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.
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.

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[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: When Bureaucracy Keeps Diplomats Grounded

tribal indian womanIf you have a diplomatic passport, you ought to be able to use the damn thing. But the truth is that way too many American diplomats are grounded in their offices, buried in paperwork. Much has been made of the fact that enhanced security has made it difficult for diplomats to travel and interact with people on the ground in the countries they live in. And while that is definitely true at some posts, the bigger problem isn’t security, it’s that diplomats don’t have enough time to get out of their offices and report on what is really going on in their little corners of the world.

In 1946, officials at the Treasury Department sent a request to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for clarification on why the USSR didn’t support the newly created World Bank and IMF. Legendary diplomat George Keenan, then the Chargé d’Affaires (a title given to a chief of mission when there is no Ambassador at post) in Moscow, responded with a legendary 8,000-word cable on the aggressive nature of Stalin’s foreign policy.

Keenan’s response came to be known as the Long Telegram, but at the time, the length of the cable may not have been that remarkable. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) had time to get out and explore and fire off lengthy dispatches back to Washington. But with each passing decade, as communications improved and government got bigger, FSOs have had less and less time for discretionary reporting trips.

At the State Department and at more than 200 embassies and consulates around the world, diplomats spend a huge amount of time responding to taskers. The most time consuming are congressionally mandated annual reports on terrorism, human rights, trafficking in persons, religious freedom, and other topics that must be prepared for every country, large and small. But taskers come in all sizes and shapes – emails, cables, memos, demarche requests, you name it.

In some cases, the information that’s compiled is useful and actually read by people who matter in our government. But in many other cases, the reports/cables/memos that are produced are nothing more than bureaucratic masturbation that’s read by no one other than the author.

I had some exposure to this phenomenon, serving as both a political officer overseas and as a desk officer in the belly of the beast – Washington, D.C. When I was the Desk Officer for the Central African Republic, we were still in the process of re-staffing the post after a coup, so I was stuck trying to respond to all of these taskers and I’m quite certain the only people who read many of the reports I wrote were immigration lawyers grasping for fodder to bolster their clients’ asylum applications.

Not every FSO likes to travel. In truth, there are quite a few pencil pushers in the State Department’s Foreign Service who are quite pleased to sit in an air-conditioned office, live in a tiny expat bubble and push paper without seeing or experiencing a damn thing on their overseas tours. These people have no journalistic instincts – no ability to get out and develop their own ideas of what to report on in their host countries – so for them, taskers help them pass the time until they can collect a pension.

But this lame group probably accounts for no more than about 25-30% of the service, perhaps less. For everyone else, the crushing weight of taskers keeps people in their offices more than they should be. Everyone always pays lip service to the need to “get out of the capital” more often, but in reality, the excursions out into the sticks are as brief and carefully choreographed as a televised sexual encounter with Snooki or The Situation on the Jersey Shore.

Spending a half-hour cutting a ribbon at a factory in Belo Horizonte or a couple of hours at a conference in Nagpur is just fodder for EERs – the evaluations that dictate the career progression of American diplomats – not real attempts to understand what’s going on outside the castle.

One could make a pretty strong argument for either completely eliminating or scaling back the mandated reporting requirements for all but the most robustly staffed posts. In some cases, these reports can help highlight abuses in countries and put pressure on those governments to clean up their acts. But they also rub an awful lot of people the wrong way and underscore the impression of the U.S. as a preachy, imperial power – a young country that nonetheless feels the need to lecture everyone else on how to act.

Diplomats can use holidays and vacation time to travel on their own, but much of this time is spent catching up with friends and relatives in the States. I’d like to see every FSO get many more opportunities to really get out and get to know their countries on a deeper level. Send them out to cities and towns far from the capital with no mandate other than to make contacts and report on what’s going on there and what it means for U.S. interests.

The truth is that you can learn a lot more in a café, a bar or a public park than from staring at a computer screen, sitting in a meeting or killing time a the Ministry of Pipe Smoking & Highway Construction Graft. So here’s my challenge to the Foreign Service: pack your bags and hit the road. Organize yourselves. Pick two weeks where every single FSO gets out and about for reporting trips. Not super choreographed affairs where so and so has to go to Timbuktu to file a report on counterterrorism, but organic reporting in the old-school Foreign Service tradition, where each FSO is sent to a city or region for a week and told to use their own initiative to report on something important.

