Monday, February 18, 2013


The last weeks have been so hectic that I can hardly believe it has only been 2 weeks since I last wrote. In fact, it got a little too much even for me and I fell sick and missed tennis tonight. Sigh. Part of the craziness is clearly self-inflicted. For the past 2 weeks, I MC-ed 2 fashion shows, one Mardi Gras party of 175, went to 4 receptions (one with Dr. Yunus of Grameen Bank fame!), squeezed in some private dinners, worked an American Chamber of Commerce in Dhaka trade show (with all of its welcome dinners, welcome receptions, and good-bye dinners), met a CODEL, even double-booked a few nights (which I dearly regretted afterwards). After one such double-booked night about 10 days ago, which involved an Australian National Day and a lavish appreciation dinner with an endless stream of cheap white wine, I pretty much quit drinking for a week.

Another kind of glamorous work that we Foreign Service officers do is serve our country by hosting scores of venerable Congressional members, those faithful representatives of our beloved nation. The Congressional delegation that arrives at post – an event lovingly called a “CODEL” – sends shivers down the spine of every entry-level officer, whether from excitement or fear, no one dares to admit. A CODEL visit, or any other VIP visitor from the US for that matter, is like making a cake for the first time ever. You have read the recipe, it all looks straightforward, you start doing it and realize somewhere down the road that it is much more involved; you run for more supplies; call in the neighbors for support; call a bunch of people including your mama on the phone; watch a video or two online for instructions and eventually end up buying new appliances for next time.

Same with the VIP visit. It starts off innocently enough with a simple request for a visit from the U.S., describing what seems like an easy and straightforward agenda. A week later, 10 more people have been added to the CODEL, which have added their own staffers (aaaaah, the staffers...). The agenda has tripled, and so have the resources you have mobilized. Next thing you know, you are roping in more and more hapless first and second-tour officers who have been blinded by the glitz of the VIP and gladly accept the glamorous tasks given to them. Like – be responsible for the VIP luggage. Or take their spouses carpet shopping. Or stand-by during an event in case anyone needs water. Or babysit the press at some obscure event. Or spend 3 whole days going to potential sites of interest to the visitors, like orphanages or factories, preparing an elaborate welcome program for them, only to learn a day later that the visit has been dropped off the program. Or procuring a piano for some event and carrying it to the event and then carrying it back (yup, that happened). The “luckier” ones get to be note-takers at important meetings with local politicians. Which also means, of course, that the moment the meeting is over (usually 10 pm), they have to run back to the Embassy and fervently write a meaningful cable about it all night long, to be cleared by 8 people in the next 2 days, and in the end they won’t even recognize the damned cable.

Oh yes, working a CODEL is glam. I worked one last week. It was fabulous. I was “baggage and passports.” You can only fantasize about the amazing things I had to do. I’ll tell you one thing though – if the CODEL happens to come on a Mil plane, rather than fly commercial, that means that as “luggage and passports” you get to walk on the tarmac. The plane security guys (cryptically called “ravens”) may even let you on the plane to see it inside where the pilot will give you a tour! That is some plane, ladies and gentleman! I also got to meet a couple of the security guys who worked with the CODEL and they were wonderful. All in all, a VIP visit is a circus but is also quite entertaining; you meet some really nice and cool people; you get to see how policy and diplomacy are shaped in action; and you definitely begin dreaming about being important and flying on a mil plane. Plus, you rack a whole bunch of overtime. Can’t wait for my next one.

Monday, February 4, 2013

How We Went To Burma

5 days, 8 flights, 5 airlines, 7 airports, 4 hotels, 2 cabs, a sunset boat and a horse cart. Visiting Burma-priceless!

I had it in my head that I really wanted to see Burma (or Myanmar as it is called there but too long to write) before I leave Bangladesh. The Diplomat – not so much. For one thing, the man was templed out after Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and India. Secondly, he gets… let’s call it “unsettled” on propeller planes and a Burma trip would definitely involve a few of those. Thirdly, admittedly, the tennis facilities in that otherwise fascinating country ain’t all that so the appeal was even less for him. Finally, this time there was no one to take care of Son at home, so we decided to drag the poor child with us on what was to be a decidedly boring trip for him (save for the random coconut en route). With all that in mind, I offered to go alone. Grimly, the boys said they were coming too.  

