Sunday, December 16, 2012

Revenge of the USS John Penn

The USS John Penn was an attack transport commissioned by the Navy on January 8, 1942.  On August 13, 1943 the ship was a cargo of ammunition to Guadalcanal when it was attacked by torpedo planes.  The crew was able to shoot one of the attacking planes out of the sky, which unfortunately crashed into the ship.  Following a secondary hit, the ship sank, taking with it 98 sailors and stevedores.  It now lies off the coast of Honiara in about 160 feet of water.  
And the old bastard almost claimed a few more a few weeks ago.  (Okay, that is a bit melodramatic – but this was about as close as I need to come to dying in a dive accident.)  It is a deep and at times technical dive.  I went out on a boat with a captain and four other dives, but no official guide (the other divers had done the wreck a few times before).  The first dive was incredible – crystal clear water and no current.  We can up doing the multi-stop required decompression – and got back on the boat totally pumped. 

And here is where we start doing dumb things.  The plan had been to go to another site – a much shallower site – to do the second dive.  But we were already here and the first dive had been so epic – how could we possibly leave without doing a second dive on the wreck?  But the tide would change soon – killing the viz and kicking up the current – so we cut our surface interval a bit shorter than would normally be recommended.  And the crap dive shop had given us two light filled tanks – despite me asking them (twice) if they had checked the air.  So as the lightest breather of the bunch – I got the lightest tank.  And we should have had tanks hanging to assist in the decompression – but we didn’t do that either (though we did bring a spare tank down).  In short – dumb.


But no one ever really gets hurt right?  So we go down.  And the worst happens.  We hit the wreck in almost no visibility and heavy current.  And we lose a diver.  What is worse is that the diver we lost was my friend, my dive buddy that I am supposed to be keeping an eye on, and the guy that I talked into doing the dive even though it was deep and possibly technical.  At that moment – hanging on the anchor line – forced to come up slowly to prevent the bends – I was officially the worst human being on the planet.  
So I skipped the last step in my decompression – a 55 minute at 3 meter stop – to alert the captain that we had a lost diver.  And then I pace around on deck for awhile until we spot him.  And then I am so relieved that I grab my mask and a buoy and start swimming Baywatch style over to make sure he isn’t dead.  Only once all of that is done and I am back on the boat do I realize that my hands are tingling.  That is an early symptom of decompression sickness (the bends).  So I jump back in the water to do an emergency in-water re-compression – which of course none of us know how to do correctly so we just wing it.  And then make an uncomfortable phone call to a dive doctor in Australia where I had to list off all the stupid things I had done in the previous two hours.  And then spent the night sucking oxygen with my dive mask on (to prevent me from breathing air).  And that last bit sounds terrible until I add that I still went to the dinner party to which I was invited – carrying my oxygen tank and sitting in the corner – taking breaks from the oxygen to eat babaghanoush.  

In short – I looked every bit the jackass that I felt.  But – like an 8 pm sitcom – I learned a valuable lesson.  Bad things do happen to dumb divers – and not to be an idiot in the future.  But I avoided the decompression chamber and still made my plane the next day back to DC – with basically no other symptoms of the bends.  That’s got to be worth something right?

I have added some of my wreck diving pictures here – even though most of them are from boats other than the John Penn (mostly Japanese transport ships as they were nice enough to crash closer to shore and in shallower water).  They are in black and white because they look better that way (you can never really get all the blue out of deep water pictures).  And the two that you don’t know what are are torpedo exit wounds. 

Feel free to leave comments saying I am an idiot – in today’s interconnected world, confessions are held public on the blogosphere. 

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Headhunting with JFK and the Killer Clown Fish

Sometimes in this life you need to recognize that no matter how long you stare at the little blinking cursor, you are not going to improve upon what has come before you.  Therefore I will humbly give way to Wikipedia to introduce the Gizo Islands – where I was for a work / diving adventure last week.  With no further ado : “This area of the Solomon Islands has had a history of headhunting. According to local stories the Gizo tribe were notorious in this activity. As a consequence the surrounding local tribes took the unusual step of joining together to obliterate the Gizo tribe. The stories further relate that the only survivors were a Gizo woman and her son. This event led to Gizo Island being declared as a property of the state, rather than the usual customary ownership prevalent in much of the rest of the Solomons. As a secondary consequence becoming an administrative and business center because of the relative ease with which registered land titles could be obtained.”  Which basically means that this is where the whities have opened their resorts because there were comparatively fewer people to pay off.