Half of the FSOs at each post would split up and branch out around the country one week, the other half the next. (No group outings to sing kumbaya and engage in Washington approved team-building exercises!) Let everyone publish their own long telegram, but make them be unclassified so Americans can read the dispatches and better understand what the hell FSOs are capable of when they aren’t buried under an avalanche of paperwork.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user Meanest Indian]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Thoughts On The Murder Of 4 American Diplomats In Libya

memorial pin state departmentOn Tuesday night, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in Libya when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their vehicle in Benghazi, Libya. They were fleeing the U.S. consulate, which was attacked by a Salafi Islamist mob that was outraged over a film that, according to the Telegraph, depicted the Prophet Mohammed as “a fraud, a womanizer and a madman” and “showed him having sex and calling for massacres.”

Protestors also made it over the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, but luckily no one there was hurt. The film, which was also being promoted by the infamous Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, was made by Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American who has been described in the press as “unrepentant,” “defiant,” and “unapologetic.”

Bacile told the Associated Press that he made the film with $5 million in backing from 100 Jewish donors and declined to accept any responsibility for the attack.

“I feel the security system (at the embassies) is no good,” he said. “America should do something to change it.”

When tragedies like this one occur, every current and former Foreign Service Officer (FSO), myself included, feels the loss. The Foreign Service is a family, a big dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless, and everyone grieves along with these families.

The tragedy underscores the risks FSOs and their family members take in serving their countries overseas. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) maintains two plaques inside the State Department’s Harry S. Truman building that contain the names of 236 diplomats who have perished while serving their country overseas.

The media often derides American embassies and consulates overseas as “fortresses” but when I was in the Foreign Service, I wanted our missions to be as secure as possible. All three of the overseas posts where I served were deemed insecure facilities that needed to be replaced, and in Skopje, the wing of the embassy that my wife worked in was deemed particularly vulnerable. (A new embassy has since opened there) I would invite any journalist that wants to criticize American security to go work in one of these facilities and see if their perspective changes.

Several years ago, I remember strolling right into the Hungarian embassy in Washington with no security in sight and thinking how nice it would be to be from a country that wasn’t a target for terrorists and other evildoers. I wouldn’t trade my citizenship for that of any other country, but I wish that the Sam Bacile’s and Terry Jones’s of the world would understand how their actions put Americans overseas in danger.

They should be ashamed of themselves, but obviously the blame for this incident goes directly to the evil perpetrators of the crime itself. Let’s hope they are brought to swift justice and are treated in the harshest way imaginable. Many on the right will recoil at the idea of blaming anti-Islam crusaders like Bacile and Jones. Mitt Romney hasn’t commented on the video itself but claimed that President Obama “sympathized with the protesters.

Romney apparently objected to an apparently unauthorized statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, hours before they were under siege. Governor Romney hasn’t spent much time in the Middle East and other parts of the world where being an American carries great risks and apparently isn’t aware of the need to try to keep a lid on the protests that have occurred around the Muslim World.

We know from past experience that ultra-conservative Muslims around the world don’t simply shrug off attacks on the Prophet Mohammed as the work of fringe zealots and yet people like Bacile continue to stir the pot, oblivious to the risks and the damage their work does to our country’s image. Why?

I didn’t know Ambassador Stevens, but some of my former colleagues did and from what I can gather, he was an outstanding diplomat and an all around great guy. One described him on Facebook as a “genuinely nice person,” “a gifted diplomat, and a good man,” while another wrote that he was “a peacemaker” and “one of (our) best Middle East diplomats,” who was a “scholar, a jogger, and a mentor.”

The State Department also released the identity of one of the other three victims. He was Sean Smith, an Information Management Officer who was a father of two and a ten-year Foreign Service veteran with previous postings in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal, and most recently the Hague.

My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all of the victims of this horrific tragedy. Their service, and the work done by everyone in the Foreign Service tends to go practically unnoticed in a country that takes too much for granted.

The public tends to think of diplomats as highbrow types who spend their time sipping cocktails in the European capitals, oblivious to the reality that many, if not most, are hunkered down in downright unpleasant places doing important, sometimes dangerous work.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like this to remind us to be thankful for the sacrifices they make for our country, but as we grieve along with their families, we ought to also thank all those who serve their country overseas – soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, everyone – for their service.

