Friday, March 30, 2012

Herding Cats or How I Went To Bangkok

Last weekend I deserted my precious progeny and his father to go to Bangkok. I have been wanting to do Lasik surgery for a long time and after being told by a Lasik specialist in Washington, DC that I am the perfect candidate for PRK procedure, I was eager to see if I qualified for the simpler, Lasik procedure. I chose a three-day weekend and decided that if I am going to Bangkok by myself, I might just as well invite a couple of girlfriends to come along to make it more fun. The plan was put into action instantly. It was rather startling to see how many married women would jump at the opportunity to go on a girl’s trip away. The trip planning started with just 4 of us and quickly ballooned to 8, with one lady dropping out in the last moment. After long and complicated room arrangements, it was decided that we will all splurge on suites at the Royal Orchid Sheraton, located gorgeously on the Chao Praya river. Fast forward a month later, and you have us at the Dhaka airport at 2 am, cheery and chirpy as larks. We all asked for “nice” seats in the utopian hope that we will be upgraded to Business class based on our looks. Instead, we were shoved in the very back, among a bunch of sweaty surly cricket players. Not sure whether that was a comment on our looks.

Unfazed, we arrived in Bangkok at 7 am, where we managed to hire a rickety old van with a roof luggage rack where all of our suitcases got tied up like sardines outside, while all 6 of us (one was arriving later that day) were stuffed like sardines inside the van. A whooping total of $20 later and we were delivered to the luxury, 5-star property somewhat disheveled and utterly exhausted. If we had wanted to make a graceful and elegant first impression, we certainly failed. The General Manager was standing by the door of the hotel and he did seem a bit unnerved at the sight of 6 middle-aged women, thoroughly wrinkled, running around untying their suitcases from the roof of an old van and chattering excessively loudly in English. I won’t go into specific details about the following four days – suffice it to say that they included copious amounts of street food, sweaty sightseeing, endless shopping, a few tigers, an elephant ride, a trip to the hospital as a result of a tiger bite, a couple of bruised egos, swimming pool with overly sweet mohitos, highlighted hair, one very expensive cigar, karaoke at 2 am, several movies, haircuts, boat rides, tuk tuks, manicures, Hard Rock café and one pouring rain. All of this while trying to coordinate 7 women without cell phones. I’d rather try herding cats next time. Needless to say, fun was had by all.

Otherwise, Dhaka has been more or less uneventful. We did have our annual Mission Get together, when our highly esteemed locally-employed staff, with enviable enthusiasm organizes a half day of festivities for everyone and their families. I must say that this year they outdid themselves. Among the highlights of the day was a so-called Fashion Show, in which I stupidly volunteered to participate. You see, I had always fancied myself walking down the catwalk and thought that it would be a hoot to do so. As it turned out, I was instead supposed to act out a popular Bengali song featuring me as an eager bride whose groom is promising her the sun, the stars and what have you. That meant that I had to learn to lip sync and move effortlessly around the stage without tripping into the yardage of wedding saree and excessive jewelry around me. I was paired with the tallest Bangladeshi local staff colleague they could find in the Embassy, who to his credit was an impeccable leader and fake groom. What made the whole thing even more hilarious was that everyone seemed tremendously concerned about the Diplomat’s reaction to the little wedding skit. All I said to him was , “This is just art, darling!”
This weekend we are going to a couple of good-bye parties of good friends. This is the one side of this life that purely sucks – you meet terrific people and then a year or two later, they leave. When they are from the US Foreign Service, there is at least a chance that we will meet again, whether at FSI or other posts somewhere down the road. With the foreign diplomats or local friends, it is pretty much guaranteed we will never cross paths again. Sad. So, last night we attended a rather swanky goodbye party for one of our own, as well as the Norwegian and the Brazilian Deputy Chief of Missions. It was a packed rooftop party, which collected an eclectic mix of various diplomats, expats and Bangladeshis. While the invite said, “dress to impress” and I certainly followed that, there were definitely some folks who apparently had not read the small print at the bottom of the invitation. Another thing that always amazes me in Dhaka is the juxtaposition between life outside these circles and the conduct and clothing of the local movers and shakers. Bangladesh is a rather conservative Muslim country where women cover themselves from head to toe, often wearing hijab or even full burka. Men pray fervently 5 times a day. To respect the local customs, we Westerners also dress conservatively when in public – long skirts or pants and shirts that cover shoulders and elbows. The scene you see at Western parties is drastically different – Bengali women dress quite risqué and behave even more, um, liberally. Men drink alcohol and enjoy the risqué ladies. One is left to wonder – who is the real Bangladeshi of today?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

India, Sri Lanka and yet another maniacal weekend

So, as I mentioned last time, two weeks ago we spent 5 blissful days in Delhi, then another 4 magical days on the southern Sri Lankan coast followed by a 3 day work trip for me in Hyderabad. Writing in detail about this trip is useless. All I can say is that:

1. Delhi was absolutely beautiful. We spent considerable time in Old Delhi exploring  mosques and palaces, and more mosques and more palaces, and then the Taj Mahal.

