Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tripoli: the good, the bad, and the sandy

It's been a while since I've written specifically for the FS blog round up.  However, since this week's blog round up topic is about the good and bad sides of your current post, I thought I'd throw out some ideas and descriptions of life here, since I've been meaning to write it up for a while anyway.  (Also, I'm procrastinating on another writing assignment.  As long as I'm writing something, it's okay though, right?)

Tripoli: the good!

1.  Leadership.  I absolutely love the people I work for, from my section chief up through the Ambassador.  Amb. Stevens is legendary in Libya for spending almost the entire period of the revolution in Benghazi, liaising with the rebels and leading a skeleton crew of Americans on the ground to support humanitarian efforts and meeting up-and-coming political leaders.  Several Libyans have told me how much it means to them that he stayed here throughout the revolution, losing friends and suffering privations alongside ordinary Libyans.  We could not ask for a better Ambassador to represent America during this crucial period in Libyan history.

2.   History in the making.  Yes, yes, it's schmaltzy, but I wouldn't trade this position, at this time, for anything else the Service could offer me.  I get to see democracy being built, literally one day at a time.  (See all earlier posts in Libya for more details.)  In two days' time the General National Congress will open for the first time, which will signal the transition from the interim, non-elected leaders who've run Libya for the past several months to the first elected government in more than four decades.  The decisions the Congress takes in the coming weeks and months will determine the political trajectory of the country for years to come - and I get to be here to watch it all happen in real time.  This is the type of opportunity we dream about having!

3.  My colleagues.  This type of assignment attracts a certain breed of person, someone resilient and easy-going, someone with patience and creativity, someone who can function outside the normal processes and procedures that govern an embassy community.  Or, if it doesn't attract that type of person, our assignments officer did a great job of finding an entire team of people like that.  As a diplomatic mission we're in our own period of transition while we rebuild our operation from the ground up, so it takes a good deal of patience to work in an unusual mission such as this.

4.  The opportunity for professional growth.  Call me an ass-kisser, but I really do enjoy learning at work, and there are ample things to learn here.  I've never worked in a post with a USAID mission - check, got that here.  I've also not worked so closely with other branches of the US government, such as the Commercial Service or the National Security Council.  It's an interesting lesson in how the whole government works together (not always harmoniously) to inform, to determine, and to implement policy in a given country.

5.  The benefits package.  All right, so I'm not immune to the pecuniary benefits of Tripoli.  They're nice.  Food and housing are provided for us (see below), so the only things we spend money on are small purchases on the local economy (dry cleaning, fresh fruits/veggies, snacks) and vacations.  I'm hoping we can buy a house in the next few years with the money we'll save here.


Tripoli: the bad.

1.  Compound living.  Because our embassy and most of our housing stock was destroyed during the revolution, we live and work in a series of buildings on the edge of town.  Permanent staff have bedrooms to themselves and share bathrooms with their neighbors; temporary staff have roommates.   Our movements off compound are limited both because of logistics and security.  Those quirky colleagues I mentioned above?  You see them every step of the day, from chow hall to gym to brushing your teeth at night before bed.  If you're an introvert like me, sometimes you just hide in your room for a few hours to get away from everyone.

2.  The food on compound.  Let's be clear: our meals are provided for us, because our residential facilities lack cooking space and because until very recently we weren't able to procure food ourselves on the local economy.  This is an incredible convenience for us, especially when we can get hot meals packaged up and delivered to us at our offices if we're too busy to leave for lunch.  Don't think I am not appreciative of these amenities.  With that being said...  the quality and variety of the food leaves something to be desired.  I think someone must have told our cooks that if they made Libyan or North African food for us all the time we'd get bored.  So we get delicious couscous dishes perhaps once every three weeks, with interesting takes on more familiar European or Asian dishes the rest of the time.  When word gets out that we have couscous in the cafeteria, everyone rushes the cafeteria to gorge themselves.

3.  Security situation.  In the interim period between governments, as the old, unelected, revolutionary government cedes power to the new government, a sort of security vacuum has appeared.  Violent crime is way up in Tripoli, including an attempted attack on an Embassy vehicle.  I no longer flinch when I hear gunfire in the distance.  (How far I have come from my home town in Arkansas, where everyone hits the deck when we heard shots!)  It limits our activities off compound and is a perpetual weight on our minds and on our loved ones' minds.

4.  Coming and going of staff.  This summer we're just getting the first wave of permanent staff at the Embassy - prior to now most of our staff have either been people who were evacuated in 2011 and came back to finish their tours or temporary staffers here for 30-120 days.  What this means is that it's a constant revolving door of people in and out of our little community - disappear for a weekend away, and you'll return to find 10 people have left and 12 new ones have come instead.  It's disconcerting and a bit demoralizing - especially when your closest friends are temporary staffers, not permanent ones.

5.  Isolation.  Tripoli is an unaccompanied post, for very good reasons.  I miss my husband, my friends and family, my pets.  Flights out of Libya are inconveniently scheduled and extremely expensive (to the tune of $1200 or more for a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt).  No one can come visit me, either - I have enough friends who are adventurous enough/mad enough to spend a week in Libya seeing the sights (of which there really are plenty to see!), but they couldn't stay with me (see #1) and I couldn't stay with them in a hotel downtown (see #3).


Tripoli: the sandy.

Remember, folks, this is a desert country...  even if Tripoli is known as the Bride of the Sea, and even if its weather is moderated by Mediterranean influences, it's still hot and sandy here!

The bottom line is that a tour here is not for everyone.  It has plenty of challenges, but those are balanced by what I think are more than commensurate rewards.  I'm putting my money where my mouth is, too - I'm trying to extend to stay a second year.  I believe in our mission, and I respect the people I work and live with.  Now, if only I could get a burrito...

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