Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye 2011!

There are just few hours left of 2011 here in Bangladesh. We are dressed up, hair coiffed, makeup applied, perfumed and ready to taken on the city of Dhaka tonight. And so, while we wait for Son's babysitter to show up, I cannot help but reflect on what has been probably the craziest year in my life.
We learned Bengali, packed up our lives and moved to the other side of the world, Son changed schools seemingly a thousand times, we traveled to India, Thailand and Malasysia, learned to live with unbelievable humidity, attended a party or two, got bitten by a monkey and killed a zillion pesky mosquitoes.
Our lives are so different from what they used to be back home. We ourselves have changed to other, I daresay, better people and Son has certainly grown up like a mushroom. Looking back, we ask ourselves the question: would we do it all over again had we known everything we now know? The answer is unequivocal "yes."
And so goodbye year 2011. It has been a real true pleasure to know you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How I Bought a Skinny Christmas Tree and the Night Habits of Son

Christmas has surprised me this year. It sort of crept up on me here because of the warm weather and the fact that there is not a single Christmas propaganda in the entire city of Dhaka. Not one! Not a single plastic Santa or glowing Christmas tree in the streets. Odd.

Before coming to post I thought importantly to myself that I have never used a fake tree in my life and was not about to. I was all about being natural, you know, because I am THAT cool. Let me tell you—two weeks of watching my friends’ happily glowing large, beautifully plastic Christmas trees in Dhaka and I was frantically searching for a fake awesomeness to call my own. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time for delivery. I was facing Christmas without a tree and while some of you cynics out there might think that this isn’t such a big deal (just like I did), it actually is. OK?? Rather distraught, I started asking around the diplomatic enclave whether anyone had a spare one (you’d be shocked to see the kind of multiple crap that expats collect over the years because you just never know when you will need an extra nativity scene or a ritual Indian hat or extra large peacock feathers). And then suddenly I saw in a nursery nearby my house several fairly large (5 ft or so) potted (sort of) pine trees. A bit anemic, they still could hold up a few ornaments and would give the house the sorely needed Christmas look. Triumphantly, I bought the scrawny tree and this past weekend decorated it with Son and the Diplomat. Actually, it was more like me decorating while singing loudly and unconvincingly a potpourri of Christmas songs while the Diplomat sat there trying not to look bored and Son ran around trying to break as many ornaments as possible. He broke only 3. And then I broke 2. While cleaning the mess, I broke a third one for good measure. Merry Christmas!

Speaking of Son, I have to complain of his recent night habits. Some time ago Son began to come into our bed in the early morning hours. It was just a few minutes before getting up so he served as a really cute and loveable alarm clock. Then he started coming in a bit earlier, say 5 am. He’d quietly get into bed with us, somehow make his way into the middle, and then spread his (seemingly) million legs and arms around and snore loudly. Between the foot in my ribcage, fingers in my ear and the 5 am morning call to prayer from our particularly loud and not so musical neighboring muezzin, I was beginning to lose some serious amount of sleep. Thusly, I decided to nip the friendly 5 am visits in the bud. So, the following night, when I woke up at 4 am to find him there, I quietly hugged him and carried him back to his bed. He never even woke up. I then went to the restroom and quickly went back into our bed only to discover with a start a certain asleep, snoring child is in there AGAIN! How and when he managed to find his way back so fast is a mystery to me. Not one to be easily deterred, I promptly carried him back to his own room and went back to bed. Somehow, I fell asleep. At 5 am, the dutiful muezzin called all faithful to prayer and me to wake up. I turned around to try and find a better sleeping position and found myself almost nose to nose with none other than a fast asleep obstinate child. Once more I carried the tiny stowaway to his bedroom (momma is way more obstinate than him). Needless to say, when I finally got up at 7 am, I found him right back there next to me. He opened his eyes with a wide grin and said, “Mama, I love you much!” I capitulated. And before any of you decide to berate me for not wanting my child in my own bed—I do, I really DO. But I just can’t sleep with him in there. And I do have to get up in the morning and actually go to work. So there.

With the holidays, the party season has really reached a crescendo here. I cannot even count how many dinner and afternoon parties and receptions we have attended for the past 2 weeks. Not that I am complaining but I do admit that both the Diplomat and I, after coming back from yet another bash last night, simply passed out in bed at 9.30pm. Not even Son coming to our bed at 5 am (blasted obstinate child!) could manage to wake me up.