2. OH MY GOD, the Taj Mahal!!! What stunning beauty, what grace, what detail, what massive amount of people. The palace moved me tremendously. However, I MUST admit that the effect, gravity and serenity of going inside the Taj to see the tomb of the Queen was a bit crippled by the oppressive odor of feet - we all had to take off our shoes to enter inside and I suspect a few folks out there did not maintain impeccable hygiene.

3. After visiting a few tombs, Son started asking why we were going there. Believing in honesty, I kept explaining that there was a dead uncle or an auntie in there. Little doubting Thomas that he is, he continued to question that and to try to find just exactly where that dead thing was. I am not sure he was satisfied with my answer that the uncle/auntie was deep in the ground. Ever since then, wherever we take him, even if it is a party to a friend's house, he'd inevitably ask me if there is a dead uncle or aunty in there. I suppose he is going through a "morbid" phase.

4. In Sri Lanka, we spent 5 sun-filled and disgustingly lazy days around the pool or the beach. We had rented a stunning villa along with the Diplomat's cousin, his wife and 3 year old daughter (visiting from Oregon, as well as my Inlaws and their Inlaws (or Diplomat's aunt and uncle from Washington, DC). The villa boasted a delightful chef, who spoiled us on a daily basis with incredible and versatile Sri Lankan cuisine and dreadful cheap wine. Which we drank copiously while the children ran amok all over the garden, chased and fed snacks by the grandparents. Good times were universally had by everyone.

5. Hyderabad was one delightful surprise. Turns out that it is a shopping and culinary heaven, with beautiful old fortress and mosques, and modern restaurants featuring both Eastern and Western cuisine. Hyderabad is famous for its churi or bangles. There is literally an entire long street which houses only bangle shops! I admit to spending about $40 on the damned things--they are just so pretty. I also admit to having dinner at the local Hard Rock Cafe and having the absolute best cheese burger in my entire life! Yes, you heard right - if you want a good burger, go to Hyderabad. It can be accompanied by a fresh Kingfisher beer on tap. After 12 intense days traveling in South Asia and just about ready to go back to South Asia, it felt just so damn good to have a cheeseburger, beer and a mountain of nachos with cheese and all the appropriate works. Actually, I ate so much that I felt nauseous afterwards. It was worth it.

I came back to Dhaka to face an intense week of preparations for the annual Hollywood Ball, organized by the Dhaka American Women Club, which took place this past Friday. Somehow I had found myself on the organizational committee of the Ball and by last week was neck deep in prep and last minute details. It did not help the matters that on Thursday I was in charge of a day-long team-building exercise called Consular Leadership Day, where I led a section of 50 foreign service officers, local staff and family members working for the Consular Section into several busy and somewhat physically challenging tasks and discussions. By the end of the day, I was brain dead and all I wanted to do was to curl up in a fetal position and stare at my olive green bedroom walls. Instead, I got a massage from a lady who comes to my house to perform all kinds of magic to my nails, face, hair, and body. Somewhat refreshed, I dressed up and the Diplomat and went to a restaurant opening (for those in Dhaka - The Village is DA bomb in BBQ and tandoori), follow up by a fabulous techno party at the Sonargaon Hotel, which featured Bangkok DJs and Russian dancers wearing boots, microscopic shirts and practically painted on shorts. We had a complete blast!

We got home around 3 am, and the next morning I sported a rather subdued but persistent hangover. Which was unfortunate since I had to be at the Radisson Hotel for a dress rehearsal for the Hollywood Ball at 9 am. At 12, I crawled out of the hotel, went home, fed Son and crawled further in bed where I spent 2 dreamless hours in deep slumber. Upon waking up at 4 pm, I dashed off to the hair salon, had a serious hair styling malfunction, practically broke into tears, had it fixed, dashed back home, slathered some make up on, put on an impossibly long golden dress and went off to the Ball. Needless to say, I was NOT in top form and had some serious doubts about my continued presence there once my duties were over. However, the food was excellent, I was surrounded by my best friends and the DJ for once rocked my Dhaka socks. So we stayed until 12.

