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?

1 comment:

  1. Hello!

    I'm a senior in college and considering taking the FSOT within the next year. I'm currently enrolled in an international careers class, and we have to conduct and interview for it. Since you are a woman in the field which interests me, I was wondering if I could interview you? Please email me at and let me know.

    I happened upon your blog while doing an earlier assignment for the class. (I googled diplomat blogs, because we needed to do a write-up on a career-related blog. Yours was a bit too personal for the exercise, but I thought it might be an entertaining and informative read, so I bookmarked it. Hope that's ok.