A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Meet An Intrepid Diplomat

photo of american diplomatIn our ongoing attempt to demystify the Foreign Service, we’re going to occasionally introduce you to diplomats living in various parts of the world. Amy Tachco is a 36-year-old Foreign Service Officer (FSO) originally from Southern California and Central Ohio who joined the Foreign Service just over ten years ago.

Amy and I joined the Foreign Service at the same time and were part of the same A-100 class, which is essentially a two month long intro to the Foreign Service. As I described in December, at least one of our classmates shed tears over an assignment to Jamaica, but Amy was unfazed when she was sent to Karachi, Pakistan, her 19th choice.

Over the last ten years, she’s also served in Casablanca, Madrid, Beirut and Damascus. She arrived in Karachi just days after a suicide bomber struck the embassy, flew into Beirut on a helicopter during the height of the 2006 conflict and recently had a Bashar Assad thug pelt her with a tomato. She was evacuated from Syria in mid-January as the conflict there intensified and recently returned from a brief stint in Istanbul, where she continued to report on the situation in Syria.

Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I did my junior year overseas as an economics and French major and then went to Geneva for grad school. It’s an international city and I worked at the World Economic Forum for a while. The lifestyle of the Foreign Service appealed to me – you have a job, but you get to move all the time and constantly do something different. After I graduated I worked for a company that did asset management and then I worked for a hedge fund. I was earning more than my initial salary in the Foreign Service.

Your first assignment was Karachi – your 19th choice. But you took it like a champ. Were you disappointed to be sent to Pakistan right out of the gate?

No. I wasn’t upset. Jerusalem was my first choice – it’s been my first choice many times but it’s never happened.

And the day you were set to leave for post the consulate in Karachi was bombed?

It was a car bomb, a suicide bomber. A car pulled up right in front of the building and blew a 30-foot hole in the front wall. Thirteen people were killed. My parents called and said, ‘Turn on CNN, it’s your consulate.’ I made the executive decision not to call anyone at the State Department, because I was afraid they’d tell me not to go.marines with weapons cocked and loadedWhat was it like to arrive at post in the wake of that incident?

We had a Marine expeditionary unit in the consular section. They had their guns pointed out the upstairs windows to keep people from entering the big hole in the wall. There was a bathroom with a shower right next to my office, so these Marines would come by my office just draped in their bath towels. They had been on a ship for the last six months, so they liked to stop by my office to say hi on the way back from their showers. They hadn’t seen women in a really long time.

Did your parents worry about you being in Pakistan?

My mom was worried the entire time I was there. She’s never been a worrywart but she was scared the whole time. I tried to tell her, ‘mom, here’s my day. I get up, I have breakfast and I go to work.’ Granted, I’d get picked up in an armored car with an escort vehicle with guys carrying AK-47’s and we’d take different routes to the consulate every day even though I could see the place from my house. You get used to weirdness.

You were supposed to be there a year but got pulled out after 9 months?

The Ambassador had been trying to reduce staff there for a long time (due to the security situation) and at a certain point I got a call from Washington and they told me I needed to find a new job. That’s how I ended up in Casablanca.

moroccan musicianYou were in Morocco and then Madrid for your next tour. Did you have much time for travel opportunities?

I did. I was a public affairs officer in Morocco so I traveled a lot there. I went to the The Marrakesh Film Festival, The Gnaoua World Music Festival, the Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, and lots of other places too. I also liked visiting this American style university there called Al Akhawayn, it’s in a town called Ifrane. You feel like you’re in Switzerland there, and the same in Spain. I tried to make it to all the provinces. I think I made it to half of them.

Did you find that the best places to visit as a traveler aren’t always the best places to live?

I haven’t had a bad post but there are places I’m not sure of. I just spent a month in Istanbul. Traffic is hideous and if you’re forced to deal with more of the city than just the tourist areas it can be a little unwieldy. Whereas I did my last tour in Damascus and that’s an easy place to live. In Beirut, we had extreme security restrictions but still a great city to live in. Madrid was obviously great. Living in Karachi presented challenges, but going there to work for the U.S. Government is the best deal you’re going to get. I loved it.

So you’ve never been stuck a post you couldn’t wait to leave?

Never.

How was the situation in Beirut when you were there?

