Have I ever mentioned that I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma? I wasn’t born there, but I might as well have been. I lived there from about age 6 until I left for college at age 17, and of course I returned to Tulsa for holidays. But after my parents retired and relocated to North Carolina, there was never a *strong* reason to return. Until last week. My high school was recognizing my sister for her 30+ year dedication to education. She deserves all the awards and I wanted to be there to celebrate her, so it was a perfect excuse to go back.

Man, what a difference 25 years makes. You expect things to change. Change is life. Lack of change = stagnation. You know that, intellectually. But somehow, some part of your mind (mine, at least) imagines that time of your life as if it’s encased in amber: it remains exactly as you left it, forevermore. So I was shocked to see so much change, so much growth. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. Not just with the city, which has grown in so many ways – physically as well as emotionally (if a city can have emotions). The city itself has grown: old buildings come down, new buildings go up. The economy ebbs and flows. The city’s riverfront has developed…my niece had a blast here. Emotionally, the city is reckoning with its history. No longer the “Tulsa Race Riot,” the city acknowledged the massacre that took place 100 years ago in Greenwood – the economically and culturally thriving African-American district known as Black Wall Street.

My little high school has changed too: it’s not so little anymore. The physical plant has expanded, along with the number of students, faculty, and its endowment. Talk about wowza. This old theater geek was in awe of the 200+ seat auditorium on campus. No more theater productions in the cafeteria. And BKHS athletic teams can now truly have “home field advantage” with the football/soccer stadium, athletic complex, and baseball and softball fields. And, like many organizations and institutions in the United States, my alma mater is thinking about diversity and inclusion and how this Roman Catholic secondary school should implement those principles in its interactions with students, faculty, and the community.

When I wasn’t touring the campus, I was talking to students about careers with the U.S. State Department. (Hard to believe anyone is turning to me as an expert…Quiet down, imposter syndrome). Interestingly, I had visited my alma mater about 15 years ago to talk about my career; talk about change! Fifteen years ago, the imposter syndrome was strong in me: I was insecure, unsure about my career, and embarrassed (if you can believe it) that I wasn’t more “successful” – whatever that means. This time, I’m confident, I’m comfortable, and I realize that only I can define “success” for myself.

But this post isn’t really about my comfort or confidence. Not really. It’s about realizing that you can’t go home again. What do I mean? I imagine that high schools everywhere – public, parochial, private – are largely the same with cliques and clubs: the honors students, the nerds, the theater geeks, the jocks, the emos, etc. The “popular” kids and the kids on the margins. My sister likes to say I was one of the popular kids. I’m not sure that’s true. What I can say is that I had my crew – a mix of jocks, nerds, theater geeks, honors students, and emos – and that I had a few really close friends within that crew. There were days when I loved high school and days when I hated it. And I often looked at others with envy – because they were prettier, more popular, their families were wealthy, whatever. Last week, I talked to a number of alumni – some were friends, some were classmates, others were a few years ahead or behind me. In my 16 year-old eyes, many of them seemed to have it all. Last week, I learned that reality was very different. Everyone had their own insecurities, some of them hated high school, a few were dealing with unbelievable suffering and abuse. Picket fences don’t always keep the nightmares out.

When I was younger, my high school memories often shifted to an informal tally: who was kind to me, who wasn’t; who talked to me, who didn’t. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t turn these questions inward: was I kind? Did I talk to the kids who weren’t in my crew? I’m sure that, on more than one occasion, I failed to live up to the standards by which I judged my classmates and I’m sorry for that.

You can’t go home again, and I’m thankful for that. In the Tulsa of 1988, the Greenwood district was forgotten; today it is vibrant. In 1988, the Tulsa Race Massacre was not taught in Oklahoma History; today it is. Today, my high school administration is actively working to attract a more diverse faculty and student body; diversity and inclusion weren’t on the radar in 1988. And now, I look back on my high school years with grace, empathy, and humility – remembering it fondly, understanding that others were facing their own challenges, and acknowledging my own shortcomings. So no – you can’t go home again, but you can get close. And the new home is so much better.

There are three things I think Americans must understand about shopping overseas…

Living overseas is always an adventure, in my view. That doesn’t mean “living dangerously” necessarily. It just means things will probably be different. As they should be. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

About a week ago, a friend took me shopping in Abidjan. By this time I had already experienced Cap Nord and Cap Sud – two great malls with grocery stores, wine stores, cosmetics stores, even my beloved Nespresso – among others. On this day, we checked out some Lebanese shops and Carrefour.

