An Interview With Paul Theroux, Author Of ‘The Last Train To Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari’

paul theroux last train to zona verdeAfter writing eight travel books that took him around Britain on foot, through the Pacific on a kayak, across Latin America, Europe and Asia on trains and up and down Africa by his wits over the last 30 years, one might think that Paul Theroux would be hard pressed to find new insights into the traveling lifestyle. But in his new travel narrative, “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” the 71-year-old Medford, Massachusetts, native manages to once again break new ground with yet another insightful, page-turning account of a trip that’s equal parts misery, hilarity and tragedy.

While other established writers might be content to spend their golden years waxing poetic on the joys of cruising the canals of Southern France or writing puff pieces on cruises or luxury resorts for P.R. flacks, Theroux returns to Africa – the setting for some of his most memorable books – for one final adventure in little known corners of South Africa, Namibia and Angola.

Theroux intended to travel overland up “the left hand side” of Africa, starting in Cape Town and heading north, as a sort of bookend to his trip up the “right hand side” of Africa chronicled in “Dark Star Safari,” but after a series of tribulations including having his identity stolen, Theroux abandoned his plans in Angola, where, for the first time in his life, he found a train, heading into the country’s zona verde, that he didn’t want to board.Theroux has often remarked that the best travel narratives chronicle bad trips and by that metric, “Last Train to Zona Verde” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – out Tuesday, May 7) is a delight. In a recent special report on Africa, The Economist concluded that Africa has never been in better shape. But apparently their correspondents didn’t spend much time in the impoverished backwaters of South Africa, Namibia and Angola, as Theroux did. Zona Verde is a bleak, but honest appraisal of a continent “plagued with foreign advisors” where corruption, bad governance, poverty and disease are the norm.

But Zona Verde isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s also filled with amusing anecdotes, Theroux’s trademark storytelling, and some of the most prescient insights about both the pleasures and hassles of travel I have ever read. It is clearly one of his best works; a compulsive read that deserves to be recognized as one of the classics of the genre.

the last train to zona verde my ultimate african safari paul therouxZona Verde is replete with vivid descriptions of corners of Africa that rarely make the news, but it really shines thanks to the author’s disarming admission of vulnerability. Theroux admits that he’s getting old and shares his fear of dying in an out of the way slum, only to have people who barely know him conclude, “He died doing what he loved.”

“It’s only when in a hovel in the bush, or being stared down by a hostile stinking crowd (Meester! Meester!), or eating a sinister stew of black meat or a cracked plate of cold, underdone, greasy, and eye-speckled potatoes, or banging in a jalopy for nine hours down a mountain road full of potholes – with violent death as close as that dark precipice to the right – that it occurs to me that someone else should be doing this, someone younger perhaps, hungrier, stronger, more desperate, crazier.”

We reached Theroux at his home on the North Shore of Oahu where he told us about how he lost four friends in Africa, encountered an untold number of busybodies and crooks, and had his identity stolen but somehow remains an Africa optimist. Theroux also assures us that he hasn’t lost the “vitalizing itch” to travel but warns that “some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog” should be the one stuck on “9 hour buses to nowhere” rather than him.

Travel writers usually complete their proposed trips, even if they are dangerous or make no sense, because they think they have to in order to sell their stories. In Zona Verde, you reached your Waterloo after a lot of trials and tribulations and said, ‘I’m not getting on this train.’ I didn’t think you owed readers an explanation for wanting to go home, but you gave them one.

My travel books have always been faithful accounts of what happened to me, things that happened, conversations that I had and feelings that I had. I didn’t feel an obligation to do anything but explain why I wasn’t going further. I had the idea of going north from Angola into the Congo, and then Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria and Mali but it’s just not possible to do that and write anything other than an anatomy of melancholy. I didn’t really want to be completely downbeat.

A younger traveler or someone who is interested in the sociology of cities would probably do it better than I could. As far as I was concerned, my patience was done and my trip was over. I was sort of happy too because I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh God, if only I could do it.’ I was thinking, ‘I’m relieved of this. I won’t discover anything. I won’t learn anything.’ If you know you’re not going to learn anything, it’s like having a bad meal. You take a few bites, and you say, ‘well that’s that.’

