Highlights of our first year in Namibia

One of our first sunsets in Windhoek

It’s hard to believe that we have already spent a year here in Namibia. Even harder to believe is how much the world has changed since we first arrived. It’s so insane, it’s almost funny.

Despite all the heartache and uncertainty, there have been some really great moments. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite things from our last turn around the sun in Namibia:

  • Our house: This is the first time in the Foreign Service that our house has truly felt like home. It’s not as big as our last house, and the space is much more usable and I love it. We’ve also reached “peak kitchen” with this house; I will never live in another house with a kitchen this big or with this much storage. Sure the range is electric rather than gas, but I honestly don’t even care because everything else is so great. This entire house has so much built-in storage it’s amazing. And it has a GARAGE!

    Once you accept the bars on the windows, it’s a delightful place to be. My favorite spot is the corner of windows on the left.

    The patio space off the living room. We spend a LOT of time out here!

  • Oysters along the coast: Yes, you can also get oysters in Windhoek, but there’s something about the sea air and the sound of the waves when you’re eating oysters along the coast that just makes them that much more enjoyable. I had no idea that oysters were a thing in Namibia. It’s glorious.

    So delicious and so inexpensive.

  • Visits to Etosha National Park: Whether it’s seeing lions out the car window, rhinos crossing the road in front of us, or elephants at the watering hole at sunset, Etosha never disappoints. I will never forget the first time we saw lions in Etosha. We were driving along a quiet dirt road and I said “Go slowly, this looks like the perfect spot for lions.” Then, I kid you not, one minute later I saw a lion snoozing under a tree. I literally screamed. It was so incredible.

    Just another day at Etosha.

  • The sundowner game drive at Gocheganas: If there’s anything better than drinking gin and tonics with white rhinos, giraffes, and wildebeest, with the sun setting over the mountains in the background, I honestly don’t know what it could possibly be. We did our first Gocheganas sundowner game drive about a week after arriving. It was our first “holy shit wow” moment in Namibia. We did the same drive a few months later with our first visitor and it was just as incredible. More so, even, since we were sharing it with one of our best friends.

    Just some G&T with the rhinos and giraffes

  • Sammy the giraffe at Omaruru Game Lodge: The style of conservation at this lodge is a little different from other places in Namibia and the wild animals are somewhat…. tame. You can feed apples to the elephants on game drives and you can pet Sammy the giraffe. Whether or not you agree with this strategy, I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot of fun and M absolutely loved it.

    Elephants mobbing the game drive truck at Omaruru Game Lodge

  • The birds in Namibia: I’ve always enjoyed watching birds, but before moving to Namibia I’d never gone out of my way to take a picture of one. (Except for maybe a bald eagle here or there). The birds here are amazing. Colorful, interesting, noisy, enormous, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible. And I have some decent photos of them.

    A hornbill eating an armored bush cricket at Mt. Etjo

  • Learning how to braai: I had no idea that grilling could be such a cultural phenomenon. But it is! And it’s awesome.  A traditional braai is done with wood; you get the fire going in a box-thing and then you rake the coals under the grate, the height of which is usually adjustable. Plus most braais have a hook for your potjie (pronounced “POY-key;” it’s essentially a spherical cast iron pot with legs). When we get our braai going we usually cook a lot of food because it’s more labor intensive than grilling in a Weber. We have several potjie pots of varying sizes and we’re always on the lookout for new recipes.

    We started out a small cast iron potjie pot, which worked well for camping when it was just the three of us

    Then as we started camping with friends we upgraded to a larger enameled cast iron potjie pot. It’s so pretty!

  • Camping at Spitzkoppe: Spitzkoppe was the first place we camped in Namibia, and it’s the only place we’ve camped at more than once. It’s stunningly beautiful and so much fun to explore. The campsites are more minimalist than most other campsites, with no running water, electricity, tables or shade, but it’s just the best.

    Tents at the base of Spitzkoppe

    The arch at Spitzkoppe

I could keep going. But these are the things that are unique to Namibia or that I found surprising/unexpected. We’ve done a ton during our first year here, but it also feels like so much was cancelled, rescheduled or cut short. I’m just glad we have another two years to keep exploring!

A spotted hyena and a wary springbok at Etosha

I’m sorry, U.S. Mission China

As you probably know, we are in the middle of an outbreak of a novel strain of the coronavirus. It’s causing panic in many parts of the world, and mandatorily up-rooting everyone at U.S. Mission China who is under the age of 21. Hundreds of children and parents (but just one parent from each family, since the other probably has to stay behind and continue working, with the exception of the Wuhan consulate which evacuated fully), and other people from the Mission, are going back to the US, not knowing if/when they’ll get to go back and hoping that their spouse and friends stay safe.

Almost everyone in the State Department fears that their post will go on departure status. Departures, whether authorized (you can leave) or ordered (you have to leave), can happen for many reasons, including terrorism, political unrest, violence, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks, among others.  The fear is just: departures are no fun. The uncertainty, figuring out how/if you can take your pet, the sudden change, the general confusion, the threat on your safety/life, the worry; it fucking sucks.

