Sunday, December 8, 2013

Getting In Shape

So, I have embarked on a (losing) journey to get in shape for the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. I signed up for overly expensive Pilates classes in the neighboring yuppie and pretentious studio. I religiously attend them once a week only to witness perky senior citizens twist their bony limbs like a pretzel while I try to mobilize my reluctant stomach muscles to lift my (apparently) giant upper body, panting like a Doberman after a good run. Not pretty. Since Pilates wasn’t cutting it, I decided to go further and signed up for full membership at the local YMCA.
Have you ever been to a YMCA? Man, it is amazing in there! They offer so much for so little and on top of that they provide free babysitting while you work out! He-llo! I decided to try out Zumba since it offered great movement, exercise and dancing skills, plus it is a Brazilian thing. Made in Heaven especially for me. I showed up to my first class only to find myself in the same room with more ladies of the wiry senior citizens variety, one seriously tall gal in her twenties clad in a strange outfit of purple sneakers and a t-shirt with no back that somehow was tied around her neck, and one gangly Chinese boy. Our teacher was a petite Venezuelan lady who would put the Energizer bunny to shame. She turned on some loud and overly energetic salsa, and began to Zumba. For those who are not familiar with this particular form of exercise – Zumba turned out to be a dynamic combo of a workout and overly suggestive nightclub dancing. Half of the time we would be doing squats, and the other – shimming our boobs and shaking our butts violently. The Asian kid seemed to move most of the time to some internal tune of his own. I will tell you one thing – no matter how much I work it, I can NEVER move my behind the way that tiny Venezuelan lady can. And neither can any of the old ladies, frankly. What is worse, there is a whole wall of mirrors in front of us, so that I actually have to watch my own misery and inadequate flailing of limbs up and down the room. I persevere.
Speaking of working out, it seems that the entire county of Arlington is on the same quest as me. Sadly, most of them have taken it outside the workout rooms and have flooded the streets of the area. Bloody runners, they are EVERYWHERE like some sort of shapely, energetic and menacing gigantic locusts that have invaded our quiet and boring neighborhood. The worst is that they run at night, in the dark, ALWAYS clad in all black, which means that if you are pensively driving through the back, less well lit streets, on your way to the supermarket busy with pondering what to buy that has less calories, you are bound to not see them as they come in seemingly from nowhere. Even worse, they inevitably will be blasting some inane workout music in expensive noise-isolating headphones thus not hearing your car that is happily humming along on its way to Giant. Last night, as I was driving back from Pilates around 7 pm, feeling rather good about myself and quite well disposed towards the world in the enveloping Arlington darkness, I was startled by a ridiculously well-shaped, tall female runner, who was also dragging 2 massive Collies along for the run. As I was approaching an intersection with beautiful green traffic lights, the fantastic specimen of female physique burst in from my left, not giving the red light in front of her any respect, and without stopping for even one second to see if there MIGHT be cars interested in utilizing the green light, ran across the street followed by her bored dogs. I honked for good measure, at which point, without stopping running, turned around, showed me the middle finger and screamed a rather offensive suggestion for me to go do something, frankly, physically impossible to myself. Really??

Life here is otherwise humming along. We go to Portuguese classes every day, try to amuse ourselves by spending money on the weekends. We hosted a Thanksgiving dinner last week when we had a visit from the Diplomat’s sister and her family who live in California. For the dinner itself, we also had invited the Diplomat’s pregnant cousin and her husband, and his aunt and uncle. Not sure what I was drinking at the time, but I told the Diplomat to procure a large bird this year – perhaps suffering from excitement that I had not cooked turkey in the past 3 years, or perhaps suffering from partial dementia, who knows. He delivered a 18-pound beast, which took about 6 hours to cook. In my head, there were going to be 8 adults and 3 kids. What I really ignored was the fact that Son eats 33 grams of turkey, the Diplomat’s family is largely vegetarian (with the exception of the holidays but they clearly are not trained to eat meat in unnecessarily large quantities like I am) and the pregnant cousin’s stomach was half its size due to the residing child inside her. And then aunt and uncle did not come. So there we were, 6 adults and 3 small kids and one towering, impressive turkey, roasted to a crispy perfection. We ate 1/18th of it that night. In the days that followed, I have been working those leftovers every which way I could possibly imagine. I made turkey, brie and cranberry chutney quesadillas, I made tremendous turkey soup, I made phenomenal turkey potpie, I made pasta sauce and then ate some more turkey. I still have some left in the fridge. I began feeling little turkey wings growing on my back….Next year I am cooking an undernourished turkey from a developing country!

Monday, November 11, 2013

How I Ditched the Boys and Went to NYC

So, last week I got a kitchen pass from the Diplomat to go to NYC for a concert of the best of the best of the old Bulgarian rock bands. I knew it was going to be amazing and all week had been trembling with excitement that I will see them (some of you don’t know that, and those of you who know me, don’t believe it, but I was an ardent hippie in my teen years and so rock was a religion back then and concerts were what we lived for). I bought a ticket on the Megabus (a double decker cheap bus that promised to take me from DC to NY in 4 hours) and began planning my trip.
Now, some will remember that the Diplomat and I bought a very centrally-located studio apartment in Manhattan over the summer, which was just renovated and cleaned and was being shown to renters. The problem was that the place was not furnished, and while the kitchen and the bathroom glistened with new paint and tiles, there was nothing else inside. I emailed a few friends in whose houses I had not already crashes during prior visits, and they generously offered couches and kids’ bedrooms. I realized, however, that I would likely come back from the concert rather late and so it might be rude to bother friends. So, the Diplomat offered to buy me an inflatable mattress (which he did, the dear, at 9 pm the night before I left) and I decided to slum it in our place. I packed the newly acquired mattress which had a pump included, Son’s giant Superman blanket, a roll of toilet paper, some makeup and my tightest jeans, and off I went on the 2.30 pm Megabus to NYC o a sunny Friday. The bus was supposed to arrive in mid-town Manhattan at 7 pm and the concert would start at 8 in Queens. I planned to get a taxi, leave my things in the apartment, spruce up to become a good-looking wild groupie and hop on the N train to Astoria with a friend from highschool.
I got a nice seat on the top floor of the bus, and spent the next 2 hours reading a book. At that point it struck me that we were not exactly moving at the speed of light, and according to the GPS in my cell phone, we would reach NYC at 7.30 pm at the earliest. Undaunted, I figured that I would be a bit late but then likely the concert wouldn’t start on time anyway so I returned to my book. A couple of times the driver, a stern lady, asked someone to turn off his phone as its glare was reflecting on the front window shield and was bothering her. I did not think much of that until I went downstairs to the bathroom and overheard a heated argument, accompanied by some peppery expletives, exchanged between the cool lady driver and a somewhat aggressive and clearly irked passenger. I went back upstairs and wondered what that was all about. Well, five minutes later, and the bus pulled over in the emergency lane. Apparently, the driver lady was trying to toss the offensive passenger with the bright phone off the bus. The time – 7 pm. I threw in a quick prayer for prompt resolution and began staring forlornly through the window at the Empire State Building, glistening just across the New Jersey turnpike, as if mocking me. So close and yet so far. 20 mins later and with absolutely no development, I started to get angry. I am going to NY only for this concert and I am about to miss it because some loser did not want to turn his stupid IPhone off. Apparently, I was not the only one to think so. I noticed that the 20-something guy in front of me was violently texting on his IPhone to someone things like, “Fuck! My life is so fucked. I am so fucked!!” I mean, the delay was irritating but perhaps THAT was a little overdramatic, it seemed to me.
Next thing you know, the police showed up. The POLICE, people! That led to another 20 mins of discussions. Next thing you know, the tall bulky angry phone dude is escorted by the cop to the second floor of the bus and where do you think he sits? That’s right – next to me. He spent the next 5 mins saying very violent things and some expletives to a friend on his phone, underscoring the fact that he is not a child, he has paid an entire $18 to be taken to 38th street in Manhattan and who is that ***** to tell him when and where and how to play with his phone. The time – 7.45 pm. I wondered if this was God’s way of punishing me for ditching the boys home to gallivant in Manhattan for a weekend. Then another Megabus pulled over, the cop scooped up the irritated fella with phone issues, put him on the other bus, and in about 10 mins we finally moved. We arrived a shocking 15 mins later. There was still hope! As luck would have it, my highschool friend who was supposed to wait for me at the drop off point could not get on the subway and so had to take a bus downtown. Clearly freaking out that she is making me even more late, the poor thing ran like a mad woman out of the bus to meet me. The time – 8.30 pm. We hopped into a cab and by 9 pm were inside the concert hall screaming delightedly with each song, my luggage happily stowed away in the cloak room. Needless to say, I did not change into my hot outfit and looked, ahem, a bit underwhelming. Otherwise, the concert rocked!
At 11 pm, we all went to the designated after-concert bar and waited for the musicians to show up. I kept drinking cheap wine and realizing that the slice of pizza I had while I waited for my friend mid-town is beginning to wear off despite its gigantic size. But then the musicians came in, and we all got frenetic trying to take pictures with them. Around 1.30, exhausted but happy, my friend and I piled into a car of some random friends we met and they dropped me on the East Side, close to my apartment, around 2 am. Another short cab ride, and I was finally safely home, rather exhausted.
I pulled out the queen-sized inflatable mattress and the pump that went with it, connected the two and pressed “on.” Nothing happened. Slightly suspicious, I opened the pump and stared in silent horror at the empty space where 4 D-size batteries should have been. It was 2.30 am, and I was dead tired in the middle of a fancy, completely empty studio apartment in Manhattan. I had two choices – roam the streets hoping to find a 24/7 store that sold batteries or to blow. I chose to blow – I could barely walk by then.
And so my blowing ordeal began – do you know how long it takes to manually inflate a queen-sized mattress, factoring in break times so that you don’t pass out from lack of oxygen and also factoring in slight inebriation? An hour. That’s how long. At some point, it occurred to me to try and hold the mouth of the mattress on top of the heating since it was on and was blowing air full force. I am not sure what impact that had, but I suspect it actually allowed some precious air I had blown in to actually escape, thus making it worse. While doing this, I realized that all that blowing had made me severely hungry. I quickly researched take-out places in the hood, and since it was 3 am already, my only bet was Domino’s Pizza. Which I love! So, no brainer! I quickly ordered pizza online (God bless my phone) and continued to blow air into the damn cavernous mattress in intervals. Finally done around 3.45 am, I plopped myself on it and settled in to watch the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy online while waiting for my delicious nocturnal pizza. Then I got a call from the doorman, who sounded genuinely puzzled and asked me whether it was possible that I had ordered pizza. Why yes, I answered gaily, and pranced downstairs in my satin PJs to collect it. I smiled brightly at the doorman and as I was leaving, he said, quite apropos, “Oh, m’am, we don’t have your number here in our records.” I was puzzled so decided to ask, despite the pleasantly wafting pizza and my desire to run upstairs as fast as possible, “So, how did you call me if you don’t have my number?” “Oh,” he said innocently, “I called the number on record for your apartment, which turned out to be your husband but he seems to be in Washington, DC so he gave me your number.”
So, as you can imagine, the poor doorman had called the Diplomat at 3.45 in the morning, deeply asleep in his comfy bed in DC, with the good news that his pizza had arrived. What pizza?? asked the incredulous and utterly asleep Diplomat. You can figure out the rest. I expected to get a quizzical phone call and was ready with my apologies, but I guess he was too sleepy to make the effort. I spent the next 50 minutes happily devouring the pizza and watching the show on my phone. I got up at 11 am the next day. Man, there are times when I really envy single people and winder what in the world do they do with all of their free time.
The next day I had a delicious birthday dinner with a good friend and then headed over to have drinks with another in Tribeca. In the spirit of this confused weekend, the evening went off with a few hitches. Apparently, after a martini and some wine, I did not pay much attention to the direction I was taking the subway to meet my friend (who was coming in from Brooklyn), and ironically ended up in Brooklyn myself. The time – 11.30 pm. More and more frustrated, I navigated the ginormous subway station and managed to get myself back into the city in about 20 mins. Rather than risk more confusion, I got off and decided to walk to the bar, which, my friend said, was on Duane Street. In confusion that only New Yorkers would understand, I misunderstood and instead ended up on Reade Street. There was no bar in sight. I was ready to just board the bus and go back to DC. Luckily, the bar happened to be just around the corner and I soon got there. After a few drinks, I headed home by cab (to make sure I don’t end up in Jersey or the Bronx or something, the way things were going). Clearly, the cabbie had to be Bulgarian and for the duration of the ride, I was questioned on my immigration history, lectured on the current crappy state of affairs in Bulgaria and bestowed with vastly unamusing tidbits of the cabbie's life story.
The next day I went to Brooklyn to have brunch with yet another friend. I was to take the 3 pm bus back to DC. We lunched leisurely, and when I was beginning to get nervous about going back to catch the Megabus, she assured me that if I took the A train, it would put me just a block away. Plus, it was a fast train, so I needed really about 30 mins or so. What my friend did not realize was that the A train had a different schedule on the weekends and did not stop where she thought it did. Not even close. Actually, kind of far. At the end of my rope, I ended up walking 8 very long NYC blocks to where the Megabus was parked. The last 3 blocks I ran in high-heeled boots, dragging a suitcase behind, sweating profusely in the warm autumnal afternoon. I made it with 13 seconds to spare. The moment I went inside, the bus closed the doors and we took off. 4 hours on the dot, I was back in DC.

