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A Not-So-Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there arrived a lovely POV (pronounced P-O-V), known in other parts of the world outside of the State Department Cult, as a Privately Owned Vehicle, or for short, a car, which in this case is a truck.

Now this POV, affectionately known as The Taco (as in Toyota Tacoma), was carefully loaded onto a vehicle-hauling-device in Denver, Colorado, many long moons ago, to make the lengthy journey across land and sea, to a place far, far away, where two vehicle-less (spoiled) Mzungus anxiously awaited its arrival. See Exhibit A.

2014-03-25 14.41.42


Exhibit A

Now if you could see into and around Exhibit A, you would see that the seats are clean, the bumpers are spotless, it is wholly devoid of scratches and dents, and the POV has clearly been lovingly cared for by its previous owner (thanks, Adam), and is in overall great shape and worthy of making the journey to the other side of the world.

What transpires from this point on will forever remain a mystery to you and to me, for all we will ever know is the end result, which was not a pretty sight (or smell, it turns out). And how we arrived at the viewing of this not-so-pretty-sight is fodder for perhaps the best, and for sure most-Burundian blog post yet. 🙂

So first came the anxious wait. It went something like this (the shipping guy at the embassy is in italics):

“Your POV is in ELSO (European Logistics Support Office in Antwerp, Belgium).”

“Oh, really? That’s good news. What happens next?”

“It will be sent to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, by boat, then shipped overland to Bujumbura.”

“Really? How long will it take to get here?”

“Hmmm, could be any day now.” (The key take-home phrase there was ‘could be’.)

And then it progressed to something akin to this:

“Your POV arrived in Dar and is being shipped here. Should arrive Monday.”

Monday arrives. No POV. “The truck hauling the container broke down.”

[Of course it broke down. We would expect nothing else. TIA. (This is Africa.)]

Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. “Your POV is supposed to arrive at the port in Bujumbura tonight.” 

Friday: “Can we go to the port and check on the POV?”

“Not today. We work half days on Friday.”

Monday: “Not today; there’s another container in front that has to be unloaded first.”

Tuesday. 3:30 pm. “Let’s go to the port and get the POV out of the container right now.”

“Woohoo! Let’s go.” (And we drop everything immediately and go.)

We arrive. The first sight is not a good one. See Exhibit B.



Exhibit B

You’ve heard the term “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”? I think it’s safe to say that where there’s a dent in a container, there’s a dent in the contents. And a scratch. And a broken taillight.

And due to the location of the dent, the door of the container can’t be opened. And here’s where it starts to get interesting, as in interesting, Burundi-style. Fourteen Burundians quickly amassed. It reminded me of the crowd that gathered in Alice’s Restaurant. Check out Exhibit C:



Exhibit C

Now in America, if fourteen people showed up to solve a problem, chances are there would be fourteen chiefs and no Indians, but in Burundi, there were fourteen Indians and no chiefs. And a few hammers. And a crowbar-like instrument. And a strap. And a chain with a huge hook. And a forklift. And voila! After a few thwarted attempts, the bent door opened…)

And the broken taillight and the dents and scratches we expected were there, as expected. But so were some things we did not expect. I present to you: Exhibit D:



Exhibit D

Seats covered in bird poop?!?!?! Are you kidding me? Who left the windows open in some port somewhere and let a family of seagulls move it? Seriously.

But like in many Not-So-Fairy Tales, the story continues and in fact, the plot thickens.

After we managed to push the truck out of the container (because the shipping guy couldn’t get it started), he told me to come around to the front to take another picture of the scratched up wheel well.

“Sure. Wait. What? Are you kidding me? No phone (camera) in my pocket? One of the fourteen Burundian men stole my iPhone right out of my pocket while we were trying to push the truck out of the container??

This has suddenly gone from really bad to way worse.

I wish I had gotten the next scene on video. For a solid hour, my embassy shipping guy and the guy who appeared to be somewhat in charge of the thugs trying to open the damaged container literally yelled at each other. Just stood right there in the middle of the port and yelled at each other. In Kirundi. I kept asking my guy, “What is he saying? What is he saying? Tell him I’ll give him money if he recovers my phone. Really. They can have the phone. I just want my photos and my contacts.” But he would never stop and translate. (The next morning he told the nurse at the Health Unit that the reason he wouldn’t translate was because they weren’t really saying anything; they were literally just yelling at each other, each trying to intimidate the other. I’m pretty sure there was also some language that a nice young man wouldn’t share with someone like me.)

So now if you’re following this twisted tale closely, you’ll be asking yourself, well, how did these photos make an appearance here as Exhibits B, C, and D if my phone was stolen?

The tale twists and turns.

Here’s the end of the tale, as it was related to me the next day:

(a few of the details may have gotten lost in translation, but here’s the gist of it.)

Apparently there is a store here in Bujumbura that purchases phones, presumably stolen phones. And apparently, the guy who lifted it out of my pocket during the truck-stuck-in-the-container fiasco sold it to that store. And apparently, everyone knows about this store. So my embassy shipping guy (my new hero, who received a large box of Whitman’s chocolates for his heroic efforts) went to the store the next morning, called my phone, it rang, he bought it back from the store owner, then called the police, who then surrounded the thief’s house (because remember, here in Buj, everyone knows everyone, so the thief was easily identified), and they arrested the guy and put him in jail. (I didn’t even know Bujumbura had police.)

And a few minutes later, my phone, with all my photos intact, was in hand.

But here’s the clincher: guess how much the guy sold my stolen $450 iPhone 4S for? SIXTY THOUSAND BUFRANCS. THIRTY-EIGHT DOLLARS. I would have gladly paid him $50-no questions asked. No jail time.

And here’s the other clincher: who has ever recovered a stolen phone in the United States? I dare say hardly anyone. I guess there are some things about living in Africa that aren’t so bad. And recovering a stolen phone appears to be among them.

