Embassies are odd places, each have a distinct character, with similarities – separate spaces serve different purposes behind the walls, gates and guards. Embassies often consist of formal spaces with fine china; the grunting heart of offices and activity; the halfway space for meetings and gatherings; and expatriate clubs or recreation centres out the back, where drinking happens.
I’ve spent varying amounts of time in embassies in three countries, in different capacities – formal meetings in my best clothes and United Nations lanyard asking ambassadors to support an HIV project; dry briefings about Australian led projects or politics; interesting briefings about happenings in the world; formal receptions; polite drinks; evacuation planning; and impolite binge drinking which once concluded in a very small inflatable boat with a friend in our underwear, in the Dutch Club’s pool at 3am.
Security to get in mirrors the vibe outside. Tougher climes will require a complex process:
- Approach the gate, metal box slides out, into which goes ID, maybe passport
- Often the ID is swapped for a visitor pass
- Signing in the book
- Once checked, though a security door into a holding area for bag checks and xray, metal detector, explosive test, and pat down
- There may be questions, or maybe not
- Often there is a list involved.
Refreshingly, accessing the grounds of the Australian Embassy in Vanuatu required nothing more than saying my name, and in I trot. The Australian Embassy hosts drinks: a casual affair as people plan boat trips, discuss the volcano, and size each other up by how long they had been in the country over gin and tonic.
The vibe in the social clubs of the embassies in Dhaka was considerably different, as people sought safe harbour behind the gates.
The American Recreation Centre, attached to the American Embassy in Bangladesh is pure Team America: its big, it has alcohol, it has everything, and sleeping with an American soldier granted me access to even more alcohol and the fancy fancy gym. Well played indeed. The many messy nights were a strange mix of US soldiers, UN, expats, mosquitoes and a couple of well connected locals. American soldiers are notoriously easy to shock: Lisa and I drink whisky, and had a standard response when approached. ‘This is Lisa, she is here to study abortions, and I’m here for AIDS.’ More than one man would back away, confused, confronted, whatever – we didn’t care. We were drinking whisky. Just leave us to it.
A few emails and I’m on the list for drinks at the US Embassy in Timor-Leste. I’m curious to see inside the imposing compound. There doesn’t seem to be many Americans here, a few soldiers, the occasional NGO worker, and the Peace Corp is back. The embassy squats on a huge chunk of prime real estate facing the harbour, with the usual sharp fence and manicured lawns. Guests are corralled into an open area by an Olympic size pool: a clean looking group of consular and NGO types and a fair Portuguese contingent. The stressors of the week manifested into some hard drinking, which I later regretted. Ah, these things happen, no point being hard on myself. This is not really my scene, and thankfully there are options in Dili. One is drinking wine at home with the cat.
Embassies can have a touch of Canberra about them, particularly in the office area. People who work in embassies are a bit different to on the ground NGO people; they wear nice shoes and look like they are in air-conditioning most of the time. A consular staff member spoke to me at length about how impressive he is because he has lived here for a number of years. But he had never carried his own 20 litre drinking water, and probably never caught a mikrolette. All experiences are on a sliding scale, and I’m sure I’d hate to tough it out in a village like the Peace Corp, but I’m not sure if I’m cut out for embassy life either. But the money would be nice …
Consular staff do more than have access to 24 hour water, electricity and transport – they manage big chunks of aid money through strategic programs. They monitor security and who’s in town. It’s nice to know that if things get really heavy, my embassy will step up. The evacuation meetings in Bangladesh were straight forward – there will be an aeroplane, you will be left in Singapore, we will get you out. Be careful, now have an Australian beer. Thankfully it never came to that.
A call checking my location from a tired sounding man at the Australian Embassy in Nepal came a few days after the earthquake. ‘Be safe’ he said as a way of saying goodbye. ‘You too’ I respond.
Elections are deeply significant to countries that have been denied self-governance. We have confidence that the elections next month in Timor-Leste will be peaceful, but if they aren’t, there is a plan. I’ve been in this privileged position before; due to the accident of birth I’m a citizen of a country that affords me options if things go bottom up. On one hand I’m immensely grateful, but on the other I’m acutely aware that 1.2 million people here don’t have the luxury of a safe passage to Darwin. It’s a complex thought that I haven’t really unpicked yet, and maybe I don’t want to.
I have yet to score an invite to the formal space in the Australian Embassy to Timor-Leste, but I imagine it is similar to the good room at the Australian High Commission in Bangladesh: lovely carpets in a climate not suited to carpets, art, space, leather couches that you sink into, delicate cups, wanting to be on my best behaviour. The corresponding space at the Dutch Embassy down the road in Dhaka felt like visiting a casually wealthy, cool, elegant old uncle. If I play my cards right in Dili, I may just get served tea in a fancy cup. Maybe.
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