N’Djamena–> Abeche–> Moundou –> Bongor

Traveling overland is one of the best ways to understand a country. Doing so with people that are from the area you are traveling is even better. I got to do exactly this, first taking a UN flight to Moundou (through Abeche) and then driving back to N’Djamena through the town of Bongor (along the western border heading north from Moundou).

Security severely limits travel not only to Chad, but within the country and in the region. The only non-Chadians traveling are not doing so for leisure, but to check on various humanitarian projects going on within the country. Roads exist but are not always paved and are impassible during rainy season. In fact, rebel incursions from the north can predictably be expected only during certain times of year due to natural flooding that occurs from May-August. Lack of infrastructure is one of the defining, and unfortunate, things about Chad.

The work I do in Chad is tied to Security Cooperation, which encompasses a span of activities from human rights to professionalization efforts. One of these many programs is an HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program for the Chadian military. The US, through a third party implementor, funds and supports 21 different health units embedded within the Chadian military to combat HIV/AIDS, TB and other associated diseases. After a complete shutdown of traveling due to COVID and security concerns, we took our first trip to the south of Chad in 6 years. Flights within Chad consist of privately chartered aircraft and UN sponsored flights. I took a World Food Program (WPF) sponsored flight from N’Djamena, stopping off in Abeche and landing in Moundou for two nights. ‘

The Chadians I work with are all from the Southern part of Chad. Schools are better, it is greener, and according to them “the air is fresher.” I would say this is true, though walking around the town and driving through some of the smaller villages, I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference between N’Djamena and Moundou. It is cleaner, and the air possibly fresher, but similar concrete buildings, mud huts with metal roofs and dirt roads. Most of the buildings that existed in the town had not been improved since the 1940s when Chad was still a French colony and I could not help but look around town and feel a twinge of sorrow at the poverty, the difficulty of life that is just a simple fact in this part of the world.

The ‘CF’ still visible on this building is a marker of the French colonial past that still very much echo’s through the country. Still to this day if an individual does not speak or understand French, it is a clear indicator that person is not educated and cannot read or write as the school systems are entirely in French. Even the currency, the Central African Franc (CFA), is not printed in Africa, but in France, who still has its fingers of control on its former French colonies.

There is nothing glamorous about being poor. Nothing glamorous about living in a place that has dirt floors, no running water or electricity. About having every day be a struggle in a way that most members of the western world, even the poorest, have no comprehensive of. Nothing compares. Yet despite this, the village lifestyle is often preferred to that of the hustle of the city. Life is simple. It surrounds around family, and doing work that allows your family to eat. Relationships are everything and there is a communal understanding that does not exist in other parts of the world. 

While we were out on mission, one of the guards fell from the back of the truck; he was rushed to the hospital, lucky that we had someone on our team that was medically trained. The fall was his error – turns out he was drinking on the job and had quite literally toppled over in his drunkenness. Although we did fire the entire security team, everyone, including my colleagues from the embassy contributed to pay for his medical bills. In a country that is defined by scarcity, I can only imagine the overall cost – certainly not something a low ranking soldier could afford. This is the type of communal spirit that takes longer to see. To see past the poverty, the struggle of everyday life that is the beauty of a country like Chad.

Markets are some of the best ways to do this. They are the heartbeat of industry and society. Products sold are fairly simple, typically anything remotely manufactured comes from China. Areas are divided from peanuts to produce to furniture. It is an art – to maintain pristinely-clean furniture sat outside on dust covered walkways. When looking at buying fresh produce, it is not uncommon for Chadians to sample before they buy, simply taking directly from the pile. Women often run many of the produce stands with infants strapped to their back, breastfeeding as deemed necessary.

Out of the few local artisan products available, knifes are by far my favorite cultural item. Certain styles belay the region they are made in. The knifes pictured above are the southern style, typically used for farming much like a sickle..

Food is the next, and almost always the most classic way to get into a culture. Chadians eat largely with their hands in large sharing circles. The most typical meal is a type of sauce either made with meat (usually beef or goat) or a vegetable sauce called daraba leine using fresh okra or yabis using dry okra. Camel, goat or fish are other favorites paired with a baguette, as remnants of its colonial past show in interesting ways throughout the culture. Chadians are usually religious about washing their hands before and after the meal, typically having a pot of water with soap brought around – and this is crucial as gastro and waterborne illnesses run rampant due lack of sanitation and communal eating.

This is a classic ‘working mans’ breakfast. Before dipping in, butter was poured on top of the dishes. A dried bone spice called kawal is also often paired with the dish.

Portable food is not a thing. Refrigeration is rare and electricity is not consistent. A common way to transport your food is to purchase a goat or other live animal and take it with you. When its meal time, slaughtering an animal and eating it then and there is the method used most commonly. One perk of Chad is everything is truly fresh and as organic as they come, but without the pesticides comes all the other things that are typically killed by them. Local eating is not for the faint of heart, as is nothing in or about this rarely traveled country.

The Road from Moundou to N’Djamena (the part that was paved)

Into Africa

Before moving to Chad, it had been 12 years since I set foot on the continent of Africa. My first trip was a whirlwind voyage to South Africa for the world cup followed by a volunteering trip to Rwanda. I have always had a fascination with the continent and saw myself as someone that would never make a career out of the military, but would instead join the Peace Corps, UN or an NGO.

Now, 12 years later, I am surrounded by those exact same people. People who thought working in the Democratic Republic of Congo with refugees would be fun. Or who have lived in the likes of Mosul, Iraq or the border between Chad and Libya because that was where the work was. These people are often paid nothing and hop around fascinating corners of the world doing work that is impossibly difficult and never ending.

