Tuesday, November 17, 2015

So Vacant

I knew this wouldn't be an easy first tour when I volunteered for it, but I've been told by several Foreign Service veterans that I've been experiencing things they haven't seen in their 20-30 year careers.  While there's a lot going on, the biggest concerns revolve around Boko Haram activity in the region.  I kept hearing stories about various attacks but I felt like I wasn't getting the big picture or all the facts, so I found a fascinating database here: the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project from the University of Sussex.  This led me to generate the following graphs to get a feel for the trending - sorry, I'm an engineer so I do love me some good graphs or even nomographs if at all possible.

In August, my wife and I went on a two week vacation for a real, full-on African safari in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.  On our last day, we checked our email 30 minutes before leaving to go back to N'Djamena and found messages the embassy had sent that day saying it had just gone to Authorized Departure and we couldn't go back.  We had been "caught out" in Department of State lingo.  I worked at the Cape Town consulate for a week while we figured out the paperwork, then we flew back to Washington where I worked for a few more weeks before I got clearance to return.  The construction project kept on trucking - we're building safer facilities after all and it doesn't make sense to slow that down - so I was glad I had put a lot of work into creating and maintaining electronic files for remote access.

This is a ridiculously oversimplified summary of what's been happening over the last two months, it's been crazy in many, many ways all while supporting the ongoing project.  The AD was implemented due to security concerns that have subsequently decreased, so just last week it was lifted after two months.  This meant my wife was able to come back to N'Djamena as well, which is great and has allowed things to mostly return to our new normal.

Construction is moving quickly: the five-story chancery structure is probably about a month from being complete and utilities are being installed in the bottom floors now.  We just installed the first drywall last week in another building, we're still trying to hire more staff, and a lot of big permanent equipment has started getting installed in the last month, so there's a lot to manage.

One of the main reasons for this post is that the FSCE vacancy announcement opened again today - check it out if you're interested!  It closes Dec 9.

In other news: Chad beat Egypt 1-0 in a major upset in their World Cup qualifying event on Saturday when they hosted Egypt here in N'Djamena.  There was a LOT of celebration in the streets afterwards.  Unfortunately Chad lost today's second matchup 0-4 when they visited Egypt.  Evidently there were several delays with their flight so they barely arrived on time.  Bummer.

In other other news: this is just. so. awesome.  For more, visit Suidobashi Heavy Industries and MegaBots.  Wow.

(This post written while listening to Trashcan by Delta Spirit.)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Tourism opportunities

It's been almost fourth months since my last update, sorry.  We've made a lot of progress on the project, primarily via several thousand cubic meters of concrete, which has kept us very busy. I've been learning a lot about embassy systems and that - in addition to our concrete progress (no pun intended) - has been a lot of fun and very interesting.

While there've been some other relevant articles lately like this hearing on embassy construction, the closest have been on developments in N'Djamena (June 15, June 29, July 11) as well as surrounding areas (July 20, July 21, July 22). Given these regional events have led to hundreds of deaths and a so-called asymmetrical terrorist environment, most of us ex-pats in N'Djamena are scratching our heads at this July 21 Conde Nast Traveler article titled 'Why Now Is the Time to Visit Chad.'

Now, I'm all for exploring new places, but I finished the article dumbfounded and laughing, wondering if there's another city named N'Djamena. The article is full of possibilities, like it mentions, “There could be a wedding happening and the locals want you to participate.” It _is_ true: there are many weddings in N’Djamena, typically on Fridays when group ceremonies lead to processions of cars and motos beeping their horns and people shouting on the way to a party – definitely sounds like good fun. Equally common are funeral processions, which typically lay the deceased in the back of an open bed truck with their bare feet out the end and mourners lining each side; it could be that "the locals" want you to participate in those as well. The Chadians I know are EXTREMELY nice people, I just don't put good odds on anyone inviting strangers to join them anytime soon. I’m also not sure how to align the embassy staff’s movement restrictions with the article’s suggested roaming about the city, but I’m probably overthinking it.  To be fair, the article does warn that you might not bathe for eight days straight, and it also adds the disclaimer, “This is for extremely adventurous people.”

