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]

Trinidad And Tobago Host Celebrations, Beautiful Beaches

trinidad and tabago

The dual-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, just off the north coast of South America, offers a distinct blend of culture, eclectic cuisine and an assortment of eco-adventure activities. Celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom throughout 2012, two special events coming up in November highlight why Trinidad and Tobago is also known as the cultural capital of the Caribbean.

During Diwali, a festival of lights that happens on November 13, small clay lamps are filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil and kept on during the night. Firecrackers drive away evil spirits and everyone wears new clothes.

Diwali is celebrated around the world by a number of cultures and is an official holiday in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji.

The Hosay FeTrinidad and Tobagostival on November 24, began as a

religious festival but is now more of an ethnic pageant.

In Trinidad, Hosay is a chance for artisans to take to the streets with their skills and handiwork prominently displayed, reminding Trinidadians and tourists alike that East Indians and Muslims form a vital part of Trinidad’s cultural fabric.

Trinidad and Tobago feature secluded beaches, quaint villages, private villas and award-winning eco-attractions that include the Main Ridge Rainforest, the oldest protected reserve in the world and the six-time award winner for World’s Leading Ecotourism Destination.

Some of the top beaches in the country are found at Maracas Bay and Blanchisseuse, on Trinidad’s north coast. On Tobago, great beaches include Pigeon Point Beach, considered Tobago’s most beautiful beach. Also called Pigeon Point Heritage Park, the area features excellent beach facilities and beach chair rentals as well as bars and a restaurant.




Trinidad and Tobago also offer a number of adventure opportunities. Hiking, biking, kayaking and cave exploration top the list with something for all ages and abilities. Rainforest hiking trails, limestone caves, hidden waterfalls, cycling through lush island countryside or kayaking past wildlife filled mangrove forests make Trinidad and Tobago a favorite of travelers from around the world.

[Photo Credit: Flickr User TaranRampersad]

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]

Fat Tuesday – top 5 places to party for Carnival

Fat Tuesday is the culmination of Mardi Gras, Carnival, Carnevale, and like minded celebrations that take place across the world today. From Guatemala to Greece, Fat Tuesday represents the last bastion of excess in Christian culture before the Lent fasting season begins. The streets pulse with energy and revelers don costumes, throw beads, shout sheenisms, and generally have a booze-fueled fantastic time.

So where are the top 5 places to throw down and party for Fat Tuesday?5. Venice
Venice provides the Italian atmosphere and throwback baroque charm to make you feel like you have stepped back in time a few centuries. Massive Parties are thrown at Piazza San Marco and thousands dress up in extravagant costumes to add an air of aristocracy to the Venetian streets. European revelers clog Venice’s narrow alleyways and bridges with a great time. The oldest Carnevale party in Venice took place in the 13th century, making Venice the original spot for the party.

Fat Tuesday

4. Portugal
Portugal’s celebrations vary by region with some smaller cities incorporating pagan rituals into the “Carnaval” experience. The largest party in the country happens in Lisbon and is a very cosmopolitan experience. With famous dancers and a massive parade, it is easy to find a great time in colorful Lisbon. In northern Portugal, revelers dress up in colorful yellow, red, and green costumes with tin masks (pictured above) and consume a lot of meat.

3. Trinidad and Tobago
This tiny island hosts the largest Carnival experience in the Caribbean. The party lasts over a month and climaxes with a massive 3 day party in the Port of Spain that ends on Ash Wednesday. Steel pans and Calypso music echo out across the massive party as Trinidadians and Tobagonians dance to the beat while clutching cups filled with sugary rum. On the Monday before Fat Tuesday, revelers wear old clothes and cover themselves in mud, oil, and paint. Some dress as devils. On Fat Tuesday, the party hits overdrive and revelers enrobe themselves in their Carnival finery.

2. New Orleans
Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and in the States, New Orleans is the place to take in the party. People come from all over the world for this French-American version of Carnival. The epicenter of the party is Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Fat Tuesday is the apogee of the debauchery. With parades, beads, and hand grenades, it is hard not to have a great time in New Orleans.

