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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Fall Fashion

Jack's decided that his rainboots go with everything...except pants.

Tonight we had some friends over for dinner. Cliff, Courtney, Nicole and Mallory, and Claire, Gundo and Rose, fresh from Geneva with Gaspar (not pictured), all of three weeks old. The kids hung around on the cars as we had some wine.

Then we figured we could have even more peace if we used the magic of TV. It worked.

Those pictures I mentioned

We were about 5KM upriver from where I was last time, and on the other side of the river. We picked a nice spot, flat, right by some sandy banks sloping down to the river. But there was some garbage from previous, less environmentally-conscious campers, and a bit of old cow poop laying around.

So we moved about 40 meters up river to a slightly less flat, wide space, but still nice. A little further away from the sandy 'beach', but, you know, still nice. And we set up camp.

15 minutes later, we were very glad we did, as the 40 or so cows and twice as many sheep and goats filed right through where our tents would have been to clamber down the nice sandy slope to get their drink on. I guess the cow poop should have been a clue, but really, it was quite old. After the herd departed, we noticed they left fresh presents for us.

As the sun began to go down, the son got to work gathering kindling to start a decent fire for shashlik.

And then he wisely stepped back to watch his handiwork go up in flames. Fire is hot, you know...and Jack knows too.

The next day was all about swimming, running around, and hanging out in the camp. What it wasn't really about was a nap.

But it was about hanging in diapers with new pal Slava...

...chilling on the cooler with mom...

...and trying to steal dad's beer.

We threw in a little DVD time in the afternoon for good measure.

And what camping trip would be complete without washing the dishes naked?

We were rudely awakened Monday morning at 4:45 am by a pretty heavy rainstorm, with thunder and lightning in the distance. We all got up, put our rainflies up, battened down the hatches, whatnot, then settled back in to sleep/count the time between thunder and lightning. By the time it was close enough that I couldn't get the 'wuh' sound of 'one' out before the thunder struck, we got Jack into the car and were picking up the rest of camp.

And then it stopped. Completely. And the sun came up, and we were all awake, and it was 5:45. So we broke camp and got a head start on getting home.

And I was only pulled over 2 times this time.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Yes, I realize it's been a while...

...But, there have been changes and goings on here that have kept us away from the regular updates and trenchant analysis of the human condition upon which you have come to depend.

First, I have concluded my consular career. Huzzah!! I've put three years in on the visa line. Last Thursday was my last day.

I am now Phil Nervig...Political Officer.

Second, maybe you've now heard. It's been public for a few days. We're about to have another high profile visitor.

I'm playing a role in the visit, so that is keeping me busy.

Also the whole 'how to be a political officer' thing. Learning that is also somewhat time-consuming. Plus, we're in a neighborhood that has re-emerged on the foreign-policy map as of late, so there's that.

Oh, and bidding. Yes, bidding.

We've got some personal favorites for our next tour. But again, as I explained in what I later determined was a far too detailed and confusing explanation of the process, our personal favorites might not line up with what people in charge of putting people in positions think of me, and my potential.

But never mind that. We'll hopefully get one of our top choices, and either live on a new continent (we've got Asia, Europe, and, of course, North America covered), or return to our beloved Asia. Good choices, both.

The new continent is, by the way, Africa.

Finally, we went back to Poltava last weekend. Katherine, Jack and I went with our friend Mike and his son Anton to join Slava and Iulia once again on the Vorskla river.

This time, we all camped.

Pictures coming.

Monday, August 18, 2008

News out of Laos

Flooding, and more flooding.

Highest-ever flooding hits Laos, leaves 4 dead

Luang Prabang is/was under water. Parts of Vientiane (including our beloved Sunset Bar) as well.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

In Ukraine, Fear of Being a Resurgent Russia’s Next Target

...The sense of alarm may be greatest here in Ukraine. Since the Orange Revolution began in 2004, bringing the pro-Western Viktor A. Yushchenko to power after widespread protests, Ukraine has been a thorn in Moscow’s side, though perhaps not as sharp as the outspoken Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

“We’re next,” said Tanya Mydruk, 22, an office assistant who lives in Kiev, the capital. “Sooner or later our president is going to say or do something that goes too far, and then it will start.”

Ukraine has done little to win Russia’s favor since the crisis in the Caucasus began. On Wednesday, Ukraine announced that it would restrict the movements of Russia’s Black Sea fleet into Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula. On Friday, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it was prepared to give Western countries access to its missile-warning systems...

...At Shevchenko Park (ed note: Hey, that's our park!) in the heart of Kiev, card games have gotten pretty heated since the fighting between Georgia and Russia began.

“Smart Russians keep silent and they still think about their fate in Ukraine,” said Vasyl Marsiuk, 70. He sat at one of the granite tables where older men also play dominos or checkers, in the shade of chestnut trees.

In his eyes, the Russians are the clear aggressors in the Caucasus conflict, and they are by no means finished with their ambitions for the region. “Ukraine is under the same threat, the same kind of Damocles sword,” he said.