At a minimum, I think I have to respectfully disagree with the promoter's comment, "The worst thing that can happen to a client on our tour is wandering around a market by themselves in N’Djamena and getting their wallet stolen."

Anyway, from the Department of Random Distractions, here's a photo of someone moving their stuff in N'Djamena.
No helmet required!

(This post written while listening to Changing by The Airborne Toxic Event.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Plus vacance

Lots of interesting developments in the last two months, but first and foremost: the construction engineer vacancy announcement is open again as of today.  While our Office of Construction Management wasn't fully staffed at the beginning of the year, two construction engineers have left since then (that I know of), so there should be plenty of positions open.

Construction is moving right along, as evidenced by the groundbreaking ceremony from two weeks ago - you can read a little about it here and a little more about it on the embassy's Facebook page.  You can also check out the project's fact sheet here.  The photo below from the ceremony proves we have buildings coming up out of the ground now (or I'm pretty good at Photoshop).

Life in N'Djamena has continued to be interesting in a variety of ways.  Ongoing Boko Haram activity in the region has maintained an interesting background buzz.  It's also been harmattan season, so we've been getting a few dust storms through town that looks like fog but smells like dust. 

On March 1, all motorcyclists in N'Djamena had to wear helmets.  This was an overnight change from no helmets for years to everyone must wear helmets.  Since helmets are not free and since few people here have disposable income, it's not surprising that there were protests, including some violent ones.  Since the protests were mostly by students, the government shut down the schools for several days.  But the protests have subsided and life in N'Djamena is back to N'Djamena Normal, except with many moto drivers now carrying a helmet with one hand - not wearing it - while they text with the other.

I got to start driving our car (nine months after we shipping it from the US), so that extra freedom has been very nice.  Unfortunately for me, I won't get to talk with the motorpool drivers as much - they really are great - but I still bother them around the embassy when I see them.  One month in, driving hasn't been that bad so far.  Probably the strangest rule of the road is when you're in a roundabout, you yield to the car that's entering the roundabout.  That just goes against every traffic flow instinct I have, but that's the general rule here.  Slow and predictable has worked so far, but I chalk up a healthy portion of my apparent success to luck.  Driving schools seem popular here, which is good - I especially like the name of Relax Auto Ecole. 

I also got tenured on Monday, so that's good.  Of course it's right back to work as well as the dreaded Employee Evaluation Report season.  Speaking of seasons, we're also now in the hottest time of year, which means the power grid is severely taxed.  Lights flicker, circuit breakers trip, and uninterruptible power supplies click on and off with each surge.  Last night our biggest UPS decided it had had enough and started completely shutting off even though it had fully-charged batteries.  That's extremely odd for a UPS so I decided to watch the power monitor readout: the input voltage that's normally supposed to be around 230 volts went as low as 154 volts, definitely not good.  Anyway, that's just one of the things we do for fun in N'Djamena!

(This post written while listening to Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry.)

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Happy new year! Since I last posted, it's been mostly work - construction is progressing, as expected. We've been very busy finalizing the design, managing the construction, and coordinating the project with host nation contacts, among other things. The Royal We have poured the first permanent concrete components including building foundations, so the progress is very real, six to seven days a week.

Outside of work, we managed to squeeze in two trips: one was to Zakouma National Park, which was very cool. The variety of landscapes was really amazing. We were there right at the beginning of their viewing season so the full animal contingent hadn't arrived yet, but we still saw all kinds of wildlife: giraffes, baboons, hogs, crocodiles, deer-like-things, birds, water buffalo, even one elephant! Here are just a few photos:

Our second trip was back to the US for our first rest and relaxation trip. And also for me to have some dental work done, so that was pretty great too. But we packed lightly specifically so we could bring back about 100 pounds of food you can't buy here in N'Djamena: tuna steaks, manchego cheese, Snickers bars...good stuff.

