When Dean Haas considers his career so far, he describes its most emotionally difficult period as a two-week "hostage situation" involving a group of Americans "who'd gone to look for Noah's ark." There was, of course, the gunplay and murder at the upscale mall in Bogotá, Colombia. There was, of course, the bomb that exploded in the consulate parking lot in Adana, Turkey. That Haas isn't quick to mention these things is a hint that his job is unlike like most others.
"I usually say it this way, 'I'm just a poor boy from Chula Vista.' We were middle class at best. To be honest, I find my job representing my country most fulfilling when I explain my background and say that I made it on merit. A lot of countries, most countries, don't give their citizens that opportunity."
When I spoke with Haas last spring via Internet instant messages, he was ending a three-year tour as deputy chief of mission, or deputy ambassador, at the U.S. embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
"My parents had high expectations of both my sister and me, even though neither of my parents went to college.
"I'm really a Chula Vista native. My dad, who is now deceased, was from Binghamton, New York. My mom was from Duluth, Minnesota. They migrated to California in the mid-'50s and met there, in San Diego. They married in 1958. They lived in Chula Vista, where I was born. My dad owned a small business in Chula Vista called Radio Service Co. He repaired and sold communications equipment. He did TV and stereo repair and sales as well."
Over the nights and mornings Haas and I typed away at each other (Slovenia is nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time), I talked with Haas about the peculiarities of foreign service life.
"I'm often surprised," Haas told me, "by how little most Americans understand about the work we do."
I understood a little. A friend of mine served in the mid-1990s at the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. It was only recently, after having known my friend for several years, that he told me a colleague he'd much admired was killed in Pakistan. At about 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday, March 8, 1995, at a downtown Karachi intersection, masked gunmen opened fire on a U.S. Consulate van, killing two consulate workers and wounding a third.
My friend didn't say much about the incident. I couldn't tell if this was because what happened was difficult for him to discuss, or if there were intelligence concerns that kept him mum, or if he thought there were aspects of foreign service life that civilians couldn't easily understand. The more I heard about what the State Department refers to as the "foreign service lifestyle," the more unusual it seemed.
"It's really not all that strange," my friend told me. "There are Americans in Tijuana in the 'foreign service lifestyle.' There's a U.S. consulate in Tijuana. It's big. It's a consulate general. You should talk to them."
Liza Davis, a 34-year-old Virginia native with a creamy complexion and shoulder-length brown hair, is the person journalists talk to when they want to find out what's going on at the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana. Davis's title is public affairs officer, and she creates the official face the consulate presents to Mexico and Mexicans and to the Americans whom the consulate serves.
"We're the busiest U.S. consulate in the world," Davis said on the late-spring afternoon we first met. Her tone was upbeat, can-do. "We deal with more deaths, arrests, and injuries of American citizens than any other U.S. consulate.
"We estimate that, at any given moment, there are 250,000 American citizens either living in or visiting the Baja peninsula. And all of those American citizens are deserving of our consular services. We have a whole section for American citizen services. Three or four of our Mexican staff are lawyers. The most senior Mexican employee in our American citizens services section is a lawyer.
"The fundamental reason that consulates and embassies exist is twofold. First, we represent the interests of the United States in foreign affairs -- Benjamin Franklin, our first diplomat, was sent to Europe to do that. And, secondly, we protect Americans overseas. Traditionally, those Americans were sailors, and that's why a lot of consulates were in ports. Our fundamental mission is to protect Americans overseas.
"Let's say you come to Tijuana and you get arrested. At this consulate we're so ramped-up on American citizens' services, we don't even wait for you to call. We call the jails, the morgue, and the hospitals every day, in our whole consular district, all the way down to Baja South. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, on holidays and on weekends, we have duty officers who are making those calls. We all take turns as duty officers. We have such good local relationships that we don't usually have a problem where someone molders for a week because no one knew he was an American. We're in there every day saying, 'OK, who have you got?'
"I've seen some of our fellow citizens do some of the stupidest, most illegal things possible. But I've also seen plenty of people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and through no fault of their own were injured or arrested."
The number of stupid or unlucky Americans whom the consulate helps amazed me.
"About 25 percent of all Americans arrested overseas are arrested in our consular district," Davis said. "In the fiscal year 2004, the total arrests of American citizens in the entire Baja peninsula was 2956. We didn't directly come to the aid of all of them, but someone at the very least took a phone call about them and filled out a form. At the very least the consulate knew they were arrested and was prepared to intervene if necessary. There's everything from arrests for drunk and disorderly conduct to people who were picked up for drug possession or violent crimes. Of those 2956 people arrested, I'd estimate that one-tenth required that we visit them in jail and help them find a lawyer."
To meet Davis, I spent 20 minutes passing through consulate security. A series of large concrete traffic dividers painted Day-Glo orange create an irregular perimeter around the consulate. A dozen or so gray-uniformed guards, all Mexican nationals, patrol this perimeter. The guards wear laminated ID tags that, on the back, describe in English and Spanish the symptoms of exposure to biological and chemical agents.
Sitting on a slight rise across the street from the Tijuana racetrack, the consulate, built in 1961, is a spare three-story rectangular structure faced in white marble. The building's simplicity, and its proximity to, of all things, a racetrack, suggest an era when American power in general and America's relationship with Mexico were less complex. If the consulate's present security arrangement appears provisional, it's because, as Liza Davis told me, the State Department is now looking to buy land for a new and much larger Tijuana consulate. Real estate prices in central Tijuana mean that the new consulate will likely be built farther out.
"The consulate's permanent staff," Davis said, "are already dreading the commute."
Before I could meet Davis, I had to pass through the security booth on the consulate's west side, where two armed guards flanked a heavily reinforced window. Another guard, behind the window, communicated via intercom with all visitors. Inside the booth, three other guards manned an X-ray machine and metal detector. No cigarettes, cigarette lighters, or matches, no cell phones or other "electronic equipment" are allowed to be taken into the consulate. The guards examined my blazer and my blazer's pockets. They examined my shoulder bag and its contents. There was debate as to whether or not my tape recorder constituted "electronic equipment." While one guard made calls regarding the tape recorder, another scrutinized my photo ID and business card. The phone rang: my tape recorder could enter the consulate.
The consulate's lobby resembles every waiting room you've ever seen in any U.S. government agency: rows of plastic chairs face a wall of bank-teller-type windows. Above the windows hang framed headshots of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (As of this writing, the consulate had yet to receive Secretary Rice's official photograph from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.) To the lobby's left, a massive metal gate opens to a stairwell leading to the consulate's offices. Upstairs, the surroundings would soothe even the most ardent small-government zealot. Bookcases packed with books on American art, history, and literature line narrow hallways. Posters about Fulbright scholarships adorn office doors. If anything, the consulate's offices resemble those of a small community college.
