Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011!

There are just few hours left of 2011 here in Bangladesh. We are dressed up, hair coiffed, makeup applied, perfumed and ready to taken on the city of Dhaka tonight. And so, while we wait for Son's babysitter to show up, I cannot help but reflect on what has been probably the craziest year in my life.
We learned Bengali, packed up our lives and moved to the other side of the world, Son changed schools seemingly a thousand times, we traveled to India, Thailand and Malasysia, learned to live with unbelievable humidity, attended a party or two, got bitten by a monkey and killed a zillion pesky mosquitoes.
Our lives are so different from what they used to be back home. We ourselves have changed to other, I daresay, better people and Son has certainly grown up like a mushroom. Looking back, we ask ourselves the question: would we do it all over again had we known everything we now know? The answer is unequivocal "yes."
And so goodbye year 2011. It has been a real true pleasure to know you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How I Bought a Skinny Christmas Tree and the Night Habits of Son

Christmas has surprised me this year. It sort of crept up on me here because of the warm weather and the fact that there is not a single Christmas propaganda in the entire city of Dhaka. Not one! Not a single plastic Santa or glowing Christmas tree in the streets. Odd.

Before coming to post I thought importantly to myself that I have never used a fake tree in my life and was not about to. I was all about being natural, you know, because I am THAT cool. Let me tell you—two weeks of watching my friends’ happily glowing large, beautifully plastic Christmas trees in Dhaka and I was frantically searching Amazon.com for a fake awesomeness to call my own. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time for delivery. I was facing Christmas without a tree and while some of you cynics out there might think that this isn’t such a big deal (just like I did), it actually is. OK?? Rather distraught, I started asking around the diplomatic enclave whether anyone had a spare one (you’d be shocked to see the kind of multiple crap that expats collect over the years because you just never know when you will need an extra nativity scene or a ritual Indian hat or extra large peacock feathers). And then suddenly I saw in a nursery nearby my house several fairly large (5 ft or so) potted (sort of) pine trees. A bit anemic, they still could hold up a few ornaments and would give the house the sorely needed Christmas look. Triumphantly, I bought the scrawny tree and this past weekend decorated it with Son and the Diplomat. Actually, it was more like me decorating while singing loudly and unconvincingly a potpourri of Christmas songs while the Diplomat sat there trying not to look bored and Son ran around trying to break as many ornaments as possible. He broke only 3. And then I broke 2. While cleaning the mess, I broke a third one for good measure. Merry Christmas!

Speaking of Son, I have to complain of his recent night habits. Some time ago Son began to come into our bed in the early morning hours. It was just a few minutes before getting up so he served as a really cute and loveable alarm clock. Then he started coming in a bit earlier, say 5 am. He’d quietly get into bed with us, somehow make his way into the middle, and then spread his (seemingly) million legs and arms around and snore loudly. Between the foot in my ribcage, fingers in my ear and the 5 am morning call to prayer from our particularly loud and not so musical neighboring muezzin, I was beginning to lose some serious amount of sleep. Thusly, I decided to nip the friendly 5 am visits in the bud. So, the following night, when I woke up at 4 am to find him there, I quietly hugged him and carried him back to his bed. He never even woke up. I then went to the restroom and quickly went back into our bed only to discover with a start a certain asleep, snoring child is in there AGAIN! How and when he managed to find his way back so fast is a mystery to me. Not one to be easily deterred, I promptly carried him back to his own room and went back to bed. Somehow, I fell asleep. At 5 am, the dutiful muezzin called all faithful to prayer and me to wake up. I turned around to try and find a better sleeping position and found myself almost nose to nose with none other than a fast asleep obstinate child. Once more I carried the tiny stowaway to his bedroom (momma is way more obstinate than him). Needless to say, when I finally got up at 7 am, I found him right back there next to me. He opened his eyes with a wide grin and said, “Mama, I love you much!” I capitulated. And before any of you decide to berate me for not wanting my child in my own bed—I do, I really DO. But I just can’t sleep with him in there. And I do have to get up in the morning and actually go to work. So there.

With the holidays, the party season has really reached a crescendo here. I cannot even count how many dinner and afternoon parties and receptions we have attended for the past 2 weeks. Not that I am complaining but I do admit that both the Diplomat and I, after coming back from yet another bash last night, simply passed out in bed at 9.30pm. Not even Son coming to our bed at 5 am (blasted obstinate child!) could manage to wake me up.

During this past one week winter has finally arrived in Bangladesh. The temperature has dropped to 5-10C and we are actually freezing at home. The Diplomat has taken on sleeping in a particularly objectionable old brown sweater and white socks. While some women can certainly find that attractive, I have found that I am not gracious enough to accept the look with joy. It was indeed rather shocking to observe how fast the weather went from 25 to 5 degrees, it was truly a matter of 2 days. I write now, sitting on my governmentally-provided, neutral beige plush couch, dressed in PJs, fuzzy white slippers and wrapped in a fleece blanket while my nose is so frozen that if I tap it, it might break off. I never thought I’d say this in Dhaka, but I do wish we had heating.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter in Bangladesh - scarves and mosquitoss

So, winter has descended upon us here in Bangladesh. For weeks, my driver has been warning me grimly how horribly cold it would get in Dhaka. So, in excited anticipation (yes, after months of wet 100F and above, you TOO will be excited about cold weather), I pulled out the sweaters and arranged them in neat piles in our closets. And then I sat down and waited, day by day, for the severe cold that comes here. And then it got down to a pleasant 85 degrees and half of Bangladesh started wearing scarves. Thick, pashmina, colorful scarves. My driver, for example, wears one obsessively, tightly wrapped around his neck. I am not sure what exactly it does for him-whether he thinks it blocks the harmful chilly 85 degree air or he is missing the feeling of constant sweating from the sweltering summer. The door guards wear parkas and hats and I feel rather stupid walking past them in a backless summer dress. The rickshaw wallahs wrap yards of fabric around their heads and today I saw a guy with red ear muffs.

With winter came along also a famous Bangladeshi visitor--the hungry mosquito. They are everywhere--at home, in front of your home, in the office, in the car, around the car, in your nose or buzzing in your ears, often tangled in your hair, all over your exposed feet and defenseless child. The biggest swarms seem to be, inexplicably, in front of the apartment doors. Coming home has become a challenge worthy of Super Mario, where I would slowly come to the door, flail my arms bravely and try to kill as many as I possibly can, earning a coin each time I do. It doesn't help that I have a nice, cheap plastic autumn wreath on my door, which has been chosen (with delight, I am sure) as a favorite mosquito hangout spot. When I shake the damn wreath, about a million precocious and irritated mosquitoes fall out of it and start buzzing around me in irritation. Then I crack the door open and dash quickly inside at which point Son comes out of nowhere, screaming in delight upon seeing mama and then opening the front door wide open, probably to see if there is some other part of me left out there. In silent dismay I watch the pesky tiny neighbors come in for a visit in droves. Sure, we do try to keep them at bay with various contraptions - in front of the entrance door, I keep a slow burning coil, which sends a thin veil of scented smoke around the door. As a result, the entire building staircase smells like a Buddhist temple but it DOES help keep at least some percentage away. Inside, we have plug-in lamps that use heated scented oil. The oil is really effective--we have not had a mosquito in our bedroom or in Son's room for a long time. The downside is that it smells like a truly cheap perfume, the kind that they used to make back in the Soviet Union days and so it always reminds me vaguely of discos and teenage dating. Finally, to my utmost distaste, we finally armed ourselves with an electric tennis racket - the contraption allows you to electrocute (to the tune of an awful cracking, frying sound and smell) a flying by mosquito. So far, I have managed to electrocute one little buzzer but I can tell you, it is not a job for the faint of heart!
The most irritating part of them is that one mosquito tends to bite many times around the same spot - I'd rather the damn insect man up and bite once but show some quality work. These bites usually go away in a couple of hours but while they last, you will scratch your skin like a rabid dog. Not to mention that we are all morbidly afraid that we will catch Dengue fever, carried ever so graciously by the mosquitoes.
This is the season for Christmas parties, and boy, everyone has got some serious Christmas spirit. Starting tomorrow, we will be visiting Christmas parties every day, and on Thursday alone, we will go to 4, yes, 4 of them. I LOVE it!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

New York in Asia and the Biting Monkey

Last weekend the Diplomat, Son and I flew to Kuala Lumpur for a brief, three-day weekend away. I am happy to say that the trip started well and it just kept getting better! For some reason, we got upgraded to Business Class. Now, honestly, was Business Class all that it is cracked up to be? OH YES, YES, YES! From the warm, fragrant hand towels, the lamb satee, the champagne, the service, the blankets, the reclining chairs, the lounge, everything was just fantastic. How can we go back to coach now???

