Saturday, December 29, 2012

Single Parents in the Foreign Service

I have been wanting to write this for a long time, but never got around to it. Now that the holidays have descended upon us, it somehow seemed a particularly appropriate time to write about it. I often get asked by FS applicants whether there are any single parents in it or whether it is a suitable job for such parents. The simple answer is – yes, there are plenty. Is it a suitable job for a single parent? Well, how many suitable jobs for such parents are there exactly in the world? This actually might be an easier one than you have imagined.

The Service is home to many single parents. In my own A-100 class I had a single mom of a 10–year old boy. She got posted to one of the toughest posts on the Mexico border. Here, in Dhaka, there are at least three that I am aware of, some of them with more than one kid, under the age of 5. Some enter the Service as single, some become single while serving. The reality is that the Foreign Service life can prove to be too much for some families and we have our share of divorces. Then again, the same happens to perfectly stable communities, with perfectly normal jobs, in say, Wisconsin. The one tiny difference is that while most divorced Wisconsin couples will probably stay within a few miles of each other with the distinct possibility of some form of co-parenting, the folks who get divorced in the Foreign Service are facing a global geographical divide as your beloved former spouse packs him or herself and moves back home while you jet off to another part of the world every couple years or so. For those who are already single, for whatever purpose, leaving the past behind and working your dream job abroad is just the balm needed.

I am in awe of single parents. I think there should be a special place in heaven for them. Or they should always be allowed to fly business class. Or be given free drinks upon sight. Or chocolate. Or cupcake samples. Or have famous songs written about them. My mom was a single mom. She is an awesome mom and she did a spectacular job of raising me. So I know how difficult it really is. Single parents have to make decisions on their own. All the time. About everything – whether giving frankfurters and mac and cheese from a box can pass for a nutritious meal, whether a nosebleed in the middle of the night merits going to the hospital, whether not putting your kid in the Spanish immersion program will put him behind all those little brainy brats from his kindergarten, whether to co-sleep with your kid, whether your 5-year old daughter’s strong desire to wear shoes to bed every night is a problem, what is a good curfew for your teenager, should you allow your little girl to date at 16, what is a good bedtime, are 5 cookies before dinner too much, whether to circumcise, to have long or short hair, to give TV every day after dinner, to allow a sleepover, to choose a college, to do just about anything. It is so difficult and lonely to make these choices on your own. I know, because I am constantly asking the Diplomat about his opinion before making most decisions regarding Son – and while I mostly ignore his opinion much to his chagrin, it is so damn comforting to hear him yey or ney or even venture a more evolved opinion when needed. Yes, I have a lot of respect for single parents.

But oddly enough, I think the Foreign Service just might be the place for them. The fabulous job aside, it can take one to a country where help is readily available and inexpensive. In many South Asian, African and even South American countries, live-in nannies, housekeepers and drivers are the norm. With free housing, free schooling (K through 12) and unbelievable embassy support network by your fellow colleagues, such help becomes quite affordable. You can even bring your trusted nanny with you to the United States when you are back there temporarily. For many FS families, their foreign nannies become a beloved part of the family. The Service will also allow your parents to come and live with you so that they can provide you with the moral and physical support you might need. The Foreign Service is a community in the best sense of the word and if you need anything ranging from advice, emergency stroller, a few hours of babysitting, home cooked lasagna when coming back from the hospital with your little one to dog walking when you need to be away– the community will be there to support you just for the asking. While you might have family and relatives in the U.S., at post you will have a good network of colleagues and their spouses, most of whom will live either in your own building or a few blocks away at best. So, help will always be a few steps away while in the U.S. you might have your sisters, but one of them lives in Wyoming, and the other one in Florida.

So, be brave! Join the Foreign Service even if you are a single parent and you are scared of making all decisions on your own thousands of miles away from your comfortable U.S. home. You will be surprised at how manageable it can be.

I remain in awe of you, single parents. I think you are amazing. Rock on!
PS - I encourage comments and recommendations from FS single parents, so that I can make this post even more useful.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Wedding Season Started

I admit to having a writer’s block. I honestly have nothing funny to write about this week. I am super busy at work because apparently one third of Bangladesh has decided to go and see what America looks like during Christmas while one third of my co-officers have decided to go and see what Australia, Thailand or some other exotic nearby location looks like at the same time. That makes for a whole lot more work and a whole lot grumpier colleagues. To top it off, the State Department has just introduced some major revolutionary changes in our work systems, and given us little to no direction on how exactly to implement them. But, rumor has it President Obama will give us an early release on Christmas Eve! Now THAT is cool.

Let’s see what happened during the last 10 days– I MC-ed a Fashion show/launch of a magazine, got misquoted badly by the press to the effect that the US-India bilateral relations were better than the US-Bangladesh ones during a business visa outreach (did NOT even remotely say anything even distantly close to this), spent a Thursday exclusively in meetings, attended Son’s Christmas party at the French School, had Son subsequently with fever for three days (he claimed it was the cake I gave him??), attended a dinner party, a Christmas party, a dinner in a restaurant that was supposed to include just me, the Diplomat and an acquaintance and ended up having another friend from the Embassy, the owner of a major TV channel and the legal rep of the Bangladesh special police forces.

Then the Diplomat and I also went to a lavish wedding party, where we both knew no one but the father of the bride, a wealthy businessman who was marrying off his third and last daughter. Can I just say that there is NOTHING like a South Asian wedding. Only the first event of three more to follow, it was spectacular. After all guests had arrived (think about 300 of the closest family and friends), elaborate and generous gifts from both sides were marched down the middle of the restaurant hall to the sound of very loud drums (inexplicably, both sides' gifts included baskets full of toothpaste, deodorant, aftershave - remember Old spice, folks? - it was almost like they were preparing the newly weds for some sort of a prolonged bathroom siege). Then the groom came in surrounded by a bunch of his buddies who were blowing oddly loud whistles and settled on one of the chairs on a beautiful raised platform. Soon, the bride came, accompanied by a seemingly endless posse of relatives, each one dressed more splendidly than the other. It was all very elaborate and moving, and as she was passing by me, her mom and I were sobbing inconsolably shoulder to shoulder (I am a hopeless crier, you should see me at Son’s school events, I am like an open fire hydrant on a hot New York summer afternoon). It was fine for her, she was watching her last daughter get married and leave the house. It was real awkward for me since everyone was staring at me and my mascara was not water proof. It was even more awkward since I was the only white woman in the entire hall and all photographers spent hours taking pictures of me, while all the staff pretended not to look at me for 4 hours.

The wedding was awesome – the younger relatives from both sides did a dancing performance for which they apparently practiced for months before the wedding. It was hilarious and really endearing. Then every single person in the hall got on the stage to take pictures with the couple, including us. I must say the bride and the groom (who did not know us) were a bit startled but did not get phased one bit. They apparently had really good wedding training. At any rate, THAT is the way to get married. Thank you, Kausar!
Wedding season is just starting in Bangladesh, and I just cannot wait for the next event! Unless, of course, the world ends on Friday. Which would be a pity on so many different levels.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cows, shawls and red – a Rajasthan odyssey, Part II

We visited Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Pushkar and finally, utterly exhausted and palace-ed out, finished the Jaipur. We spent on average an evening and a full day in each place, and traveled every other day covering about 350km from one place to another for an average of 6 hours per trip. While arguably a roadtrip is the best way to see a country, there were moments when my behind was so numb from sitting in the back seat of the car that I’d have to walk for a few minutes before I would feel it looming behind me again. You’d think that all that fat I’ve accumulated there would provide some padding. Another issue is what to do for 6 hours in the car if reading is not an option for you since you get nauseous reading in the back seat. After taking pictures for an hour, having thoughtful conversation about culture with the Diplomat for another, playing 389 games of gin rummy on my cell phone, staring blankly at the desert, sleeping in most awkward positions resulting in severe back pain, one really starts looking forward to reaching that damn hotel room. Once there, we would rest, shower and get ready for a walk in the dusky town. Then off to dinner in a nice, romantic place (everywhere we went, we opted for open air restaurants, preferably with views of the palace/fort/local attraction. I will share my recommendations below.

I was mostly impressed by the palace inside the Junagarh fort in Bikaner – a much less traveled destination and often out of the usual tourist path, the palace there is breathtaking inside. It is both beautiful and incredibly well preserved. I highly recommend including Bikaner on your itinerary. For dinner, there is pretty much only one place -Gallops , right in front of the fort. Luckily, the setting is gorgeous, the food outstanding and the ambiance lovely. Other highlights of the trip were

-        --  The fort in Jaisalmer, which remains the oldest still living and breathing fort in the world – people actually still live and trade there much like they did in 1156. For dinner in Jaisalmer strong recommendation is Saffron on the rooftop of Nachana Haveli (haveli means a mansion) - an incredibly romantic restaurant serving food under the stars. If you will try lal maas anywhere in Rajasthan, this should be it – it is organic and it is spectacular. For lunch – Shanti located in the fort and offering stunning views of the city. You MUST have the tandoori chicken there, it is the BEST we had ever had.

