Darwin Awards Contenders Foiled By Observant Cafe Customer

Darwin Awards
Four men who could have become strong candidates for this year’s Darwin Awards have been saved by a Good Samaritan who was enjoying some coffee nearby.

The BBC reports that a customer at a cafe in Oxwich Bay, Wales, spotted four men in a dinghy clutching onto a buoy and desperately trying to get the attention of those on shore.

It’s unclear if the men were consciously trying to win the Darwin Awards, given out every year for people who get killed in stupid ways and thus improve the gene pool of our species. Nevertheless, they proved their candidacy by setting out in an inflatable dinghy into worsening weather with no life jackets and no flares. Winds had reached up to force six on the Beaufort Scale by the time they were saved. Force six is just short of a gale, with waves rising up to 13 feet.

The person who spotted them alerted the coast guard, who sent out a lifeboat to save them. If it wasn’t for this observant coffee lover, these wannabe sailors may have replicated the famous “Raft of the Medusa,” being adrift at sea for weeks, slowly expiring from hunger and thirst until desperation led them to gnaw on one another to survive. It would have given a whole new meaning to the term “Welsh rarebit.”

If you must try an alternative diet, try vegetarianism instead. It’s far more benign. Also familiarize yourself with weather conditions before setting out and practice these sea safety guidelines. Now that spring is here and everyone wants to get out in the water, it’s important to know how to play safe.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

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]

Video Of The Day: Liberia And Cannibal Generals

**WARNING: THIS VIDEO MAY MAKE SOME VIEWERS UNCOMFORTABLE. Watch with discretion.**

Charles Taylor was all over the news today. The former president of Liberia has been sentenced to 50 years in prison for supporting and arming homicidal rebels in Sierra Leone in return for “blood diamonds.” From an article in the New York Times today:

After more than a year of deliberations, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Mr. Taylor guilty in late April of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his part in fomenting mass brutality that included murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, the mutilation of thousands of civilians and the mining of diamonds to pay for guns and ammunition. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Taylor was motivated in these gruesome actions not by any ideology but rather by “pure avarice” and a thirst for power.

Appalling as that may sound, atrocious acts aren’t as uncommon in Liberia as they are in other places. In this video, VICE documents the destitute state of Liberia, cannibalism and other desperate measures taken by citizens of the country.

Liberians Join the Fight in Ivory Coast

Archaeology reveals the best way to drink: from a human skull

archaeology, skull, skull cup
Archaeologists in England have discovered three prehistoric skulls that were used as cups, the BBC reports.

The skulls were carefully worked into the shape of bowls. They were found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and are 14,700 years old. These make them the oldest skull cups discovered. Investigators found other human remains in the cave that suggest people split the bones to get at the marrow. As any dedicated carnivore knows, the marrow is one of the richest and most nutritious parts of any animal, humans included.

Skull cups were used by many cultures for many reasons. Some were involved in rituals to remind one of death, like this carved Chinese example photographed by user Shizhao and posted to Wikimedia Commons. Other cultures, like the Vikings and Scythians, drank from the skulls of their enemies to brag about their victory or get the power of the slain warrior for themselves. The archaeologists studying the Somerset skulls have published an interesting article about skull cups. The BBC also interviewed one of the researchers and their video of the skull cups is below.

So next time you’re in a museum, keep a sharp eye out for skull cups. The Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has one, as does the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. London’s Natural History Museum sponsored the research and is making a reconstructed skull cup that will go on display in March.

Have you seen skull cups in other museums? Tell us about it in the comments section!