Kuala Lumpur is truly what everyone kept telling me it is—a giant luxury shopping mall. There are designer shopping malls everywhere, all of which showcase some rather ludicrous prices compared to the United States. And for that precise reason, we did not buy anything, but certainly enjoyed eating all the fabulous international food. To me, Kuala Lumpur was like an Asian version of New York City. Not too polished or sterile like Singapore, or too ethnic and hippie like Bangkok, it stands somewhere in the middle. It houses many different cultures and all that comes with those—restaurants, shops, colors, places of worship, people. Speaking of which, two days in a row we tried to go and see the famed Mosjid Jamek (the Jamek Mosque). Firstly, we were not admitted as it was too late. The next day we came in too early (the afternoon Friday prayer had just ended and a seemingly endless stream of people was pouring outside). Finally, we arrived for a third time right on the dot, and thankfully were let in. I was given a fetching hijab and a sprawling, billowing dress to cover myself and allowed to walk around and take some pictures. The mosque has a beautiful, tranquil space for payer and contemplation, as well as some web browsing, as we learned. At least two of the revelers inside were surfing the net on the laptops! Talk about progress...
Then, while waiting for Son to go “poopy” (as Son loudly announced in the deafening silence of the mosque area) along with the Diplomat, a rather loquacious mosque worker chatted me only to realize with obvious horror that I was a Christian and my husband—Hindu. He told me that there is still hope for me, and gave me a heavy pamphlet on Mohammad to read on the plane. That seemed to cheer his up considerably.
As I said, KL reminded me of NYC very much also because of its night scene. The Diplomat and I were fortunate to discover the Sky Bar at the top of the Trader’s Hotel, which offered impeccable drinks, mesmerizing views of the brightly-lit Petronas Towers and excellent music. The bar is located around the pool area on the top of the hotel so the venue is even more dramatic. Not surprisingly, we managed to run into two Americans there-a NJ native working in Hong Kong (there for the weekend) and a U.S. Marine from Dubai (there for the weekend) who had just gotten married to a Palestinian girl. Let’s just say that it was a good party.

The following day, we went to see the Batu Caves, famous for the Hindu temple built in and around them. While the temple itself was a rather, shall we say – touristy affair, right next to it was the real cave which offered a 45 min trip inside the complete darkness. Not ones to miss the cool stuff, we quickly headed over. Now, to reach the temple/cave area, one must climb almost 300 steep steps. Son ran up them with the ease of a monkey, which is ironic given that the steps were full of local monkeys. Let’s just say that it is terrible what tourists can do to the local fauna. The monkeys were constantly looking for food, generously given by the unaware and delighted tourists—peanuts, sugar, even bottled water (?!). Rather amused, I began taking pictures, while Son was pottering around my legs. All of a sudden I heard a burst of crying from below—Son was screaming and crying and the Diplomat, who was a few steps away, was frantically yelling that a monkey had bitten him. Indeed, it had and he had the bite marks to prove it. To add insult to injury, the biting monkey and a giggling friend were already moving quickly away, each one carrying one of Son’s cars which he had dutifully clutched in his hands up to that moment. Apparently, while I was taking pictures, the monkeys approached Son and being like children themselves, tried to pry the cars away from his hands. As Son was refusing to give them away, one of the monkeys bit the child and then both ran away. My first instinct (sorry!) was to grab one of the cars from the monkey’s hands and try to get it back. So, there we were—a mid-sized, not-joking, rather strong monkey and a sweating, short-skirted female American diplomat tugging a bright red car while a crowd of cheering people and monkeys stood on the sidelines and watched. I won. I am not proud of it. I am just saying. Sadly, the second car (a firetruck) was lost irretrievably to a much larger and faster monkey, who perched himself on a high fence and proceeded to chew the Chinese toy with enviable assiduity and perseverance. Thankfully, the State Department had given Son a series of rabbies and tetanus shots, so the monkey bite was not dangerous. But Son has surely developed a whole new level of appreciation of monkeys. So did I. Otherwise, the cave tour wa great - we learned a whole bunch of vastly unnecessary information on cave spiders, centipedes and cockroaches.
We left KL with heavy hearts and stomachs.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Contraband Wine and Marine Ball Dhaka 2011


We shared our desire for some wine and beer with the resort staff and they happily told us that there is a place in downtown Sylhet where we can procure the goods. They did not tell us what kind of a place it was but asked us to bring our diplomatic passports so we assumed it was the local equivalent of the diplomatic warehouses in Dhaka. In those places, you enter a highly guarded world of alcohol imported from all over the world at ridiculously cheap duty-free prices. So, we hired a car from the resort and on the second day of our trip dashed off to the downtown. Mind you, this was a day before Eid began and the town was a madhouse consisting of gazillion vendors of clothing of every size, gender and variety humanity has ever invented, cattle of every size, cooked food, raw food, fried road-side snacks, live chickens, dead chickens, eggs, mysterious looking giant leafy possibly edible plants, exotic fruits, huge hanging bunches of grapes, plastic knick-knacks, flowers for the cattle, rickety rickshaws, cars and people, people everywhere. We inched for about 45 mins and then suddenly took an abrupt left turn into a dark large gate where we overheard the driver mentioning to the armed uniformed guards that we were British. The Diplomat and I looked at each other quizzically, and I told him that we needed to hone our accents immediately. We entered into a smallish dark parking lot in front of a neat, foreign-looking building. The driver told us to go inside and then sped away to the farthest and darkest corner of the parking lot. Increasingly puzzled, we entered what turned out to be a small foyer with two silent Bangladeshi men in impeccable white shirts and creased black pants. All four of us stood there for about a minute in complete silence. Awkwaaaaaard. After shuffling my feet uneasily for a while, I finally asked whether they needed us to show them some sort of ID.
Guard 1: No. (Silence)
Me: Ummmm, hm. Well, ok. (Looking uncomfortably and scratching myself thoughtfully)
Diplomat: Soooooooooooo, do you have wine here?
Guard 1: Yes.
D: Do you have white?
G: Yes.
D: Do you have red?
G: Yes.

It went on like this for some time, the guard never volunteering more than a laconic answer to the point. We started feeling quite funny about the whole business, and told them firmly that we wanted three bottles of white wine and one bottle of (some obscure) scotch. They quoted us some obscene amounts for the purchase (over a $100) and after gasping for a few seconds, we decided to pay, if not for anything else, then at least for the adventure. And then Diplomat asked brightly if he could pay by credit card. He does things like that. The guards gave him a long, strained look, either trying to suppress a loud giggle or the urge to smack him, and then one of them icily responded, “We don’t have the facility for that, Sir.” The Diplomat handed over the cash and we were told to go wait in the car “for the parcel.” No one ever said who these people were and we still had no idea where in the heck we were, but we humbly complied. The Diplomat and I went back to the van, our driver was nowhere to be seen, so we proceeded to chat happily while energetically swatting away the hordes of mosquitoes and ferociously scratching our severely bitten legs. Suddenly, we saw our portly driver running madly back to the car like the booze police was after him, slamming the doors of the van shut, and then he jumped in the driver seat and sped away with all his might. The Diplomat and I looked at each other in horror, me breathlessly asking whether there is a police raid on this place or perhaps whether the gate guards will toss us the “parcel” as we pass by. Just as we were about to leave the place, I yelled at the driver, “Where is the package?” He jumped on the breaks, almost killing us in the process, and then turned around and asked me whether we had it already. It turned out that he went to the bathroom who knows where, and upon coming back, saw us sitting there and assumed we were done and in a hurry to go drinking. So, we went back and soon the parcel arrived—inside where two bottles of RED wine, one white and one scotch which was completely different from what we originally discussed (but no means better, of course). In the end it turned out that the place was a private club, whose guards and waiters were selling booze under the table for a hefty profit. Needless to say, the wine was absolutely awful but after a few glasses even the scotch tasted just fine.
Earlier that day, we drove all the way up to the Indian border in the town of Jaflong. From there, we took a brief boat-ride in a miniscule boat to the point where the Indian border is. The border itself is marked by two large stones and lone border policeman, who was spending his time pleasantly in the sun sitting on one of the border stones and cleaning his foot nails with a large stick. In the meantime, in the river there were quite a few boatmen from both sides of the border (read, Bangladeshis and Indians) who were apparently fighting energetically and not letting the Indians cross into Bengali territory. The reasons for that remain murky. At the same time, a bunch of women on the Indian side were doing massive loads of laundry and sending plenty of soapy water into Bangla-land. So, we did the touristy thing and stood with one leg in Bangladesh and another in India. Very powerful stuff.

The following night we met a group of nurses from a Cleft-palate foundation (Children’s Surgery International) who came to relax for a day at the resort after working tirelessly in Bangladesh. I loved seeing fellow Americans and swapping stories from their missions abroad in exchange for some of our contraband wine. I think they are an amazing group of ladies and apparently they will be coming back again next year for more good deeds. They were accompanied by a Bangladeshi American who now lives in the United States and helps out with the foundation work. He happened to be also a sophisticated photographer and I admired his tripod for a while after soliciting advice on the subject (I have been pining for one for some time, never too sure what to buy). Well, folks, I can only tell you that on the next day, as they were leaving, he came to the Diplomat and gave him the tripod—he said that he could not stand to see a fellow photographer without one and he could always get another one in the U.S. So, yes, I love my job because it gives me to opportunity to see the world and meet the most extraordinary ordinary people.

