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.