There is a website called "Stuff Expat Aid Works Like" which pokes fun -- and quite accurately describes -- the world of the Expat aid person. While the site is geared mostly at those working for NGOs, much applies to us corporate aid workers as well.
Aiport lounges, swearing in foreign languages, debriefing, and local literature are all more or less accurate. Much of this is actually not funny when you encounter it in real life - Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport really does suck big time and I will go out of my way to make sure that friends aren't caught in the belly of this particular beast. Driving the famous white Toyota Landrover (as UN people do, and what is that big black thing anyway?), telling gruesome health stories, and sharing details about the local work ethic are always popular, too.
I check this site maybe twice a year or so and read through the archives. A few days ago I thought the entry called "Food" was very spot on and posted a link on my Facebook page:
Expat aid workers like food. More specifically, they like talking about all the trouble they go through to get it. Items that had very little value in their pre-EAW life now get elevated to the same level of importance as, for example, oxygen. Get a few EAWs together and sooner or later the conversation will migrate to cereal. “I’ve got to get some corn flakes. Know any shops that have them?” one might say. This lets everyone know that a) you know the local situation well enough to know which essential items are in short supply and b) emphasizes your suffering because it can’t be found.
A friend of mine asked, incredulously, "Irony?"
Well, yes, some. Although the biggest irony is that most of it is just true. Food is nourishment first, yes. But food is also about comfort. Those brownies you want when you are really blue, the chili you crave when it gets cold outside, the chocolate cake you always bake for your kids' birthdays, those are more than just food. So what if you cannot get red beans, cocoa powder, brown sugar, baking powder, chocolate, or tomatoes in whichever form? Your kids love pancakes but few countries actually sell maple syrup at non-extortionist prices. You can only shlep so much maple syrup in your suitcase (especially with those modern luggage allowances). Then there is that one kind of candy you love so much, or those special potato chips, or Chex Mix, tortilla chips, Habanero hot sauce, Sauerkraut, or, or, or...
It is certainly true that you can work around most items. It requires a certain kind of imagination and ingenuity which is something I'm kind of proud of. It also requires a lot of advance planning. No ingenuity will serve you when you don't buy the one-year-supply of baking powder when you go to Armenia (five years ago). Maybe if you have a chemistry set. All the fancy baking supplies are usually not available in second and third world countries. Sprinkles? Not in this country. Sure, you can use M&Ms instead but really, just buy that can of sprinkles and bring it. Also bring a few boxes of cereal - my boys love Clifford Cruch and Gorilla Munch. That'll fill your suitcase right up.
Another EAW must respond in turn “Can you believe I had to pay fourteen thousand shillings for a box of raisin bran?? That’s highway robbery!” EAWs make a lot of sacrifices to save humanity. EAWs who are feeling generous will let their colleagues know when certain unexpected items can be found (after they’ve bought all they need). They might send their friends an SMS message: “Just saw cream cheese at the store. Send your driver to get some before it’s gone.”
Which is a nice thing to do! Many countries don't offer cream cheese and sometimes, you just WANT cream cheese. There was that one time when a friend of mine texted me that some misunderstanding about gas pipelines or some such caused the Georgian-Armenian border to be closed -- that being the way we got our Parmalat milk. I called the supermarket immediately and ordered their entire stock of milk. Which lasted us the entire three weeks of the crisis. Thank you, Sandra! Also, those Oreo cookies at the No. 1 Hypermart are a one-time only deal, so stock up now. (Just like that one shipment of bacon they had which is now, alas, all used up, much to the chagrin of my kids.)
And yes, sometimes you do break down and pay the $12 for a small jar of maple syrup that contains enough for one single breakfast.
EAWs who spend time in the field should be sure to let everyone know about their culinary experiences there. “Once we were out in the bush conducting a workshop and all we had to eat for five days was ugali and kale. I thought I was going to die.” Facebook is a great way to share these little tidbits as well: “Just back from nine days in the field. Car broke down but some locals shared their fried termites with us.”
Okay, we don't do field work. But if all the local market offers in the winter is frozen potatoes and frozen cabbage, it sometimes does help to whine a little bit. And yes, these days I whine on Facebook.
Some lucky EAWs get a consumable grocery shipment (as part of their hardship benefits); they love to talk about it. They want everyone to know that despite being allowed to fly in 2,500 pounds of groceries every six months, it still is a tremendous burden to have to buy all that food and then wait for someone else to pack and ship it. One kindly Expat Aid Worker might try to assist a colleague with critical supplies (while making sure everyone knows that they aren’t the poor lowly aid worker who doesn’t get a shipment). “Gosh, are you low on instant oatmeal again? I’ve got 16 cases coming in my next shipment if you need some. Of course, it might take a few weeks to get here.” Additionally, the EAW likes to ship in things that are available locally. “I know Tanzania’s main cash crop is coffee but all the good stuff is exported so I have to get it shipped to me from stateside.”
But, but, but... I know it sounds ridiculous, especially when you fly your food into a country where people starve. This is where you have to compartmentalize: First, you go there to help but that doesn't mean you have to starve yourself or your family. Second, your task as the spouse is to keep your family healthy and sane. Food plays an important part in this.
It really is not that easy to do your consumables. You go and try to figure out how much of what you need for two years. Then go and buy it. Have the money to buy it first, and then find a place to store it until the packers come. Then have someone take the 100 lbs you were over the weight limit. Try to smuggle in ink cartridges which are not consumables but which are not available at your post and which you need. (Have you ever tried buying ink for a year? It's a lot more ink than you think. It's a lot more money than you think. Don't get hung up on HP, though: their inks expire and the last thing you need in the African bush is a printer that tells you smugly that your ink cartridges are no good anymore. Those same ink cartridges that you paid so very much money for.)
Paper towels are popular to ship. I shipped green trash bags to Armenia because I hated the trash problem there so much. By the way, disposable diapers are consumables but cloth diapers are not. Just so you know.
When it's all said and done and shipped, then you go and wait for your shipment and then, hah! And then you try to find space for all that food and keep it safe from pests. (Tupperware is not a consumable item.) We had a moth infestation in our cereals in Armenia. 50 boxes of kids' cereals crawling out of the bowls in the mornings. That's when you get all tough and hardy and pick out the pupas before you serve the stuff. (Don't tell my kids.)
However, it's not 2,500 lbs every six months. You get a 2,500 lbs shipment for a two-year-tour, as stated by the regulations (which you can find here as a pdf file, just in case you are interested). Organizing a consumables shipment is an art in and of itself. Which is where Costco enters the equation, and all that.
Yerevan was a consumables post for us. I did two shipments and I learned a lot. Which will be handy if we end up going to one of the places on this list which are under discussion at this time. Oh, boy.
So let me say that Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like is a site of satire that describes real life pretty accurately. What can I say. At least we can laugh about ourselves.