-         -- Spending the night in a tent in the Thar Desert after riding a camel into the sunset. OK, it sounds way better than it was in reality given that we were surrounded by about 1000 Indian and Western tourists, all on camels
      or camel carts, rolling about the dunes, eating and drinking and screaming loudly with pleasure. And the tents were Swiss and each had a bathroom area with running water and sitting toilet. Still, it was great and highly recommended as an experience.

-         -- The Blue City in Jodhpur best seen from Mehrangarh Fort. For food in Jodhpur go to Pal Haveli’s Indique – a gorgeous setting on top of an old haveli, offering beautiful vista of the looming fort in the near distance. Order a bottle of Indian Sula Sauvignon Blanc, my current favorite wine. Enjoy. Mention me with appreciation. In Jodhpur, we stayed at Ratan Vilas, a beautiful haveli with free wi fi! Every morning, we would see the owner sitting on a chair in the garden, reading his newspaper in the scant morning sun, greeting the guests regally.


    -- The Pichola Lake in Udaipur – take the touristy boat
    ride around the lake, and enjoy a glass of cold King Fisher beer on the Jag Mandir island. In Idipur, we stayed in a gorgeous haveli overlooking the lake and I would highly recommend it – Karohi Haveli. It also
     has a great rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake and the palaces. Dead romantic! Also had free wi-fi.
           -- The camel fair in Pushkar – turns out, once a year for less than a week, all self-respecting camel and horse breeders in Rajasthan go to Pushkar to trade the goods. We happened to be passing by the city when the fair was full on. I got to hug a tiny goat. Yey. Forget cats and dogs, the face of a baby goat is so cute and so soft that only common sense and fear for personal hygiene stopped me from kissing it passionately all over. I also got to pee in a make-shift desert toilet (see below)at the fair. It consisted of 4 rods, some tin and a rag. It was drafty, to say the least.

-          I was underwhelmed by Jaipur. Who knows why – the pink of the city was beautiful, the palace was OK, and the city architecture was fascinating. Perhaps it was too big and modern of a city, where I was expecting the usual small historic town feel and magic in the air. I do have a restaurant recommendation though – a brand new affair called Wassup in Ashok Nagar. It serves international cuisine of excellent quality and flair, and the setting is beautiful. Set on two floors, it reminded me of sitting on a tree in the middle of a jungle.

      I have several pieces of advice as well as a few astute observations for those who are contemplating similar pursuits:
  1.   I have never seen so many loitering cows in my entire life! For real. They were EVERYWHERE!  In the streets, around the cars, over the cars, on top of merchandise, in the middle of the street dozing off, in the temples, in the palaces, in gardens, toilets, restaurants, markets, in the trash, in people’s laundry, in the back yards, in the front yards, in the main squares. Holy cow!
  2.  If I ever live to see another woolen shawl, I’d shoot myself. Rajasthan is DA land of those damn shawls, made from camel wool, pashmina, other wool, silk, half-silk or who knows what acrylic craptastic material. Everywhere you go, there are a gazillion scarves hanging from all nooks and crannies and everyone is trying to sell you one every 2 minutes.
  3. Women there wear a different variation of the usual saree – they don’t wrap a long fabric around, but wear a skirt and a top, and a long transparent scarf draped over their faces, all richly decorated with beads and shiny things. The color of the long scarf is usually bright red or purple, which makes for a very cheerful sight every time a woman passes in the street.
  4. Indian tourists have re-discovered their land and are now about 90% of the visitors in Rajasthan. I cannot really vouch how fascinating they find the palaces and the forts, but they obsessively took pictures of everything they saw on their phones. Indian tourists also have not lost their fascination with foreigners. I think I was photographed almost as much as the palaces themselves. The weirdest request came from a newly-wed girl who asked me to take a picture with her husband?!? I refused. Seriously...
  5. I have NEVER been asked so many times in my life, “M’am, your country?” usually in a hurried, demanding sort of way. In the beginning, I was polite and would respond that I was from America to the oohs and awwws of my captive audience. Then, I got bored and started saying things like, “I am from Bangladesh,” or “I am from Sweden,” and even, “I am Indian, why?” The whole thing eroded further, and to “M’am, your country?” I began to reply – “My country is beautiful” “My country is great” or even “IS very far away.” The final drop in the bucket was in Kolkata on the way back, where I was standing exhausted waiting for our luggage around 10.30 pm to go and spend the night in a shady hotel near the airport. A middle-aged lady next to me was having a most inane conversation with her husband when she suddenly turned to me, and out of the blue asked me the blasted question. Unnerved, tired and highly irritable, I snapped, “And what is to you lady, am I asking YOU what YOUR country is???” Not my finest moment, I admit, but let’s just say she had bad timing. The problem was that we were the last people there, and our luggage wasn’t coming so it got a little awkward for a while.

All in all, an amazing vacation and highly recommended. Any questions are welcome. Again, I recommend using a tour company to book your hotels and car transfers. We saw a fair amount of Western tourists who thought they’d wing it on the spot and book places as they went. They all ended up in dingy hotels with no running water or were flat out told their reservations did not exist. Awesome. were excellent and when we go to Kerala next year, I think we’ll use them again. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cows, Shawls and Red – a Rajasthan Odyssey Part I

The Diplomat and I have just come back from a colorful, exhausting and fabulously gorgeous trip through the vast land of Rajasthan, India. We lovingly summoned the Inlaws from India to take care of Son who was delighted to enjoy 10 days of utter freedom and to play with his favorite toy – his grandfather. In exchange, we hopped on a plane or two and landed in Delhi on a cool November night ready to tackle this Rajasthan thing. I had the crazy idea that rather than spend a night in Delhi and go to our first stop, Bikaner, by car, we should save a night on the road and take the sleeper train instead. Interesting decision. So, from the airport we got ourselves a decrepit-looking old cab, classic Indian Maruti dating circa 1935, which sped through the streets of Delhi like the devil himself was behind him. Our two suitcases were placed precariously on top of the tiny car without being tied or anything, and every time the cab made a hair-raising turn, I fully expected to have my undies splattered all over the dark Delhi street from my falling suitcase. We made it without an incident, which to me proves that there is higher force somewhere out there looking out for me and my precious belongings.

We bid the closeted Schumacher adieu and trudged along the freezing platform – it was around 11 pm and we were booked on a sleeper train to Bikaner, where a car would meet us and take us on our romantic desert journey for the next 10 days. The reason I decided to take the train was that I had this foolish dream that we will travel in a luxury sleeper wagon, in a romantic compartment where the Diplomat was going to whisk me a la James Bond in one of his many unrealistic luxury train scenes. We were going to dine in a delicately appointed restaurant car and exchange pleasantries with the exquisitely dressed pretentious passengers. Not so much. Actually, not even close.

I entered the train only to find myself in the middle of a long compartment, separated by thin walls into several cabins with 4 berths each (2 on each side bunker style). Each such “cabin” was separated from the rest only by a tiny curtain. In one word – it was all very communal. See for yourself:

There were kids everywhere, food, ripe smell of feet and sweat, crumbs, shoes, screaming, giggling, crinkling of newspapers and plastic bags, and just a general sense of complete and utter lack of privacy. Romance abandoned, I climbed on the top berth and changed into my dark blue satin pajama bottoms to the utter amazement of the fella who was lying on the berth below diagonally from me. The Diplomat settled on the berth immediately below me and soon was in deep sleep as the train began to rock us gently. Slowly, everyone turned off their lights, drew the curtains and the wagon was enveloped by sleepy dark silence. I was lying quietly on my top berth, watching old episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and was pretty pleasantly amused overall. 

Just as I was beginning to doze off around 1 am, the train stopped for a moment in Gurgaon (a Delhi white-collar suburb), and a second later, a gang of 3 white-collar dudes burst through the curtain into our section and without even asking a question, turned on the lights and sat unceremoniously on the bottom berths where the Diplomat and his neighbor were sleeping. Then they looked up to me and said to my astonishment that they I am in one of their berths. Sternly, I denied and triumphantly showed them a picture I had taken earlier of the passenger manifest posted on the train, which had my highly unusual, white-person name next to the number of the berth. The dudes were thoroughly unperturbed. They started chatting up our neighbor who apparently thought that the whole thing was perfectly normal and had no issues having two random people sitting practically on top of him in the middle of the night on a train. After some heated discourse, the ticket master showed up and it turned out that the guys had bought tickets for the previous day instead. This was already taking over 20 minutes so I tried to glare at them in the most eloquent way possible to hint that they need to get out and let us all sleep. You know the glare – the kind you use when someone is talking loudly in a movie theater and you slowly turn around to glare at them and teach them some manners in a quiet dignified manner. Let’s just say that Indian trains ain’t the best forum for subtle diplomacy. They did not seem to be impressed by my excellent glare or to be interested in leaving at all. So, I decided to tell them about things in life and they got an earful about rudeness and manners and people wanting to sleep and watch their damned show on their Ipad. One of them eventually climbed on the other top berth across from me and was snoring (and farting loudly, I might add) within 3 minutes, while the other one left. I sighed deeply, wrapped myself tightly with the prickly blanket and fell asleep.

The next morning around 7 am, I woke up to the Diplomat’s loud announcements that we have arrived and to the sight of my upper neighbor’s ass crack offered generously as he snored with his back towards me and the rest of the world.

