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A Day in the Life: An American Diplomat in Thailand

Read about a typical day for Ted Osius, regional environmental affairs officer for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Region at the American embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.

8 a.m. As car engines idle outside Ambassador Darryl Johnson's residence, his wife emerges, wearing a broad straw hat. "We're going to the jungle," Kathleen Johnson says, beaming.

10 a.m. We are at the Khao Yai National Park Visitors' Center. I am biting my nails. Our well-rehearsed program should have started, but the media aren't here yet. Dozens of Royal Forest Department officials, forest rangers and non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives mill about, waiting for the program to begin. I am relieved to see that the ambassador and his wife, drinking coffee with our host, the top Forest Department officer, don't seem bothered by the delay.

10:30 a.m. Finally, an enormous double-decker bus pulls up. Four journalists climb out. Twenty were scheduled to come, but Bangkok is awash in rumors that today Burma's military junta will announce Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Five television stations and most print journalists have canceled our event to focus on the Nobel Prize winner in Rangoon. Two conservationists stop squabbling long enough to ask me who should speak first. Are my careful plans coming unglued?

12 p.m. We're back on track. Forty uniformed forest rangers demonstrate training drills: how to subdue a poacher, assist an injured comrade. Our Royal Forest Department host glows with pride. A controversial figure who frequently makes headlines in the local press, he designed the uniforms himself and brought discipline to a rag-tag crew of rangers. Three firefighters whiz down a rope from a hovering helicopter. Their team of 60 waves shovels, squirts at an imaginary fire, and sings in unison. One NGO trainer who frequents the park whispers, "I've never seen these people in the park before. Those shovels are newly painted. I don't think they've ever been used."

1:30 p.m. The ambassador announces grants to the Forest Department for environmental law enforcement. I wrote proposals four months ago, which Washington formally approved just days before this event. Sixteen embassies vied for funds, and we were awarded two-thirds of the grant money. I will make this program work if it kills me. Standing before a newly planted tree, the ambassador takes questions. Predictably, journalists ask about a debt-for-nature agreement scrapped by the Thai government. It's rubbing salt in a wound: I spent my first five months at post negotiating this deal, and groundless fears of biopiracy brought it down. The ambassador is a pro, fielding each question smoothly, yet I can't help imagining how sweet it would have been to sign that $9 million agreement here, surrounded by the trees we're trying to save.

3 p.m. It's raining heavily. Guards toting sawed-off HK-34s accompany us on our "quiet" hike through the forest. Our group of 40 probably won't be spotting any wildlife on this visit. Leeches crawl on my shoes. Still, the trees are majestic. Hundred-foot trunks loom like pillars in a cathedral. Roots are tangled into ghostly shapes. Thirty feet up, a ranger spots a hornbill nest. Jungle fowl cry out, and I can smell the bark of aloewood, pungent and exotic.

4:30 p.m. I'm no longer annoyed at the conservationist who has been delivering an endless brief on wildlife protection as we trek through the jungle. After all, the ambassador has remained polite, unflagging, interested in each aspect of the program. We're treated to a rare sighting of Asian wild dogs stalking a small herd of deer. These dogs are fierce: a pack will chase a tiger off its kill.

5 p.m. The ambassador jokes in fluent Thai with kids at a youth conservation camp. He tosses out a soccer ball, stamped with the embassy seal. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he won't allow bad weather or scheduling delays to dampen his good cheer.

7 p.m. We dine on steak and fresh fruit under the stars, while a band plays "As Time Goes By." The lead singer wears camouflage pants: he is a ranger from the morning's demonstration. We're on the lawn of a house built 40 years ago by a Thai prime minister, General Sarit. Our host declares his preference for military governments, since they're "more efficient."

10:30 p.m. Our truck swerves to avoid a seven-foot python on the road. It slithers into the underbrush. We've seen deer, fisher cats and a few civets -- weasel-shaped mammals with ringed tails — on our "night safari." A herd of nine elephants emerges from the dark to eat and frolic 20 paces from the road. "I never expected I'd live to see wild Asian elephants in the forest," Mrs. Johnson muses. All in all, a pretty good day in Thailand.

Excerpted from Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, edited by Shawn Dorman, published by the American Foreign Service Association.

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Ted Osius