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Sometimes you can’t believe your luck.

I took a break from mulling over my final itinerary to Syria in 2010 and picked up old Newsweek I hadn’t gotten around to reading.

I was fascinated with  “History in the Remaking” about Gobekli Tepe (Potbelly Hill) in southwestern Turkey near Sanliurfa.    The site dates to about 9000 BCE (6500 years older than the accepted age of Stonehenge).   Originally thought to have been a temple, some now argue it might have been a human settlement.

In either case, it is old.  It was built before any known written language, before the wheel, before domestication of animals and before farming.  It was built by hunter-gatherers.   Its discovery has shaken up thinking about how human civilization evolved.

Then I saw it:    “south is the Syrian border, visible 20 miles away”.  I became obsessed with arranging a visit.

The site was so new that none of the travel people I was working with had ever heard of it.  But I insisted.  So despite doubts, it was arranged that one day while in Aleppo I would make the quixotic 170-mile drive to  Sanliurfa.

What an adventure.  I had spent the day before getting my fractured wrist set, so at 5:00 am I was in considerable pain and only marginally coherent when I met my driver (for the first time).  He had the necessary credentials to drive across the border, but spoke no English and wasn’t 100% sure of where we were going.

We crossed the border and got to the first major city with only normal bureaucratic delays.    That’s when I realized the driver didn’t speak Turkish and  couldn’t read the Western letters of street and highway signs.  After several circuitous attempts to get on the correct highway, he taught me how to say left, right, and straight.  I read the signs.  He drove.  We made it to Sanliurfa.

I don’t know what we would have done if there hadn’t been a sign off the main road directing us to the Gobekli Tepe site.   As it was my driver grew increasingly skeptical as we drove the 10 or so miles down the winding dirt  path.

But finally there we were.

I couldn’t stay long because I really was not well.  But as I inched up and down the dirt paths through the excavation, it was everything and more than I expected.  I had no idea how vast it was, how much there was already to see.  And even though it wasn’t quite ready for prime time, there was enough information that my mind could see what had been.  And what had been was magnificent.

As I got back in the car, my driver shook his head.  We had been on the road for about 5 hours,  now we were driving back.  I suspect he still wonders about his crazy American passenger and her weird journey.

I regret I couldn’t stay longer.  I regret I was almost too out of it to really take it all in.  I regret I didn’t buy the damn booklet about the site even if it was in German.

But I don’t regret going.   And I can’t forget my wonder and excitement at being there.

Of Angels and Demons

Conventional wisdom, or at least current political behavior, suggests that disagreement is ‘us’ vs ‘them’.  And the ‘thems’ are either demons or idiots.

I beg to differ.

It’s easy to hate people or ideas that you don’t agree with.  It’s easy to dismiss them.  In fact it’s downright satisfying to realize how superior you are in your ‘right’ thinking.

Problem is “they” are you, just you with some different perspectives or priorities.

I worked with Andrew Young, civil rights leader, former U.S. Congressman, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN.  He was fearless in addressing issues he knew needed to be fixed, but I never heard him disparage anyone for their political views.

When he was at the UN, apartheid was still going strong in South Africa.  I went with Ambassador Young when he made an official visit to South Africa.  They anticipated the worse.  He was African-American.  He was a civil rights leader who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.  He represented President Jimmy Carter.

By the end of the visit, several South African officials  had commented on his ability to express his deep disagreement with their policies while clearly hearing and understanding their concerns and fears.

Demonizing the other side is easy.  Not speaking to them is easy.

But if you want to actually make changes, the ‘thems’ need to become  ‘us’.

Change means negotiating, empathizing,  compromising.  It’s a process that frustrates and challenges.

Change is messy and hard.

But in the end, change happens.

Not So Descendent of Homo Erectus

Once again there I was: on the ground. Not particularly hurt, just very embarrassed.

I’m not sure what it is about me, but somehow my DNA does not seem to have evolved from the accepted human ancestor “homo erectus”, but rather a subspecies as yet unidentified “homo tumblus”.

I feel sorry for my poor distant ancestor. He couldn’t have been high on the natural selection list. After all what self-respecting cave woman would pick a mate who probably would end up the prey instead of the hunter.

I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never heard of anyone dying of embarrassment. They just wish they could.

I can watch this video over and over.   This dog could be my partner anytime.   Enjoy!

