Thursday, June 16, 2011

Update: Bangui on the Potomac

Last week I trudged through the Washington humidity to embassy row. The facade of the CAR embassy looked even more derelict than usual. Some indeterminate building material (paint?) hung precariously, like the bark of a eucalyptus tree. A piece of paper was taped beside the door. It bore the handwritten message that “The Ambassy of the C.A.R. has moved.” Well, I thought, it has happened. It was only a matter of time.

The CAR government bought this prime real estate shortly after independence in 1960 and then left it to decay. From its innocuous beginnings, the building metamorphosed into a fun house of dangers: rusty springs booby-trapped chair seats, stairs warped so drastically they led climbers downward as they attempted to ascent, light fixtures sprouted colorful exposed wires. Staff learned to pick careful paths through the hazards. Instead of fixing the place up, the CAR government decided last year to put the building on the market. A private couple paid $1.099 million -- cash -- to purchase the house and will likely spend a similar sum to return it to the kind of habitable space they desire.

Meanwhile, nestled between the ‘Sandinista Safeway’ and Chief Ike’s bar, the new CAR embassy announces itself not with a flag (they moved in only a month ago), but with a gaggle of young men hanging out on the porch watching the world go by, just like in Bangui. Inside, employees debated the proper positioning of presidential portraits amid the plastic ficus plants and shiny, lightweight pleather couches. France 24’s talking heads blared from a small flatscreen. The government bought this 2704 Ontario Rd. edifice for $800,000, which, after adding a couple thousand dollars’ worth of furniture, still leaves a tidy margin. The new embassy is not without its oddities: the waiting area abruptly gives out onto a linoleum-floored space, the ghost of a kitchen or bathroom. And here, too, the gaping electric sockets spit wires.

Still, it was heartening to see the evident pride with which the receptionist inhabited his sprawling desk in the entryway. What would it take to transform that pride into a broader sense of responsibility for the building and the institution it represents? Regular cash flow would be an obvious factor; but if it were that simple one would think the $200 visa fee (a $50 hike since last time I checked) would help in that regard, and this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I managed, through no more nefarious means than a little pleasant schmoozing, to obtain my visa within an hour, rather than the official 48-hour processing time. And, by the time I post this, I will be back in Bangui la Coquette.

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