Saturday, May 16, 2015

Beirut

Want to know why my job is so much fun? While I was in Dubai, taking some time off from my project in Jeddah, I got an email from D.C. asking me if I could go to Beirut the week after I got home. If it involves a new country for me to visit, you know I'll find a way to make it happen. But going into Beirut means facing some unique challenges. I also figured that this TDY is a good opportunity for me to present what sort of challenges FSCEs face practically every day on the job site.
This T-shirt is now in my collection.
To set the stage, I'm coming in from Jeddah (a 15% danger pay post) to Beirut (a 25% danger pay post), and the heightened security posture is obvious the minute you read the State Department travel warning. My favorite line: "U.S. government personnel in Lebanon have been prohibited from taking flights that pass through Syrian airspace." Well then, how do you find out your scheduled flight route? I used FlightAware.com because I couldn't get the map function to work on FlightRadar24.com, but both appear to be useful resources.

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I didn't know what to expect when I arrived, other than the typical "someone with a sign with your name on it". That guy took me straight through customs and out to a car that was waiting for me. I said hello to the driver, but I guess he didn't hear me. But it still felt like VIP service. The State Department warning also says to vary times and routes, so I got a bit of a sight-seeing tour as we drove away from the airport.

On our drive, we passed a cigar store called "Fidel" which I assume is a reference to Castro & Cuban cigars, but I think it also has a nice double entrendre if someone asked you where you got it: "In fidel!" We also ended up following a canary yellow Ferrari, but I couldn't get a good picture of it. Stuff like that kind of jumps out at you without trying, and I probably would have noticed it anywhere else I've been. But then there are the things that jump out at you as unusual because of training (and maybe a few too many action movies), like when a black motorcycle with a helmet box on the back pulled up on the driver's side of our car at a red light just before we were about to go under an overpass (ie, a "choke point"). I saw it, my driver saw it, and we subtly took the off ramp detour instead of putting ourselves into a possibly bad position. It was probably nothing to worry about, just a dude on his way to work, but this place gets a 25% danger pay differential for a reason. It wasn't until after we reached the Embassy that the driver turned around and , looking straight at me, said "Welcome to Beirut." Seriously, that's like something out of a movie script.



The streets remind me of the laissez a faire suburbs you might find in Paris, with decaying shabby chic, graffiti, relatively clean yet dusty. The people I saw on the streets had an unrushed urgency that reminded me a little of our trips to Greece. Somewhere along the way, I saw a massive cedar growing up in the gutter where the road and side walk had cracked. If you didn't already know, the cedar is the national symbol of Lebanon.
The flag of Lebanon

When I arrived at my lodging location, there was no one manning the check-in desk, so the restaurant chef ended up being the one who gave me the key to my room. I took the key, dropped my stuff off, and called the D.C. desk officer who was also in town. We ate dinner while watching the sun set over the Med. It was blindingly bright, but I suppose that serves me right for picking the seat that faced into the setting sun.

Monday
There were three power outages today, followed by heavy rain at night. The drama du jour: Post informed us that the Ambassador's house wasn't getting the water that it normally does, so they wanted to know if OBO's project was tapping into an unauthorized water supply. The only water-based activity we had active involved shotcrete, which is kind of like spraying concrete paste...not really water intensive, but we looked into it anyways. Turns out, yes, the contractor had tapped into another supply: The gardener's tanks. It was for a convenience hose to keep the dust down, and while it was drawing maybe a dozen gallons over the course of the day, we told the contractor to stop using it immediately because it wasn't coming from the metered supply. Post verified that, in fact, there was no physical way our project could have caused the original problem with the Ambassador's residence. But OBO engineers are somewhat used to having any problems at a given post getting blamed on the OBO project, since "it was working before you came here." As you might have guessed, there is a lot of relationship management in my job.


Tuesday
The most interesting bit of knowledge I gained today was about a process related to using Cyclopean masonry. It's basically putting in a layer of concrete, then some large rocks, and filling over those rocks with more concrete to finish the layer. Repeat as needed. Simple and much more cost effective for the right applications than more modern techniques.
Image Source: www.nzdl.org
We also took a drive to the project site of the New U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which is still in the design phase with Morphosis Architects. I mention this because it tangentially relates to Diplopundit's recent skewering of OBO on the whole Design Excellence program, which I talk more directly about in this post. Also, as long as we were out, we stopped into a bakery to get lunch.
Yum.

Wednesday
Trying to get work done on my primary project by connecting remotely to the Jeddah network from the Beirut network is proving to be less than productive. As you can imagine, not everywhere in the world has 100% reliable internet (or the constant electrical supply needed to keep the internet up). But when you need two occasionally unreliable networks to both be up at the same time, the odds are increasingly against you. To explain why, just look at the following chart:
Network 1 UpNetwork 1 Down
Network 2 Up
Yay!
Boo!
Network 2 Down
Boo!
Double Boo!
By this time on my TDY, I stopped counting how many black-outs had occurred since I've been here. You just learn to deal with it. The best line I heard today was: "You can't please everyone, you're not Nutella."

