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Love for Making Ghosts Dance - Part 1

In 2004, living in Paris with three kids and only Dana's junior diplomat income, we’d burned through money like a chimp with a flamethrower. We'd had a whale of a good time, but if we wanted our children to attend university one day, we'd need a change of tack. When Dana's bid list dropped, she came up with a drastic hail-Mary of a plan to allow us to rob Peter in Paris and pay Paul down the road so we could keep partying like there’s no tomorrow: the Service Needs Differential post, or SND.

SNDs are those Foreign Service posts that are the hardest to fill—typically for good reason. They were the least desirable of the least desirable posts on Dana’s bid list, the hellholes, the war zones, the desolate backwaters to which few dared go, and, for these reasons, the State Department would pay a huge bonus if we'd stay/survive three years in one.

“We could use the dough,” Dana said at the time.

"Yes, but we could die,” I retorted.

“Well, yeah, that's true,” she said.

The list of SNDs included Maputo (capital of Mozambique, the world’s poorest country at the time, according to the UN); Bangui (the latest in an impressive series of coups d'état had taken place that March, led by General François Bozizé, the man who “put the ‘bang’ in Bangui”); Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan*, the North Korea you never heard of).

“Okay, so maybe the kids don’t go to college,” I said after examining the list. “They can learn a trade.”

Dana would not be deterred. “Phnom Penh,” she said. “It’s the best on the list, a hidden gem.”

Phnom Penh. As in the capital of Cambodia, one of the most land-mined countries in the world, home of the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. I’m not immediately sold.

“The civil war ended in 1999,” Dana offered.

"Oh, that's good," I said. "I always like to put a good five years between me and the latest civil war."

We did extensive research on Phnom Penh, and results were mixed. There was a great school for the kids, but medical care was spotty, at best. Violent crime was a concern, but the American embassy community was tight-knit, something that can make all the difference. And there was another reason Cambodia remained under consideration: Siem Reap, site of the ancient city of Angkor and its ruined temples such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Ever since I read of the ancient civilization in National Geographic as a child, I’d wanted to go there. After much discussion, we decided Dana’s #1 choice for her next post would be Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

*We're moving to Turkmenistan in winter of 2023!!!

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