The trip starts with the weigh in at Honiara airport.  As in many other airports, they weigh your bags.  Then, slightly more uncommonly, they also weigh you.  (These are really small planes.)  Then off you go to hop across the islands.  The most exciting stop is in the town of Munda.  It was a Japanese air base in WWII and we bombed the holy bejeezus out of it.  The New Zealanders are currently paying for an expansion of the runway (partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because having an alternative 737 landing zone would dramatically reduce the amount of emergency fuel their planes are required to carry), and have been unearthing 500 lb unexploded ordnance.  The villagers have asked that they detonate no more than one bomb a day because of the earthquake it causes. 

But luckily, I was bound for Gizo Island, and to a little resort with a great view of the volcano.  It was actually right across the water from Kennedy Island, which was where JFK washed up when he lost his PT boat during the war.  (And bizarrely Gizo loves Kennedy even more than Boston does.)  My friend actually swam over to it just to say that he did – I was too busy diving.  The Solomons are spectacular for diving because in addition to some of the healthiest and most populated reef life that I have ever seen, the Americans and Japanese were nice enough to provide the resident fish with a number of artificial reefs while they were fighting over the island of Guadacanal.  I am going to focus on the reef photos this week and post my wreck photos next week.  Notice the large number of pictures of clown fish.  This is because most fish absolutely refuse to hold f’ing still when I am trying to get a picture of them.  Clown fish, however, are highly territorial and aggressive.  So if you come too close to their anemone nest, they will fight you.  (Seriously – I got bitten by one diving on night in East Timor.)   So these guys are all just sizing me up for the kill.

I am going to assume that only a few true dive dorks want to hear about the diving – which I believe that I have already mentioned was awesome – like diving in an aquarium with sunken battleships – and truly no one wants to hear about work – so I will leave this one off here.  I can think of a way to make my departure story sound amusing on paper (even though it actually was in real life) but the cliff notes are that I discovered the airport was actually on a different island from the one that I was one about 30 minutes before the plane was supposed to take off, and the hotel’s boat wouldn’t start, so some crusty Australian with a motorboat taking his kids to school was hijacked to drop me off.  It was also the only time I have ever flown where there was no security screening of any kind. 

So that’s it for reefs.  I will tell you a more compelling story about wrecks next week.

Friday, October 12, 2012


I am not going to be able to pull this one off again.  In May, when I returned from Islamabad and finally told my mother that I had not been in “India” but rather in Pakistan, she said “Kristen – just promise me that you will never tell me that you are going to Somalia.”  Noted.  As I had, at that point, been providing technical assistance to a Somaliland project for almost a year, and knew that travel there would take place in the next few months, I filed that little tidbit away in its most literal sense.  She used the future tense of the verb.  I will tell her in the past tense.  (And using the blog - that way she has time to cool off before she actually starts yelling at me.)
It all started out reasonably enough – 4:30 am at the Nairobi airport presenting my UN passport at the UNHAS counter (United Nations Humanitarian Assistance in Somalia) – then going upstairs to drink a chai latte and watch the first presidential debate.  The first plane took us from Nairobi to Berbera on the coast of the Red Sea (and the only runway in Somaliland capable of handling a jet).  Berbera looked straight out of a movie set.  Miles of nothing but dust in two directions, ocean in another, and dusty city in the fourth.  Planes scattered around the tarmac in various stages of disassembly and occasionally set off nicely against the blue of the sea.  A pack of feral dogs.  An airport fence made of piled thorn branches.  A humanitarian assistance lifer smoking in the shade (for those of you that have never met one of these creatures – beware – spending your entire life bouncing from one dangerous disaster to another does things to a person.  Not good things).  We claimed our bags from the old man on the Chinese tractor and climbed about the prop plane to complete the last leg of the journey to the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa.  Whereas the jet with its Mexican crew (Mexicana apparently bid and won the contract to supply the pilots for the UN charter service – I cannot imagine how many bales of marijuana you must have been caught trying to smuggle that you get exiled to Somalia – or maybe the Sinaloa cartel is networking) sort of inspired confidence, this ancient prop plane showed a bit more wear and tear on the emergency exits than I was comfortable with.  And on the landing – unless we ran over an extremely large quantity of loose change – something was seriously awry in the belly of that beast.  But I landed safely.  And got stamped into what the Economist referred to last week as an “independence minded fledgling semi-autonomous statelet.”