What else? Ah yes, we celebrated our annual Marine Corps Ball last weekend. The Diplomat decided to have a tuxedo made for him as it is rather inexpensive to do so in Dhaka and it seems that one can always use a tuxedo in life. True to form, although the tuxedo could have been done about a month before the Ball given when we first went in for measurements, the Diplomat actually picked it up 3 hours before the Ball started.
He was certainly not the only one to make his tuxedo in Ferdous Tailors in Dhaka. Amusingly, about 25% of the Ball guests wore identical tuxedos. This was our first Marine Ball and all was going fantastic, including the video tribute which showed scenes from all kinds of wars as well as September 11, 2001 at which point I and a whole bunch of other women in heavy make-up were sobbing uncontrollably. The food was outstanding and the company excellent. And then the DJ hit the dance floor. All I can say is that the man loooooooved the late 70s and early 80s. From time to time some poor soul would approach him and ask for something new-er, which he played obligingly, the crowd would pile up happily and dance and then the moment the good song was over, the DJ would kill it with the Macarena, Rhythm Is  Dancer or some other definitive crowd-pleaser. Good company and party notwithstanding, we left at 1.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sylhet, Eid-alAdha and the contraband alcohol - Part 1

Where do I even begin? There is so much to tell that I will break this post into parts and you will be forced to come back to read if you want to know how the Diplomat and I went to the tea gardens of Sylhet, drank obscene quantities of dreadfully strong local tea, obtained what appeared to be contraband alcohol, stepped into India for a few minutes, and never got a single food order right. So, I begin.

My Inlaws have been visiting us for the past 2 weeks and so we decided to go on a short family vacation to the beautiful Nazimgarh Resort, located in the midst of tea garden country surrounding Sylhet, the third largest Bangladeshi town. We were joined by our good friend Mr. Hawaiian and his two kids (Mrs. Hawaiian, for those who remember, is currently in the U.S. since she just had another baby—Congratulations!). The idea was to leave town before the onset of Eid-Al-Adha. Not for the faint of heart, the second Eid festival celebrated by the Muslim population of the world involves ritual sacrifice of domestic animals (qurbani) and commands sharing of the meat, among many other things. The reason we had decided to leave was that in Dhaka, the slaughtering tend to occur right in the streets, including in the diplomatic enclaves where a lot of wealthy Bangladeshi citizens happily live. We were told that as a result, the morning of Eid we will be woken up by the plaintive screech of dying animals and for 2 days blood will flow freely in all directions. Slightly unnerved at the thought, we decided to spend Eid elsewhere.
We started rather auspiciously. Our flight was almost not delayed (what’s 20 minutes between friends??) and then after we walked on the tarmac to climb into the toy propeller airplane operated by Regent Air, the pilot excitedly welcomed us onboard and immediately launched into a brief but poignant prayer extolling Allah several times. Given the size and the look of the airplane, I thought praying was indeed prudent. 45 minutes later, we landed safely if somewhat jumpily in Sylhet. We collected the luggage and went outside where a driver welcomed us to a miniscule looking SUV.  A sort of a circus scene ensued: All of us five adults and three children kept running around the car, several small suitcases in tow, trying to figure out how to cram ourselves inside. The serene unperturbed driver, who never uttered a word, was hastily trying to jam all suitcases in the non-existent luggage space of the SUV (the bulk taken up by a massive propane gas tank).
Naturally, soon a small crowd of delighted local loiterers who were simply hanging out at the tiny airport with nothing better to do for the day, kept closing in on us literally breathing down our necks. To enhance the effect of the mayhem, two tenacious beggars (an impossibly skinny woman with a billowing saree and an old man with a giant beard) somehow managed to penetrate the circle of loitering onlookers, and to my utter shock practically climbed into the car and began asking for alms. Not a second late, a police-looking man started yelling at them from the top of his lungs, possibly trying to scare them away and frightening me to no end in the process. Having reached the end of my patience and sweating profusely in the gentle November sun, I took matters in my own hands, stuffed my languid family into the van and yelled to the driver to go.

We drove past several lively animal markets selling livestock destined to perish the following day--the cows and goats definitely looked unimpressed. I was. The experience has left me with the longing to acquire a small goat. What could be better than coming home from a long day of work and be greeted by a friendly bleeting, followed by a set of small hooves lovingly placed on my chest. I suspect, however, that Fat Cat would not be amused. There goes that dream. 20 mins later we arrived in the serenity of Nazimgarh Resrots where we were met with a round of complimentary impossibly sweet orange-colored liquid by some of the most polite people in this world.
  
The resort is quite beautiful and the rooms are very well appointed. The surrounding nature is gorgeous and since we are now in November, the weather has become wonderfully balmy—lower 80s during the day and high 60s in the evening. We wisely chose to get “luxury” rooms (meaning, those with terraces) and I highly recommend to everyone going there to do the same. There is something magical about waking up in the morning and sitting on the terrace, overlooking a vast green space, listening to the birds, inhaling the pleasant non-humid, non-hot air and drinking strong tea (or whatever else strikes your fancy at that time of the day).
At which point Son would appear on the terrace as well, having taken off his nightly diaper and pajamas and thus stark naked, and would stand proudly there welcoming the morning in its (and his own) glory. He would not get dressed for all the candy in the world. Good times.
The restaurant offers a good variety of continental as well as Asian food, all very well prepared. The problem was the service. All waiters spoke some English or made it look like they did, which was unfortunate because we kept ordering in English (or in the case of the Diplomat, in confusing Bangla). Let’s just say that a lot was lost in translation. The most common confusion involved us wondering aloud what food to order (and making the mistake to ask the waiters for advice) while they frantically wrote everything down and as a result would habitually come back with way more food than we intended to order. The children refused to eat much else beyond pizza and spaghetti and meatballs (God bless the Italians) and so the percentage of those two dishes consumed annually in Sylhet proper just went up by 500%.

The resort also boasts a really nice swimming pool. Ok, not swimming, just pool. Surrounded by lush greenery, it was the appointed place to hang out in the afternoon for all of us, and while the kids kept soaking in the rather cold water, we would consume even more tea and read our books and rest our weary diplomatic bones.

The one thing that the resort does NOT boast is alcohol. Which was a pity. I did have a nagging suspicion that would be the case, so I meticulously prepared 2 bottles of wine and some stronger beverages to come with us from Dhaka. Naturally, we promptly forgot them. So, on the first evening of our stay at Nazimgarh, as we lamented how nice it would have been to have a sip of this and that while chatting the night away and swatting at the swarming resilient mosquitoes, we decided to ask whether there is any hidden stash of any fermented liquid in the resort. We were told a polite no, BUT if we wanted to, the staff would be happy to tell us where we could get some wine and beer in Sylhet city. Rather intrigued, we declared out interest and decided to rent a car the following afternoon and go procure. And procure we did—what I now strongly suspect is contraband wine and scotch. But for more on that—tune in this weekend!

Friday, October 28, 2011

It’s Halloween in Dhaka!

And people take it seriously. Maybe because it is a way to reconnect with home, or maybe because it is yet another reason to party, but both expats and local embassy staff have embraced the holiday and the amount of parties, carnivals and trick-or-treat events for children are mind-boggling. Two weeks ago was the pre-cursor of it all by the name of the Glitter Ball, organized by the Australians. It is possibly the most infamous expat party in Dhaka and is in essence a giant costume party held at the Radisson Hotel. It sells out in 17 minutes once tickets become available (they are sold in tables rather than individually) and then the tickets start getting traded around with more secrecy and fervor than the Google IPO. Each table chooses a theme (which this year ranged from Australian road signs to a bunch of Amy Whinehouses to a beach party to Arabian Nights) and then coordinates their costumes. We were lucky to snag tickets the morning OF the ball and yours truly went as a devil and the Diplomat—as an office zombie—since we landed on the monsters’ table. How appropriate.

Then, in the past week, there have been 3 trick-or-treat events for kids, which Son attended with a vengeance in his old devil costume because I am a bad mommy and could not get my act together to have a new one made for him (which is what all good mommies here do apparently). On top of that, the costume clearly was not very appropriate for Dhaka as it was made of wonderful plastic-y fleece material, which was perfect in the cold October weather of Washington, DC but not for the 85+ degrees of Dhaka. Son sweated profusely yet bravely and as a result our house is heavy with the sugary loot. Yesterday, our Embassy hosted a trick-or-treating event and all of us were encouraged to dress up to work. I wore my witch hat with matty silver hair, which I forgot to take off while talking to a couple of puzzled and somewhat horrified visa applicants.

