A Traveler In The Foreign Service: A Globetrotting USAID FSO Serving in Afghanistan

USAID Foreign Service Officer David ThompsonUSAID Foreign Service Officer David Thompson has lived in eight countries in the last 15 years and has visited countless others, but at 46, his adventures are far from over. He helped reconstruct homes in the immediate aftermath of the war in Bosnia, worked to restore democracy in Honduras after a coup, and has lived through attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul while serving there as the head of USAID’s Democracy & Governance office.

Thompson has been a Foreign Service Officer with USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development) for nearly ten years and has served in Washington, Albania, Honduras and Afghanistan. The Alexandria native and father of two lives alone in 8 by 12 hooch and is a month shy of his return to the U.S. Thompson spoke to us about his unlikely career path, the challenges of working in Honduras and Afghanistan, and the difficulties and pleasures of working overseas. Thompson’s story also offers a ray of hope to those seeking a career change.

Tell us about the career path that led you to USAID?

My undergrad degree was in architecture. When I was in my mid to late 20s I was trying to sort out what to do with my life. I worked as a carpenter’s helper and built up a body of knowledge about construction. I had an abbreviated stint in the Peace Corps in Tunisia, and then I followed that with a year as a Vista volunteer in Waterbury, CT. In the mid ’90s, I was a construction manager, managing the construction of single-family homes in Northern Virginia and I wasn’t really enjoying my job.I got an interview with an NGO that was hiring people to work in Bosnia. I went into work one day and got laid off, but I went home that day and found out that I got the job in Bosnia.

I ended up staying in Bosnia for two and a half years in the immediate aftermath of the war. I learned about development and post-conflict reconstruction but what I learned was the complexity of development. People don’t just return to their houses – they need jobs and schools and health care so I decided to go to grad school. I went to Duke University’s Center for International Development Policy and got a masters degree from ’98-2000. And I met my wife there; she’s from Brazil and we had common interests.

I ended up getting a job with CHF International in South Africa as a Country Director and we moved to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 2000. We loved it there but rather quickly we decided we wanted to be closer to home, so we moved to Brazil, where my wife is from. We switched roles in Brazil, where she had the good steady job and I was the one teaching English, and getting a few consultancies here and there.

And that led you to USAID?

I was looking at my enormous student debt and thinking, ‘I have to pay this. I wanted stability and the chance to work with the USG’s premier international development agency, so I applied with USAID, interviewed in 2002 and started with them in March 2003.

What advice do you have for those interested in becoming a USAID Foreign Service Officer?

The current program is called the Development Leadership Initiative. Getting a graduate degree is very essential for this work – especially with the level of competition these days.

I assume it’s also important to have international experience?

Yes. USAID wants to see the ability to live overseas and thrive in different cultures.

And not necessarily just a study abroad in London or Rome, right?

Exactly. It’s best to have experience in the more traditional development countries.

sunrise in afghanistan u.s. army soldiers in afghanistanShould new hires at USAID expect to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq at some point in their careers?

Yes. They should expect and be prepared for that.

And if you have kids they don’t spare you, right? Do you have kids?

I do. Two girls. One 8, and the other will turn 6 next week. My wife and two girls live at my mom’s house in Alexandria, in the house where I grew up. It’s a one-year tour here and then my next assignment will be in Washington. It’s tough. It’s a challenge for everyone, not just for people with kids.

I have two kids and I’m not sure if I could leave them. It’s very difficult to leave for a year isn’t it?

We come here because it’s our duty. It’s part of our job. If I could be in Mozambique, I would but this is what the Agency decided for me and I accepted it.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

We have a U.S. phone number, so I speak to my family twice a day. We thought we’d Skype more but it’s kind of easier to call and sometimes less painful than it is to see your family (on cam).

Were you in Afghanistan during the Koran burning incidents?

I was. And I was here for the big attack on the Embassy on September 13. That was crazy because I remember being in a bunker when the attack started and all of the sudden there’s this realization, ‘Oh my God, my wife is going to see this on the news,’ so I wanted to contact her first.