There are three things I think Americans must understand about shopping overseas:

  1. You will likely find things you never knew existed;
  2. There is rarely such a thing as “one stop shopping;” and
  3. If you see and you want it, you should get it. In fact, you should probably get two or three.

Our first stop: the Lebanese stores. My friend told me that every store would be different and will have different items on the shelves. And if you couldn’t find it in one of the big supermarkets, you might be able to find what you were looking for here. You might even find things you didn’t know you were looking for. He was right on both counts.

Chocolate Chips. As a general rule, I find cooking and baking relaxing. I like trying new recipes and returning to “old reliables.” Occasionally, I go on baking binges – usually when I’m stressed out. I bet every halfway serious baker has a bag of chocolate chips on hand for whenever they feel like whipping up a batch of Toll House cookies, chocolate chip muffins, or whatever else. So imagine my surprise when I saw chocolate chips in the Lebanese market!

I love that they are called “Chipits!”

Did I need chocolate chips? No. Were chocolate chips on my shopping list? No. Had I been looking for chocolate chips at other grocery stores? No. I can’t even say I’d been particularly aware of their absence at other grocery stores. All I can say for sure is that these chocolate chips were perfectly placed at eye-level on the shelf. I couldn’t miss them. They were right there. So I followed rule number 3 and bought two bags. (Probably should have bought more). Did I have a plan for those chocolate chips? No. But I made one pretty quick and threw some into the banana bread I baked later that day. Chocolate chips make everything better.

Camel Milk. Rule number 1: I will run across things I never knew existed. True. Technically, I think I knew that camel milk existed, but I certainly never expected to see long-life camel milk in any grocery store. So I learned something new. I realize that by not buying any this time, I risk never seeing it again….

Camelicious!

Carrefour. I like the supermarkets in Cap Nord and Cap Sud, but I wanted the Carrefour experience. As you probably already know, Carrefour is a huge French retail conglomerate with supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and discount stores. It should come as no surprise that you’d find Carrefour in West Africa, given the region’s historical links to France. So I wanted to check it out. In my head, I had built Carrefour up to be this amazing wonderland that would have everything your heart desires. That was my fault. In reality, it was a’ight. Definitely not my favorite among the grocery stores I’ve seen. Did I find things there that I hadn’t found elsewhere? Yes. Did this Carrefour have chocolate chips? No. Would I go again? Sure, if I happened to be in the neighborhood.

This experience reinforces rule number 2: there’s no such thing as “one-stop shopping.” I can’t even rely on Carrefour to have everything. And that’s okay. It’s part of the adventure of living overseas. Yes, it can be exasperating – especially when you are desperately looking for that one special item. But it can also be rewarding when you find the spot that has “it,” whatever “it” is: Dr. Pepper or Funyuns or chocolate chips. Even camel milk. Enjoy it.

I’m going to share a couple a real truths.

TRUTH NUMBER ONE: I like to cook. Cooking sustains me. It makes me happy. Now, I don’t mean that I’m a master chef or that I’m like my amazing New Hampshire friend who can make up prize winning dishes without a recipe (true story: she made this Thanksgiving-inspired flavored popcorn for a contest and came in second! She’s amazing). But I do get a lot of satisfaction out of trying new recipes and seeing them turn out well. And sharing meals that I’ve prepared with others. And kneading bread dough. Talk about de-stressing!

In my nomadic lifestyle, cooking often means figuring out substitutions or finding the host country equivalent of a particular ingredient. Yes of course, I could order the ingredients online – and sometimes I do – but that takes time. Even Amazon can’t get it to me next day when I’m halfway around the world. And frankly, figuring out a work-around or a substitution is part of the fun.

Living overseas also means trying new flavors, new cuisines, new takes on old dishes. And I say this as someone who is not too proud to ask her friends and family to send her care packages of Funyuns and Cap’n Crunch cereal. (Everyone should have a stash of emergency Funyuns).

TRUTH NUMBER TWO: I don’t like ham and cheese sandwiches. Never have. When I packed my lunches for school, I defaulted to turkey. Always. Could a ham and cheese sandwich slip through if my mom packed my lunch? Probably. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten more than one bite of that sandwich. I just don’t like ham and cheese. I’ve got nothing against them separately. My mom always served Virginia ham at Thanksgiving dinner – loved it. I will never say no to some Honey Baked ham. Swiss cheese? Brie? Fancier artisanal cheeses? I’ll give them a try. Just don’t serve me a ham & cheese sandwich, because I will turn up my nose.

