Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Friday, June 29, 2007

We have a house in Kyiv!

An apartment to be more precise.

A duplex to be even more precise.

We have the floorplans but no pictures yet. 5th and 6th floors of a 6 floor building on Antonovych Street, a block from a large park, pretty much smack dab in the center of town. 2 BR and one full bathroom upstairs, third bedroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, den, 2 Bathrooms and (get this) sauna on the lower floor. Plus a balcony. So, you know, big.

And, you know, room for guests. Who wants to get on the board first? Extra points for visiting us in the dead of winter*.

We seem to be a bit further from the embassy than most housing, but it should still only be about a 25 minute walk to work.

*points can be redeemed for complimentary use of the sauna and/or den.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Getting to Kenya is harder than it looks...

So trying to book our AA Award tickets using miles. Call the number and get the automated service. The voice recognition certainly has improved, but it is still a very maddening experience.

Para Espanol Diga Espanol!

Got through that part without switching to Spanish, but ran into problems after that. Advantage number, no problem, but what zip code is my account under? The disembodied voice gives me two chances, and I get them both wrong. Then she helpfully reminds me that I can check my account info online, where I can also book the award ticket and save us $10 per ticket. Okay. Plug in Kyiv to Nairobi online. Turns out flights originating outside the US cannot be booked online. So they've hornswaggled us into paying a $10 fee per ticket just to use a phone operator.

Meanwhile, back on the phone. Aha, I think, I'll circumvent the voice. AGENT, I say.

I understand you want to speak to someone. Just let me get some more information from you first.

Foiled again, I press on.

The voice asks where I'm departing from, where I'm going, what day were going. No problem, I know the answers.

What time are you departing?

Uhh, I don't know.

I'm sorry, I didn't understand your answer, what time are you departing?


I'm sorry, I didn't understand your answer, what time are you departing? No matter how much you raise your voice, she remains quite chipper. Really just looking to help, afterall.

Uhh, 4 pm?

We seem to be having trouble, I'm going to transfer you to an agent but you will have to give the agent additional information.

YES! Success! A few beeps and I'm connected to dead air. Then a busy signal. Disconnected. Bastard Computer Voice!

Call back, same issue, but this time I know my zip code. Clever me, I changed it online. Got through everything, got in the queue for an agent and...

Your call will be answered in approximately Thirty....Seven....Minutes.


I hung up. Will try again tomorrow. The American Airlines automated system will NOT beat me.


Success. Flight to Nairobi booked. Via London with an overnight no less. Not the most direct route nor the fastest, but we're using miles. 60K miles for coach, 75K for business class. Business class it is!

So, London? Anyone planning to be around December 16? We're arriving at 3:30 pm, departing the next day at 10:30 am. Who's up for a $30 steak and kidney pie?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Christmas plan

So we are confirmed to attend the wedding of our friend John and his fiancee (and our new friend) Katrina on December 22.

And the best part of the whole thing is that the wedding is in Kenya. A place called Gilgil, at Katrina's parents' place.

I'm told that the wedding celebration will be hard on my liver.

And, our friends Bonnie and Kevin live in Nairobi, so we are planning to spend Christmas with them. Excellent.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Slight change in plans

So instead of heading for Kyiv (Kiev, spelled funny per State Dept. Regs) in mid-October, we are now slated to depart mid-September.

For a number of reasons, this is good. For a few reasons, this is bad. But such is life.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Peking Duck

So tonight I had Peking Duck for the first time. 35 years of life, no peking duck.

Luckily just around the corner from our lovely full-service temporary living community is a place that serves it.

What better name for the place than Mark's Duck House. At least you know what you are getting. Pretty good, too.

And Walter and Alex treated, so the duck was doubly delicious.

You know, the guy in that movie with the thing....the thing?

This afternoon Katherine turned to me and said:

'You know who Jack looks like? That actor. I don't remember his name or the names of any of the movies he's been in, but he's usually a bad guy. And he's got greasy hair and a big forehead.'

'Um, Philip Seymour Hoffman?' I asked, even though he doesn't always play bad guys.

'I don't know,' she said. 'I don't remember his name. What's he been in?'

Well, lots of things.

Showed her a picture, and YES, That's him!

I don't really see it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Preparing our son for a life in the circus

With the cost of college soaring, we thought we'd better have a backup plan.

Thus, perhaps some sort of circus act.

First step, no fear of falling.,0,1147840.story?coll=la-home-center

Staffing crisis at U.S. foreign service

Stretched thin by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it needs 1,100 more officers just to restore its capabilities to 2005 levels, a report says.

By Paul Richter, Times Staff WriterJune 6, 2007

WASHINGTON — The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have overstretched the U.S. foreign service, damaging its staffers' morale and threatening its performance around the world, a coalition of advocates for diplomats charged Tuesday.

The Foreign Affairs Council, a group of 11 nonprofit organizations, said in a report that the State Department would need to hire 1,100 foreign service officers simply to restore the capabilities it had when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took her post at the beginning of 2005.

