Hello, Zimbabwe!

Seven weeks in the ‘States isn’t nearly enough time to get all we wanted done, but it was certainly enough time to visit with a bunch of family and friends, be a substantial part of American consumerism, and figure out just why our country is such a pleasure to call home.

The days leading up to our departure were hectic to be sure, filled with last minute errands, quality time with family and friends, and pet shipping SNAFUs. We longingly looked forward to the serenity a new post and house of our own would bring, still it was with some regret that we hugged our final good-byes and jetted out of Dulles International on the morning of the 26th. Jhili Mili took an alternate routing (thanks for dropping her off, Kathy!) on Ethiopian Airlines through Addis to Harare, to avoid South Africa’s ridiculous transit process and fees. United Airlines, as helpful as ever, offered to charge not only for the excess weight, but also for our second bag per person, something AFSA has long contended foreign service people shouldn’t have to pay for, and United representatives have also agreed upon…until actually declaring the opposite to hapless travelers.

A short hop to JFK, and then we were off to Jo’burg on a 15 hour flight in which we and the children took in multiple movies, slept, ate way to much, and generally lived it up. Near to 8:00 in the morning, the hazy skies gave way to a scrubby dusty landscape below, with patches of verdant green around waterways….AFRICA!
Another short while in the airport and we boarded our final flight to Harare, Zimbabwe, just another hour and a half. Our plane descended into Harare, the sparse landscape dotted by all manner of trees; short and scrubby, tall and leafy, brushy conifers.
Our immigration line, as slow as molasses, finally stamped our entries, and we picked up our luggage, all ten pieces of it, including my bike, and met our pickup, a very helpful AID employee.
The airport was even more deserted than Kathmandu’s, and the roads were nearly empty as we traversed them to the cargo terminal to pick up Jhili.
The checkout process took forever as each employee involved pulled out seldom-used stamps or learned new tribal knowledge from other employees who had performed this mysterious pet import process. Finally, a forklift driver brought over Jhili’s crate and deposited her at our feet. A more bedraggled cat we had not seen! Her water and food were empty, some food having been mushed into the bottom of the crate. Her food dish had broken from the door grate and the duct tape with which I’d secured it to said grate had attached itself rather securely to her hind quarters, effectively making her drag her food bowl around. At least she was still alive and kicking!
Family, Luggage and cat secured, our caravan zoomed through the roads of Harare, the purple Jacaranda trees shedding blossoms and shading our way. The red soil of the landscape provided for the sometimes brushy, sometimes lush plants that partially hid Zebras just off the roadside.
In stark contrast to the over-populated roadsides of Kathmandu, the shoulders here played host to just a few scores of people on our ride. Some corners were dotted by beautiful stone Shona sculptures.
We entered more shaded roads in upscale neighborhoods and passed large compounds with well-maintained frontage high walls. We finally came to our own compound. The electric gate slid open to reveal an enormous compound of a few acres. The bricked entry drive wound around behind the mansion revealing a large garage, entry way, and massive pitch. The staff quarters was nestled behind a hedge. Further around the house, back around to the front, an outdoor entertaining area with indoor room, and bathroom, built-in charcoal grill with adjustable grate, swimming pool.
The house is insanely over the top for us, we clearly will not have a place like this ever again in our lives. Everything is enormous and well-made.

We’ve now been here just over two days, and have been welcomed into the community with open arms. Our graceful colleagues have taken us shopping, shown us around and gone out of their way to make us feel at home. We’ve reconnected with old friends and are generally amazed at the modern marvel of Harare. Even with politics as they are, infrastructure seems to function relatively well. There are modern shopping centers with stores that have western-grade goods and functionality.

Last night we enjoyed a “braai” (South African term for BBQ) of boerewos sausage and fresh chicken and salad, outside on the veranda.

The kids start school Monday.

We are going to love these next two years…

Home Leave 2012: Azimuth Check

An azimuth check, as Jean has just reminded me, is a bearing point, a time when an outdoorsman pulls out his compass and chooses a point on the horizon as a waypoint. We ask certain questions at this check: Where are we? Where are we going? Where have we been? Is our course good or do we need to change it? I think our home leave is just such a check, a good place and time to take a breather and assess the situation.

