Monday, February 1, 2016
The New Year began rather auspiciously and appropriately on the Copacabana beach with a bunch of good friends. In Rio, folks dress in white and go to the beach to see the spectacular fireworks, meet the new year and generally be very, very merry. The beachside boulevard, which runs along the entire beach through dontown, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon is closed, which cases fantastic traffic jams in the rest of the city and 10-times surge pricing on the 6 or so Uber cabs cruising the streets. So, the Diplomat and I donned some crispy white linen, left Son with an overpaid babysitter, and prepared to join in the merriment with our friends at a party in Copacabana. After 10 futile mins, we realized that at 10 pm on New Year’s Eve getting a cab was simply not an option. This is, however, how
Rio de Janeiro is awesome – the whole bus
system network was working all night long. So, we hopped on a bus stuffed with
hordes of alcohol-soaked people and a mere 15 minutes later got spit out,
wrinkled and sweaty, into the balmy night and into the throngs of white (ish)
clad Cariocas. We joined the party at our friends’ place, drank kilos of
champagne and at 11.30 headed out to the beach in one jolly heap to join the
one million or so folks ready to greet the new year.
The thing to do after midnight is to go to the ocean, throw a flower in it and jump 7 times over the waves, each time wishing a thing. By doing so, you are paying your respects also to Iemanja, one of the old Brazilian deities from the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomble. And so, we made our way valiantly down to the water, an exercise, which took over 8 minutes as the Copacabana beach is frankly humongous and got there just in time for the countdown and the fireworks. Our smart friends M+K had just arrived from the U.S. that morning and had cleverly purchased a bottle of champagne from duty free, which was then duly opened and consumed with much new year’s gusto by all of us. Then we all ran into the water and started jumping like confused rabbits over the waves. That exercise soon eroded into blatant jumping into the water and stripping down to skivvies by all kinds of hysterical tourists, followed by mad splashing, screaming and all around excellent time-having.
Soaked and excited, we went back to dry up, liquor up some more and then begin the journey back home. This time, there was no bus either so we had to slowly walk the 6 kms or so along the beach to get home. All said and done, a fabulous experience, which I plan to never repeat again unless I have a chauffer-driven car.
Having greeted the new year in such blissful style, the Diplomat and I decided that it was time to explore the end of the world, just in case, you know. So, a couple of weeks later, we packed in our skiing jackets, mittens and thermal underwear (ok, no thermal underwear since we got none, but a whole suitcase of sweaters) and flew down to Ushuaia,
Tierra del Fuego to gawk at penguins and check out harsh
wilderness. I have been dreaming about going to Ushuaia ever since I was a
little girl in Bulgaria
and watched religiously some awful Fearfactor-style reality show predecessor on
TV, which took place there. I was so excited on the way down that I actually
squealed a few times on the plane to the underslept Diplomat’s horror. Son, as
usual, slept through every single flight – the child has been quite well
inculcated by his obsessively traveling parents.
Ushuaia is quite the modern, functioning little town. It is indeed considered the southernmost town in the world (although the Chileans beg to differ) and the weather is certainly indicative of that – we went in the height of summer and it was a cool 3 degrees Celsius on a sunny day. It looks and feels like a hippie ski town. There are a few good restaurants serving lamb BBQ (cordeiro asado) and king crab (OMG!!). It is windy and cold, courtesy of the Beagle channel on which it is located. The Channel connects the western and eastern parts of South America and thus part of it lies in
Chile and part – in Argentina. The highlight of the
trip was a much coveted walk among the penguins of Ushuaia.
Now, if you come to Patagonia to see penguins, there are generally three places you can do that – Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia and the
Falkland Islands. To visit the Islands
costs my annual salary so no matter how badly I wanted to see the controversial
speck of land, I had to decide against it. In Ushuaia, while there are many
tour companies that can take you to the island in the middle of the Beagle
Channel where the cute critters live, only one company is allowed to actually
plop you on the island itself so that you can walk among the curious penguins
for a freezing hour. The company is called Pira
Tour and they are a nightmare to get in touch with via email, mainly
because the internet at the end of the world is not what it happens to be, say,
in the middle of Manhattan. Frankly, it is astonishing to me that there is
indeed internet there.
Walking with penguins is magical – there is something so humbling about having the clumsy adorable creatures accept you among themselves, coming right next to you because they are curious like small children and even trying to peck your shoes. When we went there, it was the end of the baby season so all babies were already rather porky but till covered with a ton of fluff, which the adults were dutifully plucking off them. It was an hour I will never forget. I admit to plotting to steal a baby penguin but the lead lady was onto me so I came home empty-handed. In Ushuaia, we also spent a day in a 4x4 vehicle off-roading the muddy end-of-the-world roads and then being treated to a most lavish and tasty asado in the middle of nothing. The Diplomat, true to form, insisted on playing golf on the rather picturesque Ushuaia Golf Club where he tough it out for 5 holes before his ears fell off from the sub-zero temperatures and he gave in.
From Ushuaia, we flew to El Calafate to see the famous Perito Moreno glacier. I had my eyes on a tour offering a 45 min trek on the glacier topped off with a glass of scotch in the end. Sadly, kids under 10 are not allowed and despite the Diplomat’s gracious offer to let me go by myself while he stays with Son, I decided to stick with the group.
It was in Calafate where I also had the genius idea that we had to go for a hike. See, I had read that one goes to
n order to hike (as opposed to eating lamb and drinking Malbec, which came as
an unpleasant surprise to me) and so I was determined to do what one needs to
do. Hiking happens about 3 hours away, in a place called El Chalten, a tiny
town seemingly built solely to cater to hiking maniacs. From El Chalten begin
many trails into the , which offer gorgeous view of the park, its
lakes and glaciers. I chose what was supposed to be an easy hike of 4 kms up
and 4 kms down. It was said that it should take about 2 hours in each
direction. Sure. About 20 mins into the hike, I thought my life was over. Son
agreed. The Diplomat just kept sighing pensively. We ploughed on. I will never
forget that day till I am alive. The heat, the fatigue, the old people who kept
passing us by gamboling up the path like frightened goats, the way back when I did
not remember getting back to the bus. In the end, according to my pedometer, we
had walked 16 kms (10 mi). Los
The last evening in El Calafate we went to a dinner and a show in an estancia (think an animal farm), where we watched a sheep being sheared with massive shears by a fierce looking gaucho, drank some shagadelic mate, ate kilos of lamb asado and watched a folkore show of dubious cultural value butmuch enjoyment. With heavy hearts, we bid Patagonia goodbye and flew back to
where to my shock I sat next to a Bulgarian lady. We were probably the only two
Bulgarians in El Calafate and happened to sit next to each. Seriously.