Remind us about the attacks against the embassy that have occurred since you’ve been there.

In the past year, there have been two attacks – once, the American embassy was the target, that was on September 13, and then on April 15, several Western embassies were attacked. There were no serious injuries; we were taken to a safe place by the security guards. In the first incident, some local people in the consular waiting room were hit with shrapnel.

I had left the embassy just minutes before the second attack occurred. I was on my way to a meeting and we ended up having to stay at a base overnight because we couldn’t return to the embassy right away.

u.s. embassy kabul afghan cyclistWhat did your wife say when you told her you were going to Afghanistan?

We knew it was coming. If I could have avoided it, I would have. But we get three R & R’s where we get to go home during the year. Our military colleagues are here for a year and only get one two-week R & R. So we’re well taken care of.

We’ve gone through some scary times. The former President Rabbani was assassinated just a stone’s throw from the embassy but I do feel very safe here. The guards here are fantastic. Our colleagues here on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s), some of them are under fire almost daily and they survive, so we can certainly survive here in Kabul.

Has your wife been able to continue to pursue her career?

That’s been the biggest challenge about the Foreign Service for us. I’ve been fortunate to live overseas and expose my kids to these cultures but it’s been much harder on my wife than it has been on me, so I would definitely advise couples to talk about the realities of this career choice.

hooch in afghanistan USAIDTell us about the hooch you live in?

It’s kind of a nice little trailer. I have no complaints, it’s about 8 feet across by 12 feet long, with a nice ¾ bathroom with a shower, and it has a nice TV with the Armed Forces Network. I find it very cozy quite frankly. We have hot water and water pressure.

And what does your job entail there?

As head of the Office of Democracy & Governance, I help manage the USG’s development assistance that goes toward governance, rule of law and anti-corruption, civil society and media development, elections and political processes.

How many USAID missions are there and where should people expect that they could be sent?

There are about 130 posts. For the most part they’ll be in developing countries. There are a few odd positions in places like Tokyo or Rome dealing with donor coordination but not many. You can be in Pretoria, Cairo, New Delhi, or you could be in Chad, or South Sudan or the Congo or Uganda. So there’s a big variety in terms of size of the mission and conditions you live in. The better posts are four-year tours, the more challenging ones would be two-year tours. The really special hardcore posts like Afghanistan are one year.

In the State Department, it’s hard to get promoted if you don’t go to the really tough places. Is it the same in USAID?

Yes, you have to show a willingness to serve in different types of situations and on different continents. People used to stay in one region, like Latin America, and now they really encourage people to break away from that.

Do USAID officers usually get language training?

It depends if their job is language designated. I didn’t get language training for Albania, but I did get 3.5 months of training in Spanish for Honduras.

You were in Honduras at a very momentous time. Tell us about the coup.

honduras coupI was there in the summer of 2009. My family was in Brazil and I woke up to a coup. All of the sudden, what was known as a sleepy post turned into something else. The U.S. didn’t recognize the de-facto regime. We said, ‘No – this was not a constitutional transfer of power, this was a coup.’ When you take someone out of the country in his pajamas, it’s a coup.

So we responded that way but we didn’t entirely cut off assistance because we didn’t want to put ordinary Hondurans in jeopardy, so we cut off a variety of assistance programs, particularly the programs the government benefited from. Our office supported the embassy’s strategy of trying to help get Honduras back on track through the November 2009 Presidential elections.

Despite all the political instability, were things operating as usual in the country?

Things were pretty normal. There were clashes between police and protesters in the major cities but you didn’t see that unless you went looking for it. The schools were closed for a few tense days but then they reopened, stores stayed open. It was my first coup, so it was crazy just to experience it.

You’ve been outside of the U.S. for a long time now; do you lose touch at all with your hometown and feel rootless?

