A Traveler In The Foreign Service: How To Avoid Posts Where You Might Get Eaten Alive

tribe in papua new guinea cannibalsHave you ever received a phone call from someone who was hoping to entice you to live in a country where cannibalism is still practiced? I have.

“I have a great opportunity for you in Port Moresby,” said Hollis, my State Department Career Development Officer (CDO)/used car salesperson.

I Googled Port Moresby from my office at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and the results weren’t encouraging. And when I asked a more senior person at the embassy what he thought, his first reaction told me all I needed to know about the place.

“Papua New Guinea,” he said. “Don’t they still eat people there?”In the peculiar world of the Foreign Service, diplomats are always obsessing over their next post. No matter whether you’re in Paris or Bangui, it’s hard not to think about what’s next, thanks to the unique bidding system, where State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) typically bid a year or more in advance of taking up a new post.

The practicality of this system is that if you’re in a two or three year assignment, you typically know where you’re going next near the midway point of your tour. If you love your post and are heading somewhere dreadful next, you have plenty of time for the apprehension to build, but if you’re excited about your onward assignment it can make even the worst job or post seem bearable.

If you have a one-year assignment to a danger post, you typically bid right before or after arriving in say, Kabul or Baghdad. And since serving at a post like that gives one some serious bidding equity the next time around, nearly everyone manages to go somewhere they want after serving in conflict zones. So your ticket to Afghanistan can be tempered by a ticket to Sydney or Rome that’s already in the bag by the time you land in Kabul.

If you’re a traveler who has thought about joining the State Department’s Foreign Service, but want to know more about how likely you are to be able to live in the regions you prefer, this is a primer on what to expect if you join the Foreign Service.

First tour: FSO’s start their careers in a class called A-100 and are given a “directed assignment” to their first post. Officers can express bidding preferences but whether you get what you want is a real crapshoot. If you have a foreign language proficiency, your chances of going to that country/region are good, but don’t bank on it.

Career development officers (CDO’s) take a variety of factors into account in deciding who goes where: job/career fit, family and school considerations (i.e. they are less likely to send someone with school age children to a post with no accredited schools), health considerations (if an FSO has a family member with health issues), language ability and the timing of when the job is open versus what job and language training the person would need to fill the position.

Second tour: The second tour is also a directed assignment but here’s where things get really tricky, as far as bidding strategy goes. Junior officers can only get one full language course in their first two tours, and they have to do a consular job as well. So if, for example, you exhaust your language training on the first go around, or don’t fulfill your consular obligation, your bidding options can be severely hampered.

In my case, I was given Albanian language training prior to departing for my first post in Macedonia, and since I wasn’t proficient in any other foreign languages at that time, I could only bid on jobs at English speaking posts and jobs, which didn’t require foreign language proficiency.

The second assignment is supposed to be based upon bidding “equity.” Those who are at the toughest posts – and here, toughest is defined by those with the highest hardship and danger pay ratings – have the most equity, and should get the first pick of assignments.

But in reality, FSO’s with connections or good karma sometimes manage to float by from one good post to another while others go from bad posts to even worse ones. I loved living in Macedonia, but since it was rated as a 20 percent hardship post at the time I was bidding for the second go-around, I thought I would have plenty of equity to get one of the 20 jobs I bid on for my second tour.

tobagoBut then I got the Port Moresby phone call from Hollis, who explained that I didn’t have enough equity to get any of the 20 posts I’d bid on, and would have to take my chances with the leftovers. CDO’s are very much like used car salespeople, so he was trying to push the places that no one had bid on. After weeks of wrangling, I was given Port of Spain, Trinidad, which wasn’t at all up my alley, but seemed quite acceptable compared to Port Moresby.

Mid Level Bidding: Once FSO’s get tenure, the directed assignment process is over and officers lobby and interview for jobs based on their own merit. The equity system is still in play but less so. In decades past, some FSO’s managed to specialize in one geographic area, but these days, with huge missions in Baghdad and Kabul, no one can get away without at least bidding on hardship posts, and many officers are getting sent on unaccompanied assignments in dangerous places against their will.

Tips: In an A-100 class, it’s essential to try to find out through the grapevine as much as you can on who’s bidding on what. The most important thing to gauge is what jobs everyone is putting at the very bottom of his or her list. Let’s say, for example, that nearly everyone has Khartoum as the bottom of their list, but you have it somewhere near the middle of your list. Well, guess who’s got a pretty damn good shot of spending Christmas in Sudan?

In general, you want to present bid lists that make sense and that you can defend rationally. Trying to tell CDO’s you prefer Dublin, Sydney and Prague because they have good beer in each place is a sure way to get a one-way ticket to Dhaka. And last, but definitely not least, if you have high-level connections, use them, and remember that you can always negotiate.

