Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Dark Side of the Diplomat's Life

From an e-mail to a friend, passed along to us:

I think enough has been said on the subject of diplomats' lives abroad, but I also think some people have skewed ideas about "diplomacy" in today's world, and assume it's all big embassies in capital cities. Not nearly! So here goes:

This State Dept representative is assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. I share a dusty tent with three other guys (including a very capable L-- diplomat), and we can't keep it clean because of the incessant dust storms that send 95mph whirlwinds through the area every day. The wind last week was much stronger, and the tent next to mine simply disappeared. The sink spigots and showers are outside, near the outdoor toilets - all about a block and a half from where I sleep. We get one hot meal a day. My feet are cracked open from wearing heavy boots and never having a flat surface to walk on (the camp is covered with loose stones to keep the lunar quality dust at a livable level, and there is no asphalt road or flat sidewalk that I know of anywhere in this area), and the temperature extremes have removed - painfully - a thick layer of skin from my face and head. My clothes are always dirty because of the dust, and because we have to wash our clothing in mesh bags that can't be opened during the washing. But this is the pleasant season, because roads to Ch-- become inaccessible most of the winter, and the temperatures in this mountainous area hover way below zero. And yeah, my colleagues and I will be staying through it all.

I meet with Afghans of all kinds all day long, and I conduct my meetings in Dari. Yes, I speak it, along with a couple of other regional languages. (But I am also giving an English class every night to our local interpreters, so that they can communicate with the soldiers better.) My colleagues and I walk on the streets, go shopping, visit the local villages, listen to what the Afghans are saying and laugh and joke with them, and in general cooperate with our Afghan friends here on a range of assistance projects involving the local schools, bridges across the town river, construction of better facilities for the town hospital and general security for the upcoming elections so that the voters in this Province can cast their ballots freely and safely. In between these activities, I try to write reports that will help the State Dept and NATO recipients understand this area better. And late in the evening, I finally get to my email (we have a generator here), where I sometimes enjoy the luxury of accessing Gulf List to remind me that there is a wider world.

The funny thing is, there are lots of diplomats like me in places like this in Afghanistan. Americans and Europeans and many others who have left their cuff links and silk ties and dark suits back home. We tend to show up for meetings with back packs and wearing jeans. And funnier still, we think we have the best of worlds here. I know I wouldn't trade my tent for the biggest Ambassadorial residence in London, Paris or Rome. If any of the recent critics of the State Dept and other countries' foreign services care to make the 3 day overland trip here (via a very bad dirt road from Herat) I would be happy to introduce them to this version of the diplomatic life.

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