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.


  1. great idea to write this entry but please, please, please....NO OREGANO! The helpful lists you get expressly advise against this. Your stuff may be detained for suspected drugs since apparently oregano smells like pot to a drug sniffing dog. Just a warning....never pack Oregano!

  2. 38 pairs of shoes! So glad to know a fellow shoe dog out there!

  3. You did a great job summing up the welcome kit and UAB! We have noticed that different posts have different kitchen items/ or lack them so if you know what you HAVE to have then plan accordingly. Haven't noticed any additional plates or blankets.

    The UAB is mainly what you will want/need and can vary depending on what is most important to the packer. We tend to buy new pillows for each post and that goes in UAB. And depending where we are headed - toilet paper.

    Sounds like you are enjoying a lot of iftar celebrations! What a fun way to start a post!

  4. This is a wonderful entry! I am going to save it as a reference when I go to pack up my UAB! Thanks so much :)

  5. @ anonymous: did not know about oregano, mine arrived without an issue, will not try again!
    @ CC: ehmm, I actually own upwards of 60 pairs. The remaining ones went in the suitcases. Hurray for another shoe afficionado out there in the wild world :)
    @ NOmads: yes, toilet paper and paper towels!!! I will add that. Oh, and I just came back from another excellent Iftar!
    @ Global and sandra--I am glad it helps!

  6. I believe single people only get 250 lbs for UAB. One extra dependent is another 200 lbs. The next is 150 lbs. All dependents after that are an additional 100 lbs each. So a family of 4 gets 700 lbs. Thanks for the lists!

  7. Knives, knives, knives, knives. All I cared about when I got my UAB was my kitchen knives, pots, pans, and pillows. Personally I'll always take a big set of paper plates/bowls/etc. I've heard conflicting reports on taking actual dishes, at least ceramic. Plastic dishes probably a good idea.

    Great post though. For me, UAB was pretty much kitchen and like you said, some bathroom stuff. Some people including a small DVD player or at least the ability to hook up your laptop to the TV. I'm okay without that for now.

    And the comment above mine is correct. 1 person gets 250, 2 get 450, and then 150 for each additional people. I've heard that tandems get double shipments though, so they get 900 total air and 14K total HHE.

  8. I know this is an old post, but just wanted to say, Thank You! We're headed back to the States after being overseas for 9 years/3 countries in a row... You'd think I was an old hat at this, but no.... garbage bags/cans, laundry hamper/baskets (I found foldable ones on Amazon... Yes!

    I'd add... If you have young children, bring plastic everything (plates, cups, etc), since people who put together welcome kits don't understand that a 2 year old with a glass plate over a tile/granite (anything other than carpeted flooring) is not a good idea ;-)