It didn't take long to get back into the swing of things here, although I admit there was a readjustment/recovery period from the rampant first world problems in the US. Now there are quite a few extra curricular goings-on here, including today's announcement of an imminent regional military force to be based in N'Djamena to combat Boko Haram. Fortunately we haven't seen any significant changes in the city here yet despite the recent BH activity nearby. It should be an interesting next few months for work and otherwise considering things are heating up in a variety of ways, including March through May being the hottest time of year. I need to look into one of those ice cream makers...and how to make ice cream...

(This post written while listening to Weird Al Yankovic First World Problems.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Now hiring

It's been almost three months since my last entry - I apologize for my sabbatical, life has been extremely busy:

  • We moved out of the hotel into a house. This was much more complicated than it sounds, but at least it's over.
  • Our personal vehicle arrived several weeks ago after shipping it from the US in early June, but we'll have to wait to drive it until the paperwork is complete in about another month. I hear the motor vehicle department literally (and perhaps figuratively) doesn't have the power to run their computers so they can finish the paperwork. So until then, I could sit in the car where it's parked at the embassy. But I don't.
  • The Marine Corps Ball was held at a local hotel, which was our first and was very fun.
  • Our HHE arrived intact. Some of the food we shipped was a little stale or moist, which was likely due to a combination of the 5 months it took before we received it as well as that we trusted manufacturer (non-hermetic) packaging too much. It's still great to have our stuff, though - it was definitely an early Christmas for us!
  • Post's 15% danger pay was eliminated and offset slightly by post's differential increasing by 5%.  Now, I'm not an expert in such things, but we're quite close to Boko Haram's operations in both northeast Nigeria and north Cameroon (13,000 fleed attacks about 250 km away two weeks ago), five protesters were killed about a week ago during a teacher strike, and recently lawyers even went on strike. When the lawyers go on strike, you know you have a problem.

Despite all that, the new embassy construction project is progressing: the contractor has continued site grading, received dozens of shipping containers onsite, and started building many temporary buildings that will be removed at the end of the project. We're also still in the design phase of this design/build project, so we've been scouring the contract documents to clarify as many design details as possible before we get deep into construction and changes get harder. We've been very, very busy.

Speaking of which, we've expanded our staffing slightly, but the contractor still has us ridiculously outnumbered of course. It's great to have other people locally to bounce construction issues off of though.

I did finally manage to get some interesting pictures like the following right before Eid al Adha. Considering that was the Feast of Sacrifice, if you're squeamish then don't think too much about WHY the goats were getting a fun ride.

I'm afraid there isn't much in the way of extracurricular activity options in N'Djamena, yet somehow we're busier socially here than we were in DC. We've done all of the available post extracurricular events so far - three in five months - but post doesn't have a CLO so that makes those things very hard to organize. Some people at post like to hang out regularly and be social so we do. All in all, I think things are going well; if you set your expectation bar low enough, everything's an improvement! Well, almost everything.

My french language resurrection hasn't been going as well as I'd hoped. I was talking to a motor pool driver asking about his family, and it got slightly awkward when I finally realized "deux enfants" sounds exactly like "douze enfants," or at least, it does to me.

There are other awkward things, like they seem to prefer that freaky A4 paper here - man that stuff is just wrong. We're going to [try to] take a stand and use US-sized paper for our record keeping. After putting up with A4 for a few months, using US paper makes me want to salute each piece. But I don't.

Yesterday we got a cool treat of an aerial show by a Chadian Air Force MiG-29.  I ignored the jet engine roar for a while, but I eventually went outside to see the MiG flying inverted low over the city, then climbing up for an inverted Immelmann before a variety of other maneuvers: stall, rolls, and lots of fly-bys that really upset the fruit bats in the trees. It only lasted less than 5 minutes I think but it was still cool. I think it was a practice run for the upcoming Chadian national holidays Republic Day this Friday followed by the big one: Freedom and Democracy Day on Monday. If there's another airshow I'll definitely try to get photos this time.

