17 September 2011

Week 57: Brasília Burning

On Wednesday afternoon, we went to the church for a baptism. On the way, we noticed several large plumes of smoke rising from the near horizon. And those pillars of smoke got larger as we approached the building. The photos here were taken from the parking lot.

The scrub brush fields near the church were on fire. We could see large flames reaching up into the trees and also a line of flames expanding. A very large area had already burned leaving a huge expanse of blackened earth. This is an area that is part of the Botanical Gardens of Brasília, and the fires burned a very large portion of the Gardens.

In the left side of this photo, there are the outlines of two men fighting the fires. The had very long poles with a flap of rubber and were using them smother flames. They looked like they were using giant fly swatters. I have never seen a tool like that used in fire control before. I didn't have my good camera with me so I was unable to get a close-up shot. We could also see stream of water being sprayed on flames that were consuming trees close to the school that is next to our church building.

About an hour and a half later, all that was left were a few smoldering patches near us, but there were clearly more fires burning in the distance.

On the way home from work Thursday evening, I could see a ring of fire along the ridge surrounding Lago Sul. It was an impressive sight, and I wish that I had had my camera with me.

Early Friday morning, Rebecca woke up because she was having difficulty breathing, a not uncommon occurrence due to her allergies, but then she realized that smoke had infiltrated the house, she got up to go through the house shutting windows and turning on fans. Our house and clothing smelled like we were on a campout.

I teach a religion class for high school kids before school, and all the seminary kids reported heavy smoke in their homes as well. Coincidentally, the topic of that morning's class was Sodom and Gomorrah, and the smoke and fires represented well the effects of fire and brimstone.

Other members of the Embassy had posted on facebook that CO alarms had gone off in some homes, and some families had gone to the Embassy to escape the smoke. The main part of Brasília is on the side of the lake opposite the location of the fires and up a higher so the smoke was not as intense there. A Brazilian friend that has lived in Lago Sul for 40 years said that he had ever seen smoke like this before.

I decided to take my camera with me to work and get some photos of the dense smoke. I could see that the smoke was even worse towards the neighborhoods closer to the JK bridge at the other end of the lake. I crossed over the middle bridge and stopped and took some photos from the ridge looking back towards Lago Sul.

The local news reported that well over one hundred fires were burning in the area. Though the total number of fires was less than last year, this was more than there had been at any one time. It has been very dry for several weeks, around 5% humidity, and it does not take much to start a fire. Some of them had started as controlled burns, others were the results of carelessness, like throwing cigarettes out a car window or from fireworks from various Independence Day parties. Even a ray of the sun passing through a broken piece of glass can get a fire going. The cooling of the air at night causes an inversion trapping the smoke near the ground and concentrating it in the low areas near the lake. When the sun rises, the air warms and the smoke rises and dissipates in the atmosphere.

By late Friday afternoon, the Embassy authorized voluntary evacuation to the higher areas of Brasília and approved hotel reimbursements. We chose to stay at home since we were busy preparing for birthday parties and half the kids were scattered at various locations about town. By the time we got everyone back together, it was late and we were tired, so we didn't want to bother with trying to find a hotel room and moving the entire family across town. With all the AC units running all day, the smoke seemed to have cleared from the bedrooms enough that we were able to sleep well.

Location:Brasília, Brazil

12 September 2011

Week 56: Our New Post--Jakarta

This week I received word on my new assignment, a job in the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. We are very excited about this assignment, and we will be arriving there about this time next year, hopefully not too many days after the beginning of the next school year.

The bidding process to get this job was a little harrowing for us since we really wanted to be sure to get posted somewhere that had a high quality school that would be able to serve the needs of all of our children. I also wanted to get a job that would give me a different kind of Foreign Service experience, and hopefully prepare me to bid for mission-wide leadership positions in the future. In addition, since one of our children has Asperger's syndrome, we had to have a response from the school that stated that could accommodate him.