It was a great, albeit very confused and maddening weekend. I should do it again some time soon.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The News From Arlington

And so, it has been a good 20 days since I last wrote and SO MUCH vastly unimportant things have happened since then. Among the leading news in our thrilling lives here.
  1. Fat Cat’s litter, located in the guest’s bathroom (which also doubles as Son’s bathroom) stinks. Not sure why. I could swear it did not do that before we moved in back to the U.S. when we ‘d clean it, like, once a week give or take (on a good week). Now I clean it every second day. WHAT?? Yup. I am on a mission to de-stink it. I went on and found these carbon sheets that everyone swears by. The online recommenders even said to buy many since they can’t find them anywhere and the Amazon runs out. Nothing. Then I got this contraption that attaches on the box. People said it will change my life. It hasn’t. It is just one more thing to watch out for when cleaning. Then I bought a spray deodorizes that boasted that I won’t even notice that I have multiple cats in the house after 2 sprays. It is true, I do not notice such a things as I do not, in fact, have multiple cats. I do have one with very stinky output apparently, and now the cumulative result is the smell of pee mixed with deodorant. Then I bought different sand, something natural, made of something that looks like wood peat. It claimed super natural results. It did not lie – now my bathroom smells of perfectly natural peat, cat pee and odor eliminator. I gave up.
  2. The Diplomat suffered a couple of insignificant injuries while playing tennis, largely gave up the sport, then bought a cardigan and began playing golf all the time. I am considering giving him orthopedic shoes for Christmas and putting down money for a place for him in a decent retirement home for next year.
  3. We had our first parent-teacher conference earlier this month. It was so rewarding – nothing better than learning how amazing and unique your child is, how gifted, pleasant and intelligent he is. And that he was told not to kiss the girls in class. Um, say what now? So then the teacher told us that Son was caught kissing in class but they talked about it and she thought it would be OK. Then, in the uncomfortable silence that followed, the Diplomat all of a sudden chimed in, “Well, he just spent two years in a French school, so….” I guess the implication there was that Son’s past in the French pre-school was full of depravity and early-childhood kissing practice, freely condoned by his debauchee, free-spirited French teachers. Awkward…
  4. I think I am getting old. I went to get my manicure done tonight, and for 45 minutes listened to two recent college grads, having the following conversation: “And so, like, I think Jason is, like, coming to the party on Friday!!!” “Omg, that would be so funny, like.” “Yeah, I know.” (unclear why that would be funny). “Wow, this color is like amazing on you!” (It was not.) “Yeah, it’s so funny.” (not sure what was). “So, like, Jennifer said you should come, like, dressed as a cat.” “Oh, that’s so funny.” (ok, maybe this time I can see how it could be). “So, like, you and Frank, are like, super good friends now, like, went from zero to 50.” “Yeah.” “That’s funny.” (nope, just nonsensical ). And so on, and on and on, with the likes and the funnies. Like, OMG! You know? Lol. The whole conversation made no sense to me at all.
  5. I am so tired of all the Tablet and kindle readers ads on TV! For the love of humanity, how many different types of tables do we need??? Does anyone even remember the world before tablets? We lived, right? I distinctly remember living. Yup. Sheesh! And no, I don’t have a tablet. Ok, I have an iPad, but the Diplomat bought it and is ancient!
  6. I miss not having voicemail on my phone. That way, people could not leave me long, complicated messages that inevitably end up asking me to do something I don’t want to do and make me feel obliged to call back. Outside of the U.S., people would just send you a brief text which goes straight to the point and which I can see instantly in order to decide better whether to ignore or to respond.
  7. I love Portuguese. After just 7 weeks I tested at a 2/2 level, which was the level I achieved after 6 MONTHS of Bengali. It makes you feel good….
  8. It seems that Brazilian swimsuits are microscopic and I would be ill-advised to wear something different on the beaches of Rio. Which is a problem since I distinctly am unable to lose weight or to look even remotely ready for a Rio beach. I am also finding it impossible to exist on apples and cabbage, as I resolutely promise myself every morning. Today, in fact, I actually ate an ENTIRE bagel with cream cheese (gasp!!!). The worst part is that I did not pack my worst enemy – the scales – in my luggage and now I have no idea what is happening in the weight area. My pants still fit though so that's comforting.

Halloween is coming up. I strongly believe that given the nature of the holiday, the costumes should be scary and theme-appropriate. Son will be a ghost, I am a dead woman walking from her grave and the diplomat will be that guy in the orange suit from Yo Gabba Gabba, DJ Lance Rock. I asked him to find himself a scary suit and that is what he came up with. I guess I see his point. Let’s see what the kids think on Halloween. Muahahahahahahahahahaha!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Public Schools and The Working Parents