Where are we? There are a couple ways we can answer that one…Home leave in the USA!
Where are we going? Zimbabwe for two years, Jean serving as a political officer. Embarking on a lifelong journey of adventure. To Hell and back. We’ve swapped our roles as breadwinner and childcare provider, providing at least me with a modicum of satisfaction.
Where have we been? Nepal, having completed our first (hardship) tour in the Foreign Service as a family, Jean serving as a consular officer. Before Nepal, raising kiddos and toiling in the rat race of Northern VA’s grind. Built a house from scratch.
Is our course good or do we need to change it? We both agree that this is an AWESOME lifestyle and well worth the tradeoffs. We think that our kids are getting a lifetime of unique experiences, not to mention our own, and a worldwide perspective.
Azimuth check done, let’s go!

So we’ve been back in the US for about 5 weeks, just 2 to go. And getting back here has been awesome don’t get me wrong. But the reverse culture shock has made me awestruck in more ways than one.
To give this list some context, I’ll summarize what Nepal has been like for us in a few sentences. Nepal only opened its borders in 1951. Prior to that, it has had no colonization, only influences from India and China. Hence, everything still operates in a 14th-century village mentality. All modern conveniences are an unexpected novelty, and are quite often unreliable and shoddy. Most things are not imported (kitchen drawer hardware, furniture, etc), but are rather made, either from memory, or an idea of what a westerner might think is useful. Since the Maoist insurgency in 2006, when many villagers immigrated to Kathmandu from their villages for safety, the population of the city has exploded from under one million to over four million people. The government, in a standstill since the constitution has been undergoing (supposedly) reform since 2010, is not prepared to deal with the traffic, the trash, the infrastructure needs (electricity, water, etc) that so many people generate. Hence, power is available most of the time in the rainy season (it is primarily hydroelectric), but one can go nearly 24 hours without power in the dry season, EVERY DAY. The Hindu and Buddhist attitudes have given rise to a saying, “Ke garne” (KAY GARNAY), or “what can you do?” which is a fatalist way of not getting too worked over what is just outside their front step. Indeed the concept of “frontage” for one’s property is uknown. The economy operates nearly 100% on cash. Labor and local goods cost nearly nothing. Food quality is always suspect, so one sticks to places of repute. Plastic wrappers and waste litter the streets. The climate is harsh on roads, and repair methods are ancient. The sandy soil of the valley is easily swept away by the monsoon rains, so sinkholes often cause large portions of roads to collapse. The air, being trapped in the valley, becomes quite polluted in the dry winter season. The risk of a catastrophic earthquake is paramount in our minds, the last one being in 1934, and the country quite overdue for one. Grocery stores have decent food on occasion, if you see an imported good you buy a three month supply at the very least, as next week no one in town will have it. Fast food is nonexistent, for better or worse. Still, one can live anywhere for two years…

The list:

  1. Gas station pumps have tv screens. Because advertisers need a go at me in the five minutes it takes to pump gas. And there’s no mute button!
  2. Gas station credit card swipes require a zip code. Where do I live again?
  3. There is NO TRASH anywhere. At ALL. Seriously.
  4. The roads are AWESOME, as in nearly no potholes. And I can drive over 35MPH. OMG.
  5. WEGMAN’S, the best grocery store on earth
  6. Museums are clean and well laid out. And they’re free (Smithsonian).
  7. McCafe. Not that I’m a McD’s fan, but where is Ronald? Where are the arches? Where are the plastic red, yellow, nay even beige furniture? WHAT? It’s all different from what I remember
  8. Craft beer is now in cans. OMG, Consumables for next post just got AWESOME.
  9. The. Internet….Bracingly. Fast. Netflix works! (not that my kids are particularly surprised, it’s just something else to take for granted)
  10. Arlington is full of beautiful people shopping in jogging outfits. I can’t stop staring. It’s been a while since I saw this.
  11. The power has not gone out once. No kidding! (ok, there was that storm just recently)
  12. There are as many hybrid vehicles here as there are Suzuki Maruti 800 cabs in Kathmandu. It’s a thing of beauty.
  13. Bike trails are marked with blazes. And sometimes signs. And sometimes small PSA’s(public service announcements). In some cases, hazards (trees, rocks) are constructed on some trails on purpose and are marked with tiny orange flags. This was quite confusing at first. Some group of people thought about public safety, eventually decided on a method of execution, and made this happen. Probably in less than a year. Marvelous.