This might be a good “time out for history” moment.  There are three regions in the country formerly known as Somalia.  The first is Central South (think Mogadishu and ‘Blackhawk Down’ – as K’Naan would say "Warlords and Beardos”).  Then there is Puntland (think pirates).  And then there is Somaliland.  Somaliland used to be known as ‘British Somalia’ during the colonial administration (as opposed to the rest of the territory that was Italian administered).  It has always been considered to be relatively stable – though I did learn at my security briefing that there is an active war going on in the southern part of the country.  And the western border is heavily mined.  Otherwise – totally calm.
The four days in Hargeisa (the capital) were relatively uneventful.  We used the Hotel Maansoor as our base of operations as there really isn’t much in the way of secure and functioning commercial office space yet.  We went to meetings in heavily fortified compounds of government, United Nations, and NGOs (though there hasn’t been a set of coordinated car bombs since 2008).  We faithfully did our evening radio check with the Security Base (I am now quite good with the Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet).
Along the way I noticed a few weird quirks about town – such as despite the fact that the country is a left-hand drive country (like the US) it is cheaper to import right-hand-side drive cars from Dubai.  So it is the only place in the world I have ever been where you drive right-hand drive cards on the right.  It is really strange.  Also, the power lines.  In their lifetimes – powerlines die.  They get worn-through, broken in storms, cut by rebel groups, etc.  In most places these power lines would be replaced.  Not in Somaliland.  There they just pile another round on top of the same polls – leading to snarling masses of black wire throughout the downtown.  It becomes almost sculptural.  And that every third business establishment sells qat – that green leafy chew that ensures a zero-productivity afternoon.

But beyond all of this – Somaliland is a fascinating little country.  It’s hot and dusty and poor – but I will be honest – it is not the hottest nor dustiest nor poorest place I have ever worked.  What is interesting though is that they got there without us.  None of the component parts of Somalia have been eligible for large scale foreign aid in the past 20 years.  So in the endless debate about whether aid money helps or hurts a country, there is at least one counterfactual waiting to be explored.  On one hand – we might find a completely broken society – with people dying and potential going unfulfilled for want of the most basic of services.  On the other hand – we might find a Tea Party Utopia.  A sub-Saharan African country that managed to develop a robust tax base and free-flowing remittances from abroad that were sufficient to – while maybe not get them ahead of their neighbors – not let them fall too far behind either.  I am not yet sure to which extreme the truth lies, but it will be interesting to study nonetheless.

(And apologies for the lack of quality pictures.  I took them with my iPhone out of the tinted window of a moving car.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012


So I just spent the five days last week in Saudi Arabia. I think that in the United States we often have decidedly mixed feelings about the Kingdom. On one hand, it is the ultimate boogieman. Wealthy beyond compare but home to mindblowingly restrictive religious laws, birthplace of Osama binLadin and the 9-11 hijackers, one of the last true unapologetic monarchies… But on the other hand, when push comes to shove in a rough neighborhood, they always seem to have our back. They could choke off the American economy in a heartbeat if they stopped the oil from flowing. When we wanted to sanction Iran, they increased production to make it possible. They hosted us for Iraq I. And they have the wealth to purchase enough weapons to reduce our regional best friend forever Israel to a bug smear on the Mediterranean Sea, but never have. So when you peak under the gutra, who are we really dealing with you here?

And after five days, largely confined to the Riyadh Intercontinental and various sterile office blocks, I have no idea. This is what I can report. As a female I am required to wear an abayah in public (which is basically a flowing black polyester choir robe), and cover my hair (more black polyester). Saudi men traditionally wear a white robe and head covering as well – though it is not mandated by law and foreign men can get away with suits. No long hair though. (As an illustration, I included these cute little clip art icons that I ripped off one of our powerpoints.)

 As a woman, I am not allowed to drive. I am not allowed to enter government buildings. (This made for an awkward moment in one meeting when we realized that I was the only one in the room with the technical skills to work on the computer portal with the necessary data – but culturally that wasn’t going to work. They made robot jokes. I smiled and silently swallowed a drone joke.) Office buildings – public or private – do not contain female rest rooms. In order to use the bathroom, we have to get a male colleague to “sweep” one for us then stand guard. I am not allowed to use the hotel gym or swimming pools (though when I asked, they did install an exercise bike in my cavernous hotel room). And these are just the restrictions on foreign women. Saudi women face much stricter limitations.

All of which would lead one to believe this would be a pretty chauvinist place to work right? But oddly once you are sitting across the table in a board room, despite the fact that I am just a little face peering out of a giant mass of black fabric, my government counterparts took as seriously, if not more so, than some of my Western hyper-liberal male World Bank colleagues in DC. In addition, all the meetings were conducted in English which our Saudi counterparts spoke flawlessly. They were intelligent, engaged, motivated, and completely open to discussing innovation. There wasn’t even one time where I even felt like slamming my head into the table – almost unheard of on my standard business trips. But on the other hand, all week I encountered only one Saudi woman at any of these conference tables, and she was nearly silent.

