Saturday, May 19, 2012
Laos, Secretary Clinton and the Latino Ball
So, I was going to devote my next post entirely to Laos and how fabulous it is, but then some other rather exciting things happened in the meantime and so all Laos gets is 2 sentences. There it goes: Laos is fantastic – calm, clean, excellent cuisine, still largely unspoiled by tourists, wonderful smiling people. While Vientiane was a tad underwhelming (couple of fabulous Wats notwithstanding), Luang Prabang delivered and how – gorgeous multiple Wats, excellent restaurants perched on the river, elephant rides and water baths, monkey jumping from a rope into a crystal blue mountain waterfall, and cooler air. Yes, we loved Luang Prabang, it was a great end to a fabulous trip. On the way back on the wings of Bangkok Air, we had a 6 hour layover in Bangkok, which we used to snag a dinner at HardRock Café downtown. Don’t judge, people, don't you judge! After 10 months in South Asia, one craves a smidgeon of home food and atmosphere, even if the local food is amazing.
As we were dining peacefully in HardRock on some potato skins and massive beer, I all of a sudden read in the news that my boss, Secretary Clinton, is coming to town. As Elmo would say - Oh boy!! This was my first time experiencing a major Washington visit at an embassy and let me tell you – it was an eye opener on some many different levels! At the State Department, we have funny abbreviations like POTUS (President of the United States), FLOTUS (???) (First Lady), S for Secretary, CODEL for a congressional delegation, and so on. Oh yeah, we have a great sense of humor in DOS! So, S’s visit to Bangladesh was for only 22 hours and she wanted to meet the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the opposition leader, the civil society leaders, the youth and the embassy community. In 22 hours, people - the lady is amazing! Phew! And we had to make it happen with less than a week to prep. You have no idea what this entails until you become part of the circus.
First, an advance team comes from Washington – apart from the security detail, the sniffing dogs, a bunch of other guys whose function still remains a mystery to me, there are also several foreign service officers who come in advance and help plan the dance with the embassy. Apart from serving overseas, our career also brings us back to serve in the U.S. There are generally 2 types of jobs – analytical (say, desk officer for a country or some other functional position, like human rights for Africa) and the action – packed “7th” floor job. The 7th floor in the Department of State is where S office and her immediate staff preside. To work there is, to say the least, rather prestigious. Among some of the support roles for the 7th floor are the Operations Center (provides 24 hours communications and crisis management support to all of us) and the so-called “Line” (S’s travel team, of which the advance team is a part). I have never seen such an efficient, fast and furious machine unfold itself within such a short period of time. Every day we had countdown meetings, where Secretary Clinton’s every step was planned literally in 1-minute increments. Roles were being assigned, more and more people roped in every hour or so and by the end, most warm bodies in the Embassy had some function in the visit, even if they were to supervise luggage or sell candy in the hotel operations room. I got to babysit the local press for some of the meetings. Which was cool because it meant that I will get to see S at least 2 times if not more, while some of the worker bees on the visit never even got to see her. After all was said and done, the Secretary left swiftly and somehow magically all the staff and equipment disappeared within the next 24 hours like they have never even set foot in Dhaka. One day, when I grow up, I want to work “on the line”!
The visit required both me and the Diplomat to work all weekend. One of my meetings was at the American Club, which meant that on a hot Friday afternoon I had to go there, fully clad in a suit while the poolside was filled with happy screaming kids and parents, gleefully jumping in and out of the cool water. Son was at home with his babysitter. All weekend long. I came home at 11 pm that night and had to leave at 6 am the next morning. I didn’t see him most of the weekend, which made me feel incredibly guilty – it is so easy to feel like you are a bad mom. But the truth is, this happens. It happens in almost every job - there are late nights, overnight trips, moments and hours when you just want to be alone and not be engaged 100% with your child. And so it is ok. It happens much less for those working in consular positions, but if you are a public diplomacy, political, econ or even management officer, late nights and weekends are par for the course – whether it is a gallery opening for Cultural Affairs, or a pesky late night cable for Political after a long and possibly fruitless meeting with some governmental official, or preparing for yet another CODEL (congressional delegation) for Management. Being a Foreign Service officer is a fabulous job but it comes with its own baggage. I still want to work on the line. And be a FSO. I LOVE my job!
And now here is my stupid moment of the S visit. Secretary Clinton had breakfast at the ambassador’s house along with two of the most prominent Bangladeshi civil society leaders. I was managing the press at the event which was staying in a side room, facing the guest bathroom. When it was about time for her to leave, she apparently went to the restroom (which I did not notice). At the same time, I decided to lean on the door of the press holding room and see if I can hear whether the meeting nearing its end. At that precise moment, the Secretary came out of the restroom, looked at me, smiled widely and said, “Thank you!” (for the great logistical support, I suppose). I was so surprised to see her so close face to face that the only thing I could blurt out was another, “Umm, thank you!” Literally 30 seconds later much more intellectual and engaging things to say came to my mind, like “It was great having you here, Mdm. Secretary!” or “We are so excited to have you here!” or even “Your hair sure looks nice today! (it did).” Instead, I just stood there smiling inanely – she nodded politely and left. Sigh….
The following Friday we all let loose at the Latino Ball. You should see the Diplomat and me dancing – it is a vision…Suffice it to say that he not a natural born dancer, while I am quite deft at the dance floor. One thing I’ll say – the poor man at least obliges me. So, when we dance, most of my time is spent hissing in his ears his moves while he tries to decipher what in the world he is supposed to be doing. The result is potentially comical. But at least we are on the dance floor! Some husbands won’t even make it to the Ball. Shame on them! Dance, husbands, dance!