The embassy had gone on evacuation status during the 2006 war, and then in May 2008, before I arrived in Beirut, there was street fighting in the city and clashes in the mountains, which made people think war was once again not far off. I got there a couple months later and it was relatively quiet for my two years there. But I had been there during the 2006 war as well. I traveled there with the Assistant Secretary who was trying to mediate the conflict with the Israelis.


What was that like?

It was creepy. There was no traffic – everyone was inside. The fighting was nearby, but not smack in the middle of Beirut. When the war broke out, Secretary Rice told my boss to get over there and we sort of took off without even knowing how we were going to get there. We went to Rome for a conference and then I had to figure out how to get us a helicopter into Beirut despite the fact that the airport was closed. So I did.

When you live in a place like Karachi, Beirut or Damascus, are you supposed to have a suitcase ready in case of emergency?

We were supposed to in Damascus but I never did. We were lucky though; we got all our stuff out before I left Damascus in January. I know that a lot of FSO’s in Tripoli lost all their stuff when they were evacuated last year. We had a couple of suicide bombings in December and we’d already had a series of evacuations last year, first in April and then again in August and December.

So some people got to leave but you had to stay until January?

Got to leave? No one wanted to leave Syria.

damascus mosqueNo one wanted to get out of Dodge?

No. Syria’s a beautiful place. I knew for probably six weeks or so before we were finally evacuated out that the decision was coming. But strangely enough, when it came, I felt like my whole universe just crashed. I cried big time because I felt like I was abandoning the people.

The local staff and your friends there?

Them but also the opposition. I was responsible for dealing with the Syrian opposition. On my last day there, I sat with one of the leaders in his office for about 2 hours and two weeks later the regime raided their office and arrested them all. It wasn’t because we left, I don’t think, but there was definitely that feeling. That’s why I asked to be sent to Istanbul, so I could continue doing my job from there. When you work in a country where people are fighting for their lives, you get emotionally involved.

Were you concerned for your safety in Syria?

The violence wasn’t in the middle of Damascus. The thing that was weird about Damascus is that you could walk the streets and see people drinking coffee and smoking nargiles in the cafés. Bizarre knowing that three kilometers away people were getting shot.

I took the Ambassador to a few meetings where we were sort of assaulted by regime thugs. On one occasion, we went into a meeting with a member of the opposition and a big group of regime loyalists started chanting at us and they followed us in and were banging on the door. And I got hit with a tomato.

Did it splatter all over you?

It didn’t and I was wearing a red dress anyways. They were trying to pelt us though. We ended up getting trapped in the building for more than two hours. We had to call our RSO’s (Regional Security Officers) to get us out of there in some armored cars. They got attacked with rocks and concrete through their windows.

madridWhat’s the hardest part about life in the Foreign Service, other than occasionally being pelted with tomatoes?

I’m headed to Madrid again now and I’ll be there for three years, which for the Foreign Service, is considered a nice long time. The hardest part of the lifestyle is the transitions between posts. I thought they’d get easier over time but it actually gets harder.

Arriving at a new post and starting fresh is the hardest part?

Both ends. Leaving one place and then having to live out a suitcase when you’re in between posts and then finally arriving at a new place but not having all your stuff. It’s really hard to leave a post and then you might live out of your suitcase for months and months, because you have training and home leave and then your stuff has to be shipped. And if you’re single, like me, it’s particularly hard. If you have your family with you, at least you’re not alone.
Every time I do these transitions, I ask myself why I’m doing this but then a year later I say, ‘wow, I have the best job in the world.’

A lot of people who like to travel consider joining the Foreign Service. What questions should people ask themselves before they decide to pursue this line of work?

It’s hard to say because you can make so many different types of careers in the Foreign Service. I know FSO’s who prefer to serve in more “cushy” locations. When I think about spending a career in places like that, I just can’t imagine it. But there are people who are into that. You wrote an article about this, it is easier for guys in the Foreign Service to move to a Third World country and find a lovely bride. Well, as a woman you can meet a lovely man too, but he’s not likely to follow you around the world.

So it’s harder for single women?

Yeah. For example, I was dating a Lebanese guy in Beirut and he told me before it was time for me to move – I can’t leave. And I could have stayed there, but I would have been miserable. So there’s the relationship element, there’s how you deal with transition.