So, as you can see, we are doing swell in Dhaka. Last weekend, I finally hosted my first dinner here, using my new plates. I admit that it was excruciatingly difficult to prepare half of the dishes because there either aren’t such ingredients here or I do not know where to find others. A lot of American missions overseas have a great place called The Commissary, which is connected to the Embassy and sells a lot of goods that you can find in the good ol’ U.S. In Dhaka, we are blessed with an exceptionally good one even if somewhat expensive. For example, yesterday I bought a box of Tide detergent, and you’d think I was buying gold dust as it cost in excess of $20. To be fair, I shop there extremely rarely and mostly for alcohol, which it stores in abundance and variety. I prefer to shop in the local supermarkets where I buy locally produced goods, and I would encourage anyone going to live overseas to do the same. It will save you a bundle. 
Son has now acquired the habit of coming to our bedroom early in the morning, standing next to my side of the bed and staring at me until I wake up. Who knows how long he stands there, but I can tell you that there is something rather startling about waking up and seeing in the dim morning light (without your glasses on) a creature of some kind standing by your side, wild hair sticking in all directions, whispering in monotone, “maamaaaaaa…………..maaaamaaaaa……….maaaammaaaaaa.” He then climbs into our bed, and rather than snuggling with us like they say in the books that children do, he begins twirling up and down the bed like a cheerleader’s baton, coming in and out of the sheets and sticking his feet in all of our soft body parts. I continue to obstinately try to sleep, but then he takes on licking my face and biting my feet. So, with a deep sigh and filled with love, I get up. Good morning, Dhaka!

Monday, October 17, 2011

India Developed

The previous weekend the Diplomat, Son and I made a 4-day visit to my Inlaws in Chennai, India. We thought we had been rather clever—since tickets from Dhaka to Chennai were quite pricey, we decided to buy tickets on two different airlines. From Dhaka we’d fly to Calcutta on the wings of the impressive Bangladeshi GMG Airlines, and from there board an IndiGo flight to Chennai. Not so much.
I have learned one thing in Bangladesh—NOTHING ever goes as planned. EVER. EVER. EVER. As we were sitting happily in our office on Tuesday of last week, a day before our trip, a good friend called to complain that HIS GMG flight to Calcutta was cancelled for no reason at all. Somewhat panicked, we decided to call them just to make sure our flight on the following day was OK. Um, not so much. GMG brightly informed us that yes, indeed, they have cancelled their afternoon flight on October 5th, but we are more than welcome to fly that same morning at 6 am. No, thank you, we said nicely and then yelled some more asking them what in the world we were supposed to do now. We asked to be given back half of our money and be put on another flight by another company (there ain’t many airlines flying out of Dhaka, mind you and buying a ticket in the last moment would prove to be a rather costly affair). The boss sales manager came on the phone and nicely told us that we needed to email them the request rather than communicate on the phone. Livid and foaming, we hung up and sent the email. Soon afterwards, we received an utmost polite email telling us that in today’s competitive world, GMG prides itself on good customer service since they understand its importance. Therefore, they WILL refund to us half of our ticket price. Um, I hate to say it, but that’s kind of mandatory, good service or not. GMG, however, were clearly very proud of their “exceptional” service. Naturally, no word was mentioned of them reimbursing the extra $300 we had to pay out of pocket to buy tickets on another airline because of their stupidity. In their defense (they said), they did send the Diplomat a text message mentioning the cancelled flight. His phone was at home. I admit we were forewarned by friends about GMG. One never listens….And by the way, two weeks later, no money has found its way back into our account.

Good times were had in Chennai. I am lucky that three of my best friends from A-100 were stationed there and happened to be around to party with us. It was truly magical to be all the way across the world and see good friends and eat some great Armenian BBQ (long story). For those visiting Chennai and asking for a truly great, romantic dinner experience, I remain forever impressed by The Park—a gorgeous boutique hotel with fabulous rooftop restaurant by the pool overlooking the entire city, and the Raintree Hotel—another fabulous rooftop restaurant with exquisite fusion cuisine. I was also introduced to Café Amethyst touted as the best expensive café in Chennai. It features a gorgeous colonial style two-storey house, which houses pleasant white wicker chairs and tables on the large wrap-around porch and an astonishing menu, which included even a Salas Nicoise. The garden is large and resembles a small jungle of local trees and flowers.
I also remain largely unimpressed by the Taj, supposedly the best hotel in Chennai. The Diplomat and I were out for one last night on the town before leaving the next day, and decided to treat ourselves to the Taj for dinner since it is the top of the posh there. The Diplomat dressed in his (one and only) $200 Hugo Boss shirt, fancy loafers and dark blue elegant shorts and I was wearing a Nicole Miller dress and 4-inch heels. We arrived in smashing style at the Taj, were promptly frisked by the paranoid hotel security and then even faster refused seating in the Italian restaurant in the hotel since we appeared too casual to them. Rather miffed, we spoke our minds to the manager on duty, an exquisitely-sareed young lady, who told us there was absolutely nothing she could do and then inexplicably followed us all the way up to our car to tell us again the same.
I was immensely impressed by Chennai. I was there just over two and a half years ago and the difference in everything could be measured in lightning years. The old decrepit buses are gone and new ones with electronic info streaming at the front are now zooming through the city. Traffic is nothing to speak of; shopping is excellent from multi-storey malls to small boutiques; young women and men zip around the city on scooters and motorbikes, wearing western clothing and texting incessantly their zillion friends on Facebook. The streets are clean (well, relatively speaking), new infrastructure is being built with phenomenal speed, the restaurants are excellent, it even makes its own cars. In short—I now get what the deal about India is. I can safely say that India is on the path of something absolutely remarkable, which will soon leave any other fast developing country breathing its dust from behind.

Regrettably albeit understandably, India has also become rather paranoid about security. Its airports have turned into unpleasant endless points of searches and frisks, and the border immigration agents go out of their way to be unpleasant. Son gave two security guards the sweat of their life when he suddenly bolted from the security lineup in Calcutta, waiving his tattered teddy bear victoriously up in the air and screaming delightedly, "You can't catch me" at them as they were chasing him with stern determination. We pretended he wasn't ours.
In other Dhaka news, the Diplomat and I attended the annual Glitter Ball last Friday. The event deserves it own post, including some ludicrous pictures of expats behaving like crazy people. More on that-later.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sick...AGAIN!

So, I am sick AGAIN. I don't remember ever being sick so many times in such a short period of time in my life before. I was given the vague diagnosis of "tonsilitis" when in fact it was mostly my stomach. As a result, I have now spent 2 days sleeping. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

This past weekend I fulfilled my dream of buying fancy plates and other "crokery" - Bangladesh has a rapidly developing ceramics industry and produces positively gorgeous plate sets for export. All the spoils and products with defects are for sale on the local market for, well, rather cheap and if you dig really deep and really carefully, you can actually get almost no defects in the plates you buy. From the get-go, I was pretty determined to acquire some fancyware to use for my beloved dinner parties. Thing is, we live in the diplomatic enclave of Dhaka, and the prices of most good here as, well, for diplomats. So, on Friday morning, the Diplomat and I walked boldly in the first store of Shinepukur ceramics and I immediately fell in love with a nice, gaudy set. Enthusiastically, we asked for the price, and were told 11,800 Taka (about $160) for a set for 6 people. The owner sternly said, "fixed price" and a minute later said he'll give us a 25% discount as first customers for the day. Still quite the steep price, I decided to take the shopping party rogue and took us to the New Market, a place where one can buy anything China, India and Bangladesh produce in the space of a large Manhattan apartment., including fly swatters, silk sarees, plastic toys, fantastically ugly large fluffy pillows in fluorescent green and pink, cheap jewelry and some wonderful plates at 1/3 of the price.
I spotted the set I wanted immediately in one of the million minuscule stalls and let the Diplomat negotiate the price. The poor owner never knew what was about to hit him. He quoted us the highly decent price of 5,100taka ($67), and then it went down like this:
Owner (in OK English): Sir, very good price, Sir, very good set, EXPORT QUALITY! For you Sir, great price I give.
Diplomat (in OK bangla): See look here, I buy 3 set and I know other who want plates so if I like I tell many you give me card no defects, then we good wife needs good plates, she boss home we have many party good plate needed. wYou have 3 can you do? Also, soup bowl.
Owner: Oh Sir, yes, we have many, no problem sir, we give. Great price, great quality I personally check for you. What else you want?
Me (whispering): I want soup bowls and two platters, but how much is it??
Diplomat (whispering back at me): Shhhhhh...
Me: But, why not ask...
Diplomat: We want other things, here is everything., How much?
Owner (typing something in a pre-war looking calculator): hm, uma, 34,500 Taka.
Me: say, what?
Diplomat: WHAT? Let me see that.
Owner hands over piece of paper and ancient calculator when Diplomat whips out his Android indignantly and fiddles with it for 5 mins when he comes up with 24,500 only. Then he gets up even more indignantly, explains that he feels terribly cheated, he cannot believe anyone else here and is leaving.
Owner: Sorry, sir, just a small mistake, I sorry.
D: I don;t know whom to believe here anymore, you are trying to cheat me, I am not buying anything here, this is the end of my trust.
O: Oh, sorry, what I can do?
D: OK, here is the deal, I will pay ONLY 17,000 and not a taka more.
O: Oh my God, I am ruined, my children will have nothing to eat. No, sir.
D: OK , I am leaving, I can't trust anyone here.
O: OK,  22,000 final offer as first customer.
D: 19,000 and this is my last one, Here is my card, call me if you decide to take my offer.
O: No, Sir, can't do that. This is less than my buying price.
D: Too bad (starts to walk away, me in horror that we have pushed too hard).
O: (beaming) OK, ok, 20,000 all yours and I will check every plate myself.
D: Deal.
Me: Sigh and smile and pull out a wad of cash.
So, all in all, we got a gorgeous full dining set for 18 people, including some serverware for a grand total of $266. The next day all plates arrived home and not a single defect on any piece. Go New Market!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Driving on the wrong side, a radio appearance and one heck of a birthday party