And so the Not-So-Fairy Tale ends on a happy note. The Mzungus got a car, albeit a dirty, dented, scratched up, very smelly one. I got my iPhone. Emmanuel, the embassy shipping guy became a hero and got chocolate. And we only had to wait two more weeks for our diplomatic plates and Voila! The McQueens are back in business.

Living Happily Ever After.

The End.




Any time any one gets a new job, or moves to a new place, or really, any number of new things, there are always adjustments to make. And moving across the ocean to one of the poorest countries on earth is no exception to that rule. So I thought a collection of Things We’ve Had to Adjust To would make for fun reading.

Now these Things We’ve Had To Adjust To are not necessarily good or bad or right or wrong nor have they necessarily been Difficult Adjustments, just Adjustments all the same.

So here we go:

  1. First and foremost, if I can be brutally honest and well, maybe a bit self-incriminating, the biggest adjustment by far has been working full time. While I was always plenty busy (as in Plenty Busy) in Denver, it was always with a myriad of various and assorted things–work, house projects, small group stuff, volunteer, getting together with people, play (OK, maybe play should have made it higher up on the list), but not the 8-5 (7-5:30) Every Day of the Week Grind. So just having to be at work five days in a row has, in itself, been a big adjustment. Not bad, just an adjustment. I’m not whining; just an adjustment.
  2. A fun and interesting (and very exhausting) adjustment has been spending a great portion of my days communicating with people for whom English is a second language. This also involves a constant and continual amazement at how difficult communication can be. Of course, the direct hire American embassy employees are all American citizens and English speakers, but the Locally Employed staff (which outnumber the Americans at the embassy by about three or four to one??) all have varying degrees of English skills and varying accents to wade through. And vocabulary limitations. And grammar idiosyncrasies. And forget about American idioms and figures of speech. I can’t wait to have one of them request my presence and me respond that I’m all tied up and they run to the rescue with scissors to cut me loose. (No, that hasn’t happened; I’m just saying it totally could.)
  3. Driving without rules. And navigating. Really, driving should be a blog post all its own, but let’s just suffice it to say that it’s a BIG adjustment. After living in Denver, the city built on a grid, and possibly the easiest city to learn your way around, this place has me befuddled. And forget about asking directions. People can take you any where you want to go, anywhere, but forget about them explaining to you how to get there. They don’t use maps; many of the streets are just recently named, so they don’t know street names; many houses have multiple numbering systems, none of which make sense, and none of which are used by the locals. No stop lights. No traffic rules. There’s one roundabout in town where they yield to cars ENTERING the round about (all the rest are the opposite). So how’s a person to just know that?? But let me put it on record that Randy is doing an AWESOME job of learning his way around, learning both to navigate as well as to negotiate the (no) rules of the road. Kudos to him! (And, no, we don’t have a car yet, just a borrowed one, but ours is due to arrive TOMORROW!! Ha, ha. We will believe it when it’s in our driveway!)
  4. Church. Due to our own language barrier, we’re limited to choices because there are only a few with services in English. I’m very thankful that there are in fact a few, but it has not been easy trying to decide on one and settle in. We’ve found two that we’ve tried out a number of times, and as fate would have it, each has parts we love and parts we could do without. As is often the case, we prefer the worship/atmosphere at one and the preaching at the other. How I would love to just video podcast Hunter in. But then I guess I could’ve just stayed in Denver…
  5. The beer choices. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Now it’s kind of embarrassing that this would make it into the Top Five Things We’ve Had to Adjust To, but the fact is, it has. Primus and Amstel (both brewed here), with the occasional Heineken import thrown in, are all the choices there are. Tusker, a Kenyan beer that isn’t half bad, is on most menus, but they never have it. (It’s just a tease to put it on the menu.) And well, it just gets old. This from a person who’s always said there are too many choices in the world. Well, I guess I meant too many toothpastes and wall color choices, not beer. Not that I ever have more than one. (I don’t. I’m on call.) But still, variety is the spice of life. You can rest assured that our consumables shipment we have coming to us sometime in the next year will be mostly Colorado microbrews! 🙂 Because when it comes to microbrews, Coloradans are just plain spoiled.
  6. My response to Mzungus. As you might remember, Mzungus is their word for us. (It actually means “traveler” but it is used almost exclusively to refer to white people.) There are plenty here, more than I would have expected, but it still takes my breath away when I see one out somewhere, and I really have to resist the urge to go over to them, hug them, say something like “Hey, where y’all from?”.  I have to remember that white doesn’t necessarily equal English speaking, and certainly not American. And many of them are here for the long haul, and are no longer fascinated by the concept of another white person all the way over here, too. So I practice restraint, not my forte, and just die of curiosity wondering what the heck that person is doing here and why they are not as interested in me as I am in them.
  7. And the flip side of that, is being a Mzungu ourselves. A novelty. The stares. Especially when we have Quandary with us. Thankfully, there are only a few places in town where the street boys accost us for handouts, so we don’t have to deal with that part of it often, because if we did, that would be way worse.
  8. The money. And the cash economy. Forget it. Period. I am and always have been exchange-rate-challenged and I just can’t figure it out. I wonder if I ever will. And since no one takes credit cards, we always have to make sure we have cash (and wads of it because a thousand bufrancs is only sixty-three cents). My greatest fear is going out to eat with a whole bunch of people without Randy and the bill comes and I have to figure it all out. Hopeless.
  9. Having people around all the time (the guards are here 24/7, our household help is living here, the gardener is here all during the week). I have a blog post brewing entitled The Help, so I’ll save the rest of those thoughts for that one.
  10. Camping out. And by this, I don’t mean, camping out. I mean, being without our stuff. This has been a particularly hard adjustment for Randy, because he is home more than I am, and therefore noticing the lack of stuff. (Our state department supplied welcome kit has four plates, four forks, four spoons, four towels, etc., and no gas grill and no cast iron wok and it’s getting old.) We are ready for our stuff to arrive.