Until now.

A few days ago, I asked Google to find “easy French recipes” for me. I’m in Cote d’Ivoire, a francophone country with tons of French influences that are holdovers from the colonial era. Carrefour is here, for heaven’s sake, so it’s been pretty easy so far to find ingredients for basic French recipes. Thanks to Google, I found many recipes for Croque Monsieur.

I was already familiar with the Croque Monsieur because my colleagues and I had talked about it in our French language class. One of my classmates was pretty passionate about French cooking, and another classmate and I liked to tease her about it. All in good fun. So one day, she’s talking about the Croque Monsieur and my classmate and I commented that it was “just a ham and cheese sandwich.” No big deal.

Last night, despite my general dislike for ham and cheese sandwiches, I decided to give the French version a try. I had brown bread, I had ham, I had Gruyere, I had dijon mustard, I had bechamel. All pretty basic stuff, but when you put them together? Oh. My.

My Croque Monsieur with French Fries. This photo does not do it justice. #notaprophotographer

I stand corrected, and take back every snarky tease I made about the Croque Monsieur being *just* a ham and cheese sandwich. I was very, very wrong. The Croque Monsieur is what you throw together when someone shows up unexpectedly for lunch or dinner, making do with whatever you have in the fridge, knowing they will savor every bite. The Croque Monsieur is ideal for rainy or snowy days, when you want make something warm but not complicated. For those nights when you work late and you come home hungry; you want to fix dinner, but you also want to keep it simple. You make it when you want to dip your toe into French cuisine because, after all, it’s just a ham and cheese sandwich. Except it’s not. The Croque Monsieur is what an American ham and cheese wishes it could be, but knows it never will. It’s heavenly.

Final analysis: Croque Monsieur > ham and cheese sandwich. Periodt.

But don’t take my word for it…give it a try.

Well, it’s been a minute. Last time I posted something on this blog, I was living in Baltimore and working in Washington, DC. Quite a few changes since then. Let me catch you up.

After my two-year assignment ended in DC, I went to Islamabad, Pakistan for a year. Great experience professionally and personally, beautiful people, beautiful country. I chose not to blog from there for security reasons. Not because I felt “unsafe,” but because it seemed prudent. Then back to DC in August 2019 for French language training before heading off to Cote d’Ivoire in May 2020.

And then the world changed. We watched with interest as COVID-19 made its way around the world, worrying about friends and colleagues in China, then Italy, then France and Spain, until finally everything stopped. Many of our colleagues returned to the U.S. on “authorized departure,” in-person classes were canceled and some were shifted online, and departures from the U.S. for onward assignments were delayed. Welcome to limbo.

You make the best of it. You read more, you exercise more, you knit more. Then, if you’re me, you eat more. And I don’t mean kale. But you make it through with Zoom and email and telephones and cocktails. If you weren’t stuck in a TDY apartment while all of your kitchen gadgets were either sitting in storage or making their way towards West Africa, you’d bake a little. You look at the photos of friends’ baking triumphs (and fiascos) and live vicariously through them. And eventually, they let you go to post.

So here I am. I boarded a charter flight with other USG employees heading to this part of the world, had a quick layover in the Grand Canaries, and arrived in Abidjan. And because I am on Day 12 of the mandatory 14-day quarantine in my new house, I haven’t been able to venture out to see all that Abidjan has to offer. So no pictures…yet. But I am thrilled to finally be here, and I look forward to exploring this country and the region.

So: bonjour, Abidjan! Je suis ravie de faire votre connaissance!

Yesterday, I read a letter to the editor in my hometown newspaper.  May 5 was Foreign Affairs Day, a day when Americans are asked to honor the people who serve our country overseas.  The letter just reminded people of our commitment to public service and the sacrifices we make.  It was nice.  Then I read the first – and so far only – comment:  “I applaud Rex Tillerson’s call for a 9 percent reduction in force.  The State Department has gotten out of control.”

The State Department has gotten out of control.  Huh.  Okay.  I’m guessing that the commenter doesn’t know a whole heck of a lot about State, so I thought it might be good to demonstrate just how “out of control” we are.

