A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The Best Foreign Service Blogs

smoking huge joint womanThe World Wide Web is saturated with amateurish blogs created by people who’d be lucky to command the devoted readership of their immediate family members, let alone the wider public. There are scores of blogs managed by Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and while many of them are worth reading, some are downright bizarre. This post will steer you toward some Foreign Service related blogs that are well worth your time.

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I started this series nine months ago to help people get a better understanding of what life in the U.S. Foreign Service is like. Many of the posts have been about my experiences but I’ve also introduced readers to an intrepid, single female diplomat fresh off of tours in Syria and Pakistan, a diplomatic courier, a USAID Foreign Service Officer currently serving in Afghanistan and others. But spend some time at the sites listed below to get a flavor of what it’s like to represent the U.S. Government in The Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Pakistan and dozens of other exotic locales.toothless woman with stretched earlobes peasantOne major caveat here is that FSOs have to be careful what they write because free speech only takes you so far in the precarious, uber-cautious world of government service. Most FSOs have disclaimers on their sites warning that the views expressed are their own, but many still tend to steer clear of tackling political issues or anything controversial.

Peter Van Buren, a now retired diplomat who wrote “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” was effectively driven out of the Foreign Service partially because he posted a link to a cable on WikiLeaks and made some disparaging remarks, which he later apologized for, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on his website.

There’s no doubt that his experience has had a chilling effect across the board, so visit the sites below to get the low-down on the Foreign Service lifestyle and the travel opportunities, not the dirty underbelly of how diplomacy plays out overseas.

Some of the blogs below contain little, if any biographical info, and I wasn’t able to read each one in its entirety, so my apologies in advance if my impressions of these blogs below miss the mark. That said, I would invite the authors of these fine sites to tell us more about themselves, if they dare, in the comments section.

Diplopundit

Domani Spero has no U.S. government connection and thus has the freedom to write about the world of diplomacy without having to worry about his career. Diplopundit is as close as you’ll find to one-stop shopping for a candid look at what’s going on in the Foreign Service community.

Adventures in Good Countries- Getting Along In The Foreign Service

I love this blog. The author, apparently a single female public diplomacy officer who, “doesn’t date outside the visa waiver program,” blogs with style and passion about life in Japan, Pakistan, Jordan and elsewhere, coping with Multiple Sclerosis and whatever else pops into her head. How can you not like a writer who offers advice to protesters on how to construct a good effigy? (“Don’t just throw something together with the rationale that you’re only going to burn it anyway – take some pride in your work.”)

We Meant Well

You might not agree with Peter Van Buren but you will want to read his blog, which is sometimes offensive but never boring.

Third Culture Children

This blog, which details the lives of a family of five living in Recife, Brazil, La Paz, Bolivia and elsewhere, is one of the very best Foreign Service related sites out there. It’s a particularly good resource for parents who are wondering what the overseas experience will be like for their children.

amy gottlieb usaidAmy Gottlieb’s Photography & Blog

Gottlieb is a doctor and a USAID FSO currently serving in South Africa. Her portraits from Jamaica, Nepal, Vietnam, South America, Africa and beyond are as good as any you’ll find anywhere.

Adventures Around the World- A Foreign Service Officer’s Tales of Life Abroad

The author of this refreshingly candid and well-written blog is currently in Kabul and has previously served in Iraq and Nepal. Here’s how she described the “honeymoon” period at a new post: “The honeymoon period is the time frame after moving to a foreign country where the excitement of being somewhere new overshadows certain harsh realities of living in a foreign country. People burning piles of trash in the street give the place ‘character’ and bargaining with a taxi driver is part of the ‘adventure.'”

Worldwide Availability

This is a stunning photo blog from an American diplomat who was born on a farm in China and is currently serving in South Korea. Visiting this site is the next best thing to booking a ticket to Seoul. Also, for those who are curious to know how long it takes to join the Foreign Service, take a look at his instructive personal timeline for some clues.

Wanderings of a Cheerful Stoic

Anyone who features a photo of themselves (I presume) with a Gambian poached rat on their homepage is all right by me. This is a blog from a FSO posted in Conakry, Guinea, a place where “you tend to find yourself without a really specific reason.”

The Slow Move East- Thoughts on Being an Expatriate

Hannah Draper, a FSO currently serving in Libya, might be a “Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East,” but her writing is compulsively readable.

Where in the World am I? Notes from the Streets of Hyderabad, India

A FSO in Hyderabad who previously served in Burundi blogs about food and life overseas with gusto.

