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Here I am. I am here. Abuja, Nigeria. Where I wanted to be. I’ve been doing this work for a while, this moving and settling and waiting and adjusting. I should be used to this by now. And I am, sort of.
But I have discovered, after one week in this country, that I am not immune. I suffer from First World Problems. You know what those are: complaining about things that we take for granted in the First World that we can’t have here – wherever “here” is. I was warned. My colleagues told me this place, this residential compound, this apartment would be challenging. “You will place a lot of work orders,” they said. (Work orders are what we submit when we need something done – repair this, move that).
I have the standard American-style electric stove in my apartment. Last weekend, I started to make some pasta. I decided to be fancy and heat the sauce on the stove instead of the microwave, and added some fresh green peppers. The pasta is boiling. BOOM! Power outage. Not unusual here. I stand still and wait for the generators to kick in. I hear them, churning. But nothing. Oooo-kay. I wait a bit longer. I look outside my window. My neighbors have power. Why don’t I have power? I am confused. I consider just going to bed. But I am hungry.
I do not “do” electricity. Anything I touch will electrocute me, I think. I steel myself and head to the fuse box. The breakers are in the “on” position; everything looks okay, but what do I know? I flip a few switches. It does not kill me. Also, I still have no power. I find the flyer that was taped to my door, which provided the after-hours emergency number. Does this qualify? Yes, I decide.
The facilities guy comes pretty quickly. Abuja is not that big. Through trial and error he determines that there’s something wrong with two of the burners on the stove. If I turn them on, the power goes out. So don’t use them. Someone will have to come and look at it. You still have two burners to use.
This is definitely a First World Problem. I want four burners, you see. Four. I would argue that it is my right to have four. What if I wanted to fry an egg and make a grilled cheese sandwich to go along with my pasta and sauce? What if I wanted to put the kettle on and make some rice, AND boil an egg AND make some stir fry? Can’t be done. At least, not all at the same time.
But let’s get real for a minute. I still have two burners. Inside my apartment. On a residential compound. Surrounded by high walls and patrolled by guards. In my one week here, I have seen Nigerians living with far, far less. I need to get over myself and put it all in perspective.
So I smile. I thank the gentleman for turning the lights back on and apologize for calling him out on a Sunday night. “It is my duty,” he says. The next day, I dutifully submit my work order. Until the repairman comes, I will make due with my two burners.
I shudder to think what will happen if I turn on the oven…
Ten years ago this month, I embarked on a crazy adventure.
I’d officially been in the Foreign Service for about a year, going through orientation, then consular training and political tradecraft, and finally Albanian language classes. Albania: my first overseas assignment. The adventure was about to begin.
It was a strange time. My emotions were all over the place. I was really excited, really looking forward to starting the “real” work of diplomacy. I was thrilled for my friends and colleagues, who were going to exotic locales and setting out on their own wild adventures. I was a little sad, too. Living in DC had been fun. I made some fantastic friends. When my sister moved back from Santiago, Chile, she moved here and we shared an apartment. And I was so scared. I mean, Albania?!? What the hell was I thinking? I distinctly remember saying exactly that to my sister: what the hell was I thinking? Let’s think about it: here I was, a young, single, African American woman heading off to an isolated, former communist country whose leader had closed the borders for decades. What would I think of them? What would they think of me? And why in the hell was I leaving the comforts and conveniences of the United States?
All valid questions. But my sister reminded me that I knew the answer: because this was my dream. I was going to go places and do things that most people never even think about, and of those that do – many find all kinds of reasons for why they can’t. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “You’ll have fun.”
She was right. I was fine. Still am. I did have fun. Still do. I met some wonderful people – Americans and Albanians – in Albania; I travelled all over that country and around eastern Europe. I also made a few trips to Turkey, Greece, and Italy. My sister even came to visit!
Since then I’ve served in Belize, Italy, and Washington, DC. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown a lot. I picked up more friends along the way, took a few road trips, and snapped a lot of photos. Most importantly, I learned less is more when placing my consumables shipment order.
Funny story. When access to consumer goods is limited in a country, the U.S. government allows you to have a “consumables shipment.” Basically, you order what you need – food, paper products, cat litter, whatever – from the closest U.S. military commissary or grocery store and the USG ships it to your overseas location.
I waited until after I got to Albania to place my order. I wanted to see what was available on the local market. Now, I haven’t placed a consumables order since my first tour so things may have changed by now, but back then, you got a list – an Excel spreadsheet, as I recall – from the commissary, reviewed items available, and placed your order. I remember that spreadsheet. It was pages and pages and pages long when I printed it out. And whoever created it didn’t “wrap” the text in the individual cells, so a lot of the information was cut off. For example, I ordered several bags of what I thought were plain tortilla chips and ended up with the ones that have a hint of lime. (I really hate those).
The really funny thing was toilet paper. You see, toilet paper in Albania was pretty thin. One-ply. Everyone included toilet paper in their consumables shipment. So I ordered several cases of toilet paper – what I thought would be enough to get me through my two-year tour. But because some of the info on that spreadsheet was cut off, I didn’t know how many rolls of toilet paper were in a case. I ordered blindly. A few weeks later, my shipment arrived. Let’s just say that I haven’t bought toilet paper for 10 years. Not in Albania, not in Belize, not in Italy, and not in Washington, DC. This is a photo of the last roll in the last pack from the last case of the last carton of toilet paper from that shipment.
So, you know – hooray for consumables and the quality paper products made by the fine people at Cottonelle.