A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Dreaming Of The Balkans From A ‘Tropical Paradise’

trinidad man lounging in hammockI might be the only person in human history to move from Macedonia to Trinidad. But in the peculiar world of the Foreign Service, unusual transitions across the globe are par for the course. I have Foreign Service friends who have recently moved from Ecuador to Poland, Paraguay to Bangladesh, Hungary to Zambia, and from the Philippines to Ireland. It’s a nomadic lifestyle, where Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) generally stay in each country for just 1-3 years and when they leave an obscure, hard-to-get-to post, they have to swallow the fact that they’ll leave behind some friends and colleagues they might never see again.
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Overseas tours are relatively short because the State Department doesn’t want FSOs to “go native” while overseas. The reality is that by the time you get comfortable in a place, it’s just about time to leave. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how much you like your post and where you’re headed next.homeless man in trinidadWhen I found out I was headed to Port of Spain, Trinidad, for my second assignment mid-way through my two year tour in Skopje, my Macedonian colleagues joked that I was soon going to be leading a Jimmy-Buffet-like life of leisure with warm breezes, cold, tropical drinks and long afternoons spent swaying in hammocks on a beach. But one of the senior-level FSOs at post knew better.

“I’d never bid on Trinidad,” he said. “You never want to get stuck in a country you can’t drive out of, unless it’s Australia or New Zealand.”

And I knew he was right, but there was nothing I could do. The first two tours for FSOs are “directed assignments” and I’d been directed to Port of Spain, after being told that spending two years in Skopje hadn’t given me enough “bidding equity” to go to any of the posts I’d bid on. I grew up in Buffalo and, although I like going to a beach on vacation, I’m not a tropical country guy.

But the Foreign Service is a bit like the military in that you pretty much have to go where they send you, so that’s how my wife and I found ourselves on a flight from Miami to Port of Spain eight years ago this month, on my 32nd birthday. Arriving at a new post in the Foreign Service is a singular experience that’s hard to relate to if you’ve never done it.

Someone meets you at the airport, usually a driver and a family that’s been assigned to be your social sponsor, and, in most cases, you’re taken to your new home. In some cases, a post might reach out to you before you’ve arrived to see what your housing preferences are – city versus suburbs, location versus commute, house or apartment, etc. But in many cases, they do not, and on this day I had no idea where “Bird” the Trini driver who’d come to pick us up was taking us.

prostitute in trinidad port of spainMy heart sank when I saw our depressing neighborhood and our tacky, cramped apartment. In Skopje, we had a beautiful, spacious apartment that was 5 minutes from the embassy. It wasn’t a pedestrian friendly city by any means, but you could walk just about anywhere in town. And if you didn’t want to walk, you could call a taxi that would arrive within five minutes and take you wherever you wanted to go for the equivalent of $1.

In most career fields, you expect to have an upward trajectory in terms of income and living standards, but that isn’t always the case in the Foreign Service. You can find yourself going from a mansion one day to living in a hooch in Afghanistan the next, and your pay can go up or down dramatically depending on the hardship and cost of living ratings of each post and whether your spouse can find work.

Within a day or two of arriving in Port of Spain we were able to take stock of how our fortunes had fallen. Our apartment was smaller and much less nice than where we moved from and we were 30 minutes from the embassy in a downscale suburb where there was nothing of interest within walking distance and cabs might or might not arrive hours after you called them. My pay was reduced by more than 20% because Skopje improbably had more hardship and cost of living pay, and my wife’s pay had been cut in half because she went from a full time job in Skopje to a part time job in Trinidad.

woman in tobagoMoreover, the cost of living in Trinidad was far higher than Skopje and, though there were beaches about 30-45 minutes away, Port of Spain had a much higher crime rate and a city center that was both shabby and depressing, not to mention dangerous after dark. (V.S. Naipaul, a native of Trinidad, couldn’t wait to leave and seldom returned to visit once he left.) I liked the local people very much, but the city of Port of Spain? Not so much.

We also went from a post run with Swiss efficiency by a career diplomat to a completely dysfunctional post run by a college friend of George W. Bush, with, well Caribbean efficiency. (The Ambassador, like several other high-ranking W. appointees, was a fellow member of Skull and Bones, a secret society at Yale.) It was a post that people either loved or hated and, to be fair, there were indeed people who enjoyed the place.

For FSOs, bidding research is a serious issue. You try to gather all the intell you can on the jobs and places that appear on your bid lists. But the reality is that if you’re living in Bosnia or Mali, there’s only so much you can find out about what life is like in Mongolia, Paraguay or wherever. Sites like Real Post Reports are helpful for trying to get a feel for what a post will be like, but for many posts, like Port of Spain, you might find that the half the reviews say that a place is wonderful while the other half say that it’s awful.