Did I feel an obligation to go on? No, I didn’t. I’ve never traveled with a sense of obligation. I’ve always traveled with a sense of purpose and, I suppose, adventure. But if I don’t think in my heart there are going to be any discoveries, there is really no point in going.

At a few junctures in the book, you address a fear of dying in some backwater and having people say, “He died doing what he loved.” You also wrote that when you left Cape Town you feared that you were “setting off to suffer and die.” I don’t recall you addressing this fear of mortality in your previous books. Am I wrong?

Maybe not, but I was younger then! There are three deaths in this book and I subsequently learned that a woman I met in a township called Khayelitsha who runs a bed-and-breakfast called Vicki’s Place was killed. About eight months after I met her she was stabbed to death by her husband. She was stabbed multiple times. It was witnessed by her children.

Have you ever had this happen before, where you go on a trip and then come back to discover that someone you met died?

No. Not that I can recall. It does happen. In Africa, there was a student I had that died, but no, this is unusual and it concentrates your mind. It’s not Africa necessarily. But there were people I got to know and I really liked them. These people loved being in Africa. There was an Australian, Nathan Jamieson, who loved being there with the elephants. A Portuguese guy, Rui da Camara, who was born there and Kalunga Lima who was full of energy and I was planning to go back and travel with him. So it was a shock. It makes you value what you have and question, ‘Am I doing what I love or am I willing to take the risk of going further?’

Sir Richard Burton said, ‘What am I doing in a canoe going up a river perhaps never to come back?’ He said, ‘Why do it? The devil drives.’ There is no explanation for it. When he wrote that he was 42 years old. I mentioned in the book, I was once 42 and willing to take any risk. I had just written “The Mosquito Coast” at that age. I was game for anything. I was in South America. I was in Africa. And I was doing fairly risky things. Not to the Richard Burton level but when you’re 42, you can make it. Even more when you’re 32.

I just turned 40 and I’m probably more risk averse now than I was when I was 30 because now I have a wife and two kids.

When you have small children and responsibilities you feel like, ‘I owe it to them to keep them happy and to keep myself alive.’ I was more willing to take risks then. Burton didn’t get to my age. He died at 69, I think, in Trieste. When he was in his 60s he was in Trieste doing consular business and he was writing and translating erotica. He had a big library and a great life in his 60s but a very sedentary and scholarly one. There must be travelers my age who take risks but I don’t know any of them.

Dervla Murphy! She’s 81 and is about to release a book about her travels in the Gaza Strip.

Oh yes. She’s older than me. She’s very game. She’s a candidate.

paul theroux books

You wrote that when you’re staying in a really pleasant place, it’s easy to imagine you can keep traveling no matter how old you are. But it seems as though you still have that “vitalizing itch” to take these really difficult overland trips through developing countries?

I do, yes. I think I do. If there is something to find out, I’m up for it. But if there is nothing to learn, no. If you’re talking about physically being up to it, yes, I am. And even being psyched up for it. But the longer you live, if you have any sense at all, and you are somewhat forward looking, you create a home for yourself. You have a painting you like. You have a library with good books. A chair you really like. A lovely bed. Maybe you are married and you love your wife. You have all the things that create happiness.

When I was younger, I was more nomadic. What is the ideal place to live? What’s a picture that I really like? What are the books in my library that I want to keep or donate to the library? You make a plan. And I think you have more of a home in your later life than you do in your early life. That’s a great reason for staying home. Being happy. Having a place to live.

I’m speaking to you from Hawaii. I grow bamboo. I have geese running around. I have beehives. I live on seven acres. I’m about five minutes from a beach. I’m up on a hill and I can go down to the beach. Sometimes people will say, ‘Come to our writers’ conference, it’s lovely,’ and they name a place like Key West. Well, I’m in Hawaii, so I’ll say, ‘Tempt me, but you’re going to have to do better than we have a wonderful beach.’ I’m in Hawaii!

I imagine that might explain why you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, my hometown. I read in the Times that that is one of many places you’d like to visit sometime.

I do want to go to Niagara Falls. I mentioned several places I haven’t been to but would like to visit. Montana, Niagara Falls, Idaho, a lot of Canada, Scandinavia. There are a lot of places I haven’t been to.