  • Out of control State Department employees like me spend much of our careers living and working overseas, and no – we’re not sipping champagne in Europe.  I mean yes – of course we have embassies and consulates in Europe, but we also have them in other parts of the world that aren’t so nice.
  • And speaking of Europe, many Americans love to travel to Europe and unfortunately, shit happens.  You lost your passport, you pocket was picked, you got sick and needed to be hospitalized, or – heaven forbid – something worse.  Out of control foreign service officers like me are there for you.  We’ll take your call at all hours of the night (believe me, I have); we will print a new passport for you; we will arrange for you to get money if yours was stolen; if you’re destitute, we will find a safe place for you to lay your head until you can get on your flight home; we will go to the hospital to visit you, contact your family, and help you navigate this foreign hospital system.  If you’re the victim of a crime, we will help you report it to the police and stay with you as long as you need us.  If you’re the perpetrator of a crime, we will still be there for you.  We will visit you in jail regularly and make sure you are treated fairly.  We’ll give you a list of attorneys who can help you defend yourself in court.  We’ll be there for you even if you’re guilty.
  • If you’re a bit more adventurous, we’ll be there too.  We will travel eight hours or more over treacherous roads in dangerous territory, putting our own lives at risk, to help secure your release from kidnappers.
  • Hey, you want to expand your business into this new foreign market but you don’t know exactly how to do it?  We can help.  We will put you in contact with reputable business people in your field, set up meetings for you, and help you understand the market.
  • Your kid wants to spend a gap year wandering through South America?  Cool.  We’ve got all kinds of info about every country in the region.  Everything from entry and exit requirements to the political/economic climate to the safety of the airport runways. We can tell you about human rights issues in country; scams you and your kid should be aware of; parts of the country you might want to avoid because of criminal or terrorist activity.  We can tell you about the government, the country’s infrastructure, its medical system, and available social services.

And on and on.  This list is endless.  We can do all this and more because we are there.  Every day.  Away from our friends and families.  We miss birthdays, holidays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals.  I know what you’re thinking:  nobody’s forcing you to have this career.  You’re absolutely right and that’s my point.  We chose this life because we love the U.S.  We make the sacrifices and miss those special milestone events because we believe in public service.

Yeah.  We are so freakin’ out of control.

Fifteen years ago today, I started this crazy adventure called the Foreign Service.  I took an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.  And I’ve done that every day since, in places like Albania, Belize, Italy, Nigeria and Washington, DC.  I don’t regret a minute of it.

So next time you hear someone say the State Department is bloated, out of control, or a waste of U.S. tax dollars, think.  Think of this blog post and the many others out there that are also highlighting the great work of State Department and its foreign and civil service.  Think about our commitment to the United States.  Think about what you would do if we weren’t out there.  And then find a State Department employee and say thanks.

You’re welcome.

You may have heard:  the U.S. held presidential elections a few months ago, and an inauguration a few days ago.  There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding this one – foreign influence, decisions made by the FBI director, Twitter, the rise of white supremacy,  the electoral college, and on and on.  Folks keep pointing out that the peaceful transfer of power is the bedrock of the American political system.  I agree.  I’ve served in countries where that doesn’t happen.  I celebrate the peaceful transfer of power.  But…

…there’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

I had a dentist appointment on Inauguration Day.  I live in Baltimore.  My dentist’s office is in Arlington.  I really love my dentist.  So I got up early to catch the train from Baltimore to DC, then the Metro from DC to Arlington.  I saw the crowds of people headed to the inauguration – more people than one would normally see boarding a commuter train at 8:30 in the morning, I imagine.  I’m #stillwithher, so I felt pretty much alone on that train surrounded by folks wearing red ball caps made in China.

You should stop reading now.  There’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

This entire election cycle has depressed me.  It seems to me that there was less focus on the issues and more focus on name-calling – from the run-up to the primaries, through the debates, and election day.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, but it seems to be what the “American people” want.  At least, that’s the perception.  This election cycle has also been an eye-opener for a lot of people.  People have learned that there is an ugly underbelly in America.  The people who are shocked have likely lived their lives in bubbles that shielded them from things that others have had to face on a regular basis, and they don’t like it.  Welcome to our world.

You’re getting close to the end of this blog post.  There’s a monster there.  Stop reading!