Driving in South Asia is horrendous. It is not just the traffic, it is the rickshaws and the sheer mass of bodies, whether human or fauna, present on the streets. Dhaka, however, lifts the bar of atrocious driving to new unattainable levels and one needs a heck of a lot of nerve and machismo or a driver to survive here. Much to everyone’s dismay, I happily contributed to the mayhem this weekend. On Saturday night, I needed to go play tennis at 9 pm, and the Diplomat (who has by now ventured to drive the car several times) was going to be home watching Son while our fearless driver had the day off. We decided to try me out as a mad Dhaka driver on our way to our weekly Saturday American Club swimming pool bonanza. The Diplomat bravely climbed into the passenger seat and I could hear him take irregular sharp breaths of air while I began to navigate our awesome Toyota Corolla. For those blissfully uninitiated—Dhaka traffic flows on the left, just like in England, which presented me with several problems the moment I got on the street:
1. The shift stick is on the left and I kept banging my right hand on the door handle every time I needed to change the gear
2. The turn signals are on the right ride of the wheel while the windshield wipers are on the left, as a result of which I kept washing the windshield instead of indicating my erratic turns
3. There seemed to be a whole lot more car on my left side than there used to be—to be more precise, the entire passenger side.

So, while I finally got used to using my left hand to shift gears and stopped wiping the windshield madly every minute, it turned out to be much more difficult to judge the distance between the left side of the car and the things outside of it. The Diplomat immediately pointed out to me that I am dangerously close to the curb/rickshaws/several chickens running in front of a mosque/three policemen/tea wallah/2 loitering men/a dirty palm tree, which I indignantly and adamantly denied as nonsense. Few minutes later I (now) admit to hearing something of a slight bump on the back of the car. It turned out to be a rickety rickshaw, which SOMEHOW was way too close to my bumper. After the Diplomat asked me whether I heard that, I testily said no and he prudently decided to keep quiet. Few moments later we were about to turn into the Club’s street when to my horror I realized that while I was anxiously waiting to make a right turn, I was about to lunge smack in the middle of a peacefully parked rickshaw on the side of the road. I stopped within a hair of it and its panicked owner ran for his life to move it. The Diplomat kept on staring in the distance and said nothing, as he was itching to say, “I told you so.” I stopped in front of the Club, the Diplomat exhaled deeply, shifted the gear in Park with his right hand (I am sure by habit of his right-hand driving days) and we all got out and spent 3 happy hours at the pool. As we were packing to go back, I realized that the car keys were missing. Frantically, we accused the poor child of tossing them into the pool and I went in to look for them while the Diplomat decided to go to the car to see if I left them in the door. I honestly professed to not remembering locking the car. For a good reason—turns out, when the Diplomat shifted the gear in Park mechanically, I also forgot that I was the one driving and simply exited the car thus leaving it running and certainly not locking it. Mercifully, one of the guards noticed the lonely running car, turned it off, locked it and kept the keys. They all must think I am barking mad by now.
I am happy to report that later that evening I drove myself to the Club again without any incidents. Even if I was driving 20 miles per hour and with my knuckles white from clutching the wheel in fear. I also almost did not get lost at all.

This week also saw me speak on Radio Today, a rather popular Dhaka radio station, where I was discussing the end of the diversity visa program in Bangladesh and how wonderful it is to study in the U.S. In all honesty, I was so nervous at the beginning that I prattled most of my useful info in the first three minutes with a speed that will make any good speech therapist seriously concerned. The rest was fine--I did not manage to offend anyone or say anything particularly stupid or obtuse. Go me! I love my job!!!
On Thursday night I also celebrated my birthday with a lot of friends at the so-called BAGHA Club. BAGHA club is British but not to be mistaken with the British Club. Rather, it was started as an anti-establishment of sorts and currently offers a lovely outdoors/indoors British pub atmosphere with an excellent jukebox and reasonably priced drinks. True to its ethnic roots, the scotch there is cheaper than the wine. Not that I am protesting, of course. Once we got hold of the jukebox and started blasting Led Zeppeling, Creedence and Elvis into the dark hot Dhaka night and mixing it with copious amounts of scotch, the party really started going. We got home around 2 am. Again.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The midlife point

And so this past week marked a significant milestone of my life for I have just turned 35. I celebrated in quite some style! I slept in till 10 am, when I was awoken by the call of the Apache, impersonated by Son who had drawn me an elaborate picture including a dragon, a few squishy circles and something that looked like a train with the words Love underneath it. Turns out it was actually drawn by the Diplomat--an easy mistake given that their drawing skills are on more or less the same level.

Then I went shopping with Mrs. Hawaiian in one of the good local department stores called Aarong where I acquired some excellent clothing. I capped midday with an exquisite meal worth $3 at Best Fried Chicken, which is Dhaka's chain version of KFC. It is the BEST darn chicken I have ever had. Diarrhea be damned! Service was also outstanding--I had a guy stand next to me, holding a stack of paper napkins and handing me one every time I put down a bare chicken bone with the happiest smile I have even seen. In deep contrast, that same night the Diplomat and I went to an spectacularly expensive dinner at the only French restaurant in town. The food was absolutely gourmet and the delights kept coming. I do feel that the surprise effect was a bit marred by the fact that the Maitre 'D came up to the table and in loud whisper, right in front of me, asked the Diplomat what my name was (they apparently knew it was my birthday). Few minutes later, the entire staff showed up with the most ridiculously fabulous cake I have ever eaten and sang enthusiastically, loudly and drastically off-tune "Happy Birthday" to me. I do think they were quite proud of themselves. And as much as I hate being sang to in restaurants, I must admit I loved it. We capped the night with a few drinks at the one of the British clubs and if I remember correctly even went out to a friend's house to toast HIS birthday. Now, THAT is what I call a night on Dhaka town. And my official celebration is not until this week!

Our beloved last HHE arrived this weekend and I have finally recovered the last of my shoes, Son's train table and my fancy glass tupperware (now that I think of it, I think some of it is missing?!?). You cannot believe how deprived one feels without their glass tupperware. So now, we have all of our possessions together. As a result, the house is literally overpowered by Son's myriad of planes, trains and automobiles--since we have moved a few times and stored luggage several times in the past year, plus the visit to grandma, he kept accumulating new possessions everywhere and now everything has been brought together to one monstrous result. I suppose I could open a shop.

Also, my days of breezy, smelly rickshaw rides are over--we are now proud owners of a very exciting Toyota Corolla and have hired a wonderful driver whose patience with traffic and my late night tennis lessons is infinite. I miss the rickshaws, despite the fact that the ride back from the American Club to home passed by a place where they were most certainly either burning trash or collected sewage. Or both. Then again, it might be my spoiled palate since right next to the area there are plenty of street coffee stalls where one can always see men standing and sipping obscenely sweet coffee and tea. Dhaka IS a place of contrasts.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Phuket v. the Bacteria From Dhaka 0:1

So, the Diplomat and I decided to use the few gratuitous vacation days marking the end of the Ramadan for Eid combined with Labor Day and take Son for a nice family vacation to the sunny, lovely beaches of Thailand. I was so excited and told so many people about it that I suppose I jinxed the whole trip.
For starters, when we arrived at Dhaka airport for our 3 am flight, we were told by the rather cryptic Bangkok Air employees that the flight has been delayed...by 2 hours...or like 4..or they are not sure. Given that it was in the middle of the night, and we had few cranky kids with us (we were accompanied by our sprightly friends the Hawaiians and their two children), after extricating promises from the airline to call us when they know something, we decided to go home and sleep some more. The moment the car entered the Hawaiians' house, we got the call to be back in an hour. After some improper language, much racket and few mini pancakes, we settled Son back in bed, took a powerful 45 min nap, woke up and frenetically drove back to the airport. To wait another 2 hours there. Finally, the airline got its act together (they were mostly waiting for people they had previously told to go home) and we flew to magical Thailand.
Upon arriving in the hotel in Phuket at 4 pm (rather than 10 am), we made a mad dash to the ocean and swam and jumped in the waves for two blissful hours. Then ate a massive dinner, ordered 3 different cocktails and finished the night late with scotch on the balcony reading the latest Dan Brown while the exhausted Son and Diplomat snored rhythmically inside the room. I went to bed happy and content even though I did have a quite an upset stomach. I woke up 2 hours later, running massive fever and having the chills. I immediately took some pills and went back to bed hoping it was all a bad dream. It was not. It was The Bacteria From Dhaka who had apparently decided that it really liked it there in Phuket!
Remember that food poisoning I got the previous week? Well, folks, apparently it was a bacteria infection from unclean food and it was pleasantly dormant in my stomach for a week. Sadly, it decided to come out and play in Phuket. I spent the day downing pills to keep the fever down and in the late afternoon meekly went to the beach to see just exactly what I was missing. It was this:
                                                                      
And this:


I mustered some energy to go to dinner and then felt sick again. The next morning I felt so nauseous that I decided to go to the hotel nurse who took one look at me and sent me to the local hospital. Well, the hospital was spectacular! Clean, modern, competent. After 6 hrs of IV drip and antibiotics I was as a good as new. I spent the next day and a half on the beach, burning like a roasted turkey and eating rice and bananas for my tender stomach. By the last day in Phuket, I was feeling great just in time to fly home.
But from what I had seen, Phuket is fantastic. I can now safely say that I have irrevocably, hopelessly and forever fallen in love with Thailand. I will be back!!!

