A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Inconsiderate Chadian Rebels Fail To Scuttle My Holiday Plans

The Foreign Service isn’t a normal, 9-5 occupation, where one can check out after leaving the office each day. The benefits outweigh the negatives for most, but almost every Foreign Service Officer (FSO) faces moments when they’re forced to decide if they want to prioritize their career at the expense of their personal life.

Most who want to become an Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission at an overseas post or high ranking officer in Washington, end up having to do damage control on the family side at one time or another as they pursue their careers. Others who are content to muddle through and pick up a steady paycheck can sometimes, but not always, keep the after hours duties to a minimum.

I faced my first real career crossroads in the Foreign Service several years ago as the State Department’s Desk Officer for Chad & The Central African Republic, when Chadian rebels rudely staged a coup attempt just as I was about to leave Washington for a well deserved vacation in Sicily with my wife, Jen.Coup attempts in Chad are about as predictable as a “Love Boat” episode, so I wasn’t immediately panicked when I heard the news from Kathleen, our political officer in N’Djamena early one morning, less than 48 hours before our departure for Sicily. But my boss, whom I’ll call Cleopatra, just for fun, acted like the love of her life had just told her she was a one-night-stand when I reminded her of my impending trip later that day.

“You’re not going to Sicily,” she commanded. “Humpty Dumpty’s about to fall and I need you here.”

It should be said here that my boss had an unhealthy obsession with Chad’s President, Idriss Deby. Cleopatra was responsible for overseeing well over a dozen countries in Africa, but she was fixated on Chad. President Deby’s rule was more or less a model for bad governance, so she was right to hope that he’d go, but my view was a bit more nuanced.

There are plenty of heavy hitters in and out of government in Washington who believe that, as the world’s lone superpower, the United States can influence and direct developments in every corner of the globe. I don’t subscribe to that theory and I think that we get ourselves in trouble too often by meddling in the affairs of other countries. I agreed that Deby needed to go, but felt that it was up to the Chadians, and not us, to find a way to get rid of him.

I promised Cleopatra that I’d look into postponing my trip but made no promises, as I knew that it would be complicated and possibly expensive. Also, the situation in Chad was so unstable that there was no real way to safely reschedule the trip, since we had no idea when or if the situation would stabilize.

I looked into changing our airline tickets and hotel reservations but discovered that it would cost a bundle to change the airline tickets and some of the hotel reservations couldn’t be cancelled with so little notice. My wife thought that there was no way in hell we should cancel the trip and I agreed, though I dreaded telling Cleopatra the following day.

To pre-empt her concerns, I found a veteran Chad expert from S/CRS, the State Department’s Office of Stabilization and Reconstruction who had recently made trips to Chad and was well versed on the situation to cover for me. She was eager to get a taste for the work of a desk officer – which is kind of like being a middleman who coordinates policy between Washington and the post – and her boss graciously allowed her to assume my role while I’d be gone.

Cleopatra had an unhealthy habit of screaming my name out when she wanted to speak to me, rather than picking up her telephone and calling me, and, after I heard her yell out, “DAVVVVVVVVID!” for the first time on my last day before the trip, I knew it was time to break the news to her.

I told her about the replacement and promised that I’d check in every day via email in case any issues arose, but still, she pouted and acted like a jilted lover. In the span of 24 hours, I’d gone from being her favorite person in the office to a pariah.

After the uncomfortable conversation was over, I went back to my tiny little windowless office and took stock of the situation. I felt bad about proceeding with the trip, but knew that the situation in Chad was going to proceed apace no matter where I was. We had a fully functional embassy in Chad and I was leaving them with a more than competent replacement.

The preceding year had been the worst of my life, as I had spent months struggling with a serious illness that was hard to diagnose. I had been looking forward to visiting Sicily because I wanted to trace my ancestry and because I needed a break.

I decided to go on the trip, but in order to please Cleopatra, I brought my suitcase in to work and planned to work up until the time I needed to head to Dulles for my flight that evening. I spent the afternoon with my replacement and when it came time to leave the office at the end of the day, I ducked into Cleopatra’s office to say goodbye.