Well, I had the best intentions to begin writing much more regularly once I was back in Washington, DC and life became boring again. Alas, my relationship with the Portuguese language has proven to be much more time-consuming than I suspected. Plus, I began to cook more. And to clean and do laundry. And shop for groceries. And run dishwashers. And work out. And do all those mundane normal things people in America do. I can tell you this – I miss my life in Dhaka. I continue to plot my triumphant return.
Amongst my first interesting experiences here has been the enrollment of Son in public school. Neither I nor the Diplomat were raised in the United State and thus, we were woefully unaware of the way the system worked. As you would graciously recall, we landed in Arlington the day before school started in Virginia, both for us and for Son. We registered him for school on the first day of class. While we sat there, feeling like the most awful parents who could not find enough time in their lives to register their poor child in kindergarten in advance (like, I imagined, all decent parents would do), another couple came in and did just the same. I brightened up and immediately befriended them. Turned out, there were also a Foreign Service couple. I suppose last minute school registration goes with the territory.
The next day, while dropping Son at school, I noticed other parents who were walking around with thick yellow manila envelopes, which looked important. I timidly asked what that was. The school administrator was NOT amused. Apparently, there had been an orientation night and APPARENTLY (I swear, she capitalized the words as she spoke!) we had not attended. Totally crushed, I admitted as much. She took pity on me and bestowed upon me one fat, yellow envelope. I rejoiced and ran home to read it only to become even more terrified. It was SO. MUCH.INFORMATION! I had to fill out about 47 different emergency contact forms, various releases, activity sheets and promises for good conduct. Then there was the awe-instilling PTA – the parent-teacher association for those of you NOT in the know. I am still unsure what exactly they do but it seems pivotal. I immediately began desiring to be part of it but the Diplomat poured cold water over my earnest eagerness by pointing out that Son will be leaving the school in 6 months so there was really no point to go crazy. I was sad. I had so wanted to be on the PTA.
Then, a few days later, Son brought home the school calendar. While tearfully going through it (I was cutting onions and NOT crying because my baby was now in real school), I noticed things like, “Teacher planning day, school closed,” "parent-teacher conferences, school closed,” "Wednesday before Thanksgiving, SCHOOL CLOSED???," and finally – practically 2 weeks around Christmas “school closed.” Wow, um, wait, what now? Surely this is a cruel mistake. How about parents who work? What are we supposed to do with our kids on those days? Bring them to work? Tie them to a kitchen leg at home, with snacks around and hope for the best until we come back from work?
Not to worry, said the school – we got it covered (well, mostly). We will have alternative arrangements on those days. Phew, I said and relaxed. They WERE great alternatives – days with art workshops, soccer, theater, dance. Amazing – unicorns and rainbows, right? Not so much – apparently, the alternatives cost about $65 a day. Or more. If you want them, of course. Otherwise, you can always go back to the tying-your-kid-to-the-kitchen-table-leg plan. I politely asked Son’s teacher what other parents do and she suggested that he spend some time with extended family members (grandparents, she clarified lest I thought she meant a remote, old, batty, crazy aunt). Clearly, not practical for us. Good talk. Sadly, we are not allowed to take any leave during language training or we lose the per diem. So, YMCA, here we come.

Which naturally makes me wonder - just what, exactly, does our country imagine we should be doing with our children in such times. Let's say, for argument's sake, that families with 2 working parents have the option of one parent taking a vacation and not working in order to care for the child during the winter break. Then how about single parents on a small income? Are they supposed to be able to afford the $55 (at a minimum!) a day camp for a fortnight? It just makes you wonder...Where's the village when you need one.

Other than that, Son has been ecstatic at school and says that he has many friends, even though he can’t remember the names of anyone save for this one kid and I suspect that even that name is invented since Son seems irritated at me for asking for names on a daily basis.

In other news, our government shut down today. Good times. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Going to the Suitcases

So, at the end of each tour or training one very unpleasant situation comes in – the company comes and packs your 5000 lbs of crap and you are left with 2 suitcases per family member, each filled up with exactly 50 lbs of personally very important crap and you live out of those for the next one month until you land in either your next post or in training in Washington. After each tour overseas, foreign service officers must take a vacation in the good old U.S. for a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 6 weeks. It is called “home leave” and is mandatory. Imagine – we get a 6 week MANDATORY vacation. Mmmmm, hello, I love my job! Now, many people do not like this since the State Department only pays for the ticket back home and home leave has to be in the U.S. Hawaii counts, Cancun does not. The government does not pay for your lodging during home leave. As you can imagine, unless you own an unrented house in the U.S., the idea of spending a month living with your relatives, or renting an overly expensive villa on the beach or an RV, or in a hotel, all the while living out of suitcases is not appealing to the thrifty folks of the Foreign Service. But it must be done.
The idea is that United States diplomats should go back home once in a while to re-acquaint themselves with their core customers and constituency and remember who they work for – the U.S. I guess someone important in the Department was watching Apocalypse Now one dark, Washingtonian autumn night, saw Marlon Brando go rogue after spending one too many days in rural Vietnam and decided that U.S. diplomats need to come back home every now and then. I agree. Except for the suitcases part. Here is why.
On August 1 we bid a tearful goodbye to beloved Bangladesh. Fat Cat made a graceful exit the previous night, and so the Diplomat, Son and I headed over to Bulgaria for a little private vacation with Mom before returning to the U.S. for home leave. As our stuff was packed about a week before that, by then we had been living out of our suitcases in a way already. Each of us was equipped with two large suitcases and one hand luggage. It took a large van to take us to the airport. After 10 days in Bulgaria, the Diplomat flew to California to see his Sister and her family. After one more week, I left Bulgaria and flew to New York where I met with him. We were both dragging our respective 2 suitcases each. Son was having a good time with Grandma, his 2 suitcases partially unpacked for a month. In New York, thanks to the incredible generosity of good friends of ours, we stayed for a couple of weeks in a gorgeous apartment in Brooklyn. The suitcases were still not unpacked – we just pulled random crap out of them and wore whatever we found. It made looking for small items inside real fun. Then, on August 31, the Diplomat drove our newly acquired car to Virginia, I flew down on the U.S. Airways shuttle to Reagan Airport and Son and Mom arrived later that night on a United codeshare flight from Bulgaria. It merits noting that their plane landed at 7.30 pm and they came out almost two and a half hours later!!!! Two and a half hours, people – what in the world is happening on that passport control line?? It did not help my state of nerves that after the Diplomat and I had been waiting at the airport for them for about one and half hours and were just being convinced that my Mom had been taken to secondary and detained or something, I got a phone call from a formal sounding officer, who asked me nonchalantly whether I was waiting for someone that night at the airport. My stomach turned. Turns out Mom did not have the address of the place we were going to stay at and they needed it for the entry form. Sheesh.
We spent the next two days at our favorite American auntie’s place in Maryland for the Labor Day weekend (suitcases not even brought into the rooms) and then we finally moved into our current digs in Virginia, where we are going to spend the next 6 months studying the incredibly confusing language of Portuguese. Due to the lack of enough hangers, my suitcases remained unpacked for 3 more days until I finally made the obligatory pilgrimage trips for returning Americans to Costco and Bed, Bath and Beyond and supplied the apartment with vital housing essentials. Suitcases unpacked. Phew! It is nice to finally find the underwear you are actually looking for. Other than that, home leave was great.
Going to the suitcases during home leave (and any travel with multiple stops, really) is daunting, much like going to the mattresses is for the mafia during their wars. You rarely get to unpack anything during each stop since it is such an effort to stuff back everything inside (each suitcase magically ends being heavier and heavier each time!). Your clothes are always wrinkled , at times smell musty (especially if it was raining at the airport when your luggage was offloaded) and you end up using only the topmost clothes day after day after day. It does not help that you have packed 4 tennis rackets there as well so every time you try to look for a small elusive item like a bottle of Iboprufen which seems to move all over the packed suitcase with surprising alacrity for an inanimate object, you curse the stupid rackets and take them out and then put them back in, along with the 6 pairs of shoes you were convinced you will wear in New York City (which you did not).

We have been back for about a week now in Washington, DC and already had a week of language training. It felt good to walk on campus, wearing clean, ironed clothes.

Monday, August 26, 2013

How I Lived in Bangladesh

Let us be honest – this was NOT a love at first sight. And frankly, definitely not at second glance either. It was, however, a love affair after all, and one to remember for life. As many of you know, I have just left Bangladesh after a brief 2-year stint and after some reflection, am ready to pontificate and extrapolate on my life there.

Bangladesh is not an easy place to live but it has probably some of the best people in the world. The country hits you at the airport – by smell, at first; then by color; by everyone staring at you while you are at the passport control line and later on, at the luggage belt, which typically takes about an hour before a single bag appears (yours comes last, for sure). But if you smile wearily at the border police officer who reviews your passport and wish him a good day, he will immediately bust out in an enormous smile and wish you the same. This is how the entire country is – Bangladeshis are the friendliest, most welcoming and helpful people I have ever met in my life. If you need help on the street, everyone in plain sight (and their multiple relatives 5 minutes after he calls them) will come immediately to help you. They will help even if they do not know how or have the slightest clue what they are doing. The point is – they are ready and willing. If you meet a new person and chat him or her up, within less than 5 minutes they will get your phone number and within less than a week will invite you over their house. There, you will meet their good friends, each of whom will talk to you, truly interested in what you have to say; they will listen to you, ask you a million questions about you, your family, your job, your life and in return, share the same. Then, they will invite you to their own, and before you know it, you will know half of Dhaka. And these will not be casual, one-time visits or acquaintances. These turn into beautiful friendships with people on whom you can rely for everything. Everything.

I miss Bangladesh viscerally. I miss it every single day. Naturally, above all, I miss my many friends there. But I also miss so many other things. I miss the simplicity of life. I miss the mess on the streets. I miss the restaurants that are so few that I know all of them and I know I am guaranteed to meet a friend wherever I end up for dinner. I miss my colleagues. I miss playing tennis at the clubs (I do NOT miss the clubs though). I miss speaking Bangla. I miss dohi fushka. I miss wearing sarees. I miss the fashion shows and the garish makeup I’d wear. I miss everyone smiling. I miss the staring! I miss the heat!! I simply miss Bangladesh.

Yes, I had a love affair with Bangladesh and just like any other relationships, ours had many ups and downs. That means simply that our affair is enduring and will continue evolving. I know I will be back there again, it is simply a matter of time. For the time being, all our lovely friends must come over and visit me. As of a week ago, I have now officially returned home. It is good to be back for I have missed you too, my lovely United State of America!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Are You Too Old For The Foreign Service?