In other great news:
Our car arrived!!! Finally!!! A piece of advice to FSOs who decided to utilize the "Japanese car program"--it will take forever for the damn vehicle to come. NOT worth the hassle. I will have some more to say on the subject later.
Dhaka looks a WHOLE more liveable with a personal car. We will be celebrating the 3rd birthday of Son this weekend. I cannot believe my little monkey is 3 already.

Monday, August 29, 2011

First food poisoning, first home massage, first boat trip, bye-bye Mom

Well, I can safely say that I am all Iftar-ed out. Last week, on Tuesday, the Embassy hosted a representational Iftar dinner for young professionals at a local rather posh restaurant called the enigmatic "The 8." A day later, all of the attendees from the American Embassy were wiped out with violent food poisoning. Neither I nor the Diplomat were spared. I'd like to proudly point out that while most officers started dropping out early in the day, I managed to keep it together until precisely 4:30 pm, when my body simply pointed out that technically it was the end of the work day, so it was alslo shutting down for the weekend. An hour later, I was lying curled up in a rather unseemly fetal position on the lazy-boy in our living room (yes, a lazy-boy, that's right! The State Department furniture is class all the way, baby!) attempting to receive my HHE.
Now, you must understand that receiving the HHE is like Christmas and three birthdays taken together for the foreign service officer. If the UAB was like manna with your essentials, the arrival of the HHE (the stuff that comes on a ship and allows up to 7,500lbs of your belongings) deserves opening a bottle of champagne you found in it, unwrapping some of your real wine glasses and dancing pachanga in the midst of the dusty disfigured, slightly wet boxes containing your life. Instead, I was trying to breathe, wrapped in a blanket in the 100 degree humidity because I was convulsing in fever while the energetic movers kept asking me pesky questions about the contents of the boxes. Three hours later, the fever was suddenly over while I felt like three Bangladeshi buses had run over me for the next 2 days. And if you knew those buses, you'd know that they have people pouring out of the windows as well as camping on the roof, so I think you get the idea.
Regardless, the next day I took Son for a playdate to the American Club and decided to have a beer for lunch as I was feeling much better and I thought I deserved it. Wrong choice.

This past week I also had the immense pleasure to have a beautician come to my house and do my manicure and pedicure for 2 gorgeous hours. Total cost: $9. Elated, I asked her to come back for a body scrub and a massage. When she arrived, she authoritatively told me that I also need a facial (which sent me running for the mirror in concern), and then spent the next 2 hours with her assistant on my bedroom floor doing some serious magic. Total cost: $25. Bangladesh definitely has its perks! Next time--head oil massage (I am told). Not sure yet how I feel about it--last time I did that was in India and it was a harrowing experience which I will share with you one day.

Finally, this last week I also had my first boat trip here. It lasted quite a few hours on one of the tributaries to the Bravnaputra river, and we had the pleasure of complete peace and quiet, greenery and gorgeous scenery. And then we stopped at a pottery village, where we observed the process of making pots and the village life, while we were keenly observed back by 376 children and their grandparents. On the way back to the boat, a woman shouted out to me (I was the last one walking) in Bangla apparently mocking me in front of her friends, "Where is your husband??" To which I in turn answered in crystal clear Bangla, "At home with the baby" (which was the truth) to everybody's utter amusement. Bengali women do have a sense of humor.

The weather here has been improving slowly. The humidity has decreased by AT LEAST 3 %. And it has not rained for a good week or so. Good times are a-coming!!!
Sadly, however, my Mom left tonight to go back to Bulgaria--we enjoyed her stay with us quite a lot and will miss her badly. We wish her a safe flight as she tries to sleep on her way to Sofia via Karachi and Istanbul. Go Turkish Airlines!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Iftars and the truth about the UAB

Bangladesh and the rest of the Muslim world is in the midst of the holy month of the Ramadan, during which a huge majority of the Muslims keep a daily fast. That means that they do not eat after daybreak and before sunset. Which in turn means that they get up at about 4-4.30 am for a prayer, then a meal, then most likely go back to bed, wake up again, go to work and then break fast at about 6.30 pm. The break of that fast is called Iftar. Typically, the fast is broken by drinking water and eating few dates. And then a whole lot more.
As Iftar tends to be a communal thing, in the diplomatic community it has become the reason for many Iftar dinners involving our locally employed staff or other important people from Bangladesh and other diplomatic missions in Dhaka. They tend to be held in restaurants and the joke here is that this is the only party when the guests arrive on time and leave on time (since the fast is broken at about 6.30 pm, the guests arrive promptly by then, and then leave before 8 to attend the evening prayer). An Iftar party it goes something like this:

6.00-6.05 pm: Guests arrive and are promptly seated.
6.15-6.25 pm: Small traditional Iftar plate is placed in front of every person with dates, jelapis (twisted sweets made of pure sugar and flour, HIGHLY addictive), some fritters, along with a glass of water a lemonade. Why lemonade, no one can explain to me.
Almost no conversation is audible - if you have fasted all day, your appetite for small talk about the weather and the Dhaka traffic is understandably rather small.
6.30ish--the waiters announce sunset and Iftar can begin. I continue to be amazed at the grace and dignity with which Muslims break their fast given that they have not eaten the entire day. The food that follows is absolutely delicious!

And now I move to a topic that is VERY near and dear to every member of the US Foreign Service - our luggage shipments--and in particular to the sub-topic of the UAB. UAB stands for Unaccompanied Air Baggage and for the uninitiated it means a small part of your precious belongings that gets shipped to post via air (as opposed to an actual ship) and thusly, is supposed to arrive there a mere 2 weeks after the officer arrives. A single officer is allowed a mere 450 lbs of UAB, a couple - 600 and then add 150 for every additional member of household. What to pack in your UAB has turned into an art form and seasoned diplomats refuse to share wisdom. So, I have decided to share my mistakes with the hope to help some poor packing soul out there.

What to do:
1. Since in most cases, the movers will pack both the UAB and the rest of the luggage on the same day, segregate the UAB in the middle of a room. 900 lbs, which is the limit for a 4-person family, is not too much and not too little.
2. Make sure the person who cares the most what gets packed is there to supervise. I wasn't, and the Diplomat did what every other man would upon discovering that I did not select enough important things for the UAB--he packed his 75 lb bycicle. Apparently, that was much more imperative to have in Dhaka ASAP than, say, a couple of pots and pans, towels or sheets. To be fair, he also included all of my shoes in the UAB because, he said, he figured I would want them there. Yes, thank you.
3. This is what you should pack (since it will not be in your welcome packet at post, or there will be too little of it or the quality would be horrendous):
--towels for everyone
--sheets for everyone
--pillows
--blankets
--hangers (as many as you think you'd need)
--bathroom curtains
--bathroom mats
--soap dispensers
--soap
--alarm clock
--shoe rack
--tupperware
--table cloth
--cups
--cutlery
--plates (the UAB is not the best packed luggage so you might opt for some plastic one until the big luggage arrives)
--pots and pans, bakeware (oddly, there is none of that BUT there are a bunch of measuring spoons...)
--KNIVES!!!
--food processor
--your fav spices (try finding oregano in South Asia)
--your fav coffee machine
--cutting board
--hampers (you'll thank me for that one!)
--high chair for kids (or booster)
--diapers (pretty damn expensive anywhere you go)
--cleaning supplies and trash cans, trash bags
--if you have a cat, ship the litter box ahead of time (order it on Amazon and ship to post); include some sand, will arrive in 2 weeks tops
--books to read
--wireless router
--toys for the kids, if you have kids
--important files
--pills
--basic office supplies (stapler, glue, paper, pens, scissors)
Do not pack clothes in the UAB--use your 2 suitcase allowance for that. I think the State Department will actually pay for one extra suitcase so don't waste your precious UAB on that.

If you still have space left, fill it up with things like shampoo, nail polish, favorite foodstuffs and other edible non perishables (I cannot live without my Costco green tea, so I packed a box, along with a massive bag of Splenda, which costs here more or less the same as gold). The reality is that in most countries around the world you'll find almost anything that you want but it will cost you a pretty penny. Especially in the Embassy Commissaries.