When I was in the Foreign Service I was in countries that either had (Kinshasa) or would have (Nairobi) serious security issues.   And what’s happening following the tragedy in Benghazi makes my blood pressure go through the roof.

Complete Security Is a Myth

I’m not belittling the importance of security, but if you are overseas in an Embassy or Consulate there is risk.  Security situations can change overnight.

A Middle East expert colleague opted for a quiet “backwater” posting because he and his wife were starting a family.  But when the time came, his wife was still recovering from medical complications.  They agreed he would go on ahead with their baby and the nanny they had brought from his last post.

He was in Kuwait barely a week before Saddam invaded.

Embassy officers were immediately taken to Baghdad, his child was handed off to an American dependent to be evacuated, and the nanny scrambled to make her own way out.   His wife was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  So much for careful planning.

Security Isn’t Always Welcome 

If security had their way, foreign service officers would be locked behind tall walls and never venture out.  Keeping us safe is their job.

In Kinshasa, the security officer decided that making us ‘safer’ entailed soldering the glass doors to our balconies shut.   This in a tropical country where electrical outages were a common occurence.  He also cemented in the storefront windows of our library, leaving those of us who worked there in complete darkness during such outages.

But most foreign service officers have to get out and mingle.  That’s THEIR job.

People open up if they get to know and relate to you.  And to relate to you they need to know you beyond the official ‘facade’.  This means casual chats, cups of tea or coffee, impromptu visits.  Finally you reach a point where you begin learning who really has the ear of the higher-ups, the ‘skinny’ on the key players and the complex motivations affecting decisions.   You get the bigger picture.   And that is the value of being ‘in country’.

Security Upgrades Take Time and Money

Budget requests, hiring new personnel and capital improvements take time.

One advantage of dictatorships, while they’re in power, is that security tends to be good.  After the “Arab Spring”, it wasn’t just the Consulate in Benghazi that faced a new security reality.  Requests would have started pouring in from most of our installations  (including USAID and most other civilian government agencies covered by State Department security) across the region.  All the while Washington has been on a budget cutting spree.

So Enough of Using Benghazi as a Political Football

Could the State Department have done better in Benghazi.   Sure.

But instead of honoring Ambassador Steven and his fellow Embassy staff and focussing on solutions, his death and the serious issues it has exposed have become political talking points aimed at winning elections.

In the meantime, the officers and staff in Benghazi and elsewhere just keep doing their jobs, taking the risks and trying to drown out the political static that threatens to derail all they’re efforts.

What better way to flaunt your international cool?





Confessions of a Failed Skier

I don’t ski. 

I’ve earned the right.  I gave skiing a chance.  I tried.  I failed.  A lot.

For a series of convoluted reasons, for one miserable winter in Switzerland from mid-October to mid April, I went skiing four times a week.  FOUR times a week.  I made it up the ski lift twice.  That’s right, twice.

Because I was so tall, the skis were custom-made and arrived two weeks after the rest of the class had started actually skiing.   The lodge and train station were about half way up the ski slope.

My skis were so long I could barely see the ends (granted I am short-sighted).   The ever solicitous ski instructor helped me put on my skis and demonstrated how to stop and how to turn.  He then wished me luck and hit the slopes.

I quickly realized that what he did so effortlessly, wasn’t effortless at all.

I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t turn.

Ice moguls covered with powder snow

I proceeded to develop a technique of skiing sideways, and ever so slightly down slope.  This would inevitably bring me to an area of the slope that was not part of the normal run and was filled with round ice moguls.  One ski would get stuck in a mogul.  This would cause me to fall.  I had stopped.  While on the ground, I would throw my skis over my head and turn them in the opposite direction.  Up I’d get.  I repeated the process down to the ski lift entrance.

I can still see that t-bar lift: two people side-by-side as a bar pushed their butts up a slope.  Sounds easy.  It generally took me 10-20 tries to make it past the first 10 feet.  

But my troubles were far from over.  As the bar pushed me up, I became increasingly unstable.  Inevitably I ended up in a drift on the side of the track, an area piled high with powder, virgin snow.

My ski poles sank down until only the last six inches or so were showing.  With no leverage, I struggled to get upright, all the while dodging my ever helpful fellow skiers  who took great joy in trying to stab me with their poles.