During this past one week winter has finally arrived in Bangladesh. The temperature has dropped to 5-10C and we are actually freezing at home. The Diplomat has taken on sleeping in a particularly objectionable old brown sweater and white socks. While some women can certainly find that attractive, I have found that I am not gracious enough to accept the look with joy. It was indeed rather shocking to observe how fast the weather went from 25 to 5 degrees, it was truly a matter of 2 days. I write now, sitting on my governmentally-provided, neutral beige plush couch, dressed in PJs, fuzzy white slippers and wrapped in a fleece blanket while my nose is so frozen that if I tap it, it might break off. I never thought I’d say this in Dhaka, but I do wish we had heating.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter in Bangladesh - scarves and mosquitoss

So, winter has descended upon us here in Bangladesh. For weeks, my driver has been warning me grimly how horribly cold it would get in Dhaka. So, in excited anticipation (yes, after months of wet 100F and above, you TOO will be excited about cold weather), I pulled out the sweaters and arranged them in neat piles in our closets. And then I sat down and waited, day by day, for the severe cold that comes here. And then it got down to a pleasant 85 degrees and half of Bangladesh started wearing scarves. Thick, pashmina, colorful scarves. My driver, for example, wears one obsessively, tightly wrapped around his neck. I am not sure what exactly it does for him-whether he thinks it blocks the harmful chilly 85 degree air or he is missing the feeling of constant sweating from the sweltering summer. The door guards wear parkas and hats and I feel rather stupid walking past them in a backless summer dress. The rickshaw wallahs wrap yards of fabric around their heads and today I saw a guy with red ear muffs.

With winter came along also a famous Bangladeshi visitor--the hungry mosquito. They are everywhere--at home, in front of your home, in the office, in the car, around the car, in your nose or buzzing in your ears, often tangled in your hair, all over your exposed feet and defenseless child. The biggest swarms seem to be, inexplicably, in front of the apartment doors. Coming home has become a challenge worthy of Super Mario, where I would slowly come to the door, flail my arms bravely and try to kill as many as I possibly can, earning a coin each time I do. It doesn't help that I have a nice, cheap plastic autumn wreath on my door, which has been chosen (with delight, I am sure) as a favorite mosquito hangout spot. When I shake the damn wreath, about a million precocious and irritated mosquitoes fall out of it and start buzzing around me in irritation. Then I crack the door open and dash quickly inside at which point Son comes out of nowhere, screaming in delight upon seeing mama and then opening the front door wide open, probably to see if there is some other part of me left out there. In silent dismay I watch the pesky tiny neighbors come in for a visit in droves. Sure, we do try to keep them at bay with various contraptions - in front of the entrance door, I keep a slow burning coil, which sends a thin veil of scented smoke around the door. As a result, the entire building staircase smells like a Buddhist temple but it DOES help keep at least some percentage away. Inside, we have plug-in lamps that use heated scented oil. The oil is really effective--we have not had a mosquito in our bedroom or in Son's room for a long time. The downside is that it smells like a truly cheap perfume, the kind that they used to make back in the Soviet Union days and so it always reminds me vaguely of discos and teenage dating. Finally, to my utmost distaste, we finally armed ourselves with an electric tennis racket - the contraption allows you to electrocute (to the tune of an awful cracking, frying sound and smell) a flying by mosquito. So far, I have managed to electrocute one little buzzer but I can tell you, it is not a job for the faint of heart!
The most irritating part of them is that one mosquito tends to bite many times around the same spot - I'd rather the damn insect man up and bite once but show some quality work. These bites usually go away in a couple of hours but while they last, you will scratch your skin like a rabid dog. Not to mention that we are all morbidly afraid that we will catch Dengue fever, carried ever so graciously by the mosquitoes.
This is the season for Christmas parties, and boy, everyone has got some serious Christmas spirit. Starting tomorrow, we will be visiting Christmas parties every day, and on Thursday alone, we will go to 4, yes, 4 of them. I LOVE it!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

New York in Asia and the Biting Monkey

Last weekend the Diplomat, Son and I flew to Kuala Lumpur for a brief, three-day weekend away. I am happy to say that the trip started well and it just kept getting better! For some reason, we got upgraded to Business Class. Now, honestly, was Business Class all that it is cracked up to be? OH YES, YES, YES! From the warm, fragrant hand towels, the lamb satee, the champagne, the service, the blankets, the reclining chairs, the lounge, everything was just fantastic. How can we go back to coach now???