When I go back to USAID in Washington, I’m going home and that’s the most important thing. After being overseas for most of the time since 1996, I’m happy to be going home. I’ve always had my mom’s house to go back to, so that’s been some stability. We just bought our own house in the DC area, so we do want to put some roots down there. We appreciate going home. The green trees, the sidewalks, the security, the different kinds of food, the playgrounds for kids, the museums – we love it. But that said, I love being overseas, learning about new cultures, studying languages and seeing how my kids respond to that.

What do you love about your job?

The ability to contribute to the policy of our development assistance. Also, the exposure to different countries. It’s an incredible life. If you’re going to be in international development, being with AID is a home; it’s a career.

I will work for USAID for the rest of my career, but every few years, I’ll have a new job in a different place in a new office. I’m constantly learning and that’s really exciting. Even if you’re down on one job, you know that you’re next job will be different.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

(Photos of David and his hooch supplied by USAID, photo of the Afghan sunrise in Kandahar via the US Army on Flickr, Afghan cycler via the US Embassy Kabul, and Honduras coup photo by David Nallah on Flickr.)

Are there lost pyramids in Bosnia? Probably not.

pyramids in Bosnia, Visoko
For several years now, European archaeologists have been in a furor over a supposed lost civilization in Bosnia that built the biggest pyramids in the world. Scholars have dismissed the claims, made by Bosnian-American businessman Semir Osmanagic, as pseudoscience, yet he’s getting funding from the Bosnian government and was just granted permission to excavate over the objections of the country’s archaeological establishment.

Osmanagic is convinced a large hill overlooking the town of Visoko near the Bosnian capital Sarajevo is a pyramid from an lost civilization dating to about 12,000 years ago, when the region was experiencing the Ice Age. The hill is indeed roughly pyramid-shaped, at least the half that faces the town. The other half is a bit lumpy. In fact, if you look at it with Google Earth, it doesn’t look like a pyramid at all. Geologists say it’s a natural formation and that there are several like it in the region; Osmanagic says many of those hills are pyramids too.

To prove his point Osmanagic set up the “Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun” and since 2005 has been fighting for permission to excavate. The permit was granted, but then it was revoked for fear the excavations could damage an existing archaeological site on the top of the hill. This is a medieval fort with Roman foundations built atop a Neolithic settlement. Now permission has been granted again and the work will continue.

A victory for independent science against the narrow vision of academia? Not necessarily.

Looking at the photos on Osmanagic’s website on the pyramids in Bosnia, I don’t see anything indicating there’s a pyramid there. Most of the supposedly worked stone looks like other natural formations I’ve seen, the so-called “secret tunnels” could be from any era, and the few examples of obviously worked stone could just as easily be medieval. In fact, Byzantine records say there was a town here in the Middle Ages and it has not been found. The Bosnian pyramid team may be destroying a real archaeological site in order to create a fake one.Some of Osmanagic’s actions seem a bit fishy too. He claimed to have assembled a team of experts to work on the site and give him advice, including famous Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass, but many of them said they had never agreed to work on the site. Some of them said Osmanagic never even contacted them.

In an angry letter to Archaeology Magazine, Dr. Hawass wrote, “The discoverer of the “pyramid” in Bosnia, Semir Osmanagic, who claims that a hill near the Bosnia River is a man-made structure built before the end of the last Ice Age, is not a specialist on pyramids. His previous claim that the Maya are from the Pleiades and Atlantis should be enough for any educated reader.”

The claim has certainly created a tourist industry in the previously sleepy town, and it’s sparking interest in Bosnia’s past. So where’s the harm?

In an article in Science, Bosnian archaeologists lamented that funding and attention were going to the fanciful pyramid theory while the nation’s real heritage remains underfunded and underprotected. Some have even reported being threatened for speaking out against the project. The Bosnian Pyramids have become a matter of national pride for a nation still feeling the wounds of the bitter war of the 1990s. Osmanagic has made Bosnia the cradle of civilization, or as he terms it, “supercivilization”.

This is the sort of nationalistic chest-thumping that got the Balkans into trouble in the first place. Osmanagic is playing with fire.

