Ross McKim

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Essaouirra

We are now in the town Of Ouarzazate in the the Atlas Mountains. The drive here was crazy. It took 8 hours and included beautiful landscapes, great roads, horrible drivers, livestock, lots of donkey carts, and hours of hairpin turns at night. We stopped in downtown Marrakech for lunch.
We were originally planning to stay at a great villa in the countryside but found a motel in the middle of the town.
We passed the Moroccan Hollywood outside of town so we will probably go there. We are also thinking of going to some ancient Kasbahs in the area before heading to camel trekking in the Sahara.

Essaouirra January 14
This is an old port city on the Atlantic which was apparently one of the great trading ports a couple centuries ago. We got another riad through Airbnb. These riads are like houses but built into blocks and the cost is like a small hotel room in the U.S. Ours was three stories high with a balcony overlooking the ocean. In my room on the top floor I could hear the waves all night.
We stayed in the medina (old town) and walked through all the souks, checked out the port, and saw a lot of art. All the activity in the port could have existed in exactly the same form two hundred years ago with the same nets, boats, gear and so forth. The place looks chaotic with hundreds of fisherman all moving boats in and out unloading their catches or repairing equipment. The main fish is sardines and the smell is powerful.
It is low tourism season so it was odd to walk down streets filled with souks but few customers.

Casablanca January 14
We spent very little time in Casablanca. We dropped off the boss's daughters who seemed happy with the trip and went to a giant high end sushi restaurant. The place could hundreds of people but the three of us were the only customers.
The next day my friend living there had to go back to work and my other friend and I put together a trip. We picked up a tiny car and headed South.

Fez January 13
We had a tour guide who showed us all over the old city of Fez. Virtually nothing was intended for tourists and medina was filled with bizarre stores like the one where you get boiled brains or the one with bags and bags of live snails. I saw my first camel meat shop which had camel head hanging outside. Each store is about ten feet wide and has one owner sitting behind a counter who gets anything you need. There are thousands of these souks.
We went to the famous "place of colors" where they dye leather. Unfortunately, they were renovating and all we could see were the hundreds of pits were people jump in and out pulling leather from one pit to another. The advantage was that urine like liquids are the main ingredient so it smelled bad but without the standard overpowering smell.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Fez

Today we went to Fez. The trip was beautiful with rolling hills, lakes, and amazing countryside. Fez is the cultural capital of Morocco and has been around since the 800s. The house we rented is in the middle of the Medina, apparently the largest old city in the world. The section is a warren of alleys with traditional markets and various artisans and no tourists. We bought ceramics at a local pottery workshop, checked out the night skyline, and visited the area around the king's palace.
This may be the most amazing hotel I have ever stayed in. There are three floors and a rooftop overlooking what they say is the oldest university in the world. It is clearly ancient but has been modernized completely with sound system and marble baths and such. There is a cook but we went instead to an old style restaurant where we went through three courses over the course of three hours. Tomorrow we wander around the town and then return to Casa Blanca.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Chafchouen

Earlier today was ancient ruins and weird storks but we are in Chafchouen now. It is an ancient mountain town which has not changed much in the last five hundred years. The theme of the city is blue and all the streets and buildings are painted blue. I thought I would get sick of the color but it is immersing and soothing. Dinner was a wonderful mix of goat cheese, goat tajine, fruit juices, and various veggies followed by tea.
Afterwards we went back to our apartment, drank wine, ate chocolate and dates, and played Cards against Humanity. Very pleasant.
The girl who came with us is actually 21, is Peruvian, and is trained as a pastry chef. She understands when we use diplospeak, has some similar experiences to us, and is excellent company. It would probably be weird in the U.S. to drop off your daughter with an employee as he travels cross country with friends but seems normal here.
We alternate between French, Spanish, Arabic, and English as we talk to people. Tomorrow is Fez. I know little about the city but it is pleasant to just submit to the trip and enjoy as things happen.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Morocco

I am in Casablanca visiting a friend who works here. We joined State Department at the same time and did orientation (A-100) together. I always liked him but we were never spent much time together. Another friend from A-100 joined us from Portugal. I have been good friends with her for years. Last night we went to a Moroccan restaurant and had tajines, the traditional Moroccan food. The restaurant was inside an a old fort and we sat in garden surrounded by plants and next to a beautiful tiled fountain and told stories. After that was a rooftop bar and enjoying the stars and the company.