"I have many bosses. My ultimate boss is, of course, the Secretary of State," Davis said when I finally sat down with her. "But my orders, writ large, come from the ambassador in Mexico City. He is the president's representative in Mexico. He is the highest-ranking U.S. government official in Mexico. What he says goes in Mexico. Also, my boss is the public affairs officer at the embassy in Mexico City. He's technically in charge of the public affairs programming in Mexico. I also report to the consul general here. And I also report to the Western Hemisphere Bureau at the State Department in Washington.
"If the ambassador wants to do something in a big policy way, if he wants to change U.S. policy in Mexico, I'm not doing that. And I'm not talking directly to Washington about that, nor should I be. That's all going through the U.S. embassy in Mexico City to the State Department and sometimes to the White House. As far as the consul general here is concerned, his boss is the ambassador.
"We have about 125 employees in Tijuana. We've got two facilities, this one here and one down in the Zona Rio district, which is just for visa processing. We have foreign service staff, and civil service staff -- people who commute from San Diego, and what we now call 'locally engaged staff' -- Mexican citizens, like my assistant Lorena Blanco. For most of the foreign service staff, a tour at this consulate is three years, and you can extend for an additional year. The civil service and locally engaged staff are permanent.
"In the foreign service, on your first tour you are what we call an 'entry-level officer.' The way it works now is that as an entry-level officer, your first tour is what we call a 'visa tour,' which is a two-year tour at a consulate or embassy somewhere in the world where you're going to do visa interviews. We have a lot of those entry-level officers here in Mexico, and we've got five or six here in Tijuana. So, any given summer there are three or four entry-level officers rotating in or out. And next summer, I will leave and the consul general will leave. It's not fixed: everybody's on their own schedule. It's not like the House of Representatives, where every two years everybody's reelected. Here, it's staggered."
With a constantly changing staff, who maintains the consulate's institutional memory?
"To a large extent it's our locally engaged staff. That's why every embassy and consulate has a majority of locally engaged staff. My staff, for example, are professional staff members. Lorena is like a media executive in many senses. She's in charge of all our press relations, and it's her job to maintain those relations no matter who the public affairs officer is. Lorena knows who all the players are in the media."
Davis's manner was casual and outgoing, and when I asked about her personal history, her accent changed, little by little, from generic American to soft Southern drawl.
"I was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia, three hours south of DC. I majored in German at the University of Virginia, and I have yet to serve in Germany. I had the classic liberal arts education. I also studied French and a little bit of Russian. You'll find that you really can't generalize about foreign service officers. There are a lot of international relations majors, journalists, everything. Some went to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, and some went to the University of Oregon. They come from all over.
"Right after college, I took the foreign service exam. I heard about it at a cocktail party. A distant relative said, 'Oh, you majored in German. You should take the foreign service exam.' And I said, 'Really, what's that?' And it just sort of snowballed from there. I took the exam at the University of Virginia in 1986. I was literally laughing while I was taking the exam, because it was so hard. It's changed some since I took it, but generally speaking, it's not like all those tests that you took as a kid that measure your ability to learn. It tests what you know.
"There are sections on economics, macroeconomics, on world history. There are questions on the arts. For example, when I took the exam there was a Dorothea Lange photo and you had to identify who the photographer was. Another question was, 'Who is the director of the American Ballet Theatre?' -- at that time it was Mikhail Baryshnikov, which I knew. The exam was very broad and very difficult. There was and still is a part of the exam devoted to English and English grammar. You must pass that section in order to pass the exam. I know that nonnative speakers of English find that section very difficult.
"So, you take the exam and you wait months and months to hear if you've passed. If you do pass, then you schedule the oral exam, which you can take in DC or at several other locations across the country. It's a day-long series of activities with other exam-takers. Generally speaking, it's role-playing. I took the oral exam in DC. We had to role-play an embassy staff meeting. They don't tell you what they're grading you on. They give you a situation and they refuse to answer questions. At our 'embassy staff meeting,' we'd each been given a program that we had to defend funding for. I was given a proposal for giving a radical student group a photocopier and a van. Obviously, they were grading us on our interpersonal skills. I defended the photocopier but not the van, because I felt that it would be 'irresponsible' to give a student group a van. On and on it went. A whole day of this kind of stuff. Now, apparently, they do talk to you about yourself. Back when I did the oral exam, they didn't. They asked me, 'Name five American authors who you think best represent U.S. literature and explain why.'
"Mysteriously, I passed the oral exam as well. If you pass the oral exam, you're given a background clearance in which they literally interview just about everyone you've ever known. They interviewed every landlord of every student apartment I lived in when I was in college, some of whom had never met me. They interviewed every employer I'd ever had for every job I'd ever had, even as a teenager. They spoke to friends. They work from a list that you give them, but they also ask each person they interview, 'Who else should I talk to?' So, they descended on my hometown. It was just the talk of the town the day they were there, because they fanned out through the town, doing it as quickly as possible. For some people it takes longer. If I had traveled all over communist Europe, for example, my background check would have taken forever.
"And then you have your medical clearance. They pay for you to have the most exhaustive physical you can ever imagine.
"If you pass all of that, you're put on a waiting list for jobs, and you're rank-ordered on that waiting list. I don't understand the mysteries of it. But apparently now, for example, you can get a 'veteran's preference' that will put you above other people on the list. You have a certain amount of time to be offered a job from that waiting list, or it's over. If you want to try again, you have to start all over from the beginning and take the exam again. When I was on the list, the waiting period was 18 months.
"The year that I took the written foreign service exam, 15,000 other people took it. Of that 15,000, 250 people were eventually hired."
Davis's first post was, she told me, at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires. She explained that early in the exam process, the career of a potential foreign service officer, or FSO, is directed toward one of five employment tracks or "cones": management, which deals with the day-to-day financial, logistical, and personnel concerns of running an embassy or consulate; consular, which handles issuing visas to foreign nationals and troubleshooting the many problems Americans encounter while abroad, such as imprisonment, death, and lost passports; economic, which involves advocacy for American business interests and analysis of foreign markets and the economic policies of foreign governments; political, which requires monitoring foreign political events and forming recommendations for U.S. policy; and public diplomacy, which tackles the promotion and explanation of U.S. policy and culture via media relations, education, conferences, and exchange programs.
Davis was directed to the public diplomacy cone.
"I was in DC for one year, being trained, and then I was in Buenos Aires for three years. At the embassy level, the public diplomacy, or public affairs, section is huge. We have a cultural attaché, a press attaché. Each has an American officers staff. The public affairs section does everything from running libraries to making sure that U.S. policy is correctly stated in the local media. All of those jobs fall within the 'public diplomacy cone.' The training for those jobs takes place in DC.