Mr. Marsiuk spoke Ukrainian, but a man overhearing him launched into a defense of Russia, in Russian. “It was Georgia that started the conflict,” said the man, Pyotr Lyuty, 53, who said he had served in military intelligence in Soviet times...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

And they're back

Katherine and Jack arrived at 9:00 this morning after what, I'm told, was a great two-week vacation.

It seems the weekend in Detroit was lovely, hanging out with family.

Lake Michigan was, I'm told, very nice.

The walk from the cabin, I heard, took them over the grass dunes and down to the beach.

Where, I've been informed, they spent much of their leisure time.

Huh, so, a two week vacation with great weather, great food, great times with relatives. Sounds nice. Would have liked to be there. But I'm not bitter; not in the least. I'll let Katherine tell you all about it.

And I think we'll need to get Jack a dog at our next post.

Speaking of our next post, we are currently in the early stages of the bidding process. Some interesting jobs in interesting places. Some would require about a year in DC learning yet another immensely difficult Asian language. Others would not.

The bidding process is quite different this time around. For our (and everyone's) first two posts, we are basically given a directed assignment. Sure, we are asked to put our top 20 or 25 choices down and explain why we would like to go to our top choices. But, ultimately, we could be sent to any of our choices, or, in rare circumstances, pretty much told to go anywhere in the world.

The game has changed now that I am no longer a 'Junior Officer'. Because I received tenure last year I am now a 'Mid-level Officer'. That's right, I'm moving up in the world. Anyway, from this point on, I basically have to apply for a new job every time we change posts. The bid list comes out, we look at what we want to do and where we want to do it, and hopefully find a few jobs in a few countries that fit the bill.

And then I start lobbying. For each job that I'm interested in, I need to contact the decision maker at the Post and the decision makers back in the home bureau (a few different people have input into the decision) and express interest in the job and basically get them to think I'm the best person for it. I submit a resume, and get other, more senior (thus, more influential) people to lobby on my behalf. Even better if one or more of my references knows the decision maker; not an inconsequential, or uncommon, occurrence in an organization the size of the Foreign Service (about 5,000 FS Generalists).

As you express interest in and lobby for jobs, you also submit an official bid list. Then you have to play the game. You have to try to gauge your relative odds of being offered a job vs. how you rank your bids. The decision makers want to know where among MY list of jobs I rank THEIR job. I want to know where I am on THEIR list among people angling for THEIR job. It's a delicate dance.

Do we want to go to Kreplakistan more than Grand Fenwick? What if it seems that I am more competitive for the job in Grand Fenwick? Do I tell the Grand Fenwick people that that is my first choice, even though in our hearts we would rather go to Kreplakistan, or do I hold out for Kreplakistan and tell Grand Fenwick that they are my #2? I mean, this is what everyone is doing, so Kreplakistan's first choice could be gunning for something else, meaning that I could get it. But if I go for it and tell Grand Fenwick they are #2, maybe they turn around and offer the job to someone who has said GF is their #1 pick, and Kreplakistan's #1 pick decides to take that job. Now I don't have either job, and down my list I go.

So we have the bid list, and I've expressed interest in a few jobs (one way back in May when I heard it was going to be open even before the bid list came out).

And so the dance begins.

Updates as warranted, but we probably won't have any concrete plans until early October.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Nick Kristoff's got our back

Make Diplomacy, Not War

Some highlights:

The United States has more musicians in its military bands than it has diplomats.

This year alone, the United States Army will add about 7,000 soldiers to its total; that’s more people than in the entire American Foreign Service.

More than 1,000 American diplomatic positions are vacant because the Foreign Service is so short-staffed, but a myopic Congress is refusing to finance even modest new hiring. Some 1,100 could be hired for the cost of a single C-17 military cargo plane.

In short, the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems.

Read the rest.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Artistic Vorskla River

The macro on our camera works. I guess it's good for more than taking video of Jack dancing.

This dragonfly was very photogenic.

And, while this one was not taken with the macro on, I did employ the zoom.

I think I'll call it...

'Red Speedo in Repose...x2' (2008)


So first a note about driving in Ukraine. I've spoken about the drivers in Kyiv, which are maddening because of the gridlock that they create. They are (and yes, I am generalizing, there certainly are sane, thoughtful drivers in Kyiv; they just seem to be staying home most of the time) in such a hurry to get where they are going that they end up slowing everyone down by blocking intersections, driving on sidewalks, and generally making me sad.

Driving on the highways is another story. Sure, the drivers are still in a hurry, but here they actually have the open road with which to sow their terror. A four lane highway, not so bad. There's always the slow lane. But who knew that 75 miles an hour was slow?

But in the 340 KM between Kyiv and Poltava, there are about 85 KM that are two lane. That is where the fun starts. Two or three times I had to slam on my brakes and drive onto the shoulder to avoid being hit by a car passing a truck coming the other way. They did do me the courtesy of flashing their lights at me to let me know that I had to move out of my own lane lest I have my second car accident in our short tenure here in Ukraine.

