Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Contraband Wine and Marine Ball Dhaka 2011

We shared our desire for some wine and beer with the resort staff and they happily told us that there is a place in downtown Sylhet where we can procure the goods. They did not tell us what kind of a place it was but asked us to bring our diplomatic passports so we assumed it was the local equivalent of the diplomatic warehouses in Dhaka. In those places, you enter a highly guarded world of alcohol imported from all over the world at ridiculously cheap duty-free prices. So, we hired a car from the resort and on the second day of our trip dashed off to the downtown. Mind you, this was a day before Eid began and the town was a madhouse consisting of gazillion vendors of clothing of every size, gender and variety humanity has ever invented, cattle of every size, cooked food, raw food, fried road-side snacks, live chickens, dead chickens, eggs, mysterious looking giant leafy possibly edible plants, exotic fruits, huge hanging bunches of grapes, plastic knick-knacks, flowers for the cattle, rickety rickshaws, cars and people, people everywhere. We inched for about 45 mins and then suddenly took an abrupt left turn into a dark large gate where we overheard the driver mentioning to the armed uniformed guards that we were British. The Diplomat and I looked at each other quizzically, and I told him that we needed to hone our accents immediately. We entered into a smallish dark parking lot in front of a neat, foreign-looking building. The driver told us to go inside and then sped away to the farthest and darkest corner of the parking lot. Increasingly puzzled, we entered what turned out to be a small foyer with two silent Bangladeshi men in impeccable white shirts and creased black pants. All four of us stood there for about a minute in complete silence. Awkwaaaaaard. After shuffling my feet uneasily for a while, I finally asked whether they needed us to show them some sort of ID.
Guard 1: No. (Silence)
Me: Ummmm, hm. Well, ok. (Looking uncomfortably and scratching myself thoughtfully)
Diplomat: Soooooooooooo, do you have wine here?
Guard 1: Yes.
D: Do you have white?
G: Yes.
D: Do you have red?
G: Yes.

It went on like this for some time, the guard never volunteering more than a laconic answer to the point. We started feeling quite funny about the whole business, and told them firmly that we wanted three bottles of white wine and one bottle of (some obscure) scotch. They quoted us some obscene amounts for the purchase (over a $100) and after gasping for a few seconds, we decided to pay, if not for anything else, then at least for the adventure. And then Diplomat asked brightly if he could pay by credit card. He does things like that. The guards gave him a long, strained look, either trying to suppress a loud giggle or the urge to smack him, and then one of them icily responded, “We don’t have the facility for that, Sir.” The Diplomat handed over the cash and we were told to go wait in the car “for the parcel.” No one ever said who these people were and we still had no idea where in the heck we were, but we humbly complied. The Diplomat and I went back to the van, our driver was nowhere to be seen, so we proceeded to chat happily while energetically swatting away the hordes of mosquitoes and ferociously scratching our severely bitten legs. Suddenly, we saw our portly driver running madly back to the car like the booze police was after him, slamming the doors of the van shut, and then he jumped in the driver seat and sped away with all his might. The Diplomat and I looked at each other in horror, me breathlessly asking whether there is a police raid on this place or perhaps whether the gate guards will toss us the “parcel” as we pass by. Just as we were about to leave the place, I yelled at the driver, “Where is the package?” He jumped on the breaks, almost killing us in the process, and then turned around and asked me whether we had it already. It turned out that he went to the bathroom who knows where, and upon coming back, saw us sitting there and assumed we were done and in a hurry to go drinking. So, we went back and soon the parcel arrived—inside where two bottles of RED wine, one white and one scotch which was completely different from what we originally discussed (but no means better, of course). In the end it turned out that the place was a private club, whose guards and waiters were selling booze under the table for a hefty profit. Needless to say, the wine was absolutely awful but after a few glasses even the scotch tasted just fine.
Earlier that day, we drove all the way up to the Indian border in the town of Jaflong. From there, we took a brief boat-ride in a miniscule boat to the point where the Indian border is. The border itself is marked by two large stones and lone border policeman, who was spending his time pleasantly in the sun sitting on one of the border stones and cleaning his foot nails with a large stick. In the meantime, in the river there were quite a few boatmen from both sides of the border (read, Bangladeshis and Indians) who were apparently fighting energetically and not letting the Indians cross into Bengali territory. The reasons for that remain murky. At the same time, a bunch of women on the Indian side were doing massive loads of laundry and sending plenty of soapy water into Bangla-land. So, we did the touristy thing and stood with one leg in Bangladesh and another in India. Very powerful stuff.