Yesterday, I got up early again to go back to DC.  No, not another dental appointment.  This time I was going to the Women’s March on Washington.  Once again, I headed to Baltimore Penn Station arriving at a few minutes before 7:00.  It was a different scene this time:  hundreds and hundreds of men and women, wearing hats in various shades of pink, carrying signs that expressed their opinions, laughing with each other, talking to strangers, and inching forward – getting closer and closer to that train.  I talked to a few strangers myself:  the older ladies from Connecticut, the young guys from Baltimore, the older man who walked up and down the line thanking us and encouraging us to hang in there.  The line wrapped around Penn Station – there must have been thousands of us!  It was nice to be a part of such a positive force.

Stop!  There’s a monster at the end of this blog post.

After three and a half hours, with no idea of when or if a train would come, my friend and I got out of line.  (Sidebar:  for some reason, MARC did not anticipate the crowds of people who would want to go to Washington that day.  There were only two trains in the morning.)  So we got out of line.  I felt bad about that.  But my new friends from Connecticut pointed out that it didn’t matter if we made it to Washington or not.  The point was, we came out in force.  We were noticed.  We were there in spirit.

That’s how I came to write this blog post.  You’ve reached the end now.  There is a monster.  It’s me.  It’s you.  It’s all of us.  That monster is democracy and it’s unstoppable.  I’ve seen what democracy can do.  It galvanizes people to call their senators and representatives, to challenge the media to dig deeper, to donate their time and money to worthy causes.  Democracy is why we speak up for those who can’t.  It’s why we express our joy and our outrage in response to our elected representatives’ actions.  It’s why at least half a million people showed up in DC yesterday.  Because we the people.  Because democracy.  We are all monsters and when we work together, we can be pretty scary.

 

It’s been a while.  I’d like to say I’ve been too busy living my life to write anything down, but I think the truth is I’ve just been lazy.  So let me catch you up real quick:  I spent the last two years doing consular work in Nigeria.  Here’s how it went down:  nonimmigrant visas, emergency passports, kidnapping, nonimmigrant visas, consular reports of birth abroad, fraud investigations, fake entry/exit stamps (if I can tell it’s fake, it is a really bad fake), meeting our wardens, crisis management exercise, kidnapping, Nigerian elections, VIP visits (hey John Kerry!), training, management “challenges,” outreach on social media, roundtables with journalists, travel to Yola (FYI – there is a surprising connection between my alma mater, Emory University, and the American University of Nigeria in Yola), kidnapping, July 4 celebrations (twice), training, budgets, I’m in charge!, new hires, citizenship renunciations, citizen repatriations, and nonimmigrant visas.  And that one time I yelled at that kid for failing Intro to Pottery.  Oh, also Ghana, Kenya, London, Germany, Egypt, and South Africa.  You’re caught up now.

I wrapped up that assignment in August 2016.  Let me just say to those of you who may have been wondering what life in Africa is like.  Its. Ama. Zing.  I would return to Africa in a heartbeat.  Yes, Nigeria could be crazy and I enjoyed every opportunity I had to get out of the country to relax, but I still loved it.  My friends and colleagues who have worked in Africa will tell you there’s something special and magical about that continent.  If you ever have a chance to go, go.

And I moved to Charm City.  It’s not just The Wire anymore (although my dad and my sister think they saw drug deals going down just a little ways from my house).  Whatever, I’m urban pioneering this shiz.

A lot of good things happened to me in 2016.  I finished a great two-year assignment in Nigeria; before I left, I saw a lot of amazing and beautiful places; I bought a house!  I reconnected with dear friends.  But, for me, 2016 also sucked.  I’m not going to use this space to list all of the crappy stuff that happened this year.  What I am going to do is something I did a few years ago:  I’m pulling out my jar of happy.  Every day, I’m going to fill that jar with one thing that I’m grateful for and at the end of 2017, I’m going to read them all to remind myself of how great life is.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t call out the BS if and when I see it.  And I expect to see a lot of it in 2017.  2017 is a year to engage, to educate ourselves, to be kind, to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, to protect, to help, to read (or re-read) the U.S. Constitution, to speak truth to power, to do our jobs well, and so much more.

So yeah, I’m back.  You’ll be hearing from me in 2017.

 

This is the second most common question I am asked in Nigeria.  I work in the U.S Embassy’s consular section, so the number one question should be pretty obvious.  But if people don’t know who I am, “is that your hair?” jumps to the top of the list.