The career itself, the lifestyle, it’s very much what you make of it. You can find yourself doing things you could never possibly imagine in rural areas of strange countries you never dreamed of going to. I’ve been on yachts of rich Lebanese businessmen or you can find yourself careening across the West Bank to visit settlements or you can be the cultural attaché in a cushy European post. I’ve met Bashar Al-Assad five times (before the conflict started) but that’s not something I’m terribly proud of.

Did you shake his hand?

Of course. You get to meet with presidents and ministers and heads of state – people you’d never expect to meet. I gave visas to the Real Madrid soccer team. The stuff that can happen to you in the Foreign Service is 100 billion times better than what you do in 99% of jobs you’d find. It is really, really cool and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Photos by Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, Ahron de Leeuw, and Man@Che on Flickr.

Frommer’s reveals top destinations for 2012

What destination are you dreaming of for 2012? The staff at Frommer’s have just unveiled their list of top travel destinations for the coming year. Included in the list is a little something for everyone: large metropolises, secluded beach towns, colorful riverside villas, and more.

But Frommer’s didn’t just rely on their expert editors and author’s for this years list–they also polled readers to find out where they wanted to visit in 2012. Click through the gallery below to see Frommer’s (and their reader’s) picks–including one surprising midwestern city that is the only spot in the United States to make the cut.
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Other Winners:
Top Family Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Top Cruise Destination: Tromso, Norway
Top Beach Destination: Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Top Adventure Destination: Moab, Utah
Top Food & Drink Destination: Lima, Peru
Top City Break Destination: Chicago, Illinois
Top Endangered Destination: Aysen Region, Chile
Top Value Destination: Albanian Riviera
Top Destination to Get Lost: Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Introducing Far Europe and Beyond

far europe and beyond

Far Europe and Beyond, a Gadling series in partnership with bmi (British Midland International) launches today.

Europe’s eastern borders cannot be defined simply. The western, northern, and southern perimeters are easy: The Atlantic, the Arctic, and the Mediterranean provide those boundaries, respectively. It’s the eastern border that is more difficult to pinpoint. There are two basic definitions of the eastern border of Europe: the Bosphorus, which divides Istanbul; and the Ural Mountains. The problem here is that there is a gap of around 1200 miles between the point where the Ural River hits the Caspian Sea and Istanbul.

The former definition leaves most of Turkey outside of Europe and makes it difficult to draw a continental border from the Bosphorus northward. If one assumes the latter definition, then a piece of western Kazakhstan is in Europe, but the continent’s Eastern flank fails to have a fixed boundary once the Ural river empties into the Caspian Sea. Does Europe’s border then get drawn along Russia’s southern edge or does it include the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, along the Iranian border? Increasingly, this is the working definition of Europe, with inclusion of the Caucasian trio; it is the definition, more or less, that the BBC and the Economist endorse.However we define Europe’s eastern borders, there are a number of national capitals that are clearly in the farthest reaches of Europe or just beyond them, all of which are included on bmi’s route map: Tbilisi, Georgia; Yerevan, Armenia; Baku, Azerbaijan; Beirut, Lebanon; Almaty, Kazakhstan (not the capital, admittedly, but the country’s most important city); and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. These capital cities are naturally very interesting to veteran travelers for whom Europe is old hat, but they’re also fascinating places for less seasoned travelers. For the most part, they’re off the beaten path, teeming with local culture and opportunities for many different types of tourism.

This week and next, I’ll write a series of posts on the first two cities on the above list: Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; and Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I’ll look at some of these cities’ most captivating characteristics, some culinary highlights, interesting quirks, and the best easy day trips beyond city limits.

[Image: Flickr | sara~]

VIDEO: Flash mob at Beirut Airport duty free


Flash mobs are nothing new, Lisbon even staged a dance at the airport in 2009, but this flash mob at Beirut Airport is the first I’ve seen with Arab Dabke dance. Dabke is a form of line dance which is traditionally performed at weddings and social occasions, and the group here combined it with some hip hop steps. Passengers and airport staff joined in the fun for this video made for Beirut‘s Duty Free (which, incidentally, has amazingly low prices and Lebanese wine is delicious).

Seen any flash mobs on your travels? Would you stop and watch a “spontaneous” dance at an airport?

5 reasons to be a tourist


After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.

  1. Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
  2. Do something you could do at home – Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
  3. Eat foreign foreign food – Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
  4. Speak English – Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
  5. Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.

Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.