Photo of the Day – Bubbles in Bosnia-Herzegovina

photo of the day
As children, we are captivated by bubbles. A little soap and water and the reflections can be magical. Outside of the occasional bubble bath (and the delicious bubbles in sparkling wine!), we don’t have many occasions to enjoy bubbles as adults. In today’s photo by Flickr user Marko Musnjak, the little girl and her mother look equally mesmerized by the street seller’s bubble toy. Taken at the Feast of the Assumption of Mary in Posušje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the photo captures the fun and magic of street festivals and bubbles.

What childhood delights have you rediscovered in your travels? Share your favorite photos in the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.

The top 8 tourist destinations of tomorrow

The rapidly changing landscape of today’s globalized economy means that countries are developing at breakneck pace. Yesterday’s war zones are turning into tomorrow’s tourist destinations at the blink of an eye, while today’s utopias (see: Dubai) are disintegrating just as fast.

Need more convincing? Check out Hans Rosling’s lecture on the rise of Asia over at TED.

Here at Gadling we have our own humble opinions on the next hotsposts for tourist traffic, not the from the socioeconomic perspective, but rather from that of a road hardened traveler. Take a look below:

Sarajevo
The memory of the Yugoslav Wars is too fresh for many of us to think of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a tourist destination, but in the ten years since the conflict, the country and its capital city, Sarajevo have made enormous strides. Long gone are the days of ethnic conflict, strife and war crimes — 2009′s Sarajevo is a charming, cosmopolitan city surrounded by hills, cafés and culture.

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Iran
At first glance Iran doesn’t look very inviting, what with an authoritarian government intent on building nukes and quashing dissent. But look past the politics and you’ll find a hospitable country with excellent cuisine, rugged scenery, and a fascinating history. Add in a reliable bus system and you can have a relaxing vacation with people who love to meet foreigners. The only danger we faced in Iran was the very real possibility of being fed to death.

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Morocco
Although many Europeans have already discovered Morocco, the North African country is still not on the radar for most Americans– but it should be. Perhaps the world’s safest Muslim country, Morocco features labyrinthine markets, delicious cuisine, and access into an amazing culture few truly understand. Best of all, it’s less than an hour ferry ride from the southern tip of Spain.

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Cuba
Soon, Americans will have the privilege of visiting a country that has heartily resisted the capitalist mode of living. It’s true: traveling to Cuba is like going back in time, but it is so much more than that, too. It’s about embracing a nation that has struggled to find its own voice. But Cuba succeeded, and what lies just 90 miles from Florida is a vivacious country that deserves attention, care, and understanding.

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Colombia
Ten years ago, Colombia was branded as the kidnapping capital of the world. Despite decades of drug trafficking, paramilitary threats, and urban crime, this country with its canyons, seas, cloud and rain forests is quickly becoming one of the South America’s — and the world’s — most breathtaking and hospitable travel destinations.

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Ethiopia
Visit the only African nation never to be colonized. Ethiopia was practicing Christianity when Europe was still bowing down to pagan idols, and their rock-hewn churches and isolated monasteries are centers of learning and the arts. There are natural wonders too–from chilly mountains to blistering desert to African savanna, as well as some of the highest waterfalls in African and the source of the Blue Nile. The Ethiopians discovered coffee and make it better than anyone else in an elaborate half-hour ceremony. What more could you ask for?

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Panama
Now that they’re earning the big bucks from the canal, the tropical paradise of Panama makes Costa Rica look like Orlando with monkeys. Recent democratic elections saw a peaceful change of power and an ongoing real estate boom is drawing a funky mix of expats and nature lovers. Come for the beautiful virgin rain forest, stunning wildlife, a fascinating indigenous culture and outstanding seashore on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

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Iraq
The cradle of civilization, the home of the Garden of Eden, a unique cuisine and a rich culture.
. .and one of the most war-blighted places in the world. Could Iraq really be the next big tourist destination? A few hardy tour operators and their customers think so. How far will you go to have the adventure of a lifetime?