I have been asked this question so many times now, that I thought it deserved its own carefully thought out post. Here it goes:

Q: Are you over 58.5?
A: No.

You are Ok. Go apply.

Phew. That took a load off.

What? It's not thoughtful enough for you? Sheesh...Ok, fine, here it goes in unnecessary detail.

According to the State Department, "Career candidate appointments to the Foreign Service shall be made before the candidate's 60th birthday. The maximum age for appointment is based on the requirement that all career candidates shall be able to: (a) complete at least two full tours of duty abroad, exclusive of orientation and training; (b) complete the requisite eligibility period for tenure consideration, and (c) complete the requisite eligibility period to receive retirement benefits before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. (Note: one needs a minimum of 5 years of service in order to have retirement benefits.) Thus, new hires must be no older than 59 years and 364 days on the day of entry into service." Now, we all know how long it takes to get into the Foreign Service (if you don't, go to my particularly poignant posts on the application process here) - let's say conservatively it is about 1.5 years, assuming you get in from the first try and your security clearance process lasts about 6 months, and you get off the waiting list pretty much right away. That is a LOT of "if" and "but." But let's say that you are awesome and the administration is feeling perky and benevolent. So, drink some vodka, do some math, blow your nose and come to the conclusion that if you are over 58.5 when you first down and stare at the antiquated computers in the FSOT testing room, chances that you will make it are rather minimal. Not because you are not awesome and could not go from a junior officer to Ambassador in 5 years. I bet you could with bells on. The problem is that we get pensioned at 65. I think it is nice. It gives me a good excuse to stop working, jump on a seniors' cruise in the Caribbean and dance fragile and contained salsa till 11 pm with equally fragile folk, to the singular consternation of a less nimble, sedentary Diplomat. Some complain. I guess they are not into senior salsa.

I suppose the real question is what is realistically an upper age to enter the service. I think that the entrance process is sufficiently emotionally grueling and physiologically damaging to your liver that if you are ready to torture yourself with it, that you need to ask yourself how many tours you want out of it. As the regulation states, you need to be able to serve at least two tours. Each of your first 2 entry tours should last 2 years (unless you decide that the best way to entertain yourself at this precious age is to go to Afghanistan or, say, Yemen, which are 1 year tours). For at least one of them, you will need to learn language, which will be anywhere from 6 to 12 months in general. You will also go through the rather fascinating A-100 training, which is another useful 6 weeks of your life. So, that means - 4 years of in-country service, plus 8 mos of language and professional training, plus another 2 months of other training, plus 2-3 months of home leave, random classes and not knowing what is happening to you. Ok, I have had some wine now, so I am too confused to count. I hope for your sake you do that. If you want to serve longer...figure it out.

Besides the practical consideration of the Department regulations, I honestly do not know how much your age plays in during the exams. It sure brings in a lot of varied experience (unless, of course, you have been herding cows all of your life in Montana, which is not all THAT varied, I suppose; but then again, I have never herded anything but Son and the Diplomat at the airport, so what do I know), which is valued highly, I think. For your own sake, it might help if you are sprightly. At least in spirit. Or mind. Or in something. I always feel sprightly is a great thing to be.

I have known people in the Service who have entered at the gentle and impressionable ages of 22 and of 57. In fact, I have had several of them in my own class (huge shout-out to my man in Manila!). They are all loving it. At least they have said so. I trust them. So go on, my dear middle-aged, nervous reader - apply! The Foreign Service wants you!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Iftars, Goodbyes, Anniversary, Packing, Shopping, Madness

Just when I thought that our lives cannot be anymore frenetic and exhausting, it happened. This is what is happening in our lives right about now:

  1. Ramadan is back! I cannot believe that we managed to be here through another Ramadan – typically it is in August and since we already have been here for 2 years, it only makes sense to see it twice. Just for us, the special of the decade, Ramadan this year fell in July. And you should know by now, fasting during Ramadan ends every night with an Iftar, a typical meal of water, dates and sweets, followed by massive quantities of food in the houses of those blessed to be able to afford that. You’d think that fasting during Ramadan is a great opportunity for the pious rotund revelers to shed a pound or ten since they do not eat or drink a thing until sunset. Apparently, however, people struggle not to GAIN weight during this time of fast. As an obsessive dieter, I am painfully aware that any period of starvation will lead to a counterproductive stuffing of my face later on. Imagine then the hapless Western diplomat or guest, who has been eating pretty finely all day and then has to face the cornucopia of an Iftar dinner. If fasting people gain weight then, what’s left to us gluttons who do not fast? So, yes, my waistline shudders at the thought of Ramadan given the crazy amount of Iftar invitations we receive.
  2. Add to this the many lovely goodbye parties, receptions and dinners our friends are hosting for us lately. Saying “no” is not an option as we want to see everyone before we leave. But after the 10th party, especially if you keep seeing some of the same guests, it is starting to get a little awkward as we keep saying goodbye to them over and over again. I feel like people are secretly thinking, “Leave already, damn it!”
  3. Then add to that our packing this past week. Even though the good people from the State Department pay for packers and movers who come and pack everything for you, including the Embassy furniture (yup, it happened, even though I had been warned about it and told the movers many times what NOT to pack – there was some unpacking today before they took all 128 boxes away), it is still exhausting as you prance about the house and realize that there are clothes/thing that you/your husband have not worn/used/remembered since your wedding and they probably need to go NOW. Naturally, it is a good question why they got packed to Bangladesh in the first time, but suffice it to say that I was not the one supervising our prior packout, so…At any rate, I got rid of a heap of old clothes this week, which makes me so darn happy. I am even giving up 4 pairs of shoes!!! Which, in truth, had to happen – you’d be curious to know that out of our 6 traveling suitcases, one is completely and solely filled with high heeled shoes. Yup, 20 kg of shoes. I am not saying that is ALL of my shoes. I am just saying that is all the shoes I am taking with me to Washington. The rest will travel directly to Rio de Janeiro to await me anxiously in the spring. I simply ran out of space.
  4. I am also trying to complete all of the clothes that I am having tailored here. As you can imagine, tailors here are obscenely cheap and have helped me augment my already massive closet considerably. So, I am frantically trying to complete everything to be able to stuff it in my boxes as the suitcases are already full. Same goes for framing pictures, buying gifts, selecting mementos and the like. Naturally, it does not help when all the boxes are packed and sealed to receive a decorative anvil as a goodbye gift, which inevitably happens. So, a piece of advice for all my fellow Foreign Service packers out there – if you are packing a few days before you leave post, ask the movers to leave you a box for collateral damage. That would include the above-mentioned anvil, dresses late from the tailor, two precious wooden kitchen spoons which Son apparently has been playing with somewhat unusually quietly in the most remote room of the house while the movers were around, a favorite glass Tupperware, which has been lying around the back of the fridge with something unidentifiable in it for what appears to be several months, and other similar domestic treasures. Then ask the moving company to pick the box up the day before you leave.
  5. And amidst the madness, the Diplomat and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Yup, it has been a while that have been doing this marriage thing. And it has been eventful, folks. We definitely were not bored all those years. Whether it was looking for jobs, scraping through law school, suffering through business school, facing layoffs, having a baby, traveling like mad people, buying or selling apartments, moving overseas and then some more, life together has been entertaining and never, ever boring. It does help that the Diplomat is rather easy on the eyes.

We have about 10 days left in this lovely land of Bangladesh, which translates itself into 24 more iftars, and 21 more goodbye dinners. It also means that I will definitely need an aisle seat on my way out of here as my behind will have expanded by probably 30 solid pounds by then. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How to Fly with Babies

The Diplomat and I recently traveled with Son on a little vacation to Hua Hin in Thailand in search of calm waters, clean air and good food. On the way, in the same plane there happened to be a family with a new baby, and, since we are such lucky bastards, there was one more on the way back. Both yelled their heads off and the parents were making it even worse by trying to entertain them. Now, in general, I do not mind babies on a plane – I have had one and I know what it is like. In reality, most of baby crying actually isn’t as loud as the poor parents think – I think the frustration and embarrassment of your screaming progeny augments your perception of the noise and you are convinced that even the pilot is ready to flush your dear child out of the toilet. Since I was sitting right behind them, however, the babies were practically splitting my ears.   
There are a couple of pieces of advice I would like to offer to those parents who are about to embark on a plane journey with a small child in an effort to make their and our journey more tolerable. Son has been on planes since he was 2 months old, and I think I have sufficient wisdom to share. Just like us, babies’ tiny ears get plugged during the ascension of the plane after takeoff. For them, that is distressing and often painful. That is why most babies who are awake during that time scream their tiny butts off. In those cases, PLEASE, do not try to bounce the unfortunate child up and down like a basketball, do not shove pens or expensive jewelry in its hands to distract him, or try to interest him in the emergency procedures cards. That will only make the child even more awake and irritated. Ears would either pop open or never even get plugged in the first place if your baby is swallowing something during takeoff. If you are breastfeeding, takeoff is your golden opportunity to nurse to achieve 2 major objectives:
1.       Help its ears stay unplugged as it swallows milk
2.       Puts him or her to sleep (especially if this is an evening flight) so that by the time the plane evens out and the pretty ladies with the food and drinks come around, your tiny cargo is ready to be put in the bassinet (if you are flying international and there is such thing), or would simply snooze the rest of the trip snuggled nicely in your arms (preferably in your husband’s arms, actually, so that you can ingest some much needed libation).
If you don’t breastfeed, simply have a bottle ready with nice, warm milk or whatever it is that you are feeding it. I have never had a problem asking the airhostesses to give me some warm water to mix with the prepared formula.
Do NOT do any of these:
1.       Give your baby a 5 hour nap before you get on the plane – that would only guarantee much bouncing in your or your neighbors laps, delighted (or not so much) yelps and generally the need to entertain the little beast while you are trying to maintain a low profile and eat your tiny airplane dinner.
2.       Try to distract and bounce the child, toss him around and give him noisy entertainment. Rather, try your best to make them sleep. The hum of the plane is magical – if you calm your hyper child sufficiently, it would actually doze off quite fast. Everyone will love you.
3.       Give the kid candy or anything with a lot of carbs – the resulting energy rush will cause your baby to be twice as vocal and bouncy, and your seat neighbors twice as murderous.