And professional interactions are really all I have for you. On the afternoon of my last day I was able to sneak out to one of the markets. It was allegedly the oldest covered market in Riyadh and in a distinctly different part of town than the gleaming skyscrapers. The market had a local section, where all the vendors were men but some of the shoppers were small groups of women. (One of the upsides of the abayah and hijab rules are that once I am covered up and wearing sunglasses, while no one is going to mistake me for a Saudi woman, I could be any number of respectable Balkan or Central Asian nationalities.) There was a tourist section that was basically filled with Pakistanis and Afghans selling crap from Pakistan and Afghanistan. I found a rug that would go great in my new living room – but the starting price was 23,000 euros. But I guess if I were ever going to find a prince to buy it for me, I was probably in the right spot. Alas…

So in the end, I don't have any definitive conclusions for you.  Further study is warranted.  But right now - I am just happy to be sitting in the United States of America on a Sunday afternoon - full of Salvadorean food and watching football.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Les enfants tortue

This story is an oldie but goodie.  For those of you that were reading way back in 2002, I told it before.  But  it is one of my favorites so we are going to do it again.  For Christmas 2002 a few of my fellow Burkina Peace Corps volunteers and I went down to Benin.  It was a wild trip, including a high speed donkey accident and lots of voodoo, but we eventually made it to the beach.  One morning while we were having a beer (come on - I was in my early 20s and on vacation - don't judge), two local guys came up to us and asked us for money to release "les enfants tortue" (the baby turtles), which my tipsy garbled French misheard as "les enfants tortures" (the tortured children).  And hilarity ensued.  

So that story goes with these pictures that I took this weekend.  To take a break from the three weeks that I had already spent on road and gear up for this week here in Saudi Arabia (which is a fascinating place that I will write about next week), I spent the weekend at a fancy little beach resort just south of Dar.  Sea turtles nest on the grounds, and while I was there one group hatched and made their way down to the waves and whatever life had in store for it.  I of course was there with a 200mm zoom to document the moment.  See below.

And on a sad note, this post is dedicated to Hilary Stevens.  She was one of the intrepid volunteers that made their way to Benin with me on this trip mentioned above.  She sadly lost her older brother, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Libya last week.  My heartfelt condolences to her and her family.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shark Week

I was really hoping for pictures for this post.  (I have been waiting in vain hope for the last two weeks that one of my new friends from the liveaboard dive trip to share pictures, but alas.  I would have pictures myself but I learned the hard way about the dangers of submerging underwater cameras in salt water.  Note that I did this on the beach of course.)  So really by rights I shouldn’t have bothered to post this, as no one is really interested in someone else’s drinking, diving, and carrying-on stories if there aren’t a few photos to go with it – but unfortunately for all over you I have a joke that I really want to use at the start of an anxiously anticipated next blog post in two weeks – so you have to deal with this.  In summary, there were lots of sharks, a fair number of Caribbean lobster, lion fish, some really bad-ass deep water swim-throughs, and one exquisite spotted eagle ray.  Other things that I learned of note living with 24 strangers on a 69 foot sailboat in the outer islands of the Bahamas – that I am not very good at Texas-two-stepping, that the ritual of marine toilets grows old quickly, that the best place to get both get some sun and see the stars is lounging on the lifeboat, the safest way to prevent guests from tumbling down the mess ladder is by installing a tap on deck (though this is counterproductive when it comes to the sleeping quarters ladders), white sand beaches are always beautiful, iguanas cannot distinguish between grapes and purple-painted toe nails and much hilarity (for others) ensues, and the best way to cook raccoon is in a crock pot. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Afar Away Again

It is appropriate that I spent a week this trip in eastern Ethiopia studying nomads.  After all, since I moved out of one apartment on May 31 and was not being able to move into my new one until June 29, I was at the time also nomadic.  (I call this the Pee Wee Herman “takes one to know one” school of economic development research.) 

But – as I mentioned in my December post after the first time I was out there – life on the margins in Afar isn’t pretty.  There were a couple of moments out there where I was just about as close to active ethnic conflict as I think I ever need to be.  The short version of the narrative goes like this: the Afar and the Issa (an ethnic group that we would call Somalis) have lived uncomfortably side-by-side for millennia.  Climate change, current drought, encroachment of industrial farming, and having well-mined borders haven’t really done much to improve relations.  Both groups have a tradition of livestock raiding – preferably from the other one.  (And people there love their camels.  Just think about how attached Americans get to dogs or horses, then consider an adult camel is the household’s main source of food, transportation, and savings.  In times of crisis – they can bring about 1200 USD at the market.  So if a single thing was this important to your livelihood, you would naturally insure it.  Insurance is a 75 USD payable to a Mr. Antov Klashnikov.)  