I feel for the Mission China families. Seeing their pain on social media reminds me of my own and brings back a lot of really miserable memories. Fleeing a country that had become home, leaving behind everything and everyone precious to you, travelling for 24+ hours alone with a 10-month old, and trying to find a new normal isn’t easy.

When we evacuated from Dhaka, I didn’t write very much about it because it was so awful. I’ll never forget nearly bursting into tears when our flight landed at O’Hare and the pilot said, “Welcome to the United States of America.” I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. No one here was going to try to kill me.

Little did I know how hard the ensuing nine months would be. That sounds melodramatic, but it was truly the worst time of my life.

Sure, there were some bright spots. It was nice spending time with family and watching M bond with his grandparents. We saw Nate several times and that was always wonderful. I reconnected with some old friends and shopped at Target a lot. Like, A LOT.

But, for the most part, it was horrible. I felt so alone. I had not only completely overestimated my ability to make friends, but also how receptive people in a small town in middle America would be to an outsider like myself. I tried to make friends, but, for the most-part, nothing stuck.

About five months into our departure, my mom moved to a lovely town on Lake Michigan. Once we started spending most of our time with her, I finally started to feel like myself again (although, still, no friends) and I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We facetimed with Nate every day. Whenever he didn’t respond, I immediately started worrying. Nothing bad happened in Dhaka after we left, thankfully, but that’s also enormously frustrating.  No one can see the future, but the fact that we would have been safe had we stayed still bugs me.

Hopefully we’ll never have to do another departure again. I’m glad that chapter of our lives is finished. But we always plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

Bidding with the big kids

I’m interrupting the blog posts about our adventures for a minute here to talk about something that is a big deal and the cause of a lot of stress in the Foreign Service: bidding.

I’ve mentioned bidding previously, but this is a horse of a different color. As a Foreign Service officer, your first two tours are directed assignments. That means that you put together a list of where you’d like to go and then other people decide where you actually go. Dhaka and Muscat were our two directed assignments.

After you finish your directed assignments, the training wheels come off and you have to start bidding along with everyone else, whether they’re also newly minted mid-level officers or they’ve been in the service for 20 years. The first step is looking at the projected bid list. This is a list of all the possible job openings, and it gives you an idea of what jobs will be available when bidding starts.

Everyone has different priorities that will dictate their bidding strategies, whether it’s pets, kids, hardship differential, specific jobs, tandem couples, medical needs, etc. In our case, here is what we’re generally looking for:

  • Someplace that won’t be nearly impossible to get Athena to. So, no long quarantines and no extraordinarily complicated dog entry requirements.
  • Someplace with affordable household help. Let’s be honest, in this household, having a nanny and housekeeper makes everyone’s lives better.
  • Someplace with minimal terrorism risk. We learned that lesson the hard way in Dhaka
  • Someplace where I could potentially get a job in public health. I miss it a lot.
  • Anything but DC. We want to stay overseas.

So you look at what’s available versus what you want, and you start to craft a draft list. Maybe you start to reach out to incumbents, and you start seeing what connections you have to the jobs that you’re interested in. Friends who have friends that they served with previously that are now in the country you’re interested in, friends from A-100 at a particular post and know the incumbent, a colleague who knows the Deputy Chief of Mission, that sort of thing. Anything that could give you a potential “in” when the time comes.

Eventually, bidding officially begins. The bid list goes live and you can start entering your bids, and posts will begin to out for interviews. Hopefully you can use the contacts from the previous paragraph and you have kept a good corridor reputation (which is basically formalized gossip).

Within the State Department bidding website, you can see how many people are bidding on each job. Some jobs will have 25+ bidders, some will have 2 or 3. It all depends. Not every job you bid on will want to interview you, especially if they have a lot of bidders.

After the interviews are finished, you  might find yourself on the shortlist. This is the point that we’re at right now, and frankly, I have no idea what happens next. Nate’s in the “meat market” and there could be air kisses, shoot-outs or handshakes (seriously). I don’t know what most of that means, except for handshakes, which is what you ultimately aim for because it means you got the job.

If that all seems confusing, nebulous and vague, that’s because it is. We never really know exactly what the next step is, and luckily we’ve got good friends and colleagues that are helping us navigate third tour bidding.

Next assignments are officially announced on October 29, and hopefully we won’t have to wait that long to find out where we go next. In the meantime I’m trying to not get myself emotionally attached to any particular potential post or get my hopes up. You never know. As long as we don’t wind up back in DC, I’ll be happy!

On being an EFM

Nate and I are equals.  Neither of us is more important than the other, and we have a lot of respect for each other.  Our relationship wouldn’t work any other way.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in the Foreign Service. Nate is the FSO, and I am the EFM (eligible family member), or, even worse, the “trailing spouse.”

I just started typing a list of why being an EFM sucks, but it was super-whiny and I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me (too hard, anyways). So I deleted it.  I’ll simply say this: being an EFM has its ups and downs.

