Dangerous assumptions

Yesterday a woman died on the D.C. Metro.  I have no idea who she was, or where she was going, but she was certainly just minding her own business on her way somewhere (or from somewhere) when the Metro car she was riding in filled with smoke and, ultimately, she lost her life.

As everyone knows, last week 12 people were sitting in their office, writing stories, drawing cartoons and, again, minding their own business, when terrorists charged into their offices and summarily executed them in Paris.  The next day four people were murdered while they went grocery shopping in Paris by another extremist terrorist.

Today people will die in car accidents in D.C., they will be shot in D.C., they will be mugged, robbed, or raped in D.C.

Yet, I’m pretty sure if I told everyone we were moving to Paris with the State Department no one would say “Aren’t you worried about the danger?”  And I know no one said that to me when we moved to Washington.  So why is everyone so worried about us moving to the D.R.C.?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% sure people will die in Kinshasa today as well, but the point is what is the difference?

I’ve been pondering this question as I do more in preparation for our move, and as I hear the terrible news both far away and close to home.  It strikes me as an odd juxtaposition against the slightly askance look I get from people when I talk about moving to DRC and one of their first questions is always about whether we are worried about the danger there.   The Congo is, to be sure, a place with a violent history, with political unrest, guerrilla groups and millions of poor and unemployed who make many areas dangerous by their sheer desperation. Statistically it is more dangerous than D.C. or Paris.  But statistics mean very little unless you look at them with a critical eye.

When I was much younger and afraid of flying my grandfather once told me that more people in the world die from being kicked by donkeys than die in plane crashes.  I’ve never checked on that statistic, and it turns out it may have been made up by an “expert,” but even if the donkey statistic is true, does it matter to me? I’m sure lots of people in un- and under- developed countries have donkeys.  However, I do not, on a daily, weekly, monthly or even yearly basis come in contact with donkeys (I can think of three donkeys I’ve come in contact with in my lifetime – none of them even kicked me, let alone tried to kill me). I do get on planes though, pretty often.  So, am I more likely to die by getting kicked by a donkey than in a plane crash? No, clearly not.

donkey

Which leads me back to the dangers of the DRC.  If we were going to live in the city proper on our own without any of the support we will have, I’ll admit it would be crazeeeee.  But we’ll have 24 hour security when we live there.  We’ll be traveling on diplomatic passports and driving cars with diplomatic plates.  We will know the places to be avoided – and will be required by the Embassy to avoid those places.  We will live in the most affluent part of the city – full of other affluent people and, no doubt, policed significantly more than anywhere else.  And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll be aware.  Aware of our surroundings, aware of who, what and where to look out for, and aware of how to get out of those places and circumstances as quickly and effectively as possible.

How will know how to do all of this? We get to take FACT training.  That’s “Foreign Affairs Counter Threat” training to you and “Crash Bang” to everyone in the Foreign Service.  We’ll learn skills to better prepare us “for living and working in critical and high threat environments overseas.”  B has to take this course, and it is “highly recommended” that I take it too.  And I will, in FACT, be taking it.   FACT training teaches emergency medical care, improvised explosive device (IED)
awareness, firearms familiarization, and how to perform defensive/counterterrorist driving maneuvers, among other things.

defensive driving

No one gave me any training to move to D.C. even though, statistically, I’m sure it is more dangerous than Charlotte.  So this is why I’m not freaked out about the “dangers” of Kinshasa. I know our friends and family who ask about the danger are only worried about us, and I love them for that, but we will be aware of our surroundings, we’ll wear sunscreen, we’ll avoid snakes, guerrillas and, I promise, donkeys.

5,892

5,892.  This, in pounds, and along with a few hundred additional pounds currently in our Arlington apartment, is what our “life” weighs.

I called the State Department warehouse in Maryland where our stuff, and the stuff of many other FS families, resides while we galavant around the world.  In my head, it looks like the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

the ark and our stuff

When the movers came and emptied our house in Charlotte they took everything to this warehouse.  We haven’t seen it since, though we get one opportunity to visit it before we decide what it is we want to have shipped to us in Kinshasa when we leave in a few months.  As January 1 creeps (or rushes…) up to me I decided it was time to know how much all that stuff weighed so I could start mentally thinking about what we could (and would want to) bring with us as part of our HHE.   This got me thinking about what we want to bring with us in all the categories of “shipments” we have.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are several categories of shipments that we get when we leave (or “pack out”) of Arlington and head toward Africa.  By my count there are six: carry-on luggage, checked baggage, UAB, HHE, POV and Consumables.  Each will have its own set of challenges in terms of packing and scheduling.  For now I’m just thinking in broad strokes and hoping I can narrow down what we want before July.  So here, a short description of the six types of packing we’ll be doing.