So they kill each other.  One side attacks, the other defends, men die, livestock changes hands.  In the village next where I was working, 12 people had been killed the night before in a failed raid.  Some of the households could not be interviewed because they were in mourning.  After we left that village, we tried another one, 7 people killed there the week before.  All the men had all left either with camels for safer territory or went to join the militia.  The situation got so tense after the second raid that the Ethiopian Federalis was called out.  The government brought hundreds of soldiers, truck mounted machine guns, and at least one tank.  It was not subtle.

At this point my Ethiopian counterparts assured me of two things: (1) now that the army was here the two sides would have to behave, and (2) I really didn’t need to worry anyway because it would be a major cultural faux pas for either side to shoot a woman.  While all that was well and good, I decided as the project manager that we were going south.  I told the driver to keep going until the density of soldiers thinned from “once every 500m” to “just the standard checkpoints.”  

And the south had the added benefit of amenities.  For the first time in days, we had both power and running water – occasionally even simultaneously.  The room was even equipped with a “Sunny” brand TV.  Flipping on the BBC, I heard about violence in 17 killed in Syria, 28 in Iraq, up to 9 in Afghanistan.  Nothing about Afar.  I asked my counterparts if it made the local Ethiopian news.  No, they said, that wasn’t news.  As long as they just stuck to killing each other and didn’t threaten the main shipping route to Djibouti – no one really cared.  And so it goes.

Other than that - the pilot was the usual assortment of pilot experiences (hot, tiring, exhilarating, hot, frustrating, ridiculous, hot, etc).  A bit of added stress in that I had along my new CoAuthor who had never been to Africa before.  And Afar is certainly not Africa-for-Beginners.  The desert provided a few new opportunities though.  We drove a few hundred miles north to the salt flats one afternoon.  Traditionally long caravans of camels would be used to transport salt blocks evaporated from mineral springs over the mountains.  These days long caravans of mechanically questionable trucks haul salt on what I have to admit is a pretty reasonable tarmac road.  And coming off the mountains onto the endless flat of the desert with the setting sun lighting up the rectangular evaporation pools into oranges and pinks – the sight was pretty spectacular – even if progress had emptied out my camel populations.

In what was also one of the more questionable decisions of the trip – we waded across the Awash River – twice.  The point of the pilot was to demonstrate to the future survey supervisors that all points are accessible.  It might take a pretty good walk in the blazing sun, but you can get there.  (There is statistics involved in why it is necessary to walk to these particular points but interested parties will have to wait for the paper to come out.)  Unfortunately for me, the road was on the wrong side of the river.  So we walked a good ways down the river to find the shallowest place to cross.  On the bank I was having serious second thoughts.  Visions of shistosemysis and river fluke danced in my head (despite the fact that these two are both microscopic – I assure you what my head conjured up were truly frightening.)  But – undaunted – in waded the local guide, then my Ethiopian government partners, then my Ethiopian counterpart.  The final straw was when CoAuthor hitched up her skirt and stepped in.  Son of a bitch – I have been working in Africa for 11 years – I am not going to let some newbie show me up.  So across I went too.  (Note: I grew up on the east coast.  What should be under water is rock – or occasionally if you are willing to sit in traffic for a few hours – sand.  I never got used to the squishy fresh water river bottom thing.  And this nature discomfort is multiplied by 1000 when that squishy river bottom is located in Extreme Rural Horn of Africa.)  But we got across with minimal damage, and then undertook a brutal 90 minute hike through the desert scrubland to my pilot point.  It was now midday and the sun was killer.  By the time we made it back to the river – the direct route this time – drinking water reserves were exhausted.  There was no hesitation about walking right in.  Or whipping off my headscarf, dunking it, and tying it into a decidedly non-pious but very cooling river-water turban.  When we eventually arrived back in town, I drank a two liter bottle of water.  By myself.  In less than 20 minutes.  

And that basically does it.  Pilot was in the end successful.  CoAuthor held up unbelievably well.  Project is ready for the implementation phase. 

I am going to close with two pictures that I really like that I didn't take - CoAuthor did.  Credit where credit is due - they definitely sum up the trip.  The first is the sheer joy of our young guide at arriving at the Awash River on the return crossing, and the second is a typical scene from the pilot.