Soon we were off the train, met our driver and jumped into the small Tata that would drive us around for 10 days and 2,500 km through the Rajasthani desert. We had organized our trip through a company called Swagat Tours who let us customize our package and pretty much were at my whim and mercy for a month before the trip. They were truly outstanding in their patience for my last minute changes and the choice of hotels and routes proposed. To top it all, when we were in Jaisalmer, we got a call from the guy who was working with us on the trip, one young and enthusiastic Nemish, telling us that there was a huge 3-day long music festival in the desert that was going all night long and would we be interested in coming by. Well, yes, we were – where else you’d hear Bombay bands playing original rock at 1 am under the moonlight in the middle of the Thar desert??

To be continued…

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hotel Babysitting and Why You Can Have It All!

There is a huge risk that after this post I will either lose massive readership or be mob-lynched as a terrible mother. That’s OK, I have never really claimed to be a particularly good mom. Which is why I wanted to talk about getting babysitting services when you travel at hotels. Many of us don’t have the luxury of traveling maids, or grandparents at immediate disposal at home, or weirdly independent kids who can just take care of themselves magically while you chose to prance about town at night. On the other hand, folks like to travel and given the above limitations, they have to take the kids. Even if that means dragging a whiny screaming three-year old through Florence, smiling nonchalantly to passersby as you attempt to take in the beauty and calm of the Renaissance architecture and expressive statues of rather large naked men . Or explaining every three minutes that there is NO carousel in a 10-mile radius of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and refusing resolutely requests to carry the heavy tired child. Or taking 48 tiny pebbles from the artsy-fartsy golden fish pond in your Kuala Lumpur hotel under the stern stare of the hotel manager while your child is asking whether he can throw them back in a little later when the angry uncle in the uniform is not looking.

The point is, whether we like it or not (I actually do) we take our kids on trips quite often and sightseeing during the day might actually be quite fun as we point out to the gorgeous Marseilles yachts or let them run through the expansive mosques of Old Delhi. But what happens at night is an entirely different issue. Many parents end up either dragging the already incredibly exhausted, irritated kids to dinners at nice restaurants that (shockingly) do not end up all that well or get back to the hotel and hole themselves in since the kids have to go to bed, while staring longingly at the glimmering night lights of the city they just paid over $2000 in plane tickets to see.

There is a solution and that is to get babysitting in the hotel. Ever since Son was 2 months old, we have used hotel baby sitting services as needed. Back then, we were in California for the annual lavish Christmas party of his company at the stunning luxury Grand Del Mar. The company has just shelled out massive amounts of money to fly all employees from the East Coast to San Diego, put us up in a $500 a night room for three days and had a black tie party at the grand ballroom. Not going to the party was not even an option. Since then we have hired sitters at fancy hotels like the Fontainebleau in Miami, the Wintergreen tennis and ski resort in the Shenandoah Valley, we had sitters in Bermuda, in Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, even in Kolkata!
So, how does it work? So far, every hotel that we have been to (arguably, we have not been to Motel 6 since our early dating days) has had a list of either babysitting services approved and vetted out by the hotel, or names of sitters who actually happen to also work for the hotel . Depending on the place and country, price per hour can vary dramatically – from the $20/hr we paid in Miami Beach to the $10 for 4 hours in India. In most cases, you will need to pay for the sitter’s transportation and even dinner depending at what time she comes in (use your judgment, of course). We always get babysitting in the evening as we prefer to spend the day with Son dragging him around with us, but all babysitting services operate also during the day if you need them to. If the hotel you are staying in does not actually offer babysitting but you and the mister are itching to get loose on the town and see its infamous red lights district (strictly scientific interest, clearly), you can try a couple of other options. If you are a fellow FSO, write to the CLO in that town (if there is an Embassy or consulate) and ask for a recommendation – many local nannies love to get overtime (a quick shout out to a magic CLO in Kolkata’s U.S. Consulate who got us in touch with an amazing ayah!). If you are not, you can still call the American Citizen Services desk and ask nicely whether they can recommend one (trust me, crazier requests have come to that section). In Bermuda, we were playing tennis with the pro at the hotel whose teenage daughter happened to babysit regularly. She was great. And then there are always professional babysitting companies in all major towns. But I personally would not go that far – even I have my limits on whom I trust with my kid.

So yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. Now, there has been the occasional funky situation where you stumble upon some, um, rather eclectic characters who eventually turn out to be excellent nannies. At the Fontainebleau, when Son had just turned one, we had to get a sitter for the night to join yet another lavish company soiree. The hotel recommended 3 different companies, and I chose the one that advertised that all of its sitters were college students of child psychology, knew baby CPR and could pretty much feel good about themselves only the company of children. So, I quickly called and arranged for a sitter to come that very night. I happened to have my two best male friends from highschool visiting Miami at the same time and they came to see us at the hotel. They got really excited that a college-age babysitter was coming to the hotel room and since she was already running a bit late and we had to go to the party (at the hotel ballroom itself), they eagerly offered to watch the sleeping Son until she came in.

About 30 mins later, I hadn’t heard anything from them or the sitter for that matter, so I decided to walk the 3 kms across the massive hotel lobby and go up to our suite to see what was up. On my way, I stumbled upon my classmates who muttered something about gold teeth and old lady, and disappeared in a cab. Clearly disconcerted, I raced in my 5-inch heels through the slippery lobby almost bumping into Timbaland on the way (gotta tell you, the guy is stout!) and arrived breathless at the suite door. I knocked gently on the door not to wake up Son, and after what seemed like eternity, a hoarse voice asked, “Who is it?” Somewhat taken aback, I responded that it was the kid’s mom and after some fiddling around with the doorknob, the door swung open and a massive African American 50-something old lady grabbed me, flashed me a resplendent front gold tooth and squeezed me in a tight embrace. Then she jumped back and after briefly introducing herself, she told me that I looked gorgeous but that she did not mean it like THAT, ‘cuz she was into men, definitely into men. In fact, she got her husband waiting for her right now home but she loves kids (has 5 of her own) and so she likes babysitting. So I had nothing to worry about, but go and have fun with my undoubtedly gorgeous husband, into whom I was assured she was not interested in the least. All of this soliloquy took a little less than 2 minutes to pour out of her mouth, all the while her fantastic gold tooth kept glistening in the dim living room of the hotel suite. I was mesmerized, just kept nodding and, after checking on Son and suffering another massive hug, escaped back to the party. All was fine in the end. Phew.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Very Secure Plane Ride to India

We have recently returned from a lovely family trip to Chennai. I have to tell you though, going from Bangladesh to India has turned into some sort of traveler purgatory. If you thought that taking off your shoes at the airport security checkpoint was a terrible inconvenience, I’d like you to take a trip from Dhaka to Chennai to get a bit of a perspective. After we entered the ever filled with vicious mosquitoes Dhaka airport, we had to scan our luggage before check-in while the observing officer was languidly cleaning his teeth with a small plastic fork. After was passed that bastion of security, we had to put the bags again through an X-ray machine right at the gate, where a feisty lady frisked me lovingly if haphazardly behind a rather dirty cloth booth and the Diplomat was even more lovingly and similarly haphazardly frisked right next to the machine. Once inside the waiting room, you’d think it would be over. Definitely not. There, a spritely fellow asked us to open up our bags and rummaged through my bras and feminine products serenely and without batting a Muslim eyelash. A stern looking woman took me behind a wicker partition and felt me all over again with fierce determination. You will excuse my impatience, but at this point we got a bit overwhelmed, and so I asked the lady why the heck we were being subjected to everything twice. She told me that the folks outside the gate were from the airport police, and the ones inside – from the airline. In her words, “We don’t trust them and they don’t trust us!” Speechless, I sat down and gave Son some crayons to draw dinosaurs.

Soon we proceeded to the plane, where a stern officer requested to see our boarding passes. I gave mine apathetically. 40 mins later and we were in Kolkata. Oddly, it took an additional 45 mins to get off the plane, which was a problem since we had a short connecting flight on a different airline. If you know Kolkata, you’ll know that the international and domestic flights buildings are apart and it is a brisk 5 minute obstacle course walk to get from one to the other (the obstacles being multiple men asking to carry your luggage, offer you a cab, something to eat, or standing just to stare at you along with a bunch of dogs). Running as fast as we can with 3 small suitcases and child in tow, we made it to the domestic flights building. We were promptly stopped at the entrance by an massive Indian policeman who resolutely requested our printed flight reservation and passports. Clearly rattled and worried about our next flight, I gave the man the papers and pretended to be telling the Diplomat loudly about how late we were. The policeman was not impressed. An eternity later, he returned the papers to me and let us through, only to be stopped a second later by another cop, sitting at a small wooden banged up bureau and writing slowly important stuff in an ancient-looking large note book. He also asked for our passports and reservations. Giving him an icy stare, I gave everything to him, fidgeting as if I had lice creeping up my butt. Again, I kept telling the Diplomat loudly that we were going to miss our flight. Nonplussed, after writing our names and destination  in the giant book with meticulous handwriting and the speed of an asthmatic snail, the cop turned to the Diplomat and asked him phlegmatically which part of India he was from. As I was about to choke him with a piece of Son’s plastic dinosaur, he finally gave us the passports and we raced to the counter. There, it turned out that our luggage was too heavy to be carryon luggage, which meant that we needed to go back and put it through a scanner and get a security tag. After a few uncalled for expletives directed at the perky Indigo Air staff, we ran and put the damned bags through. We raced back to the counter only to have her say, “Oh, too bad, you put it through Jet Air’s scanner, not ours – they are right next to each other…” Who cares, lady!!! It is a @#$%ing scanner, they are NOT going to show different things. Audibly upset, I let the Diplomat go back and re-scan the damned suitcases, all the while glaring at the counter lady who in turn was giving me most pleasant looks.