And there you have it. There have been many other adjustments, too, like watching AFN (Armed Forces Network) TV with their AFN commercials (hysterical). And the food. And shopping. And missing our family and friends and our church. And the weather. (Which I don’t know why that’s been an adjustment–it’s pretty much the same every day, but a few days it’s been overcast and I just wasn’t prepared for that variation.) And seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky. (How cool is that?) And dealing with state department foolishness. And having a very small social circle.

But all of these “adjustments” add to the richness of the adventure and the enlarging of our perspective, and the appreciation for all things precious. And for that, and so much more, we are thankful.

Road Trippin’ To Rwanda

After six weeks on the job, on call 24/7 (although for the record, I don’t get called often), and not having ventured more than a fifteen minute radius from either home or the embassy, we finally headed out.

Now keep in mind that “heading out”, for which I am known, is not as simple or easy as it might seem.

First of all, I have to find coverage–someone to be on call for emergencies within the embassy community. Thankfully I haven’t had any emergencies yet, but I still have to be ready and prepared. There is some back-up available–a local nurse and a local doctor, but with language barriers and cultural differences, and a lack of, shall we say, 9-1-1, I don’t take that lightly.

Secondly, we don’t have a car. (Ours is slated to arrive in just about two weeks. We’ll see if that’s like, really two weeks, or more like African two weeks, which could be two months.) This translates into being dependent on someone else. And as wonderful as everyone has been to us (and they have all been really wonderful and warm and welcoming and inclusive), that’s still hard for independent people like us who are used to planning road trips and making them happen. (Think ski days, 14er hiking, Brew Tour, Hanging Lake, Lake City, snow shoeing. If it was available, I drove there and did it!)

And thirdly, there’s safety and security. We can’t just pack up and go. If the first two issues above are addressed, then we have to make sure what we’re doing is approved by the Regional Security Officer, and that it’s safe. Safe usually means at least a two car caravan. Although the mandatory two car rule is no longer in effect, we can’t exactly call Triple A Roadside Assistance if we have a breakdown. So two cars is just a good idea. And radios. And first aid kits. And the awesome sheet of paper we carry in our cars that we’re supposed to hand out in the event of an accident: “I can’t discuss it with you right now. Please call this number.” in English, French and Kirundi. I love it.

And for someone like me who has the itch to go and the whole continent of Africa personally calling my name, you can imagine the angst.

BUT, everything fell into place last weekend, and we road tripped to Rwanda. Yea, I just said that. And it was awesome.

First the four or so hours out of Bujumbura to the border. This made me want to become a photographer, which I am not. This also made me want to have my own car so I could stop every five minutes and photograph the local color, of which there is plenty. Think: one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Think: people and villages lining the highway (African euphemism for one and a half lane curvy mountain road peppered with random speed bumps and potholes and large vans speeding by in the opposite direction). Think: colorful garb and loads of just about anything carried on bicycles and heads. Think: little scantily clad children playing right on the road. Think: just about anything you can imagine being sold roadside–chickens, produce of all kinds, (well, tropical produce like bananas, mangoes, tomatoes, beans, peas, cabbage, avocados, manioc, sweet potatoes, but no apples, just in case you’re wondering), baskets and other handmade wicker items (one whole village sold nothing but these little handwoven, three-legged round stools), furniture of all kinds, goats, pigs, fabric, clothing. In one town, we even saw a parade, but that made our friend who was driving very nervous, because although it looked colorful and fun, it was really a political rally and those can turn violent and scary very quickly. Suffice it to say, it was A. quite visually stimulating, B. quite the adventure, and C. quite Africa. For real.

Then there was the border. We’d heard horror stories of the border crossing into the Congo (on the agenda for later this summer after we get a car), but this was quite the civilized affair. First of all, they waived us through with our dip plates. No stop whatsoever. Then we decided we’d better turn around and fill out the paperwork and get the official stamps, just in case we needed to show them any time. Voila. Another stamp for the passport. 🙂


Not like I’m collecting them or anything. Ha.

And then we were in the Republic of Rwanda. OMG. Such a different country.

Paul Kagame, the former leader of the rebel force that ended the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago and the de-facto leader ever since (officially the president since 2000), is a controversial figure in the west. I’m not here to make this a place for political rantings or for taking sides, but he has been instrumental in bringing changes to his country and progress in many areas, including courting western business interests and investment.

In fact, here we are enjoying some of the fruits of his labor, so to speak:


What’s that, you say? That’s some really happy people eating MEXICAN FOOD at a Chipotle look alike in Kigali. Highlight of the trip? Quite possibly. 🙂

Anyway, back to the Kagame controversy. You can read this article about him and decide for yourself what you think:

but I’m here to tell you that I certainly enjoyed some of his “results” after living in his far less stable and far less developed neighbor to the south, Burundi.

After stuffing ourselves royally at Meze Fresh (the Chipotle knock off), we relaxed here


at this place:


You movie buffs will recognize its significance. The rest of you will just have to go look it up, but yes, we really stayed here. Way cool.

And the highlight of the weekend wasn’t really the Mexican food, it was seeing these girls, as always:



So fun to have friends to visit in The Middle Of Nowhere, Africa. 🙂

But just so I don’t paint an unrealistically advanced picture of Rwanda, amidst all the working stoplights (Burundi has none) and other accoutrements of progress, there was this:


If you look closely, you can see A HAND picking up the fallen pins and replacing them in the set. I kid you not. But, hey, that’s more bowling than in all of Burundi.