I should explain.  A couple of years ago, I decided to go natural.  That’s right:  no hot combs, no relaxers, no chemicals.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  I loved my straight hair and often received compliments on it.  But a few years ago, I discovered that cancer drugs and relaxers don’t mix.  My hair was breaking.  And since not taking the cancer meds was not an option for me, I decided to drop the relaxers.  I also found out my next overseas assignment would be in Abuja, Nigeria and I thought going natural would be easier in this environment.  I assumed – incorrectly, as it turns out – that most Nigerian women were “natural curlies” too, so I’d have a lot of local resources.  

Truthfully, going natural wasn’t that hard.  Some women will figuratively take the plunge and do a “big chop” – they cut off all of the relaxed hair, leaving a teeny weeny afro of natural hair behind.  I wasn’t that brave, so I transitioned gradually.  I stopped putting the straightening chemicals in my hair and changed my hairstyle to mask the kinky roots and the straight ends.  Once my roots grew out a bit, I started wearing my hair in two-strand twists.  (Look it up).  

At the same time, I did a lot of research about the best products to use on my hair.  I read a lot.  I Googled a lot.  Everyone’s hair is different, so even with the research, it’s trial and error.  How does this product make my hair feel?  Is it shiny or dull?  How does my hair respond to humidity?  Is this conditioner too heavy or not heavy enough?  And on and on.

Anyway, as I noted above, I incorrectly assumed most Nigerian women be natural like me.  Why did I assume that?  I think I was basing that assumption on the number of African braiding salons in the DC area, but it really made no sense.  I arrived in Nigeria and found the same things I found at home:  relaxers, extensions, and weaves.  A few naturals too, but mostly relaxers, extensions, and weaves.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  It just meant that I wasn’t going to have all the local expertise that I thought I would.  

I’m three years into this natural thing, and I love it.  I love trying new styles, I love trying different products, and I love watching my hair grow as it gets healthier.  Sometimes I twist it, sometimes I braid it, and occasionally I blow it out to see how long it has gotten.  I’ve used almond oil, olive oil, coconut milk, and honey on my hair with amazing results, but I’ve also used store-bought conditioners and shampoos.  It just depends on my mood.  Over the years, I’ve figured out what works for me and my hair.

Which brings me back to the title of this post.  I can’t tell you how many times Nigerian women have approached me and asked, “Is that your hair?”  Then we spend a couple of minutes talking about how I style it, what products I use, and how easy it is.  I’m determined to make a few converts.

So, to answer that question:  Yes.  It’s all mine.  And I love it.  

 

Me – a few months into my natural hair journey

 

 

Me – a few months ago, rocking a two strand twist out

 
 

Me – a few weeks ago. Full on blowout

 

I may have mentioned before that Nigeria is a challenging place to live.  The traffic.  The scams.  The many grocery stores one must visit to find all the things you can find in one trip to Safeway.  (By the way, I did find a grocery store that has artichoke hearts.  They cost a fortune, but what are you going to do?)

Last weekend, my survival skills were really tested.  It’s rainy season, and a big storm blew through.  So big that it knocked out the satellite that gives us access to the American Forces Network (AFN to those of you in the know).  Which meant that I couldn’t watch all of my favorite shows.  Which – yes, I watch too much television and this was an opportunity for me to read more, knit more, ponder the universe more.  Whatever.  “Elementary” you guys.  Is that asking too much?  This is really not a problem, right?  Because I have internet.  And I have a VPN, which allows me to access Netflix and Hulu and if worse comes to worse, I could always buy the episode of that show I really want to watch on iTunes.

Except my internet service was spotty.  The light, that light on the router, the one that is supposed to be just a steady blue light:  it’s blinking.  It’s not supposed to do that. Blinking light = no internet.  Okay, this is not ideal, but I can handle it.  I will go shopping.  Or go to a movie.  Or have lunch at a restaurant.

Except my car battery is dead.  It’s Saturday afternoon.  My car battery is dead.  Dammit!