Finally done and boarding passes in hand, we ran towards the security checkpoint. There, we had to go through 2 separate lines for men and women, and had a bunch of tags stamped on our carry-ons. I was duly felt all over again by a disturbingly androgynous lady with a spurious mustache  Once THAT was over, we rushed toward the boarding gate as boarding was almost over. Before getting on the bus to the plane, we had to show our boarding passes to the airline agent, and then immediately to an airport policeman (yes, apparently they don’t trust each other in India as well). The bus took us to the plane, where ANOTHER damn cop checked the boarding passes. I was close to a nervous breakdown.

Soon we were up in the air, sitting squished in our chairs, which were extraordinarily small. Right in the middle of our ascent, my front neighbor decided that it was totally cool to recline his seat and fell 45 degrees into my lap, given the angle of the plane going up. It was a rather annoying flight. The final touch came when we landed in Chennai – leaving the plane, I was stopped by yet another policeman who demanded to see my boarding pass. !@#$%%???? I dared to ask why – after all, I have just left the God-damn plane. He said that he did not know why, he just had to. What do you say to that….

Our Chennai stay was lovely. We saw many of Diplomat’s relatives and even took a fabulous overnight trip to the beaches of Mahabalipuram, where his wonderful uncle had booked us a beachfront room in a 5-star resort. Son and Granddad had a ball in the infinity pool. IN the meantime, soaking in the deep end and gazing upon the ocean, I overheard the following exchange between 2 men in VERY tight long-john speedos threading water inside the shallow end and their lovely sareed wives, supine on the lounge chairs “Oh, come on, the water is lovely!” “Naa, yaar, I am in my saree, can’t come inside!” “Eh, saree-shmaree, no one can see you here!” followed by a hysterical giggle by all. Yes, dear friends, India is changing.

We are now safely back to the manic life of Dhaka. In two short days, the Embassy will be hosting a massive event with over 1000 local dignitaries at the Westin hotel to observe the Presidential election’s day. I cannot wait to explain the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College at 5.30 am.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Fashion Show and a Fire Alarm

Last week I had the rare pleasure of participating in a fashion show. No, dear God, I was not a model. I got to be the MC of the event which meant spending about 2 hours speaking in front of 380 people with 528 potent projectors concentrated on me while I try my utmost to look and sound professional. The show featured the gorgeous clothes of Bangladeshi as well as one American designers. I got to work and see professional Bengali models whose physique and face depressed me for the entire weekend. It only got worse when one of my co-organizers tried to make me feel better by saying, "well, they are so much younger!" Yeah, there is nothing better when you are on a strict diet (which you don't exactly observe well) and stare at 30 stick thin gorgeous models than to be reminded that they are not only thinner and prettier than you but also younger. All I could think of while grimly watching them practice was how I'd like to force feed some of them. Sadly, all I did was force feed myself with a bunch of samosas that were just sitting there laughing at me with their oiliness.

The fashion show, also known as Untied Women of the World Dhaka 2012 was a smashing success. Organized by the joint efforts of the Dhaka American Women's Club, the SAARC Women's Association and the British Women's Association, it involved months of prep, tireless fundraising efforts, a day of practice with all the models, and D-day. One of the designers had expressed a preference for "community" models, so I recruited 9 beautiful, slim ladies from Dhaka's finest and left them at her artistic mercy.

Then we all went "in make up and hair." Oh, I was so excited at those words - who doesn't like a bunch of people toiling at them applying makeup and doing their hair to make them look stunning. We had the best artistic studio in Dhaka at our disposal. Then I saw them painting the models in layers of striking makeup and began to be a little afraid about my own fate. You see, I realized that I do need a somewhat heavier version of my usual "going out" make up since I was going to be standing in front of a million projectors during the show, but I also did not need to look like a clown fish. So, I politely asked the makeup artist not to go crazy on me. Because of the colors of my dress, I asked for blue and subtle golden hues. Looking at her palette and choices, I should have known we are poised for disaster. Half an hour later, and there I was, ready for my traditional Bengali wedding, unrecognizable in my bright blue and golden mask on pale background. There were layer upon layers upon layers of thick paint, starting with a base of paleness that rivaled Scarlet O'Hara's carefully protected pasty white skin (the lady laid on the liquid base thickly lest I look like my natural skin color for a second). I think she thought that I was simply not white enough. Bright as the moon, I then featured humongous purple-blue eyes, crowned by massive strokes of dark gold. Any self-respecting mandarin fish would have died of envy. To top the ensemble, another artist did my hair. I asked for nice, smooth large curls and boy, did I get some - the lady took small strands of my hair, poured a kilo of hair spray on them, and then sealed them tight with a curling iron. Me and Medusa were like sisters!

The show itself was fabulous! After it was over, the Diplomat and I ran to a gallery opening to see the stunning work of Vinita Karim. And then we ran again cross town to the housewarming party of the famous and fabulous singer Kumar Biswajit. And yes, all this time I was prancing about town with my moonshine skin and fabulous blue/gold raccoon eyes. Everyone was duly impressed.

I love our Embassy. We always like to enliven our lives there. For example, just 3 days ago there was a fire alarm that hit just as I was interviewing a nervous student visa applicant with very vibrant hair. The moment the alarm went off, I loudly urged the applicant to go into the waiting room, but he just stood there staring at me pleadingly. I repeated my request several times but he refused to un-glue himself from the window, his impressive hair shaking disapprovingly at me. I left him to his own devices and ran for dear life. Soon, the entire Embassy poured out in the courtyard and we waited breathlessly to see where the fire was. At which point it occurred to me that all our visa applicants were patiently waiting inside what could be a very fiery Embassy. I ran back and made the security guards let everyone out. To my utter amazement, no one wanted to leave - it was visa or nothing, fire be damned!  The student with the remarkable hair was also there giving me evil eye. Finally everyone filed out.
I believe that we all had some fun in the 100 degree sun, some smoked, others saw friends from other floors that had not seen in ages,and others even pulled sandwiches out and had a picnic. It was all very recreational and boosted morale on a slow, boring Monday.  Yes, Embassy life is fun!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Me and Bjorn Borg

Some of you might recollect my laments from the mid-summer party dry spell in Dhaka. Well, NEVER YOUR MIND!

Right after we celebrated Son’s birthday, I threw myself into frantic preparations for my own birthday. After contemplating a tacky yet delightful Eastern European trash themed bonanza on our roof top (sort of to open the season in the district), we decided on a more professional touch at the American Club here, where the Diplomat wouldn’t have to worry about cleanup the next morning (everyone has priorities, I suppose). I firmly believe the recipe for a good party calls for three essential ingredients – open bar, a great DJ and guests who are heavily interested in drinking and dancing. Thankfully, we managed to have a lot of all three. Some time around 2 am and 120 guests later, I was watching lazily as three of the male guests were doing pushups on the ground, a bunch of others were dancing slowly around them with glazed eyes and a young strapping lad, no more than 22 years old, approached me to ask me whether I was the birthday girl and to thank me for a great party. I had no idea who he was. It was indeed one swell birthday though. It was made even better by the fact that it was our DCM’s birthday as well and he did stop by and had a drink with us.

The following week, the entire expat and diplomatic corps community went nuts as we all prepared to go to the infamous Glitter Ball. Now, if you recall from last year, this is a huge party celebrated in the biggest ballroom in town, where all the crème de la crop of Dhaka foreign and local society gathers to look and behave stupid. Each table has a theme based on which folks dress up – my table went as 70’s tennis players. We procured horrendous old-fashioned white short shorts for the men, and some hideous long skirts for the women, as well as garish headbands, drank a bunch of vodka and joined the Ball. Now, mind you, when we were getting the clothes from the fancy sporting store in the middle of the most affluent part of town, the owners assured us fervently that everything was “last year’s fashion, sir!!” which makes me really, really sad. The ball, of course, was a blast and we were spectacular. I looked especially authentic – in fact, while I was looking at myself in the mirror, skort, curly long blond hair and ludicrous headband on, the Diplomat appreciatively commented that I look like Bjorn Borg from behind. WTF?

This weekend we also enjoyed an extra holiday thanks to Mr. Columbus. Luckily, it was not a holiday for Son’s school, so the Diplomat and I got a glimpse of what it is to be people without children or agenda or anything better to do. For starters, after Son left, we slept until 11 am, and then the Diplomat went to play gold while I did absolutely nothing. Oh, I might have stared at the wall for a bit, and then I ate a sandwich. A really good one, too! With a pickle! Then I saw a particularly terrible movie on TV. And then I did nothing a bit more. One thing is for sure – I did not brush my teeth until it was time to pick up Son from daycare! Bliss!! I continue to wonder - whatever do single people do on a weekend???