It was explained later to me that, although it is indeed a two-lane highway, there is generally enough space for 3 cars to pass at once, so the standard practice is just to flick your lights to let the oncoming car (in his or her own lane, no less) that you will be taking'center' lane of the two-lane highway. Lesson learned.

But while there is a cutthroat side to driving the Ukrainian highways, there is also comraderie. A kind of us against them...them being the police that seemed to be located about every 20 KM on the highway pulling the next driver over as fast as they can extract the 20 Hryvna 'fine on the spot' from the last one.

Now, I am immune from the shake down; my license plates tell me so. But I still stop when told to, if only to show my diplomatic card. It's hard not to be pulled over when the speed limit is 55 mph..unless it's not. It randomly becomes 45 mph, or even 30 mph, which really allows the police to strategically position themselves to get you speeding. Especially when everyone but the trucks goes well over 55 to begin with.

And here's where the comraderie comes in. Turns out that flashing your lights can mean two things.

First, the aforementioned 'I am driving in your lane in the wrong direction and I'm not going to stop'.

The better meaning, however, is 'careful, there is a police speed trap coming up'.

So as you are driving, a line of cars coming the other way, but...and this is key to understanding the subtle difference in, you know, their own lane, helpfully flash their lights to let you know to slow down.

I gamely played my part, receiving thankful waves from drivers I warned who, if they wanted to pass, I'm certain would run me out of my own lane without a second thought.

So you take the good with the bad.

A few hours on the road and I was in Poltava. But I didn't see the town itself. Instead, I headed straight out to the dacha where my co-worker, Slava, his wife Iulia and two of their friends, Vlad and Natasha, waited. Well, actually, Slava wasn't waiting for me since he met me on the highway to lead me there. Easier than giving directions, he said. After the drive, I agreed.

We were in a small collection of dachas right on the Vorskla river, which was made famous by Peter the Great way back when around the time of the Battle of Poltava...TAKE THAT SWEDEN!

So dachas. For those that don't know, dachas are where old men work their gardens in their underwear while their wives stand, arms akimbo, giving directions, and the grandkids run around. Other stuff goes on too, but that is the best part.

We were staying at the dacha of Slava's wife's parents' friends. It was small. One room really. With 5 of us, I felt it prudent to set up my tent in the yard. Plus, I've been known to snore, and didn't want to subject them to it.

Soon after arrival, the tent was up, Slava and I had beers in hand, and the fire was going to make shashlik and roasted peppers.
Slava is a master shashlikist, or whatever the noun for one who makes shashlik would be. He's even got a fancy grill for the job.

We took the feast down to the river and, well, feasted. Later, I introduced my Ukrainian hosts to s'mores. I don't think they will make it into the regular diet of Slava, but Iulia seemed to like them. We hung around the fire sharing beer and brandy (ed. note: yuck) while Iulia tried to stay warm.

The next morning, I woke early to find everything quiet, except the damn dog down the lane barking, which is why I woke up in the first place. I sat down to read a book when Slava and Iulia came walking down the road. Seems they'd been up even earlier, and had headed for a swim. Seeing that I was up, they deceided to turn around with me in tow for another swim. The Vorskla river is a narrow, slow-moving, but clean river that is kind of a magnet for weekend revelers from town.

But, first thing in the morning, it was all ours.

We went back, grabbed Vlad and Natasha and breakfast, which turned out to be quite a feast, and brought it back to the riverbank, where Slava surveyed his domain.


I headed out after breakfast to get back to Kyiv at a decent hour. Well, decent enough to meet up with some friends at a bar to watch the US play China in men's basketball.



Sunday, August 10, 2008

When the cat's away...

...the mouse will jump in the car on Saturday and drive to Poltava, 3.5 hours East of Kyiv to hang out at a Dacha with a co-worker, his wife and two of their friends, where he ate shashlik, drank beer, swam in the river, and generally had a good time.

Full report later., not that one

So everyone knows what's going on in the country of Georgia at the moment, I am sure.

Here's an interesting tidbit from a CNN Report that hits a bit closer to home...

Urkaine, a former Soviet republic like Georgia, said it might prevent Russian navy ships involved in the blockade from returning to their bases in the Crimea, an spokeswoman with Urkaine's foreign ministry said.

"This statement is new to us and it requires analysis," said Russian Defense Ministry Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. "It is a case of a third party intervening in the process, which is quite surprising."

Russia's Navy leases the bases from Ukraine through an agreement signed in 1997 which expires in 2017.


Saturday, August 02, 2008


Jack and Katherine are safely in Michigan after a delayed flight out of Kyiv resulted in a missed flight in NY. So, all told, they were traveling for about 20 hours.

I have yet to speak with Katherine, so I don't know how Jack fared, but a quick e-mail noted that they slept 6 hours upon arrival (and are likely sleeping now, as she's not answering her phone).

So, two weeks on Lake Michigan for them with relatives all around. Should be nice.