The one thing that struck me in Patagonia was the demoraphics of the tourists. Sure, there were the occasional absurdly buff and severely sunburnt German 20-somethings who probably climb the glaciers with bare hands, the Brazilian families with selfie sticks and the American backpacking college girls who look like they haven’t taken a shower since Ohio. But the predominant group were hordes of pensioners, mostly from Argentina and Spain. Anywhere you turned, there were old people in large gaggles, dressed in orthopedic shoes and most fantastic polyesther pants with knitted vests, taking group pictures and munching packed sandwiches. In the end, I decided that there must be some sort of deals for pensioner clubs – not a bad way to spend your retirement, I must say.
We made is back safe and sound, and a day later, the Diplomat took off for India to see the In Laws and attend a fabulous family wedding. I remain back to hold down the fort. I expect grand presents.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
And just when I thought I might actually manage to leave Rio without having been robbed (it has now been 1.5 yrs here without an incident), it finally happened. You know, people warn you about it, it happens to all of your friends but just not to me. So I got careless. Blame it on Uber. Last week, while the Diplomat was in Sao Paulo for a week of work, I was standing outside the Consulate waiting irritably for my Uber taxi. Rather than the promised 7 minutes, the driver was taking over 25 to show up, lost in the tangle of streets behind. I was getting more and more impatient, standing stupidly clutching my android phone, tantalized by the movement of the taxi icon on the little screen. Suddenly, a passing dude saw a golden opportunity and decided to snatch it from my hand. That sad fella did not realize two unfortunate facts:
- He was trying to rob an Eastern European native
- He was trying to rob her in front of the US Consulate, swarming with bored security guards
So this is how it all went down. The gangly, skinny teenager began pulling the phone with all of his might. So did I. You know, the Resident Security Officer always puts out these nice, wise notices saying that the safest things to do if you find yourself in a similar situation is to just let the demanded item go and not get yourself killed over it. Let me tell you something about people trying to take your stuff away. There is some primordial, animalistic instinct that hits you and you just don’t want to let your stuff go. It may be stupid stuff, but it YOUR stuff and why should anyone be taking it away. You don’t think about the RSO’s notice. You, frankly, don’t really think about anything much. You only think about your stuff. You want your stuff. It is YOUR stuff. You are willing to fight for your stuff. Or at least not let it go. So, that is exactly what I did. I just held back the phone and kept pulling it back. He kept pulling away. And at that moment (about 15 secs later), it dawned upon me that I am actually steps away from a bunch of hunky guards who somehow still had not seen the whole episode unfolding. So, I began screaming for help. Finally, I could see frantic movement but in the meantime, I lost control over the damned phone and the skinny kid managed to tear away from me and make a run for it. Happily (not for him), out of nowhere one of the local Consulate staff happened to be passing by and in a split second, jumped on top of the fleeing robber. The teenager had no chance. A second later, all guards fell upon him like a ton of bricks. Boy, did he regret ever meeting me that day let alone try to steal my phone. Soon, the police came and we all went to the police station for me to press charges. All in all, a very awesome night. Not really.
Many other exciting things have been happening to us lately. For example, both the Diplomat and I actually got promoted! That came somewhat unexpected and very, very much appreciated. So, now we are still on the bottom of the totem pole but feel more important about it. Also, we know where we are going next – Washington, DC, be scared, be very scared!
This assignment beckons a frank description of something called “third tour bidding.” Now, when you enter the Foreign Service, you probably have visions of being given a choice of fascinating countries, from which you pick your childhood dream – Italy - and go serve there for 2 amazing years. You wish. Instead, you are given a list of about 200 posts around the world, which you then rank as high, medium and low, and give it over to your personal guru and master of your universe, also known as Career Development Officer, or CDO. There are usually several CDOs who then sit down for a few magical days and somehow assign people to those posts. You only sit and pray that you don’t get a post too low on your Low list. Usually, folks end up somewhere in their “mediums.” The same fun repeats itself for your second assignment again, except that if you have served in a particularly challenging place, you get to bid before the folks who served in, say, Thailand. So, in essence, for your first two tours, you have pretty much virtually no other control besides praying.
Now, arguably, you have a lot more control over your third tour. That is wonderful illusion, which your employer wishes you to have. Months before bidding season even opens, everyone due to bid enters into a frenzy and begins scouting potential available positions. There is this devious tool on our systems called “projected vacancies” - it is a prediction of what positions are going to be available for bidding to help the hapless future bidders brace themselves for serving in the remote provinces of China or East Africa well in advance, and I can personally guarantee you that from the moment that list becomes available, everyone spends at least a third of their day pouring over it. Now, based on that preliminary list, we are all told to go and “lobby” for our next assignment – it is that nefarious process of timidly writing to your posts of choice, whether to the incumbent or their boss, “expressing your interest” while pointlessly trying not to sound too eager or desperate.
Thus begins the terrifying and excruciatingly long dance of bidding. Posts write back to you to tell you that you appear very qualified but so do also the 59 other FSOs vying for the same job. You mobilize an army of former and current bosses, peers and various high level folks you know to “lobby” on your behalf. But it is all so very unofficial. Then, at some point, the real bid list comes out and you begin bidding with full ferocity. Lobbying intensifies, you interview with various people, you invent weaknesses that are not really weaknesses and which you have conquered and turned into strengths, you enumerate multiple personal achievements, which single-handedly have forwarded American interests abroad and changed the face of bilateral relations in your current post. You are, indeed, formidable. You should, in fact, be appointed as a Special Assistant to the Secretary immediately. Oddly, you are not. Slowly, offers begin to be hinted – since no offers can be made before the official deadline of bidding (for the summer bidders, bidding opens in August and ends in October), there are other cheeky tools to let people know who are the chosen ones. An official announcement that a job offer has been extended once bidding is over is called a “handshake.” Not an offer. A handshake. How very delightfully old-fashioned. Apart from a formal handshake, one can receive an unofficial “air kiss” in advance. Yup, it actually is called an air kiss. Bidding is fun.