Speaking of Son, he has all of a sudden grown up. He now insists on sophisticated conversations that center around the bowels of dinosaurs and whether he can marry the cat. He paints elaborate grotesque paintings that portray large scale airplanes and even larger suns; he pouts when little girls won’t play with him (there is a real dearth of little boys in our community for some reason); wonders where babies come from and why he cannot have one in his belly; tells me that I SHOULD drink milk since it has “so many useful things in it” to make me grow up. I try to keep up with him and teach him good things – how to hold the spoon, when to brush his teeth, not to interrupt adult conversation, the numbers, the letters, songs, manners. He even watches me cook and helps with condiments. We read books and talk about them. And yet it always seems like he is a step ahead of me with his endless, “why?” It is amazing how often I have no answers – aren’t we supposed to have them all by now? Amazing thing this parenting business. How do we watch our children grow and not melt our hearts every morning, every day, every night?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Welcome Back to Dhaka!

After bidding adieu to the boys, I went to Bulgaria to see my family and friends. I will tell you now one thing about me – I am mad about reunions of any kind. I am fiercely sentimental and just love reviving the past one way or the other. So, on this trip, I managed to reunite with two of my best girlfriends, my family and my middle school class!!! Typically, every time I go back, I organize a mini reunion of my high school class but this year I decided to see whether I can get together with my middle school peeps – some of which I had not seen for 23 years (yes, I am THAT old, ok??) !! We only managed to uncover 8 of us, but even that ensured a fabulous evening of endless memories, drinks and constant inane giggling. There was the obligatory “so, what do you do now?” and the ever unnecessary “oh, look at my kids!” to “OMG, do you know what happened to HER??” It was a blast. We’ll do it again in another 23 years, I hope.

So, then I climbed the plane again to fly back to Paris, spent 8 hours at Charles de Gaulle Emirates business class lounge (oh, my God!, such good food and endless champagne) and then hopped on the flight to Dhaka through Dubai. I have 4 words for you “Airbus 380 business class.” CAPITAL OH MY GOD! The damn thing had a BAR in the back. OK, so I have not flown business class too many times in my life so you can bet I was enjoying it. And flying Airbus 380 was the cream of the crop in that respect. Thus, you can imagine that once I stepped on board, it took a lot out of me not to behave like a lunatic and squeal every time I saw something awesome, like the private bar in my seat, or the massive screen of my private TV, or the nice mattress for my fully reclining chair, or every time the stewardess came by to offer me a selectoin of champagne and my favorite French white wines (you bet I got off that plane with a massive hangover!). And then there was the bar at the back. Even though I had decided that after watching two movies and having dinner, I will go to sleep so that I am not a complete wreck once I arrive in Dhaka the next morning, I just could not resists and spent the rest of the night arguing the political situation and its possible causes and remedies with a Maldives banker and a Lebanese marble exporter. I felt like a million bucks!

While I was in Bulgaria, the unfortunate anti-Mohammed movie incident began unfolding, and it made me even more anxious to get back to Dhaka. To the few who have asked whether we are OK – yes, we are, thank you so much for the concern. Hats off to Bangladesh, which lives up to its fame of a modern, peaceful Muslim democracy and has only allowed a few contained protests. In all fairness, traffic in Dhaka is so bad, and the diplomatic zone can be reached only through a small bridge so as a result any potential protesters are naturally deterred by the realities of Dhaka life. And if any crowd does manage to come through and gather at the Embassy, since we are on the tail end of monsoon season sooner or later it begins to rain, and the demonstrators eventually disperse. As a matter of fact today was the first day when people actually managed to demonstrate for real for at least 10 minutes in front of the Embassy– we did the obligatory “duck and cover away from the windows” as prompted by the loud embassy speakers. Unfortunately, the recording got stuck later on and we had to listen to the “duck and cover” order for about half an hour after everything was over to the utter fascination or horror of the visa applicants (depending on their age) who kept wondering what was going on.

Other than that, Dhaka greeted me properly back. In the span of a week, I managed to regain my almost constant Dhaka sinus infection (awesome air we breathe here), obtained an unsightly allergic rash all over my legs (who knows why), had a mild flu, discovered some massive amounts of mold of pleasant ghastly pale blue color all over the upper sections of my master bedroom closet (my fancy boots are inside, y’all!), had the side mirrors of my car stolen (actually sort of hacked off with an axe or something) within the 15 mins it took for me to shop in a local supermarket, and the Diplomat got a nasty food poisoning which resulted in a night spent in the bathroom hugging the toilet seat for him.

The highlight of the week was Son’s fourth birthday party. Themed “Dinosaurs,” it involved some surprisingly unsophisticated decorations from Party City and Oriental Trading and 18 screaming kids. I had the brilliant idea to invite all of Son’s school buddies and their parents since we barely know each other and it would be fun to hang out. As a result, an hour into the birthday on a peaceful Saturday late afternoon, 18 screaming children were pouring out of every nook and cranny of our apartment, some literally hanging from the furniture and bars on the windows, others crawling from under some other furniture, and yet others eating food from the floor while Son was breathlessly running around like a headless chicken happy to tears with his awesome party and itching to tear into his presents. At the same time, about 20 parents were coolly standing around, sipping bubbly and other non-child related libations and mostly ignored the mayhem while having a rather pleasant conversation with each other. The gaiety was a bit marred by the fact that I had prepared to have a “dino hunt” for the kids (I read about the idea on a website for awesome moms and their super awesome creative child parties) and for the purpose had bought 50 small plastic dinosaurs and dispersed them around the living room. Sadly, the parents were not aware of my super awesome non-creative idea and soon started stepping on them with their bare feet – you can only imagine how a small plastic sharp T-Rex feels like when you step on it unaware and while balancing a crystal wine glass. So much for the dino hunt. Other than that, I must say it was a pretty solid birthday bash indeed! Now we are looking forward to my own birthday soire to take place this weekend. Yey me! Oh wait, that means I am older now. Ugh.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chateaux, wines, tennis, planes, trains and automobiles

So, I would like to summarize my latest observations from France in this fairly crude, American manner:

1. Practically no one in France speaks workable English. Or German. Or Spanish. Or any other language whatsoever. I am not saying they should. Just that they don't. I now speak horrendous menu-driven French out of necessity. My pronunciation is a mix of Spanish, triple-rolled tongue and a lot of randomly swallowed consonants. The effect is magnificent.

2. French people stir their coffee for hours. Even if there is no milk or sugar. Makes the observer dizzy.

3. France is shockingly efficient and modern country. I am saying it as a compliment. Even though I have been there before, I have always thought of it as a country of wine and womanizing as opposed to excellent engineering, efficiency in every detail and high technology.

4. There is no free wi fi anywhere. What?????

5. The TGV speed train rocks.

6. A one month vacation is enough to drive me crazy from idleness.

In the past 2 weeks, the Diplomat and I criss-crossed the multifaceted country of France and ate and drank wine to exhaustion. We left Paris in a neat VW and headed over for a week of exploration in the Loire valley. I had an ambitious agenda consisting of gazing at multiple chateaux and other historic fabulosities, combined with daily wine tasting, while the Diplomat had an even more ambitious agenda of finding as many tennis courts as he could. The man researched the availability of tennis courts and partners to play with a zeal I have never observed in the performance of his domestic chores. In the absence of appropriate partners, I was brought onto the courts to demonstrate my tremendous lack of skill and ever expanding thighs (blame the wine tastings and the ubiquitous baguettes). I remain enchanted with the chateaux - we visited Ambois, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Ussé à Rigny-Ussé, Villandry and I remained hungry for more. I honestly cannot say which one is better than the others, but one thing I'll say - it was good to be rich in France! 

Loire valley wines are a delight. It is a region of pleasant dry whites and I was in heaven - mostly coming from the Chinon grape, the wineries there produce light, fruity and delicious cheap wines (think Vouvray!) and sparkling wines that we just couldn't get enough of. The problem was that every time we went to taste, we had to buy at least one bottle. Which also meant that we had to keep drinking them since we could not exactly transport everything back to Dhaka. And so we did. 