UPDATE: News reports indicate that the Libyan attackers may have used the protests over the anti-Muslim film as cover to launch their attack on the consulate and the American FSO’s who died may have been in the compound, rather than fleeing in a vehicle. It will probably be months before we know exactly what went down but I stand by what I wrote this morning. The attackers are to blame but the filmaker/s should be ashamed of themselves for putting Americans at risk. News outlets have also called into question the identity of Sam Bacile, which may be a pseudonym. Romney, meanwhile, is standing by his ludicrous, slimy, uninformed criticism of the President, which has in some ways overshadowed the tragedy itself.

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

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Free Alcohol And Other Reasons Why Ohrid Is Europe’s Last Great Unspoiled Place

On a frigid day in January 2003, on the Feast of the Epiphany, dozens of men and boys were waiting to jump into the icy waters of Lake Ohrid. As hundreds of onlookers stood on the shore in Ohrid, Macedonia, an Orthodox priest threw a large cross into the water and the swimmers tore after it in the belief that capturing it would bring them a year of good luck.

One of the great joys of life in the Foreign Service is how it enables you to discover places you’d ordinarily never make it to, not as a tourist but as a local. I had never even heard of Ohrid before joining the Foreign Service, but over the course of a two-year tour in Macedonia, I visited the enchanting lakeside town more than a dozen times. On each visit, I’d make a new discovery – a church I hadn’t noticed before, a different vantage of the lake, a beach club – that kept me coming back to the place that got under my skin more than anywhere else in the Balkans.ohrid in snowBut it was that first visit in the depths of winter when my wife and I felt certain we were the only foreigners in town that I will always cherish. I had lived in Skopje for three months but both my car and my wife had just arrived in country. We were married twice in the previous nine months – once to get my wife on my travel orders and once for real, but had been living apart, me in Washington and then Skopje, and my wife in Chicago, where she was finishing a graduate program in public health.

We were finally together and I wanted to take her to Ohrid, the place every local person insisted I had to visit. Skopje may be the capital of Macedonia, but Ohrid is the country’s heart – the city that holds a place in every Macedonian’s heart. I was happy to see my old car again, even if it did seem odd that it now had a peculiar looking CD diplomatic plate on it. And the ride along the winding, mostly two-lane road from Skopje to Ohrid was a neat introduction to Macedonian driving culture for both of us.

“People pass on blind curves,” my wife said. “Don’t they care if they die?”

We drove straight to a lakefront promenade just beyond the city’s historic core, with no clue that it was an Orthodox feast day, and saw all the spectators and cross swimmers in their speedos. The competition to get the cross was fierce and the young man who emerged from the water with the prize clutched it like a baby, kissing and fondling it, as friends and relatives swaddled him in blankets and hailed him as a conquering hero. He was the King of Macedonia for a day.

We followed the departing crowd and the trail of gypsy music toward the center of town and found a crowd of people around a huge, bubbling hot cauldron of rakija, a brandy that is the country’s national beverage of choice. A jovial middle-aged man with coke-bottled glasses was ladling out plastic cups of the delicious stuff that warmed our chilled bones. I pulled out my wallet to pay for the drinks but the man waved us off.

“Gratis,” he said.

At first I thought he was buying us drinks because we were foreigners, but I quickly realized that no one was paying. A free, hot alcoholic beverage was flowing on the ancient streets of Ohrid and as the crowd warmed up, people began to dance in tight circles to the live gypsy band. Half drunk men in funny little caps wanted to get to know us, despite the language barrier and the party was on.

“In the U.S., there’s no way anyone would be giving out free alcohol at something like this,” I remarked. “Plus, everyone would have to show I.D., get wristbands, and the whole thing would be sponsored by Miller Lite or Best Buy.”

It was a beautifully organic, free little celebration and I still can’t recall a more convivial scene in my life. After the band and the revelers dispersed, hours later, we visited a host of stunning medieval churches with frescoes that were still vivid and beautiful, despite their antiquity.

