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 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.