Bottom line: Joining the Foreign Service is a little bit like joining the military, in terms of signing your fate over to the government. It’s obviously far cushier, pays better and is less dangerous, but you can’t completely control where you go and you can get sent to places you do not want to go without your family members. If you’re flexible, adventurous and not extremely risk averse, it might be a good career option for you. But if you’re just hoping for an easy way to live in Sydney or Rome, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

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

[Photos by Dave Seminara and friar's balsam on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Meet An Intrepid Diplomat

photo of american diplomatIn our ongoing attempt to demystify the Foreign Service, we’re going to occasionally introduce you to diplomats living in various parts of the world. Amy Tachco is a 36-year-old Foreign Service Officer (FSO) originally from Southern California and Central Ohio who joined the Foreign Service just over ten years ago.

Amy and I joined the Foreign Service at the same time and were part of the same A-100 class, which is essentially a two month long intro to the Foreign Service. As I described in December, at least one of our classmates shed tears over an assignment to Jamaica, but Amy was unfazed when she was sent to Karachi, Pakistan, her 19th choice.

Over the last ten years, she’s also served in Casablanca, Madrid, Beirut and Damascus. She arrived in Karachi just days after a suicide bomber struck the embassy, flew into Beirut on a helicopter during the height of the 2006 conflict and recently had a Bashar Assad thug pelt her with a tomato. She was evacuated from Syria in mid-January as the conflict there intensified and recently returned from a brief stint in Istanbul, where she continued to report on the situation in Syria.

Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I did my junior year overseas as an economics and French major and then went to Geneva for grad school. It’s an international city and I worked at the World Economic Forum for a while. The lifestyle of the Foreign Service appealed to me – you have a job, but you get to move all the time and constantly do something different. After I graduated I worked for a company that did asset management and then I worked for a hedge fund. I was earning more than my initial salary in the Foreign Service.

Your first assignment was Karachi – your 19th choice. But you took it like a champ. Were you disappointed to be sent to Pakistan right out of the gate?

No. I wasn’t upset. Jerusalem was my first choice – it’s been my first choice many times but it’s never happened.

And the day you were set to leave for post the consulate in Karachi was bombed?

It was a car bomb, a suicide bomber. A car pulled up right in front of the building and blew a 30-foot hole in the front wall. Thirteen people were killed. My parents called and said, ‘Turn on CNN, it’s your consulate.’ I made the executive decision not to call anyone at the State Department, because I was afraid they’d tell me not to go.marines with weapons cocked and loadedWhat was it like to arrive at post in the wake of that incident?

We had a Marine expeditionary unit in the consular section. They had their guns pointed out the upstairs windows to keep people from entering the big hole in the wall. There was a bathroom with a shower right next to my office, so these Marines would come by my office just draped in their bath towels. They had been on a ship for the last six months, so they liked to stop by my office to say hi on the way back from their showers. They hadn’t seen women in a really long time.

Did your parents worry about you being in Pakistan?

My mom was worried the entire time I was there. She’s never been a worrywart but she was scared the whole time. I tried to tell her, ‘mom, here’s my day. I get up, I have breakfast and I go to work.’ Granted, I’d get picked up in an armored car with an escort vehicle with guys carrying AK-47’s and we’d take different routes to the consulate every day even though I could see the place from my house. You get used to weirdness.

You were supposed to be there a year but got pulled out after 9 months?

The Ambassador had been trying to reduce staff there for a long time (due to the security situation) and at a certain point I got a call from Washington and they told me I needed to find a new job. That’s how I ended up in Casablanca.

moroccan musicianYou were in Morocco and then Madrid for your next tour. Did you have much time for travel opportunities?

I did. I was a public affairs officer in Morocco so I traveled a lot there. I went to the The Marrakesh Film Festival, The Gnaoua World Music Festival, the Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, and lots of other places too. I also liked visiting this American style university there called Al Akhawayn, it’s in a town called Ifrane. You feel like you’re in Switzerland there, and the same in Spain. I tried to make it to all the provinces. I think I made it to half of them.

Did you find that the best places to visit as a traveler aren’t always the best places to live?

I haven’t had a bad post but there are places I’m not sure of. I just spent a month in Istanbul. Traffic is hideous and if you’re forced to deal with more of the city than just the tourist areas it can be a little unwieldy. Whereas I did my last tour in Damascus and that’s an easy place to live. In Beirut, we had extreme security restrictions but still a great city to live in. Madrid was obviously great. Living in Karachi presented challenges, but going there to work for the U.S. Government is the best deal you’re going to get. I loved it.

So you’ve never been stuck a post you couldn’t wait to leave?

Never.

How was the situation in Beirut when you were there?

The embassy had gone on evacuation status during the 2006 war, and then in May 2008, before I arrived in Beirut, there was street fighting in the city and clashes in the mountains, which made people think war was once again not far off. I got there a couple months later and it was relatively quiet for my two years there. But I had been there during the 2006 war as well. I traveled there with the Assistant Secretary who was trying to mediate the conflict with the Israelis.