So after a few really good meals, a stop at the Presidential Palace Museum where the plane crashed that killed both the Rwandan and the Burundian president in 1994, and a stop at the American Embassy Kigali to tour their health unit, we headed home for a mostly uneventful return trip. There’s still lots to do in Kigali that we didn’t manage this time, so we’ll definitely be back. It’s our closest tie with civilization! 🙂

And Mexican food.


Home Sweet Home

So you will know from my post about arriving, that Randy thought all along we’d be living in a mud hut, and you also know from that post, that we are not! So I thought a little glimpse into where we actually are living would be fun for all. I’ll try to paint a picture (OK, I won’t use paint; I’ll actually use photos that Randy took) of where we live, as well as dispel some myths about embassy housing in general. And while I’m dispelling myths, we’ll talk about the nitty-gritty of having a housekeeper and a gardener and a cook and some guards. Some things aren’t always as rosy as they seem! 🙂

So when you ask a question in the state department about what the rules are that govern this or that or what should be the expectations of x,y, or z, (in addition to referring to the appropriate section in the FAM [Foreign Affairs Manual, which varies in degrees of usefulness and ability to comprehend]), the answer is always the same: “It depends on the post.”

And housing–government sponsored housing–certainly falls into that category and varies greatly from post to post, city to city, country to country, continent to continent. In some places, for example, embassy workers might live in a compound or a “diplomatic quarter”, a walled, gated community, protected by guards, where only diplomats live; in other places, the housing is scattered in and amongst the community. In some places the housing is provided by the embassy from a pool of either government owned or government leased properties; in others you are left to find your own. In some places you live in tiny cramped apartments; in others you have large, luxurious estate-like homes with swimming pools and sprawling gardens.

Here in lovely Bujumbura, we’re somewhere in the middle of all that.

Our home, provided by the embassy from a pool of mostly government leased (and a few government owned) properties, is in the community, about a ten minute drive from the embassy and a ten minute drive from most of the other embassy homes, which are scattered about a few neighborhoods. It’s also in walking distance to a little city park which has a dirt path around the perimeter for running (which I did for the first time this weekend) and walking Quandary. And in walking distance to a couple of small stores. But shopping requires a post all of its own. 🙂

Our house, like all the houses in this neighborhood and most of the neighborhoods in the city, is surrounded by tall solid cement fencing. And like all the diplomatic houses, the fencing is topped by razor wire. We have a guard who mans the gate all day, and two at night, provided for by the embassy.

In addition to providing security, the guards are a great source of knowledge and connections, as are the motor pool drivers. Need a gardener? The guards probably know someone. Need some manure? Call Jesus. Need a satellite dish installed for AFN (Armed Forces Network–free English speaking TV)? Call Prosper. Despite the lack of modern Western ways of communication, these guys are well connected.

My son, Adam, asked if I felt unsafe and like I really needed a guard, and the question caused me to stop and ponder. And here’s the deal: No, in fact, I do not feel unsafe. At all. But I’m sure that is because of having the guards. It wouldn’t take anyone very long to figure out that Mzungus live here, and all the connotations that come with that, and we’d quickly be a target without the guards. As Randy loves to say, the guards are just helping to keep honest people honest. And besides, they’re cute. See below. (He saw me with the camera so he posed. 🙂 )


Looking at the gate from the street. I’m not a great photographer, but if you look closely, you can see the razor wire on top.


View from our front door looking out.

And the grounds are beautiful, and hopefully, one day soon, they’ll be bountiful, too! We have lemon trees (although the lemons are green, not yellow, and no, they’re not limes), and jack fruit trees, and avocado trees, and mango trees, and guava trees (although I admit I still confuse those two), and a few unidentified species.And flowers galore!

House 1

House 2


The side yard already had a garden and we had the gardener plow up half the back yard, too, so we’re going to grow all manner of herbs and veggies. I’m not too sure of the “growing season” since the climate doesn’t change much all year round, so I’m hoping these seeds we’ve planted (really, no “we” about it at all; these seeds he planted) along with the load of manure he had delivered, are going to be dinner on the table soon.

And the house is quite adequate in every way, albeit not without its quirks and frustrations. And frustration Number One is definitely Electricity, with Internet coming in as a close second. The system is set up with a back up generator that is supposed to automatically kick in when the city electricity goes out. But here’s the reality: the microwave turns on and makes all the proper sounds; it just doesn’t actually heat anything. Likewise the vacuum cleaner: sounds but no suck without the generator. Which, to be honest, you have to really be paying attention to figure these things out, what with the misleading noises and all. And it fries things. See Exhibit A, below.

Exhibit A
Exhibit A

And while I’m forever thankful for internet, it would be splendid if it worked consistently. But maybe I’m just asking too much. 🙂 This Is Africa, after all.

And as for quirks, those who lived in or visited Wayside (our beloved home in Scotland from 1994-1998) will remember the lime green, bright blue and hideous pink bathroom fixtures? Yea, well, they’re back in style. We have the bluest bathroom you’ll ever want to see, complete with competing shades of blue between the fixtures, the tiles and the tub. And the other bathroom is brown. Not awful, really, just odd. The decor brings back A LOT of memories.

Competing blues can give you the blues
Competing blues can give you the blues

And the furniture, while quite adequate in every way, is exactly like all the other embassy houses, so it’s just weird to walk in everyone else’s house and go, oh, yeah. Nice sofa. Nice dining room table. Nice china cabinet. Nice end tables. Nice lamp. But I’m not complaining. Without it, we’d be camping out.

And to round out the Home Sweet Home picture painting, I wanted to talk about The Help. But when I started downloading all those thoughts into words on the screen, I realized that subject warrants a post all its own. So here’s to getting this one published and enticing you to come back for more when that one’s ready.


A Day in the Life

Or Did Things Improve after the Disastrous Week One?

Or Will the McQueens Survive East Africa, the Sanitized Version?

Or What’s It Really Like, the Non-Blog Version?