Saturday was spent eating, sleeping and playing with Son. Just like the doctor ordered.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Oh, m'am, that flight has been canceled. Why?",

said brightly the woman behind the Kingfisher airlines airport desk and looked lovingly at me in anticipation. Astonished, I asked, "Um, whatever do you mean?" It was 5 pm on a lovely Thursday afternoon and the Diplomat, Son and I were trying to get from Dhaka to Delhi via Kolkata on Kingfisher Airlines. I had just been informed that the second leg of the journey, from Kolkata do Delhi, has been permanently discontinued and have been standing there in utter disbelief at the rather unclean Dhaka airport for a few minutes. The airline hostess expressed (a rather misplaced) surprise that I had not checked whether the flight was still on before getting to the airport. Well, you will excuse me, but I am not typically used to checking whether my flight has been permanently discontinued. It is not just part of the travel routine where I come from. So, sorry lady, my fault, I did not check. To her credit, she never lost spirit and started clanking on the computer keyboard with a speed that many an American secretary with 2 inch acrylic nails will envy. Several phone calls (which included the fact that we were from the US Embassy) and endless typing later, we were told that we have been rebooked on an Air India flight from Kolkata to Delhi and will get there that same night. Elated, we promised the airline lady our cat as a gift and pranced through security. Many hours later (why does it take SO damn long to fly to any city other than Kolkata from Dhaka??), around midnight, I carried the sleeping Son into the Delhi guesthouse of YES Bank, where my father in law (FIL) currently works. The guesthouse provided us with wonderful accommodation for 5 nights, which was quite fantastic since the (decent) hotels in Delhi begin at $150 plus a night. So, thank you FIL and YES Bank!
The next morning, over a sumptuous Indian breakfast cooked by the caretaker of the guesthouse, the Diplomat decided to peruse the Indian press. To his horror, front page news was the ongoing demise of Kingfisher Airlines. Which was bad, since out travel plans were to go from Delhi to Sri Lanka where we had rented a beach house for five short days and yes, you guessed it - we were flying good ol' Kingfisher air. Not trusting the airline, the Diplomat decided to call them and make sure we are OK to go. 56 unsiccessfull attempts to call later, after 1 hour and 15 mins of waiting on the line (he endured the worst jazz music I have ever heard) he finally spoke with a representative. "Oh yes, sir both of your flights (Delhi-Chennai, Chennai-Colombo)  have been cancelled. No one contacted you to tell you that" "No, you consummate idiot, clearly NO ONE has called us. We are currently in India, without Internet and highly irritable right about now." At least, this is what I WANTED to say to him. The rep offered unhelpfully to put us on a 6 am flight out of Delhi, connecting though Chennai where the flight to Colombo would be at 11 pm...We declined with what some could perceive as an ungracious attitude. The rep then sighed and booked us on Air India flights, which would put us in Sri Lanka in the early afternoon. Oh joy. Oh happiness. Who's the man?! One hour and 45 mins later, we got our flights confirmed and celebrated by watching an hour of Zee TV (a riveting and popular Indian TV station, which hosts a smorgasbord of TV dramas and soap operas).

Exhausted, we quickly went back and collapsed in bed, awoke 3 hours later, ran back to the airport, checked in and were the last people to enter the plane that would bring us to the gorgeous land of Sri Lanka. After a brief 3 hours during which all three of us were comatosely asleep, we arrived in Colombo at 5 pm, where we met up with my Inlaws. We got into a large comfy van, piled up the luggage and began what was supposed to be a 2.5 hrs journey towards the south of the island, to the small village of Weligama, right outside of which we had rented a splendid villa with a chef. 5 hours later, having spent seemingly endless time struck in traffic, we finally stopped at the ethereal oasis of Villa Vatura. Under the glistening reflections of the large swimming pool, on the teak veranda, the chef had served a heavenly meal of traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, nicely accompanied by a horrendous cheap red wine. After dinner, the exhausted Son went to bed while I poured us a glass of smoky LaPhroaig and lit up an exquisite cigar. Oh, I knew this was the beginning of a beautiful vacation.
The next 4 days I categorically refused to perform any sightseeing or go to anything not directly associated with large bodies of water or food. Then finally, on the last night, we reluctantly climbed back into a frightening large van in the middle of the night and sped back north for a 6.30 am flight - the Diplomat and Son would fly direct back to Dhaka while I went to Hyderabad for a work conference. Once again, I passed through the fateful airport of Delhi with a 4-hour layover to spare but this time I decided to buy myself a pass into the business class lounge. I spent the next 4 hours in the quiet blissful luxury of the lounge surrounded mostly by scruffy men with large laptops and massive plastic bags of duty free alcohol. Two hours later, I landed in Hyderabad, a city that I am currently in love with.

For details on the trip itself, including a long litany on the awesomeness of Delhi and the Taj Mahal and Hyderabad, tune in next time!