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 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.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dans NDJ

We've arrived at post and this experience is certainly what all The Fuss is about. It’s been an exciting and massive change, that’s for sure. It’s hot and dusty here, but there are a surprising number of birds. I haven’t seen many bugs yet, but there are also a lot of fat, happy little lizards crawling all over the place. I think we’re heading into the rainy season, so the number of bugs is probably going to go up.
The environment is pretty austere with limited skilled labor, significant shipping issues, and developing infrastructure. It’s an odd combination of a poor economy yet extremely expensive goods. In my short time working on West Africa projects, I've heard a lot of people talk about their post as the most difficult, so I won't say that about N'Djamena. It certainly has many challenges though: class disparity, high crime, limited housing, no Starbucks. I hear it's very rare for people to extend their two year tour here despite the Service Needs Differential option for additional pay.
I've jumped into the project as quickly as possible given my transfer efforts. With my attention spread between multiple projects previously, I'll have the luxury of focusing on one project and digging much further into the details. That is, I'll have that luxury eventually - for now, I'm still helping one of my previous projects while some of its staff are out.
In the meantime, I’m starting to learn the layout of the city. So far I’ve seen three motorcycles (called ‘motos’ here) with a live goat straddling the gas tank, looking like it was driving. The driving rules of the road are…curious. I think there’s a pattern but I haven’t figured it out yet, which is fine since our car won’t arrive for months. I played tennis last week one evening and drank about a liter and a half of water during the 90 minutes - actually it didn’t feel crazy hot at first, but I was pretty overheated by the end. More acclimation to come…
(This post written while listening to the hum of our air conditioner.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacancy redux

The Construction Engineer vacancy is open yet again!  Yes, it did just open last month as well as in February.  Opportunity abounds!

(This post written while listening to Loudon Wainwright III Cardboard Boxes.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014


It seems pretty official that my first assignment will be N'Djamena Chad! The project is a new embassy, which we expect to take about 2.5 years to complete. Here are some basic stats on N'Djamena and Chad:
  • Population = ~1,000,000
  • Altitude = ~980 feet (298 m)
  • Primary languages = French and Arabic
  • Major industries = cotton, cattle, and fishing
  • Annual average rainfall = 22 inches (559 mm)
  • Average maximum temp = 106 deg F (41 deg C) in April
  • Average minimum temp = 58 deg F (14 deg C) in January
  • Chad's ranking on the Failed States Index = 5th worst in the world (obviously a list you want to avoid, like ESPN's Bottom 10)
  • Chad seems to be a destination for regional refugees from Central African Republic, Sudan, and Nigeria
  • N'Djamena is frequently ranked among the top 10 most expensive cities in the world
From CIA Factbook
We're scheduled to arrive this month, which is between the February-May hottest time of year and the July-September rainy season. We're in the middle of our preparations to leave, which have required an incredible amount of planning so we've been extremely busy in the past month. My wife's been amazing dealing with all the details - I'm stunned thinking about singles and people with kids trying to manage this, it's unreal. It's exciting to be getting out into the field!

(This post written while listening to Rockwell Somebody's Watching Me.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Vacancy filling

Who wants to build an embassy?  YOU DO.

The Construction Engineer vacancy is open again - we still have many openings, so please apply. I recently heard the last four rounds of applicants making it to the interview phase were: 6%, 7%, 2%, and 4%. Sounds a little thin, but then I also heard there are typically only around 250 applicants each round.  These numbers are unofficial, but they put things into perspective.

We have some cool projects going on, check out these OBO press kit files if you're interested.  And if you aren't interested, then check out this selfie.

(This post written while listening to Loverboy Working for the Weekend.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

EER already

It's been a busy month - bidding, unusually significant project issues, a week vacation, EER writing, and my parents visiting over the Cherry Blossom festival weekend, it all made for a blur of life and a sustained steep learning curve. EER season was just as challenging as last year: another big push to write up our Best Of moments. I originally put this in mine, "When Mark walks into a room wearing the clothes he does, people know he's not afraid of anything." Somehow it didn't make the final cut. At least EERs are over for now.

The new Ebola strain in West Africa is certainly a major concern - we also have some projects in the region, so I've been paying extra attention to the news on it. No direct impacts so far, but that's a pretty crazy unknown to have to deal with if you're in the region.

By the way, I found this link on West African art photographers really interesting - check it out if you like that sort of thing.

The elephant in the room for me is the assignment process, which technically has been ongoing since last June. I seem to be very close to an assignment, I should know something concrete in the next two weeks. Exciting!

Also, this was an interesting sign that showed up on one of our cubicles recently - solid advice here about post's Management Officer and OBO's Project Director:

(This post written while listening to Favored Nations The Set Up.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bidding 2014

The most interesting news over the past two weeks was another round of the OBO Construction Management bid list for Foreign Service staff.  The primary purpose of this blog is to educate prospective applicants about what being a Construction Engineer specialist is like - hence my ridiculously unimaginative but easily Google-able blog name - so I'll spend some time explaining my understanding of how the system works for us.

Each year Construction Management issues a memo asking Foreign Service staff for a rank-ordered preference list.  An assignments panel meets regularly and assignments are made, but of course it's not as simple as that. 