You could live to be 300 and not see it all.

You can’t. The world is so big. And it’s also staying longer in a place and going deeper. But since I wrote that piece, I’ve traveled in the American South for a piece I’m writing for Smithsonian magazine. The rural south is a place well worth visiting. Full of surprises and strangeness, so I’m up for that.

Coming back to Zona Verde, you wrote that you always considered yourself a fortunate traveler but on this trip you had your identity stolen and someone made $48,000 worth of purchases on your credit card. You wrote in the book that you believe someone at the Protea Hotel Ondangwa in Namibia may be the culprit. Did you make a formal complaint against them with the police?

That was pretty dismal. I made a complaint. I called the American Embassy and they put me in touch with the police. I gave them the names of all the places my credit card had been used. In some places, it was used to buy $4,000 worth of furniture. Getting windows tinted. Some of the charges were just getting a $2 ham sandwich at a gas station but others were very big expenses like computers.

It was $48,000. I think if someone bought $4,000 worth of furniture from you, you’d remember them, wouldn’t you? And also, the furniture has to be delivered somewhere doesn’t it? I got a couple emails from the police and then nothing happened. I think someone made a copy of the card at the hotel where I stayed but I don’t have proof of that. I just feel it.

Did the credit card company hold you liable to pay the entire bill?

It took months to sort it out but no, I didn’t have to pay. The card had been used without any I.D.

My credit card company frequently denies charges I make overseas if I forget to call and alert them that I’m going to be out of the country. I’m amazed that someone could make nearly $50,000 worth of purchases before the fraud department at your credit card company got wind of what was going on.

Exactly. Why would I buy $4,000 worth of furniture in Namibia? The fraud department said this happens all the time but very rarely that large an amount.

paul theroux books

I loved the “Three Pieces of Chicken” chapter in Zona Verde where you were so hungry that you found yourself trying to decide which piece of fly bitten chicken in a dirty bucket was fit to eat. That’s the kind of decision every serious traveler faces at some point, right?

That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book. It’s an object lesson in travel. You see a meal, it looks disgusting, but you think, ‘I’m hungry and there’s nothing else to eat.’ So you eat it and there’s only two pieces of chicken left but the same number of flies. And then, you eat the second one and there are a lot of flies and only one piece of chicken left. Things happened in that chapter. I lucked out. There were girls getting their efundula, this rite of passage ceremony. That’s traveler’s bliss. You arrive in a place, you don’t know what’s happening, and then you discover that something interesting is going on.

You wrote, “Most people come to Africa to see large or outlandish animals in the wild while some others make the visit to Africa to tell Africans how to improve their lives. And many people do both, animal watching in the morning, busybodying in the afternoon.” You also wrote that Africa was a “continent plagued by foreign advisors.” Can you elaborate on some of these “busybodies” you met?

What I was suggesting is that people go to a country, they see a situation and say, ‘This is a nice place. I like the weather. I like the food. I think I’m going to help these people.’ Someone from say, Alabama, goes to Zambia and says, ‘Gee, these people are having a tough time,’ not noticing that Alabama has many of the same problems that Zambia has. A high infant mortality rate, AIDS, hunger, poor housing. But busybodying in your own country isn’t romantic enough.

There was a piece in the New York Times about how the Gates Foundation and a lot of health agencies have completely undermined the health system in Sierra Leone by corrupting officials there. That’s a form of busybodying I suppose. They think they’re solving a health crisis but all they’re doing is creating a mess in the government. You were in the Foreign Service so none of this is news to you. Where were you?

Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary. And I was once the desk officer for Chad and the Central African Republic.

Trinidad is pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It is but there are good reasons why V.S. Naipaul wanted to get out. It’s one of those places that is better to visit than to live in. Port of Spain is not the Caribbean paradise people dream about.

I haven’t seen much of the Caribbean, but I know Naipaul hated Trinidad. You know I wrote a book about him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Great book.

Thanks! I’ve never been there and I used to tell him I wanted to go and he’d say, ‘Why would you want to go there? It’s a dot on the map, it’s corrupt, it’s horrible.’ He also felt that Indians were discriminated against there by Afro-Trinidadians.