Kuala Lumpur is truly what everyone kept telling me it is—a giant luxury shopping mall. There are designer shopping malls everywhere, all of which showcase some rather ludicrous prices compared to the United States. And for that precise reason, we did not buy anything, but certainly enjoyed eating all the fabulous international food. To me, Kuala Lumpur was like an Asian version of New York City. Not too polished or sterile like Singapore, or too ethnic and hippie like Bangkok, it stands somewhere in the middle. It houses many different cultures and all that comes with those—restaurants, shops, colors, places of worship, people. Speaking of which, two days in a row we tried to go and see the famed Mosjid Jamek (the Jamek Mosque). Firstly, we were not admitted as it was too late. The next day we came in too early (the afternoon Friday prayer had just ended and a seemingly endless stream of people was pouring outside). Finally, we arrived for a third time right on the dot, and thankfully were let in. I was given a fetching hijab and a sprawling, billowing dress to cover myself and allowed to walk around and take some pictures. The mosque has a beautiful, tranquil space for payer and contemplation, as well as some web browsing, as we learned. At least two of the revelers inside were surfing the net on the laptops! Talk about progress...
Then, while waiting for Son to go “poopy” (as Son loudly announced in the deafening silence of the mosque area) along with the Diplomat, a rather loquacious mosque worker chatted me only to realize with obvious horror that I was a Christian and my husband—Hindu. He told me that there is still hope for me, and gave me a heavy pamphlet on Mohammad to read on the plane. That seemed to cheer his up considerably.
As I said, KL reminded me of NYC very much also because of its night scene. The Diplomat and I were fortunate to discover the Sky Bar at the top of the Trader’s Hotel, which offered impeccable drinks, mesmerizing views of the brightly-lit Petronas Towers and excellent music. The bar is located around the pool area on the top of the hotel so the venue is even more dramatic. Not surprisingly, we managed to run into two Americans there-a NJ native working in Hong Kong (there for the weekend) and a U.S. Marine from Dubai (there for the weekend) who had just gotten married to a Palestinian girl. Let’s just say that it was a good party.

The following day, we went to see the Batu Caves, famous for the Hindu temple built in and around them. While the temple itself was a rather, shall we say – touristy affair, right next to it was the real cave which offered a 45 min trip inside the complete darkness. Not ones to miss the cool stuff, we quickly headed over. Now, to reach the temple/cave area, one must climb almost 300 steep steps. Son ran up them with the ease of a monkey, which is ironic given that the steps were full of local monkeys. Let’s just say that it is terrible what tourists can do to the local fauna. The monkeys were constantly looking for food, generously given by the unaware and delighted tourists—peanuts, sugar, even bottled water (?!). Rather amused, I began taking pictures, while Son was pottering around my legs. All of a sudden I heard a burst of crying from below—Son was screaming and crying and the Diplomat, who was a few steps away, was frantically yelling that a monkey had bitten him. Indeed, it had and he had the bite marks to prove it. To add insult to injury, the biting monkey and a giggling friend were already moving quickly away, each one carrying one of Son’s cars which he had dutifully clutched in his hands up to that moment. Apparently, while I was taking pictures, the monkeys approached Son and being like children themselves, tried to pry the cars away from his hands. As Son was refusing to give them away, one of the monkeys bit the child and then both ran away. My first instinct (sorry!) was to grab one of the cars from the monkey’s hands and try to get it back. So, there we were—a mid-sized, not-joking, rather strong monkey and a sweating, short-skirted female American diplomat tugging a bright red car while a crowd of cheering people and monkeys stood on the sidelines and watched. I won. I am not proud of it. I am just saying. Sadly, the second car (a firetruck) was lost irretrievably to a much larger and faster monkey, who perched himself on a high fence and proceeded to chew the Chinese toy with enviable assiduity and perseverance. Thankfully, the State Department had given Son a series of rabbies and tetanus shots, so the monkey bite was not dangerous. But Son has surely developed a whole new level of appreciation of monkeys. So did I. Otherwise, the cave tour wa great - we learned a whole bunch of vastly unnecessary information on cave spiders, centipedes and cockroaches.
We left KL with heavy hearts and stomachs.