After we were done with the chateaux we decided to spend a couple of days in Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, where Sancerre (duh!) and Pouilly Fume wines are liberally produced. Let me just say here that my love story with white wine began one day many years ago with a bottle of Pouilly Fume and the rest is history. I was in wine heaven!! What a wine, people! Made from Sauvignon Blanc, it is full-bodied, fragrant, yet delightfully dry. The Diplomat had to drag me out of every tasting cave while I was trying to buy more and more bottles. Also made of Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre is nice but a tad too dry for me. More like drinking acid juice at times. Oddly enough, folks there delight in telling you at length about the terrain where the vines grow. In one tasting cave in particular, a young enthusiastic lady kept waving energetically in front of me random rocks and prattle in high-pitched French about the origin of the rocks and the vines they grow on each one. One can feign interest for so long, you know. Especially when already tipsy on sour dry wine. It is possible that I dozed off towards the end of the geological discussion. 
 It was in Pouilly-sur-Loire that we had a dinner in a pretentious little restaurant called "Le Coq Hardi," a name that kept sending me into fits of third-grade laughter (just sound it in your head and you'll get it). After a stern maître d’ met us at the door looking like a replica of the bad guy in the Matrix, and had a mini, thinly veiled heart attack that we apparently had the nerve to show up without a reservation, he led us to a table for two while looking at us in clear distaste. Mon Dieu! We were punished by being left to wait without menus for about 15 minutes. Thankfully, we had tasted extensively that afternoon and had arrived rather happy at the restaurant so nothing could really dampen our spirits. As we started to slowly despair (while giggling inanely most of the time), the other waiter, a gangling supertall youth all of a sudden came and lit a candle on the table giving us a cryptic surreptitious look while doing it. That must have been the magic sign that we have finished our penance since from that point on, menus, water and bread were bestowed upon us in a most serious and grim manner. The Diplomat decided that his counter offensive would be to smile absurdly at all three waiters (there was also lady, who looked like a brooding lost soul among the tables) every time he would sight them just to see what the effect would be. As a result, at the very end after we paid, the maître d’ gave us a half-tooth smile clearly thus granting us his benevolence.

We left the region sated and exhausted and headed to Paris, where the next early morning, Grandma deposited Son with us at the Paris airport after their happy one month cohabitation in Sofia. We immediately jumped on the TGV fast train and in 4 hours were in Provence to begin a further week of doing nothing at all. Through some magic, we somehow upgraded our minuscule rental car (booked for free on points) to a BMW SUV and after stuffing inside it 3 large suitcases, 2 small ones, a tennis bag, hyper child, Diplomat and a couple of fat thighs, we happily arrived at the delightful Mas Antonine, a house where we had rented out an apartment for the week. The place was pure paradise - nestled among rice fields, it had a swimming pool which cold waters could not deter a determined Son to play inside while shivering uncontrollably. The next few days were spent sightseeing in Avignon and Marseilles, home cooking and paying obscene prices for endless carousel rides for Son. 

Then we repacked our multiple suitcases, dashed back to Paris, and I mournfully bid Son and Diplomat "au revoir" as they climbed on the plane back to Bangladesh. I, in turn, crammed myself along with other sardines in a packed flight to Bulgaria to spend 5 days with the familia in Sofia. Don't worry, this vacation is coming to an end on Friday even for me. Sigh...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Oh là là – we are in France again and some awesome money advice for foreign travelers

We just spent three blissful and freezing days in Paris, along with very good friends from New York – it was a passionate rendezvous after a year of separation. To make the most of it, we dove into endless eating, drinking and shopping in the overpriced shops of Le Marais. We even managed to see some of the sights that eluded me the last time I visited the great city of romance 5 years ago when I was pregnant and moved around like an asthmatic camel. On the last night, after walking for eternity in search of the elusive “non-commercial, non-touristy” restaurant in St. Germain, we ended up in possibly THE most touristy one of them. Completely nonplussed, we immediately ordered copious amounts of wine and food. Soon, the goods began arriving, carried by a spritely young lad. As is his habit and to confirm some suspicions, the Diplomat asked him where he was from and (would you know it) the server turned out be from Bangladesh! To his utter amazement, both the Diplomat and I became unnaturally delighted about his origin for no apparent reason. And then his amazement turned into complete stupefaction when I asked him in crystal clear Bengali how long he has been there, whether he is married, where he lives and what is his visa status in the country – you know, the usual questions for a South Asian man. Bursting with joy, he told us his life story in about 4 minutes and promised to come to the American Embassy once he comes back to marry his first cousin in January to get an American visa. I am not sure why.

After we bid a tearful adieu to our good friends Mr. and Mrs. V, we promptly rented a car (using points accumulated on our credit card within less than a month) and immediately set out to explore the beauty and alcohol traditions of the Loire Valley. Which reminds me to write about something I have been meaning to for a long time, namely – using American issued credit and debit cards overseas without paying exorbitant foreign transaction fees. There are 2 cards the frequent foreign traveler needs – (1) a credit card that does NOT charge you foreign transaction fees, and (2) a debit card which you will use for cash and will NOT charge bank fees.

Credit cards with no foreign transaction fees

1. CapitalOne: The best one on the market is CapitalOne’s Venture card, or the notorious “What’s In YOUR Wallet??” card. It’s VISA, so it is welcomed everywhere (Visa charges much less in merchant fees than, say, AMEX). It converts the foreign currency using a decent exchange rate. And it does not charge any fees. There are no minimums, no maximums, no need for certain balances, no swearing your life, $60 annual fee. It also accumulates you points that you can cash for just about anything travel related (they work with Expedia and divide the price of travel goods by 10 to get the amount of points necessary). We used our points to book a rental car for 2 weeks in France now. It’s that awesome. That’s it. Now go get the card. No, they are not paying me for this. I wish.

2. Citibank: Citi offers the Citi ThankYou Premier Card and the ThankYou Prestige Card with no foreign transaction fees. We used to use the Premier Card a lot before we got the Venture card. The cool thing about that card is that you get reward points both when you buy things, as well as miles from flights booked using the card. For example – say, you bought a plane ticket to fly from NYC to Paris, which cost you $1,000. The miles you get on your frequent flyer program are, say 3,000. So, on your Citi card you will get both 1,000 points from the money you spent, as well as 3,000 from the flight itself. It doesn’t have to be tickets just for you – you can be buying tickets for your grandma to come see you and cook your favorite pie since you are so awesome and too lazy to make your own pie. You still get her miles. The thing about that card was that the annual fee is a whopping $125. So, we switched. Not until we went to India on the accumulated points, though…

Debits cards for cash overseas

1. USAA: Their debit card reimburses you 100% for all foreign ATM fees. It is awesome. It has one tiiiiiiiiny little problem though – it is not available to the general public. Only to the military and certain governmental employees, like the Foreign Service folks (yey!). Sorry rest of the world. But if you can get it, GET IT!

2. Charles Schwab: if you open a High Yield Investor Checking Account (it only sounds fancy, it has no minimum balances or fees), they offer unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide. Which is awesome.

3. HSBC: they are a global bank as they love to tell you in humongous posters all over every single airport I have ever been to. They don’t charge ATM fees at any of their ATM machines worldwide, and they have branches everywhere. Even in Dhaka. Whoa! So, that is another option to get fee-less cash abroad.

Further Awesome money travel advice: (a) use your no-fee credit card as much as possible. Credit card companies get the best foreign exchange rates (no matter how enticing the exchange rate looks like at the exchange bureau manned by 2 burly locals next to your hostel in Burkina Faso); (b) when you get cash from an ATM (if not without fees), get a bunch – the fees are not a percentage, but a set amount, like $5 and it doesn’t matter whether you will be getting $100 or $1000. So, there is no need to pay ATM fees every day for small withdrawals.

Final Awesome Foreign Travel money advice: get yourself a credit card with DIVERSE travel rewards. The above mentioned Venture and Citi cards are a good example – you can use their points for any airline, a myriad of hotels and car rental companies. Do not get a card that ties you to just ONE airline – those days of exclusivity with American Airlines or Southwest Air are over, my friends. Another GREAT option is a credit card linked to a particular world hotel chain like Hilton, Starwood or Marriot – you can use that card for your domestic purchases and then cash your points to stay anywhere within the chain for free. We do it all the time. Not to mention that a higher balance makes you a higher level member and you get perks at the hotel, like free bottled water, internet in your room (usually, the price of gold) or even fruit baskets!

I hope this was helpful. As we move slowly through the Loire Valley, overdosing on châteaux and local wine, I will try to recount for you some of the highlights (which include elderly British ladies in microscopic biking outfits, baguette sandwiches with ham and cheese and endless wine tastings). But since I have just gulped yet another half a bottle of Vouvray with my sumptuous dinner of locally produced organic something or the other difficult to pronounce French foods, I must head to bed at this point.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Iftars, Lebanese Tzatziki in Australia and Naked Catholics