You can chose the title you think best applies, (although admittedly, you can’t call this the non-blog version), but here’s the latest:

I’m happy to report Week Two was a solid improvement over Week One. I re-read my blog entry about that first week, and agree, it was the sanitized, prettied-up, blog-version. I left out a bunch of stuff (like getting on the wrong side of my boss–never a good way to start)  because I just couldn’t bear to detail it any more. But things are beginning to fall into a bit of order (some things, but not the top of my desk), and I’m beginning to get my feet on the ground. Here are some Week Two Observations and a little about How Reality Stacks up to Expectations.


  • Bujumbura is beautiful. The lake really is breathtakingly beautiful. And the city is mainly built on a hillside rising up from the lake. And it’s very green and lush, with all sorts of things growing–both flower and fruit. And the sunsets can be lovely.
  • Sunset from the Belvedere Restaurant
  • The sunsets are…well…consistently consistent. And after the sunset, which occurs right on time at 6 PM, 365 days a year, it’s dark. Really dark. And there are no street lights. Light fixtures, but no lights, for whatever reason. We aren’t allowed to be out walking about after dark, which is just as well, because that would be scary.
  • Africans can carry anything on the back of a bicycle or on top of their heads. It’s not just in the National Geographic magazines; it’s for real. I pledge to you, faithful blog followers, that I will augment this post with some better pictures, because they are definitely there for the taking, but for now, here’s a few I’ve managed to snap.


I was fine with the ones I snapped from the side or the back, but when I tried to get this one from in front, I definitely got an earful. The motor pool driver started laughing, so I asked him what the cyclist was yelling. He said “Mzungu (their word for white people), if you’re going to take my picture, you need to give me some money.” Fair enough. I would gladly pay some of the ladies to pose with their incredible loads on their heads. Randy says he’ll go out with a camera for the next few days and try to capture some of the more amazing loads for the next blog post.

  • Driving is not even funny. It’s scary enough being a passenger with really good motor pool drivers; I can’t even imagine driving myself. There are no rules. None. There are no lanes on roads. In this city of half a million people, there is not one stop light and no one even slows down around the two or three stops signs I’ve noticed scattered about the city. Roundabouts are life-threatening endeavors as are potholes. And scattered in amongst the cars, vans and busses are dozens of walkers (many carrying loads on their heads), bicyclists, motorcyclists, tuk tuks (three wheeled taxis), and even people herding goats or a very large cow with huge horns (Texas ain’t got nothin’ on Bujumbura) right down the main boulevard in town. (I was so disappointed I didn’t get my camera out in time for that one.) The place is teeming with activity during the morning commute, and it’s lively and colorful!
  • There are a lot of Mzungus here. And NGO workers. And missionaries. And foreigners doing good things to help. It’s hard to get my mind around all that is going on here. I’m hoping in the days, weeks, and months to come, I can figure out this scene, where I fit in, and what I can do to add value outside of my job and the 45-50 hours I spend inside the embassy each week.
  • Adjusting and getting settled is hard work. Almost two weeks without internet at home and Randy still without a phone has not been easy. Being without ‘our stuff’ and not being able to grocery shop well yet makes eating at home difficult. And that’s a great segue into my next topic:


  • The restaurant choices are INCREDIBLE. Before arriving, my expectation was that there would be no good restaurants and very few choices to eat out at all. I’m happy to report I was wrong, wrong, wrong. We’ve eaten out just about every night since we finished the delicious food provided by our wonderful sponsors and other embassy folks, and I’ve had as good a meal here as anywhere. I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that makes. I mean, I could do with some more beer choices, but at least the food is plentiful and varied.
  • The hippos aren’t as close up and personal as I thought. Purportedly there is a family that lives near the Hippo Hole, but other than a quick glimpse once from far away, I haven’t had any close encounters. I guess I still have some time for that. 🙂
  • The weather is better than I’d hoped for but the bugs are worse. It’s not as hot as I expected (now mind you, we live in an air-conditioned house, I ride to work in an air-conditioned car and work in an air-conditioned embassy, so what do I know?). But the bugs are worse. All kinds of bugs, but the worse are the ants that get into anything left out, even for a few minutes, no matter where it is, including the top of the stove. Good thing we have lots of zip lock baggies of all sizes. And at least they don’t carry diseases or even bite. But they’re a nuisance.

Next post I’ll resurrect my job expectations and see how they measure up to reality. But for now, I’ll just stick with being glad I’m able to report that things are improving there and I expect them to continue to get better as I get a little more settled each day. So I’ll sign off for now promising better pictures next time and wondering if I could learn to balance things like that on my head…???

An Interesting Sandwich

An interesting sandwich, all right, but I’m not talking about the culinary kind. I’m referring to a really difficult week sandwiched in between two incredible weekends. (I’m not sure what that says about the reason we came here–> work, but the weekends were really awesome!) 🙂

Ever the optimist, I’ll recount our first wonderful weekend first:

After sleeping in our first morning, (a luxurious, deep sleep that I’ll probably not enjoy often), we awoke to embrace our new lives, our new city, our new colleagues, and hopefully, our new friends. Being without a vehicle and forbidden to use any form of public transportation, we got on our radios and said “Taxicab, taxicab, this is Moses” and in less than ten minutes, a motor pool driver arrives to take us wherever we need to go. Being without a car sucks, but the motor pool (free to us for the first sixty days) and the motor pool drivers are awesome. We headed out to a party (thrown in our honor to welcome us, complete with a goat roast, but also I think just a great excuse for a party!) We met a number of fellow embassy workers, a number of missionaries, and random visitors, and enjoyed some great food.

The goat, or what's left of him.
The goat, or what’s left of him.

Sunday morning we decided to venture out to church. Now if we were hoping for a real African experience, we got one here. It was lively, colorful, spirit-filled, worshipful, hot, and if upon our return we are dancing in the aisles, Fellowship Denverites, please forgive us. 🙂

Later that afternoon, a fellow embassy worker (and fellow recent Denverite) called and offered to pick us up for the embassy softball game, and drinks and hippo viewing at the Hippo Hole, followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant.