Twice that winter I didn’t make it up far enough to get over to where the train station was.  So, I faked it.  I pretended I had an injury.  Then the homeward train was forced to stop at the bottom of the slope to pick up the ‘injured’ skier.  Definitely not my finest hour.

The two times I miraculously made it to the top, I was in such shock I didn’t know what to do next.  The surface was pure ice.  Slick and rough.   Other skiers were arriving right behind, so I quickly shuffled to the side.   Then ever so slowly I used my patented non-skiing ski technique to inch my way down to the lodge.

Most of the time once I made it half way up I would just ski across the ski slope, dodging flying skiers to the safety and comfort of the lodge.

Years later in New Hampshire,  I tried again.  This time with shorter skis on a slope with a disk ski lift (similar principle to the t-bar, but it pushed only YOUR butt with the bar going up between your legs.}   My friends assured my I couldn’t fall.  I fell.   Got dragged up the slope because my ski pole strap got wrapped around the disk.          

So I hate skiing.   But I don’t hate skiers.

So if you want to ski, I’ll be waiting with a warm drink in front of a fire.

When I arrived in Aleppo in May 2010, I was in a lot of pain.

While roaming through the fort of Saladin (the great Muslim opponent of the Crusaders), I had fallen hard.  Despite a sling and ice packs my wrist was now more than twice its size.

The x-ray office didn’t open until 11 am, so I decided to go ahead with the private tour a friend had arranged for me at the National Museum.   Dr. J. , one of the curators, did his best, but quickly recognized my exteme distress and hustled me into his office.

After preparing some tea to sooth body and soul, he produced the name of an excellent orthopedic surgeon who had set his broken leg a few years earlier.  Assuring me that the man not only spoke English but had trained and practiced in London, he called the office asking that they see me immediately.

Dr. M looked at the x-rays.  I had fractured my wrist.

Before I knew it, he had scheduled to set my wrist that afternoon at a local surgical clinic.   I scrambled to find an ATM to get the $250 I needed.  (The clinic couldn’t accept foreign insurance).   By 5:30  I was in a small ‘private’ room.

This was one of the few rooms with running water so periodically nurses would scurry in to fill pitchers, taking quick sideway glances at the “American” lying in the bed.  It was also used as a break room.  Two young nurses wandered in with their tea.   They spoke only Arabic and I didn’t.   So we smiled and laughed at our lack of communication.

Dr M arrived by 6:30.  Before I knew it I was in a simple, clean surgical suite.  He set the wrist as we chatted about his time in London and what I could expect in terms of recovery.    By 8 pm I had a new, much better, sling  (foam rubber, both comfortable and practical), a handful of pain meds and a deep appreciation for the kindess, professionalism and efficiency of the Syrian medical system.

Where is Dr. M today?

I hope he and the medical staff are uninjured.   I imagine the once orderly surgical center is now overflowing.

And what of kind Dr. JA?  Even if he is physically safe and sound,  I can’t imagine there’s enough tea to ease the pain of watching Aleppo burn.

I’m so angry and frustrated at what is happening.  Aleppans are suffering; their city is in flames.  But this isn’t the first time they’ve been subjected to war, invasion and disaster.

They won’t be broken.

No Further Comment Needed

When hope eclipses reality: a “successful” gold prospector in Nome, Alaska

Recently several documentaries have discussed the possible factors that led certain wolves to follow humans rather than remain with the pack.  I personally believe it was those wolves who had the ‘manipulation gene.’  That innate ability that all dogs have to wrap human beings around their little paws.

What ME a bully?

Let’s face it.    Jewish mothers could take lessons from dogs in how to inspire guilt.  Defense attorneys should weep at a dog’s ability to be convincing about their innocence or at least sincere remorse.  What manager wouldn’t love to get people to do what they want while they think they’re the ones in control.

You want me to get off the couch?

Take my dogs.   They allow me to believe that I have the upper hand.  But who are they kidding.  In return for sitting, walking calmly and refraining from doing bodily functions in the home (which is probably what they would prefer anyway), they get food, protection,  a warm place to sleep and endless affection on demand.   And should their behavior elicit anger or outrage on my part, the consequences are quick to pass and generally followed by even more affection and attention.  That’s one sweet deal.

Position is everything in life.

I bet early man thought he was the one with the upper hand.   But it’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly dogs (and their more independent co-conspirators, cats) became essential to early man and in the process earned a permanent meal ticket.  And thus they started leading a ‘dog’s life.’