"The foreign service is at the front end of a personnel crisis, and if something isn't done … we're going to have a very, very serious situation a year or so from now," said Thomas Boyatt, a retired U.S. ambassador and the council's president, at a news conference.The council said Rice has required diplomats to carry out a more aggressive mission of "transformational diplomacy" to prod other countries to adhere to democratic principles.

But at the same time, envoys have had to cope with wartime strains, inadequate language and skills training and more overtime work.In addition, about 750 have been required to take one-year stints in sometimes dangerous postings where they are not allowed to bring their families, the group said.

Over the last two years, the Bush administration failed to anticipate the rising need for foreign service personnel in global hot spots, including Baghdad, where about 200 foreign service officers work in a 1,000-person embassy, the largest in the world, the council said. At the same time, Congress has rejected the administration's requests for additional personnel in the last two budgets, the council said.

About 200 foreign service jobs abroad are unfilled, according to the report, and about 900 other training slots needed to give diplomats language and other job skills have not yet been created. The foreign service has about 9,000 employees. Officials of the advocacy group said the recent shift of diplomats from Europe to the Middle East and elsewhere had left embassy staffs in Europe sometimes unable to get their work done on time.

Despite the morale problems, however, statistics don't indicate that foreign service officers are quitting their jobs at higher rates, Boyatt acknowledged.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, Congress cut the staffing and budget of the foreign service by about one-third.During President Bush's first term, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, alarmed by the short staffing, added about 1,000 officers. But now those have been "vacuumed up" in Iraq, Afghanistan and other new danger spots, Boyatt said.

Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said department officials agree with the need for an increase in staff and would like in particular to restore training slots. Foreign service officers "are making a noble and worthy sacrifice trying to help the people of these countries," he said.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Vang Pao charged with Laos plot
Hmong General Vang Pao was arrested in California on Monday as the alleged mastermind of a violent plot to overthrow Laos' communist government with arms and equipment that were ready to be shipped to Thailand next week.

Vang Pao, 77, who lives in the Fresno, California, area and in the state of Minnesota, has spent decades promoting the overthrow of the regime in Laos since he escaped at the time of the communist takeover Dec 2, 1975.The indictments handed down in Sacramento culminated a six-month investigation that included meetings between undercover agents and the alleged conspirators to discuss transferring weapons to Thailand and Laos.

US prosecutors allege that Vang Pao was the mastermind behind the plot. Eight others were also arrested and charged; authorities believe there will be more arrests."We're looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time," Assistant US Attorney Bob Twiss said in federal court Monday.All nine are charged with violating the federal Neutrality Act and face the possibility of life in prison.

"No matter how strongly held their beliefs, citizens of the United States cannot become involved in a plot to overthrow a sovereign government with which the United States is at peace," Drew Parenti, FBI special agent in charge of the Sacramento region, said during a news conference following the defendants' initial court appearance.

AP says the case "reads like it was taken from the pages of a spy novel."Since January, the Hmong leaders and Jack inspected shipments of military equipment that were to be purchased and shipped to Thailand, shipments that were scheduled for June 12 and June 19, the complaint alleged.

That equipment included hundreds of machine guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets, Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, mines and C-4 explosives.During a news conference after the defendants' court appearance, prosecutors displayed photographs of the weapons involved in the alleged plot. They showed a light anti-tank rocket system, a Stinger missile, Claymore mines and an AK-47 assault rifle.

The defendants also attempted to recruit a mercenary force that included former members of the Army special forces or Navy SEALs.The planning was disrupted after a six-month investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The criminal complaint said Vang Pao and the other Hmong defendants plotted an insurgent campaign to overthrow the Laotian government "by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials of Laos and destruction of buildings and property."The defendants acted through the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom, led in the US by Vang Pao. It conducted extensive fundraising, directed surveillance operations and organized a force of insurgent troops within Laos, according to the complaint.

Also charged was former California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War. Jack acted as an arms broker and organizer of the plot, according to a criminal complaint filed in US District Court.The group was raising money to recruit a mercenary force and buy enough weapons to equip a small army, including anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers, prosecutors allege.

Vang Pao, now 77, led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos. He emigrated to the US about 1975 and has been credited by thousands of Hmong refugees with helping them build new lives in the US. Since then, however, he also has been plotting to overthrow the Laotian government, according to the federal complaint.

Seven others, all prominent members of the Hmong community from California's Central Valley, also were charged Monday in federal court.

The criminal complaint identified them as- Lo Cha Thao of Clovis, a suburb of Fresno; - Lo Thao of Sacramento County, who is president of United Hmong International, which the complaint says also is known as the Supreme Council of the Hmong 18 Clans; - Youa True Vang of Fresno, founder of Fresno's Hmong International New Year; - Hue Vang, a former Clovis police officer; - Chong Yang Thao, a Fresno chiropractor; - Seng Vue of Fresno and,- Chue Lo of Stockton, both of whom are clan representatives in United Hmong International.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The mirror doesn't lie

A new building in Soho celebrates the magic that is our son.