And that’s when I learned the value of having “a guy.”  My neighbors have “a guy.”  When their car needs an oil change or a tire rotation or even some body work, they call the guy.  The guy comes and picks up the car at the Embassy, does what needs to be done, and returns it before the end of the day.  This is a good guy, a great guy.  They gave me this guy’s number.  These are good neighbors, sharing his number, because I kind of feel like I would want to keep this guy all to myself.  I called him last Saturday at around noon, explained my situation, and asked him for help.  He said, “What time do you want me to come over?”  I said, hesitantly, “1:00PM?”  He said, “Okay.”  And here’s the kicker:  he was here at 1:00PM!  You have no idea how rare that is in Nigeria.  (I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told “I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”  I finally figured out that “5 minutes” means like half an hour in Nigeria-speak).  He was on time.  He. Was. On. Time.  He looked at my car.  He said, “It’s the battery.  I’ll be back in 20 minutes.”  He left.  Twenty minutes later (just like he said!), he returned with a new battery.  He installed said battery.  I paid him.  He left.  I now have a guy to handle all the car stuff.  Tomorrow, he’s coming to the Embassy to pick up my car and change the oil.  I have a guy.

I have another guy.  This guy’s number is saved in my phone as “AFN Tech.”  I called him.  “I have an unstable signal,” I said. “I cannot watch AFN.” (“Elementary,” I did not say).  He understands my plight.  “I will have to reset the satellite,” he responded.  He came.  He reset the satellite or whatever it is that they do.  It didn’t work the first time.  He came back and jiggled the handle or whatever it is that they do.  And AFN is back.  “Elementary,” y’all.  I have another guy and he totally gets me.

I’m on a roll.  On to the internet!  Well, actually, I don’t have a guy for internet.  That problem resolved itself on its own.  Would it surprise you if I told you that when the blue light is blinking, you have to turn the router off and then turn it back on?  (Why is it that the solution to most things computer-related is to turn the device off, and then turn it back on?)  So I turned it off, and turned it on, and now I have internet.

Nine months into this adventure, and I learned something.  Yes, Nigeria is challenging.  Yes, these people are probably the worst drivers on the planet.  Yes, many Nigerians have a very fluid concept of time.  But if you have a guy (or two or three!), all things are possible.  If you have a guy, your problems will be solved.  If you have a guy, you will survive this crazy, amazing, wonderful country.

I may have mentioned (a few times) that Abuja can start to get to you – especially if your movement is restricted to the city and that city doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot ot offer.  I finally decided I had had enough:  I needed to get out of Dodge for a few days.  Abuja is not easy to fly into or out of – there aren’t a lot of choices here.  Europe is six hours away and six hours on a plane each way seemed like way too much torture.  My needs were simple:  something not too far away (1-2 hours by plane); resort hotel with room service (this is so key); stuff to do.  Accra, Ghana met all of my requirements.

Independence Gate Accra, Ghana

Independence Gate
Accra, Ghana

Pres Burial Site

 

Unfortunately for me – and fortunately for you because you get to read about all the crazy shiz that happens to me – the trip did not start well.  The flight was late.  I should be used to this by now.  This is normal for Nigeria.  But it still drives me crazy.  We were supposed to arrive around 7:15PM but I think we arrived closer to 8:30/8:45PM.  Okay.  Not a big deal.  Except it appears that the Kotoka International Airport is renovating…which means that the customs/immigration area is about the size of my office…which ain’t big.  So the 100 or so people on my flight are trying to cram themselves into this room – not air conditioned because if Ghanaians are anything like Nigerians (and Italians for that matter), they hate a/c.  And did I mention how humid Accra is?  Even at night?  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  So we are crammed into this little room, inching our way forward.  Slowly.  I finally make it to the front of the line and the first Ghanaian government official I talk to is a health officer.  A HEALTH officer.  Guess what the health officer (HEALTH officer) asks me for?  My yellow card.  For those of you who may not be familiar, the “yellow card” is the immunization card issued by the World Health Organization.  Your health care practitioner records all of your immunizations on this card.  Everyone who works for an NGO has one for sure, and I’d venture to guess that most – if not all – U.S. foreign service officers have them too.  I have one.  They are also apparently the immunization record of choice in Africa, which makes sense.  And it’s yellow, so “yellow card.”

So the Ghanaian health officer asks for my yellow card.  Guess which dumbass doesn’t have hers?  Look, I’ve never lived in a place where I’m expected to have my immunization records with me at all times.  I’m an American, dammit!  Of course I’ve been immunized.  (Although, with the recent measles outbreaks in the U.S., I guess health authorities can’t rely on one’s nationality to confirm their immunization).  So I was basically screwed.  Until I wasn’t.  The health officer sent me to another line with other passengers – because apparently I wasn’t the only one without her yellow card – to wait.  And wait.  Until she finally decided that I looked healthy enough to enter Ghana.  I was very appreciative because I was not looking forward to spending the night at Kotoka International Airport, waiting for the return flight to Nigeria the following morning.  The takeaway from this: the Ghanaian government is freaking serious about protecting the health of its citizens, so bring your yellow card.