Cross Words- A Blog About Writing and Anything Else That Comes to Mind

Ted Cross, a FSO currently living in Budapest who apparently just signed up for Facebook last week (Friend him!), tells us on his homepage that his “dream is to be a published author.” I like someone who isn’t afraid to tell the world what he wants. He’s into fantasy and science fiction, neither of which interests me, but his blog is unique and his writing is lucid.

Four Globetrotters- The (Most Likely) Incoherent Ramblings of a Sleep-Deprived Single Mother Living Overseas with her Trio of Kiddos

Anyone who can pull off being a single mom in the Foreign Service is someone I want to meet. This blog, written by a former Foreign Service brat, isn’t nearly as incoherent as advertised.

Beau Geste, Mon Ami- The Chronicle of my Journey to and through The Foreign Service

Even a quick breeze through this visually appealing blog will give you an idea of how varied and interesting life in the Foreign Service can be. If nothing else, do not miss the photos of the tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea.

Zvirdins at Large- Jamie and Andrew’s Excellent Adventures

If you want a slice of life from the Marshall Islands, this is the place to go. I love this blog but I couldn’t bring myself to click into the video entitled “Pig Shooting” in a post on “Pig Butchering.” Yikes.

Talesmag

This isn’t a FSO blog per se, but the site’s stories and “real post reports” on hundreds of cities around the globe are an invaluable resource for those seeking insights into the Foreign Service lifestyle.

Let me know in the comments section if you think I’ve missed any great FSO-related blogs and if you’re the author of ones of the sites mentioned above, tell us a bit about yourself.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

(Photos courtesy of Amy Gottlieb)

6 surf destinations you’d never think of

Sure, we all know the world of surfing revolves around Hawaii’s fabled North Shore. If you’ve ever owned a board, you can probably rattle off some of the other global hot spots: Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Fiji, California, Costa Rica…the list goes on and on.

Just because the same 20 places have some of the best waves on the planet, however, doesn’t mean that the rest of the globe is forced to go without. Ever since the 1966 release of the timeless surf film Endless Summer, global surf travelers have been pushing the boundaries of scoring waves in increasingly obscure locations.

Lately, it seems as if the act of finding waves in remote locations is potentially more exhilarating than the act of riding the waves themselves. Here on Gadling we’ve reported before about surfers hunting down waves from Lake Erie to Iceland in search of some stoke, and Surfing magazine has hosted contests such as the Google Earth Challenge in a modern effort to scour the globe for unknown pointbreaks and barrels.

So, in the spirit of ever-expanding global surf travel, here is a list of 6 locations you might want to put on your surf radar.

1. Namibia

Ever since Skeleton Bay was popularized by the 2008 Google Earth Challenge, this southwestern African nation has officially been placed on the surf map. Unfortunately for the casual surfer, however, a surf trip to Namibia isn’t exactly your afternoon stroll down to the beach. The water is consistently frigid, coastal access is largely controlled by heavily armed diamond miners, and large colonies of seals attract toothy predators that are unwanted in any surf lineup. For those with the resources to break down the desert barriers however, the rewards can be empty beaches that are home to some of the world’s longest barrels.

2. Bangladesh

More commonly known as one of the world’s most crowded nations, few people know that Bangladesh is also home to the world’s longest beach, Cox’s Bazar, which I’m going to go out on a limb and label the Bangladeshi Riviera. Aside from being the nation’s most popular beach resort, it’s also the home base of the Bangladesh Surf Club, which according to its website currently has over 70 members.

3. Oman

One of the most stable nations in the Middle East, Oman also boasts over 2,000km of coastline directly fronting the Arabian Sea. While the area is prone to blinding sandstorms and inhospitable terrain, it nonetheless is a popular surf getaway for the nearby urban centers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the neighboring United Arab Emirates. The desert nation has recently been featured in a number of mainstream surfing magazines, and online surf forums such as
Surfers of Dubai are beginning to legitimize Oman as a regional surfing outpost.

4. Uruguay

Sandwiched between Buenos Aires and Brazil, people tend to forget about Uruguay, which is a major South American faux pas. One group of individuals who consistently flock to Uruguay in droves, however, are Brazilian and Argentinian surfers who road trip to the coastal nation for a shot at some South Atlantic juice. While trendy locales such as Punta del Este get all of the attention (surf all day, gamble all night), it’s the remote sand dunes and fishing villages of eastern Uruguay that consistently see the best surf.