So, since the management-coned Diplomat has not yet served in a management position (which is a problem going forward), he knew he had to get such position this time around, dead or alive. Preferably alive, it’s more fun that way. We began the bidding dance and were sniffing out a few desired posts overseas until a highly desirable domestic position opened up in the sexy European bureau, he interviewed for it and it was all his. A full one month before bidding was even over. Now you have to understand something about tandem bidding – it ain’t easy. In essence, you need to dance a double bidding dance, 1. Ensuring that there are 2 positions suitable for each of you, and 2. The hiring folks for both positions like you and want to hire you over the other 45 qualified people for the job. It is actually even more complicated than that, but let’s say you get the general picture. So, when the Diplomat got an awesome offer in DC, he had to take it. Which meant I had to find a job in DC, something on which I hadn’t planned. Luckily, I ended up with an awesome gig as the speechwriter for Consular Affairs. Since I am not yet sure whether I should be ecstatic or extremely scared, I won’t say anything more about the job before I go into it next year.
We have been traveling as usual. In November, we finally made the pilgrimage to Disney – we own a vacation property there and after all of our guests said what a great time they have there, we decided to check it out ourselves. My God, Orlando is magical! I admit to preferring Universal to Disney and the Shamu, but still – they are all awesome. I have no reached the conclusion that I would like to live a resort life for the rest of my life. Apparently, though, no one pays you for that. Odd…
We also just came back from Uruguay, where we spent a week eating meat, drinking Tannat and playing golf. Yes, you heard me right – I have now begun gold lessons. You know, if you can’t beat them, join them. The problem was that I so badly wanted to impress the Diplomat just how well I am doing in golf, that once we got on the green, I managed to pull a back muscle while still on hole 3. For the rest of the trip, I could barely swing the club but kept on valiantly. As a net result, now I can’t even dress myself on my own. True story.
We are all eagerly looking forward to the holidays all to be spent peacefully in Rio. I cannot wait to finally see New Year’s Eve in Copacabana. Yey!!
Sunday, October 4, 2015
Life is going on in sunny Rio de Janeiro. We have just endured a long and dark winter with average daily temperatures of 72 degrees and sun only five days of the week. Oh, yeah, and the ocean is pretty cold, too! OK, fine, in all honesty, this year the winter was a bit capricious, raining copiously for days on end, taking turns with 90 degree weather and back to freezing rain. The other night, we had the loudest and scariest thunderstorm I have ever seen in my life.
To save ourselves from the suffering, the Diplomat has been drowning his sorrow in various sports. Now, most of you already know that he is an avid tennis player. To that effect, he still takes a tennis lesson with a teacher once a week, because, well, one can never be good enough. Some of you would also kindly remember that the Diplomat has picked up the noble pastime of golf, for which he also takes lessons because perfection there still eludes him. And recently, he has also applied himself to swimming since, he says, “it is a life skill.” Believe it or not, when I met him, the Diplomat could not swim at all. With the help of his devoted swimming coach, I am proud to say that the man is now swimming. Not to be left behind, Son is also taking swimming lessons with the same teacher (arguably, with less remarkable results for now), a soccer class (coach just quit, apparently working with kids proved to be too much for him) and, lest he be any less well-rounded, an art class with a super artsy teacher, Rafael, who comes to our house once a week for a two-hour, free flowing creative session. To the horror of my housekeeper, Rafael wears crumpled artsy clothes and has long, messy hair, which, according to her, smells something awful (they apparently had to ride together in the elevator one day). Son, however, seems to think that the sun shines out of that horrendous hair so Rafael is staying. So, in this very learned family, I am in a distant third place with paltry weekly tennis lessons. Clearly, my tennis game leaves a lot to be desired.
Another way we have recently entertained ourselves is by hosting the annual birthday parties for Son and me – we both have birthdays in September. Last year, I decided to prove myself and hosted a riotous kids party in the apartment, which resulted in astonishing amount of high-pitched screaming and cupcake frosting in various tough to believe spots afterwards. This year, we tried to distract Son from the thought of having yet another party in the house by promising to take him to the Amazon, a trip we have been planning for years now. I spent a whole day convincing him of the value of travel over gifts and cupcakes and actually succeeded. Except that in the end, the Diplomat and I decided to go to Uruguay instead. Not missing a beat, the child immediately posed the problem of having a birthday party again. Faced with total destruction, I came up with what I thought was a lesser evil – a sleepover with his best 3 buddies. It was met with glorious delight. One of his friends could not make it, so it was down his two besties. And boy, party they did – I can safely say that the three kids more than made for the lack of a bigger party. Somewhat embarrassingly, Son fell asleep eventually at 9.30, while his friends kept the action going till 11 pm. Everyone was awake and agog bright and early at 6 am. What gives, children??? And there still were cupcakes everywhere. At least I was pronounced a cool mom by Son.
My birthday was celebrated somewhat differently, if not less childishly. I decided that I needed a twist to the usual, and announced a toga theme. I am happy to say that half of the guests valiantly did show up in toga after all. There is no sight like a bunch of international diplomats, all draped in white sheets, drinking the night away in the balmy warmth of a Rio de Janeiro night.
On a completely unrelated subject, I wanted to tell you about an aspect of Brazilian life that has always amazed me, namely – dental hygiene. Along with samba and string bikinis, Brazilians are also obsessed with their teeth and their cleanliness. They brush teeth seemingly after every single thing they eat. Son was asked to bring to school toothpaste and a brush to use them after snacks and lunch. I was impressed. But the day I saw two homeless people sitting on the ground, carefully flossing while asking for change, I was simply left speechless. While food might be an issue, old rotting teeth would never be!
Thursday, September 3, 2015
The last month and a half have been a complete blur to me. In fact, the past 10 months have been one endless work/party/travel/visitors/Carnaval blur to me. We have been lucky to have many of our friends and family visit us here already (in sharp contrast with NO ONE but the closest family coming to see us in Bangladesh). We also have been traveling as usual.