 

Jamestown Lighthouse Accra, Ghana

Jamestown Lighthouse
Accra, Ghana

Okay, I’m in.  I’ve cleared immigration.  I’m good.  The hotel’s driver should be waiting outside for me with a sign.  I step out into the humid Accra night and am immediately accosted by taxi drivers – do I need a taxi?  No, no thank you.  Where is my driver?  No driver.  No sign.  Shit.  Okay, I am a seasoned international traveler.  I do not panic.  I call the hotel.  I inquire about my driver.  I am told “he is there.  In the parking lot.”  It’s a big parking lot.  It is dark.  I have no intention of stumbling around the Kotoka International Airport parking lot by myself.  So I politely ask if the hotel could call the driver and ask him to drive up to where I am?  Of course!  Problem solved.  Except he does not drive up.  He walks up.  But he has a sign!  He grabs my bag from my hand and starts walking – towards the hotel’s van, I presume?

Here’s where I have to take a break in my story and tell you how wonderful and helpful Nigerians can be.  As it turns out, a Nigerian businessman (and a contact for my Embassy) was on my flight.  We chatted before boarding, and ended up exiting the airport at the same time.  Now, he had a driver waiting for him.  But he refused to leave until he made sure that I found my driver and was on my way.

So back to my driver, who I am now following because he has my bag and is leading me to an air conditioned vehicle that will take me to this luxury beach hotel that I booked, right?  He is talking, talking, talking on his cell phone – in Hausa, a language found in many parts of West Africa, including Nigeria.  My friend, the Nigerian businessman, walks with us.  Then he starts speaking in Hausa to the driver.  I do not speak or understand Hausa – one of my many short-comings.  I have no idea what is being said.  They are shouting at each other.  I have to go to the bathroom, so I am really hoping that this works out for me.  Finally, the driver tells me (in English!) that he’s supposed to pick up a couple of people flying in on British Airways.  Their flight lands in a couple of hours.  He must wait for them.  This is not looking good for me or my bladder.  The hotel has arranged for another vehicle to pick me up.  It’s on its way.  Note:  the Ghanaian “on its way,” I discover, is much like the Nigerian “five minutes.”  Five minutes means more like 30; on its way means more like it’ll get here when it gets here.  The driver spends the next 20 minutes or so yelling via cell phone at the driver who is “on his way” – again in Hausa, but I assume he was telling the guy to hurry up.  It was a long, humid, and uncomfortable 20 minutes during which I saw way more of the Kotoka International Airport parking lot than I ever wanted to.

But finally the car arrives, with the driver! Hurray!  Do you know my Nigerian friend stayed with me that entire time?  I may complain (more than I should) about Abuja, but the Nigerian people are just wonderful aren’t they?  This man I had met only once before would not leave me to fend for myself in a strange land.  Say what you will about Nigeria’s long and storied history of scams and fraud, the Nigerian people are first rate.

 

The View from My Lounge Chair - Accra, Ghana

The View from My Lounge Chair – Accra, Ghana

So I made it.  No accidents (auto or bladder) on the way to the hotel.  My plan upon arrival was to read the riot act to the hotel reception desk.  But then they offered me a glass of sparkling wine, and suddenly all was right with the world.  The rest of the weekend was smooth sailing.  Saturday:  me, eating a yummy breakfast at the hotel restaurant; me, sprawled out on a poolside lounge chair drinking long island iced teas; me, walking on the beach; me, enjoying a lovely white wine with my dinner.  On Sunday, I decided to get off the lounge chair and tour the city.

Fishing is a Way of Life Accra, Ghana

Fishing is a Way of Life
Accra, Ghana

 

So what’s the takeaway from this trip?

  1. If you’re flying from Nigeria, expect delays.
  2. Bring your yellow card – I cannot stress this enough.  The Ghanaian government does. not. play.
  3. Learning Hausa could be useful, unless you have a Hausa speaker with you.
  4. Sparkling wine makes everything better.
  5. Accra is definitely worth a visit.

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