The following night we met a group of nurses from a Cleft-palate foundation (Children’s Surgery International) who came to relax for a day at the resort after working tirelessly in Bangladesh. I loved seeing fellow Americans and swapping stories from their missions abroad in exchange for some of our contraband wine. I think they are an amazing group of ladies and apparently they will be coming back again next year for more good deeds. They were accompanied by a Bangladeshi American who now lives in the United States and helps out with the foundation work. He happened to be also a sophisticated photographer and I admired his tripod for a while after soliciting advice on the subject (I have been pining for one for some time, never too sure what to buy). Well, folks, I can only tell you that on the next day, as they were leaving, he came to the Diplomat and gave him the tripod—he said that he could not stand to see a fellow photographer without one and he could always get another one in the U.S. So, yes, I love my job because it gives me to opportunity to see the world and meet the most extraordinary ordinary people.

What else? Ah yes, we celebrated our annual Marine Corps Ball last weekend. The Diplomat decided to have a tuxedo made for him as it is rather inexpensive to do so in Dhaka and it seems that one can always use a tuxedo in life. True to form, although the tuxedo could have been done about a month before the Ball given when we first went in for measurements, the Diplomat actually picked it up 3 hours before the Ball started.
He was certainly not the only one to make his tuxedo in Ferdous Tailors in Dhaka. Amusingly, about 25% of the Ball guests wore identical tuxedos. This was our first Marine Ball and all was going fantastic, including the video tribute which showed scenes from all kinds of wars as well as September 11, 2001 at which point I and a whole bunch of other women in heavy make-up were sobbing uncontrollably. The food was outstanding and the company excellent. And then the DJ hit the dance floor. All I can say is that the man loooooooved the late 70s and early 80s. From time to time some poor soul would approach him and ask for something new-er, which he played obligingly, the crowd would pile up happily and dance and then the moment the good song was over, the DJ would kill it with the Macarena, Rhythm Is  Dancer or some other definitive crowd-pleaser. Good company and party notwithstanding, we left at 1.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sylhet, Eid-alAdha and the contraband alcohol - Part 1

Where do I even begin? There is so much to tell that I will break this post into parts and you will be forced to come back to read if you want to know how the Diplomat and I went to the tea gardens of Sylhet, drank obscene quantities of dreadfully strong local tea, obtained what appeared to be contraband alcohol, stepped into India for a few minutes, and never got a single food order right. So, I begin.

My Inlaws have been visiting us for the past 2 weeks and so we decided to go on a short family vacation to the beautiful Nazimgarh Resort, located in the midst of tea garden country surrounding Sylhet, the third largest Bangladeshi town. We were joined by our good friend Mr. Hawaiian and his two kids (Mrs. Hawaiian, for those who remember, is currently in the U.S. since she just had another baby—Congratulations!). The idea was to leave town before the onset of Eid-Al-Adha. Not for the faint of heart, the second Eid festival celebrated by the Muslim population of the world involves ritual sacrifice of domestic animals (qurbani) and commands sharing of the meat, among many other things. The reason we had decided to leave was that in Dhaka, the slaughtering tend to occur right in the streets, including in the diplomatic enclaves where a lot of wealthy Bangladeshi citizens happily live. We were told that as a result, the morning of Eid we will be woken up by the plaintive screech of dying animals and for 2 days blood will flow freely in all directions. Slightly unnerved at the thought, we decided to spend Eid elsewhere.
We started rather auspiciously. Our flight was almost not delayed (what’s 20 minutes between friends??) and then after we walked on the tarmac to climb into the toy propeller airplane operated by Regent Air, the pilot excitedly welcomed us onboard and immediately launched into a brief but poignant prayer extolling Allah several times. Given the size and the look of the airplane, I thought praying was indeed prudent. 45 minutes later, we landed safely if somewhat jumpily in Sylhet. We collected the luggage and went outside where a driver welcomed us to a miniscule looking SUV.  A sort of a circus scene ensued: All of us five adults and three children kept running around the car, several small suitcases in tow, trying to figure out how to cram ourselves inside. The serene unperturbed driver, who never uttered a word, was hastily trying to jam all suitcases in the non-existent luggage space of the SUV (the bulk taken up by a massive propane gas tank).
Naturally, soon a small crowd of delighted local loiterers who were simply hanging out at the tiny airport with nothing better to do for the day, kept closing in on us literally breathing down our necks. To enhance the effect of the mayhem, two tenacious beggars (an impossibly skinny woman with a billowing saree and an old man with a giant beard) somehow managed to penetrate the circle of loitering onlookers, and to my utter shock practically climbed into the car and began asking for alms. Not a second late, a police-looking man started yelling at them from the top of his lungs, possibly trying to scare them away and frightening me to no end in the process. Having reached the end of my patience and sweating profusely in the gentle November sun, I took matters in my own hands, stuffed my languid family into the van and yelled to the driver to go.