Today we go up North for 3 days. I know virtually nothing about where we are going except the guy here has arranged everything. Oddly enough, we just learned we will be traveling with the 15 year old daughter of his boss. We are not sure what her name is and I am not sure why a guy is trusting his daughter with people who are twice her age. It will be an interesting trip.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hurricane Odile Relief

Thursday morning I went into the consulate and we raided all the emergency supplies we could find- MREs, satellite phones, med supplies and stuffed our bags full of them. Then we went to the airport and took a couple flights to get to Guadalajara, which was to be our way into Los Cabos. At the airport there was a table set up to help Americans and I met a number of friends from when I served there. We gathered the various people from the different consulates and got on an empty plane for Los Cabos. The ticket was handwritten and there were 15 of us on a plane with 160 seats.

At Los Cabos there were several planes, some commercial, some military and a few helicopters. Parts of the airport had collapsed and much of it was flooded. The US embassy had a command and control center in the functioning terminal and we had 1 person on a computer dealing with all the communications and people coming in and out trying to resolve problems or get info. Everyone in our group was sent to a hotel to rest up for the next day but there was no room in the car so I stayed behind. In a few minutes someone came in a said "We need baggage handlers." so I became a baggage handler for a couple hours and alternated between that and trying to make sure the planes had the right number of people. Too few and people are left behind, too many and they have to remove people and it slows down the whole process. The manifest can be handwritten but it has to be exact or the plane refuses to fly.

The groups were divided into Mexicans and Americans so we occasionally walked the Mexican section looking for American citizens. When I walked through it was dark so we had flashlights and called out for Americans. The line woke and people started replying "Mexico" and then everyone stood up and starting yelling the name of the city they wanted to go. It was like a game of telephone. We got out of there before there was a riot though we did find one lady in there. She had been cut everywhere with broken glass and had some tendons cut. My job for a while was taking care of her and writing out the promissory note for her because her hands were covered in bandages. The person next to her in line had been mauled by a pit bull and and had bite marks all over her.

The commercial airlines were flying everyone out for free, since they would be doing the flights anyway, and the US government chartered a few planes to  deal with all the people the charters could not. The problem was that the US government charges each person $600 and everyone has to sign a promissory note saying they will do so. Many of the people were angry about and refused to sign. At one point there was a whole line of people chanting against Obama, which is a ironic as I believe this charging practice came from congress to reduce costs and has been around for a long time. People would find out it was a charging line and leave it, which really messes up your counting.

The last plane of the night was a US C-130 and it had disaster supplies and a few soldiers. We took all the stuff out and then the airmen changed it into a passenger plane and we loaded it up with bags and people. Everyone who wanted to leave had been evacuated.

After that plane there was nowhere to go. There was a curfew due to looting and violence so we couldn't go to the hotels. I tried sleeping on the floor but it was cold, then half of a couch but someone was listening to Mexican opera and it was hot and humid, so I ended up sleeping on a baggage carrier for an airline. It was metal so it was cool, it was outside so there was some wind, and it was off the ground so there were fewer bugs. The only problem was the spotlights and the sound of the generator and all the bats squeeking.

Friday
Our first flight was at 6:30 so my job was leading the people up from the holding area up to the staging area. After that, someone else had them board the planes. The Mexican line was several thousand people long and looked like it went on for a mile while the American line was only a couple hundred though people kept coming in. We would lead a hundred people up to the staging area and then add on whenever we got the seat count on the plane or people would walk away. At one point we tried letting people have a choice in where they went which kinda worked but could get ugly and made everything a lot more confusing. In general, people just wanted to know that someone was in control and that they would be taken care of.