To make a quick summary of the latest, after the Diplomat came back from India, we took a 5-day trip to Salvador and the small coastal towns of the state of Bahia, before Son came back with Grandma. Salvador has been the capital of Brazil at some point, and later on remained as a major commercial hub since it has a port. Carnaval is a whole new beast up there; apparently, according to the Guiness book, it is the biggest party in the world annually. Salvador has gorgeous colonial architecture and good food. The last day in the area we decided to explore the famed deserted beaches north of the city. After we took a frivolous right turn off the main road to what appeared to be a beach within visible distance, we ended up driving for over 20 mins through a maze of sand dunes on a really crappy road to finally end up in a sleepy, disheveled village whose inhabitants enthusiastically confirmed that indeed, the beach is just over there. It was, and we found ourselves on an endless blue green ocean beach, with snow white sand, and no soul for miles. Except for the owner of the beach shack that just happened to be there, something out of a decadent bohemian movie, and he made us many caiprinhas, glorious giant fried fish and all the works that should go with that. Just as I was nodding off on the ancient lounge chair, put just for me right on the edge of the water, a very naked man came out of nowhere, strolling with not a care in the world along the beach. He nodded to me in all his naked glory and kept walking firmly forward. The shack owner explained that the place we so happily found was indeed a nudist beach.
When we flew back to Rio, tired and wishing only upon a comfy bed, we discovered with dismay that Fat Cat did not appreciate our prolonged absence and had taken not one, but two incredibly foul smelling poops in our bed. Mind you also, both were on MY side of the bed, one practically tucked under my pillow, sort of a delayed surprise of the first discovery of poop was not enough. Since I had just spent 3 weeks alone with him at home while the Diplomat was gallivanting in India, I took this to be a meaningful statement for me to teach me a lesson what would happen if I ever leave again for a prolonged period of time. It was 5 days, people! And the neighbors took care of him every day. Damn cat! Those of you with pets surely know that it takes several scorching laundry cycles to wash that cat feces smell away from your silk satin sheets. We were not on speaking terms for a week.
A week after Salvador, I had to leave for a week of work in Sao Paulo. The Diplomat decided to join me for a weekend of exquisite Japanese food gorging; at least we did go to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, otherwise it would have literally been a trip for the sole purpose of eating. After I came back, exhausted from travel, we welcomed a family of old friends and their kids. The following weekend, the Diplomat and Son joined them for a blitz weekend trip to Iguazu Falls, while I decided to rest home. And rest I did – I got up at 11 am, played with the plants on the balcony for an hour, then had a massage, a facial and a blow dry. After which I went to 1) a bachelorette’s party, 2) a birthday party, 3) took a friend for a drink on the rooftop of a super hot hotel for her birthday, and 4) re-joined the bachelorette’s party in a nearby club. I got home that night about 4 am. I felt absurdly cool about myself. I still do.
Life is more or less back to normal here. Grandma left, Son is back in school, the Diplomat and I are back from endless travels and Fat Cat is using the litter box for a change. This past weekend, we decided to be good parents for a change, and took Son to a goat farm about a couple of hours away from Rio, up in the mountains. I admit, the idea was not mine, but of a friend’s who is a much better parent than I am. So, armed with two kids, the Diplomat, my friend A and I took off for the goat farm on a balmy Saturday morning. We only got lost 2 times, and the kids did not stop yelling the entire time. The farm was called Fazenda Geneve, and had a fabulous outdoors restaurant, various smelly, delicious goat cheeses, a bunch of goats and a dirty, muddy artificial pond. After we sat down to a lovely Carmenere and several cheese creations, the two boys disappeared running about the farm, shrieking in delight. We yelled at them to make sure not to fall into the lake and proceeded to sample cheese. So naturally, 10 minutes later they fell into the lake.
Thankfully, it was shallow. On the other hand, it was still full of wet water and decomposing flora and fauna, all of it quite smelly. After some piercing screams from the sopping wet kids, there was nothing else to do but strip them down to their boxers and prostrate the wet clothes and shoes on the neighboring trees to dry. It was rather picturesque, if I may say so. The restaurant graciously lent us two large white tablecloths, which the kids happily donned like white capes and ran around the farm like two deranged mini ghosts. It was a visit no one will forget soon, including the farm owners.
In other work news, I actually finally got tenured. Yey me! We are also currently bidding for our next tour, an exercise of particularly cruel torture, equal to none in the world. More on that - next post. Hopefully with some news.
Thursday, July 9, 2015
Among the many fun things we do as U.S. diplomats overseas is host the annual Independence Day celebration for all the post’s local and foreign contacts. As far as I know, this is done by every single Embassy, consulate or whatever else diplomatic presence overseas we have (unless it isn’t, in which case I don’t know what I am talking about). Generally, each foreign mission abroad tends to celebrate their national day, whatever that might be and it is considered to be the mission’s main representational event for the year, where everyone goes all out and tries to throw a nice party to show just how cool their country is. One of my favorites ever remains Bangladesh’s Independence Day hosted in Beirut, which I attended while I was there on TDY, because they had all the awesome Bangladeshi food I was missing, all cooked by the Bangladeshi Navy cooks, whose ship was docked in Beirut that week.
In the U.S. missions, the super event is frequently organized and managed by a whole team of people, often lead by a hapless entry-level officer or two. In a fit of patriotism and misguided dreams of becoming an event-planner, this year I volunteered to spearhead and organize the July 4th celebration in Rio de Janeiro. This is one of those examples of the proverb that the road to hell is filled with good intentions.
Now, you should know that those events are never organized with taxpayer money. Relax, my dear U.S. taxpayer, why should it be so easy for us? Instead, all these events, all around the world, depend 100% on donations by U.S. companies overseas. We are always at the mercy of the generosity of corporate donations, Pete bless them! and the way this fun process works is like this: only direct hire Americans are permitted to solicit donations by our internal regulations. Thusly, depending on the size of the post, frequently the enviable task of cold-calling sponsors falls on the shoulders of the bright-eyed entry-level officers. You know, some people love fund raising. Some people, in fact, are excellent at it and even get a rush. Some people are born fundraisers and thrive on it. Some people are also tremendous figure-skater and lion-tamers. I am not one of either of those. I love party planning. No one told me, however, that I had to organize also the entire fund-raising amazingness. But it had to be done.