The childless madness continues – while Son gallivants in Europe with Grandma, the Diplomat and I overdose on Iftars, tennis and sunlight. Last 10 days saw us attend 8 Iftar parties, whether for work or pleasure. While I certainly appreciate the cuisine and the concept of the Iftar party, I have to admit it took a toll on me. As faithful diplomats, we Americans host and attend a slew of formal representational Iftar dinners. In and of itself, that is all very nice. But often the dinner unfolds something like this:
Me: So, you are from the Bangladeshi foreign ministry, in the consular section, how exciting!
(Very serious) BGD diplomat: Yes. (Pregnant silence)
Me: (beginning to eat) That must be very interesting.
BGD diplomat (gently drinking a glass of lemonade, frowning): Yes.
Me (filling mouth hastily with tasty breads): So, do you have kids?
BGD diplomat (suddenly and intensely): How do you think the U.S. recent policy change in Iran will affect the status quo in the region???? What are the real issues for the presidential elections?? Who will be the running mate for the Republicans?? WHO WILL WIN THE ELECTIONS??
Me (mouth full of bread and goat biryani, rather startled, stupefied): Wha’? (muffled by the bread)
So, yeah, while the food is great and company highly engaging, it is not all that easy to be the consummate diplomat that I fancy I am during an Iftar dinner.
The night Ramadan ended, on the eve of Eid-Ul-Fitr, the Diplomat and I, and what seemed like ¾ of the American Embassy and the remaining expat community in Dhaka, climbed a Bangkok Air flight and ran to Phuket. For us, it marked the beginning of our annual R&R vacation. Now, this is how great of an employer the State Department is. Depending on where you serve in the world, it understands the need for some well-deserved R&R by its weary employees and so it generously provides them with a free ticket to a chosen destination (that depends on where you serve) to relax and forget about visas and demarches. Thank you, State Department, thank you very much!
We spent 5 blissful, tennis and sun-drenched days in Phuket where we slept until 10.30 am, ate, jumped like maniacal mongooses in the silky ocean, slept some more on the beach, ate late lunches, read deep literature, played tennis for hours and then gazed intently into each other’s eyes every night over copious and unhealthy dinners.  
Among all of these delights, however, our favorite remains the Thai massages – whether it is just a humble foot massage, a protracted aromatherapy something or a traditional Thai (something of a gymnastics fete), every time we are in Thailand, the Diplomat and I make sure to overindulge. Unfortunately, when you go to traditional tourist destinations like Phuket, you are more than certain to get more than you have bargained for. For me, getting a massage is an entire experience – from the smell of oils, to the darkened lights, to the fragrant towels, to the quiet lull of the parlous to the ultimate excellence of the massage itself. In most massage places on the main streets, people tend to get foot massages. To serve that need, parlors are in essence long wide corridors with many large comfy lazy-boy chairs lined next to each other. Maintaining silence is common sense and courtesy provided by most sensible clients. So, you can imagine my chagrin when, after a day of intense eating and ocean jumping, the Diplomat and I sat down in a nice looking, fragrant massage place, and within seconds of having my feet washed and expertly mauled by a freakishly strong woman, I realized that I was sitting to a massage aficionado’s worst fear – a rather gregarious lady. In the next ten minutes, I learned all about her tzatziki business in Sydney (third largest in Australia, mind you!) and the large amounts of Lebanese in Australia, info which she shared eagerly and rather loudly in the most uncanny New Jersey accent with the hapless Greek gentleman who had the misfortune to be sitting next to her. When I could not take it anymore, I turned politely to her and in most sugary annoyed voice asked her to perhaps, please, tone it down a bit, she turned to me and in the utmost earnest manner passionately said to me, “I don’t blame ya!” and did not utter a single word for the remainder of the massage. It was indeed, one of the best I have had so far.
I am happy to say that among the other useless activities, the Diplomat and I also went to a dance club! Yeah, we are WAY cool. We even remained there for like 30 minutes. Cool. COOL!!
Yesterday, we packed our bags and rushed back to Dhaka where we spent the day laundering and repacking, and ready to fly to Paris tomorrow morning. YEAAAAAAAAAAAH! See you in Europe, everyone!
PS - As I am typing this, I am also watching National Geographic’s Taboo show, featuring Catholic churches in which everyone is butt naked. A-hum. Naked. Not, like, attractive naked. More like rather large, all-in-your face kind of naked. One with God. Amen! 

Monday, August 6, 2012

“And Please, Do Not Panic!”

I know it has been over 2 weeks since my last post. Blame the slow, humorless life we live and the summer dearth of parties. On the other hand, we have now entered Ramadan and in the next two weeks I am not sure we need to cook anything because every single night is taken by one Iftar party or another, some formal and some by friends. Iftar, if you will recall, is the cornucopia dinner following a day of fasting started at dawn by faithful Muslims. The problem is that none of us Americans are fasting and yet we eat just as much as our fellow Muslim fasting guests, as a result of which they get energized and talkative and we – sluggish and entering slow, undiplomatic stupor while trying to maintain clever, engaging conversation. Perhaps I should be skipping lunch this week? I am sure my thighs will have something to say about that.

Now I will share with you my experience at one of the most wonderful albeit somewhat phantasmagorical event commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence two weeks ago - I was handed an invitation to the fest by our protocol office. The event was organized by the Bangladesh American Society, which clearly knows how to throw a good party. I want their event planner for Son’s birthday! It had more than 500 guests, among which ladies with resplendent sarees and gentlemen with tight suits and most baffling ties. My driver dropped me off at the entrance of a huge convention hall, where I was met and greeted by a somewhat startling gaggle of youngsters dressed in suits, who yelled at me in one voice, “Welcome and happy anniversary!!!” Still dazed from their enthusiasm and smiles that could put the Cheshire cat to shame, I went inside in the cavernous hall where I was immediately handed a bunch of flowers by no less enthusiastic young ladies dressed in sarees in the colors and shapes of the American flag – a most daring combination if I should say so. I was then led by a few excited young men to a large table right at the front of the stage where I was asked politely but firmly to please, sit down. Every time I got up and tried to move around someone would come and practically push me back into my chair. It was at that point that I realized that I was the sole American in the entire humongous hall filled with people. To make things worse, I was also wearing a blinding white dress and mile high white heels. Never have I felt more like the white elephant in the room than at that moment.
Mercifully, soon a couple of colleagues joined in and soon the lengthy programming began – according to the leaflet in front of me, we were scheduled to go from 4.30 pm until 8, when dinner would be served. The planning was elaborate – there were supposed to be a bunch of speeches by a number of incredibly distinguished speakers, mixed artfully with a myriad of cultural programming, acknowledgments and what have you event stuff. After our Ambassador arrived, and the few initial speeches were out of the way, the MC suddenly appeared and announced the beginning of the cultural program. And then he cryptically added, “and please, do NOT panic!” at which point he swiftly disappeared. I must admit, I did somewhat panic. Soon, 6 semi-naked men appeared on the stage and began an elaborate dance with a bunch of lit torches. The dance included robot-man motions and climbing on top of each other as a form of a ladder. And then suddenly, from several pipes right at the front of the stage, huge flames began erupting and stopping, erupting and stopping, for at least a minute or so. Once that stopped, the pipes emitted massive amounts of glitter in the air followed promptly by the good old smoke machine. The dancers continued their dancing unfazed. I liked the fire – the A/C in the hall was monstrous and I was freezing – since I was so close to the stage, the eruptions helped warm me up a bit. I think the show was a massive success. I would go again and try not to panic this time.
This past week, my Mom took Son to Bulgaria to indoctrinate him in Bulgarian, take him to the mountains to spend his seemingly inexhaustible energy, enjoy his antics and spoil him rotten for a month. After they left on Friday, I did not know what to do with myself – after dropping them off at the airport, I did not feel like sleeping, so I played computer games for 3 hours, watched inane TV, got a hot oil hair massage, played tennis, slept in the afternoon, did my hair and attended a rowdy jam session party at a friends’ house. My God, whatever do people without children do with all this free time?!
On Sunday, we hosted a welcome party for a newly arrived family participating in a wonderful tradition of engaging current officers at post to “sponsor” new arrivals. So, if you are old guns at post and CLO asks you to volunteer to sponsor newcomers – please, do! It is so nice to have someone buy some groceries for you before you come, walk through your apartment to make sure everything is OK, pick up your cell phone (and even program some numbers in it!), meet you at the airport and show you the ropes the next day at work. And then throw a gathering of some sorts to introduce them to the rest of the community. I’d like to think we made our sponsorees’ transition here just a tad easier.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bombay and the Summer Boredom

2 weeks ago we took Son to delight, terrorize and empty the pockets of his grandparents in Bombay, The InLaws. The previous time visited there, Son was 6 months old, my father died the day I landed in India and I got laid off the day I came back from India. Suffice it to say that it made for a very peculiar association I had with the city. In addition, due to the poor child’s jet leg and the fact that I was still nursing, we did not really get out much to see the city and as a result, my memories of it were rather gloomy.

I was entranced with Bombay this time around. This is one modern, CLEAN (ok, maybe I have been in Dhaka  a little too long and my cleanliness yardstick has been severely skewed) , happening city.
The first day I decided that I need some TLC after receiving the news of our next assignment upon landing in India and headed over to an upscale and pricey French hair salon. I spent almost 5 hours there pampering (well reflected in the final bill), reading the Indian versions of People magazine (it is amazing how complicated the love lives of cricket players are in India) and sipping endless cups of green tea. In the end, after my hair was washed for the 17th time, the hot water stopped and so they had to bring in buckets of water from somewhere else to finish. To his credit, the hair dresser never lost heart. I came out of the salon looking fabulous in my blown-out, highlighted, cut hair and French manicure. Exactly 4 minutes later, the entire ensemble went to hell when a torrential rain poured over Bombay and the humidity in car made me look like the usual distressed poodle. At least it was a poodle with highlights.