What was that like?

It was creepy. There was no traffic – everyone was inside. The fighting was nearby, but not smack in the middle of Beirut. When the war broke out, Secretary Rice told my boss to get over there and we sort of took off without even knowing how we were going to get there. We went to Rome for a conference and then I had to figure out how to get us a helicopter into Beirut despite the fact that the airport was closed. So I did.

When you live in a place like Karachi, Beirut or Damascus, are you supposed to have a suitcase ready in case of emergency?

We were supposed to in Damascus but I never did. We were lucky though; we got all our stuff out before I left Damascus in January. I know that a lot of FSO’s in Tripoli lost all their stuff when they were evacuated last year. We had a couple of suicide bombings in December and we’d already had a series of evacuations last year, first in April and then again in August and December.

So some people got to leave but you had to stay until January?

Got to leave? No one wanted to leave Syria.

damascus mosqueNo one wanted to get out of Dodge?

No. Syria’s a beautiful place. I knew for probably six weeks or so before we were finally evacuated out that the decision was coming. But strangely enough, when it came, I felt like my whole universe just crashed. I cried big time because I felt like I was abandoning the people.

The local staff and your friends there?

Them but also the opposition. I was responsible for dealing with the Syrian opposition. On my last day there, I sat with one of the leaders in his office for about 2 hours and two weeks later the regime raided their office and arrested them all. It wasn’t because we left, I don’t think, but there was definitely that feeling. That’s why I asked to be sent to Istanbul, so I could continue doing my job from there. When you work in a country where people are fighting for their lives, you get emotionally involved.

Were you concerned for your safety in Syria?

The violence wasn’t in the middle of Damascus. The thing that was weird about Damascus is that you could walk the streets and see people drinking coffee and smoking nargiles in the cafés. Bizarre knowing that three kilometers away people were getting shot.

I took the Ambassador to a few meetings where we were sort of assaulted by regime thugs. On one occasion, we went into a meeting with a member of the opposition and a big group of regime loyalists started chanting at us and they followed us in and were banging on the door. And I got hit with a tomato.

Did it splatter all over you?

It didn’t and I was wearing a red dress anyways. They were trying to pelt us though. We ended up getting trapped in the building for more than two hours. We had to call our RSO’s (Regional Security Officers) to get us out of there in some armored cars. They got attacked with rocks and concrete through their windows.

madridWhat’s the hardest part about life in the Foreign Service, other than occasionally being pelted with tomatoes?

I’m headed to Madrid again now and I’ll be there for three years, which for the Foreign Service, is considered a nice long time. The hardest part of the lifestyle is the transitions between posts. I thought they’d get easier over time but it actually gets harder.

Arriving at a new post and starting fresh is the hardest part?

Both ends. Leaving one place and then having to live out a suitcase when you’re in between posts and then finally arriving at a new place but not having all your stuff. It’s really hard to leave a post and then you might live out of your suitcase for months and months, because you have training and home leave and then your stuff has to be shipped. And if you’re single, like me, it’s particularly hard. If you have your family with you, at least you’re not alone.
Every time I do these transitions, I ask myself why I’m doing this but then a year later I say, ‘wow, I have the best job in the world.’

A lot of people who like to travel consider joining the Foreign Service. What questions should people ask themselves before they decide to pursue this line of work?

It’s hard to say because you can make so many different types of careers in the Foreign Service. I know FSO’s who prefer to serve in more “cushy” locations. When I think about spending a career in places like that, I just can’t imagine it. But there are people who are into that. You wrote an article about this, it is easier for guys in the Foreign Service to move to a Third World country and find a lovely bride. Well, as a woman you can meet a lovely man too, but he’s not likely to follow you around the world.

So it’s harder for single women?

Yeah. For example, I was dating a Lebanese guy in Beirut and he told me before it was time for me to move – I can’t leave. And I could have stayed there, but I would have been miserable. So there’s the relationship element, there’s how you deal with transition.

The career itself, the lifestyle, it’s very much what you make of it. You can find yourself doing things you could never possibly imagine in rural areas of strange countries you never dreamed of going to. I’ve been on yachts of rich Lebanese businessmen or you can find yourself careening across the West Bank to visit settlements or you can be the cultural attaché in a cushy European post. I’ve met Bashar Al-Assad five times (before the conflict started) but that’s not something I’m terribly proud of.

Did you shake his hand?

Of course. You get to meet with presidents and ministers and heads of state – people you’d never expect to meet. I gave visas to the Real Madrid soccer team. The stuff that can happen to you in the Foreign Service is 100 billion times better than what you do in 99% of jobs you’d find. It is really, really cool and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Ahron de Leeuw, and Man@Che on Flickr.