Lake Ohrid is said to be three million years old and the town itself is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in Europe. Ohrid’s churches contain some 800 Byzantine style icons dating from the 11th to 14th centuries, and Sveti Jovan Kaneo, perched dramatically next to the lake, is one of the most stunningly situated places of worship in the world. Locals say that Ohrid has 365 churches and is the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet.

ohridThe streets of Ohrid are a joy to get lost in – we climbed up and down steps in every direction, not knowing or caring where we were going and sat for ages watching children play soccer in the courtyard of an ancient church.

Late in the day, we drove outside town to Sveti Naum, a tiny, ancient church right near the Albanian border. I doubt that more than a dozen people could fit into Sveti Naum at one time, but it’s one of the holiest places I’ve ever been to. It was very dark, with just a few candles lit, and all one could see were the eerie haunting old frescoes on the ceiling and walls. It’s the kind of place where even an atheist might feel the presence of God.

On the way back to Ohrid, we saw a small pack of kids halting traffic on the road, as they rushed up to each passing vehicle. I couldn’t see exactly what was going on, other than that passing motorists were giving the kids some money. They made their way over to us, and we could see that they had the cross that had been thrown in the water that morning. Perhaps one of them was the younger sibling of the young man who had retrieved it?

After deducing that we didn’t speak Macedonian, one of the youths switched to broken English.

“Give us money and you will kiss the cross,” he said. “For luck.”

We gave them the Macedonian equivalent of a few dollars and got to kiss the cross. And it did indeed turn out to be a great year for us, but the luck didn’t kick in immediately. Several hours before, we had checked into a 10€ per night room after seeing a “Zimmer” sign outside someone’s apartment, and we agreed to stay there after a quick look. But then when we returned in the evening, we realized that the little apartment was ice cold.

I don’t recall if the place had a formal heating system that was just set very cold or what the problem was, but the woman who ran the place gave us about a half dozen heavy woolen blankets and we were just fine.

Over the course of the next two years, we kept returning to Ohrid. We found a little hotel called the Villa Sveti Sofija that became our home away from home and in the summer, we liked to patronize the town’s lakeside bars and beaches. Even on a hot summer night, the temperature by the lake dips dramatically and I used to feel like I’d died and gone to heaven when sitting at a lakefront bar on a cool, starry night sipping $1 bottles of Skopsko, the local beer.

I never got around to jumping in the lake in pursuit of the cross, but I’m the kind of person who prefers not to exhaust every option in a place I love because I like to have an excuse to return. If I ever make it back to Ohrid to swim for the cross, I hope there’s still some warm rakija waiting for me.

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

[Photos by Dave Seminara, Nikolovskii , moeafati and plepe on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Playing The Role Of Gatekeeper To America

mexico borderThere was a grown man crying at my visa window. It was my first week interviewing visa applicants at the American embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and before I’d even had a chance to ask this man why he was applying to visit the U.S., he was sobbing uncontrollably on the other side of the bulletproof glass window.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, in Albanian.

The man said that his son in the U.S. was gravely ill and he needed to visit him right away. My computer indicated that this man had already applied and been refused for visas ten times in the past five years. The son had just had an operation and the man before me believed that his family was lying to him about his son’s condition.

“My son’s wife is a liar,” the man said, in Albanian. “I know it’s much more serious than they are telling me. I don’t know if he’ll make it.”As the man handed me a sealed letter from a hospital in the U.S., I braced myself for a heartbreaking story that I assumed would involve cancer, leukemia, a terrible car accident or who knows what else.

My eyes scanned the letter from the hospital and when I saw the worlds “soccer” and “ankle” I almost burst out laughing. As my visa applicant dried his tears in a handkerchief, I told him that his son had sprained his ankle playing soccer and would be just fine.

These are the kinds of mini-dramas that are acted out at U.S. embassies and consulates millions of times per year, as Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) screen applicants who want to visit, study or work in the U.S. Because of the crushing demand for U.S. visas around the world – last year more than 7 million foreign nationals applied for non-immigrant visas to the U.S. – all FSO’s are required to do a consular tour as junior officers.

Doing a consular tour is seen as a sort of rite of passage – paying one’s dues, so to speak. There are all kinds of horror stories about visa work – some people who are interested in joining the Foreign Service don’t follow through because they’re afraid of doing visa work and others join but expend a lot of effort bitching about the consular requirement.

