First Impressions (Tatiana Vargas)

| Tatiana Vargas | 11 July 2012 | Maputo, Mozambique |

A pleasing and assuring intonation zipped its way to my ears, “Welcome ladies!” I looked over a pyramid of luggage, trying to trace the source of the voice, but failed to see the face of the person I had become accustomed to hearing via Skype. It is comical to admit that for some inexplicable reason I pictured my supervisor, Lisa Kurbiel, Head of Social Policy for UNICEF, sitting behind a desk like the antagonist Doctor Claw in the cartoon “Inspector Gadget” (any ’80s baby will know what I am referring to: Only the arms and gloved hands are visible, leaving the viewer to guess as to the face and body).  Again, I hear the unique New York accent over a sea of Portuguese voices (the official language of Mozambique) calling out, “Elizabeth! Tatiana, over here!” A tall, elegant, sun-kissed blonde approached me. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, is that Lisa!?” Let me just say she is quite the opposite of Doctor Claw. As she approached, I quickly put my hair up in a ponytail and threw on some oversized sunglasses in a last ditch effort to look presentable for my big “first impression moment” but after a sixteen hour flight, it was clearly useless.

Lisa, Elizabeth, and I exchanged hugs while greeting each other. In the midst of the excitement, we did what the annoying recording in the airport warns you not to do. We left our luggage unattended! Before we knew it, there was a young local man halfway across the parking lot jamming our luggage into Lisa’s 4×4. Lisa handed the young man a few colorful bills; the young man quarreled back and forth with Lisa in Portuguese. She finally concluded the conversation with a stern obrigado (thank you) and shut the door behind her. She shared with us that she gave him the equivalent of five dollars tip for carrying our bags a few feet and that was not enough! “Welcome to the city of Maputo” she chuckled, “land of negotiation.”

After a day of catching up on some sleep, Lisa scheduled a UNICEF driver to pick us up, from our Rio Tembe guesthouse, for our first day of work. As we passed through the various neighborhoods, I could tell we were getting close to the area where all the embassies, diplomats, and international organizations reside. The most amazing transition was taking place as the car made its way from one town to another. The trash-lined streets soon turned to gated mini-mansions, complete with armed guards and watch dogs. Once we entered the  gates of the UNICEF building, a side-fleet of fairly new white cars ranging from sedans, trucks, to minivans welcomed us. All were tagged with the internationally-recognized baby blue UNICEF logo. The driver lead us past beautiful traditional African murals, the cafeteria, (known as the cantina) and down the palm-lined corridor that led to the entrance to a pool. It was right next to Lisa’s office. I remember asking myself, “How will I ever focus on work when there is a tropical paradise outside my window?”

Elizabeth and I proceeded to knock on Lisa’s door and she answered, “Good morning! I was just putting aside some reading materials. These readings will get your feet wet and up to speed by the end of the day.” I looked over at the tall pile of treaties, trappers, resettlement assessments, and  the 200-plus pages of the Mozambique Poverty Analysis Handbook. Suddenly, a thought dawned on me, “So this is how they stay focused, there is no time to look out the window, let alone day-dream about the tropical paradise outside of it.”

The remaining part of the day was filled with meeting after meeting. Some meetings were informal; these were held amongst colleagues in the cantina while others had more of a formal flair and took place outside the office in outdoor cafes. During these meetings, I realized that United Nations (UN) employees spoke a different language altogether. An example of such articulation was evident in the first sentence I heard, “we met with UNDP to discuss the NRs and the role of the EI’s on the children and how we can advocate to GoM on FDI allocation to maximize HC and minimize SH.” I was completely taken aback by this utterance. In preparing to work for the UN I did not foresee having to memorize a myriad of acronyms; that notion did not make it to my checklist of “to do” things before visiting Mozambique. Needless to say, I soon found myself making a mental reference list of abbreviations. After our last meeting, we were invited to take a tour of the whole UNICEF grounds. The building is segmented by departments, which provided the opportunity to meet the whole staff in their perspective working space. By the time we returned to Lisa’s office, she was grabbing her purse from under the desk preparing to leave for the day. She smiled at us and exclaimed, “Great job, ladies! I’ll see you tomorrow morning for the country team meeting, and after, we can discuss the preliminary materials I left for you earlier today.” Elizabeth and I replied in unison, “Ok, great! See you tomorrow and have a good night.”  As soon as Lisa walked out we stared at each other in panic. We were communicating through telepathy. Our enlarged pupils said it all. We had been so busy between meetings that we did not have a moment to read the pile of materials! I turned to Elizabeth and said, “ this is going to be a long night.” Elizabeth, the self-proclaimed caffeine addict replied, “I am going to need some coffee.”


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