So, my very first task was to ask for valiant volunteers among my splendid colleagues and bless their hearts, they came through. In the meantime, another volunteer from the consulate decided to co-organize the party with me and we were also soon joined by the Diplomat who wanted to hone his management skills. With money in hand, the three of us began to search for a venue to hold over 500 people for virtually no money in Rio de Janeiro. Shockingly, we were not immediately successful until the Diplomat, in a fit of later-recognized genius, suggested we hold the shindig on the soccer field of the American School. Horrified, I objected strongly – I had visualized an elegant affair in black tie in one of Rio’s old palaces. Except that we could not afford them palaces. Soon, all Consulate leadership embraced the idea enthusiastically and so, grudgingly, I had to go with it. Luckily for the Diplomat, when the decision was made, I was still in Lebanon, otherwise I am afraid he would have suffered from my wrath. Once I came back and was ready to deal with him, he promptly disappeared on a TDY to India and left me and my other co-coordinator to deal with the planning.
Having a massive event at a soccer field far, far from the Consulate and the business downtown rather than in a smaller, contained space used to catering large events meant that we had to think of everything ourselves instead. Think of an outdoor wedding for 500, and you will get the idea. We also had to find a way to bus all of the employees there, find a band and procure food and drinks, all for very little money (well, as far as event planning in Rio goes, I suppose). In the end, we ended up with not one, not two but three bands (granted, the last one was comprised of folks form the Consulate and they made sure they played after all of the invited guests were gone), and incredibly generous catering provided for free by various donors. It was an affair to remember, if I may say so myself. After the party, our highly esteemed guests commented that it was possibly the best one ever organized by Consulate Rio. Well, why, thank you! And truth be told, despite the weeks of planning and frustrations, several nights of actual nightmares, a week of solid rain immediately preceding the day of the party and constant last minute changes, I loved doing it!
Loved it or not, I was most definitely July 4th-ed out and needed a break from work after it was all done. Son had left the week before with Grandma for his usual summer stint in Bulgaria, and with the Diplomat in India, I found myself going on a small vacation all by myself for the first time in my entire life. I knew I wanted a warm place (it is winter here and temperatures drop to 70 in Rio, brrrr!!), on the ocean, with a fabulous hotel with a pool and a spa, which was also easy and cheap to fly to and I had not been to before. Recife it is! I left on a grimy Friday, and giddily announced my little vacation on Facebook (oh, what, like you don’t do the same??) as I was waiting at the airport. Suddenly, I got a message from a friend on a TDY to Recife saying that we should get together once I get there, and by the way, Consulate Recife’s 4th of July party was on Saturday, would I be interested to go to it? It also did happen to be in the same hotel I was staying. I laughed so hard that my eyes teared. So, I got to celebrate our independence twice this year. I can tell you that being a guest at such an awesome party, however, is way more fun that being the organizer of it.
I have become one very irritated flyer lately. As I write this, I am on a plane on my way back from Recife and my neighbor is a young dude who apparently seems to think that this particular plane ride is the best place to watch the most recent Terminator movie. I agree, it is a boring 3-hour ride. I also agree that the Terminator is one heck of a great way to spend your time. What with all the loud explosions, chases, screaming and shootings and all kinds of Oscar-winning sound effects. What I disagree with is that one should watch said super loud movie without headphones. Dude, seriously!
This recent trend of watching loud crap on the plane, where a bunch of people are crammed particularly closely together in increasingly smaller and smaller spaces is simply driving me insane. On the way to Recife, across the aisle from me was sitting a family with a 5-year old who apparently could not possibly breathe without his iPad. That is fine as far as I am concerned - Son has also been known to enjoy extra computer time on long flights. The problem here was that the stupid contraption was set on the highest possible volume and the kid was playing a horribly inane game, learning the names of animals with loud voices and various obnoxious chimes. Neither his father nor mother seemed to think anything was wrong with this scenario. At takeoff, after we were asked to turn off electronic devices, dad tried to take it away from him. Holy crap, you’d think they were taking away life-sustaining care from him. His screams went on for about 20 mins as we were going up, and then the exhausted little menace fell asleep and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Sadly, shortly thereafter, the stewardess came to distribute drinks and he woke up. A minute later, and we were all back in the land of loud iPad infant gaming coupled with his delighted and unbridled screaming as he whacked his mom on the head with the iPad ever now and then. She appeared to think it was all adorable. Unable to sleep or read, I finally asked politely if they could lower the volume. Mom gave me a murderous look and told me she is trying (she wasn’t!). Then she did actually try and the kid gave such a blood-curdling scream that I picked up my stuff and moved at the very front of the plane. Which wasn’t particularly helpful since the portly lady behind me was happily watching some loud recording of a wedding party on her iPhone. Damn you, modern technology!!!
So, this is my plea for consideration – folks, please, PLEASE use headphones on the plane (and any other place where there are other people around you). THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU IN THIS WORLD!!!!! Shockingly, you are not the center of the universe. At least not the universe of your fellow passengers. Please, be considerate. Ugh.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
So, I arrived back in Rio on an early Saturday morning (think 5 am), and after a painful 40 minutes waiting to have my passport examined at the airport, I jumped into a cab and ran home to see the boys. In the next four hours, I had to empty my two huge suitcases and re-pack them because that same day, at 3 pm, the Diplomat, Son and I left for Peru for vacation. I am proud to say that we made it to the airport with time to spare and with perfectly packaged luggage.
Lima is a lovely city with incredible food. Everyone has been talking how in the past few years Peruvian food has been one of the best and the most innovative in the world. And it is! Besides cebiche (oh, my God, the cebiche!!), I can’t really say what is typically Peruvian food. Each restaurant has a chef trying to outdo everyone else with creative, at times odd combinations of ingredients, presented exquisitely to the eager eater. One of the nights, I took the Diplomat to dinner for his birthday at one of the fanciest Lima establishments, Maido, featuring Nikkei cuisine (that unique Peruvian-Japanese combo that is, errr, unique? Think cebiche sushi. Yeah, can’t explain it. Anyway). After we overdosed on cebiche and pisco sours, and listened to Son complain for 3 days straight that he was too tired to walk around the city (he was not, blasted child was just bored), we flew to Cusco to begin our amazing Machu Picchu experience.