We went out to dinner twice in 4 days, and found 2 fab restaurants with amazing food, exorbitantly expensive alcohol and somewhat good service. The second restaurant happened to be all the rage in the area we went, which is something we did not know – we just stumbled upon it while looking desperately for a place to eat late in the evening. I have never seen so many women dressed in miniscule tight dresses, platform heels the height of which will make Kim Kardashian green with envy, and enough bling to pay for Bangladesh’s national debt. Next to them were the inevitable gaggle of young men in muscle shirts, muscles indeed bulging from everywhere, various forms of goaties and moustaches and their fashionable permutations, as well as strikingly pointy shoes and tight pants. The picture was completed by several tables filled with matronly women in striking (read: screaming colors and shapes) sarees out of which their abdomens and love handles were generously pouring out, sitting next to even more matronly men sipping vodka and smoking enormous cigars. It was classy. The food was, however, exquisite! Once we finished dining, generously washing down the inventive Italian cuisine with a bottle of fabulous white Indian wine, the restaurant turned into a club, spinning some excellent Indian R&B and techno. Having promised the InLaws that we would be back before 12 (it was pushing 12.30 already) we had to leave with a sigh.

Son was spoiled rotten as usual and took his grandpa to the cleaners. Twice he dragged the InLaws to the toy stores (they obliged with delight) and asked them to buy him a myriad of planes, trains and automobiles, 4 boxes of crayons (“Why did you want all 4?,” asked I; “Because I don’t know!,” answered Son), 26 coloring books, a ball, a giant stuffed Doberman and a smaller stuffed tiger. The damn Doberman was so realistic that it almost gave me a heart attack one night when I went in to check on Son and the creepy toy was sitting quietly in front of his bed, looking at me menacingly in the dim light of the Bombay night. We left the city sans the majestic creatures – the thought of me running around Bombay airport carrying a massive, disturbingly realistic Doberman under my arm just did not sound like an awesome idea.

Dhaka, on the other hand, is bizarrely quiet. Many expats and Bangladeshi party animals have left the city in search of other summer delights elsewhere in the world and the usual party scene is sadly dead. We just sit and watch the rain fall. Which it does a lot. 'Tis the season...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Unique Joys of Parenthood. And out next assignment

Being a parent is fulfilling on so many unsuspecting levels that a non-parent will never even know. Forget conventional joys like the running of the little bull to you when you open the door after work and jumping in your arms with a piercing "Mamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa". Forget the sweet and sudden turn of the little head to you just to say quietly, "I love you, Mama!" Forget the times when he makes you a card for mother's day or brings you the rare gift of a dead roach. Parenthood is enriching in ways I never even knew.

For example - your child's performance at the school's end of the year party. This year, the Diplomat and I were treated to a rare Kafkaesque performance of the story of Pete Ocha. This being a French School, naturally the performance was in French and most of the story was danced by the children, which added to our utter amazement and confusion at the eclectic story. To date, I am unsure exactly what went on that night - in the story, there was a little boy whose parents died or left him in the first scene, but then he somehow went on living by dealing with sounds (like, bouncing them off things). Everyone else around him thought he was weird and creepy (I wonder why) and they kick him out of the village. The kid then runs away to throw some sounds at a scarecrow which in turn throws them back at him. Then Pete ends up with the gypsies who happen to be eating children (very aptly and expressly danced by the 1st graders who were running around in a giant pot with vegetables). There Pete plays with sounds some more and is given a ceremonial jacket (I think). Not sure why - I think the jacket kept the sounds inside. I am guessing that something truly profound happened in the end. But I am not sure. I must learn French. And not drink during the performance next time. But the school invite said to bring wine to toast the kids and we did. Maybe we should have done it AFTER the performance? But we all felt that it was enhancing our experience given its, um, idiosyncratic plot.
At any rate, the kids were splendid and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The 3 and 4 year olds were sitting at the front and the beastmasters (AKA, teachers) did a fantastic job keeping them semi-tame during the whole production. After it was all over, the baffled parents were treated to a feast boosted by ample amounts of libations while our children ran amok through the expansive grounds of the school in the humid and inviting darkness. Hats off to the French school - it was a memorable night and Son will be going back there next year. I CANNOT WAIT for the end of the year performance!

Another rare gift of parenting is the first time you catch your child playing "doctor." I always imagined it would be when Son is, say, 10. Not so much. Last week, we decided to get together with two other splendid couples - parents, whose daughters also go to school with Son and are bestest of friends. We had a  blast at our rooftop, BBQing and drinking the night away while the children entertained themselves delightfully in the inflatable pool. At some point, all of us turned to observe a peculiar sight - one of the girls was lying on her back, legs up and panties down, while the other two were peering down pensively. Amused, we went to them and asked just what the heck was going on and Son, in all earnestness answered, "We are playing doctor, mama!" and turned back to continue. Needless to say, we had to break the scene sternly, which was not easy given that we were all trying not to roll on the floor laughing.

Yes, parenting has many gifts. I cannot wait to see what teenagehood has to bring to us.

In other interesting news, we have just learned that we are going to Rio de Janeiro for our next post. Given that the post was at the bottom of our bidding list and in no way fulfills any of our clearly expressed preferences, the Diplomat and I continue to be baffled by the assignment and the thought process of the powers to be. Nothing against Rio - a most exciting city where I am sure we will have a blast. I suppose this is how the State Department likes to keep us on our toes. I am very happy that we get to go back to Washington for 6-7 months of training and then we get to live in a spectacular country, where we get to see the World Cup and possibly even the Olympics!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How to Watch U.S. TV shows in Asia

Life outside the U.S. presents some unique challenges to the hapless traveler, in addition to the usual, more expected ones.  Funky electric plugs, 220 volts rather than 110, PAL/SECAM TV systems rather than the good ol’ NTSC, don’t drink the water, bleach the veggies, cultivate geckos for nightstand neighbors and even give them names, U.S. websites streaming video refusing to do so on foreign soil, filing taxes late because of slow mail, no parsley or mushrooms in the markets year long, and left-side driving cars. You get used to it all. Or find workarounds.

This is what watching American TV shows looks like in Bangladesh:

1.       Take your American flat screen and connect it to a power source using a massively large, ugly red power converter from 220V to 110V.

2.       Then connect the TV to a NTSC to PAL/SECAM converter to be able to watch the local TV.

3.       Then connect the Internet modem to a UPS unit to prevent it from shutting down during the 34 power outages at night.

4.       Then connect the Wi-Fi converter to the modem.

5.        Then connect to the Internet wirelessly from the living room.

6.       Then connect to an IP address hiding software to pretend that your computer is in the US (hint: try "Hide My Ass")

7.       Then connect your laptop to the TV with a cable – of you are lucky and you have new model laptop, you have HDMI outlet and can do the job with one cable. If not,

8.       Connect your laptop to a speaker system so that you can actually hear what you watching on the big screen.

9.       Go to and subscribe, then find your favorite show and realize the season finale has been a month ago and you have an entire season worth to watch.

10.   Get yourself a glass of wine, settle on the lazy boy (supplied by the American government) and press play.

11.   Feel smug that you are so damn smart and awesome to figure it all out within less than one and half hours.

12.   Smell something funny. Once the screen goes blank, realize that you have fried most of the connected appliances since you have apparently overloaded the fragile local electrical system.

13.   Sit and drink wine, staring grimly at the empty screen and the smoking wall socket.

14.   Buy a multizone TV that runs both on 110 and 220V. Go to bed irritated. Wait for a month for the TV to get to you.

Other than that, life here has been peachy. Last week marked another eventful string of memorable parties. On Tuesday night, I went out to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Nepalese mission to Bangladesh. A tasteful soiree, it was made even more fun by the rather irreverent comments of the Maldives and Australian Deputy Chiefs of Mission.  On Thursday, we had to actually decline a dinner invite – I was exhausted from work (I am transitioning from American Citizen Service to Nonimmigrant visas and doing both at the same time) plus I had to shop for the dinner party we were hosting the following night.

And then on Friday, I spent the better part of the morning in a small community hall occupied by a devoted Christian church. For the past month, I had worked with a couple of colleagues to organize a breast cancer awareness event for the church as requested by one of their constituents. I had invited a prominent doctor from a local hospital, who gave an outstanding presentation on the subject along with a rather revealing self-exam video that was stoically born by the male audience. The video was difficult to watch also for me, but only because it was from some time in the late 1980s and featured a British woman with a hideous 80s hairdo. Two of my Embassy colleagues, both breast cancer survivors, also spoke poignantly about their own experiences. I cried my eyes out and then spoke some decisive and wonderfully broken Bangla to the stunned audience. Overall, it was amazing and the community kept thanking us afterwards.

The experience left me incredibly emotionally drained, which was unfortunate since I had to dash back home and prepare 10 perfect  filet mignons, 10 little cream cheese soufflés, a bunch of appetizers, salads and soups. But thanks to a fearless housekeeper who is an exquisite chopper and indefatigable dish washer, and a devoted Diplomat who took Son to a rowdy birthday party, all 5 courses were done with time to spare. The evening was spent among good friends with lots of humor, a variety of whiskies and plans for golf for the men. The next day, the Diplomat valiantly took Son to the American Club so that mama can sleep in and her home masseuse (oh yes, she comes home and she rocks!) can come and baby her for 3 hours. He was rewarded with a few hours on the driving range with a bunch of guys. Yes, this was one very good weekend for all indeed.
We submit our bidlist next week. Brrr....
In other bad news, (a few) mosquitoes have come back. WTF?