Thursday
I forget who gave me this assessment of today's progress as "Too many chiefs, not enough Indians," The twist here was that the speaker was being quite literal and referring to the actual nationality of the predominantly South Asian labor force rather than Native Americans.

During lunch, I watched over the workers from a nearby balcony, with the smell of the sea-salt air mixing with grilled food and the cacophony of construction occasionally punctuated by the chirping of birds. The air is cool and damp, but just a bit dusty from all the activity to keep on schedule. For dinner, it was pizza and a local Lebanese Almaza pilsner, which is a little brighter and lighter than Heineken while watching the sun set.


Friday
I came into to work to learn that the excavator operator was in the hospital (for some stomach bug or something). But that delayed the removal of some rubble in the path of a delivery truck carrying engineered fill that needs to be in place before crane operations begin next week. So something totally unrelated to the primary task has now become the primary task. Gotta stay flexible in your priorities but keep the goal in sight at all times.

For dinner, I watched the sun set yet again. The red-orange ball of fire sank slowly into the gray blue water, burning a path across the surface of the glimmering sea to where I sat absorbing the scene. Across this blaze, I watched the silhouette of a massive freighter make its way into the port. After the sun disappeared from sight, the vermilion sky gave way to blue-gray hues reflecting off the now gray-blue sea, and the golden lights of the city to my left lay like a delicate necklace over the city skyline. To my right, the pure white lights on the nearly invisible fishing boats made it look like a constellation of stars had lost its way and settled down to rest on the ever-darkening waves.

Not my photo, but this is what ithe sunset looked like. (Source)

Saturday
After packing my bags out of my room, I waited for the desk staff to come in to check me out. While waiting, I got into a conversation with a colleague I'd met while checking in on Sunday. Come to find out, one of the things she does during her spare time is camp planning for Burning Man. How cool is that?

I know what you're thinking (besides "This has nothing at all to do with Beirut!"): Burning Man is a totally Mad-Max meets Alice-in-Wonderland experience free from most social order beyond the 10 Principles where things just happen. But when I look at the picture below, all I can see is a lot of planning and concentric layers of support to make the festival be the experience it's known for. I think my colleague said that the organizers are there about a week before and a week after, but planning activity is already in full swing even though the event is in August.

Burning Man, not Beirut
And let's not forget that a lot of planning goes into the artwork that shows up there as well, like the Cosmic Praise project and Penrose Triangle installations that a former rowing partner of mine collaborated on (pictured here in the cowboy hat on the structure).

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Ok, right, so coming back from that tangent, you can tell it's been a long week and my mind is beginning to wander. The ride to the airport was interesting. We passed some sort of street festival with kids in a bouncy castle, which was a bit jarring to my hyper-vigilant mindset. I also saw the abandoned Holiday Inn and St. George's Hotels in downtown Beirut, made famous for their roles in the Battle of the Hotels. I definitely saw a different side of the city today than the one I saw when I arrived, one that still bears the scars of a 15-year long Lebanese civil war that ended 25 years ago. Sure, the US Embassy was bombed, (actually, more than once), but there were still people living in the city as best they could while the fighting raged around them. To put it into personally relatable terms, it basically started before I was born and ended as I entered high school. That's a long time to have to recover from.
An aerial view shows the war-ravaged and deserted former Holiday Inn hotel
(the tall building on the left), next to the Phoenicia hotel in 2011. (Cynthia Karam/Reuters/Landov)
The signs at the airport were in Arabic, French, and English. I had forgotten to take off my steel-toed boots before I left the job site, so they set off the first metal detector. But I switched them out for my sneakers while waiting to go through the second metal detector and got through without setting it off.  Since I really didn't have a chance to go souvenier shopping up until right now, I had to settle for the selection offered by the airport stores. Fortunately, I was able to find a piece of cedar that had been carved into the shape of a cedar tree, on which a Phoenecian ship with the Lebanese flag on its sails had been carved. So I had to have it for my travel trinket collection.

Retro chic: The flipside of my ticket
The gate area was pretty empty and it seemed like it would be a pretty empty flight up until just a few minutes before take off, when every seat filled up right before the plane closed its door. I couldn't help but wonder if the last minute rush was a hold-over from the civil war, when planes would get blown up on the runway during attacks (so obviously you wouldn't want to take your seat any earlier than necessary). The flight home was uneventful, though it was nice to have a glass of Lebanese wine before we landed back in the dry Kingdom.

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