Carry-On Luggage:

The first is no different than a typical traveler: carry-on luggage.  Normally my carry-on consists of some clothes (thrown in last minute), a book (wishful thinking with a three year old as a traveling companion) and my toiletries bag (in handy see- through bag).  This time, all of our carry-on bags (one bag and one personal item each for C, B and me), will be packed with precision and much forethought.  They will include enough games, toys, coloring books, and downloaded TV shows/movies to keep C occupied for basically 24 hours of traveling.  The first flight (from the US to Europe) will be overnight, so that might be easier, but I have no idea if the level of excitement we will all be feeling will allow for sleep, so I’ll be prepared.  The second flight, from Europe to Kin (it’s time to revert to the “nickname” for our new home – typing Kinshasa is getting old…) is 8 hours long in the middle of the day.  Leaving at 10 a.m. and getting in at 5 p.m.  So I predict at least one bag will be devoted to kid-occupation.  The other bags will be carrying our “must have” “cannot lose” items – documents, money, medication etc.

busy bagChecked Baggage:

We officially get to check two 50 lbs bags each.  So that’s 300 lbs of stuff that will travel on the same plane with us.  Technically we can, on our own dime, bring more, but having looked at the cost it is not the “few extra” dollars I anticipated.  You can take up to five additional bags, each up to 50 lbs, at a cost of $146 each.  Do not put it past me to set aside $730 so that I can make sure that I have my Le Creuset, cast iron frying pan, and other “creature” comforts, but right now that is seeming like a steep cost for a few extras.

I suspect most of our checked baggage will be our clothes (but hooray for going to a hot country where clothes weigh less!) and a lot of C’s toys.  This luggage, along with our carry-ons, will be all we’ll have of our own for several months in Kin – hence my desire to have my frying pan.  We’ll have a “welcome kit” when we arrive which I’m sure will contain a frying pan, but I’m equally sure that having my own frying pan will help me feel that much more “settled” when we arrive. The remaining categories of stuff (see below) won’t arrive for between two and six months.  So what we put in our checked baggage will be “it” until possibly Christmas time.  Our dog, Miller, because he weighs over 70 lbs, will be a whole separate category of “cargo” but thankfully he will be on our plane, so I’m considering him within the “checked” category.

UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage:

I’ve written about our UAB before, but this time it will be a whole different world of UAB.  Last time we were driving two cars about 400 miles, so whatever didn’t go in UAB just got shoved (and I mean this fairly literally) into the car with us.  I also drove back to Charlotte for work and picked up all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the cars on the first trip.  This time, we’re moving 6,570 miles over an ocean and to another continent.  There will be no “going back” to pick up anything we’ve left, forgotten, or couldn’t fit on the first trip.  We’ve been told by the folks in the know (the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) in Kin) that it can take 2-4 months for our UAB to arrive in Kin.  So what goes in the UAB needs to be things that we can do without for 2-4 months, but that we want more than the things that are going in our HHE (Household Effects) – since it can apparently take up to six months for that to arrive.  We get a total of 600 lbs of UAB, so, assuming most of our clothes manage to fit in our carry-on and checked luggage, I suspect this will be a lot of kitchen stuff, but I’ve got until July to figure it out (and I’ll probably need every second of the time I’ve got).

HHE – Household Effects:

So this is where the 5,892 lbs comes into play.  I wanted to know the weight of our storage so I could start thinking about what I would want to have shipped to make our new house a little homier.  I knew we wouldn’t top the 18,000 lbs career limit (the max any FSO can have – be they ambassador or lowly ELO (entry level officer)), but I was frankly shocked to find out that we didn’t even come close to the 7,200 lbs HHE limit for our post (where housing is provided fully-furnished).  Technically this means we could ask for everything that is in storage.  We won’t, because there won’t be room for all our furniture, but it’s amazing to me that our house full of stuff weighs less than the 7,200 lbs allowance.  Admittedly, we don’t have our fridge, washer/dryer, and stove in storage (our renters have those), and we sold our sectional and a couple of other pieces of furniture, but if all of this fell through – we could still furnish a four bedroom house so that it looked like grow ups lived there.

The one piece of furniture I know we’ll want to include in our HHE is our bed – I DREAM of our king sized bed…a queen just doesn’t cut it once you get used to a king.  We’ll be able to bring all our kitchen stuff too.  Hooray for no more wine bottles as rolling pins (now I can use wine bottles for their intended use – drinking!).

DSC_1575

Personally Operated Vehicle:

It seems to be somewhat shocking to people that the USG will ship our car to Kin for us.  Only one car, mind you, but still…our trusty 4Runner will be making the trip with us.  We strongly considered selling our other car when we left Charlotte.  We certainly don’t need two cars in DC.  We don’t even really need one car given that we have the Metro and are walking distance to pretty much everything, but we’re really glad we kept both of them since it means that we might not have to wait 6 months for our car.  Our plan right now is to ship the 4Runner early – several months before we are scheduled to leave – and *hopefully* (fingers crossed everyone) it will be there when we arrive (or soon thereafter).  Having a second car allows us the luxury of shipping one car, but still having a vehicle.  And, since I’m planning to spend some time driving around visiting friends and family before we leave, this makes me very happy.

