Columbia, SC

September 14, 2011

I’m just getting around to posting this trip, although it has been several weeks since returning. There are definitely more remote parts of the country to try to get to. I always assumed that the capitol of a state wouldn’t be one of those situations. Columbia, SC apparently takes longer to get to from San Francisco than Indonesia does!

I left from SF early on a Sunday in order to be in Columbia at a reasonable time to make my meetings the following day for work. By early, I mean 6 in the morning. The idea was that I would make it to Columbia around 5 in the afternoon. At 2 am on Monday morning I actually arrived. That is 17 hours after the time difference!

The airport in Columbia is small, but quaint. There are white rocking chairs everywhere and only somewhere around 5 gates. As soon as you step out of the airport doors, the fun begins! It was 105 degrees with 90% humidity!

I picked up my rental car and headed to the downtown area. It is a very cute town (I realize it’s a city, but it really feels like a town). All of the buildings are well kept up and there is parking even in the downtown area. I spent most of my week there in the downtown/capitol area.

I can’t say there are a ton of things to discuss about Columbia, other than the fact that everyone was very, very nice. People say hello to you when you walk down the street. Business attire has a different definition in warm, damp climates. I don’t exactly own a vast collection of polo shirts, so I looked a little out of place with my suit on. Business meetings with people wearing khaki shorts are a strange site to see. The food in Columbia was decent, but with seemingly everything being deep fried, I found very few gluten free options. One day, I had chips and salsa twice because nothing else was available.

The one notable thing about Columbia is the Capitol building. While keeping all poiltics aside, I have to say that it was strange to see a confederate flag flying at a government building, and a monument to the Confederate States of America. I did take a little pleasure in the fact that within one day, I went from SF with rainbow flags to Columbia with the confederate flag flying. That is the kind of thing that makes the US so interesting to me. The diversity of all the states is a crazy thing to witness sometimes.

Super Critical Needs Language assessment…

July 27, 2011

Dude. Telephone language exams are not easy. Unfortunately I can’t provide any detail on the test due to the non-disclosure agreement, but suffice to say I don’t think I’ll be receiving any bonus points for Modern Standard Arabic. The super critical needs languages are tested immediately after passing the FSOT. It would’ve been great to have that showing in my file before it gets to the QEP. Upon completion of the language test, they do not tell you whether or not you passed, but I have a feeling that it didn’t go well. I’ll know when I get the results from the Board of Examiners. Bummer. After the Orals, I’ll still be able to test in Flemish/Dutch, which will give me the .17 bonus points on my candidacy. I’ll take it…

Foreign Service Written Test Results Published!

July 12, 2011

Today I received the official letter confirming that I passed the FSOT. I am very excited having waited two years since I first took the test to finally pass it! I was also pretty encouraged by my score. In previous years, the letter was simply a pass/fail letter informing you of the outcome. This year they started adding the test results on the letters. In 2011, a multiple choice score of 154 and an essay score of 6/12 is required to go on to the next steps. Here is a breakdown of my scores:

Job Knowledge: 59.91
Biographic info: 73.07
English Expression: 55.93
Total: 188.91
Essay: 8/12

I am still waiting for the test date for Arabic. I received the initial email requesting time to test, but that was a week ago. Now, I will be composing my Personal Narrative essays that are do by next week. Crossing my fingers…

Critical needs language test scheduled

June 30, 2011

I just received my scheduling email for Arabic from the State Department. I have not yet received my pass notification for the FSOT, but I am taking this as a pretty good sign. I have had the same languages on past year’s applications, but never been scheduled to test. I’m fairly confident that means I passed the FSOT this year. A passing language test is valid for 5 years with State. I really wish I could have taken it last year. I’ve been too busy with travel and work this year to put the effort into Arabic, and I’m pretty rusty, but I believe I can pass still. I’ll update this post once I have confirmation of the actual FSOT results. Good luck to all waiting to get the results…

Foreign Service Test – Take 3

May 9, 2011

Just received my test location and date. Time to start writing an essay a night until the day…

On my way home…

April 13, 2011

Heading to the airport. Business class upgrade is confirmed, thanks United! I’ll be home in about 19 1/2 hours.

It’s snowing in Moscow

April 12, 2011

I made it back safely to Moscow and checked in at the Red Square hostel. I’m really over landing in countries in the middle of the night! I got in at 2:00 am and went straight to sleep. Tomorrow I get to make the 17 hour series of flights home! This trip has been really great and I’ve enjoyed all the places I chose this time. There were some things to note if you plan on visiting these places:

Kazzhol Hotel, Kazakhstan – this was listed as the lonely planet’s top pick for midrange hotel. I think they have been surviving off of that review for the last couple years. The hotel was not friendly, clean, or convenient unfortunately. They also failed to call me for my wake up call at 3:00 am to catch my flight (luckily I set an alarm as well). Every time I went to ask the hotel staff a question, they told me that I did not pay for my room for the night (as if that was a standard greeting). They also tried to charge me for the room the night before I got there. When I asked about the taxi to the airport that I had arranged, the woman at the desk told me that there were many taxis outside (at 3:45 am). The restaurant downstairs was great though, and reasonably priced.