We drove past several lively animal markets selling livestock destined to perish the following day--the cows and goats definitely looked unimpressed. I was. The experience has left me with the longing to acquire a small goat. What could be better than coming home from a long day of work and be greeted by a friendly bleeting, followed by a set of small hooves lovingly placed on my chest. I suspect, however, that Fat Cat would not be amused. There goes that dream. 20 mins later we arrived in the serenity of Nazimgarh Resrots where we were met with a round of complimentary impossibly sweet orange-colored liquid by some of the most polite people in this world.
The resort is quite beautiful and the rooms are very well appointed. The surrounding nature is gorgeous and since we are now in November, the weather has become wonderfully balmy—lower 80s during the day and high 60s in the evening. We wisely chose to get “luxury” rooms (meaning, those with terraces) and I highly recommend to everyone going there to do the same. There is something magical about waking up in the morning and sitting on the terrace, overlooking a vast green space, listening to the birds, inhaling the pleasant non-humid, non-hot air and drinking strong tea (or whatever else strikes your fancy at that time of the day).
At which point Son would appear on the terrace as well, having taken off his nightly diaper and pajamas and thus stark naked, and would stand proudly there welcoming the morning in its (and his own) glory. He would not get dressed for all the candy in the world. Good times.
The restaurant offers a good variety of continental as well as Asian food, all very well prepared. The problem was the service. All waiters spoke some English or made it look like they did, which was unfortunate because we kept ordering in English (or in the case of the Diplomat, in confusing Bangla). Let’s just say that a lot was lost in translation. The most common confusion involved us wondering aloud what food to order (and making the mistake to ask the waiters for advice) while they frantically wrote everything down and as a result would habitually come back with way more food than we intended to order. The children refused to eat much else beyond pizza and spaghetti and meatballs (God bless the Italians) and so the percentage of those two dishes consumed annually in Sylhet proper just went up by 500%.

The resort also boasts a really nice swimming pool. Ok, not swimming, just pool. Surrounded by lush greenery, it was the appointed place to hang out in the afternoon for all of us, and while the kids kept soaking in the rather cold water, we would consume even more tea and read our books and rest our weary diplomatic bones.

The one thing that the resort does NOT boast is alcohol. Which was a pity. I did have a nagging suspicion that would be the case, so I meticulously prepared 2 bottles of wine and some stronger beverages to come with us from Dhaka. Naturally, we promptly forgot them. So, on the first evening of our stay at Nazimgarh, as we lamented how nice it would have been to have a sip of this and that while chatting the night away and swatting at the swarming resilient mosquitoes, we decided to ask whether there is any hidden stash of any fermented liquid in the resort. We were told a polite no, BUT if we wanted to, the staff would be happy to tell us where we could get some wine and beer in Sylhet city. Rather intrigued, we declared out interest and decided to rent a car the following afternoon and go procure. And procure we did—what I now strongly suspect is contraband wine and scotch. But for more on that—tune in this weekend!