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Location, Location, Location: Diplomacy Is with People

by Mike Anderson

Everyone knows the old real estate agent’s phrase “Location, location, location,” which Lord Harold Samuel reportedly coined when he founded a big U.K. property company in 1948.

But the phrase could just as well have come out of the mouth of any public diplomacy officer who has ever worked abroad. We all know and truly appreciate the importance of the location of our official residences while serving in a U.S. embassy or consulate. Where you live does really matter to your ability to do your job and stay healthy and secure.

During my USIA and State Department PD career, I was fortunate to work in seven countries, including two where I enjoyed two, separate four-year postings. Perhaps I was fortunate, but I was generally happy with all of my accommodations and never had to fight with the Mission Housing Board or GSO — and none of us ever had to worry about rent, furniture, household repairs, taxes, or property resale values.

Whether a stand-alone house or an apartment, each of my South and Southeast Asian residences pretty much met three criteria: each was relatively close to my work place and to venues — like government offices, universities, media, cultural venues, or major hotels — that I needed to frequent in my official capacity; each was healthy and safe; and each had at least adequate representational, or entertaining, space.

During my very first overseas tour, I was assigned to an aging, Manila high-rise apartment just down Roxas Blvd. from the U.S. Embassy and from Seafront Compound, the Embassy’s popular commissary and employee’s club. Also, it was relatively close to the Manila International Airport and to a cross-town road over to the Makati District, where the USIS Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center, the Fulbright commission, and the Ambassador’s residence were located. Best of all, the place had a smashing view of Manila Bay’s famous sunsets. On the other hand, there were massive traffic jams all around the place, urban grit and grim, poverty, and noise the minute one stepped out of the building. The old structure would sway and shake during our periodic typhoons or earthquakes. My great fear was being trapped in the tiny elevator during one of the frequent power failures.

The apartment and the Embassy were located near the historic Baclaran Church and market. Every Wednesday, the church held special masses, bringing a massive congregation of devotees to pray the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help, so making our way past the church on Wednesday — “Bacalaran Day” — was always a formidable challenge.

My second assignment was to the one-PD-Officer Melanesian post of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The Embassy provided the PAO and other officers with small, but comfortable, townhouse accommodations atop an isolated hill with a spectacular view of the Coral Sea of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Crime, however, was a problem, and the housing compound was heavily guarded. Both the Ambassador and DCM had bigger, more accessible housing and were always generous about letting our public affairs team entertain guests there. The old, original embassy — built literally up the side of a hill — had an outdoor, mini-amphitheater, but it was rarely used for events because of the tropical climate and the steep, uncomfortable outdoor seating.

“Moresby” was a unique city to live in because it was land-locked, with only a couple of roads leading out of town for a few miles. To visit other parts of the mountainous island-country, we had to fly. A favorite activity for embassy staffers and official visitors was a short out-of-town drive to a national park where one could see the famous bird of paradise in the wild and lunch nearby on crocodile meat.

My next posting was as Information Officer in bustling New Delhi. I was assigned a non-descript house in a suburb not far from Chanakyapuri, the diplomatic enclave, where our Embassy was located. I rarely entertained at home because I was kept extremely busy attending American Center events and or events hosted by the Ambassador in Roosevelt House, his official residence on the embassy grounds. I think I spent more time in the Embassy than I did at home, but it was a pleasure to work there because of the iconic nature of the structure, which famous American architect Edward Durrell Stone designed and then later adapted for the Kennedy Center.

After India, I transferred to the Consulate in the bustling port city of Karachi, Pakistan. My large, but quirky house was in a pleasant, secure section of the city close to the American School. It was located not far from the American Library in downtown Karachi, situated in a huge, old Consulate building, which had been the American Embassy before the capital was moved to Islamabad. Across the street from the office was the wonderful, spacious, old mansion which served as the residence of the Consul General. It was the perfect venue for official entertaining, and, again, our generous CGs welcomed its use for special PD events.

