Thursday, November 30, 2006

Guess What I Did?

Were you watching the news? Yep, that makes number 6. Six times that I have worked as a site officer when the Secretary came to visit.

At least this time, I got to go to a different place. We had the meeting at the Intercontinental in Jericho. The Intercon is a really nice hotel, and we had the meetings with the First Lady there back in May of 2005. The staff is really nice and helpful, and the hotel would be a great place to stay if we were allowed there without security. The grounds are immaculate, the rooms large and comfortable, and the pool is amazing. There was a casino there, but it has long since been shut down since the Intifada pretty much dried up the tourist crowd.

The best part of today was getting to body block two cameramen who were trying to get out of the door to get one last shot of the Secretary. I jumped in front of him and grabbed the door handle, forcing the door closed. Then I got a hotel security guy to hold it closed. I got another security guy to hold a second door closed...boy were the press folks peeved!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Cease Fire

Depending on who you talk to, the cease fire in Gaza is a real chance for peace, an opportunity for Hamas to re-arm, or likely to amount to nothing. The cease fire may spread to the West Bank, or the violence in the West Bank may spread back to Gaza. Honestly, I am not optimistic, if only because I have been optimistic before, only to have it dashed.

Who knows?

People seem to think that the Palestinians speak with one voice, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most ideas people have about this place are wrong. There is no one Israeli voice nor one Palestinian voice. Israelis aren't just defending themselves against Palestinian suicide bombers in the home God promised them, though some are, and Palestinians aren't all innocent victims of Israeli oppression, though lots are. Some Palestinians are suicide bombers, but even all suicide bomers aren't the same. Some Palestinians are reasonable and peace-loving, and some are unreasonable and hate Jews. Some Israelis are Palestinian hating and some aren't. There are lots of shades of grey. Mostly its shades of grey.

Anyway, they still haven't gotten buy-in for the cease fire from all the Palestinian groups in Gaza (I think the news said Islamic Jihad claimed credit for the last two qassams), which seems to lessen the chances of the cease fire lasting for long. But Olmert is talking again about land for peace, the first time he has really talked about evacuating settlements since before the Lebanon War. So maybe there is hope...I wish I were more optimistic.

Meanwhile, I am just counting down until my R&R.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Turkey Day!

I just wanted to wish everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving! We had an excellent dinner with 20 or so friends from the consulate with turkey, dressing and all the fixings! There was even pumpkin pie!

A few things I am thankful for:

* A wonderful partner
* Awesome family and friends
* My grandmother's health
* My furry and feathered children
* and that I get to come home for Christmas!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Softball Diplomacy

Yesterday, a group of us from the consulate met at one of the local sports fields on the east side for a little softball. We didn't have enough people there to really play, so we were mostly just taking turns batting.

After we had been playing for a few minutes, some Palestinian teenagers starting hanging around, first one, then two, and ultimately about six. With a bit of coaxing, we convinced them to join us. None of them had ever played softball, so we had to show them how to hold the bat, where to run, etc. And with me and my handful of words in Arabic being the only ability to communicate, it was challenging! But we were able to communicate none the less, and one turned out to be a great hitter while another did pretty well as a pitcher.

We all played together for about an hour, when several of the guys had to leave for work. I yelled "fursa saideh" to them, which is Arabic for "nice to meet you," and one turned around and asked how to say that in English. I told him, and he called out "nice to meet you" to everyone. It was a lot of fun playing with them, and I think we sent away five young men with good feelings towards Americans.

It made me feel particularly good since Thursday and Friday at work had demonstrated to me just how accustomed we get to awful things. I had to take two groups, one each day, on a tour of the Jerusalem part of the separation barrier. It is pretty depressing to see how it splits families, dividing Palestinian neighborhoods in half. The first day, two separate places near one checkpoint had been closed off since just 5 pm the day before. Both the UN-employee who was driving us and I knew to have our badges on in case we passed a checkpoint or has become ingrained in us. But the guy we were showing around had to fumble for his badge, because in his three months in country, all in Tel Aviv, he had never come across a checkpoint. And both days, we went to Augusta Victoria hospital, a Lutheran Hospital on the Mount of Olives that serves Palestinians. It has a great but depressing view of two checkpoints, one of which is only for foot traffic and one which is only for Israelis (of the 12 routes into Jerusalem, only four are open to Palestinians and one of those is the pedestrian one) as well as the barrier and the ever-expanding settlements.