For most entry-level officers looking towards their second tour, bidding involves being given a selection of posts and then narrowing down that list to a ranked number of choices where they would be willing to serve. For the late summer bidding group, we started with a list of about 254 positions put together by career development officers (CDOs). This is a group of FSOs whose have the job of actually making the assignments and filling positions. For most of the people in my group, they had to create a ranked list of 30 jobs that met the criteria available to that officer, mostly based on timing, such as, expected date of departure from current job, expected date of arrival at the new post, timing of training in between and home leave. Since my family has a child with special needs, we were required to do some extra work to put a list together, therefore we were told to only create a list of 15 positions.

The other critical factor used in making job assignments for ELOs is "equity". In other words, people who were currently serving in "high" equity posts, such as living in areas of the world considered very difficult or  dangerous, were given priority over those with "low" equity. Brasília is considered a low equity post.

In putting together a bid list, we were also asked to write a bidding strategy and briefly describe the primary goals and concerns one took into consideration when putting that list together. For example, if someone had not yet served the required consular tour, then all of the bids must be on consular positions. Or if the needed language requirement had not yet been met, then language designated positions were needed. For me, the primary strategy was to find positions in a different area or with different types of consular work, and with a good high school program with AP courses. Not all posts have high schools, and many international schools only have IB (international baccalaureate) programs. The problem with IB is that to graduate with an IB diploma, the student must do the last two years consecutively at the same school, and my oldest son is doing his Junior year now.

Rebecca really enjoys figuring out these types of logic puzzles, so she got right to work creating our bid list. Based on timing issues, the list got quickly narrowed down to 60 positions. By eliminating Western Hemisphere jobs, the list narrowed again to about 30. When we began looking closely at schools, we ended up with a list of about 20 that looked like they would be able to provide the needed services. We then got to work searching for contact information and sending out e-mails to schools. It took several more hours of researching and contacting schools before we came up with a final list of 15, which we were instructed to submit with the high equity group. We felt that we had put together a well-thought-out list representing different types of jobs in various regions of the world, from those considered "easy" to difficult.

Then I got a message from my CDO stating that he was leaving for his new job, and I would be getting a temporary CDO during the bid process. I immediately contacted my new CDO, and waited for a reply, which didn't come until after the high equity assignments were given. An updated list of positions was posted, and we discovered that only four of our original list remained. Of that list, only one of the schools had responded to our e-mails. Even our back-up posts had been assigned. We were devastated thinking that all our work had been for naught.

Then we sat back down at looked at the remaining posts. I decided to resend e-mails to different persons than the designated primary contact. We also took a closer look at what it would mean to go to a language designated post and determined that we really could not do six months to a year in DC learning another language at this time. It really is challenging to find temporary, furnished housing for eight people, enroll kids in schools, and quite possibly have to live apart for a period of time. This narrowed our list down to three posts.

Then the day before the final list was due, one those posts was removed from the list. We were down to Chennai, India, and Jakarta. I wrote a longer description on why Jakarta would work best (no language training, good school, different kind of job), and sent the final list to my CDO and hoped that the list was sufficient.

My friends have asked, "so what posts were available?" The original list was quite varied with posts in nearly every part of the world. The U.S. has embassies and/or consulates in nearly every country in the world, and there are positions for service in the USA as well. Capitol cities and many major business centers have U.S. representation, and that was what was on the list. My original list had Paris, London, Brussels, Seoul and Rome, and also Chennai, Jakarta, Harare, Nairobi, and Dhaka. We also considered but didn't end up including New Delhi, Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh, and Stockholm. Others we just couldn't consider due to timing or school issues: Pretoria, Jerusalem, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Ulaanbatur, Kathmandu, Kingston, Accra, Tijuana, Buenos Aires, Praia, etc. In other words, a U.S. Foreign Service Officer is expected to be worldwide available, and the possibilities of service are vast and challenging. I think that this will be an interesting career.

Week 23: Road Trip to Salvador Bahia, Day 5: Salvador

We were awakened just before dawn by spray coming in the windows, thunder and drips from the ceiling onto our bed. An unexpected storm was raging outside, churning the sea and blowing water into the house. I moved through the house closing windows, but it was too late to prevent the floors from becoming flooded. The windows were also warped from the years of being near the ocean, so that didn't help keep the rain out either. The storm also blew out the power. 