Here's our sunset view over Lake Tanganyika. No hippos this time, but I'm promised to see them here.
Our sunset view over Lake Tanganyika. No hippos this time, but a family of them lives here, so maybe next time?!?!

There might not be much to do in Bujumbura, but we were surely kept busy that first weekend, and it was great to make so many acquaintances even before my first day at work! We were so grateful for the warm welcome and how so many people reached out right away.

And then there was a week at work.

Why did I think I was so special that I was going to avoid jet-lag and first week catastrophes?

The first day was back to back in-processing meetings, badging, security briefings, and ambassador meeting. I was exhausted at the end, but happy to be getting started 479 days after I submitted my application. It’s been a long time coming.

And then things started tumbling downhill rapidly,

There were phone mishaps (who tapes an INCORRECT phone number to a phone??? and why does it take three pages to explain how to make a phone call???), and keys locked in the office (rescued by the Marines, who then forgot to tell me of the rescue, which sent me looking for them for two hours and thinking I had lost not only my keys but my mind), and the complete and utter inability to write a “cable” (the electronic communication which starts the medevac process) only to find out I was loaded into the system incorrectly and that’s why I couldn’t do it, and of course, missed Week One radio check in. Oops.

By the end of the first week, I was beyond exhausted, and beyond frustrated, but ready for what our second weekend had on offer: VISITORS!!!

(Who has visitors their first week in the middle of nowhere, East Africa?? We do!!)

My dear, precious friends, Brooke Cantrell, Katie Nichol, and Liz Staples loaded on a bus (we’re talking an African bus here, folks) and road it for six hours, over bumpy roads, with African children stretched across their laps, all the way from Kigali, Rwanda, just to see what cool, hip things we had going on here in Bujumbura. And after sleeping in our air conditioning on very comfortable beds, and being driven around in nice, new suburbans and four-runners by motor pool drivers all weekend, and shopping in our duty-free commissary and eating out in the poshest restaurants East Africa has to offer, and meeting the ambassador at an Easter Egg Hunt, they concluded that we’re experiencing the sanitized version of East Africa. And guess what?!?! I’ll take it! 🙂

Here we are at the embassy Easter Egg Hunt, posing with Obama, just minutes before the girls met the ambassador.
The embassy Easter Egg Hunt, posing with Obama, just minutes before the girls met the ambassador. The high life.
Here we are enjoying some of the spoils of Lake Tanganyika while Randy is referring to himself as a chic magnet.
Dinner on Lake Tanganyika with Randy, the chic magnet.
Pinnacle 19 beach, on Lake Tanganyika, complete with imported sand, but lovely just the same.
Pinnacle 19 beach, on Lake Tanganyika, complete with imported sand, but lovely just the same.

And that’s The Congo in the background, across the lake. The Congo, people. For real.


Unfortunately, these are terrible pictures, but that's Avril, the one year old chimpanzee who was running around loose at Pinnacle 19 beach, just moments before she POOPED ALL OVER BROOKE'S ARM. I PROMISE I'M NOT EXAGGERATING.
Unfortunately, these are terrible pictures, but that’s Avril, the one year old chimpanzee who was running around loose at Pinnacle 19 beach, just moments before she POOPED ALL OVER BROOKE’S ARM. I PROMISE I’M NOT EXAGGERATING.

And so although the girls didn’t get to see any hippos, I think the chimp experience made up for it, maybe just a little. And they flipped a coin, and lucky for them, decided to fly back instead of returning the way they came, which gave us precious extra time together, so we could enjoy a peaceful Sunday morning, reading several accounts of the resurrection and enjoying Easter candy, straight from America.

By the time I put them on the plane, I was again exhausted, but very, very happy, and thankful for wonderful friends who’ll go to such great lengths to welcome us into our new home!

And there I’ll leave you hanging, wondering if I’ll have a better second week, and if I’ll even survive this crazy job, and the wild adventure.

Next up: pictures of the house, internet frustrations, the second work week, hippo photos, and how reality is standing up to those pre-recorded expectations. Until then, au revoir!


Nous sommes arrivee

Nous sommes arrivee. (If my memories of high school French serve me correctly, that’s “We have arrived.” Did I mention French is the official language in Burundi??)

Wheels Up Wheels Down The Final Chapter, for now, is complete! We have arrived in Bujumbura and are happily settling in. The final leg, from Brussels to our new home was smooth sailing (or flying, I guess, to be more correct). And Quandary seemed no worse for the miles.

Our first mistake upon arrival was to go into the regular immigration line.  I saw the VIP sign, but didn’t assume that applied to us. What I didn’t see was underneath the VIP: a sign for “Diplomats”. Oops. That applied to us. Ha. The only thing the dip passport got us the whole trip and I missed it.

But I can now say two of my life’s dreams have come true: someone else paid for me to fly on a plane, and someone picked me up at the airport holding my name on a placard. Boom.

It’s Not a Mud Hut

Since the very beginning of this escapade, Randy’s been telling everyone we’re going to live in a mud hut in Africa. I kept telling him it wasn’t the Peace Corp, and that I promised it wouldn’t be a mud hut, but he was having nothing of it. He could not be swayed.

After being picked up from the airport in two Toyota Land Cruisers, (and being greeted by Toni and Bruce Sonnenfeld from Denver–small world crazies!!), we were driven straight to our new home. It’s not a mud hut. In fact, it’s a beautiful, large home with all the comforts one could hope for and ever need, on lovely grounds with six different kinds of fruit trees, flowers in bloom, and an herb garden.

Here we are on the front porch, a little worse for wear and travel weary, but still smiling. 🙂 (I’d post pics of the fruit trees and flowers but it’s late and very dark out. More to come.)