While in Rwanda, I kept a journal that I have quite literally taken everywhere I go. For 12 years I have told myself that I will crack it open and share the contents. Now, having moved back to the continent after traveling other parts of the world, I am ready to open this pandora box and reflect on how much Rwanda as a country has grown, and how I have changed with it.

Posing with local school kids on a trip out to see the local schools

Rwanda’s government is notorious for being a ‘benevolent dictatorship’. The longtime ruler, Paul Kagame, has yet to release his grip on power but has maintained darling status in the international community. This is largely due to his effort to bring the country from its war-torn status following its 1994 genocide to a near middle income country. Lead by his vision 2020, this was done by draconian rules which are heavily enforced by militarized police and fines. One such example is his effort to take ethnicity out of daily conversation, creating a “Rwandan” identity; it is literally illegal to discuss another persons ethnicity. All businesses must have fruit trees planted in front of their offices; a measure intended to combat hunger. All children attending school need to have a shaved head as well as uniforms; girls manicured hair is, and still continues to be, an obvious distinguisher of wealth.

Every aspect of Rwandan society was completely torn after the genocide. Neighbors turned on neighbors, killing whole families and maiming people with indiscriminate violence. Orphanages were set-up, large portions of the educated population were slaughtered; to come back as a country from this level of violence is no small feat. One of the many things the government did following the genocide was set up tribunals, called the gacaca process. Meaning “peace, unity and reconciliation,” these tribunals were organized at the village level and allowed victims to confront, and hopefully forgive, or at least receive a sense of justice, from their perpetrators. The gacaca system focused less on putting members who committed crimes in jail and more on repentance and confrontation for their crimes.

At the top of Virunga mountain crater near Lake Kivu. Located on the border between Rwanda and the DRC

When I went to Rwanda it was 2010 and these measures were still very much an ongoing part of the healing process. There was no wifi, no consistent power (even in the capital, Kigali), and few paved roads. Every night the city went into blackout to preserve the power; construction was seen everywhere. People didn’t have electricity in their homes but charged their devices at every public institution. You may not have running water, but you have a cell phone – and that holds true for nearly every part of Africa. As my host family said “this country is the land of contradictions. We have cable and internet but not running water. Everyone has cell phones but can’t feed their families.”

Much of my writing at the time surrounded around being a single, white female traveling in a place that was essentially the opposite. Certain aspects stood out to me as categorically contradictive – such as the playing of American rap videos on public transport. This I wish I had a picture of: videos of practically naked, oversexualized women on a bus full of of people that barely showed skin at all. Black American culture was, and still is idealized. I was able to have the freedom that I do not have now – living and being attached to the American Embassy. Things such as riding on the back of local motos, getting packed into public transport and traveling to remote parts of the country on backpacker style excursion.

You know you have assimilated when:

  1. You respond to Muzungo, teacher or hissing as proper ways to address you
  2. You no longer cling to the back of a moto when it zips in and out of traffic (in the wrong direction)
  3. You refer to other white people as muzungos (a Bantu word meaning ‘wonderer’)
  4. You stop wondering if you are getting tanner and just accept the fact that there is an un-washable film of dirt on your feet

I volunteered with the Global Volunteer Network in their Gender Based Violence (GBV) program. I didn’t think I would change the world in two weeks, but I wanted to get an idea of the work that I thought I wanted to do. It never ceases to amaze me what women all around the world do to support each other. This group of ladies were no different. The program was set-up to help women establish small businesses to generate income and allow them to support their families after leaving their abusive spouses. Domestic violence is still very much an issue in many parts of Africa (and even somewhat socially acceptable). Without family or other assistance, women are often left with no options. It also where I learned about the concept of micro-loans. Small loans provided by private individuals to small, typically women or minority owned businesses. Loan recipients payback the loan in small increments as their business grows. It is an awesome system that provides sustainability while encouraging local economies and entrepreneurship where there may be limited opportunity.

Hanging with the local orphanage

I also shared some of my time with the local orphanage. Even as a self-described “non-kid person,” I will never forget the innocence and love with which the children interacted with me. In every town and every village, not just at the orphanage, children would follow me, try to hold my hand, fascinated with my skin and hair. They braided my hair, wrote me letters, fell asleep in my arms and piecemealed conversations in English. As much as I genuinely enjoyed these interacts, ‘volunteering’ at these institutions has since taken on a new light. Since 2010, UNICEF has conducted multiple studies that concluded that most children in these orphanages (and others around the world) are not actually orphans, but are dropped off by a surviving relative for the day. Guaranteed to have a meal and the possibility for sponsorship for school or adoption, these types of volunteer programs have drastically changed with informed research and time. With the advent of ‘poverty porn’, the use of images of impoverished children and families to guilt modern world into donations, the understanding of how the western world can help others in less developed places has evolved over time.

The more I dive into the continent, its history, its complex issues, the less I feel certain of any single fact. Africa has always represented the type of culture shock and adventure that I crave when traveling to far and distant places. As I dive deeper into understanding the complexities that is this diverse part of the world, I only find myself with more questions than answers. To understand more, I must go farther…into Africa.

Why N’Djamena is one of the most expensive places in the world

and yet, it is also one of the poorest.