And since the Foreign Service is a three-degrees of separation kind of institution, many people aren’t willing to share the negative aspects of a post with bidders unless they know the person well and trust them, for fear that people will find out that they bad-mouthed a post. The other mistake some people make in bidding, especially travelers like me, is using travel guidebooks to research countries.

The problem with this approach is that there are a lot of countries that are wonderful to visit but not so great to live in and vice versa. If I had arrived in Trinidad for a two-week vacation, my opinion of the place would have been totally different. Your perspective on a place changes depending on how long you’re supposed to be there.

We read “The Rough Guide to Trinidad & Tobago” while in the research stage of bidding and when I later brought this book to post, my local co-workers considered some of its advice laughable. For example, the book praised a tough area called Laventille as being the “beating heart” of the city but my co-workers told me that Laventille was so dangerous that even telephone repairmen and other municipal workers refused to go there.

The reality is that you never really know what a place will be like to live in until you actually go there, and a post is, in many ways, only what you make of it. In most occupations, if you like your job, your house and your overall situation, you simply stay put and enjoy it. But the Foreign Service is not like most careers, and there is no option to simply stay put and enjoy a good thing when you’ve got it.

Our mistake was dwelling on what we had in Skopje rather than just trying to make the best of the hand we’d been dealt in Trinidad. But shortly after we arrived at post, I got very sick and suddenly our complaints about Port of Spain were put in stark perspective. An illness can be both a curse and a blessing. For me, it made me realize that in life, you can lose a lot more than just a good job or a nice apartment, so you have to be grateful for what you have and forget about what’s gone.

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

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Three Island Destinations Rarely Visited By Cruise Ships

island destinations

Cruise ships love to call on island destinations. Those that live on those islands are glad to see them and their cash-spending passengers too. But for travelers who just happen to be on a land vacation at the time a cruise ship calls, this is bad news. Almost instantly, a quiet, serene island paradise can be overrun with thousands of cruise passengers trying to cram a whole lot of island into a little bit of time.

Still, there are some island destinations rarely visited by cruise ships that are host to some of the best beaches and island life in the world. Here are three of them to enjoy.

Tobago (pictured) is one of the two southern Caribbean islands that make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, northeast of the island of Trinidad and southeast of Grenada. Tobago is known for its Carnival, is the birthplace of the limbo and sees few cruise ships – mostly small ones.Tikehau is a coral atoll in the Palliser Islands group, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia, known for its pink sand beaches. To get there, a daily flight between Tahiti and the Tikehau airport delivers travelers to the island paradise. Cruise ships do not stop here.

Manihi is also a coral atoll in French Polynesia, popular with snorkelers for its beautiful and diverse marine fauna. Home to a number of pearl farms, Mahini is largely uninhabited and home to the Mahini Pearl Beach Resort.




[Flickr photo by nosuchsoul]

Leatherback Turtle Eggs Destroyed In Trinidad

leatherback turtle
Construction workers moving sand on Grande Riviere beach in Trinidad have accidentally crushed a large number of leatherback turtle eggs. The workers used bulldozers to redirect a river that was eroding the beach, popular with tourists who like to see the turtles hatch.

BBC reports that 20,000 leatherback turtle eggs were destroyed, while Trinidad Express Newspapers quotes Environmental Management Authority CEO Dr. Joth Singh as saying, “only a few hundred” were destroyed.

The Grande Riviere River was encroaching on the beach and the turtle nesting area, and a local hotel owner asked the government to shift its course. The workers ended up bulldozing a portion of the nesting site.

Leatherback turtles, which are a critically endangered species, are famous for laying their eggs in the same spot where they were born. Trinidad’s north coast has huge nesting areas that have become popular with visitors. The Trinidad Express reports that locals and tourists have joined together to sift through the wreckage in search of hatchlings that can be saved.

[Photo courtesy Crazy Creatures]

Friendly Planet Travel begins offering authorized travel to Cuba

cuba travel After several years, Americans are now able to travel to Cuba again under a new program from the U.S. Treasury Department. The aim of the program is to help Americans interact with locals of Cuba through educational exchanges focused on art, culture, music, and more.

As one of a handful of travel operators who have been granted a people-to-people license, Friendly Planet Travel will be operating two educational trips to Cuba that will allow people to immerse themselves in Cuban culture as well as learn about the country’s past, present, and future. The first trip is a 5-day “Discover Havana” trip ($1,899) that allows Americans to interact with locals and learn about Havana’s rich culture and history. The second trip, an 8-day “Colors of Cuba” trip ($2,899) is more in-depth and visits many culturally significant sites, such as Old Havana, Cienfuegos, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad.

Both of the trips include round trip airfare from Miami, a letter of authorization, entrance visa into Cuba, all land transportation, superior hotel accommodations, all meals, comprehensive educational programs, translator, and Friendly Planet guide. Trips will begin departing in March, 2012. For more information to see exact dates, click here.

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]