1. Rio de Janeiro
The craziest and most intense carnival celebration takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Brazilians call it the greatest show on earth, and they make a valid point. Millions of people descend on the streets of Rio to dance the night away and gawk at Brazilian goddesses dressed in Samba costumes. The celebrations really take off the weekend before Ash Wednesday with the party exploding like a star on Fat Tuesday. Check out the video below to see what the world’s biggest party looked like in 1955.

flickr images via justindelaney and Rosina

Gadling’s favorite hotels for 2011

gadling favorite hotels 2011

Where do your loyal well-traveled Gadling contributors especially love to spend the night? We polled Gadling writers on their favorite hotels in 2010. Think of Gadling’s favorite hotels for 2011 as our version of a hotel tip sheet.

Laurel Miller. The Kirketon in Sydney for its quirkiness, cool bar, small size, helpful staff and retro-mod style, blissfully free of big-city attitude. Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, South Australia as a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence in a staggeringly beautiful, intimate setting hovering over a private beach covered with wallaby tracks. For high-end luxury, Ecuador’s Hacienda Zuleta. It’s historic, in the foothills of Andes in northern Ecuador, a working dairy/horse farm/creamery/condor preserve. It offers an intensely Ecuadorean experience, from the local indigenous culture to hospitality, geography, and food that is worth the trek. And lastly theWit in Chicago with its ideal location on the Loop, across the street from the river.

Mike Barish. The Wort Hotel in Jackson, Wyoming. Located right in the heart of Jackson, a historic hotel steeped in cowboy tradition. Grab a drink at the hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar after a day exploring Grand Teton National Park.

Grant Martin. Favorite hotel of the year was the Elysian, right in downtown Chicago. Beautiful, huge rooms, clean, elegant and sharp appointments, razor-sharp staff and a perfect location make this the best spot to spend a long weekend in the Loop.

Annie Scott. The Capella Hotel in Singapore remains a favorite, as does the Hotel Imperial in Vienna. I’m a sucker for luxury. I also loved staying at Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, a treehouse hotel in Zambia, despite a harrowing adventure with a giant bug which I eventually captured with a teacup and saucer.

McLean Robbins. CastaDiva Resort, Lake Como. Opened in June, this is the first five-star resort to open on the lake in about 100 years. It’s stunning and unique. Used to be a private home to the muse of Bellini, sat empty for decades before being gutted and re-done. Top-notch service, food and spa.

Don George. This year’s hotel highlights were the following trio in Peru. All combined great style and comfort with a deep sense of immersion in the local place, through their architecture, cuisine, artful decorations, and programs that featured local people to promote local sights and attractions. In Urubamba: Sol & Luna. In Aguas Calientes: Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. In Cusco: Inkaterra La Casona.Tom Johansmeyer: My favorite hotel will always be On the Ave, on W 77th Street, between Amsterdam Ave and Broadway in Manhattan. I once lived there for a few months, and while doing so, I fell in love with the Upper West Side, ultimately moving into the neighborhood. Since my stay in 2004 the rooms have been renovated, but the sixteenth-floor terrace remains. On your next trip to the city, skip the big names, and head up to my neighborhood: it’s worth it to stay a bit out of the way.

Melanie Nayer. Sticking with the Shanghai theme (see yesterday’s favorite destinations post) my favorite hotel this year is the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong.

Karen Walrond. I’m a big fan of the boutique hotel. Recently I stayed at Hotel Lucia in Portland and was blown away by the customer service, and it’s not too expensive. In my homeland of Trinidad, I love the Coblenz Inn, an upscale little boutique place. I also love Acajou, an upscale-yet-very-rustic eco lodge in Grand Riviere, Trinidad. Lovely.

David Farley. The Royal Park Hotel in Tokyo. If you can, get upgraded. Upgrades mean an early-evening cocktail hour with complimentary drinks and snacks every evening.

Kraig Becker. The Chico Hot Spring Resort located in Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park in the beautiful Absaroka Mountains. Rooms start as low as $49/night and range up to $300/night for luxurious cabins with some of the most spectacular views around. After a gourmet meal in the Chico dining room, guests can soak in the pool, which is drained and refilled each night with water from the local hot springs.

Catherine Bodry. Songtsam hotels in China

Alex Robertson Textor. Buenos Aires cE Hotel de Diseño. I loved the hotel’s location and thorough minimalism (concrete walls and floors) as well as the ample room size and delicious breakfast. The rate, which I found through Tablet Hotels, was also very reasonable, at $109 including taxes.

[Image: Flickr | doug_wertman]