This dichotomy is difficult to process. Frozen berries, when you can find them, are available at one store and cost 10,000 CFA = $16. Peanut butter, protein powder, are nowhere to be found. Anything processed, or packaged that was not raised on a small farm is flown in from France. Chad lacks any sort of infrastructure in the form of roads, railways or air transport to get goods and services in and out of the country. As a result, it is extremely expensive to get anything modern or manufactured into the country. They rely mostly on their old colonial power for connections outside their borders – and that connection is strong.

But the real issue, the thing that is not talked about when we talk about extreme poverty – is corruption. Corruption is so rampant that head of the state-owned oil company Société des Hydrocarbures or SHT (Chad has the 3rd largest oil reserve in Africa) has publicly stated that half of his gas and fuel deliveries get diverted to shadow networks. On Thursday June 23, 2022, the Deputy Director General of the SHT was dismissed for a scandal of embezzling upwards of $120 billion CFA or conversion to dollars can get tricky with exchange rates but it comes to something close to a few billion dollars. To put this amount in context, the countries GDP as a whole was $10B in 2021. In what is being dubbed as “SHT GATE” the exposure of such a case is having ripple effects, not just taking down the network of corruption, but potential lasting effects for the transition.

We (the international community) often talk about how (corrupt) Chadians are able to continue their lifestyle while looking outside their compound gate at the poverty** that ensues. How can you not look around and say, “I need to do something about this”? Realistically though, we could say the same thing to ourselves. I do not do much different in my own country or in this one. You get stuck into your work. Your circle of friends. After a while, you start to harden to the poverty you see. Ignoring it. Sticking within your own bubble of comfort because the issue is so overwhelming that it is impossible to know where to start.

The average western person would have trouble processing the lifestyle realities of living in a place like Chad, a hot arid climate, with limited infrastructure and corrupt governments. Power outages occur every day. If you require electricity, you also require a back-up energy source, a generator or solar (which is a thing here despite lack of development otherwise…pretty awesome). International aide organizations, the UN and national embassies all have different policies on how they take care of their people in what they consider to be ‘hardship’ locations. If you are not allowed to take your family, the UN, for example, pays for a ticket back home every 8 weeks. The US on the other hand might get one ticket a year (if you are lucky). International aide organizations typically attract Europeans with requirements for long vacations. A reset is recommended every quarter if you and your organization can afford it.

Context. Expectations. Attitude. Perspective. They are everything when trying to understand the complexities that are a place like Chad. Yet the eternal question remains. There is a collective desire amongst the international world to help the people of Chad, but will they help themselves first?

**Just to give an example of just how difficult and rampant poverty is, amongst the throng of people on the streets include many disable people missing limbs – an unfortunate legacy of polio or other life mishaps. These people are quite often crawling to get from point A to point B. Crawling. Makeshift wheelchairs exist that are powered by wheeling with your hands (quite an ingenious no energy method) but there are more people that need them than exist. Truly, it is difficult to see.

What does it mean to be Chadian?

Few countries in Africa have anything close to a national identity as we would understand it in a western sense. It is better to understand Chad less as a location with defined borders and unifying culture and more in terms of circles of familial connection that feed into a web of power. Large generalities can be understood by dividing the population into north and south, herder and farmer, Christian and Muslim. Yet with these differences, connection occurs in certain areas, and conflict in others. The north tend to rely more on herding, be Muslim and nomadic. They tend to carry a weapon, and embody the warrior spirit that gave Chad its name in the Sahel. In the south, the people tend to be more Christian, less nomadic and rely on subsistence farming.

Plaza de la nation is the most iconic location for N’Djamena. Military parades and national days are always centered around this representation of the Chadian capital.

Multiple wives are common and accepted as the lifestyle of wealthy men. Not only as a Muslim practice, but in many traditional religions before outsiders introduced any major religion. Chadians typically have two last names, similar to the Spanish, but follow only the father and the grandfathers lineage. There are over 120 different dialects in Chad. The capital of N’Djamena largely operates off French, but mainly in the places that cater to expats and the 1%. Arabic is widely spoken, but the dialect itself is a great representation of the merge of cultures that have converged on this area of the world. Nomadic words are often intertwined with French ones depending on the topic. For example, words like democracy and government are spoken in French, whereas familial terms, such as brother and sister might have a more local word. Language and the ability to communicate often divides the groups of people who interact – without French it is unlikely that a Chadian will have any connection to the world outside its traditional familial upbringing.

Leaving the capital has few paved roads and even fewer rock formations

I work side by side with Chadians, but only a specific set of the population: the highly educated. Those that have been abroad, speak multiple languages and are able to bridge the gap in understanding between our western ideals and their unique way of thinking. If you break away from this small segment of the population, you see a group of people largely uneducated, surviving in the same way that they have for thousands of years. It is hard to truly conceptualize the stark differences in reality that exist for westerners, the 1% and everyone else. Life runs in a continuous circle of family and survival. Yet, that life is not seen as difficult by many Chadians. There is a sort of ideal about living in the country that life is simpler, and therefore happier – away from the hustle and bustle of N’Djamena.

A herder and his son

Chad is a part of the Sahel, a strip of land that cross-cuts a subsection of Africa from east to west. Historically, the Sahel served as a trade route connecting the Arab kingdoms in the middle east to African trading partners. Great kingdoms grew out of this timeframe in places like Timbuktu, and Gao. Through these trade routes, similarities formed in nomadic Islamic traditions. As colonial conquest faded and corrupt governments took ahold of this arid subsection, extremist ideology spread. The Sahel is known today largely for its insecurity both in the physical sense with violent extremism, and in the humanitarian sense with rising food and climate change challenges.

