Nairobi.  I remember being surprised at the number of such calls I answered, the anxiety of people desperate for news of fallen colleagues, the palpable feeling of sorrow that fell over the halls of the Department.  Now of course I understand that feeling, those phone calls.  Last Wednesday, I too was anxiously scanning the news for the names of the fallen, terribly afraid I would see the name of someone I knew, someone I had served with in some far-flung locale.  I too cannot shake a deep sadness over recent events, over the assault on a life and mission I hold so dear.

My friends and family, who always have concerns about my service overseas, are now extremely anxious about my return to the Middle East.  I am not anxious about returning; in fact, I feel guilty about not being there with my colleagues during these tumultuous times.  I am no stranger to hardship and danger pay posts.  I was in the Middle East on September 11, 2001.  I've lived and worked through an authorized then ordered departure from post.  I have experience dealing with this type of crisis, and I feel guilty I am not there to help those at my post who are new to the service work their way through this one.

I also feel guilty about the anxiety I know my job creates for those who care about me, for the fears I know sometimes keep them awake at night.  I know when I leave in two weeks, my mother will insist on coming to the airport with me to see me off.  I know she will bravely hide her qualms about my career choice and attempt to send me off with a smile and a promise to see me soon.  I know that I will call from the gate to leave her a message to listen to when she gets home, a message promising everything will be fine and that I love her.  I know she will save that message on the answering machine, as she has saved other such messages- a desperate hedge against an uncertain future.

I mourn the loss of my colleagues in Benghazi, and extend my heartfelt condolences to their families and friends.  I mourn the images of embassies and consulates under siege, on fire, under attack.  I mourn the lives uprooted as families and officers are forced to depart posts that are no longer secure.  I mourn all that we have lost in this terrible week, and terrible feeling of vulnerability that these attacks have brought to the forefront.

Above all, I am proud to serve with the dedicated men and women of the Foreign Service.  I am proud of our commitment to the ideals that make our nation great.  I am proud of our determination every day to make the world in which we live a little better than the day before.  I am proud that in the face of hostility, violence, and threats, we continue our work- not without fear, not without trepidation, and not without sorrow, but every day despite those emotions.

We are small in number.  We are in many ways a family.  And this week we grieve.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Safari highlights and photos


Things I learned on safari:
  • Hippos are shy and skittish- don't get between them and their waterhole. Also, a hippo rolling over in a pool is a sight to see- those stumpy legs waving in the air cracked us up!
  • Elephants are wonderful, and baby elephants are the cutest thing ever when they try to learn to use their trunks or give themselves a dust bath. Adolescent elephants will happily block the road and trumpet to show off until an older female elephant snorts to make them move along.
  • Lions spend a lot of time lounging around and napping. Even when they finally wake up, they may only move 20 feet before lying down for another nap. Lions and elephants don't get along- that group in the road with a lioness and five cubs? They had just had a nasty run-in with a herd of angry elephants who drove them into hiding; we caught the tail end of it before the elephants moved along. It took the lioness a while to round up the five cubs (three are hers, two belong to another lioness) and then even longer to calm them down afterward.
  • Giraffes who suddenly realize lions are in the neighborhood rapidly move along. Watching a male giraffe stalking a female giraffe who is almost in heat is like watching college kids at a club- the guy sidles up and sniffs around, makes a halfhearted move, gets the brushoff, waits a few minutes and then tries the same move again.
  • Leopards are just fabulous- stealthy and beautiful. Sometimes they look right through you. Sometimes they look right at you. Sometimes they like to roll around in dung. 
  • Rhinos are also skittish, especially when leopards are roaming nearby.  Rhinos are also surprisingly fast and rather delicate on their feet when running away from you.
  • Zebras are not skittish and will happily block the road. They are also curious and one is often willing to look right at the camera and pose.
  • Impala are everywhere and are beautiful. Their horns are incredible, and the adolescents play fight seemingly for the crowd before trotting off for water. 
Sabi Sand Wiltuin is an incredible place, one we will definitely visit again. I cannot recommend Londolozi enough- our time there was magical. We will definitely return!