The Mexican's tried the same thing in letting people go where they wanted but it got a lot uglier. People would refuse to board certain planes and only wanted to go where they had family. This makes sense as a family of five with little money and no income couldn't live in a strange city. The planes to Tijuana, for example, would leave with lots of seats empty while there were still thousands of people on the ground. Eventually the government gave up and said they were only sending planes to Mexico City and much of the crowd melted away at that point.

By 10 o'clock most of the Americans were cleared out and we sent out teams to all the hotels to pick up Americans or find people who had been reported to us. At that point most of our planes were basically leaving empty. Many of the families, Mexican and American, would send the wife and kids away and the men would stay to protect the house. The estimate I heard was that 8000 Americans and "friendlies" (people from visa waiver countries) were evacuated Wed and Thursday and another 1000 on Friday.

I never got far from the airport but I did not see the complete devastation people sometimes talk about. Certainly there were no buildings intact and most cars had a few windows broken and some were crushed. The hotel next to the airport had all of its outer walls taken off and just had the concrete interior. Electricity was very limited and there was little running water though the Mexican military had food and water distribution points and very few went hungry. The death toll I heard was two, one from drowning and another from a heart attack. I think they are still tallying up the costs but I heard it was the most expensive hurricane in the history of Mexico

By 12 we were making planes to get out. We tried getting a US military plane in but most governments don't appreciate other militaries flying through their territory so the Mexican government offered us the use of a plane. It turns out the plane was the official plane of the defense secretary of Mexico. It had several boardrooms where our chiefs sat, the personal office of the secretary which was also his bedroom, and the basic seat section which most of us got. I think we left around 7 PM so I was in Los Cabos a little over 24 hours in total.

The "rock star" of our operation was the consular agent based there. He has a small office, some salary, and his job is to help Americans who need help. His wife had recently given birth, his car had been largely destroyed, and the roof of his house was gone but virtually all his efforts were on helping us get people out and finding Americans who could not get out themselves. When the 1st team got there he had all the contacts and knew exactly what to do. Without him the relief effort would have gone a lot more poorly.

The one funny thing was that a friend of mine went to the hotel airport with a list of the Embassy's rooms. He went to the first four and all had families, but no one answered the last one. He went to the hotel clerk and gave the room number and got the key. He went in, got a shower, heard some voices, and walked out with just his towel on. There were four people in the room and they were pretty surprised and asked "Who are you?" and he gave them the exact same question. It turns out they were AP guys who had been at the hotel for a few days. He thanked them for the shower, got dressed, and walked out.

In Mexico City we went directly to the hotel where I ran into a coworker out of CJ. He had been on the 1st team in to Los Cabos on Tues night and, by luck, got a ride out to La Paz which was his destination. He said it was pretty scary with destruction everywhere and cars on fire. The further North he went the less destruction there was. In La Paz many of the tourists decided it really wasn't so bad, and they just decided to hang out and have a mellow time drinking. I think they evacuated a few hundred Americans. The 15 or so of us had dinner together and Saturday we headed back to our various posts. There was some question as where I would go. I could go to Hermosillo and be a week early for my assignment but that got nixed as they were probably not ready for me. The second option was going back to CJ which would have been nice but I ended up going back to Matamoros because they were so short handed and they said they really wanted me back. I got back Saturday and was told there was severe flooding and two gunfights had just happened, with at least five people killed. My house had never been cleaned out so I still had some food left.

I came into work this morning to be told I could have the day off. There was work to do so I stayed and adjudicated visas . Hopefully I will get time this week to work in the ACS- American Citizen Services section and maybe give the presentation I had written before I left.

