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!


  1. a hilarious account of the investigative visit, without divulging any state secret!