After two years with USIA back in Washington and living in a small Arlington, VA, condo, I moved to the island-city-state of Singapore. As PAO with representation duties, I was about the only officer other than the Ambassador and DCM who qualified for a real house. Due to land shortages and extremely high property values, most of our colleagues lived in housing flats or expat executive apartments. The PAO residence was located in a quiet and clean neighborhood that was perfect for entertaining. It had an open-air patio that opened out onto a small grass lawn which was absolutely ideal for receptions.

My next posting took me back to Manila, where I was in a fancy apartment building overlooking the famous Makati commercial shopping area and, again, had great sunset views. The apartment was walkable to the Ambassador’s residence and to the Fulbright Commission office and to several of Manila’s leading hotels, museums, and shops. A terrific feature of the roomy apartment was its flooring, made from the famous Philippine narra wood. A unique feature of my unit was the neighbor right above me — Imelda Marcos, widow of the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. I never did invite her down for cocktails, but we would always exchange smiles in the elevator as she and her security detail were going to or from their limo in the basement garage.

The one problem with the apartment was its distance across town from the embassy. Traffic was often a nightmare, and I would go into the embassy very early each morning just to beat the traffic. Much of Manila is at sea-level, and when there is heavy rain, many of the roads flood and are not passable for hours. On any rainy evening, we could just forget about any travel schedule. Returning home from the Embassy one evening, I was literally stuck in a jam amidst rising water for, I recall, nearly seven hours.

My next assignment — back in New Delhi — brought me back not only to my old office in the iconic Embassy, but also gave me access to the best diplomatic housing I ever had. The gem of a “PAO house” in New Delhi is on one of the city’s fanciest streets and just across the street from the famous Lodi Gardens, New Delhi’s Central Park, and near the historic “Luytens Bungalow Zone” named for the architect who designed Delhi during the British Raj. The house was convenient — just down a few doors from the DCM’s residence and from several other Embassy-owned houses, the embassy wasn’t far away, and both the stand-alone American Center in central Connaught Place and the Fulbright commission compound were quite close.

The one-floor gated residence was designed in the style of British colonial era-structures with a sizeable garden (visited by the occasional cobra, monkey, and peacock). Best of all, it had super entertaining space, including an enclosed, multi-purpose room where the PA Section regularly organized cultural events, dinners, and large receptions. I recall hosting a large event one evening which included not only maybe 100 guests but also a live elephant and a camel. All fit easily into the big yard and party room.

The large PAO residence in New Delhi required a sizeable staff just to keep things working. Although guests somehow assumed the USG was paying for my driver, cook, bearer, dhobi-washer, gardener, and sweeper, in fact that came out of the PAO’s pocket! But the staff became part of an extended family and made living and working in India relatively much easier.

Mike Anderson with statue of Barry Obama at the future president’s grade school near the PAO residence in Jakarta. The marker on the statue explains in Indonesian and English who “Barry” was and is -former student in the school and POTUS.

My final posting was to another sprawling, Asian capital, Jakarta, Indonesia, where my residence was on the top floor of a modern, secure executive apartment building in the historic Menteng section of central Jakarta. Not only was it relatively close to the Embassy, but it also was within walking distance of both the Ambassador and DCM residences.

The neighborhood had some distinctive Indonesian charm and housed a famous basket market at Cikini station and Jakarta’s famous antique or flea market. The public primary school that President Barack Obama attended for a couple of years when he and his mother resided in Jakarta was nearby. The PAO apartment was great for entertaining because it had large picture windows and two balconies which overlooked the city’s skyline. Off in the distance, on a clear day, one could even catch a glimpse of a volcano.

All of these “locations, locations, locations” bring back warm memories of always interesting and challenging times doing PD work abroad. While always comfortable and appropriate to my needs, they also were distinctive and useful for representational events, when my Embassy position required it. My only regret is that I didn’t have a little more free time to just enjoy living in some of those special properties.

Mike Anderson retired as a senior PD FSO officer in 2010.



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