Which more or less brings us up to date on the big issues. By the way, the Construction Engineer vacancy announcement just opened again today – it closes on December 29, so you’d better hurry up and spend your Thanksgiving preparing your application! Enjoy!

(This post written while listening to Les Yeux D’La TĂȘte I Don’t Speak English.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Herding goats

Our internet connection went from bad to worse in the last month, so I’ve been more disconnected from the outside world than usual.  But at least the project’s earthwork is progressing even though we’re in the middle of the rainy season.  We've had a couple of heavy rains, but according to weatherunderground.com the precipitation to date is significantly below average: this is good for the project but it’s bad for the region.  Speaking of heavy rains, I now appreciate stormwater management systems more than ever.  Despite the damaging flooding that follows heavy rains, Chadians find ways to use it to their advantage: when life gives you a flood, wash your moto.

Photos here are a little hard to take because the government of Chad discourages them – and sometimes I’m just not fast enough with my camera as we drive by – so I might have to describe some of the things I see around N'Djamena.  One morning I saw three men hunched over a rusty wheelbarrow running their hands through a soapy nut mixture to sell them with the rest of the nuts drying on blankets on the ground next to them.  I see kids playing with all manner of homemade toys, as well as swimming in the lakes that form after heavy rains.  There's a containerized car wash system with a picture of Hannah Montana on the side - wtf?  The most striking image I wish I could have photographed was a naked child perhaps four years old washing himself alone with a small hose of clear water on the side of a trash-laden alley flooded with a mixture of stormwater and sewage.  It was surreal.  Following is a photo I did manage to take of a man trying with little success to herd his goats across a busy street through a small break in the street’s Jersey barriers.

(This post written while listening to Bruce Cockburn Dust and Diesel.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014


It's certainly been a very busy month since we arrived on a variety of fronts: adjusting to the climate, the food, the languages, the traffic, et cetera. There've also been multiple significant tests of our intestinal bioflora's adaptability, to put it diplomatically

Although there isn't a lot to do here, a nice coincidence resulted in two Community Liaison Office activities since we arrived: camel riding and a trip to a local town named Gaoui.  The camel riding was with a group of nomads in an area by the Chari River. We met them the morning before they left town, and it was an amazing insight into their lifestyle using only the barest of essentials.

The trip to Gaoui was to see how locals live and to see how they make pottery. Here's a photo of one of their kilns:

As mentioned previously, this is an extremely expensive place to live. The 2014 Mercer Cost of Living city rankings report was released earlier this month, which rated N'Djamena as the second most expensive city in the world for expatriates. Articles on it agree, as do I: our dinner each night costs about $40 for the two of us for spaghetti and a small pizza - nothing to drink, no appetizer or dessert, just the two entrees. Ouch.

On the work front, we've been preparing for the arrival of contractor staff, some of whom are already in country and many more are on the way. It's definitely exciting to be on the front end of a project like this, and it's great to have just a little time integrating into the embassy community before the heavy construction activity begins.

On another work-related note, this month there was a House Oversight Committee hearing on OBO's embassy construction approach. Very interesting insights on both sides, yielding context for the overall program.

It's clear from talking with embassy staff that N'Djamena is a tough post; this is not a surprise, but we're starting to understand what that really means. Still, any post is what you make of it (LOL - no kidding, the power just went out as I was typing, I'm glad I have a laptop), but I think we're doing well so far adapting to the changes. I flossed a crown off last week, after which my visions of local dentistry led to a bit of swearing. Post staff was fantastic and quickly helped me to get it professionally recemented in town in just a few days. I wonder what's in store for us next...

(This post written while listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Red Right Hand.)