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


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!