Chad is of course prone to these same insecurities, particularly in the humanitarian sense, ranking as one of the most impoverished places on earth. With extremism on the rise in the region and Islam as a core component of the population, you would think that Chad would experience some of the same problems as its neighbors. Yet, despite being surrounded by six unstable countries, there seems to be a collective disdain for Islamic extremism. The previous president of Chad, Idriss Deby, served for 30 years cultivating his reputation as a regional security leader. Political debates aside, he created – and strongly enforced – a culture of secularism in the government. Creating a military culture within the government, this military culture had a unifying sense against extremism. For now, Chad seems to have avoided the temptation of using religion instead as a rallying cry against corrupt and secular leaning government institutions creating a fascinating sense of community surrounded in a very militarized culture.

Two colleagues putting on a traditional headdress. You will see many Chadians wrap a piece of cloth around their head and face serving two purposes: protection from the sun for their heads and protection from dust to cover their mouths

So how do you answer the question – what does it mean to be Chadian? Is to be Chadian even a concept? A Chadian is both a warrior and a farmer. A Chadian is a father, mother, son and daughter. A Chadian is religious, if not spiritual, still strongly embedded in family and tribal traditions. Family is everything. A Chadian is at their very core, a survivor, in a complex world of challenges living the most simplest of existences. A Chadian is still working through its identity as a concept under defined borders. A concept I intend to continue to explore.

Moving to N’Djamena

If you read the title of this post and had to google the location of this capital city – fear not – you are not alone. I too had to google the location when I was told that N’Djamena, Chad would be my follow-on assignment following Foreign Area Officer Training.

I am sure many people would have various reactions upon the news that this was going to not only be your home, but your first jump into the Foreign Affairs world. For me, I was excited. What better place to start your journey in Africa than a place few outsiders have experienced, let alone know?

So little is known about Chad that if you were to google “Chad” the search gets confused between – that guy named Chad – and the country. After reading about “Chad” the person, you would see a series of NGO and UN related organizational pages pop up – UNICEF, the World Food program, International Crisis Group, World Health Program, among others. The fact that jumps out at you is that Chad is, and continues to, rank as one the most impoverished places in the world, 187/189 in the Human Development Index (HDI). To make matters worse, a rebel incursion (not uncommon for Chad) attempted to take over the government in April of 2021, killing the President, who had held power (and the country together) for 30 years leaving a transitional military government in charge until elections were set to take place.   

While Chad may not be well known in the anglophone world, it is known in the francophone, or French speaking one. Gaining its independence from France in 1960, Chad is, in many ways, still trying to find its way as a country. Like many countries in Africa, there was no concept of borders or even a national identity in the western sense of the word until 1920 when the French claimed this arid country as a part of Afrique-Équatoriale française. Much could, and has, been written on the impacts of colonialism on Africa. For all the negative that can be argued about this part of history, one thing it did do was expose many African cultures to western languages, concepts of government and ways of life. These ties are still very much evident today. Out of the 120 languages that are spoken in the country, the main unifying language continues to be French, though many also speak Arabic, but may not read or write it, and there is a desire among the aristocratic class to move to English.

There is reading about how Chad is, and then there is actually moving here. Despite having two years to mentally prepare, I still was not ready for what it meant to live in a landlocked, impoverished African country. Frequent power cuts, no road rules, chaotic markets, dirt roads, women and children making a livelihood on the street, buildings that look like they are about to crumble. The few paved roads are swept every day by a sea of women, often with babies strapped to their backs, to keep the desert sand from completely enveloping the city. Everywhere you look you see vendors on the side of the street selling peanuts, an assortment of plastic goods and then just people, everywhere. Road traffic consists of mostly people on foot, followed by moped owners weaving in and out of traffic, with the rest being a mix between bicycles, donkeys, camels and the occasional car. Google, both the search engine and maps, are useless. To know this city you must explore and know its people.

N’Djamena is one of the poorest places in the world and yet one of the most expensive. Any product that is not bought at the local vegetable stand can only be purchased in 1 of 2 stories – for a price. Grapes or berries can occasionally be found, but are $20 for a portion. Cream cheese and American style bacon are not a thing, but who needs that when you can find some pretty amazing camembert and Roquefort cheese. Gala or Castel (think Budweiser) are your beer options, with Heineken for some variety. If you are into wine, you are in luck, there is one store, le cave, which has a pretty amazing selection if you are willing to pay for the Grand Cru. You can hire someone to clean your house, tend to your garden and cook for you all for around $200 a month, but wifi will cost you about the same.

Chad is a contradiction in time. It is ancient, in a way that you might characterize as backwards. Life for the average person is simple and in some ways has not changed in hundreds of years. Subsistence farming is the industry in the south, herding in the North. Literacy rates are minimal, people marry young and have large families. It is a fascinating, diverse place that takes months if not years to unwind – and some outsiders never will.

With a year to explore, I hope to open it up in a way that not many understand. Here’s to the next adventure: Chad.

The year the world stood still

2020 was not a good year for travel. Neither was 2021. It seems the pandemic that forced the world to take a health pause is going nowhere fast. What did travelers do to fill the gap that was left by the pandemic?

I spent the last two years in California studying French and International Relations in preparation to make the biggest career jump since deciding to commission into the Air Force – entrance into the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program. It is no surprise that working in international relations has been and will continue to be my dream job, but ironically, although I got the job I always asked for, it has not been the easiest path to walk.