Now, you might have heard that Machu Picchu is so high up that ordinary tourist folks (like us) suffer from the high altitude. We armed ourselves amply with soroche pills, offered to me by a stone-faced pharmacist in Lima, and were sure to take them before getting on the plane in Cusco, as advised. We gave Son the child equivalent. Either the pills were full of crap and I am amazing, or the pills worked only on me because, folks, let me tell you – altitude sickness hit the Diplomat and Son like a ton of high altitude bricks, while all it did to me was to make me out of breath when climbing steep streets, which was more probably due to my ever expanding posterior rather than rarified air. We started off with a mistake by beginning our tour in Cusco. Cusco is 3,400 m (11,200 ft) above the sea level (at which we live in Rio, by the way), and Machu Picchu itself is at 3,200. Oddly, 200 ft make a difference!
Exactly 8 minutes after we arrived, the Diplomat decided he was already badly affected and began complaining. Son complained too, for good measure. We piled into a cab from the Cusco airport, and went to our fabulous digs at the Sonesta Hotel, a most amazing, cheap hotel in the middle of it all. I was excited and giddy to be there. I had been dreaming my whole life to go to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I was actually on my bucket list. It was all so exotic and ancient and ruin-y and enchanting, and very much lacking in oxygen as far as the Diplomat and Son were concerned. We were greeted by copious amounts of coca-leaf tea (nothing to write home about, so don’t get excited) and some of the most hospitable people I have ever seen this side of the ocean. After we dumped our luggage, I put on all of our sweaters (you must know that I detest being cold; I revel in heat and humidity and shiver the moment it falls below 20 Celsius) and marshaled the gasping Diplomat and the unwilling child to climb through the enchanted steep streets of Cusco to have dinner at the acclaimed and romantic Pachapapa. All through Son kept complaining that he was not feeling well (I did not believe him), and the Diplomat kept stopping and rubbing his chest (I did not believe him either). We pushed through and had a lovely dinner. We took a cab back.
In the middle of the night I was woken up by loud noises in the bathroom, and was son told that Son had just thrown up. Son is 6 and a half years old. He has thrown up exactly one other time in his entire life. Clearly, he was not faking it. I suppose it was possible the Diplomat was not faking it either. So, the next morning, after I took both of my weakened men to breakfast, I decided to leave them to recuperate in the hotel room and go see the local ruins by myself with a promise to come back at lunch. I hired a cab and set out to explore old Inca ruins above the city with amazing names like Sacsayhuamán. During the trip I got a great taste of Inca architecture, acquired two alpaca sweaters and took a side trip on a horse (my first time on a horse, actually). Happy and slightly out of breath, I came back to the hotel to pick up the men, sure that they were in much better shape and ready for lunch. Instead, I found the Diplomat morosely drinking gallons of mint tea, and Son wearing a giant oxygen mask, playing a game on the Diplomat’s kindle in the hotel lobby. A sorry sight indeed. Everyone eventually pulled themselves together and we managed to see the city in the next two days and to eat even more amazing, creative food.
From Cusco, we hired a cab and took the 2-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, a cute little town from where one takes the train to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for Machu Picchu. Oddly, there are two different companies running trains to Aguas – the Inca and Peru Rail, and arguably one is better than the other. I can’t say – it is a one hour journey through fabulous scenery and unless you are booking the Hiram Bingham express (which is a fancy train with a 5-course meal), I’d think that all you care about are the cost and time of the train. We ended up with Inca Rail, purely as a function of those two factors. Perhaps here is a good time to mention that I managed to book the entire trip online, from the hotels, to the trains and to the tickets for Machu Picchu itself. If your travel plans are more or less firm, I’d recommend you do the same for peace of mind and in order to use a credit card.
Here is what you need:
· From Lima to Cusco
o Star Peru - http://www.starperu.com/
o Pervian Air - http://www.peruvian.pe/en
· From Cusco to Ollantaytambo
o Hire a cab, 3-4 hrs – 100 pesos (about $30)
· From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
o Inca Rail - http://incarail.com/
o Peru Rail - http://www.perurail.com/
· From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu park
o Shuttle bus from town center, buy tickets the night before to avoid long lines, $19
· Machu Picchu - http://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/
Or you can climb the whole thing. I am sure it’s fun.
While we were sitting in the restaurant at the train station in Ollantaytambo, waiting for the train, we stumbled upon none other than Son’s first grade teacher. Coincidentally, he had spent the last 2 days complaining how much he missed her and looking to buy her a gift. In fact, we had just spent 30 mins explaining to him who we could not call her from Peru (1. Did not have her number, 2. Would be really weird). So, meeting here there was fairly surreal.
The train ride up to Aguas is enchanting, as the tracks wind along the lovely Urubamba river, surrounded by tall, stark mountains and lush vegetation. We got there, settled into a cheap hotel, ate a really bad dinner in the next-door restaurant and fell into a coma, anxiously anticipating the next day. We got up at dawn and ran to the bus up to Machu, ostensibly to avoid the crowds up there. The thing is, everyone does the exact same thing so the result is that you end up with the crowds anyway. Frankly, my recommendation is to get up like a normal person, have a good breakfast, pack a lunch and head out around 10 am. Unless you are climbing one of the mountains there, you’ll have plenty of time to see everything, have a picnic lunch (secretly!), and climb around some more.
It is tough to describe Machu Picchu, frankly. Y’all have seen it in pictures, and as I write this, I am watching a National Geographic story on it (which happened thoroughly randomly, and the coincidence is freaky!). It looks exactly the same in real life. What is astonishing about it is the extent of preservation of the construction, the phenomenal engineering thought behind it, its purpose and its location. Frankly, it seems to me that there is no consensus on the purpose of the place – our tour guide told us that MP was largely a science laboratory, which on an average day had about 200 scientists and a bunch of support staff, with families staying elsewhere. There were agronomists (the Incas were mad about growing quinoa and corn, for example, and those terraces that you see in the pictures were used to saw things and see how they grow and experiment with cross-cultures); astronomers, physicists, engineers, all kinds of educated folk. Naturally, the King and his retinue hung out there a lot as well. There are temples and granaries, and living space, and all is incredibly well preserved. It seems that it was largely built during the reign of a king whose name I can’t remember even if the preservation of the human race depended on it (it has more consonants than a Polish word), and it seems to have been perfected and finished in the span of 3 generations of people (then again, keep in mind that the average age of death back then was 45 – too much quinoa, I suppose).