Our assignment process is different from the majority of Foreign Service Specialists and certainly Officers.  The Normals spend two years at their post and effectively every post is available.  Construction Engineers are dramatically affected by the variable schedule of construction projects at limited, frequently-changing posts: projects might start late or even get cancelled, and projects might end early or late.  This scheduling nightmare has domino effects on onward assignments, and it certainly affects the project post too.

Housing is a perfect example.  Post can far more easily anticipate the arrival date and family requirements for The Normals than they can for us Construction Engineers.  We might only be able to give post 30 days' notice because the contractor might mobilize to the site quickly after the contract awardThis can cause much angst for everyone: it's annoying for post to deal with families arriving at the last minute; I hear it's not unusual to end up in a hotel until housing is ready.  It's annoying for the Construction Engineer's family trying to plan ahead (paperwork, medical, consumables, packout, vehicles, kids, schooling, pets, etc).  BUT I think it helps a lot for both the Construction Executive and post staff to understand this before the situation occurs, as sometimes there are things we can do to mitigate the nuisance.

Considering the other "normal" variables - family members having health issues, specific career moves, retirees, etc - in addition to the project timing variables, predicting assignments is extremely difficult even for people with intimate knowledge of the majority of the circumstances.  My point is: it's important to not get too attached to a given assignment.  I was talking with a manager last week who, for one assignment, was going to an average place but ended up getting sent to an island paradise.  Of course the opposite can also happen.

I submitted a bid list a little less than a year ago and I don't have an assignment yet, but that's likely because I had less than a year of experience at the time.  Construction Management wants staff to spend their first year or two in DC to learn how the processes work.  I now have 18 months of experience: I submitted a bid list last week, so we'll see what happens for an assignment.

By the way, this official OBO website appears to list many of our current projects, so that might give you an idea of the kind of work we do.  Or if that doesn't sound like your style, there are many other international construction projects out there, like this $36 billion project to build housing in Libya that's ramping up now.  I know someone who'll be working on it - should be an interesting one!

(This post written while listening to Battle Tapes Feel the Same.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

And then there were 5

A major staffing change did end up happening just over a week ago: another of my original group of seven new construction engineers ended up leaving after much deliberation.  His primary reasons were his relationship with his girlfriend and frustration with the construction engineer assignment process.  The CE assignment process is significantly different from the vast majority of other Foreign Service Specialists (and Officers for that matter) because each assignment depends on an enormous number of variables: timing of projects starting and ending, family-specific issues, personnel changes, and more.  This is useful to know for new hires' expectation management: the current program is for new staff to be in DC for 1 to 2 years and the actual departure date is very hard to predict.  In any case, I'll keep in touch with him on his new adventures and wish him the best of luck!

Coincidentally, a new FSCE just joined us the next business day after the aforementioned left.  This is very good, we need the help, but the loss of 17 months of institutional knowledge is significant.  With the new hire comes helping with training to get up to speed.  It sheds a lot of light on how much we learn in just a year, it's a steep learning curve, and I don't think it'll flatten out anytime soon.

Speaking of assignments, this year's Construction Management bid list should come out any day now - in fact, it's about a month behind when last year's was issued.  Looking forward to seeing what's coming up!  Until then, there's plenty of work supporting the ongoing projects.

As an aside, here's a recent confirmation of my long-held belief: always get the bigger pizza.

(This post written while listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Runnin' Down A Dream)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

New embassies

As is evident from the still-open Construction Engineer vacancy, work has been busy. The workload's unlikely to change soon, particularly if an upcoming staffing change is finalized this week.  More soon on that.

Last week had a major step forward for a new embassy in N'Djamena: the construction contract was awarded.  While there are many steps remaining before shovels can hit the ground, the award is the culmination of a lot of work on many fronts.  It's exciting to see a new project on the verge of starting construction (probably this summer).  It'll be great to watch the new embassy project from design through completion, there's an incredible amount to learn from the process, like not just how to pronounce N'Djamena, but what are fun things to do there (TripAdvisor lists 3!).

Back to more work, there might even be more if one California venture capitalist gets his way.  I believe his actual plan is to form separate countries, each of which will need a new embassy.  (Note: my belief is not based on facts, only on unfounded hypotheses.)

(This post written while listening to Big Head Todd and the Monsters with John Lee Hooker Boom Boom)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

More vacancy

Now, for a limited time only: the Construction Engineer vacancy is open again!  This offer ends on March 6, 2014.  You too can join a rank-order list of eligible hires - huh, not really the sexiest of advertisements, but you get the idea.  Bonne chance, mes amis!

(This post written while listening to Talking Heads A Clean Break)

Monday, January 20, 2014

New year

I haven't posted anything in a while because unfortunately the new year has not started well for us - last weekend we had to put our other dog down. She'd been having cancer-related issues for a few months and it became clear that it was time. It's strange to have no secondary sounds in the house. Logistically it will be simpler to relocate without having pets, it's just not what we originally thought would happen.

Sorry to be a downer again. As far as work goes, activity is ramping back up and this promises to be another very active year. On construction in Africa, a friend forwarded this interesting theory that seems much more plausible than aliens.

(This post written while listening to no snoring dogs.)