In all honestly, I find flying with babies a much easier task than, say, flying with toddlers. Son has been trained to sleep on the plane the moment we takeoff or right after the food has been eaten (he delights in eating airplane food, apparently he thinks it is some kind of a special treat bestowed upon him). But as he grows older, there are more demands to go pee, have some more water, draw for 5 more minutes, see a movie, walk down the aisle to see the pretty ladies in the service area, ask to scratch his back, tell him a story, drink milk, pee again, hug and ask for a blanket, complain that the seat is not comfy, then drink some more water and finally settle down to sleep. A baby can make no such demands – it drinks milk and conks out. Beautiful.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Father’s Day Dhaka Style

It has been quite a while since I last wrote but lately our social life has reached new, previously unimagined heights and we tend to go out 5 nights a week. Much has happened in the past few weeks, but the Father’s Day experience I had in store for the Diplomat certainly takes the cake.
A few ladies from the Embassy and I set out to plan an unforgettable day for our great husbands/ wonderful fathers of our children. After conspiring for a few weeks, none of them suspected what was in store and only knew to free the entire day for the “celebration.” So, there we were, on a bright and promisingly absurdly hot Dhaka morning, 6 hapless husbands and all of our kids went to one of our apartments for a lavish home-made breakfast catered by us, devoted wives. There were Bloody Marys and Mimosas, famous personal recipes, home-baked cinnamon rolls, sausages and similar delicacies. The men stood there, all coffee cups in hand, happy, chatting, with the vague notion that something seriously devious was about to happen to them. Starting them gently, we announced that they will first have to go to the American School where they will play some games with their beloved children. We all trooped over to the school, and made the dads play a few silly games with them in the quickly rising heat.
Once the games were over, we announced the next task – they were all to put on specially made shirts reading “Dhaka Daddy Day” and their names, along with a fetching lungi (the local checkered skirt contraption worn by men in South Asia, which has some serious art to tying and wearing it). Nonplussed, the profusely sweating dads changed into their new duds (the lungi tying took some effort and eventually most of them looked like they had tied their mother’s kitchen tablecloth around their waists) and went into the street for their first challenge of the day. They were to split in couples and drive a rickshaw from the school to the field in front of the embassy where local kids gather daily in the blistering heat to play cricket. There they would be taught cricket by a pro and would have to ask the kids to play with them. I watched in delight as the Diplomat and a friend hopped onto a rickshaw, the amused rickshaw driver sitting in the back beaming like a Cheshire cat (obviously thinking that foreign men are lunatics to pay HIM to drive his rickshaw), and three seconds later to crash into another rickshaw, its owner not amused at all. Later on it transpired that driving a rickshaw is one tough business – one of the teams managed to crash their vehicle once and then run into a tree promptly thereafter. Minor injuries were sustained.
Somehow the teams crawled up to the make-shift cricket field where the son of one of the national team players along with one of his friends (who apparently came more to stare at the white boys struggle than to do anything practical) taught the burning diplomats how to whack a ball with a cricket bat. While we had provided the boys with child-sized bats from the local store, I gave the Diplomat his own cricket bat – an unfortunate gift of mine for our 5th (wooden) anniversary, which until last week was still in its plastic wrapper. Apparently, the bat was a hit (literally) and all guys used it productively playing in the 110-degree heat. After that, texting them clues, we sent them to have lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. To our defense, we had graciously provided them with a cooler full of beer in the support car which followed them around town.
After a solid 2-hour lunch, the brave dads embarked on their last adventure – the treasure hunt. Split into 2 teams, they had to do the following things:
1.       Get a shave/haircut in a street barber shop
2.       Buy a prayer cap
3.       Get a jackfruit, open it up and eat a few of the seeds (let’s just say that a jackfruit is a VERY acquired taste and to me it smells like baby puke; oddly, the Diplomats loves the damned fruit monstrosity and stores it in our fridge).
4.       Buy a “delay spray” from a hidden sex shop in the main shopping area in the diplomatic zone. Now, I feel this last one deserves a bit of an elucidation. We had heard that such a shop exists in the area, but that it was part of a normal grocery shop, where you need to go and ask twice about the “shower supplies.” Two of the wives set out to confirm this the prior week. They entered the store, walked up to the counter and brightly asked about the shower supplies. Graciously, the men behind began pulling various lovely shower supplies like loofas and colorful soaps off the shelves and offering them to our ladies. Again, they mentioned, with a knowing look, “THE shower supplies.” At that point, more men gathered behind, and all began speaking animatedly in Bangla, repeatedly drawing a box in the air with their hands and in general gesticulating wildly. Then they waved off the girls to a different part of town, saying they got nothing. The ladies gathered that whatever treasures there were at the store, they were all inside a box hidden somewhere there and there was no way in hell that these men were ever going to admit that to them. At that point, however, the girls noticed the various bottles behind the counter, among which were the “delay spray” and some other hilarious, non-effective medications for activities of the bedroom sort. We all thought that telling the guys what to get but not what it looks like would be great as they would have to actually explain it somehow to the storekeeper. We are proud to say that both teams successfully procured a bottle each.
Around 5 pm both teams finally made it to our apartment, where they were immediately treated with home-brewed beer (courtesy of the Diplomat and me) and massages, while we ladies spruced up a lovely dinner and the kids were all locked up in our bedroom watching a movie. It was universally acknowledged that this was one unique day, fun was had by all (I actually managed to squeeze in a manicure in the afternoon while Son slept and the Diplomat was sweating it out, getting a shave in the market) and it was an affair to remember. I gear the guys are reciprocating for Mother’s Day, but alas, I won’t be here for these festivities.

Because folks – guess what – the time has come for the Diplomat and me to leave this lovely land in a month…

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cars, ferries, boats, rickshaws and a pair of red snakeskin rain boots

So, I just went on my very first fraud investigation trip. I spent a few interesting, to say the least, days in the south of Bangladesh delving deep into remote villages to try and found out whether our venerable visa applicants have been truthful with some of their more outrageous claims at the visa window. Yup, we do that, it is in the job description. You won’t believe the kind of things people would have you believe in order to get that coveted immigrant visa to the U.S.

After a lovely 7 hour car ride from Dhaka, during which I mostly slept in the roomy Embassy SUV, we stopped to bust some fraud in what was supposed to be a village “right off the road.” Two and half hours later into the deep river jungle, after crossing one river on a ferryboat with the SUV, and then another one without it, on a small boat (the ferry on that river crashed last year and there hasn’t been a new one since then), then trekking some more in the blistering heat we finally found our village. I had the honor of an 80-year old man insisting on carrying a massive black umbrella over my head through the tall grass as we were marching towards the village and he would not let go for all the gold in the world. Bangladeshi people ARE the nicest, mot hospitable people in the whole wide world. Even as we are having a rather unpleasant conversation regarding immigration fraud, they still beam in your face and try to force feed you some tea and bananas, while a variety of children insist that you sit on the only chair in the house.

The next day we were back hard at work through the maze of rivers and canals of the area we were casing. The big SUV navigated the dilapidated village roads for a while and when we finally came to a tiny bridge, the driver gave up. My Bangladeshi colleague and I set out on foot, in the hopes of finding SOME mode of transportation for the next 5 kms towards the village we needed. No such vehicle appeared. Instead, at every intersection where we stopped for directions, we attracted a massive crowd, portions of which would then follow us from a distance until our next stop, when it would exchange for a new crowd. With such retinue in tow it was a bit tough to arrive unannounced and inconspicuous. Actually, if all TV channels would have announced our arrival, probably less people would have known about it compared to the efficacy of the village grapevine. And then it began raining and did not stop for the next 2 days.

To the utter delight of the village male youth, I donned a pair of bright red, snakeskin-immitation rain boots and continued to prance through the mud without a care in the world. I was also sporting my favorite old pair of jeans, fashionably torn at the knees. At one point, as I was getting back into the car, a crowd of about 50 fascinated men ranging in age from 5 to 75 stood to stare at me taking off my boots as if they were observing a rare monkey dance the rumba. After some back and forth with the crowd, it became clear that I speak Bangla, which caused a complete adoring furor. At the very front was an old man, white beard to his knees, his snow-white robe and cap indicating that he was a devout Muslim. After staring some in complete silence, he suddenly asked me, clearly puzzled, why were my pans so old and torn??? I told him it was fashion. Judging from his expression, he thought that I was a lunatic. Then again, sometimes when I watch the catwalk and some of the top fashion houses’ shows, I feel the same way about their designers as well. So, I suppose grandpa had a point.

At another point during the trip, the car was left helpless behind some other impassable bridge, and we realized that out destination was about 12 kms ahead. While I welcome the occasional physical exercise, plus I possess a healthy dedication to my job, this was a little too far even for me. We decided to hire a “cab” – a mechanized version of the rickshaw, which runs on natural gas, allows for the transportation of about 2 passengers in the back (even though I have seen as many as 6), looks and is as beaten down as an old Russian Moskvich and allows you to feel every single tiny stone and hole on the road you are on. Try 12 km on that contraption. You come out and you don’t feel your ass at all. The only thing worse than that is knowing that you have to climb back on that and travel another 12 kms back to your comfortable SUV. Did I mention that it was raining all the time?