In Zona Verde, you spent some time with a USAID Foreign Service Officer and you questioned why American taxpayers should help promote tourism in Namibia, rather than say, Maine. That kind of critique can get you in trouble though, can’t it?

Yes, but I was friendly with this guy, Oliver Pierson. I’ve heard from him since. I wrote a piece in Playboy about aid to Africa and he saw it and thought it was fair. You make some enemies but I thought I accurately reported what he was doing. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is actually well run and well monitored. It’s much better than USAID building some endless project.

I’ve been traveling in the South. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi but I got really interested in it. A lot of projects in this region are run on a shoestring. If they had more money, they could make a huge difference in the rural South, but that’s the way it is. Tanzania and Ghana are places that get hundreds of millions in aid. 600 or 700 million dollars. That’s a lot of money for countries that are basically not badly off. Ghana isn’t badly off.

But for some reason, the romance of building a school in Africa is greater than the obligation we have to build a school in rural Alabama. And there are some very bad schools there. There are parts of South Carolina that look like Zimbabwe. Allendale, which is a town south of Columbia, where I spent some time recently, is one. There’s no employment. Everything is closed. Local industry has been outsourced.

I don’t like to be the person who is negative about aid. I’m not for cutting off aid. In a humanitarian crisis, I’m all for giving aid, but accounting for the money is very important as well. For example, that piece (in the Times) on Sierra Leone is a perfect example. You have some very smart people who have gone there and been completely bamboozled by the government in Sierra Leone.

Most of the book is a pretty bleak assessment of the poverty and corruption you experienced in Africa, but near the end of the book you wrote that you are still optimistic about the continent’s future. I was a little puzzled by that because it seemed like you encountered very little on this trip that would make one hopeful about Africa’s future.

That’s a fair question. I think I’m hopeful because it’s unfinished. So much of what is there, buildings, governments, infrastructure is so fragile and could just fall down. When a place is almost built on sand, my hope would lie in people’s indignation or in their being rebels against governments that are cheating them. Aid prevents them, to some extent, from showing this indignation. The government is throwing them crumbs and other countries are running their education and health services or what have you. But if they knew how deeply they were being cheated, and they do on some level, then you overthrow the government.

Things are thrown together with duct tape and no one is there for the long term, at least in terms of helping. It’s a house of cards and it can be rebuilt. But it’s also still a huge, green, empty continent. The majority of Africans live in cities. The bush is depopulated so that’s still full of possibility.

A few months ago I interviewed a legendary German traveler named Gunther Holtorf, who has been to some 200 countries and one of his favorite places is what he called “Virgin Africa.” The bush – not the cities.

I can relate to that. And there’s still a lot of it too. There may be more of it now than before, because people are leaving villages for the cities. The Eastern Cape in South Africa has nothing. There is no industry. They’re not growing food as they once were. People are streaming out of the Eastern Cape and going to the cities. The middle of Angola is pretty empty, but Luanda is full of people. The cities are full of people who are thinking, ‘Well, something will happen to me here.’ On some level, people feel safer in cities and insecure in the bush.

As a reader, I’m torn between wanting to see you return to places you’ve already been, like to the places in the Pacific you wrote about in “The Happy Isles of Oceania,” for example, or reading your take on places you’ve never been to. Would you prefer to return to places you found interesting to see how they’ve changed or go somewhere new?

That’s an excellent question, but it’s the same impulse. You know that if you go back to the place you were in before, 10, 15, 20 years later, in the case of the Pacific, I was there in 1990 and 1991, a lot has happened in those islands since I was there. So there would be a lot of discoveries to make. And then in a new place, I know I would also make discoveries. So the reason for travel is not to reassure yourself and enjoy a mai tai at sunset, as nice as that may be.

It’s nice to find out something new. There ought to be an intellectual experience, making a discovery. Both are impulses so the answer is both. If you go to a new place, you’ll see something new. In the Pacific, it’s been a slippery slope, because they’ve had more fast food and more Internet. Going to an island that didn’t have TV and now has Internet, I don’t know how much of a thrill that would be, but there’s something to write about. Whenever something bad happens, you have something to write about. That’s what you want. Not the predictable.

Was this your last trip to Africa?