While at the hospital on Thursday, a doctor came up while we were there to speak to our guide. She told him she was doing a UN film on Palestinian access to health-care (or more accurately, lack of access) and he said he had a kid she could talk about. The child, maybe seven-years old, has leukemia and was running around the hospital alone. I said, "Parents couldn't get permits, huh?" And he said yes, so they had sent the child through the checkpoint alone, where he went from taxi to taxi until he found one to take him to the hospital. He didn't know who to ask for at the hospital, only that this was where he should go.

When I got back to work, I told my co-workers about the little boy with leukemia who was wandering around the hospital alone, and my co-workers, without being told more, said "Parents couldn't get permits?"

Monday, November 13, 2006

...but I was in Cairo!

So more than a month back, when we saw that this past weekend was both a long weekend AND the weekend of the Marine Ball (no offense to the Marines...some of our guys are good friends, but ball gowns are not my thing and we went last year), we decided to go to Cairo. I can't remember ever NOT wanting to see the pyramids.

We flew over on Thursday night after work. The flight is only about an hour from Ben Gurion Airport. A friend at work, Heather, told us she had a friend in Cairo from when she lived there and he drove a taxi for a living. We called Ali first thing Friday morning and hired him for the day to take us around. Let me tell you, that was a great decision! We drove down first to Dahshur, home of the Red and Bent Pyramids. These are the third largest pyramids in Egypt, after the ones at Giza. The Bent Pyramid was one of the first attempts at the kind of pyramid we know today, built by the 4th dynasty Pharoah Sneferu (2613-2589 BC). But the angle was too steep and the pyramid became unstable, so his engineers had to reduce the slope, hence the name. Not satisfied, Sneferu tried again, this time creating the Red Pyramid using the angle his engineers had used at the top portion of the Bent pyramid. It is the first true pyramid. Sneferu's son, Khufu (aka Cheops) is the builder of the first, and largest, true pyramid at Giza.

The Bent Pyramid

We actually went inside the Red Pyramid because we had been advised that the big pyramids would be just as empty inside but would be more crowded. We got hit up for bakshish, a sort of tip, usually one Egyptian pound (about 20 cents) for the first time there, and by none other than the tourist police. We paid again to the old guy who took us down into the pyramid. You have to back down the ramp to go in, and while the ceilings inside are amazing, the smell is well, I guess there aren't toilets around.

Our next stop was Saqqara, home of the Step Pyramid of Djoser. The Step Pyramid is the first pyramid and was built by Imhotep in six mastabas for the 3rd dynasty Pharoah Djoser. It was here, in the pyramid of Titi, that we got the "Fish Tour," our new descriptor for all bad tours. A guy wanting bakshish followed us around the tomb, pointing to the wall carvings and saying "fish" when he saw a fish. Accurate, but not so very helpful. I think he knew maybe 6 words in English. He would point to an empty pedestal and say, "Baby statue. Not here. Egyptian Museum Cairo." We ultimately gave him a pound to go away.

Me at the Step Pyramid

From there we headed to Giza. A friend had recommended we ride camels around the back side of the pyramids, and after coaxing M a bit, we decided to do it. Ali, our taxi driver, took us to a reputable camel stable and we got an hour ride around the pyramids. It was a great way to see the pyramids, away from the traffic and vendors. But boy does that make you sore! Our camel driver said that this is how you really learn to walk like an Egyptian!