The Hurricane Relief work was very short, just 24 hours or so on the ground but it definitely impacted me personally and I learned quite a bit about what to do and what not to do in planning disaster relief.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hurricane Relief

I found out yesterday at 5 PM that I will go to Los Cabos on hurricane relief. I leave in a couple hours with 3 other people. It is not clear what we will be doing as Hurricane Odile happened 4 days ago. Most of us have never done American Citizen Services before and none has worked in a disaster. We were told to find a way to get to Guadalajara and that a charter plane would take us to Los Cabos. The US government is hiring charter planes to ferry Americans out and they are all empty going in. I would not be surprised if we get to Guadalajara and we get sent to a different section of the country. The Matamoros consulate is supposed to have 7 adjudicating officers. I was sent here because they were down two officers. Two officers and two local staff just got sent to Tijuana to help with hurricane relief and with two more gone they will be done to three adjudicating officers. I was supposed to do a radio interview in a few hours and then a presentation to the consulate but those are not happening due to us getting the earliest flight out and due to sudden staffing no one else has the time.

My time in Matamoros

I have been here just over two weeks and the people at the consulate have been extremely friendly. The consulate seems very well run and I was given my own house. Apparently it is the smallest house in their pool but it is probably twice as big as my house in Juarez. The first weekend I was here they had a cookout, supposedly in my honor but I think it was just a reason to party.

I went to South Padre Island with a friend and swam there. My usual thing at a beach is to go out as far as feels comfortable, usually a half mile or mile out. I thought it was odd no one else was swimming away from the beach until I saw a fin ahead. I turned around and slowly back and saw another fin every few minutes. Turns out sharks are pretty regular visitors to the beach.

One day we received an invitation to go to the Festival de Tamaulipas. It is a ten day art fest held all over the state. The bigwigs in both the art and political scenes showed up and all gave speeches. Most of the performers were pretty young but the last set was spectacular. I don't who the performer was but one woman was from Tamaulipas and came back for this performance. She alternated between singing, dancing, telling racy stories, and telling jokes all in massive heels and dress covered with the symbol of the state. Most states in US lay claim to one or two songs. I think I heard at least five about the wonders of this pretty small state. Occasionally, her backup performers would give a solo or the background dancers would take center stage. The mayor is a known enemy of the cartels and you could see her guards all around. They were heavily armored and several carried grenade launchers, which may not be ideal in a crowded theater.

I had heard a lot about the security situation here before I came, mainly that it was not safe. Everything people have told me goes alone with that. The green area which we are allowed to go to is miniscule, the consulate is surrounded by heavily armed and armored federal police, and my house has something seven layers of security. In the two weeks I have been here there have been two major shootouts. At the welcoming party one guy was saying he went home to change and he six people beating the crap out of another guy with a tire iron. I asked why he didn't call the police and he said, "Why bother? The police force has been fired and the army doesn't respond to small things like this." There is much more I could say but I have to go. I plan on adjudicating a few visas and then get on a plane to go somewhere to help with hurricane relief somehow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Monterrey Exchange

I am in Monterrey once again. This time I am here for an officer exchange. The two consulates trade officers for a few weeks with the idea that each person will learn how everything works in another place and maybe the consulates will learn something as well. Monterrey was the lowest on my list of desired places as I have already been. In my case it is with a friend of mine who I know from before. Her house is crazy nice with marble floors, a communal garden, 3 floors, 5 bathrooms, a walk in closet plus a closet room bigger than many bedrooms, etc. Out of curiosity I counted the number of light switches and came up with 65 wall switches. I live next to a really fancy mall and just about the nicest section of town. No driving as a shuttle picks me up every day. Her friends in CJ are hosting her as I do not think she wants to drive on the crazy Juarez roads or live in my house that regularly smells of sewage. 

My goal for this exchange is to learn how to do worker visas and investor visas, both of which we rarely do in Juarez. This consulate does 40% of the US worker visas and is now doing about 900 a day.

Last week I spent all my work days relearning tourist visas and clearing out my cases. It is the 1st time in several months that all my cases are cleared out. It is a good feeling.

2 weeks ago I was the control officer for the Acting Director General of the State Dept. This is a big person and I am just glad nothing went wrong. Basically his role was to give everyone the bigger picture of what is happening in the Foreign Service and to hear our complaints. He told all the recent officers that we were the "pig in the python" and that promotion and desired jobs would be a lot harder for us, which was not news to anyone. When I crossed the border with him the Chihuahua state police surrounded us and escorted us to the consulate. Same thing going back to the border.