"I know it's better now than when I did it. I know they now train you on how to give an interview. They have a course where they tape you giving interviews, and they critique them. My cone tends to attract people who have some experience in those things -- educators, journalists, art historians. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they know how to give a good press interview or a speech or program an event. So, there's a certain amount of training and a certain amount of on-the-job experience that's involved.
"When I went to Buenos Aires I was the 'exchanges officer,' which meant that I had a staff and we managed the 'professional program' in which we sent Argentine professionals to the U.S. for study tours and we also brought Americans down to give speeches and conferences. I had a professional Argentine staff who all had 20 years of experience and I had the support of the bureau back in Washington. So I did learn a lot on the job, but it wasn't as though I was immediately in charge of the entire embassy."
I asked Davis who kept tabs on the personnel needs of all U.S. consulates and embassies.
"It's out of Washington. It's pre-programmed. I know when I get to a post when it is that I'll be leaving. So does Washington. For example, if I were posted in China, which requires two years of language study, by the time I got to my post, my successor would have already been chosen and would be studying Chinese.
"After my tour in Buenos Aires, I went to Managua, Nicaragua, for two years. I was there during the 'good time.' I was there during the last two years of Violeta Chamorro's presidency. The way it works is that the length of a tour depends on where you are. A tour in Baghdad right now could be only one month. Western Europe, it's four years. It depends on the place, the hardship level, the danger level. At the time I was in Nicaragua, it was a 'greater hardship post.' It was still on the cusp of potential unrest politically. It was tropical, so the weather was a factor. There are a lot of factors that go into the designation of 'hardship post.'
"Buenos Aires, for instance, probably doesn't now have a 'hardship level,' but it probably does have a cost-of-living allowance. There are three types of extra pay you can get. There's a cost-of-living allowance for posts like Tokyo, where prices are outrageous. Then there's 'danger pay' for posts like Baghdad or Bogotá. That's a percentage of salary depending on the level of danger and can be anywhere from 5 to 25 percent of your salary. And then there's hardship pay, which can be between 5 to 20 percent of your salary. There are different kinds of hardship -- weather, remoteness, pollution, altitude. Mexico City, for example, has altitude and bad air pollution.
"After Nicaragua, I was in DC for six years and did two different jobs there based on my cone. And then I came here."
It seemed to me that while it might be nice to get extra compensation for air pollution and stress, the "foreign service lifestyle" had to have its own costs.
"I'm single, so I don't have any of the issues of having a family," Davis said. "But I still haven't decided if I want to do this for a living. Even being a single person, to move every two to four years? Well, I don't have any junk in my closet, that's for sure. It's difficult. Every two to four years you get a new job, a new place to live, new culture, new language, new friends, new coworkers. In the civilian world, you might change one or two of those things every now and then. But, in the foreign service, yes, it's difficult."
This difficulty interested me, and I told Davis that I was interested in meeting people who, given other options, had chosen the "foreign service lifestyle." A while later, Davis introduced me to Susan Page, the consulate's management officer.
"She's the person who makes the consulate run," said Davis.
Chic, blonde, somewhere in her forties, Page has a firm handshake and is, as her title suggests, in the "management cone." Page told me she was from Seattle and had entered the foreign service in 1990.
"And in Seattle you were..." I hear myself ask in the recording of our interview.
I count five seconds between the time when my breathy, nasal voice fades away and when Page, her voice clear, declarative, answers.
"I was sort of a lawyer. In Seattle."
"Yeah," laughed Liza Davis, who sat in on the interview. "Sort of a lawyer."
Davis's tone suggested that Page was engaging in understatement.
There was another pause.
"Well, I was sort of a contract lawyer," Page continued. "And then I was sort of a beach bum. I was doing a lot of things."
How had Page learned about the foreign service?
"I think I was looking for another job, and it was in some sort of legal-job newsletter or something. And I just took the test and I passed the first time.
"This is my fourth or fifth post. I was in Bogotá, Colombia. Shanghai. Barbados. Lithuania. And now Tijuana. This is my fifth post. They were all great. Bogotá was OK, but all the rest of them were very good."
I asked Page at what point in her career the difficulty of foreign service life was made clear to her.
"It was pretty much what I expected. If you've already lived overseas on your own, then living overseas under the aegis of the U.S. government is pretty nice. I'd already lived overseas, in Puerto Vallarta, and so I had a good idea of what I was getting into."
I said that the foreign service must present challenges even to people who've already lived overseas.
"You have to learn how to make friends with people quickly. I'll tell you, I have an extra burden because I'm single. If you're single, you don't have a built-in companion to go out to try restaurants and go places with. I don't have that. And so I don't experience as much as a married couple does. And that's...unfortunate.
"But I'm kind of a loner anyway, so I'm perfectly content. I sort of take whatever social life there is and make the best of it. People say to me, 'Oh, social life in the foreign service must be difficult for a single woman.' Well, let me tell you, a middle-aged single woman in Washington DC has no social life with men, you know, or in San Francisco. A woman of a certain age doesn't have a social life anywhere. So, wherever you are doesn't really matter, frankly."
A young man in blazer and tie dropped by to join our conversation.
"Susan," the young man said, "could have fun at an insurance convention."
He introduced himself as Chris Bronk, said he was a vice consul.
"He just got back from defending his Ph.D.," said Davis.
"Political science," said Bronk. "Syracuse."
Bronk said he grew up in New York, in Westchester County, and that he joined the foreign service in 2002.
"This is my first tour. It's been my 'visa tour.' I'm right at the end of it. I'll be going to DC for kind of a goofy job. I'm going to be a consultant in the Office of E-Diplomacy. It's basically figuring out how to use computers more effectively in various levels of the State Department. Using cutting-edge resources."
Bronk said that before entering the foreign service, he and his wife, a corporate lawyer, had lived in Seoul, South Korea, a "crushingly xenophobic place," where he worked for a Korean government agency. He said he loved living overseas.
"But when I got out of college in the early 1990s, the foreign service wasn't hiring," he said.
"Oh, yeah," said Page. "There was pretty much a hiring freeze after I got in."
"At the close of Madeleine Albright's tenure running the Department," Bronk continued, "she initiated some hiring, which became what is now known as the 'Diplomatic Readiness Initiative,' which eventually hired 1500 foreign service officers. I was one of those. The hiring process was streamlined under Secretary Powell. I passed the exam in 2000 and eventually received an offer of employment eight weeks after 9/11."