But it is Africa, and there surely will be things to get used to. Like the refrigerator is not in the kitchen. I mean, it’s in a little room off the kitchen, but clearly the designers of this house have never heard of the little triangle the fridge, stove, and sink are supposed to form in a well-designed kitchen.  And moments after we entered, Randy pointed high on the wall, and said, “Look, we have visitors already.” The geckos were there to greet us!

But along with said geckos were a refrigerator with a couple of meals and some luscious treats, thanks to several of our new co-workers. A really nice touch.



It all seemed very civilized, and we were super thankful for the warm and friendly greeting.

Now here’s to sleep, and no jet lag and our new lives in Bujumbura!

Next up: ‘le weekend’ activities, and reports of our most challenging adjustments, but here’s at least a start to let you know we’re alive and well, and to stay true to my mission of recording first impressions.

Wheels Up Wheels Down Part 1

We made it to Brussels. The flight itself was uneventful–which is exactly what everyone always wants a flight to be. I watched Argo, which was tons of fun (I mean, how a propos)–recognizing the cameos of the HST building we had just left earlier in the day and remembering my opportunity to see other important buildings and thinking about being in an embassy (but hopefully not in those circumstances)–until Randy decided to watch it too, which just fueled his fire…oops. Bad call.

(If you haven’t already seen Argo, you can read about it here:


And to my PCSing colleagues, if your flight has the option to upgrade to Economy Plus (United) or its equivalent, I highly recommend it. It’s cheap and worth the four extra inches and the fancy way the seat reclines. We took a gamble and booked an aisle and a window hoping no one would upgrade to a middle seat, and won. I slept all night all stretched out on our three seats all to ourselves. Thanks for the tip, Missy and George!

The 24 hours leading up to the flight and the check-in process, however, was decidedly NOT uneventful. First of all, I left way too much to accomplish in the waning minutes–I don’t know how this happened–It’s never happened to me before. OK, maybe once. OK, maybe every time I ever have to pack anything and I experience the standard Stay Up All Night Packing and Organizing The Night Before A Trip; I did just that. In the end, my suitcases are a jumble of bleach and Easter candy next to my best suit and overweight to boot. Oh, well. Does anything ever change?

And then there was arrival at the airport.

(Warning: this is an elongated and elaborated version of my recent FB post for those who aren’t on FB.)

So after working very hard to make sure EVERYTHING was totally in order for Quandary to fly United’s PetSafe overseas, and reading EVERYTHING we could get our hands on, and asking EVERYONE EVERYTHING we needed to know to pull this off, we arrive and the ticket agent tells us that his kennel is not airline acceptable and it HAS to have holes on all four sides. This is the brand new kennel Randy purchased just for the flight–all airline certified and all, the same one he he had just flown from Denver to DC in…

So this is how it went down: the ticket agent kept saying things like “There is no way we can accept the dog for flight in this kennel” and “Do you want to go home and buy another kennel and try again tomorrow?” and “Do you want to try another airline?” and I kept saying things like “Are you kidding me?” and “May I speak to a supervisor?” (very diplomatically of course, without raising my voice or anything) and “Can I see that policy in writing?” All the while, Randy was silently checking his suitcase for his leatherman, which he located, and diligently cutting six holes in the back of the kennel. You can see his handiwork here:


MacGyver wins.

If you look closely here, you can see Quandary all happy in his newly vented kennel, waiting to board. Those are the holes Randy cut in the back.


And for all those who made smarty pants remarks about him having a blade in  the airport, this was at CHECK IN, PRE-SECURITY; it was in his CHECKED BAGS.

Needless to say, it was quite the scene. I can just imagine my three children reading this now. Megan is smiling and thinking how cool her parents are and is probably going to share the story with everyone. Ian is laughing his head off at the hilarity of it all and enjoying the story for all it’s worth. And Adam is sadly shaking his head, with equal parts pity, shame, and relief that he wasn’t there in the midst of it.

On the bright side, there was so much commotion during this two hour check-in debacle that they forgot to charge us their exorbitant excess and overweight baggage fees. Score. Saving the government money. I might get a medal of honor.

So after all that, as I said earlier, we arrived in Brussels, reunited with Quandary right there at baggage, took a VERY LARGE VAN taxi to our hotel with our four large suitcases, four carry ons and one large kennel, and were able to check in to our hotel at seven in the morning. Gotta love Europe. We slept until it was about seven AM body time, then headed out to explore my favorite city. First stop: beer at a sidewalk cafe, enjoying a beautiful sunny day. Depending on how you look at time–body time versus local time, I guess you could say we had beer for breakfast.


Followed by moules and frites:


Then a little exploring of Grand Place IMG_3501

and some of the other things Belgium is famous for besides moules, frites and beer:


And of course, no visit is complete without the mandatory photo in front of Mannekin Pis


Clay and Megan, we thought of you often with such fond memories of our first visit to this marvelous city, famous for beer, french fries, mussels, chocolate, waffles and an 18 inch high statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain. What’s not to love?

Before heading back to our hotel to crash for a good night’s sleep before our last long leg, we had a little dessert:


Kwak, in its infamous round bottomed glass, in memory of my first ever beer in Belgium. Thanks for introducing me, Clay.

So in closing, a few tips for my soon-to-be PCSing colleagues:

  • Remain flexible (and creative). No matter how hard you try to be thoroughly prepared, things are bound to go awry. Keep calm and carry on.
  • Upgrade to Economy Plus if its an option.
  • If your flight is over 14 hours long, take the layover you’re eligible for. When else is someone going to pay for you to spend the night in a European (or wherever) hotel? We weren’t planning to, but in hindsight, we’re glad we did. I think we’ll arrive that less tired and jet-lagged. Plus the Kwak was delicious.
  • Even if the airlines tell you to arrive two hours ahead of time, three is not a bad idea. After our kennel-cutting check in fiasco, we arrived at our gate just as our plane was boarding. Go ahead, Randy. Gloat in your Always Arrive Ridiculously Early Policy. I’ll give it to you this time: it was a lifesaver.
  • Oh, and if possible, take along someone as resourceful as Randy. 🙂

Next stop: life in Bujumbura!