This is how this trip unfolded. We were leaving on a beautiful cool Thursday evening. During the day, I had organized a brown bag lunch for the entry-level officers at the Embassy. After that, I had pulled together at the American Club a meet and greet with the Ambassador and a group of 25 doctors, nurses and staff going to perform cleft-palate surgeries in rural Bangladesh. A truly lovely event, which exhausted me even further. From there, I rushed home to scoop my grumbling troops, stop by KFC on the way to airport, leave spicy chicken crumbs all over the car and Son’s clean clothes, and check in at Dhaka airport for a lovely late evening flight to Bangkok on Bangkok air. With more than an hour to spare, we decided to go to the fancy upstairs lounge where alcohol is being served (yes, it is a big deal here). Unwittingly, I ordered a $24 glass of wine (the bottle of which sells for $5.25 at our Commissary, by the way). Deeply offended, Son fell asleep on two barstools. We soon boarded and 2.5 brisk hours later landed in Bangkok’s swanky Suvarnabhumi airport. Sadly, our next flight on the budget Air Asia was out of the other Bangkok airport, Don Mueang, which was (of course) on the other end of town. An hour later we were there, and as it was about 1.30 am, we were exhausted and highly irritable. Naturally, all rooms in the transit hotel were booked, but the desk clerk took pity on us and allowed us to sleep in the sofa chairs in the lobby. They were not comfortable and let’s just leave it at that.

Finally, it was 7 am and we boarded Air Asia for Yangon (Rangoon). Yangon was a surprise. I had always thought that Burma was a rural, developing country as a result of years of self-imposed isolation and lack of substantial foreign trade. I was expecting to see architecture dating from the 1930s, horse carts in the streets and many miserable looking poor people. Yangon, instead, is a modern bustling city. It has large clean streets, many stores, malls, fabulous restaurants, a million tea houses (read – tea stalls with miniature plastic chairs and tables where everyone goes to have breakfast, lunch and tea), plenty of cars and no motorbikes (apparently, some party official got into an accident few years ago and pettily outlawed those ubiquitous South Asian vehicles in the capital). We stayed at the grand Traders Hotel, and even though pricey, I could not recommend it more. The Shwedagon Pagoda in the middle of the city was spectacular. 

The next day, we went back to the airport to board a flight on one of the 5 local Burmese airlines – KMZ. Now, in case you are interested in going to Burma, you should know a few things:
1.       You cannot book any internal fights online so you need an agent
2.       There are no ATMs that work with your debit cards so you need bring cash.
3.       Almost no one takes credit cards.
4.       There is no international cell phone roaming.
5.       There IS wireless internet and plenty of cyber cafes, and a zillion travel agents selling plane tickets on every corner.

I am planner. I also have a 4.5 year old child and 39 year old child so I cannot just wing it on trips like this. I needed to know all my flights were booked in advance. I randomly found an agent online called Seven Diamond Travels and literally within 2 days my trip was planned. The agent insisted on chatting via gmail chat, rather than trading emails back and forth, which made things even easier. So, good thing I planned in advance, because pretty much out of 5 domestic airlines, there was only one flight each way available for us if we wanted to see Bagan. Which I did. Phew!

So, we climbed on KMZ Air, a pretty solid looking propeller, buckled in and within 5 minutes were already hurtling through the bumpy clouds. Now, anyone who has been on a propeller knows that nothing gets you praying and believing in God faster than a small plane going through some clouds. The Diplomat looked positively green, and I think he might have been crying or praying. Son asked me what was wrong with daddy. I asked daddy the same question. He gave me a murderous look. Finally, the plane leveled and flew happily until we landed with so much force and speed that I thought the plane will split down the middle. At least, it was all over. Or so we thought. Turns out, we were on the “slow plane” to Bagan, meaning that we were making 2 stops along the way in Heho and in Mandalay before we would arrive to our final destination. Which also meant 2 more take offs and 2 more landings. The Diplomat was not amused. Son slept like a log.