"Fundamentally, [hiring] all comes down to money," said Davis. "So, for example, when you have to open a new gigantic embassy like the one in Baghdad, new money just doesn't appear. In that case they had what was referred to in shorthand as the 'Iraq tax,' which was that bureaus and posts all over the world had to give up positions and budget in order to transfer not the people but the positions and the money to fund them for Baghdad. The problem is that it comes down to money and what Congress allocates. And Congress, of course, doesn't give you everything you ask for."
The prospect of serving in Baghdad reminded me that on unofficial foreign service websites I'd perused, foreign service officers who'd served at the consulate in Tijuana were very enthusiastic about it. I asked Davis, Page, and Bronk what made the Tijuana post attractive.
"We're ten minutes from San Diego," said Page, "which is probably the most livable city in the United States. And if you've lived overseas for 15 straight years, like I have, this is like doing a stateside assignment while still living overseas and having your housing provided. I feel like I'm living in a Mexican barrio in the United States, but I'm having my housing provided and I'm still in the foreign service."
I asked if the State Department required all foreign service officers at the consulate to live in Tijuana.
"We have to," said Davis. "And we all do."
"This is," said Page, "a foreign service post."
"And we're all on call," said Bronk, "all the time."
"But we don't live across the border from any dumpy city," said Page. "We live across the border from San Diego."
"And people with kids can send them to school in San Diego," said Davis.
"Although there's one family at this post that sends their kids to a school here," said Page. "The British-American school, which is excellent."
I said that I'd also read that morale was high at the U.S. consulate in Tijuana. I said I'd noticed reports of low morale at consulates in more physically glamorous locations.
"I think it's all personality-driven," said Page. "And I think it's all a moveable feast. It changes as people come in and go out. I saw the morale change practically overnight [at the embassy] in Vilnius, Lithuania, where a whole bunch of unhappy people who didn't like each other all happened to leave at the same time. A new group came in who happened to like each other. It was like the difference between night and day.
"Especially at a small post, you can see the morale change the minute a new person comes in. The mix changes a little. At a big embassy, it's different. A small post is very much personality-driven."
"Part of morale is obviously work issues," said Bronk. "At this post, leadership is routinely extended to give the newest officers opportunities to go out on their own and be independent and make their own decisions. At other posts it would be different. In other posts, management would want to keep tighter control. Generally, here, this tone has been set by the consul general."
"But I don't think you'd get as many people interested in serving here if it wasn't ten minutes from San Diego," said Davis. "Let's be real."
"I was offered Juárez," said Page, "which I was told had more challenges that were more career-enhancing, but I said, 'No way.' I'm not interested in living across the border from El Paso."
"I was offered a position in Matamoros," said Bronk, "but I wasn't interested in living across the border from Texas."
"Our joke here," said Page, "is that you hear these first-tour officers debating the merits of this Trader Joe's to that Trader Joe's, this Vons versus that Ralphs. If you've lived overseas for 15 straight years as I have, any Vons is a great Vons. I haven't lived near an American supermarket for 15 years. To be able to get in my car and drive ten minutes to an American supermarket is fabulous."
"But here in Tijuana we do get a 5-percent hardship allowance," said Davis.
"We get a 5 percent allowance for crime and pollution," Davis, Page, and Bronk said almost in unison.
"It's a straight 5 percent of your salary," said Davis. "Like all hardship allowances, it's taxed."
"Every year," said Bronk, "we write a report that says all the things that make it harder to live in Tijuana than anywhere else."
"There are two things every post submits," explained Page. "A post submits a 'differential report' and a 'post report.' The differential report is to get as high an allowance as possible. Differential reports make every post sound like a hellhole. The 'post report' makes every post sound very desirable because it's a recruiting tool, and it's to make people want to go and live there."
"Baghdad has a hardship differential of 25 percent," said Davis. "Kabul has 25 percent. For all posts in Argentina, it's zero. Dacca, Bangladesh, is 25. Micronesia, 20. Mexico City, 15."
The salaries in question are difficult for a civilian to get a feel for. Like salaries for all government jobs, those in the foreign service follow a pay scale. But the foreign service pay scale sometimes changes as administrations come and go, and as Congress warms or cools toward the State Department.
From listening to Davis, Page, and Bronk, the consensus seemed to be that the more "policy-minded" secretaries of state tended to pay less attention to the financial needs of the State Department. Colin Powell, everyone seemed to agree, was very "hands-on" with managing the Department and diligent about lobbying for resources. "He had a lot of pull with Congress." Their attitude toward Secretary Rice was wait-and-see. Their discussion of their salaries went as follows:
"I came in as a 5," said Davis, referring to her initial pay grade. "My starting salary 15 years ago was $35,000. Technically, the lowest starting salary right now for a foreign service officer is $24,677. The top salary now for a foreign service officer is for an ambassador who's been a career diplomat, and that's $180,000. The top salary for a political appointee, meaning an ambassador appointed by the president, is $149,000."
"I came in as a 5.13," said Page. "My starting salary was $37,500."
"I came in as a 4.9," said Bronk.
"You came in as a 4.9?" gasped Davis. "Sixty grand? Man!"
"Well," said Bronk shyly. "I was making a lot of money before I entered the foreign service."
David Stewart, U.S. Consul General in Tijuana, probably has, according to the American Foreign Service Association, an EX-V pay grade. This means his annual salary is, according to the inscrutable Foreign Service Salary Table, somewhere around $131,000. This salary is either generous or so-so depending on how much you might enjoy moving back and forth, as Stewart has, between Washington DC and Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Germany, Romania, the Bahamas, and Pakistan, for more than 20 years with a wife and five kids, including a daughter with a severe developmental disability.
Several weeks after my first visit to the consulate in Tijuana, Liza Davis introduced me to Stewart, a tall, trim, amiable Texan, handsome in the way that father figures in commercials for brokerage houses or engagement rings are handsome. Stewart projected a calm optimism that was most apparent in the all-in-a-day's-work way he described some of the "challenges" he's faced at this post.
"We had the closure down here of these behavior-modification centers, these sort of tough-love centers for American kids who have drug-abuse or emotional problems. The Mexican government decided to close them down. We got notice that morning that they'd decided to close them down. We immediately sent people to each of the three places around Ensenada. The [Mexican government] was in the process of deporting people. We had one junior officer at one of these schools where there were four or five hundred kids. All U.S. nationals. And these are kids who were sent there because of emotional or drug problems. This happened on a parent weekend when there were 100 parents down there getting reintroduced to their kids, who were in a very structured environment. All of a sudden they see these guys in black uniforms blockading the school. It looked pretty ominous. You know, 'men in black.' The parents didn't know what was going on. We had a consular officer, a first-year junior officer, who went down there and was holding town-hall meetings, telling the parents, 'Your kids are OK!'