Every armed service has a FAO program. We are a niche career field working with foreign militaries on security assistance initiatives on behalf of the US government. We also serve as attachés, representing our nations militaries at US embassies in nearly every country in the world. It is exciting, challenging and dynamic work. Every branch splits their FAOs into different regions of the world aligning with the 7 continents. My assigned region is Africa. Only .4% of Air Force officers are FAOs and out of that group of specialized officers, only 12% are assigned to Africa. As a part of the program, you need to be able to speak a language in your assigned region, have at least 7 years in the military, 6 months of which will be focused solely on your region, and have a masters in international relations with a focus on your continent. Best part? To get that degree, language and in-region experience, the military will pay to send you to gorgeous Monterey (and around the world) for two years, or more depending on the language, to study.

Sounds Amazing right?

Sure, until you realize that the military never does anything for free. The Defense Language Institute (DLI) is the hardest academic course I have every completed. Imagine going from not knowing a language to being able to converse at a high school level in 9 months. That is what I did in 2020 – learned French, in the quickest, most condensed way possible. And of course, French is not the hardest language – I at least had an alphabet I knew already. Imagine Russian, a year, or Arabic, Chinese or Hangul all of which are one and half years of training. For most of these programs, nearly half of all students fail out of the course.

It was of course my dream to be able to study a language full time, 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. The problem with school as an adult is it was also my job. So if I failed a class, I failed at my job, leaving the possibility of getting kicked out of the military. It was an all win or loose scenario. I also had never wanted anything so much in my life, so when I put all the effort I had into studying only to get B’s or C’s the joy out of learning a new language was quickly sucked out of me.

Yet against all odds, I passed. Looking back, I didn’t perform quite as bad as I thought, though I certainly wasn’t as good as I wanted to be either. The experience really made me respect those of us who are just not school people – how hard is it to try, to work as tough as you can only to get a mediocre result? One of my teachers chuckled at my stress level saying that she thought it was the first time I had actually been challenged – and she is right. I have never struggled so much academically in my life. If you are naturally talented at academics, never take that for granted and give grace to your fellow students who may not be as naturally gifted.


DLI is not just for FAOs, it is the language institute for any linguist in the department of defense, or other government branches. The majority of the students going through various language programs are 18 year old’s, straight out of High School, from every branch of service who have scored high enough on their entrance tests to get into a linguist program (which is one of the toughest to get into). The below tips are geared towards these bright young people who have possibly, for the first time in their lives, feel the shock of trying their hardest at something academically. Us older officers can also make use of these tips too, as some of you might be like me, thinking it will all be a walk in the park…

1. DO study your language before starting DLI. I made this mistake taking some advice from another individual. The course does move at an insane pace, so whatever you pick up on your own may be covered by the first week or month, but having even the smallest head start will help you get off on the right foot. Focus on the basics – pronunciation and the alphabet. Any program from Duolingo to Rosetta stone works. DLI also has some excellent free programs on their website.

2. Maintain the same effort throughout the course. I think the biggest mistake people make is to slack off in the first semester when the course is relatively easy. Courses themselves get extremely challenging once you move from basic to intermediate material. By the time you realize you are behind, it is already too late. You need to try to stay ahead of the material as best you can until you hit second semester when the level goes up significantly.

3. Dedicate 2 extra hours a day and 8 hours over the weekend. Then stop. Your brain is just like any other muscle – it too needs a rest. You will hear from your professors to do things in your target language that you enjoy – do that. Listen to music, podcasts and watch movies – I promise you that slowly by slowly it will begin to click. Balance the time required to study outside of class with the time needed to rest so that you are absorbing the amount you need to.

4. Take the extra help, even if you don’t think you need it. DLI offers what they call 0 hour and 7th hour. In most cases it is forced study for those not doing so well – at one point our entire class was in 7th hour. If not forced, just volunteer to do the extra time with the instructors. Request to use the time to do speaking or whatever skillset you feel you need most help on. It literally never hurts – like anything the more effort you put in, the more you will get out.

5. Believe you will make it through. I do not know a single person who went through DLI that didn’t hit a point when they thought they might not see the other side. KNOW THAT YOU WILL. If you are putting in the time required, you will pass DLI. It is designed for you to succeed, failing is in no-one’s interest. Be consistent, put in the work and you will see the other end.

Bonne Chance!

Playing Switzerland


There are few countries that live up to their reputation. With stunning snow-capped mountain ranges that lead into lush, green valleys; efficient public transportation networks and, ancient historical cities that seamlessly merge past with present. This is Switzerland; it is just as beautiful, international – and expensive – as you would expect.

We spent a total of 10 days in this gorgeous country hiking the Bernese Oberland, watching guild parades in Zurich and walking the promenade of the ‘Swiss Rivera’ in Montreux. You can see our full itinerary as well as tips for making the most out of your Swiss holiday here.

Other than our normal excuse for traveling, I had a real work reason for going to Switzerland. As a part of my three year stint working for NATO at SHAPE, Belgium, I was invited to the Swiss Armed Forces School as a guest speaker. Located in Lucern, Switzerland, an absolutely stunning part of the country, it was an easy ‘yes’ to participate.


Picture: Town of Lucern

Only 26 NATO students are permitted to attend the NCO Advanced Leadership course which is held twice a year. Lasting for two weeks, the entire program is completely funded by the Swiss government. Not only do they provide, room board and a world class training program, they try to ensure that every NATO nation has at least 1 slot in each course. The college accomplished this goal in the spring of 2016’s class, which was made up of 25 different nations.