I found that visa work could be tolerable, and even enjoyable under the right circumstances. Or it can be miserable, depending on workload, whom you share the visa line with and what level of support you receive from management. Here are a few points about visa work at the State Department and surviving the consular tour requirement.

Will you be Able to Say ‘No’?

A common sentiment I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who worked at the State Department in a civil service capacity is, “I don’t think I could do visa work because it would be too hard to refuse visa applicants.”

U.S. law requires consular officers to consider most categories of non-immigrant visa applicants – tourists, students and the like – as intending immigrants unless they prove they have strong ties that would compel them to return to their home countries. In other words, most visa applicants are to be considered guilty until they are proven innocent, and in many poor countries, trying to prove that you won’t overstay your visa isn’t easy.

As a lifelong traveler, I too wondered before I joined the Foreign Service if I’d have a hard time enforcing the law. As a frequent traveler, my gut instinct coming into the Foreign Service was that almost anyone should be allowed to come and visit the U.S. But after I started the job, and saw how many people were abusing the system, my perspective changed, and I came to understand why the law is written the way it is.

Occasionally, I’d feel bad having to refuse people who had particularly sad cases, but you handle so many applications and hear so many lies that after a while, it isn’t really possible to conjure sympathy for everyone. There are millions upon millions of people who want to live in the U.S. and sadly, it just isn’t possible for everyone. If it were, our population would be 3 billion instead of 314 million.

There are some FSO’s who never really learn how to say ‘no’ to visa applicants. I know a few who had 97 or 98 percent issuance rates, but the vast majority learns how to do it with no real problem. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Is it Hard to Get a Tourist Visa to the U.S.?

The common perception is that it’s very difficult for people in developing countries to obtain tourist visas to the U.S. While many are denied each year and many more don’t even apply because they think they won’t qualify, or can’t afford the fees, it isn’t nearly as hard as people think.

Take a look at the visitor’s visa issuance rates in countries around the world, and you’ll probably be very surprised. In fiscal year 2011, the issuance rate in Mexico was 87 percent, in Brazil it was 96 percent, Russia was at 90 percent, South Africa came in at 95 percent and even Pakistan, Kosovo and Syria had issuance rates hovering around 70 percent. By my calculation, using the State Department’s total issuance and refusal figures, about 85 percent of visa applicants were issued around the world in FY 2011.

There are a number of reasons why the State Department issues more visas than it denies, and I explored this topic in a research paper a few years ago. I won’t go into all of these reasons here, but suffice it to say that it’s a lot easier to issue visas than it is to deny them. Applicants who get their visas head off to the U.S., while refused ones stay home and enlist their friends or relatives in the U.S. to call and send pleading messages to the embassy to get their visa refusals overturned. FSO’s are constantly asked to justify refusals but rarely are asked to explain issuances.

Bid Carefully to Avoid Visa Mills

For those who want to join the Foreign Service but are wary of having to do visa work at a so-called “visa mill” posts, where one might have to adjudicate tens of thousands of applications per year, do your research in the bidding process. I’ve done consular work at three overseas posts and none were considered “visa mills” but the consular workload at each post varied dramatically.

It might take a bit of research, but find out how the post you are bidding on is staffed, and then look at the total number of visa applications they get per year. It’s not an exact science, but you’ll get an idea for how busy you’ll be.

Better Have a Thick Skin

Visa interviews are high stakes affairs for the applicants and while most visa applicants are courteous – even if they are refused – you will inevitably have to endure some abuse at some posts. I know FSO’s who had applicants in Haiti cast voodoo-like spells on them, toss mysterious substances at them under the document slot, and worse. If you adjudicate enough visa applications, you will have people curse and condemn you.

But the worst vitriol sometimes comes in the mail. Many applicants say nothing when refused at the window, but write letters, or have their relatives or their relatives’ congressional representatives write letters alleging outrageous conduct that never occurred. I will never forget one failed applicant who wrote a letter comparing me to a Nazi prison camp guard.

Once in a blue moon, you might receive a thank you letter from an applicant who received their visa, but for every one of those, there are 1,000 complaints and all of them require a response. But for all the negatives, visa work can also be fun. You meet a lot of people, you hear great stories and you get to practice using the local language wherever you are. In limited doses, at the right post with good management, it can actually be enjoyable.

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

[Photo by Omar Omar on Flickr]