Other than that, Bangladesh is beautiful. The rice fields bloom in gorgeous golden yellow, and the only thing that spoils the idyllic scene in the fields are the children who are working there rather than going to school. The ferries are a hoot and one can buy a variety of useful things while traveling on them, among which are lychees, children’s coloring books, towels, popcorn, bananas, tupperware; in addition, you can also have your shoes polished. Bangladeshis are most hard-working, exceptionally genial and disturbingly curious. As we were passing by a village, we stumbled upon a wedding procession – the groom was on a boat with a million of his relatives on his way to pick up the bride. Everyone got overly excited as I stopped by to take pictures from a bridge above and pulled the poor groom out from the crowd so that I can have a better view. In the midst of this, a curious relative shouted towards me, “Where is YOUR husband?” which was neither here, nor there. I have heard this question before and it always gives me great delight to answer, “At home, minding the children” which invariably manages to produce confusion and consternation in the asker. This time was no different and the groom was left to ponder this curious state of family affairs as he sailed towards his bride.

The return trip to Dhaka was memorable, mostly because the capital was besieged by a strike (called “hartal”), which meant that the Embassy security would not allow us to enter the city until the hartal was lifted at 6 p.m. There was absolutely no other Embassy-approved way of coming back and the idea was that we would stay back for one more day. Usually, that would be swell and dandy (hello, one more day of per diem!). Except for the tinsiest inconvenience that I was supposed to fly that very same night to the particularly attractive country of Thailand for a few days of sunning myself next to a large swimming pool, while the Diplomat diligently brings me tall drinks with unknown but exciting content. After some maniacal brainstorming, we managed to come back to the outskirts of the city where we waited out the end of the hartal, and then the driver bravely weaved his way through the traffic-jammed city and delivered me to the Dhaka airport in time to see Son’s beaming face, ready to check-in. "MAMAAAAAA, I HAVE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!" Why, my dear Son, I have missed you so much too!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Real Bangladesh – Should I Be Scared?

Some time ago I wrote pensively and incisively about the shocking difference in the reality on the Bangladeshi streets and the one at the ubiquitous Dhaka fancy parties. What I mean by that is that everywhere in the streets you will see (if and when) women clad in conservative clothing, often with hijabs or full burka. Granted, there ain’t all that many women on the streets in Dhaka – it is about 1:10 ratio of women to the hordes of men who roam all over with seemingly little more to do than walk, talk, stare and pee in the gutter. At the same time, if you attend a fashionable dance party filled with Dhaka's young ones, you would not believe that you are in fact in Bangladesh. 

So, yesterday was a funny day. In the afternoon, I decided to take Son for his haircut since I hadn’t seen his eyes for over a week now (the kid sports an Ashton Kutcher-like awesome hairstyle). It was also a good opportunity to ride his bike on the Dhaka streets (the salon is a block away) rather than between the kitchen and my bedroom, which is decidedly not amusing for me. So, Son perched precariously on his bike and we braved the dugout street and a half to the salon – I have to say, 3 meters later and I regretted it. We would have been better off with a lunar rover given the horrendous landscape of my street. At any rate, we made it to the salon, and all of us collectively endured the haircut – at some point, 2 women were holding Son down, one was cutting and 3 others were staring (I think staring is Bangladesh’s national sport), while I was nervously sipping tea. Once done, Son hopped on the bike (he was VERY nervous about parking it outside and tried for a while to bring it inside the salon to my horror) and we headed back home. We stopped to stare at some construction site much to Son’s delight – lately, after the Savar tragedy, he acquired the morbid predilection that all construction in Dhaka will collapse. As we were standing there, a small skinny man in a wife-beater and the typical Bangladeshi male skirt on came up to me. Next to him was a younger man, similarly dressed. They were walking deliberately slowly, almost with a nonchalant swagger. They stopped next to me and the older man said the following to me:

“M’am, this Bangladesh.” I nodded, I thought he wanted to chat about “my country” and pinch Son’s cheeks, like everyone else. I smiled. He was so not amused. Instead, he said to me, in a calm, almost imperceptibly menacing tone, “You must control your dress when you here” and pointed out to my short, above-the-knees summer dress while staring calmly into my shocked eyes. His buddy kept looking at me expressionless. Then they slowly moved away and continued their unhurried, deliberate walk. I stood there for some time, unable to move, petrified, not sure what had just happened. Perhaps I became complacent. Perhaps I have been too comfortable here and have lost touch perspective of where I really am? Whatever the answer is, the fact was that I was scared. For the first time.  In Bangladesh. The place I had started calling “my lovely Bangladesh.” And that made me sad.

That same night I went to a very sought after party at the Radisson hotel, organized by a notorious party company in Bangladesh. If my street critic had been there, he might have had some serious religious palpitations. The party had many young and privileged kids who were drinking, smoking and doing some other things decidedly un-religious things. Some of the attire of the ladies (although I do fear it is a bit of a stretch to call them “ladies”) would have sent an Amsterdam night trade professional packing in view of the scantily-clad competition.

Who is the real Bangladesh? I guess it’s both – those people who warn against the evil of short skirts and demand a blasphemy law, torching everything in their way and refusing women journalists to cover their rallies, and those folks who cannot wait to don a Western dress late at night and to have a drink or two while dancing to the sounds of the latest Bangkok DJ. Clearly, both sides are the extremes of Bangladeshi society but they exemplify the profound conflict that this rapidly developing country is now facing as illustrated by the violent recent events. I remain an impassionate bystander.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Trash Mafia and Doris the Ugly Stepsister

I kept hearing about the rickshaw mafia in Dhaka, but never really believed it much. Supposedly, all the rickshaws in Dhaka are under the tight management of a few rickshaw lords who take in their daily money from the skinny wallahs. To tell you the truth, I am not exactly sure what they would take from them since the hapless wallahs seem to make somewhere around nothing to 50 cents a day. It must be tough to be a rickshaw lord and to maintain a lavish lifestyle in this business. But it does exist. In fact, couple of years ago, in a generous move some USAID-related organization decided on an awesome project and gave away 10 rickshaws to poor people to help them earn a living. Would you know it, overnight the rickshaws were gone as the livid rickshaw mafia did not find it amusing that someone was messing up with the business, USAID be damned.

And now, I have an entire trash mafia drama on my hands (and nose) that can easily rival the New Jersey mafia’s trash collection business. As you might know, the New Jersey mafiosos traditionally own garbage businesses, which is super useful when you want to dispose of bodies. At least that’s what you learn from HBO and Toni Soprano (man, that was a good show!). For the past two weeks, the trash from our 4 trash cans in the open ground-floor garage had not been emptied. Besides the obvious festering and incubation of critters, the piling garbage also looks rather unsightly and as of today – smells putridly. Initially, I thought it hasn’t been collected because of the massive random dugouts on our street (fyi, we are told that while it took less than 2 weeks to dig the holes for the pipes and then to cover them up, it apparently will take 5 months to remove the tall mounds of soil and stones covering our street and making it look like a moon surface and then PERHAPS the street will be paved again). Today, I learned that our garbage collector vendor (read, a REALLY skinny guy with a beaten-up old rickshaw cart who collected our garbage) has been threatened over the past few weeks and apparently was beaten down this morning while trying to collect the trash. Apparently, he is the victim of an extortion scheme and his rickshaw trash wagon (!) was taken away from him. So, much like in NJ – do NOT mess with the trash mafia in Dhaka.

This week the Diplomat was gallivanting in NYC celebrating 10 years of his business school graduation while I slogged away at home. OK, I did not slog that much – I admit to going out almost every night of the week after putting Son to sleep. As a matter of fact, on Friday night I did my favorite thing in Dhaka – I MC-ed another fabulous fashion show at the Radisson Hotel. Now, if you are a regular reader, you’ll recall that I love doing those fashion shows and one of my favorite parts is the hair and makeup before the show. I just love saying to people who call me on a show day, “oh, I can’t talk now, I am going into hair and makeup!” Now,as I have said before, makeup is a whole different beast in Bangladesh. It is a vastly lucrative business here, especially during wedding season where unsuspecting but welcoming brides get so much cosmetics slathered on their face, neck and arms that they are typically unrecognizable by their relatives. In fact, during a recent wedding I did not realize the person next to me was the bride (whom I know pesonally) and so I asked her how she was related to the family...Awkward...

My makeup usually is no exception. I have a running joke with myself how much the artist will botch up my face. I have learned by now what NOT to allow them to do – create raccoon black eyes (looks particularly hideous on white skin), put superdark eye shadow that makes me look like a mass murdered from a zombie movie, or give me bright-red lipstick which makes me look like an ageing Liz Taylor. On Friday, I warned my makeup artist against all of these pitfalls. I saw her choose great colors, put a lot of good attention to the right places and gave her a menacing look when she reached for the black eyeshadow. I thought it was going great. The offensive touch came right out of left field and was completely unexpected. I noticed that she was spending an inordinate amount of time on my eyebrows – you know, after you have painted the whole face thickly with foundation, you have to repaint some stuff hidden underneath, like the eyebrows. I get that. What I wasn’t prepared for were the two giant eyebrows painted on my face that did not even start on the same level. Combined with my huge painted lips, I was an uncanny replica of the ugly stepsister Doris from Shrek. OK, I did not have the poignant mole. I probably should have, for completeness sake.