The foundation for the course is building teamwork between NATO countries while simultaneously instilling a sense of pride and empowerment in the enlisted ranks. This was one of the more interesting aspects I learned while working with NATO nations – the lack of empowerment, education and trust given to the enlisted force.

The backbone of the American military is truly built on the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO). The first leadership tier in the enlisted military structure, the US heavily invests in its ranks through education, leadership training and empowerment of its lower enlisted. This is not the case for 90% of the worlds militaries. Decisions are held up at the officer tier leaving lower ranks with less responsibility. This was often frustrating for my US service members who worked in NATO two or three ranks below what would normally be expected of them in the US.


Picture: Team building course. Participants had to navigate the maze without speaking, on a time limit and had to stay within designated areas 

In speaking with the students it was not the curriculum that they were most impressed with – or the free lodging, beer and food – but the cultural exchange they were able to have with the other students. This was of course the highlight of my experience as well. My First Sergeant and I were treated as honored guests and were invited to  break bread with enlisted leaders from Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium. Their perspective on the course, NATO development and leadership were largely similar to my own, with one slight difference — I was the only female, the only officer and probably the only one under 30. So not only was I a women, but a young women that technically outranked the entire table.

In fact this was one of the reasons I was invited to speak on leadership along with my First Sergeant (Senior Enlisted Leader). I gave the officer side and he the enlisted side; we discussed how the two work together to create a perfect command team that takes care of the Airmen and ultimately, the mission. Although the message/speech went down fairly well, the school seemed less interested in the leadership message we brought, but what we represented to the rest of the crowd: a female commander (boss) and male First Sergeant (subordinate) that not only worked together, but worked well together.

swiss school

Picture: Preparing to go repelling. As a part of the course, participants repelled off a bridge, trusting the team member watching them to feed them appropriate rope lengths. These are the course leaders preparing to test it out (I am 3rd from the left, my First Sergeant to my left).

Up until this point in my career I hadn’t given a second thought to my gender. Despite the many non-standard, all male environments I worked in – as well as witnessing some questionable workplace behavior – my gender has never been a reason (or so I have thought) for those under me, above me or equal to me to treat me any different from anyone else.  The rank structure and uniform – true to name – strip every other societal first impression, forcing you to always look first at someones rank (so you know how to properly address them) and everything else, second.

I always viewed Europe as the most progressive continent in the world. Yet, after 5 years living there, and especially working with other foreign militaries, I was surprised to find that this is not always the case. America is surprisingly progressive when it comes to gender and racial equality, especially within the military. The diversity within the US is reflected in its ranks, encouraged and celebrated. While no organization or country is perfect, I gained a greater appreciation for what the US military represented to the rest of the world while serving at this post. Leading in every aspect, I can only hope to be a small part of that leading force showing that all else aside – solid leadership is about the person, and nothing else.


Picture: Driving the alps

Apo Reef

Christmas 2018 was not the highlight of my life, as so many of the things I write about are.

Just as my husband was returning after a 4 month stint of living halfway across the world from me (a stint that would end up being an unexpected 1.5 years), my Dad fell terminally ill. In truth, he effectively chose his own death by throwing away his meds, refusing dialysis and remaining staunchly stubborn (as he does) on this very final decision. One week before we were scheduled to fly to Taiwan for yet another epic NYE trip, we canceled, booked tickets from Guam to Maryland and flew home just in time to reach my father on his passing at 64 on Christmas Eve.

As one of many jobs I have held in the Air Force, one of the jobs I held in Guam is “the installation mortuary officer.” As a part of this very vital role, I received a call any time there was an Air Force death on the island. My role was to ensure the surviving family received the proper entitlements, understood the services available and ensured their loved one received the appropriate honors for their time served. At the point where I received this more personal call, I had dealt with over 20 cases in 1.5 years on the island of Guam. One could say at that point I was so saturated with death and dying that I was able to handle the weight of my fathers passing as just another, more personal case. Though I was spared from the more difficult, practical issues of state executor by my Uncle.

The weight of 2019 stayed with me through the entire year. While I received news that I had gotten my dream job, I was faced with more difficult life decisions – more separation from my spouse, family planning challenges and an unanticipated second deployment. It had been a while since I lived day to day, filling my day with as much work as possible as a coping mechanism to simply survive.

Naturally, when faced with such a life crisis, I turned to filling the void with adventure in the form of travel. 

My sister and I had already planned to take an epic trip to the Philippines in January 2019. Part 1 of that trip was a liveaboard catamaran sailing out of Puerto Galera to Apo Reef, the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world — it is only beat out by the largest contiguous coral reef, the Great Barrier reef in Australia.

This was my second time to the Philippines, first outside Manila. On my second trip to this incredibly vast country, I fell even more in love with it, wondering why travel has not caught on similar to the likes of Thailand or Vietnam. Equally inexpensive, but less trodden by westerners, the Philippines is an expansive country with over 8,000 islands as a part of its vast archipelago. While Tegali and English are the official national languages, there are hundreds of different dialects spoken all over the islands with many traditional, remote villages to explore. By far, we only touched on a sliver of this vast country.


Picture: Dive sites along Apo Reef. We hit nearly all of them throughout the 3 days eating, diving, repeating.

My sister is a marine biologist, avid diver and lover of all things ocean. I care less about specific marine life and more about the adventure to accompany trip. Naturally, a catamaran leaving out of Puerto Galera was the trip for us. We flew into Manila only days after our fathers funeral. To say a trip out to sea was necessary is understatement; healing reflection felt under the soft waves of the ocean was exactly what we needed. Little did we know soft waves were not in store for us the first night on the catamaran.