Consumables:

This is 2,500 lbs of “commodities that are intended to be used up relatively quickly.”  Not all posts are “consumable” posts, but Kin is.  So, we’ll also be identifying the 1,250 lbs of Kraft Dinner (shout out to my Canadian peeps), coke, peanut butter, spices etc…that we want and shipping those in an entirely separate shipment.  We’ll save the second 1,250 for later in our tour to account for expiration dates and determining the things we REALLY miss, instead of the things that we think we’re going to miss.  I’ll have to write a whole separate post about the consumables – I’m already obsessing, but suffice it to say that 1,250 lbs of food/household goods could mean 2500 cans of coke, or 3,636 boxes of Mac & Cheese, or almost 84 bags of dog food (the big ones).  The combinations are endless – I’m hoping to come up with the perfect one before July.

Kraft Dinner

The grand total of our “stuff” that could come along with us – a whopping 10,750 lbs (not including the car) of clothes, furniture, toys, books, dog food, coke and mac & cheese.  I’m pretty sure that will be sufficient “stuff” to make us feel *almost* at home in Africa for two years.  Now if only I could figure out a way to pack a Starbucks store…

The Heart of Darkness

Admit it. Heart of Darkness is what first comes to mind when you think about the Congo.  It is the first thing many people say to me when I tell them that we are moving to Congo in July.  “Yikes,” they say. “The Heart of Darkness.”

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and, while some things may not have changed (the Congo is still “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”), we are not moving to the Congo of Conrad’s time, any more than D.C. is similar to its former self, or, if you moved to Charlotte you’d find a city of 7,084 people that looked like this:

Charlotte 1899

To be sure, Kinshasa is also not a first world metropolitan city, but it may not be what most people are expecting when we tell them where we are going either.  Obviously even I was not very well informed when we first learned we were going to DRC – I called it “West Africa  (home of war torn strife and ebola).”

So, first, it’s not West Africa – it’s actually Central Africa.  Second, while ebola the disease got its name from Ebola the river, which is a tributary of the Congo River and is located in the DRC, it turns out that the disease actually began miles from the Ebola River, and, in the current outbreak that dominates the news, no cases of the disease have been identified in DRC.  There have been plenty of prior outbreaks in the DRC, but most were in rural areas and, from what we’ve read, the population understands Ebola better than in many other African countries and treats preventative measures seriously.  As of today this is what the ebola outbreak looks like in Africa:

no ebola

Our new home is approximately 7 hours – by plane – from this area.  Don’t worry, a trip to Liberia is not on our “Bucket List for Africa.”

What is on the bucket list? We’re not sure yet.  But there are a lot of options.  There is even an entire blog with a list (or several) of things to do in DRC and Kinshasa.  We’ll take our time getting adjusted, but we’ll also enjoy our time in Congo – that’s part of the point of this adventure, right?

When I have travelled in the past, I have always been sad that I couldn’t really immerse myself in any culture in a week, or two, or even three.  But now I have two years.  Two years to learn more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo than I ever thought I’d know. It’s crazy, but exciting.

One other thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks is that we won’t be taking any “weekend” trips to other places in Africa (beyond Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, which is right across the Congo River from Kinshasa).  I knew Africa was big, but the sheer enormity of this continent is a little mind boggling.

real-size-of-africa

Crazy, eh? If you take out China and Japan you can add Canada to the list to the left instead (at 9.985 km squared).  That means that the entirety of North America fits into Africa, along with a good portion of Europe, as well as India and several other countries.

My parents want to meet us in Cape Town – it’s an eight hour flight.  Farther than flying from D.C. to London.  Farther than flying from D.C. to Denver AND back.   Our friends J and B are moving to Agadir, Morocco.  To visit them it would be a 10 hour flight – I could go to L.A. and back from D.C. in the same amount of time.  And that doesn’t take into account the fact that there is no such thing as a flight from Kinshasa to Agadir.  To fly there we would have to fly from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (yes, for those who are familiar with a map of Africa that is on the other side of the continent from Kinshasa and Morocco), then to Cairo, then to Casablanca and then to Agadir.  That is the fastest way – it would take over 24 hours of traveling.

One of my friends wondered if we could drive instead.  It’s impossible to say – since there are no passable roads that stretch between Kinshasa and Agadir.  Of course, even if there were it would be literally days of driving.  Given this image though it may be worth it…

Agadir

The bottom line is that I’m really hoping we get to explore other places in Africa while we’re there on this tour, but I’m definitely learning that I need to manage my expectations.  Still, while the world is a big place, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?