I will probably go back to Africa but as far as writing a book like this, I doubt it. I would have to be really tempted and be sure I wasn’t wasting my time. I have a lot of friends in Africa but I haven’t been back since I finished this book. I can speak Swahili. I can speak the language I learned in the Peace Corps, Chichewa. The idea of being in a place where you can speak the language, a place you know – I’ve known it for 50 years – is a great temptation. But the idea of getting on another nine-hour bus on a trip to nowhere – no I’m not willing to do it.

Some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog, that’s what he or she should do. Go find out what the real world is like. I did it. If I were younger or if I liked cities more or understood them better, I might be up for it. You read the piece in The New York Times about where I want go. Those places – that’s where I’d rather go. Niagara Falls. I’d like to do that.

You wrote in the book, “Reading and restlessness – dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere – made me a traveler. If the Internet was everything it was cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to hear and sometimes – importantly – to suffer the effects of this curiosity.” We’re always signing the praises of travel, but having that restless itch can also ruin people’s lives can’t it?

Yes it can. And impatient people who are used to the Internet will find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay – that there’s no instant gratification. Or that there’s only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven’t got the patience for it but that’s what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers, but they’re not always the right answers. So there is more reason than ever to travel but there are fewer people willing to put up with the nuisance of it these days.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Peter Cleghorn, Jeremy Holden,Justin Ornellas, JMerelo,JMazzolaa, Aftab, Rui Ornelas, and Zokete on Flickr]

Rooting For Ethiopia In The Africa Cup Of Nations

Africa Cup of Nations, logoOne of the byproducts of travel is that you become more aware of events that don’t get much coverage back home. The sports pages here in Spain, for example, aren’t exactly full of stories about the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.

This continent-wide football championship, starting today in South Africa, is sure to be watched by millions of Africans. I’m especially curious as to the public reaction in Ethiopia. I’ve traveled a lot in that fascinating East African nation and I know they’re crazy about football – European football.

You see Real Madrid and Manchester United jerseys everywhere, and every village has a beat up old Foosball table painted in the colors of popular European teams. Yet Ethiopians seem singularly blind to their own football teams. I spent hours trying to hunt down an Ethiopian National Team shirt for my son, only to be told that they aren’t made in children’s sizes.

The kids don’t want them.

Hopefully that’s all about to change. Ethiopia has qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations finals for the first time since 1982. They haven’t won since 1962. With that kind of record, you can understand why the fans have been less than enthusiastic. Their first game is against Zambia on January 21. Zambia has a FIFA ranking of 34; Ethiopia’s is 102. It’s going to be a tough match.

My son and I are going to be rooting for Ethiopia. We’ll be sitting at home here in Spain watching it on the computer, urging on the Ethiopian team as crowds in cafes and bars across Ethiopia will be going crazy. It’s going to be a nice way to reconnect with my favorite country to travel in.

Hey, if a guy from Addis Ababa can be an Arsenal fan without ever having been to England, I can be an Ethiopia fan, right?

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Video: Zulu Dancing

Amazing Dancing From The Zulu (kwaZulu-Natal)” from Alex Masterson on Vimeo.

The Zulu people of South Africa make up the largest ethnic group within the country. Mostly living in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, nearly 10-11 million Zulu people in the region now celebrate equal rights in South Africa. The Zulu culture is vibrant and fascinating. One of the most notable aspects of Zulu culture is Zulu dancing. Dancing is a community ritual within the Zulu tribe and most ceremonies feature dancing. Chants often accompany the Ingoma dances, which are considered to be one of the purest forms of Zulu dance. In this video from Vimeo user Alex Masterson, a small group of Zulu people dance a traditional dance.

South Africa's New Rhino Orphanage

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Interview With A USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Diplomat

USDA FAS Foreign Service Officer Scott Sindelar embassy beijingThe U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) is very much an under-the-radar career opportunity for Americans who are interested in trade promotion and living overseas. Compared to the other Foreign Affairs Agencies, the FAS is quite small. At the moment, there are only 166 FAS Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) but they serve all over the world in 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries.