After the guide left us a couple of hours later (yes, I do recommend getting a guide), we ambled around pleasantly and decided to climb towards the Sun Gate (a rather un-challenging hike, which we were told would take less than an hour). Plus, Son needed to use the bathroom urgently and the only official bathroom is actually located outside MP. So, if you have gone all the way down to see the lower parts of MP, and then the roasted guinea pig from last night (oh yes, it is a local delicacy, you didn’t know??) decided to remind you about itself in your stomach, that means that you have to sprint all the way up to the entrance of the park, pushing eager tourists aside, gasping for air, fumbling your ticket for re-validation and trying to find pocket change to pay your way into the bathroom (of course it is not free, whoever has heard of such absurd concept as a free public toilet!). Instead, we decided to go for a hike and find a nice secluded spot for Son to enrich Mother Nature. With that successfully done, we panted through another 30 mins or so up, being passed by spritely old ladies and grandpas in khaki shorts, large white sneakers and climbing poles. At that point, the Diplomat was theatrically clutching his chest, gasping for air, Son kept running around like a billy goat and I decided that I will leave the Sun Gate for the next time I go see Machu Picchu. Relieved, we all went back down and just as were nearing the exit, it began to pour down.
Few hours later, we were back on the train to Aguas Calientes where we were to spend the night at a funky B&B I had found on Airbnb.com. The room I booked couple of night before that was pretty much the only one available in the village that night. I was a bit apprehensive as it did mention that it had a shared bathroom but it seemed that there was only one other room on the same floor, so I was OK with that. We arrived at 8 pm, in total darkness, and were taken to the B&B by a rickety auto rickshaw (up, in Peru, it exists). We entered into the funkiest entrance, which was clearly designed and adorned by a bunch of drunk hippies on a creative high, and were greeted by two teenagers, one of whom was higher than Bob Dylan during Woodstock and the other was a French girl, who apparently was there on a two-week student work-travel exchange, which seemed to constitute of her sleeping with the stoner Pervuan teenager, smoking pot for breakfast, perfecting her highly accented Spanish and providing dubious guest care. Incredibly exhausted by a day at Machu Picchu, all I could do was ask for our room and the bathroom. Then, incredibly, Peruvian Dylan, who could barely say a word straight, turned around and opened a door to a room, which was separated by the rest of the entrance area by mere glass and severely dirty curtains. Inside were two sets of bunk beds, all made of unpolished wood and covered by the most fantastic colorful blankets, which were probably washed last year. Then he pointed to the bathroom. It turned out to be a tiny thing with a toilet seat and a shower, to be shared by anyone who happened to be on that first floor and the reception. At that point, the French youth cheerfully went to make me mint tea. It was surreal. Son, however, was happy and immediately chose the bunk above my bed.
Eventually, the Diplomat and I went to our respective bunks and I tried to fall asleep only to be woken up by the French girl, who (30 mins later) had brought me my tea. I didn't drink it, it tasted like pot. I fell asleep again and I woke up, frozen to death, around 7 am and decided to go for breakfast. To my dismay, there was no electricity in the whole village. I cannot say that Ollantaytambo was a great success in our book, although the tiny main square was certainly picturesque and the Diplomat swears it was the best sleep he had gotten on the entire trip. From there, we went back to Cusco, stopping by Pisac to see some more excellent Inca ruins, and then by our old hotel to pick up the rest of the luggage we had stored there before leaving for MP (you can’t take much luggage on the train up). Once we landed back in Lima, and I got off the plane and took my first full breath of polluted air, I realized just how rarefied the air had been in Cusco. It was glorious to be able to breathe oxygen again.
Overall, Peru was wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone!
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
I am currently on that elusive Holy Grail of the Foreign Service – the TDY, or a “temporary duty assignment.” TDY means that an officer is posted temporarily to a post other than her permanent one in order to help out said post due to shortage of officers there for whatever reason. Posts that can spare officers at one point or another send them to help out a short-staffed one for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, and after that the wandering soul returns to the warm folds of her permanent assignment. I was lucky enough to be sent to Beirut, Lebanon for 4 weeks, to help out their consular section.
|Massaya Winery restaurant|
While Beirut may sound very exotic to my reader, I have to tell you that life at Embassy Beirut is not the easiest, mainly because of the many restrictions Embassy folks face due to the security situation in the region. I have been insanely lucky though since I happen to have one of my A100 partners in crime, K-G, serving here and making sure that I am having a fabulous time. I cannot thank her enough. Largely thanks to her, I managed to see ancient Roman ruins, the museum of the famous Khalil Gibran, visited the charming Massaya winery and drank their incredible wine, went shopping for (unreasonably pricey) gorgeous Lebanese antiques and crafts, and even flew to Cyprus for a weekend where the ambitious K-G ran a 5K race, while I cheered on and sat comfortably on the grass. She has also opened her kitchen to me, which means that I get to have home-cooked meals every night, something the rest of the TDY crowd here can only dream of (they tend to eat their meals at the cafeteria).
I live on the Embassy compound, in a so-called hotel, which can be best described as a co-ed college dorm but with a bar and bigger rooms with their own bathrooms and TVs. Because of its size, Embassy Beirut needs a lot of TDY help, which means that the hotel is always full. I am currently the only woman on TDY, which makes everyone hilariously uncomfortable when I go to do laundry in the basement. On the positive side, the room is very comfy and the commute to the consular section is 45 seconds as it is across the street from the hotel.