“You aren’t really going are you?” she asked, despite the fact that I was carrying a rolling suitcase.

I reminded her that I’d be checking in every day via email but she just sat at her desk, looking at me in disbelief. She asked me to draft a paper about one of the rebel leaders whom we knew nothing about and looked inconsolable when I told her I had a flight to catch. She was single with no kids and I wondered if there was anything in the world she cared about other than her job.

“Cleopatra,” I said. “This is just another false alarm in Chad. Believe me, Deby’s still going to be in office long after you and I aren’t working here any more.”

History proved me to be correct. That coup attempt and others fizzled and Deby is still in office, longer after both Cleopatra and I left the State Department. But my relationship with my boss was never the same and my next evaluation from her was good but not great. (And in the Foreign Service, only complete reprobates get bad evaluations, so good, not great ones don’t take you very far.)

My wife and I had a great time in Sicily, though, hitchhiking to the villages my grandparents came from, enjoying the food and wine as though it was our job, and trying hard to forget about Chad and Cleo, despite daily missives from her to my gmail account. When I was asked to choose between travel and work, I chose travel, but I don’t think many other FSO’s would have done the same.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.
[Photo via Opendemocracy on Flickr]

Top 20 travel destinations – The 2011 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report

Every couple of years, the World Economic Forum crunches a bunch of numbers and releases a list of the top countries in the world to visit. While ranking 139 countries, they measure aspects such as pricing, culture, environmental protection, safety, and infrastructure. For the 2011 report, Switzerland remained at the number one spot – the returning champion from the last report in 2009. Nine out of the bottom ten countries are located in Africa, and seven out of the top ten are located in Europe. Chad ranked in at 139 out of 139. Italy, one of the most visited countries in the world, placed 27th. For the full list, download the PDF at the World Economic Forum website under the ‘reports’ tab.

20. Norway
19. New Zealand
18. Portugal
17. Finland
16. Denmark
15. Luxembourg
14. Netherlands
13. Australia
12. Hong Kong
11. Iceland
10. Singapore9. Canada
8. Spain
7. United Kingdom
6. United States
5. Sweden
4. Austria
3. France
2. Germany
1. Switzerland

flickr image via jeffwilcox

Ten most corrupt countries of the world

You spend every holiday weekend annoyed that you can’t talk your way out of a speeding ticket. If only there were some way out of that predicament … aside from taking your lead foot off the gas, right? You may be out of luck on the New Jersey Turnpike, but there are plenty of places in the world where money talks, according to a new study by Transparency International. So, if you tend to disregard local laws and customs, you may want to pick one of the 10 countries below for your next vacation.

WARNING: You may need to bring a bit of fire power for some of these destinations.

1. Somalia:
Is this even a country? It has no real government to speak of, not to mention a history of piracy, mob violence, warlord brutality and kidnapping. So, chew a little khat to take the edge off.

The Good News: You can’t really break any laws where there aren’t any.

2. Myanmar: Okay, the human rights issue here is pretty severe, and the military regime is known for being among the most repressive and abusive in the world. So, don’t complain about the thread-count in your hotel.

The Good News: There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy as a result of slow economic growth. A bleak financial outlook is good for the environment!

%Gallery-106020%3. Afghanistan: Ummmm, there’s a war going on there – you may remember that. So, you’re dealing more with warlords than conventional law enforcement officials. This takes some of the predictability out of your mischief, and it does amp the risk up a bit.

The Good News: There are several options for civilian flights. Also, fishing is fine, but you can’t use hand grenades.

4. Iraq: Again with the war … The easiest way to get there is to wear a uniform, but that will make bribing your way out of trouble far more difficult.

The Good News: Prostitutes may not be in abundance, but if you have an itch in Baghdad, you’ll probably find someone to help you scratch it.

5. Uzbekistan: The CIA describes the government as “authoritarian presidential rule.” Is there really anything else you need to know? Yes, there is: Uzbekistan has a nasty human trafficking problem.

The Good News: Uzbekistan’s currency is the Ubekistani soum – that’s what you’ll use to bribe your way out of trouble.

