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.