We’re. Moving. To. Africa.

Hey, guys, we’re moving to Africa. No, I mean, like seriously. Like…TOMORROW. YIKES.

As proof that we’re for real:


O. MY. GOSH. Remember when it was something out there in the future? Something we were just talking about. But, oh, no. We couldn’t be those people who just talk about it. NO. We had to be those people who actually DO IT. So we are. Tomorrow.

That is, if I can get my suitcases packed. Because the thing is, everything in this apartment has to GO or get thrown away. And you all know how I hate throwing things away. And you know how people (well, some people,) tend to collect things…

And you know I’ll probably find out I don’t need half of all I’m trying to pack:


But seriously, it’s been a fantastic seventy days here in DC, and I have some great memories to take with me as I journey onward. The training has been overwhelming at times, but I’ve learned more in these two and a half months than I’ve learned in a very long time.

But as always, the best part of the experience has been the people. I’m very thankful that I had the opportunity to spend loads of time with these guys:


These are my great nephews (some of you may remember them from Camp Babette and the forgotten tent fame) and my great niece, and their nanny, Jacky. It’s been such a blessing to have this time with them and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. (Oh, and their parents, too.)

And even Megan got to get in on some of the fun during her weekend visit here!!


And I’m so thankful to have spent every Sunday at Portico Church Arlington with Elizabeth and Nate Wagner. I’ll miss them terribly. I hate good-byes.

And a huge part of my time here in DC was spent with the other seventy-one members of the 132nd Foreign Service Specialists class. Since I am the first one of us to head out to post, many will be watching this space expectantly, watching and waiting to hear what it’s actually like to finally PCS!!! (State Department lingo for Permanent Change of Station–i.e., GET TO POST!!!) I’m planning to record some frequent shorts to capture the magic of first impressions, so stay tuned! (And sign up for email alerts on the right hand side of the page. If you did it before and aren’t receiving updates, try again. It wasn’t working properly before but is fixed now.)

And with that, I’ll bid you all a fond au revoir and see you all next time from the other side of the pond.

PS For those of you keeping score, I still haven’t recorded my very personal hopes and dreams post. Maybe next time…


WORK. Warning: this post may be boring.

Lots of questions come my way about what I’ll actually be doing once I arrive, so I thought I’d briefly outline what I understand my job responsibilities to be and then I’ll give my best shot at what I expect it to be like. It’ll be interesting to see how closely my expectations line up with the realities once I hit the ground. But for now, here goes:

My job responsibilities will be

  • to give primary care to the folks who work in the embassy and their family members, including two sets of twin baby boys and a newborn! 🙂 (This includes all their annual physicals, the babies’ well baby care, the sick visits, managing chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, etc.–anything you would go to your family doc for. This also includes encouraging everyone to be diligent with their malaria prevention!)
  • to oversee the health clinic, staffed by a Burundian nurse and lab tech who have been there for many years.
  • to coordinate care for emergencies, which of course is the scariest part of all. Can we start a prayer chain now for NO EMERGENCIES for the next two years??
  • to organize medevacs, which probably aren’t as sexy as they sound. This includes not only emergencies, but anything a person would need to obtain elsewhere, like specialist care.
  • to regularly assess the local medical capabilities — the hospitals, the specialists, the emergency care, to know what is available locally.
  •  to engage in health promotion and prevention activities.

I may be overlooking some of the details, like attending country team meetings and being actively engaged in emergency preparedness, but I think that’s the bulk of it.

On the one hand, it sounds like a lot, but on the other hand, the embassy community is pretty small, so I expect it to be manageable. Here are some of my other expectations:

  • I expect to be on call 24/7, which is a lot, but again, it’s not like I’ll be seeing 30 patients a day and then going home and being on call.
  • I expect that if I’m up all night taking care of an urgent matter, I’ll be able to sleep a bit the next day because the patient schedule won’t be jammed packed full.
  • I expect to be able to give really good, thorough care because I will know my patients well, be very accessible to them, and have the time to spend with them.
  • I expect to have plenty of help and support just a phone call away from my Regional Medical Officer in Nairobi and my colleagues in neighboring countries, many of whom I’ve already been in touch with.
  • I expect to have some days when I feel like I can handle everything that comes my way, and other days when I wonder what in the heck I’ve gotten myself into and why am I doing this and what did that infectious disease doc tell me about diarrhea again?
  • I expect it will be a challenge to get time away since there won’t be much other coverage, but I expect that eventually I will figure that out too.
  • I expect to love the patient care aspect of it, and I expect it will take me a while to figure out the rest of the aspects of it, especially the paperwork part. 😦
  • I expect to work hard and I expect it to be demanding and I expect there will be a steep learning curve, at least at first.
  • I expect to really love it overall, but I expect to encounter some really challenging adjustments. I want to go in optimistic, but not unrealistic, with a good dose of realism to go along with my eternally optimistic rose-colored glasses.
  • I expect to have fun.
  • I expect to work hard and play hard and that should suit me just fine.

Things I don’t expect:

I don’t expect it will look like this, but you have to admit, it’s a fun picture anyway:

ambulance 2

So that’s it in a nutshell. I’ll enjoy going back over this a few weeks after arrival and see how reality stands up against my expectations.

The second part of this post was to be about my hopes and dreams–a little more personal than job responsibilities and expectations–but I’m going to pull the procrastination card one more time and save it for another post. I’m still sorting through all that. I’ll keep you posted, pun intended.