FAS officers provide reporting on overseas agricultural trends and U.S. agricultural export possibilities. They promote U.S. agricultural products and work on other issues such as food security. So far this year, we’ve interviewed a diplomatic courier and FSOs from the State Department, USAID but I wanted to talk to someone from the FAS to give readers a better understanding of what they do. Scott Sindelar, who is currently the FAS Minister Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has been a member of USDA’s FAS since 1987, has served in China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Africa during his distinguished career. I spoke to Scott about how he joined the FAS, what the lifestyle has been like for his family and the pros and cons of the Foreign Service.What was your background before you joined USDA?

I joined USDA in 1987, so I’ve been here for more than 25 years. I’m 56. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I graduated from college in 1979 and I went to The Phillippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up staying four years. I moved back to Minnesota after that and there was some culture shock. Being in the Peace Corps back then was very different then what it is now.

There was no email, no Internet. We sent letters by regular mail. I was there for two years before I talked to my parents on the phone.

the philippinesDid you get married while you lived in The Philippines?

Yes, I did, in 1982.

Almost everyone I know who was in the Peace Corps got married while they were overseas.

I know, it happens all the time.

And how did you become a member of the FAS?

I went to graduate school and got a masters in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. I saw a poster there before I graduated about the Foreign Agricultural Service. The recruiter came through and I learned about the Foreign Service. I delayed about 18 months before interviewing – I worked at Auburn University – and then ended up at USDA.

Do you need a master’s to get into the FAS?

At that time, the minimum requirement was a master’s in agricultural economics and some overseas experience and if you had farm experience that was a plus. When I joined, in my class there were only a few people who had actually grown up on a farm. Now, you still need a master’s degree, but it can be in international business, development, marketing; it has to have some economics in it, but we’re casting our net wider now.

So a master’s in say, phys ed wouldn’t work?

No.

Does it help if you speak a foreign language?

It does.

shanghaiDid you go right overseas?

I was hired initially as a civil servant, then you can choose to move laterally into the Foreign Service, but you have to have at least 18 months working in Washington in a regular professional job as an economist or marketing person. If you choose to try out for the Foreign Service, that’s a rigorous process – there’s an examination, a series of oral interviews, and if you have foreign language capability, that’s where that comes in.

We had partnerships with different agricultural sectors – the American soybeans Association, the Wine Institute, the Washington Apple Commission. Those are non-profit trade association groups. Congress gives us money to work with these groups to do market development overseas. So my first job in Washington was assisting with that program, then I was a wheat analyst for a while.

I’m sorry, did you say wheat or weed?

Wheat!

And what countries have you served in?

I did Chinese language training for my first overseas assignment and went to Beijing. I served there from ’91-’95. In ’95, I went to Bangkok, and was there until ’99. Then I worked in Washington for three years and in 2002, I was assigned to Shanghai on a one-year gap assignment. Then I went to Tapei in 2003 through 2007. And in 2007, we moved to Pretoria, South Africa – I covered all of Southern Africa in that job and in 2010, I came back to Beijing where I am now a Minister Counselor.

You do four-year tours?

Typically. We’re assigned on a three-year tour with an automatic extension for a fourth year if we request it at the end of our first year.

old beijingChina is nothing at all like it was when you first arrived in 1990. It’s much easier to live in China as a Westerner now, I imagine?

I was in Beijing 20 years ago, I was in Shanghai ten years ago, so I’m back every ten years or so. But yes, compared to the way it was here in the early 1990s, it’s much easier to live here now in terms of the lifestyle. But it’s also a bit more complicated. China has grown up quite a bit – so there are traffic problems now.

Back in 1990 most of the traffic was people on bikes, I imagine?

Absolutely. Bicycles and buses. It was nice. It was a bit of a hardship post because pollution was bad then and it’s bad now too. You couldn’t get a lot of the amenities then that we can get here now but the pace of life was different and it was still an older China, so the city itself was a little more interesting.

They hadn’t demolished all of the old hutongs then.

Right. Now we have lots of five-star hotels and wonderful restaurants but it’s not as exotic as it may have been at that time. If you’ve never been to China before though, it’s still exciting.

China doesn’t have the dual pricing system where foreigners pay more for things any more, right?

Oh yes, that’s gone. Even as diplomats, there are fewer restrictions on our travel now than there were 20 years ago. We used to have to get approval to go places. Almost anywhere. In order to go to Annhui Province, for example, we needed the permission of the local foreign affairs office and they would make the arrangements for our meetings. We couldn’t independently set up our own meetings. And they would accompany us on meetings too. Now, if we want to go look at the corn crop somewhere, we just go.

