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
--hangers (as many as you think you'd need)
--bathroom curtains
--bathroom mats
--soap dispensers
--alarm clock
--shoe rack
--table cloth
--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...)
--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
--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!)
--in Dhaka, we get a bunch of fancy dehumidifiers and air purifiers
--really bad blankets and pillows (one per person)
--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.