5. Ghana

Though waves have crashed into the West African coastline since well before colonialism, it was the boys from Endless Summer who first put Ghana on the surfing map. One of the most economically stable nations in West Africa, various surf shops and groups such as the Ghana Surfing Association have begun to spring up along the coastline to accommodate the growing legions of local and visiting surfers, their boards gliding through the tropical waves to the beat of a West African drum.

6. Thailand

Better known for it’s beaches, diving, and morally questionable tourism, Thailand is also the premier surf destination on the Southeast Asian peninsula (with perhaps the exception of southern Vietnam). Monsoon winds provide ample surf for certain parts of the year, and although the Thailand surf scene is centered around the beaches of Phuket, other islands such as Koh Lanta and Koh Pha Ngan can pull in some pretty hefty Asian slabs for anyone hanging out during the monsoon.

Dubai tour company offers pirate hunting cruises off horn of Africa

pirate

After years of murders, kidnappings, and heists, the lawless sea near the horn of Africa seems to be getting worse. A Dubai firm is capitalizing on these pirate infested waters with a strange new form of pirate tourism. The tour company, Dubai based Seahunters LLC, sells both 7 and 14 day cruises embarking from Salalah, Oman and Abu Dhabi, UAE. Unlike the quintessential cruise, the cruisers do not board in hopes of devouring mid-morning nacho buffets or snorkeling with dolphins. These cruisers board in hopes of embarking on a hunting trip with the most taboo of target – humans.

Like any proper cruise, you can choose a type of stateroom with offers ranging from the humble sounding “standard inside” to the opulent “Hemingway suite.” The similarities to any other cruise end abruptly when you begin assembling your personal armory. With offerings such as the predictably yielding “bazooka package” and a “mercenary madness” kit, you can personalize your weapons cache almost endlessly. The “mercenary madness” package includes rental of a M107 .50 caliber sniper rifle, an AR 15 assault rifle, and an 18kt gold plated Desert Eagle pistol. Bow and arrows are also available for purists. Flamethrowers can be rented as well, though require a 3 day licensing course prior to departure.Ports of call include the otherworldly Socotra island known for its Dragon’s Blood trees, and Mogadishu – the most dangerous city on the planet.

With only 17 rooms, the pearl white yacht is sized to attract attention from opportunistic pirates while spending days drifting aimlessly through the Gulf of Aden. Seahunters does not guarantee that pirates will attempt to board the boat, but in the event that they do, the cruisers are free to defend themselves with their weapons. What this defense entails has been the target of several human rights organizations. Decrying this bizarre form of freelance privateering, many groups feel that baiting the pirates into the line of fire is an extreme example of human insensitivity and a case of morbid exploitation. Seahunters maintains that their program will provide substantial positive externalities such as safer waters due to a fearful pirate population.

A typical seven night cruise itinerary
Day 1 – Flight to Salalah Airport from Dubai, welcome dinner and concert
Day 2 – Boat departs
Day 3 – At sea
Day 4 – Mogadishu tank tour
Day 5 – At sea
Day 6 – The “Splendor of Socotra” tour on Socotra Island
Day 7 – At sea
Day 8 – Return to Salalah

flickr image via dvidshub

10 breeds of pirate – Somalis to Vikings to Japanese Pirate Ninjas

pirate

A yacht carrying a quartet of Americans was recently seized by Somali pirates, the latest in a string of hijackings that reaches back millenia. According to MSNBC, the seized yacht, the “S/V Quest,” is owned by Jean and Scott Adam – a couple on a worldwide quest distributing bibles. While they no doubt expected to spread the word far and wide, they were certainly not expecting to be boarded by Somali pirates off the coast of Oman in the Arab sea. The waters along the horn of Africa are a hotbed of piracy, and travelling by boat in this region is about as reckless as booking a 2 week holiday in Mogadishu.

The Somali pirates are the modern day face of an enterprise that has existed for centuries. Piracy has been part of seafaring culture since man first took to the open water. As early as 1400 BC, Lukka sea raiders from Asia Minor began committing acts of piracy throughout the Mediterranean. These early pirates were known simply as the “Sea Peoples.” Aside from these early innovators of seaward sabotage, many groups and clans have sailed under the banner of terror on the high seas. The Vikings innovated the craft, the Barbary corsairs elevated it to an art, and the pirates of the Caribbean made it famous. Many other groups, operating in the shadows of history, took to piracy on the high seas. From dark age plundering to modern day terrorism, some of these groups of pirates include:The Vikings
Hailing from Scandinavia, the Vikings pillaged much of western Europe and northern Africa. The Norsemen covered a range from Russia to Newfoundland in their graceful longships, and pioneered piracy in the middle ages. They were the original world explorers – helmeted plunderers with a thrist for adventure.