"The Mexican government closed the schools down, which meant that the schools lost their authority real fast. And these kids figured out, 'Hey, we're going home!' So, our security officer was also there. Our staff was there trying to manage the situation before it degenerated into a Lord of the Flies scenario, which was a very, very real possibility. At one point there were three fights going on simultaneously. But we handled it. We did a fantastic job down there.
"We had another situation in which someone came by the consulate and said, 'This baby's an American and I'm leaving it. Bye!' It was a Friday afternoon. The first thing we had to do was run around the consulate and ask, 'OK, who knows how to change diapers?' And we had to send someone out to buy some."
("The baby was eventually repatriated," Liza Davis later told me. "We had to track it through footprints on baby records. It was a nightmare.")
Incidents like those, Stewart said, demonstrate what makes the Tijuana post unique. The border itself, the constant interplay between the U.S. and Mexico, creates the sorts of problems "you certainly wouldn't deal with if you were posted in Paris.
"You get 15-year-old kids who decide to skip school and they go to a foreign country, Mexico. That sort of problem. You wouldn't encounter it at other posts. Kids just don't skip school and get on a plane to the Bahamas."
Stewart, who said he entered the foreign service in 1981, seemed so unflappable that I wondered about his background.
"I went to college at Harvard, where I studied economics. I got a master's at Duke. After college, my wife and I took a year and traveled around the world. We had two shoulder bags. We were on a ten-dollar-a-day budget. Actually, our first child was born in the Philippines. That was my first contact with the State Department, when I went to the embassy to register our daughter as an American citizen.
"My wife is from Austria and was the daughter of missionaries in Africa. She was the first European baby born in the kingdom of Rey Bouba in northern Cameroon. The king proposed to her family, and she would have been his 51st wife. But they didn't take him up on the offer. Thank goodness they turned him down.
"I taught high school for two years in Virginia. And I taught a year in India at an embassy school. My background isn't like that of military or foreign service brats for whom going into government service is just something that you do. There was no tradition of that in my family, but all four of my adult kids are all working for the government.
"I took the foreign service exam before I went to India. It was very interesting because I was teaching the children of diplomats and that sort of gave me insight into foreign service life. One of my concerns was the stress and strain on the family. My personal view is that most people I know who leave the foreign service leave for family reasons. It's not the terrorism or the hardship. Most of us adapt to that. Spousal employment issues. Children's educational issues. Those are some of the big issues that cause people to leave.
"When I joined the foreign service, I said I'd never go to Mexico. It's so close you think you know it. But I've ended up serving in Mexico twice. I was in the consular cone. In the old days the political and economics officers were the ones who generally got the leadership jobs and became ambassadors. That's really changed. The consular work is sort of natural for a schoolteacher. Because we take care of Americans, we tend to get that social-worker attitude. I chose consular work because I like being around people. It has the same sort of attraction as the helping professions."
I asked Stewart to give me an idea of what he did as consul general.
"The border posts are unique in the foreign service. We spend a great deal of our time interacting with U.S. officials and Americans. Yesterday, for example, I was at PetCo Park on third base for the national anthem. I escorted a Mexican boy out to throw the first pitch, which was to Ronald McDonald. I was there because the owner of the team dedicated that game to this outstanding children's hospital here in Baja. This is the only foreign service post where I would be representing the United States in the United States at an event that Americans had organized. As far as the hospital was concerned, I was representing Mexico.
"Most of my time is spent dealing with Mexican officials, the Mexican media. Because we have a very high rate of American visitors, we deal a lot with Tijuana's city officials. At the state level, we deal with a variety of issues. I would deal with the governor, attorney general, as needed. On the federal level, I would deal with immigration issues, customs issues. I would deal with the Mexican federal police and the Mexican foreign ministry's fraud division regarding things like passport fraud.
"We deal with the press a lot. The focus in Tijuana is very much on port-of-entry issues, waiting times, facilitation. We get very involved in protecting American citizens. Where I would get involved would generally be in instances of avoiding problems. We worked with the Tijuana mayor's office to have students pass out flyers during spring break that discouraged students from buying drugs. I'd also deal with problems of police extortion.
"Something that I and the Mexican consul general in San Diego organized, with my initiative, is a mechanism through which officials from all three levels of both governments can get together and address problems. Back in the old days, if you had a problem such as, say, a Tijuana policeman came across the border with his gun and got arrested, you'd have to go through Washington and Mexico City to deal with it. Now we can deal with it locally.
"Regarding the issue of Mexican police mistreating American visitors, we were able to use this mechanism to get the San Diego chief of police over here to meet with the Baja attorney general and work out an arrangement. A victim of crime here, especially if the perpetrator was a policeman, would usually want to get out of Mexico. The first person to hear about the crime was usually a U.S. law-enforcement official. Now we've worked out a way for U.S. law enforcement to take down the information, send it to us here at the consulate, and let us make sure it gets to the Mexicans. We don't want criminals to benefit either way."
I asked Stewart what he had learned about Tijuana through his interaction with the city.
"I think in a lot of ways Tijuana looks very, very different from the United States. But in a lot of ways they share many of the values that we have, because Tijuana is a city of migrants. In most parts of the world where we foreign service officers serve, we interact with elites in traditional societies that have always been in charge. You know, their grandfather was a friend of the British governor, and now they're a friend of the U.S. consul general. In Tijuana, it's like many parts of our country; it's a very young city. Most of the leaders here in Tijuana, hardly any of their grandparents are from here.
"In some ways, that can make my work harder. In most places in the world, there are only a few players. And even in Mexico, it can be that way. When I talk to a colleague in, say, Mérida or Guadalajara, I hear that these are 500-year-old cities where the So-and-So families have always been running things. In those places, there are fewer people you have to get to know. And, remember, when we come to a post, we have to become instant experts.
"So, Tijuana's got a rough kind of appearance, but at its core it's got a lot of the values we have. People who are not so well off in other parts of Mexico, who have the spunk and the courage and the get-up-and-go attitude, come up here. And that's basically our story. It's a self-made town. Another aspect is that Tijuana doesn't get a lot of resources from the federal government in Mexico City. Mexico City may have a heavily federally funded opera or symphony, but here it's very grassroots. And that's very American, too. It's very from-the-ground-up."
Since Stewart was entering the final year of his tour in Tijuana, I asked what his plans were.