4. What you will find in your housing besides furniture:
--a set of 4 plates/bowls/small plates/plastic glasses/cups
--a set of 6 of each silverware
--couple of pots and a pan
--plastic bowls for cooking/with lids
--horrendous knives
--cheep peeler, unusable can opener, etc.
--drying rack
--a set of plastic cooking utensils
--two kitchen towels
--ironing board and iron (good one!)
--vacuum
--in Dhaka, we get a bunch of fancy dehumidifiers and air purifiers
--phones
--really bad blankets and pillows (one per person)
--bedsheets
--one towel per person
--TV, DVD and CD
This is it. At least on our level. Who knows, maybe for higher ranked diplomats they throw in a second pillow and one more plate per person. All I will say is that during the first two weeks of your new life you'll be so busy trying to figure out silly details like checking in at work, remembering 59 names per day (most of them foreign), trying to hire domestic help, buy a car, register for one million things like school and the American Club, that you'll barely have to time to go out and buy necessities like salt and bread and trash cans. The thought of some familiar conveniences arriving within 2 weeks is very comforting, EVEN if those include a folding bike and 38 pairs of shoes.
So plan your UAB carefully and with some foresight--it will matter way more than you thought, especially since the rest of your luggage will most likely arrive no earlier than 2 months later.

PS - per FAQ, sadly, you cannot send your UAB earlier so that it arrives faster. It will leave the country only AFTER you land at post.




Monday, August 15, 2011

The Flood! The geckos! The spiders! The Iftar!

The past one week has been raining nonstop and as a result the streets of Dhaka have been severely flooded. The rickshaws seem to be swimming in the radically congested traffic and the cars actually have snorkels on them. Yup, snorkels! Every day on the way back from work, you can see thousands of people walking barefeet knee-deep in the brackish water. One day the lake next door overflowed and spread over the main road of the diplomatic area. And then, magically, the rain stopped and within a day all the water went somewhere. The air dried up a bit and the temperatures temporarily dropped to a decent 85F/23C.
Sadly, as of today, the heat has made a triumphant return. Drat.

The geckos have become really comfortable in our apartment. One of them is particularly friendly and resides mainly in Son's room to his utter delight. Tonight, the gecko decided to hang out in the bathtub just in time for Son's bath, which resulted in exalted screaming, misguided attempts to touch his back and one lost tail. Sadly, last night we also discovered that our apartment was the comfy abode of a freakishly large spider of the tarantula variety. We had the misfortune to literally stumble upon it as we were coming back around 10.30 pm. As I haplessly entered the apartment, the Diplomat who was walking behind me started shouting there was a massive spider behind me. Hysterically, I ran into the office, climbed on a chair and kept on yelping maniacally from there. Until I actually saw it--it was indeed massive, almost like a mutant spider from a really bad sci fi movie. The Diplomat killed it rather inelegantly by slamming it a few times with his best shoe which happened to be nearby. Given that Fat Cat had peed on it a couple of days ago, you can say that this shoe had gone through quite a lot lately. The spider was finally dead and the Diplomat tossed out unceremoniously.

Speaking of Fat Cat, we recently underwent a decidedly unsuccessful (and quite smelly) experiment to potty-train Fat Cat. You must have seen those ads on TV--using a silly looking contraption with a widening hole over the toilet to teach your cat to pee in there. And flush. Yeah, right. Fat Cat tolerated the seat initially and even humored us and peed in it a couple of times. And then he got fed up and peed (and some other things) not just anywhere but in a hamper of brand new clean clothes. He was scolded, locked out of all the rooms and left only with the office bathroom and the corridor. At which point he peacefully peed on above-mentioned best/most expensive shoes of Diplomat. At that point, we had had enough. Plus, our UAB arrived from the US and with it, his toilet. The experiment was over.

Dhaka is growing on me. I finally got used to the heat and the traffic. It finally hit me what is so different about traffic congestion here--after all, I come from NYC and we can tell you a thing or two about THAT. The difference is the massive amount of people in the streets, whether by foot or in a rickshaw. The sheer size of humanity in the (middle of the ) streets is what makes Dhaka so unique. And maddening. I have chosen to ride rickshaws recently simply because sitting in a van stuck in one place in traffic for 20 mins is starting to get to me. Rickshaw drivers are some sort of magicians and at times it almost feels like they are riding on the walls of the buildings. I am almost tempted to buy one for myself rather than wait for our car, which is currently on a ship from Japan. But that is a WHOLE other story.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My life is once again complete

Here I am, sitting in my semi-humid office room, next to me a (tall plastic) cup of my favorite single malt scotch, the house is quiet and I feel as content as a Bangladeshi rickshaw walla who has just managed to fleece a particularly naive couple of diplomats by fooling them to pay him an entire dollar for the ride vs. the 35 cents it actually goes for. More power to him.
The reason for my contentment is that this past Friday Son and my Mom arrived in Dhaka. It is truly pathetic how badly I missed Son for the past month while he was living it up at grandma's in Bulgaria. I honestly felt like a part of me, say, my lungs, was missing all this time. You see, I was one of them "modern" moms who importantly swore left and right that I'd send Son to a really nice boarding school overseas when the time comes because that is a great educational opportunity. Um, not so much my opinion right now. As far as I am currently concerned, Son might as well get home-schooled till he is about 30. Then we'll see, I might allow him to date. Having my Mom here has also been awesome--life feels truly complete somehow with my family around and my quite vast apartment is actually filled with people in every room.

So, what's new in Dhaka? Well:

1. The Diplomat discovered a SECOND disturbingly large cockroach in our bedroom and between killing it and going to find something to dispose it in, Fat Cat hungrily ate its remains. Up to the last whisker. What the hell?? This is the prissiest cat on the planet who would only eat ONE kind of soft canned food in the United States. What's next after the geckos and the roaches?? Another cat??

2. We spent last Saturday visiting various interesting cultural sites in Dhaka, along with a bunch of other colleagues from the American Embassy. We started the day staring at the Parliament building for some time. I admit, it is a breathtaking architectural achievement. Too sad we could not go inside.
Then we visited the Red Fort, some parts of Dhaka University and finally the Pink Palace. All beautiful and wondrous architecturally. The Pink Palace was our last stop and we got there by parking our tour bus next to a splendid and remarkably smelly trash container and walking a few minutes through the famed Indus street--an impossibly narrow street housing vendors of meat, flower garlands, bangles, drums, religious artifacts, coffee shops, fried fish, fried dough, fried lentils, quite a lot of other fried things actually, wonderfully fragrant biryani (a rice dish) dished out with the cook's bare hands, dates covered with flies and yet so enticing, fabrics and more fabrics and anything else that comes to mind. To top it all, rickshaws of various sizes and loads, men with impossible loads on their heads and a rather puzzling marching band consisting of several older men with drums, trumpets and clarinets were passing through the splendid mayhem of the street. So, try to imagine in the midst of all the noise, heat, humidity, flies and merchandise hanging from everywhere our large group of curious white folks taking pictures of everything and everybody, led by our brave tour guide who was wielding a picturesque umbrella at the front and you'll get the picture of our walk. We loved it.


3. Currently, Bangladeshi life is under the spell of Ramadan. At end of each day, at sundown (the exact time of which is announced daily), the Muslim faithful break their daily fast with a meal called Iftar. I was lucky enough to go to a great little restaurant in the Banani area of Dhaka called "Sajna" and partake in Iftar there (it is not common to go to a restaurant to enjoy the meal). It was fantastic and had every imaginable food group involved, including several types of meat and sweets. During Ramadan, the call for prayer from the mosques around the city has been particularly strong and poignant. There is a mosque a block away from where we live and I love listening to the prayer call's lulling voice every evening.
4. My Bangla has been improving steadily. I love shocking the store owners and street peddlers who lower down their crazy foreigner prices by at least 50 cents on the spot when I tell them sternly that I do not believe this item is worth that much. And then they don't budge.
5. My tennis game is getting along quite nicely. Or so I thought. The American Club which we frequent to play the sport has a few dedicated, hard-working and a tad bored men who work as coaches to the sports inept people like me or markers for good players like the Diplomat. Last week, after a particularly gruelling session of 30 min, just as I was feeling quite awesome about my backhand and was taking a well-deserved water break, one of the younger markers who was passing by told me that I was doing great (at which point I gloated) and then asked me if it was my first time. I might have cried a little bit on the inside.