Flight schedules – unfortunately, almost every central Asian flight schedule sucks. This makes it exceptionally hard to safely get from the airport to the hotel and back. Arrange a pickup with the hotel, and pay the ridiculous price. You’ll pay it either way, just the other way includes an actual robbery vs. a robbery via the extortionist hotel prices. The integrity of cab drivers at 4:00 am is non-existent. Most importantly, do not get into a cab if there are two people driving you to your destination (the cabbie’s friend, etc.).

Language – buy the lonely planet Central Asia Phrasebook. Unless you speak Russian, you will need this book more than anything else you bring. English is not very prevalent. I would also help to learn how to read Cyrillic as well. Otherwise you will be extremely lost (it won’t take that long to learn that the B is a v, the C is an s, and the Y makes an oo sound).

People are really great – everywhere in the world. People generally have the best intentions. Give them the chance to prove it…

Some funny pictures from around Almaty

April 11, 2011

Given a choice, this is all I eat:
Take me down to the paradise city:

They must’ve stolen this sign from southern California:


Very nice! (said in Borat’s accent)

April 11, 2011

I am exhausted. Almaty is significantly larger than Bishkek, and I walked around the entire city for about 6 hours.

My first impression was that Almaty was rather featureless, lacking the soviet style grandiose statues I expected. But after the first mile of walking, I realized they were just spread out over a larger area. The Kazakh diversity is very similar to the Kyrgyz. There is a nicer infrastructure that is apparent when walking down the street though. There are some phenomenal sites to see, and humongous buildings to try to fit in your camera viewfinder.

I headed in the general direction of the Kok Tobe (missing umlauts – should be pronounced “cook Toby”) cable car tram that is supposed to have great scenic views over Almaty, but it must be too early in the travel season, because it is only open on weekends currently.

It was a pretty good distance back to Zhibek Zholy (a west-east running promenade filled with buskers, vendors, artists, and an ethnic Russian rapper who was butchering Ice Ice Baby – “Yo, check out my hook while my DJ revolves this”). I walked all the way down to Pushkin St. and made my way to the Center Mosque. It is supposedly the largest mosque, able to hold 3,000 people, in Kazakhstan and is available for worship only. Non-Muslims are not allowed inside the mosque. Almaty is built on a large hill, so you are always walking down or up. It’s hard to get lost with this constant reminder of which direction you are traveling. I have to say, the neighborhood gets progressively sketchier heading downhill on Pushkin St. The bartering from the street vendors gets more aggressive, and the crowds of people with seemingly nothing to do but gather together grow larger. Got some great photos of the mosque though.

One thing that struck me today about both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I have not seen a single tourist. Nobody. It’s really weird actually. Maybe it’s still too early in the travel season, but the weather is great here (today it was about 80 Fahrenheit). Maybe the droves of tourists will come next month, but it is a weird experience not running into a single traveler.

You’ve probably skipped reading all this anyways and went straight for the pictures anyways. It really is a beautiful country. These pictures don’t even begin to do it justice…







Freedom of the press in Central Asia

April 10, 2011

I made the trip back from Bishkek to Almaty this afternoon. In fact, it was supposed to be this morning, but the first cab driver arranged by the hotel had a different idea of a fair price than the person who arranged the trip with the hotel. I can’t stress how important it is to verify the arranged price with the actual guy in the driver’s seat. I’ve had this misunderstanding quite a few times, and it’s better to check twice vs. getting left halfway there on the side of the road. After the “mix up” (hotel’s definition, not mine), I got the coolest driver ever. Not so much the guy, he was nice, and a good guy, but he knew this trip really well. Upon starting the car, he pulled out a sign that read “PRESS” in Russian and backed it up with a fake set of press credentials. The border would have taken four hours, but we went straight to the front of the line and were through the border in about 30 minutes. Entering Kazakhstan takes a lot longer than going the other way for sure. They had to inspect the vehicle (seriously inspect the vehicle – like pulling pieces of the interior off of it and checking the undercarriage for things) and I had to walk through the checkpoint separately and meet the car on the other side. While I was waiting, one of the border guards came over and asked me for my passport, and asked if I was from New York City. I replied, no, that I was from San Francisco. He grinned a huge smile and yelled “Schwartzenegger! Governor! Terminator!” This was really, really confusing to me. When i was in Beijing, people didn’t know where San Francisco was, but on the border of KZ and KGZ, the guy new what state it is in, and who the governor was. I wasn’t going to argue with the man with an AK-47, who was obviously happy about past California governance, or inform him that Ahnold was replaced by Moonbeam. The best thing to do when anyone with authority is excited about something is to share in their excitement. He quickly shuffled me to the front of the line I was in though. I resisted the urge to turn around and tell him that “I’d be back” but it made me laugh to think about. I’ll post the picture of the fake press pass after I’m back and can redact the name and picture of the driver to avoid any problems for him in the future. Apparently he writes for “Elite Women’s Vogue.” Seemed legit to me.

The trip itself is a mixture between boring and amazing. The Tian Shan mountain range is just to one side of the road, and the other side is endless flatness of grass. The mountains are amazing. Really amazing! I took four hours of mountain pictures while we drove. The road is better than any freeway than I’ve seen in California. The drivers all drive reasonably and carefully as well (no stupid passing around blind corners going on).

It’s nice to be heading in the general direction of home for sure. Tomorrow I’ll take the recommended walking tour of Almaty and see what there is to see…