"I thought very seriously about quitting the foreign service during my third tour, when I was in Pakistan. There were family reasons, and career reasons. Later on I spoke with the director general of the Foreign Service, who's in charge of all personnel. I thought I was really unique. And the director general basically said, 'Everyone thinks about quitting on their third tour.' And a lot do. Your first tour is your excursion tour, your tourist tour, you're overseas in a new country and you're loving it. On your second tour you go somewhere else, and it's different and you love it. You've gone from China to Africa or to Europe. By the third tour you think, 'This is getting old.' It's like the seven-year itch. So, a lot of people on their third tour leave before it's too late. But the director general told me, 'Listen, David, if you haven't left by your third tour, quit complainin'. Quit complainin'. If you haven't quit by your third tour, you're too vested. You're not gonna leave.' So, obviously, I never left. I'm in for the long haul.
"For my next post, either I will go to a real difficult, hard place, and my wife and daughter will go to New Mexico, where we have a home, or my wife, daughter, and I will go to London, Paris, Rome, or Madrid. We'd like to be in Europe."
Stewart's main concern was, he said, his daughter with Down syndrome, who will soon be leaving the Kentucky boarding school she's attended since 1998.
"The continuity's been better for her there. She's on the basketball team. She has a boyfriend. She has a very full life there. We're very grateful for that. She flies out here every couple of months, and that's one of the reasons why Mexico and the Caribbean worked out for us. She had to be able to fly to us easily.
"The problem with foreign service assignments is that you're always trying to find a place that's good for your career and that's good for your family. It's always a compromise. The fact of the matter is that the State Department has been very supportive, but the reality is that most of the world doesn't provide what your average American takes for granted in an American public school."
Lorena Blanco, Liza Davis's assistant and the consulate's media coordinator, is planning to move on, too. Although, she says, "It will probably take me at least five years to get American citizenship. I don't get any special treatment just because I work at an American consulate."
Blanco is a petite woman, a mother of two sons, who's one of those Tijuana natives who learned to speak excellent English by watching American television.
"I remember I used to watch The Brady Bunch, and The Osmonds, and that cartoon, Underdog.
"My dad learned to speak English after he came here from Sonora in the 1930s. Sometime in the 1940s, he got a job at the racetrack. Back then, the racetrack was a main source of employment for people coming to Tijuana. They used to pay them in dollars. It was a big deal. He was a cashier there. The racetrack was a great place to work.
"Because I was born and raised here at the border, I didn't grow up thinking of San Diego as foreign. We crossed back and forth across the border all the time. From when I was very young, my mother took us to the beach in San Diego, to the Silver Strand. We'd buy our groceries in San Diego. We used to go to parks in Chula Vista. There was one that had a pool. We'd go there and it cost 25 cents. San Diego and Tijuana weren't separate to me. They blended into a region.
"I went to a high school here in Tijuana where I was able to study about hotels and tourism for three years. Since I already spoke English, I had an advantage. The English courses were very easy for me. After high school I went to work for an airline, Aeroméxico. I started out working at passenger check-in at the airport. The job gave me a lot of opportunities to travel. All over Mexico, Europe, the Bahamas, New York. It was wonderful. The pay was really good. I was 18 years old when I started working there, and I stayed for ten years.
"When I was working at the airport, the American consul, Larry Colbert, whom everyone liked a lot, used to travel often to Hermosillo. One time, the public-relations manager at the airport said, 'Oh, the American consul is traveling, and I don't have the VIP room set up. You speak English, can you help me out?' I said, 'Sure!' This was right after Aeroméxico went bankrupt and working conditions were pretty hard. So, in the VIP room I started talking to the U.S. consul and he asked me about my job. I explained that things had gotten difficult, and he said, 'Would you be interested in working at the consulate?' I said, 'Why not?' And he wrote down the name and phone number of the consulate's administration officer and said, 'Give him a call and tell him that you're calling on behalf of Larry Colbert.' "
Eventually, Blanco was hired as a clerk in the immigrant-visa section.
"What many people probably don't know is that in order for the State Department to hire foreign service nationals like me, we have to get approval, as a matter of protocol, from the Mexican foreign ministry to be allowed to work for the U.S. government. I got approval.
"By 1993 the immigrant-visa section was closed, and all the immigrant-visa work for all of Mexico was sent to Ciudad Juárez. So, here, they laid off around 30 people. But there was one job opening, and that was as receptionist for the consul general. Five people applied, including me, and I got the job. Previous receptionists didn't speak any Spanish. After working in that job for two years, I got this position.
"I had three weeks of training in Washington and two other U.S. cities, Atlanta and Portland. We were taken to newspapers to meet editors. We were taken to CNN. In Portland, we visited local newspapers. In Washington, we got to know the State Department and learned how to treat the media. It was pretty useful.
"The highlight of this position is creating channels of communication between the U.S. government, which we represent, and the Mexican public. I deal with all the media here in Tijuana, radio, TV, print. I'd guess around 20 different media outlets. We also deal with U.S. media. Any media who call from either side of the border talk to me. Only three people at the consulate are authorized to talk to the media: the consul general, Liza, and me.
"Every day I read all the local papers and read all the news. I tape and watch one news broadcast from Mexico City. I monitor the local radio stations in Tijuana, which is important because people will call in to complain about how they get treated at the consulate, or they call in with visa questions. All the radio announcers refer those people to me."
During her time as the consulate's media coordinator, Blanco has, she said, weathered several "extremely, extremely difficult situations": first, the eviction in 1999 of more than 100 Americans who owned property at the Punta Banda beachfront development in Baja California. Also in 1999, San Diegan Donald Kraft, involved in a car accident north of Ensenada, died after Mexican authorities refused to let him cross the border for medical treatment. In September 2004, as Consul General Stewart described, Mexican authorities shut down the behavior-modification centers in Ensenada.
September 11, however, was "really, really terrible" for Blanco.
"They shut down the border. They closed the consulate. Everyone else, except us, of course, was sent home. My public affairs officer was just stuck to the television, and he wasn't taking care of the media. So, I had to do all of the media. And we were getting tons of media. We had one TV reporter, a woman, who came down here to the consulate in her pajamas to get a statement from us. Of course I talked to them all, saying, 'We're in shock. We had to close the consulate.' So at 1:00 a.m. I went out in back of the consulate and started crying and crying. I don't even want to remember it."
Had her job changed her perception of America?
"I went from a 100 percent Mexican company to working for a 'foreign' enterprise. It's odd, isn't it? My perception of the United States has always been that it was a very strong and important country. Although I've always lived here in Tijuana, my goal is to someday live in the States. I don't want to remain here.
"I know it's not good to compare. When I worked for Aeroméxico, I loved my job. But, to make the comparison, it's so much better for me to work with U.S. employers. I loved my job with a Mexican company, but Mexican employers, although they care for their employees, they like them to be very simple and subservient. I didn't like that.
"It's totally different working for a U.S. entity or place like this one, as opposed to working for Mexicans. Where I worked, for example, there was always favoritism, and that doesn't happen here at the consulate. Everyone is more equally treated, and I really appreciate that.