So, for my next show, I think I will cool it off with the makeup. Despite everyone’s assurances that one needs embellished makeup when they are on the stage because of the bright lights and what have you, I really do not think anyone needs to be exposed to eyebrows like that. They were so thick and long that I think even some folks in Nepal saw them that night from their balconies.

The Diplomat is coming back tomorrow morning. He asked me on the phone what I would like from NYC and gallantly offered to get me a bottle of perform from the airport duty free. Yup, nothing says “I thought about you while I was in NY and wanted to get you something special” like a duty free perfume. I declined. I am afraid I wasn’t particularly gracious about it though.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A day in the life of a Foreign Service Officer

Some time ago someone asked me to describe a day of my life as a Foreign Service Officer. The idea being that clearly our lives are riveting behind those high Embassy walls. They are, I assure you! With the risk of millions deciding to take the FSOT immediately upon reading this, here it goes.

I wake up at 7 am in my excellent paid-for apartment with zero daylight, poorly built windows which allow any given amount of noise and dust to creep in all the time and cause constant allergic outbreaks for the Diplomat and sore throat for me. The Diplomat is typically already out, playing tennis at the American Club since 6 am. Some people are weird like that. While I try to pretend that I can actually sleep until 7.15 am, Son arrives and throws himself on top of me screaming, “MAMAMAMAMAMAMAMAMAMA” gleefully. In the face of so much love and demand, I rise. Cranky, slow, half-asleep, eyes pretty much shut, I debate whether to make him breakfast like a decent mother would do or to go about my own business and let the nanny do that once she comes in at 7.45 am. My bad-mommyness prevails and I go to brush my teeth instead. While I rinse my teeth with the wonderful Bangladeshi arsenic-laid water, I start to feel bad and go into Son’s room and choose his clothes for the day. I dare him to come and get dressed in my bedroom to see who will win and get dressed first. Son is all about winning these days, so that is a priceless method. While I get dressed, he chases me around the room trying to smack my butt while I pretend to be angry. Ahh, nothing beats quality mother-son time in the morning.

At 7.45 am our lovely housekeeper waltzes in, fresh as a cucumber, and soon Son is being spoon-fed his breakfast while I am not watching. Then when I walk by and grumble about it, she hastily pretends to scold him and makes him eat by himself while I am still around. It is a battle I have long lost. The Diplomat then comes back, and tries to convince me that he will only be 10 mins and so I should wait for him to go to the office together. As a result 25 mins later, I stand in the corridor, looking and feeing exceedingly irritated. Finally, he is ready and as we close the door on the way out, Son starts screaming that he hasn’t said good-bye and rushes to us. Because we are already running late, we plant superficial kisses on him, while he plants a really nice oily post-breakfast one on my clean dress. I leave in consternation.

A dusty 5-minute drive later through the diplomatic zone, we enjoy sights like endless construction, a stray cat, 4 men peeing in the gutter, women raising massive clouds of choking dust in the air while doing something that might be mistaken for sweeping the streets, and a bunch of construction workers in various stages of nakedness washing their teeth and bodies with water sprouting from a rubber hose whose origin is better left unknown. I know that in some more colorful posts in Africa, officers play bingo on the way to the office – checking off chickens, goats, peeing men and similar fauna. If we get stuck in the traffic which collects literally a block away from the Embassy, we leave the car and walk. My high-heeled shoes are never amused. The heaps of rickshaw-wallahs and general random bystanders, however, are. At least someone is.

We flash our Embassy IDs and enter the compound at the entrance where all visa applicants line up. We are stared at intensely by the hundred or so people gathered there. Awkward. We stare back for good measure which creates confusion. We then go inside our awesome consular section, where we are greeted with a blast of freezing A/C air and the chatter of our local staff doing intake from the visa applicants. I happily greet my colleagues and plant my butt on my particularly non-ergonomic chair, ready to face an awesome day of issuing visas. At various points during those first 30 mins at work, we all procure coffee, tea, soda, fatty breakfasts and finally settle down to some incredible admin work before the visa interviews begin. ADMIN WORK. Man, if there ever was good entertainment that is IT. OK, I am lying.

Finally, it is TIME and we all head to the interviewing windows. This is my favorite part and has single-handedly allowed me to get to know Bangladeshis as a nation and as individuals. I recommended consular work to everyone – it gives you the opportunity to talk to people every day, to learn their culture, norms and styles, and to speak the language on a wonderful street/village level. At 12.30, we take a brief but satisfying lunch break in the Embassy cafeteria, where we get to meet our equally erudite colleagues from the other sections and exchange playful, intellectual banter about world affairs – you know, diplomat stuff. OK, I am lying again. Typically we discuss our latest diarrhea issues, internet and electricity outages, the outrageously dugout diplomatic zone by the water company, trashy shows that we watch on Hulu, various sporting results from college basketball or football games no one gets to watch now, or how cheap we managed to buy this or that. After this refreshing interlude, I rush to the interviewing window invigorated and ready for some more. OK, not invigorated. More like struggling not to fall asleep after eating a huge mound of overly buttered rice and some other fried substance that went with it. Once we are done interviewing, we go to our desks to work on “projects” and for some more fantastic admin work. If I am lucky, I can go to a student outreach event, or give women-empowerment talk to high schoolers, or even write a well-researched, pivotal, thought-provoking and policy-setting cable that will be read by at least 7 people in the entire Department of State. OK, maybe 4 on a slow day.

On some days, I go to teach English to the Embassy drivers and cleaning staff. If you ever get an opportunity like this in your Mission, I strongly urge you to do it – few things are more rewarding than teaching eager students for free and learning bits and pieces of their lives. On others, I will run to the Commissary to replenish our wine supplies. I generally do not shop there for groceries even though I consider the place quite well stocked. I always feel like I am cheating on an exam if I do that – in other words, if I am told to live in Bangladesh, I should try to live off the local markets. Unfortunately, as ambitious as that sounds, it is also kinda impossible so I do break down and buy really nice American stuff from the Commissary (think Italian pork sausage!). But I draw the line at milk and bread. I just can’t bring myself to buy a box of funny-tasting milk for $5 or eat bread that has been frozen for who knows how long and tastes just as papery as the local stuff but is 3 times more expensive.

Finally, I am on my way home. Since the A/C in my car is broken again, I would have to navigate the dusty  dugout streets of the dip zone in the late afternoon 110-degree humid heat with my windows rolled down. My driver, bless his heart, knows not to talk to me as I relax in the back and swear audibly at the incompetence of the other drivers. Somehow we navigate the massive holes dug out practically by hand by hundreds of workers carrying out some insane modernizing project of the water company. Again, I remain amazed at the extent of manual labor – not only are the massive gaping holes dug out by hand (imagine three men holding a huge metal poke pointed at the asphalt of the street, while a forth one is pounding it with a heavy hammer – slowly, the street covering is broken down and torn apart by hand; you can’t believe it until you actually watch it), but they are also later on filled by hand, one jute basket of soil at a time.

I come home, ringing the bell madly because I want to hear the scrambling feet of Son who lets out a real Apache shriek and jumps into my open arms. It is tough to perform this in 5 inch heels but fun to try every day. My housekeeper flashes her usual 24-carat smile and ensures me that Son has been “reel gut boy too-day, madam!” and then continues on to give me a full account on his eating for the day – key information given that Son looks like a mosquito and wears pants 2 sizes smaller for his age. After these pleasantries, she promises to come back in 3 hours to babysit while the Diplomat and I go on to yet another party or event. Yup, this day has only just began.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wine, sheep and lakes - Fabulous New Zealand

After Sydney, we flew to the magical quiet lands of New Zealand. Lovers of the wine, we chose the South Island (of Marlborough wine country fame) and booked ourselves into the cutest orchard farm ever in the pretty winery-infested town of Blenheim. Once upon a time a winery, the Ryland Estate is now purely a fruit producing farm, which also offers accommodations in a fabulous refurbished barn. The owners were amazing, giving us fruit and veggies every day (peaches, PEACHES!!! PEARS!! people, I have forgotten what THOSE were like), and entertaining Son on the tractor every afternoon while I pranced around in ungraceful poses attempting rudimentary Pilates on the lawn in front of the barn. They observed me in quiet amusement and then turned on the sprinklers on me.

The estate was smack dab in the middle of all the local wineries, which meant, of course, that we spent our days wine tasting, then stopping for lunch at some winery for a sumptuous feast of locally produced organic stuff like cheeses, venison salami and lamb skewers. Naturally, life without tennis is simply no life for the Diplomat, so even before we had reached New Zealand he had already found the local tennis clubs. What's more, we even found the local social hour and so we found ourselves playing tennis on the afternoons. Son found similarly bored children to play with at the tennis courts and to occasionally rush onto the court right when I was about to yield my finishing blow to the opponent (a 75-year old woman with disturbing agility) to tell me he would like to bring some stones home. We also made a trip to the green lip mussels capital of the world - Havelock (yup, we had mussels and they were spectacular) -  and drove through the drop-dead gorgeous Queen Charlotte Drive to Picton, a 35 km scenic drive over the Marlborough Sounds.

I am officially hooked on Savignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. If you are planning a trip out there, you simply MUST stay either in a vineyard (several places there offer accommodations) or at Ryland like we did. There is nothing like waking up in the crisp, cool morning, frying some locally produced bacon and fresh eggs from the neighbors, gulping those down with french pressed coffee and jumping on the road to taste some wine next door. We unreasonably bought a bottle every time we tasted somewhere, which meant that we had to go home and drink it since we could bring back to Dhaka only so much. We tried some of the Blenheim vineries' best: Cloudy Bay, Giesen, Wairau River, Allan Scott (whose delicious wine I am drinking as I am writing this!!!), Nautilus, Herzog, Rock Ferry, and No 1 (for some real authentic French methode traditionelle  sparkling goodness). They were all amazing, don't have a favorite. Go there and drink. And if you are wondering what Son was doing while we were gallivanting through the vineyards, here you go:

The child loves to draw, God bless him. In the remaining time he was just running around the beautiful vineyards, screaming with delight. Thank goodness that he is dead cute, so people around us thought he was adorable rather than annoying and almost no one gave us dirty looks for bringing a kid into the tasting rooms.  