The Wokou
Around the same time Vikings were wreaking havoc in Europe, these Japanese pirates, known as Wokou, began terrorizing the Chinese and Korean coast. Most of these pirates were Ronin, merchants, and smugglers. Allegedly, some were even ninjas, throwing a paradoxical spin on the classic “pirate versus ninja” debate. Why choose when you can just be both?

Barbary Corsairs
In response to the moors being ran out of Europe, many took up residence in northern Africa. Some of these displaced seamen became pirates and raided towns and vessels in Spain, Italy, France, and beyond. The infamous Redbeard, Oruc Reis, was a notable Barbary Corsair, and sacked many coastal Italian towns.

Madagascar Pirates
Off the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar was a lawless place during the golden age of pirate pirateering. Since no European countries colonized Madagascar, the island was an ideal spot for pirates to lay low and plot the next heist. Allegedly, the pirate utopia of “Libertalia” was located on Madagascar. According to pirate lore, “Libertalia” was a communist colony governed by pirates for pirates, where all shared in the booty.

Orang Laut
Originally from the Spice Islands and settling in modern day Malaysia, these sea gypsies began raiding the strait of Malacca over 500 years ago. Eventually, they fell into a protective role, policing the waters for the Sultanates of Johor and Malacca. Unlike many pirates that called solid ground home, the Orang Laut lived exclusively on the water.

Classical Carribean Pirates
The pirate cliche is the Caribbean pirate, and the spokesperson is Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean. The Caribbean pirate era began when Aztec gold bound for Spain was seized by pirates in the early 16th century. This escalated into the golden age of pirateering in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most Caribbean pirates came from European origins.

Bugi Pirates of Sulawesi
The term boogeyman originated from the orchid shaped island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The Bugi pirates of southern Sulawesi were so feared that Dutch and English sailors brought home tales of horror to scare misbehaving children. The Bugianese were among the first to explore Papua New Guinea and northern Australia.

Sea Dayak of Borneo
Notorious headhunters, the sea dayaks terrorized the waters of the South China Sea, targeting vessels passing from Hong Kong to Singapore. In the mid nineteenth century, James Brooke and an army of Malays wiped out many of these pirates. Today, these people are known as the Iban and live in the old rainforests of Borneo.

Chinese Pirates
The most powerful pirate ever was a Chinese woman. In the early 19th century, an ex-prostitute namedpirate Cheng I Sao commanded a fleet of more than 1,500 ships – larger than many navies. According to CNN, she was an adept business person and controlled her fleet via a proxy named Chang Pao. She developed spy networks, created economic agreements with mainland farmers for supplies, and generally revolutionized the piracy business model. Her crews stalked the waters of the South China Sea.

Somali Pirates
The modern pirate hails from Somalia – a crossroads of the derelict. With more warlords than laws, Somalia is a disaster state. The government has been more a fleeting idea than a real thing for the last 20 years, and it shows. Warlords control fleets that operate out of coastal towns, amassing ships, arms, and wealth. The pirates use small boats and assault rifles to board both passenger and cargo ships, taking hostages, booty, or both.

Piracy causes roughly $15 billion in losses worldwide per year. The most trafficked areas for modern day piracy include the South China Sea, the Gulf of Aden (off the horn of Africa), the Niger Delta, and the infamous Strait of Malacca.

flickr image via cesargp

UNESCO delists a World Heritage Site

It would be easy to think that once a location becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site that such an honor is irrevocable.

UNESCO, however, recently shocked the world by proving that they can just as easily remove a site from the list as they can add one.

And why would they do such a thing?

Because sites can change for the worse over time and become something entirely different.

Ironically, it is quite often the UNESCO stamp itself that is the downfall of these World Heritage Sites. Once a location makes the list, tourists soon follow. And tourists, as we all know, quickly attract local authorities and entrepreneurs trying to make a buck.

The problem is that UNESCO actually has no authority over their World Heritage Sites–that’s up to the local governments. And when these local governments start dabbling in the sites, their status becomes endangered.

This is exactly what happened at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman after poaching decreased the oryx population by 85% and the government followed up reducing the land area by 90%. This pissed off UNESCO bad enough that they responded by honoring the sanctuary with the organization’s first ever delisting.

It’s sort of sad to see it on the website, with a big line drawn through the name, but I think UNESCO made the right choice. Hopefully this will be a shot across the bow for other countries that need to start thinking seriously about protecting their own World Heritage Sites.