Not to Tibet though, right?

Places like Tibet are more problematic, or Xinxiang – places like that, they want to know what we are doing there.

How many FAS FSOs are there in China?

We have 12 FAS officers in China.

So there are only 166 FAS FSOs and 12 are in China?

We are the largest FAS post.

US Army IraqFAS operates 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries but do you have offices in the most dangerous places that are unaccompanied posts, like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

We serve in all those places.

The State Department has had a hard time staffing some of those posts. Is it the same at USDA?

My number two here did a tour in Iraq. We have a deputy director arriving in Shanghai next summer who served in Afghanistan. We haven’t had a problem staffing those hardship and unaccompanied posts as State has.

Is that mostly because of the hardship pay and danger pay incentives?

I’ll give people credit for wanting to serve in places like that. My deputy here wanted to go. It’s an opportunity and a challenge. And he was in Baghdad in 2002-3, a particularly tough time in Baghdad.

Do you have kids?

Yes, two boys. My oldest son is 24 and he lives in Washington, D.C., my youngest son is 18 and he will graduate from the International School in Beijing next spring.

How did your kids cope with all the transitions from one school and one country to the next?

We have a very good Foreign Service family and I’m proud and grateful for them. My wife has been working as an eligible family member for years. And that’s a great opportunity for spouses. She’s been able to work toward a pension and it’s been fulfilling for her. My kids have never complained about the lifestyle. They’ve usually been ready to move on to each next post and they’re excited to get to the next place.

Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye to friends but they became accustomed to it.

And FAS FSOs get the same perks as State Department FSOs – free education for your children, free housing and so on, right?

Yes, it’s the same. We’re a Foreign Affairs Agency, so those benefits are the same.

bangkokHave the travel opportunities been a big selling point of this career choice for you?

Absolutely. Every place we’ve served in has been a hardship post, so we get R & R leave and have used that to travel. We probably never would have had the chance to travel to Australia and New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia. When we lived in Bangkok, we traveled all around Thailand.

What types of jobs has your wife been able to get at the various posts you’ve served in?

She’s mostly worked in consular jobs. She has tenured status as a civil servant at the State Department as well. But she’s also worked as a General Services Officer on procurement. She did some interesting work in Bangkok with extraditions. She’s had a fascinating time. Most spouses could make more if they stayed in the U.S., but if you balance the lifestyle out it makes it pretty attractive.

What’s been the most difficult part about this career choice for you?

Separation from the rest of your family and friends. The long distances can be challenging. We’ve missed I don’t know how many weddings, graduations, funerals. If you’re close to your extended family or you have a good network of friends in the U.S., that can be difficult. It’s easier today thanks to Skype and Facebook and the ease of communication, but it’s not the same was being there. You can’t always be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But if you have a family then your own nuclear family has an opportunity to grow stronger together.

And what’s the most rewarding aspect of the FAS for you?

The work gives you the opportunity to experience the world. Very few other careers do that. I’ve always felt that embassies are great communities; if you need support, you have your colleagues. If you want to get out and explore the country, you can do that.

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

[Photo credits: USDA, Jonathan Kos-Read Telmo32, US Army and Archangel Raphael on Flickr]

Leopards May Go Extinct Thanks To Religion

leopards
One of Africa’s iconic animals may be hunted to extinction by an emerging religion that honors them, CNN reports.

The Church elders of the Nazareth Baptist Church, also known as the Shembe, wear leopard skins as part of their rituals. A mixture of Christianity and traditional Zulu practice, the church has attracted some five million followers in South Africa and is growing quickly.

Thousands of leopard skins are sold openly at Shembe gatherings each year, despite it being a protected species. Leopards are already designated as “near threatened,” meaning they could be threatened with extinction in the near future.

The leopard is also hunted by people seeking trophies or wanting to use its body parts for traditional medicine.

Now conservationists are trying to get the Shembe devout to wear fake leopard skin imported from China rather than killing the animal they admire as a symbol of pride and status. While the church elders see how their faith’s growing popularity is threatening the leopard, so far they have not been convinced to make the switch to fake fur.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]