We were glad that the gardener, Ronaldo, came in early to check  on us, and then get around to matter of getting the power back on, which didn't happen until the next day. It turned out that a main switch out by the road caught on fire and needed to be replaced. The challenge for Ronaldo was to find the part and then get the public utility workers to come to the home and install the part. 

While Ronaldo worked on the house, we went to the old city of Salvador, the area called the Pelorinho. This was the square used by slave handlers to publicly whip and punish disobedient slaves. Here there are several museums, churches, restaurants and shops. It's also a good place to go to see a capoeira demonstration or hear some live music. We hired a guide, our home owner's nephew, Noah, to help use find our way around for the day. This was the only day this week that we didn't get lost. 

Igreja de Ordem Terceiro de Sao Domingo

There are at least three large 18th century and 19th century churches positioned at the corners of the Pelorinho. The first one we visited was the Church of the Third Dominican Order. This church had elaborate paintings and sculptures depicting various stories from the scriptures and the lives of the saints. In true Portuguese tradition, they preferred the bloody stories and show them in all their graphic details.

 These old churches also often have a museums of religious art. The ceiling in this church has an expansive painting. One our favorite pieces was this diorama with a giant Christ child and various scenes of from Christian history.

African Museum at the Medical School

A short walk from the church is the oldest medical school in Brazil, and this school also has a museum dedicated to the African history in Brazil. Brazil was the largest importer of African slaves, and their influence is very strong on Brazilian culture, especially in Salvador. At this museum, we learned a lot about Condomblé, a religion with African roots that worships various gods representing various natural phenomena and personalities called Orixás.

The museum also had on display art and handicrafts from Africa.

One of the most interesting rooms contained relief wood carvings of the Orixás. The carvings are exquisite and quite fun to see.

The main square of the Pelorinho

At the suggestion of our guide, we ate lunch at the Bahia Café and Hotel that was conveniently situated on the way to our next stop: the public elevator and the market. The food was tasty and featured a variety of local stews and fish dishes, as well as sandwiches that were palatable for the younger members of our family. Prices were decent, and the portions were large enough that most dishes could be divided between two or three people. My oldest son finished off a large, breaded and deep-fried fish on his own. This was definitely the best seafood we've had since coming to Brazil.

This little hollow full of street cats in the center of the Praça de Sé was one of the kids' favorite spots. There were at least fifteen cats of various sizes and colors feasting on leftovers people had left on the steps.

A view of the lower old city.

Mercado Modelo

A urinating demon (Orixú) and beverage dispenser.
The Mercado Modelo is the location of the main shopping area for tourists to find jewelry, pottery, musical instruments, artwork, local snacks, crafts and Brazilian souvenirs. This market was once a the main slave market for Brazil. The basement area was where slaves were held and was under renovation to become a museum at the time we visited. There are three levels filled to capacity with hundreds of shops and few restaurants, most selling variations of the same things that one can find at most Brazilian souvenir stands.

All the shopkeepers are willing to bargain and will often come down to about half the original asking price. They demonstrate the prices by typing the numbers into calculators.

This is also an area where tourists are advised to put cameras and other visible valuables away due to the chance of theft, especially when passing through the areas around the outside of the market.

Igreja de São Francisco

Our last stop before heading home was the church of São Francisco. This church is a great display of the riches during the golden period of Brazil's colonial days. The courtyard has two levels of walls adorned with white and blue tiles. The scenes depict stories of virtues and vices. These tiles were made in Portugal and then imported to Salvador.

The chapel is very ornate and nearly every carved piece is covered in gold leaf. It is a dazzling sight. One of my daughters said that even if the lights were out, the room would still glow due to the amount of gold.

A street leading up to the Pelorinho.
After visiting the chapel, I took a turn that led me out of the building and back to the square. I then waited to be joined by the rest of the family who had managed to find their way to the crypt before coming out. While waiting, a small VW Gol pulled up from the side street and parked. A couple of men got out and then opened the hatchback and pulled three men out, each them had their hands strapped behind their backs by zip ties. It seems that the three had been arrested for robbery by the plain clothes policemen. 

We made it back home just after dark. A large toad that was feeding on flies greeted us in the carport. Unfortunately, the power was not yet restored to the house. They had been extremely busy responding to various service calls throughout the city. We managed to