"I basically know that Americans are so different from us. We're more driven by heart. We're very, I don't want to say sentimental, but we're very warm. I don't know if that's a virtue or not. We're driven more by emotions. We're more open in some ways than Americans. Americans can be cold, but in a job situation, I would prefer that, because Americans like people to bring results to what you're doing. I remember at Aeroméxico, we were closely monitored by the management. Here at the consulate, I have a lot of freedom to do whatever I need to do. I can make my own decisions. I can talk to whomever I want. That's something I admire about U.S. culture. It's very work-oriented, and I think that's very healthy.
"I am a Tijuanense, a Tijuana native, but things have gotten so bad here. In terms of crime, in terms of public safety. I read the papers every day. I know what's going on here. Crossing the border has become so difficult. In the past two years, it's been more and more on my mind. In the past two years, it's gotten more difficult to live here.
"I have two sons, and they were born in the United States. We paid for our own medical expenses. Our sons can have dual nationality. I would eventually like to live in the United States, work as something like, I don't know, a spokesperson for CalTrans. I know there are plenty of openings, because the need for bilingual professionals is growing and will continue to grow."
I asked if Blanco's work at the consulate had made her in some ways American.
"I think that I've always been American. In the sense that I've always spent half of my time there. I live and work here, but I tend to spend all of my free time there. It's like I'm split. I'm 50-50. I'm a very typical Baja Californian.
"I love my city. I love Tijuana. I was born and raised here. But things have changed so much that I don't want to spend the rest of my life here. And that makes me sad, because I love Tijuana so much."
As Blanco and I were finishing up, Liza Davis stopped by Blanco's office and offered to take me to her apartment to see "how a public affairs officer lives." Davis and I cruised out of the consulate's parking lot in a hefty SUV with diplomatic plates. A few minutes later we were pulling into her two-car garage in Chapultepec, one of Tijuana's swankier neighborhoods.
"My commute takes as much time as listening to one song on the radio," said Davis, ushering me inside her white, airy, three-bedroom, two-bath home. A two-level patio at the back of the house looks out over the Tijuana golf course and, beyond the green, to the Tijuana Country Club where, a few days before my visit, ten masked gunmen dressed in black had in full daylight abducted a gentleman from the club's entrance.
"The State Department rents places all over the world and owns only a few," Davis said. "Here in Tijuana, we own a couple of apartments. In all cases, a security officer has to come around and check out the place's security. They will usually negotiate with the landlord to do any upgrades, like the bars here on all the windows and the alarm system."
On the big white northern wall in Davis's living room hangs a collection of 16 different paintings depicting a natural land bridge.
"My hometown is in Rockbridge County," said Davis. "It was at one time part of property owned by Thomas Jefferson. And George Washington as a very young man surveyed it, and his initials are still carved into the side of the land bridge. Now a highway goes across the top of it."
Our voices echo in the large room.
"The weight allowance for every move is 9000 pounds for a single person," explained Davis. "I don't have anywhere near 9000 pounds. If you're going to a place that's completely unfurnished, it's 18,000 pounds."
Davis patted the back of a chair upholstered in cream-colored damask.
"This place is semi-furnished. This chair belongs to the State Department. That 'charming' oak-veneer chest over there belongs to the government, too. There's a catalog, but you don't get to choose from it. It shows all the State Department furniture's basic sets in three or four different styles. So when we go to each other's houses, we say things like, 'Oh, I had that same furniture in Eritrea!' If you're very unlucky you end up in a place where they've kinda cobbled together stuff. In the dining room, for example, the table will be one style and the chairs another."
Among the few pieces of furniture Davis brought with her to Tijuana is a Shaker rocking chair. I asked if anything in the apartment was particularly meaningful to her.
"I used to say that I would never take anything overseas that I would mind if it fell off the boat. I do have my great-grandmother's china, 19th-century china. Her name was Izora Patrick. Her ancestors came over from Scotland. And I use her china. I used to have it packed in boxes thinking, 'Well, I'm just not going to take it with me.' But I thought, 'That's ridiculous. Why should I deny myself the use of it?' So I have heirlooms that I do take with me. But if I were going to a place like Liberia where they might have to evacuate me quickly, I wouldn't take that kind of stuff."
In a den to one side of the living room stood a card table on which Davis had heaped a confusion of papers, magazines, photographs.
"In the foreign service, you're always purging," Davis explained. "You're always getting rid of things you don't really need."
Looking at the jumble of stuff, I had a sense of the demands that globe-trotting makes on a person's life. I thought of a conversation I'd had with someone who's lived next door to people in the foreign service.
Two thousand six hundred eighty miles from Liza Davis's home, Robin Yi, a 40-year-old San Diego native and SDSU graduate, lives in Vienna, Virginia. Yi, who did postdoc work in psychology at Johns Hopkins, lives in Vienna with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. Yi describes her community as a "parklike suburb about 15 miles west of Washington DC." She says many foreign service families choose Vienna because its schools are good and its housing is less expensive than that of areas nearer the capital.
Since moving to Vienna five years ago, Yi has gotten to know a half-dozen or so foreign service families.
"They're usually not slow-to-warm-up types. They tend to be very bright and very friendly. They're all very smart. The foreign service seems to have a lot of we-want-to-save-the world, hard-working, idealistic types. At least one of the foreign service people we've gotten to know had been a former Peace Corps volunteer.
"We've met several of these families through our daughter. We all share the same playgrounds. My impression has been that because foreign service people know they may be moving around a lot, they make friendships quickly. Because they're so well informed about politics and culture and world events, and because they're so personable, they're great people to have as friends. But the downside to having them as friends is that they move around a lot.
"In one of these families we made friends with, the plan was that the husband was here in DC to learn some Slavic language. He was suddenly posted in Iraq, and because of the security situation there, his family couldn't go with him. The wife moved to be closer to her family in southern Virginia. In another family we know, the husband was here learning Arabic and expected to be posted in Saudi Arabia. But he was suddenly sent to Iraq. His wife returned to Mexico City, where she was from, so that she and the kids could be near her family. Another family we got close to fairly quickly has suddenly left for Singapore. Our kids had just two playdates before the family left for Singapore.
"I don't regret meeting or making friends with any of these people. I'm sure we'll make friends with other foreign service families in the future. Nobody has a guarantee that they're going to be doing just one thing and be staying in just one place. These folks are guaranteed that they're not going to be staying in any one place for very long. They're very good about keeping in touch. We exchange e-mail addresses and write back and forth. We sometimes talk on the phone. What I've realized, now that I understand the foreign service a little better, is that these folks come back to DC eventually, so it's not as though we'll never see them again. It's something we can look forward to."