Life is humming along nicely here in Dhaka. All except for the fact that my HHE has been hopelessly delayed and my "welcome kit" is truly inadequate. Thankfully, work is terrific as usual and I love going to it every day because no day is like any other. In my next post, I intend to elucidate all those new hopeful souls in the Foreign Service exactly what "welcome kit" is and just how inadequate it can be. As well as what realistic UAB and HHE timing is.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Settling in Dhaka--mostly

And so, we are settling in Dhaka. I am not entirely sure where to even begin. My first foray into the Foreign Service has been a solid if uneven mixture of hysterical contrasts, frustration, wonderful people, exhausting social life, missing shipments, absurdly frizzy hair, infamous traffic, constant staring, improving Bangla, amazing work, occassional loneliness, constant surprises and perplexing English.
For starters, Dhaka is a severely congested city. As you can see, we battle traffic on a daily basis—crossing bigger streets is a life-sized and much more frightening version of “Frogger” where the real danger are hundreds of colorful and vastly dilapidated cycle rickshaws and public buses from which people are hanging out of the windows or the roof. Last weekend, a new Bengali friend of ours invited us to his villa in an area called Gazipoor. He enticed us with stories about a swimming pool and fabulous BBQ. On the map it showed that Gazipoor was about 30 km from Dhaka.
Three and a half hours later, after multiple improvised Gin and tonics in tin cans of tonic inside the van on our way to the estate, we finally made it. Yes, my dear friends, traffic is so bad, it took us 3.5 hrs to pass 30 km (about 18 miles).
Thankfully, the villa was spectacular and the housekeepers kept bringing fabulous BBQ delights to us until 3 am in a gazebo in the middle of the estate grounds. The next day we battled new 3.5 hrs back. As you will notice, the insane driving conditions take their toll.
The elephants strolling nonchalantly amongst the apoplectic drivers did not help one bit. No one knew why indeed there were elephants on the road, it is not a common sight in urban Bangladesh, really.




Dhaka is also a severely humid city. Every day we remove litres of water from the air through our 5 dehumidifiers. Thanks to the humidity, my curly frizzy hair has taken on a life of its own. Every morning I stare in disbelief at it, while it tries its best to look like a maniacal poodle perched on my head. After walking on the street for just 5 minutes, you start feeling rivulets of water running down your body and every single particle of you quickly becomes sticky and possibly smelly.

Dhaka suffers from frequent power outages. The diplomatic residences are blessed with monstrous power generators, which kick in seconds after the power goes out but it still takes you by surprise, especially since it gets dark fairly early here and there are no street lights. So, for a few disorienting seconds, as you were in the middle of cutting a particularly juicy mango in the kitchen when the lights go out, you sit there blinking helplessly, sunk in complete and blinding darkness. And then, the generator starts gurgling outside and the lights come back on.
Dhaka is also filled with possibly the nicest people on the planet. Wherever I go, after the Bengalis first recover from the shock that I speak in perfectly broken Bangla to them, they melt into a mush and try to speak back in perfectly broken English, in an attempt to reciprocate, I think. My housekeeper, for example, loves to go marketing. When she first asked me if I wanted her to go marketing, I was quite taken aback as I thought she’d wanted to promote us in the neighborhood. Then, seeing that the conversation was revolving around cooking fish, it dawned upon me that she meant shopping.

Since this is turning into a monstrous post, I will stop now. Clearly, there is much more to be said about this fabulous, contradictory and quite crazy city of Dhaka. To be continued...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New York, Sofia, Dhaka, Bangkok and back

I think it could be safely said that am a bit traveled out at this point. This is what I did in the past 10 days:
1. On July 4th, I flew from Washington, DC to NYC
2. On July 5th, I flew from NYC to Sofia through Budapest (dreadful AA flight, protracted 4 hrs layover in Budapest, queasy stomach, irritable Son)
3. On July 10th, I flew from Sofia to Istanbul where I spent 5 hot, stuffy hours at the airport.
4. On July 11th, I flew from Istanbul to Dhaka, through a stop in Karachi, Pakistan. Turkish Air rocks even though they refused to upgrade me to business class no matter how much I insisted on paying!
5. On July 14th, deep in the night, the Diplomat and I flew away to Bangkok, Thailand for a stolen long weekend away to celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary while Son is enjoying time with Grandma.
6. On July 19 (yes, this VERY early morning), we flew back to Dhaka.
I can guarantee you that I shan't be flying anywhere for some time.

And so, I am here in Dhaka. Arrived safe and sound last week, greeted at the plane gate by a grinning Diplomat and a so-called Expediter, who whisked me away past waiting lines and what have you and had me in the diplomatic car in less than 15 mins on the way to my new impressive home.
It is difficult to describe Dhaka really. If you have been to India or Nepal or even Sri Lanka, you can begin to get an idea. But Bangladesh certainly adds its own flair to the incomprehensible traffic, massive humidity, crowds of men hanging out for hours in the streets seemingly without doing anything in particular, constant power outages, ubiquitous bicycle rickshaws and the mellifluous calls to prayer 5 times a day. Dhaka has enveloped and engulfed us and we are slowly trying to adjust to its ways. The air-conditioned embassy cars driven by local magicians and the terrific community at the Embassy certainly help.

I think it might be too overwhelming to write about our Bangkok trip in this post, so I will save it for next time. I will tell you more about Dhaka as well as I digest some more of its daily life in the next couple of days. I did cook my first meal here today to celebrate our wedding anniversary, which was actually today--you must admit that there is nothing more festive to celebrate such a momentous occasion than chicken and rice and some San Giovese of rather suspect quality.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fly American!

I would like to take this opportunity to bust a bit the dreams of all the FSO hopefuls out there. This is what I thought happens when a FSO travels abroad to get to his or her post: she arrives in style at the airport, looking smashing in her heels, skirt suit and a dashing scarf, gently lays her black diplomatic passport on the check-in counter at which point the airline clerk bursts into immediate smile and hands her her business-class ticket to, say, Burundi. Then, our lovely FSO effortlessly strolls to the security checkpoint, smiles reservedly, hands the black passport and is courteously ushered away from the crowds and quickly into the terminal. She proceeds to the Club Room, where she reads important things like the Economist and the Financial Time, oozing sophistication while sipping a glass of complimentary champagne and the whole world is just fabulous.
Not so much.

The State Department has a very strict "Fly American" policy, which means just that--to the extent possible and reasonable (very specifically defined), the FSOs will fly only on American airlines (United, Delta, AA, US Air, etc). Now, let's not pretend that we don't all know that these are NOT the best international airlines out there. But we in the State Department are committed to supporting American business no matter what. And no, we are NOT given Business Class seats. There used to be a policy that when the flight was over 14 hrs (or so), the State Department authorized the upgrade. Not anymore--now, even if you are flying to the moon, you fly coach. Which is super awesome on a 16 hrs flight--just imagine the state of the bathrooms in coach after all those hours.
So, I flew very inelegantly in coach where my neighbors, among others, was a family with 4 children, two of which under 4 who DID NOT stop screaming for 6 hours!!!!!!!!! Mercifully, Son fell asleep at take-off and slept till 30 mins before we landed in Budapest. After a horribly boring 4 hour layover, we climbed another plane that took us finally to Sofia--Son fell sleep during taxing and I actually had to wake him up when we landed. He is an awesome traveller!
We are currently at my Mom's where she is making futile efforts to make him speak Bulgarian with her while I do nothing at all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

I will miss you, United States of America

I am sitting here in my absurdly small room at the W Hotel in New York City, next to my peacefully asleep Son in an equally absurdly small crib and I am trying to deal with a bit of emotion on the eve of my departure for strange lands. In a way, this feels like the second time I am leaving my home to go somewhere completely new and unknown. The first time was in August 1996, when I climbed on fateful Czech Airlines flight from Sofia, Bulgaria to Portland, Maine, and at that point I was sure that my life was over. I think I can honestly say that if there was a graceful way to turn around and run back home that day, I would have done it. I was only 19 and I was leaving behind my home, my family and my friends. I didn't know anyone in the US (save for a handful of my high school classmates, dispersed at various colleges around the US) and had no family there. It was hell. But I made it work.
I love my newly adopted country. I fell in love here, made fabulous friends, got married and had my baby, learned a thing or two about shoes and acquired a healthy obsession with dresses. I got my education here, then my first job, bought my first convertible and my first home. I truly believe that this is a place where anything is possible.
And so, now you'll understand why I cried today at Ronald Reagan National Airport while I was waiting to board the US Air shuttle to NYC. Of course, the circumstances couldn't be more different now--I am going away with my family, I know way more about Bangladesh than I knew when I first came to Maine, I have a phenomenal job waiting for me there, I know most of my colleagues and apparently the American Club is a riot. Life will be fascinating, challenging and unique. And there will be domestic help...
And yet, the feeling of sadness remains--I will miss you, United States of America.
See you all on the other side of the Atlantic--I am off to Bulgaria tomorrow to drop off Son to his Baba (my mom) en route to Bangladesh.

In other news, the Diplomat made it to Dhaka and has informed me that our new swanky digs boast 4 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms. I shall enjoy using each one of them in turn to bring constant excitement and an element of surprise in my Dhaka life.

One parting thought that has been pestering me. Those of you coming into the Foreign Service will find that the most often asked and equally highly irritating question in response to you telling the inquirer what you do, is, "um, so what is the Foreign Service--like, the CIA?" with a variation on the last one with "the Army,""the Navy,""the FBI,""the UN" and so forth. You will try to politely avoid it but in the end you will blurt out--"No, I am  diplomat!" which will often be met with even more confusion until in the end the person talking to you will be firmly convinced that you are a Chinese spy. Or an Ambassador TO the U.S. Or an impostor. Have fun.