On Saturday we went to the Egyptian museum. Ali had warned us about people on the streets luring you with with how they love America and their brother was in America and blah blah. And still we almost fell for it, with a "doctor" (read: perfume shop owner) telling us the museum didn't open until noon and trying to get us to come to his shop. At the last minute, we escaped and continued to the museum. The Egyptian Museum is every bit as incredible as it is billed, and though we opted not to pay the extra 100 pounds to see the mummies, we did get to see some amazing stuff. We even saw Tutankamen's burial mask, which is extraordinary. That night, we headed back to Giza for the sound and light show. In our defense, we already knew it was hokey before we went, but some kitsch you just gotta do. So we went. The talking sphinx was a riot, and at least now I know that the three biggest pyramids there were built by father (Cheops or Kufru-2589-2566), son (Khafre) and grandson Menkaure). Khafre also built the sphinx, and the face on it is his. His is the most recognizable of the three pyramids, with some of the limestone exterior at the top. It is actually smaller than the Great Pyramid in deference to his father, but it looks bigger. The real highlight of the show, however, is the end, when Egyptians dressed in the kind of "ancient Egyptian" costume you'd have worn as a kid at Halloween played the Road to Tiperary on bagpipes as an exit march.

Sunday we went to Old Cairo and visited Salah Eddin's Citadel. Built in 1176, it has amazing views of the city and two really beautiful mosques, the Mohammed Ali mosque and the Mohammed Nasser mosque. Since this was an organized tour, our Muslim guide also took us to the Hanging Church (named for its location) and the grotto where, according to the guide, Muslims and Christians hid Mary and the baby Jesus when they came to Egpyt. I'll leave it to you to figure out what is wrong with that picture. She also took us to a synagogue that she said was no longer used because there were no Jews in Cairo. Of course, she also said Christians were 50% of the population. It is more like less than 10%. And she wrapped up the tour with a trip to a perfume factory. I left with a headache but no bottled scents.

Me and M on camels at Giza

No, I Wasn't at the Rally...

There was a Gay Pride rally here on Friday. It was supposed to be a parade, but the Haredi (the ultra-Orthodox) responding with a week straight of nightly riots, as well as threats to harm the marchers. So it was decided to have a rally instead. It made the international news, so in case any of you were worried, I never even had to think about whether I should or wanted to go. We had long since planned to take the long weekend and go to Cairo. I'll write more on that later, but let me just tell you that Mary didn't come anywhere close to falling off that camel no mater what she says.

Also, in other news, I got a job offer in DC. Looks like I am heading back to INR Watch! The Op Center, my first choice, decided not to offer jobs to any second-tour officers which took me out of the running. But this does mean that come May, I will be back in the states for at least 14 months, maybe more. Woo hoo! Outback, can I do call ahead reservations now?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Yay Mail!

Our mail folks and the ones at Tel Aviv are awesome. They had someone standing by 24/7 in case there was a break in the strike. Over the weekend, they called a 2-day halt to the strike for emergency negotiations. And in that time, our folks got the mail that was here.

So now I have a 24-day supply of diet Mountain Dew! Woo hoo!

Friday, November 03, 2006

No Mail!

I have never before given a great deal of thought to strikers, and that would certainly be true of the current baggage handlers strike at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv except for one thing...

Our mail comes by plane.

The baggage handlers unload our mail in addition to the bags.

Or, more accurately, they don't unload our mail. We have heard that some of our mail flew away with the planes that came here and left again.

That makes me cranky.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I voted!

Yay! The board of Elections relented and faxed me a ballot. I checked out the information on each of the candidates so I could make informed decisions, and then I faxed in my ballot. We are luckier here than at some posts, in that we have APO (military postal service) twice a week, so I will actually be able to get the ballot post-marked in time (they require you to mail the original for auditing purposes. So insha'allah, my vote will be counted.

I was especially glad to get to vote for a guy who was mayor of Carrboro, the town next to Chapel Hill, for 10 years and was one of the state's only openly gay politicians. He is running for the Board of Commissioners, and still lists improving opportunities for LGBT folks as one of his priorities.

Yay Democracy!