I left the Diplomat and Son to fend for each other in Rio. Naturally, Son, a very healthy child knock on wood, chose to get quite ill a week after I left. He developed a viral infection, accompanied by 104F degrees fever and strep throat, and entertained the Diplomat with it over the 3-day Easter weekend and a couple of days after that. Apparently, he decided to wake up multiple times per night, as well as have a couple of his infamous nosebleeds (I hear the Turkish carpet took a blow) while testing the Diplomat’s excellent daddy skills. After a short trip to the children’s hospital over the weekend, he was given antibiotics and slowly put on the mending path. I will now take a moment to discuss the immense increase in free communication methods over the past few years. In the past 3 weeks, the Diplomat, Son and I have spoken and seen each other over Viber, Gmail chat, Skype, Facebook voice and chat, and Whatsapp. It is astonishing how much the world has progressed in that respect despite the really bad internet service I get at the hotel here. So, while Son was ill, I would spend an hour daily entertaining him over Gmail chat. I have to say that Skype fails miserably every time the internet connection is not perfect while Gmail chat has always been, if at times grainy, a winner. To pass the time, I’d ask the morose child to dance while I play music for him and dance on my end, after which we would both collapse on each side of the ocean laughing hysterically. God bless technology. I miss my family.
Again thanks to K-G, I also managed to go out to dinner at several fabulous local restaurants. Lebanese cuisine is superb and I can never get tired of it. (OK, I CAN but it will take a while). A particularly exciting night took us to the legendary establishment of Em Sherif, which took over a week to secure reservations. The moment we entered, we instantly knew that we were woefully underdressed and under-make-uped for the restaurant. As we poured out of the Embassy vehicle onto the front steps, a tuxedo-ed guard gave us a stern look, clearly disapproving of my jeans and a sweater (in my defense, I had no idea where we were going and it was a solid 55F outside). With distaste written all over his face, he showed us inside what appeared to be a small banquet hall clearly prepared to host the post-wedding reception of Kate Middleton and Prince William. So many silver plates, so many embroidered napkins, so many sparkling wine glasses. And no other customers – we were the first ones for the night. After we announced that we had a reservation, the maître d' reluctantly led us to a spectacularly laden table for four and disappeared for a while. Finally he re-appeared, bent over and intently asked, “You eat?” Sure, why not buddy, since we ARE in a restaurant, after all, might just as well eat. We asked for the menu, and I swear, I heard the entire staff of the place let out a collective gasp. “NO MENU!,” snapped the indignant waiter and stared at us defensively. In case you wonder, we were confused as the “no menu” part was not immediately obvious to us. “We bring food, you eat!” he said menacingly and waited to see if we would object to that. We dared not. We just sat there, blinking, beginning to expect amazing things.
He disappeared again, and a new guy materialized at the table and asked in a high pitched voice, “You drink??” Absolutely, my friend, we drink. Bring it on! Thankfully, this time he brought a menu and stood there, imperiously looking at us to hear our wine choice. We chose and he went away. All of a sudden food dishes began to appear at our table with lightning speed. In under 50 seconds, there were over 20 plates with various scrumptious appetizers (or shall we say, meze) ready to be sampled, with more on the way. I am not going to lie - the food was superb and we ate without a drop of grace!
In the meantime, more people began coming in the restaurant, which was soon quite full with people all seemingly dressed for the imaginary wedding. Now, let me tell you about Lebanese women and fashion. There isn’t a shoe with heels as high in Kim Kardashian’s closet as there are on every gentle Lebanese female foot. Platform pumps 8 inches high are complemented with astoundingly tight dresses and hair so perfectly coifed that any geisha would hide in shame. Lebanese women as quite fashion forward and carry themselves with a respective poise. For example, this weekend, as I was climbing the super steep stairs to a Virgin Mary statue high on a hill, there were at least 6 women in said heels climbing the same steps ahead of me with the grace of mountain goats. But I digress in my fascination.
As I was staring at and oohing and aahing over the fashionistas, suddenly a super famous and quite fetching music star (Ragheb Subhi Alama) walked in the restaurant and all the ladies simply lost it. All ran on those high heels and congregated around him. From who knows where, a paparazzi photographer popped up and began snapping photos of the exquisite ladies and the famous dude. The noise and the chaos were contributing to a happy circus, which combined with the excellent food and the second bottle of Masaya Reserve made our severely underdressed party of four feel a happy part of the fabled nightlife of Beirut.
Getting back to Lebanese food, I must pronounce it outstanding. It is, in fact, very healthy as it consists of a lot of grilled meat, fresh salads and cooked vegetables with rivers of yogurt and mountains of pita bread. I also had the happy chance to try Armenian food, which, truth be told, resembled Lebanese in a lot of respects apart from the pure Armenian specialties. If I could pack a kilo of hummus, I would, but I can’t. Instead, I have set a goal of eating a kilo of hummus per day on the spot.
I was lucky enough to be here over two Easter weekends – the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox ones – which made for a very festive environment for most of my TDY tour. Beirut has quite a few churches, which coexist happily right next to lovely mosques, thus representing the very diverse religious make of the country (it has a fairly even mix of Shias, Sunis and Christians) and even managed to get myself into the main Greek Orthodox church this past weekend, right in the middle of the Easter service.
Beirut is a city in constant construction. Ruined in the span of several wars, most recently in 2006, the city is constantly rebuilding itself and the landscape includes hundreds of giant cranes and the skeletons of new buildings going up. I would be so curious what it would look like in 10 years. It has the glamorous areas with the obscenely expensive designer boutiques, the streets cluttered with bars, the expensive hotels. But it also has the Corniche, the lovely seaside promenade where people in the evening to jog, get together with friends, smoke a hookah, listen to loud hip hop in Arabic, streaming from the stereos of the cars parked nearby, make out with your date, walk your dog or hang out with your large family while all the kids roll about on bikes. It also has a petrifying Teleferique, or a gondola lift, which takes you 650 from the sea level up to the steep hills towering over Beirut, in a tiny little cabin, within a mere 9 minutes. It does offer stunning views of the city, that is, if you dare open your eyes during the journey. At the top, there is further climbing up to see Our Lady of Lebanon (where I observed the aforementioned high-heeled ladies prancing about the stairs of the monument), from where one can see a spectacular view of the city.
|The dizzifying teleferique|
Yup, Lebanon is an incredibly versatile city and I loved being here – thank you for making me feel so welcome, Embassy Beirut!