Sailing out into the ocean on a large sailboat sounds great right? Well not when you are going against the current for 32 hours. My sister and I bunked together and had to walk through the small kitchen to get to our room. Halfway through the night on our trip out to the reef, I woke up to the boat rocking so hard it was splashing water into the cabin from the two tiny port holes. My sister was frantically trying to plug the water spilling onto our clothes proclaiming that the Philippines would eventually kill us (this was not the first story on our adventure).

Luckily there were no deaths, though half of the 8 divers on the liveaboard spent the night in the bathroom rather than their bunks. I personally felt like a true pirate being thankful that we had beds rather than stacked hammocks as I had seen so many times in the movies. The next morning, the waves calmed and we arrived safely on the sheltered banks of Apo Reef.

The next 3 days were pure heaven – especially compared to the ride out to the reef. We were up at sunrise, dove, ate a beautiful breakfast, dove, lunch, dove, dinner and an optional night dive. By the time the day was over you were in a relaxed sense of zen from being rocked in the waters softly to sleep.


I made several attempts to get a picture of what sunrise, sunset and expansive night sky looked like from the middle of the ocean, but neither my iPhone nor GoPro give any view justice. Looking up at the clear milky way, reflecting on what we had been through, put the whole world in perspective. There is truly no feeling like it; diving was one thing, but being above board, so far away from civilization was a remoteness that is somehow strangely peaceful. The only sound was the lapping of water against the boat; the only view is the horizon; stars and the sun are your main entertainment. Somehow it all lulls the mind and soul in the same way that meditation, or quiet rainfall makes you feel at peace with the way the world works – and in this moment – I needed to be at peace with how the world worked.

Our catamaran adventures were not totally over though. By day 3 out at sea (and probably because we had the unfortunate experience of having to walk through the kitchen to get to our room), it became apparent that the entire catamaran had an uninvited guest – cockroaches. In a way, I was not overly surprised – makes sense that would be a common issue, but just added to the hilarity of the overall experience. Good thing my stomach has an iron lining; there were no protests from the group when we safely arrived back on shore on day 4.

We spent a few extra days in Puerto Galera then took a seaplane back to Manila. Out of the many options to get to Puerto Galera (or any of the islands in PI), I would highly recommend this mode of transport. Philippine Airlines gets you to many of the larger spots. Air Juan (company we took) is a smaller seaplane operation; it will get you to the tourist spots on smaller island locations for about $50pp more – and hours less – than multiple ferries and buses.

Diving is just one of the many things you should do while in the Philippines – and Apo reef is just one of many world class dive locations. Diving was also just Part 1 of our epic Philippines adventure. Part 2 took us into the northern part of the main island of Luzon.


If traveling to Puerto Galera – here is our itinerary

How to get from Manila to Puerto Galera

We chose the taxi option straight from the airport in Manila straught to Batangas Pier (about 2 hour ride). You can pre-book for a set cost of  around ~3000php ($55) total, which we split 4 ways with our group.

From the pier catch the Mindoro Island ferry (1-1.5hr ride) to Muelle Peir (Balatero Pier closer to white beach) Note: Ferries stop running at 1630 – something to watch your timing. You will not want to spend the night around the pier area…

White Sand Beach, Puerto Galera

Where we stayed: Victorias bed and breakfast. I would highly recommend this BnB; it is inexpensive and very personable. Breakfast is served on the balcony by Victoria herself. She randomly let us try local fruit, gave us tips on where to go and was always available for any questions we had. We felt more at home here than we have many places we stayed.

When choosing where to stay there are two beach options in Puerto Galera: White Sand beach or Sabang beach. We chose White Sand beach for the quieter evening and based on reviews of the BnB (which did not disappoint).

Activities in Puerto Galera (2 days)

Depending on your beach bum status, I you do not need more than a week in Puerto Galera itself. We chose the below activities out of the many to do. See a good overview here.

Puerto Galera Island Hopping Tour

How To Access: You can make arrangements for an island hopping tour in Muelle Port, Sabang Pier or White Beach. Local fishermen usually take groups of tourists.

Fees: about 30 USD for a chartered boat for 8 persons; additional 12 USD per person for additional activities

Coral Garden, Giant Clams and San Antonio Underwater Cave

Iraya Mangyan Village

Address: Talipanan, Puerto Galera, Occidental Mindoro

How To Access: From White Beach in Puerto Galera, hire a tricycle for a round trip as no regular public transport is available.


Liveaboard – Apo Atoll Reef

We chose Spirit of Diving for our liveaboard. Though inexpensive (about $1Kpp), I would give the company a 3 out 5 stars. Not the best, but we were one of the first groups to try it out so it may have improved with time.


Happy exploring!

Doha Redux

I always make it a goal to never return to the same country twice, but when work makes you travel (and you make the most of that paid for travel) you get to live in the city of Doha for another 6 month stint. I was last here 4 years ago (see 2015 first impressions here) with time in-between spent finishing out my time in Europe, and moving to a small island in the Pacific (Guam)

I thought the last time I left, that I had left no-stone-unturned, that I had seen everything, but coming back for a second time has allowed me to see this international city in a completely new light. I have a new found appreciation for what the country has come from (literally nothing) to the vision it is building for the future.

While my recap of 48 hours in Doha still holds true as some of the best things to do in this city, the continuous construction project that is Doha means it is ever growing — starting with the 2022 World Cup.  I had the opportunity to take a personal tour of one of the stadiums purpose built but for the occasion, Al Wakrah stadium.