The reason I mention this is because on a Facebook group for EFMs, FSOs, and others involved in the US’s diplomatic mission, someone recently asked if there were other EFMs that didn’t like the FS lifestyle.  The moving, being far from family, living in other countries, etc.

Wow, were the responses interesting.  Some people truly hate it.  I mean, with a level of vitriol that I found shocking.

The Facebook post got me thinking about why we joined the FS and what my own EFM experience has been like.  Spoiler alert: It’s actually pretty great.  In fact, a lot of EFMs like the FS and appreciate the opportunities that it gives them.  Not everyone is miserable.

Granted, I get annoyed sometimes by the fact that I’m an EFM, but it’s generally not that bad.  It can be occasionally silly (like the fact that I can’t even request for the embassy to come and fix, for example, an air conditioner if it breaks), and I roll my eyes at FSOs that think they’re better than me, but I think of it as water off a duck’s back.  It just rolls off.

Yeah, moving frequently sucks, and having to readjust to a new country every few years probably isn’t easy.  And neither is being far from family, especially now that we have a baby.  On the other hand, we get to explore new countries, learn  new languages (which for some might be a chore, but I love it), and we have a nanny.

As with almost anything in life, there are positives and negatives to being an EFM in the FS.  I have a portable career in public health, and there are lots of mosquitoes in Bangladesh, so that’s good; we both love to travel and explore new countries; and it is important to me that our children be raised overseas. So for us, the FS was a good fit for both of us and our family.  If it wasn’t for Nate being an Officer, we wouldn’t get these opportunities.  We are in this situation because of him, not me.  I get that.

Am I content with my EFM status?  Yes and no.  On a day to day basis, and I happy?  Yes.  Can I ride out my EFM-ness because of the opportunities the Foreign Service gives me and my family?  Hell yes.

On joining the Foreign Service

Last week I had lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in several months, and I mentioned that Nate joined the Foreign Service.  She gave a knowing laugh and said, “Nate didn’t join the Foreign Service– you both joined the Foreign Service.”

I’m coming to realize how true this is.  It’s also a little frustrating, and difficult to put into words.

We both (well, ideally both of us) are going to go live where ever the State Dept decides we should go.  We both will be packing our belongings, uprooting our lives, leaving friends and family, and starting a new life someplace else.  And this is going to happen every 2 years or so for the foreseeable future.  It’s going to be exciting, challenging, fun, and also a little frustrating.

The thing is, while we both are living this lifestyle, very much together, Nate is the one who’s an FSO.  I am an EFM, “Nate’s wife,” or, even worse, a trailing spouse.  But that is not me.  I feel like my identity is getting lost in the shuffle.

At the FSI and during A-100, they do a good job of including EFMs.  There are EFM trainings, we are invited to happy hours and social events, I was included in Nate’s meeting with the Career Development Officer, and we even get some happy hours that are specifically for us.  There seems to be a strong understanding of the fact that us EFMs are important in our own right, and without our support the whole moving-around-the-world-every-2-years thing wouldn’t happen.  But even so, it’s like we’re support staff for the main act.

Initially I was excited by the idea that I might not be able to work full time, depending on our post.  It would give me an opportunity to focus on photography or to tackle all those kitchen projects I’ve been dying to try but haven’t had the time (like making croissants and bagels).  Now I’m worried that won’t be enough.

I don’t want to lose myself to the grandiosity of the FSO, because we are both in the Foreign Service.  We are doing this together.



Before A-100

There are probably people out there who are/will be reading this blog who aren’t our friends and family.  This the internet, after all, so that’s just what happens.

Maybe these strangers (welcome!) just received their A-100 invite, or their spouse/partner did.  If so, this post is for you.

I was going crazy with the small amount of information we had received before Nate’s A-100 class started.  We knew the date he started and that was it.  And that, if you are terribly excited and dying to know more, isn’t enough.

Eventually, maybe 5 weeks before the A-100 start-date, Nate got a very large packet in the mail with some official-looking documents, a bunch of informational pamphlets (including one for the DC aquarium which I’m pretty sure is closed), a handbook called “Let’s Move,” (oh wait, that’s not it) “It’s Your Move,” and loads of paperwork.  It wasn’t very exciting.

Then two weeks (exactly) before June 30 he got several emails with several attachments, including info for spouses.  Finally!  The A-100 class that was two classes before Nate’s is sort of chaperoning them through the A-100 orientation process, answering questions, organizing some social events, and being otherwise awesome.

The really cool thing is that spouses and partners (also called EFMs, or eligible family members, which I suppose also includes children) are involved in pretty much everything except the A-100 classes.  EFMs can even do language training!  How great is that?  Sometimes I wish I didn’t already have a job so I could just go to language classes all day.  There is an orientation class for EFMs, and a bunch of other smaller seminars at the FSI.  It makes a lot of sense, really.  The Foreign Service can’t just send FSOs overseas with their unprepared families and expect things to go well.  It’s nice to already feel included in the community.

So, don’t worry, you’ll know more soon!  And until then, just keep surfing the internet.