6. Turkmenistan: Uzbekistan’s neighbor is no prize, either. Instead of trading in skin, though, Turkmenistan prefers drugs. It’s described in the CIA World Factbook as a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russia and Western European markets.”

The Good News: If you’re in the heroin business, this is a crucial stop in your supply chain. If you’re not, well, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to care about the place.

7. Sudan: The global financial crisis of 2008 actually affected this country. Until then, money was flowing in just as fast as oil could flow out. Then, economies crumbled around the world, which dealt a nasty blow to the country.

The Good News: There’s at least one form of equal rights in Sudan: both men and women can be drafted into military service.

8. Chad: Why is Chad so corrupt? Well, this may have something to do with the human trafficking problem, which the country “is not making any significant efforts” to address. Rebel groups in the country add to the likelihood for mayhem.

The Good News: Chad ranks 190 worldwide in terms of GDP, which means your bribe dollars will go much further than in more developed nations.

9. Burundi: A dispute with Rwanda over sections of the border they share has resulted in various conflicts and a spirit of lawlessness that will make your own nefarious plans pale in comparison.

The Good News: Though landlocked, there is probably some great real estate alongside Lake Tanganyika.

10. Equatorial Guinea: Any country that has failed to try to combat human trafficking is probably a top spot for corruption, so it isn’t surprising that Equatorial Guinea made the top 10.

The Good News: Government officials and their families own most of the businesses in the country, so any broad complaints can be addressed by a handful of people.

[photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr]

“Obama Effect” helps African tourism

Last year was a bad year for travel in most places, but a continent that has generally been overlooked by the majority of travelers is seeing boom times–Africa.

Africa is the only continent to see a rise in tourism last year, up 5 percent when most other places felt the pinch. The UN World Tourism Organization revealed the figures this week and said Africa had “bucked the trend” of the worldwide travel recession. Part of the boom is attributed to the “Obama Effect”, a new curiosity about Africa thanks to the U.S. having its first African-American president. Obama, seen here playing basketball in the African nation of Djibouti, has family in Kenya. The tourist board there says visitors are flocking in to learn more about where the president is from.

The other big factor is the World Cup, due to take place in South Africa this year. Not only will that bring a huge number of visitors to South Africa, but it helps put the entire continent on the map.

Not all countries are doing well. The Gambia has been hit hard, with the usual crowd of beach-loving Europeans tanning closer to home. Meanwhile, Chad and Niger are struggling to expand their tiny tourism industries by protecting and promoting their wildlife. The overall picture, however, looks rosy.

Will this be the decade Africa comes into its own as a tourist destination? There’s no shortage of natural wonders, ancient civilizations, and interesting cultures to explore. Our very own Stephen Greenwood is having an incredible time in Madagascar right now, a friend of mine is crossing the entire continent on a motorcycle, and later next month I’ll be sending dispatches from Ethiopia.

Have you been in Africa? Tell us about it in the comments section!



Saving elephants in Chad

Central Africa is one of the last regions with a sizable population of African elephant, but their numbers are only a fraction of what they used to be. In Zakouma National Park in Chad there are an estimated 600 elephants. Twenty years ago there were 40,000.

Zakouma takes up 3,000 square kilometers of savanna in southern Chad and has populations of elephants, giraffes, lions, cranes, and other animals. It’s the number one tourist destination in the country and the government is trying to preserve the wildlife for the sake of the tourist industry

Nomadic tribes passing through the region hunt the elephants with AK-47s. Ivory sells for about $40 a kilo in Chad, a country where the average annual income is $530. In other words, one good tusk is worth a year’s wages. The ivory is exported to more developed nations for jewelry or folk medicines, especially China.

Armed guards patrol the park, but it’s a huge area to cover and poachers won’t hesitate to murder them if they get in the way. Ten guards have been killed defending the elephants. Now there are about seventy guards in the park and they’ve been given new training and weapons. The Wildlife Conservation Society helps out by monitoring the elephant populations, and giving monetary support and air reconnaissance. Like the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Niger, an NGO and the government of a developing country are working together to save some of Africa’s most amazing wildlife. I hope they succeed. My four-year-old loves elephants and I want them to still be around when he’s my age.

Photos of the park and conservation efforts can be seen here.