Al Wakrah is just one of 9 new stadiums being built by Qatar. The whole complex is state of the art with a/c ventilation coming from each of the stadium seats, fresh grass specially designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the country and rows of seats that not only resemble the waves of the Gulf, but are removable. As a part of the bid to win the world cup, Qatar proposed to make the top half of the stadium movable. This portion of the stadium will be donated to less developed countries, furthering the international sport.

If you have read anything about the bid for Qatar to host the world cup, you are intimately familiar with the human rights accusations (violations) that country has been caught up in. In fact, I myself was surprised by all of the ‘other country national’ labor in 2015. Qataris, making only 10% of their own country, could not sustain all the construction – or any service for that matter – without all of their imported labor. There is certainly an obvious hierarchy that is extremely noticeable and unlike any I have experienced in the western world.

Questionable work force aside – I have been pleasantly surprised by the concerted effort in Qatar to make changes to their health and safety standards as a result of all the negative press.  The tour we took of the stadium was lead by ‘the’ health and safety guy who explained that their are now strict rules on not working 1000-1400 (hottest parts of the day) and continuous tracking on construction mishaps. Better, but still Middle Eastern labor rights standards.

90% of the population of Qatar come from 100 different nations. Doha is such an international mix of people that you get a completely different vantage point on the world. Texas Roadhouse sits right next to Papparoti (Malaysian bun bakery) across from Top Shop (British clothing company), juxtaposed to Zawaya (UAE perfume) all bundled up in one massive mall. In those malls, beautiful women clad in all black Hajibs shop for the latest fashion all the while leaving the air with the most wonderful scents. Nepal is a 4 hour $400 flight as is Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India. Arabic is spoken, but so is English, Tagali and French. It is everywhere, but still somehow Arabian at the same time.

Knowing what to expect out of the Gulf states (new money over historical artifacts), I feel like I am seeing Doha for the first time — rediscovering a place I have been before only to find that I have never actually seen it.

Let’s redux this adventure.


Thailand 2008 v. 2018

I have been to Thailand twice, once in 2008 just as I was about to graduate from college, and almost exactly to the date 10 years later in 2018. You would think the country – or I  for that matter – would have changed at least somewhat drastically between those two periods, yet not much has. I feel the same as my 21 year old self seeing Southeast Asia for the first time. Yet in between, life has happened; 35+ countries and a husband later – I returned to the same spots with my life partner, and new friends re-experiencing this wondrous country.

It’s hard to write a post on Thailand that adds anything new to the body of travel writing dedicated to this beautiful country. Case in point: see here for Bangkok, here for Chang Mai and here for island hopping from Phuket – these three things are pretty much what anyone would recommend you do on your first trip to Thailand. This post will not cover these subjects; instead it is about traveling at large, with Thailand somehow sitting squarely at the intersection of then and now.


I always tell people that I never knew (and still don’t really know) what I want to be when I grow up, but if there was one thing I do know — I want to travel. So I fed my wanderlust as early as possible. At 17 when other High School seniors were plotting their booze cruises to Cancun, I was working two jobs to go to Italy with my world history class. In college, rather than using my scholarship, grants and savings bonds for food and rent, I took three study abroad programs to Spain, Argentina, and Lao PDR. I threw myself into as much culture shock as humanly possible – and still try to, though the bar continues to get set higher and higher.

While each of these incredible experiences were a life education in their own right, Lao PDR open my eyes wide open. People often ask me what my favorite country is and I always answer with all of them. Every country has something different to offer you and much of your personal experience is shaped by the people you are traveling with (or not traveling with) – it is impossible to have a favorite. BUT I do have a favorite region of the world and that is Southeast Asia. It has everything you want when traveling – it is so incredibly different, safe, cheap, and rich in culture.

Lao PDR (or Laos) was a month of experiences you only get as a student trekking up the mountain side, meeting with local governments and knowing that your life was forever changed. Naturally when on this side of the world – it only makes sense to tack on the likes of Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Bangkok, Thailand.

What was Christina’s focus in Bangkok after just spending a month culturally immersing herself? Go out in Bangkok of course.

We stayed in a hostel (classic), went to moon bar and toured the local palaces.


Charlies bar was a pop-up bar in the middle of an alley-way my #1 goal upon returning to Bangkok in 2018 was to find this backpacker hideout, but was unlucky. Moon bar, however, is still one of the top rooftop bars in the world. 


What changed on the 2018 revisit? Not much! I traded 2 girls I randomly met on a study abroad trip for a burly Scotsman. We met up with another British couple, stayed on Khoa San road, ate scorpions and other amazing food.


What has been fun is returning to the same countries or spots that I have been before only to discover that my first trip didn’t even begin to cover it. I make it a point to never go somewhere twice unless absolutely forced, but I might be reconsidering this stance in future years.

On the second round we did tack on an elephant sanctuary (another must) though the experience was more touristy than both my husband and I would have liked. Chiang Mai is a hipsters paradise, so we of course loved it. There are plenty of articles on which Elephant Sanctuary to support – though make sure to book early.

Thailand represents a crossroad between current travel with my life long love and the traveling I did in my early 20s either solo or with girlfriends. As a younger traveler I thought my wanderlust would be satiated with a few years of living abroad. Now into 10+ years of traveling and living abroad, I now know that wanderlust never goes away. It can never be satiated; it is a lifestyle, it is part of who you are.

Surprised that nothing much has changed in 10 years? Me too. Lets give it another 10.