After we left Davis's house, she dropped me near my car, not far from the consulate. Wind blowing from the southwest smelled of rain. Sunlight slanting through coastal clouds illuminated the hillsides north of Zona Rio. The contrast between the rickety homes on those hills and the gardens and high walls of Chapultepec is one you find all over Latin America, all over the developing world. For an instant I had the sensation of not knowing where I was, that I could have been anywhere, really, far from home. It requires a certain personality to take disorientation in stride.
"I've always been pretty straitlaced and disciplined," Dean Haas told me the last time we spoke. "I was a good student always. No smoking, no drinking, no rebellion, no drugs. Never. My parents always had high expectations, and I learned later in life that parental expectations are a key to success for many kids. My parents insisted on good behavior in school even more than good grades. The nuns at Catholic school helped with this a bit, too.
"I attended St. Pius X Elementary School, then Bonita Vista Junior and senior High Schools. I graduated UCSD in 1983 with a major in history and with minors in economics and English literature. In 1985, at Point Loma College, I took the foreign service exam pretty much on a lark. And I passed! The more I heard about the career, the more I realized it was something I might enjoy, especially the fact that you change jobs every two to three years and can do completely different assignments.
"I was hired by the State Department in 1987, and after about four months of initial training, I went to Ottawa, Canada, to our embassy. I worked a lot of time in the consular section, issuing visas and also assisting American citizens, but I also worked in the management section in the embassy and in the political section for a while. In political, I helped follow and report on a Canadian federal election campaign (Brian Mulroney's second mandate). In management, I learned a lot about how the embassy works logistically. I also helped support two presidential visits to Canada. When our presidents travel, it involves a lot of people and organization with the embassy in the middle of it all.
"The way it's worked out is that I spent two years in Canada, two years in Adana, Turkey, three years in DC, two and a half years in Bogotá, Colombia, four years in DC, and now three years in Slovenia."
The turning point in Haas's career occurred, he told me, in 1990.
"I had been headed to do consular and management work at a three-American consulate, kind of a sleeper, it could be argued, in southern Turkey. I was literally on the way to Turkey, on a stop in Paris, when Saddam invaded Kuwait.
"With the invasion, life changed completely. Within two weeks of arriving in Adana, I was at the Iraqi/Turkish border doing political reporting and trying to figure out if any Americans were trying to escape across the border.
"We entered a period of buildup for the war. Incirlik Air Base is about eight miles from Adana, and most of our work was centered on the military side of things. About 5000 military members and their families were on the base. We worked closely with the Command. Things got dicey all over. We ended up with a bomb going off in our consulate parking lot one evening. CNN came, etc. No injuries, but damage to vehicles. My boss, the consul, had his life threatened by a terrorist group. His picture and the threat were in the newspaper, and he was pulled from the post. I moved onto the base during the actual Gulf War.
"After the war, you'll recall that the Kurds started to flee northern Iraq. They all came into our consular district, and the refugee operation called Provide Comfort began. This ultimately morphed into Operation Northern Watch, which guarded the skies of northern Iraq for years, up to our going in a couple years ago. That operation had General Shalikashvili at its helm at one point, then General Tony Zinni. Those names became very well known as time went on, you'll recall. Our deputy chief of mission in Ankara at the time was Marc Grossman. He returned later as ambassador and also served in very high places in Washington. I got to work with him and his team a lot. Grossman just retired, having served last for Secretary Powell as our undersecretary for political affairs, number three in the State Department.
"So, the 'sleeper post' turned wild, and I got the chance to work with people who were truly fantastic to deal with and learn from. Voila. It's largely about luck."
Of course, what Dean regards as "luck" is not what civilians often regard as "luck." Successful, or at least fruitful, foreign service careers involve what civilians would regard as unlucky situations.
"During my time in Turkey," Haas told me, "a group of Americans who were 'searching for Noah's ark' was kidnapped by a Turkish terrorist group, the PKK. I was sent out to talk to local government officials about the case. My colleagues and I took turns monitoring it from closer in to the likely kidnapping site in eastern Turkey. I don't recall how many days they were held. It was at least two weeks. In the end, we had pulled back some from the area, and then we got word they were being released.
"So, I flew back out to the area and was the first American they saw when they were let go. We flew them out of the area on Black Hawk helicopters, as I recall. That was a God-bless-America moment."
About the gunplay in Bogotá:
"I was in a movie theater at a big, beautiful shopping mall when a jewelry store in the mall was robbed and shots were fired. We were locked down in the theater not knowing what was going on outside. But there had been a robbery and a murder. I called our security, and they dispatched to the mall to whisk away me and a group of other diplomats (including Canadians). So, that was a dramatic highlight of my time in Bogotá. Every day we were driven to work from our homes in semi-armored vans. It was part of our security precautions."
(And, later, as an aside, Haas said, "I get most nostalgic for Bogotá. Colombia is a tragic country because it has such incredible potential [natural resources] and people but has been torn apart by inner strife for so long that it is hard to imagine it ever becoming what it could be. But I loved the Colombians who worked for and with me and found the country truly incredibly beautiful, or at least that part I was allowed to visit. I have a deep love for the people and place and would return to work there again without a doubt.")
Haas told me that after he ends his tour in Slovenia this summer, "I will return to Washington to be the director of the entry-level division of the office of career development and assignments in our Bureau of Human Resources. A mouthful. What it means is that I will oversee a staff of about 20. We'll all work with our new hires into the Foreign Service. We'll assign them to jobs, guide their early careers, and help resolve issues they might have during their probationary period. So, it's a huge mentoring responsibility and something I've hoped to do for some time."
At the very end of the time Haas and I spent typing at each other, I asked what things he kept in his Ljubljana apartment to remind him of home. He mentioned a brown leather chair he bought in DC, ceramics and textiles purchased in Turkey and Colombia, novels by Isabel Allende and Pat Conroy, nonfiction by Bob Woodward and Richard Holbrooke.
"I bring with me also a cookie jar from my childhood. It's a cookie jar in the shape of a pig's head, and it says on it, 'Go Ahead, Make a Pig of Yourself.' When I was a kid, I would eat out of it a lot! My mom gave it to me many years ago."
Dean Haas, U.S. deputy chief of mission, still thought of San Diego as home?
"I'll always be a San Diego boy.
"I own an apartment in DC that overlooks Rock Creek Park. And it's very beautiful. I have an appreciation for 'inside the beltway.'
"But whenever I fly in over San Diego...Well, I fly a lot. I fly into a lot of cities in many different parts of the world. I can tell you that it's always impressive to fly in over San Diego. Whenever I fly in over San Diego and I see the California Tower in Balboa Park, I feel that I am home."