The Fabulous KMZ Air, on a rest stop in Mandalay. I am loitering on the tarmac

Finally in Bagan, we quickly checked in the outstanding Amazing Bagan Resort – less than a $100/night, it was decadent, aesthetically appointed, gorgeous swimming pool, happy hour (!), a cheap spa, SOME cable (CNN and a bunch of Chinese channels) and free wi-fi in the rooms!  Bagan boasts about 100,000 Buddhist stupas, some of which are full-fledged temples, others – well preserved centuries-old pagoda remains and then others – lonely tiny structures in the fields. The feeling is eerie especially if you climb one of the highest pagodas in the region, Shwesandaw Pagoda, around sunset. The horizon is dotted with hundreds of pagoda spires, all shrouded in dust and all detail lost in the rays of the rapidly sinking sun. It would all be quite a surreal experience really if it weren't for all the National Geographic photographer wannabees, who had cluttered the terraces of the pagoda with a forest of tripods ready to catch that elusive Burmese sunset.
OMG, a sunset!!!! Gotta catch the sunset! I have never seen a sunset before!

We hired a horse cart in Bagan. I had heard it was common to do it, and I wanted that clop-clop romance on the trip. There was clop-clop alright. Imagine trying to cover 8 km with the speed of an asthmatic snail. That was us on the damn cart. Not to mention the dust and the precarious perch I had in the back of the silly contraption. We let him go in the afternoon, romance be damned. We hired a car for the remainder. Another interesting part of the Bagan trip was that we felt like we live in a Lonely Planet world – wherever you’d turn, there were either tourists clutching the guidebook or restaurants or establishments which proclaimed that they had been recommended by it. Not a particular fan of the series, we were forced to buy the guide simply because it was the only one on the market. And so were everyone else in Burma. Eerie, as I said.

Bagan was a dream in a way. Still largely undiscovered by tourists, its pagodas and calm surroundings are a welcome relief after Angkor Wat for example. Not to say that there aren’t peddlers. There are hordes of them and they are incredibly annoying. A pleasant surprise was the Burmese beer and wine – Beer Myanmar, Red MountaineEstate and Ayetharyar estate all offered outstanding products which we delightedly sampled night after night.

2 lovely days later, we went back to the Bagan airport and this time got on Asia Wings Air, another one of the delightful Myanmar airlines. After a short and uneventful flight we landed in Yangon about to spend one last night there (sadly, not in the fabulous Traders Hotel anymore). Son, however, fell asleep in the car during the one-hour ride from the airport to the hotel and no matter what we tried to do once we checked-in, we could not wake him up. So, there we were, in a fabulous mysterious city, hungry and eager, with a deeply asleep child on our hands at 7 pm. What would YOU do? Yup, we ordered room service…

The next morning we walked down the Yangoon streets, had a delicious breakfast in a street tea-shop (to the utter delight of the locals), and headed back for the airport. Air Asia: Yangon – Bangkok. Now, before you all decide to condemn us once and for all as truly bad parents, let me quickly inform you that we decided to redeem ourselves and use our 6 hour layover in Bangkok to go to the (massively overpriced) Siam aquarium for Son’s benefit rather than dine at the Hardrock CafĂ© on the best burgers ever! We felt like we owned him something after we dragged him behind us moaning and complaining through the dust of Bagan and the streets of Yangon. So, a mad dash downtown with a cabbie who had absolutely no idea where he was going; dragging 3 small suitcases, 2 backpacks and an overly excited child; $30 a person to get in. Whoa! Son was impressed, thankfully.
Whoaaaa! Mama - a shark!

Then we took another cab and got to Suvarnambhumi for the last flight of this trip, planning to be home and in bed by 11 pm that night. Not so much. Upon arriving there, we happened to notice that our flight was, um, canceled. Interesting, we thought, and sped to the Bangkok Air booth to ask what the hell was going on. Turns out, they have canceled all of their flights to Dhaka…for the time being. Nothing like telling their passengers or whatever. We were unceremoniously put on the next morning flight on Thai Air and given a room in a nearby craptastic airport hotel. So, yes, add one more airline and one more hotel to this mad itinerary.

All is well when it ends well. We were back to work the next day around noon, Son was safely given over to our housekeeper and we all have great memories to tell. The moral of the story – GO TO BURMA!