These points above and more acquaint me to the phrase of “reverse culture shock” where-in I find some things aren’t quite where or how I left them, and with other things I simply perceive them differently now that I’ve been living in another culture for a couple years. The kids loved coming back, though it’s more for visiting with their family and friends than the creature comforts we enjoy as adults. With the advent of the internet, and therefore our American culture being more pervasive than ever, the need to come back to the states isn’t as much as it used to be I think, but it’s still a good reminder to us why we think the U.S. of A as the best country on earth.

Anyway, in about two weeks (of BLISS AND GLORY, THANK YOU AMERICA*), we’re departing for Zimbabwe, where we’ll spend our second tour for a couple years. Thanks to the good graces of our collective parenting meerkat clan, we’ll have packed out our consumables (my next blog post) and our UAB (air freight) by a couple weeks from now, and will be well on our way to Zim life.

Speaking of life in Mugabe-land, we’ll be looking forward to getting settled in and saying hello to our friends from Nepal and Vietnam.

*Odd point here. In the eastern hemisphere, the USA is called “America,” contributing to collective educators’ chagrin when the youth of our great country repeats this in self-reference, and adults using the term with “America! expletive-yeah!” When one gets a taxi to the embassy in Kathmandu, for instance, you say:

American Embassy jaane!

If you say something about the U.S. Embassy, you may very well end up at the Russian Embassy, or perhaps just Thamel, the tourist district, the cabby assuming you are just a drunk trekker.

Good Bye Nepal

20120726-092349.jpgWe’ve had an amazing time here in Nepal these past two years!

Good-bye, Nepal. Good-bye political strife and bandhs. Good-bye crazy pot-holes and roads. Good-bye Kathmandu traffic. Good-bye friends we’ve come to know, see you again the next time we meet. Good-bye Dal Bhat. Good-bye Momos. Good-bye cheap eats with so many restaurants I can’t even blog about all of them. Good-bye Didi’s and Dai’s. Good-bye load-shedding. Good-bye Monsoons. Good-bye pollution. Good-bye Himalayas. Good-bye to the best mountain biking. Good-bye Suzuki Maruti Gypsy. Good-bye stray dogs of all shapes and sizes, pigeon toed and mangy. Good-bye trekking. Good-bye dudh chia. Good-bye tasty nuts. Good-bye Gurkha Ball. Good-bye hand-painted license plates. Good-bye open sewers. Good-bye Nina & Hager. Good-bye 1905 Farmer’s Market. Good-bye Phora Durbar. Good-bye tangles of wires on poles falling down. Good-bye tuk-tuks. Good-bye sparkle vests. Good-bye rhinos, tigers, snow leopards, sloth bears, peacocks, mongooses. Good-bye leeches. Good-bye head wobble. Good-bye motorcycle madness. Good-bye tripped out trekker hippies. Good-bye Patan. Good-bye vomit-streaked buses and loogie-hocking locals. Good-bye massive generators. Good-bye ganesh stickers on motorcycles. Good-bye Nepali Tourism year 2011. Good-bye Lazimpat construction/destruction. Good-bye “mutton”(goat). Good-bye Manakamana Cable Car and goat sacrifices. Good-bye vegetarian tea and kidney tea. Good-bye singing bowls. Good-bye knock-off trekking gear. Good-bye excellent paper products. Good-bye crazy Kathmandu parties. Good-bye police breaking up those parties. Good-bye facemask wearing populace. Good-bye bike ride tea stops. Good-bye frozen meats flown in from other countries. Good-bye land-locked Nepal. Good-bye to small aircraft accidents. Good-bye yaks. Good-bye monkeys. Good-bye micro chipmunk-like squirrels.