From delightful Blenheim, we took an overnight roadtrip to Queenstown. New Zealand is PACKED with sheep, PACKED!! Everywhere you go on the road, you will see the idyllic sight of a trillion cute sheared (must be the season) sheep, gleefully nibbling on grass and bleating contentedly. The view gets diversified from time to time with large, happy cows munching grass as well. And finally, you will get a glimpse of quite a few deer farms, which could be quite striking for city people like us.
Deer farm

On the way to Queenstown we stopped to gaze thoughtfully at the picturesque Lake Tekapo, surrounded by hordes of backpackers and motel signs aimed for backpackers. New Zealand is a backpacker country. Not sure why, nothing (especially NOT its prices) screams "backpacker" to me. And yet there they are, with ginormous backpacks on their backs, and added smaller versions hanging from their fronts, two shopping bags of stuff hanging from each hand. And then they hitchhike. I have to be honest, unless I am driving a cargo plane, I simply cannot see how I could give a lift to such loaded mules. But it must work or otherwise they won't be there, I suppose. I am sure there is some sort of dubious romanticism about traveling that way, but boy, watching them, I was so glad that I was a grown up, let me tell ya.

Queenstown was a delight. Truly touristy (there was even a Louis Vuitton store on the main street), it was nevertheless beautiful, unassuming, unpretentious, filled with restaurants and sheep wool stores. First order of business for the Diplomat was to check the local tennis club, hoping for some real grass courts. Courts there were and quite pretty too, but sadly there were no partners to play with. With a broken heart, the Diplomat led Son to the nearby lake where Son fed the ducks to his heart's content (an elderly Chinese lady had brought a large loaf of bread, which she happily shared with Son). And then when there was no more bread, the ducks tried to eat Son, which was met with shrieks and horror and frantic running around the park. The child had no fear though - the next day he pestered me so much that I gave up and went to buy bread to feed the damn birds again. This time we went to the pier, and also go some olives and a small bottle of bubbly and  shared the bread with the residing ducks and seagulls. Some ducks decided to take a particularly direct approach to the bread and went under the table where we were sitting. From there, they took to biting the Diplomat's legs poignantly to get his attention after sensing his lack of interest in the entire feeding affair. He was not amused.

New Zealand was fantastic. While the Diplomat found it boring at times (the man would love nothing better than to sit at home every night after a 5-hour tennis game and then watch some more tennis on TV but found NZ lacking in action...really?), I thought it was the perfect detox to our insane hectic lives in Dhaka. I definitely have something to show for it now - entire 6 lbs more on my waist, behind and thighs. I have to say - wine, lamb and bread every day is not a diet for runway models!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

About Sydney

I am happy to report that we are currently on our second Rest and Recuperation trip, richly deserved by both the Diplomat and me since in the past one month we have both worked our little governmental tails off. As I have previously writtent, Rest and Recuperation, or R&R as it is lovingly known throughout the Foreign Service, is a wonderful perk given by the State Department to foreign service officers serving in more challenging posts. In short, State will pay for the plane tickets for your family to go either to the U.S. or to a designated R&R spot for your post (that spot varies - for most of South and East Asia, the spot is Sydney; for most of South America- Maimi; for Africa- London or Paris; you get the idea). If you serve in Afhganistan, you get 3 R&Rs in one year. In Bangladesh, we get 1 per year. In Paris you get zilch because guess what - you already ARE on a freaking R&R!

We chose to go to Sydney and from there to New Zealand where we are currently ruining our health by eating stupid quantities of lamb, mussels and helping those down with generous quantities of fantastic local wine. I really liked Sydney – to be perfectly honest, I always thought that the city had 3 skyscrapers and the rest was bush around it. People would wear fleece and Birkenstocks, carry fannie packs, drink beer and be jolly all the time. Turns out - not to so much. At all.

Sydney is a VERY modern city. Like, VERY. Downtown has plenty of shiny skyscrapers, luxury brands’ boutiques, a fast and efficient transportation system, gazillion restaurants, coffeeshops, cafes, bistros, and American fast food chains! All businessmen wear blue shirts. In fact, I am pretty much convinced that there must be an Australian law about appropriate male business attire in the city, (although I DID see one guy who was wearing a pale pink shirt, but he clearly looked very uncomfortable and ostracized – it must have been laundry day in his house). All women are VERY fit, and dressed particularly well, along with a steady stream of solid high heels. I felt my old New Yorker again!

Sydey is also wonderful for kids. They have amazing parks for children. Son spent a morning in the Darling Harbor in an amazing park filled with climbing and sliding contraptions, as well as a hundren water-based toys like mini dams, fountains, and other impossible to describe physics projects that was delighting the screaming, wet kids in the heat. We were not prepared for this, so Son was reduced to running around the playground in his Thomas underwear to preserve his pants and shirt from soaking. He insisted on taking his underwear off as well. As proud as I was of his free spirit, I had enough brains to insist on keeping the undies on. As a result, once we managed to extricate him from there, we had to take the wet undies off, put on his shorts on a naked butt, and hang the undies to dry on the camera bag. As a result, they delightfully flapped in the warm Sydney air as we walked around exploring the city. So, I really liked Sydney.

Sydney is also obscenely expensive. We couldn't comprehend it – a cup of coffee was an incredible $5 (US and Australian dollars are roughly the same value), a glass of beer $9. I know I have lived in Bangladesh for the past 18 months and that has thrown off my pricing guide somewhat, but even in New York’s little pretentious Soho coffeehouses coffee wouldn't be that pricey. A normal dinner for 2.5 people, including a bottle of wine, in a normal, non-fancy place would amount to a solid $120-50. Since the Diplomat was sporting an especially unforgiving and homely South Indian afro, I sent him to get himself a haircut – I figured modern Sydney would be a good place to give him a nice refreshing look. There were two barbershops below our hotel, which advertised $10 cuts. Sadly, they only offered 2 styles – the Pensioner and the Crew cut. So, the Diplomat walked around and found himself a nice simple salon. $55 later (???) and he came back with very little hair, combed in an entirely wrong direction, with a wad of hair on top, arranged in some semi-confused pouf a la Gangnam style. We were definitely taken aback by the cost of living in Australia until our local friends explained to us that salaries in Ozzie-land were commensurately high. Eh, more power to them.

Sydney officials are also exceptionally rude. So much for my delusion that everyone there was happy and friendly, and “G’day mate”-ing everyone else. On day 2, exhausted from the spectacular walking regime I had imposed on my troops, we decided to take a local bus to see the Opera House. We tried to buy bus tickets before getting on the bus, and for a solid 30 minutes were sent on a wild goose chase into the train terminal, where an elderly gentleman with hearing issues offered us a $44 bus ticket each. Horrified, we ran away. Fed up with the search for the elusive bus tickets, I suggested that we get on the bus, hope we can buy them on board and pretend that we are stupid tourists if we couldn’t. The opera was literally 3 stops away anyway. Not so fast. We climbed stealthily (or so we thought) through the back door of the bus and sat down, beaming. Immediately, all heads turned to us like we had tails coming from our pants or something. No one said a word and then the driver slowly looked back and yelled in incomprehensible Ozzie accent something about the back door and that I should go to him immediately. I surmised that I should, and walked to the front like a school girl called into the principal’s office. Once there, he gave us a rude tongue-lashing on the subject of the impropriety of getting on the bus from the back door (“NEVER get in from the back door, NEVER, you hear me?? Never!!”) and yelled at us to get out of the bus immediately and go buy ourselves some tickets from a convenience store. I have rarely felt so humiliated in my adult life.

Similarly, on our last day there, we happily went to the Qantas counter at Sydney airport to check-in for our flight to New Zealand. Giddy with excitement, despite the 6 am hour, I approached the counter and prepared to hand in our passports to the clerk. Suddenly, he barked at me, “Where are your boarding passes????”” Huh?? I thought we get boarding passes AT check-in, NOT before that. WTF? I meekly responded that I did not have them. He demanded an itinerary. I did not have that either, I was a real transgressor. Forgive me, but nowadays airlines elsewhere in the world (well, except for India) never ask for printed materials as they can retrieve your info at the touch of a button. Not Mr. Ticket Police here. He began hissing at me that I MUST have a printed ticket or itinerary and demanded that I tell him when we were coming back from New Zealand. He became even more agitated since we were flying into Christchurch and then coming back from Queenstown. I began fearing he might go into apoplectic shock soon – he began typing furiously something on his computer and within 2.3 seconds naturally found us and our entire itinerary. He announced that fact to us loudly, and then scowled that he was under NO obligation to do that for us and that he cannot be expected to have time to do that for everyone since he is very busy with other passengers. There wasn’t a soul behind us…What cracked me up the most, I think, is his serious concern that since we have no printed itinerary, we clearly were plotting to abscond and probably work illegally on mussels’ fishing ships or something like that. Nevermind our American diplomatic passports or anything. Always be vigilant for those potential illegal immigrants to New Zealand. Eventually, he did issue us the boarding passes but he did look like he was undergoing an enema in the process.

New Zealanders, on the other hand, are lovely people.