Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Foiled Robbery, Promotions and Third Tour Bidding

And just when I thought I might actually manage to leave Rio without having been robbed (it has now been 1.5 yrs here without an incident), it finally happened. You know, people warn you about it, it happens to all of your friends but just not to me. So I got careless. Blame it on Uber. Last week, while the Diplomat was in Sao Paulo for a week of work, I was standing outside the Consulate waiting irritably for my Uber taxi. Rather than the promised 7 minutes, the driver was taking over 25 to show up, lost in the tangle of streets behind. I was getting more and more impatient, standing stupidly clutching my android phone, tantalized by the movement of the taxi icon on the little screen. Suddenly, a passing dude saw a golden opportunity and decided to snatch it from my hand. That sad fella did not realize two unfortunate facts:
  •  He was trying to rob an Eastern European native
  • He was trying to rob her in front of the US Consulate, swarming with bored security guards

So this is how it all went down. The gangly, skinny teenager began pulling the phone with all of his might. So did I. You know, the Resident Security Officer always puts out these nice, wise notices saying that the safest things to do if you find yourself in a similar situation is to just let the demanded item go and not get yourself killed over it. Let me tell you something about people trying to take your stuff away. There is some primordial, animalistic instinct that hits you and you just don’t want to let your stuff go. It may be stupid stuff, but it YOUR stuff and why should anyone be taking it away. You don’t think about the RSO’s notice. You, frankly, don’t really think about anything much. You only think about your stuff. You want your stuff. It is YOUR stuff. You are willing to fight for your stuff. Or at least not let it go. So, that is exactly what I did. I just held back the phone and kept pulling it back. He kept pulling away. And at that moment (about 15 secs later), it dawned upon me that I am actually steps away from a bunch of hunky guards who somehow still had not seen the whole episode unfolding. So, I began screaming for help. Finally, I could see frantic movement but in the meantime, I lost control over the damned phone and the skinny kid managed to tear away from me and make a run for it. Happily (not for him), out of nowhere one of the local Consulate staff happened to be passing by and in a split second, jumped on top of the fleeing robber. The teenager had no chance. A second later, all guards fell upon him like a ton of bricks. Boy, did he regret ever meeting me that day let alone try to steal my phone. Soon, the police came and we all went to the police station for me to press charges. All in all, a very awesome night. Not really.

Many other exciting things have been happening to us lately. For example, both the Diplomat and I actually got promoted! That came somewhat unexpected and very, very much appreciated. So, now we are still on the bottom of the totem pole but feel more important about it. Also, we know where we are going next – Washington, DC, be scared, be very scared!

This assignment beckons a frank description of something called “third tour bidding.”  Now, when you enter the Foreign Service, you probably have visions of being given a choice of fascinating countries, from which you pick your childhood dream – Italy - and go serve there for 2 amazing years. You wish. Instead, you are given a list of about 200 posts around the world, which you then rank as high, medium and low, and give it over to your personal guru and master of your universe, also known as Career Development Officer, or CDO. There are usually several CDOs who then sit down for a few magical days and somehow assign people to those posts. You only sit and pray that you don’t get a post too low on your Low list. Usually, folks end up somewhere in their “mediums.” The same fun repeats itself for your second assignment again, except that if you have served in a particularly challenging place, you get to bid before the folks who served in, say, Thailand. So, in essence, for your first two tours, you have pretty much virtually no other control besides praying.
Now, arguably, you have a lot more control over your third tour. That is wonderful illusion, which your employer wishes you to have. Months before bidding season even opens, everyone due to bid enters into a frenzy and begins scouting potential available positions. There is this devious tool on our systems called “projected vacancies”  - it is a prediction of what positions are going to be available for bidding to help the hapless future bidders brace themselves for serving in the remote provinces of China or East Africa well in advance, and I can personally guarantee you that from the moment that list becomes available, everyone spends at least a third of their day pouring over it. Now, based on that preliminary list, we are all told to go and “lobby” for our next assignment – it is that nefarious process of timidly writing to your posts of choice, whether to the incumbent or their boss, “expressing your interest” while pointlessly trying not to sound too eager or desperate. 

Thus begins the terrifying and excruciatingly long dance of bidding. Posts write back to you to tell you that you appear very qualified but so do also the 59 other FSOs vying for the same job. You mobilize an army of former and current bosses, peers and various high level folks you know to “lobby” on your behalf. But it is all so very unofficial. Then, at some point, the real bid list comes out and you begin bidding with full ferocity. Lobbying intensifies, you interview with various people, you invent weaknesses that are not really weaknesses and which you have conquered and turned into strengths, you enumerate multiple personal achievements, which single-handedly have forwarded American interests abroad and changed the face of bilateral relations in your current post. You are, indeed, formidable. You should, in fact, be appointed as a Special Assistant to the Secretary immediately. Oddly, you are not. Slowly, offers begin to be hinted – since no offers can be made before the official deadline of bidding (for the summer bidders, bidding opens in August and ends in October), there are other cheeky tools to let people know who are the chosen ones. An official announcement that a job offer has been extended once bidding is over is called a “handshake.” Not an offer. A handshake. How very delightfully old-fashioned. Apart from a formal handshake, one can receive an unofficial “air kiss” in advance. Yup, it actually is called an air kiss. Bidding is fun.

So, since the management-coned Diplomat has not yet served in a management position (which is a problem going forward), he knew he had to get such position this time around, dead or alive. Preferably alive, it’s more fun that way. We began the bidding dance and were sniffing out a few desired posts overseas until a highly desirable domestic position opened up in the sexy European bureau, he interviewed for it and it was all his. A full one month before bidding was even over. Now you have to understand something about tandem bidding – it ain’t easy. In essence,  you need to dance a double bidding dance, 1. Ensuring that there are 2 positions suitable for each of you, and 2. The hiring folks for both positions like you and want to hire you over the other 45 qualified people for the job. It is actually even more complicated than that, but let’s say you get the general picture. So, when the Diplomat got an awesome offer in DC, he had to take it. Which meant I had to find a job in DC, something on which I hadn’t planned. Luckily, I ended up with an awesome gig as the speechwriter for Consular Affairs. Since I am not yet sure whether I should be ecstatic or extremely scared, I won’t say anything more about the job before I go into it next year.

We have been traveling as usual. In November, we finally made the pilgrimage to Disney – we own a vacation property there and after all of our guests said what a great time they have there, we decided to check it out ourselves. My God, Orlando is magical! I admit to preferring Universal to Disney and the Shamu, but still – they are all awesome. I have no reached the conclusion that I would like to live a resort life for the rest of my life. Apparently, though, no one pays you for that. Odd…

We also just came back from Uruguay, where we spent a week eating meat, drinking Tannat and playing golf. Yes, you heard me right – I have now begun gold lessons. You know, if you can’t beat them, join them. The problem was that I so badly wanted to impress the Diplomat just how well I am doing in golf, that once we got on the green, I managed to pull a back muscle while still on hole 3. For the rest of the trip, I could barely swing the club but kept on valiantly. As a net result, now I can’t even dress myself on my own. True story.

We are all eagerly looking forward to the holidays all to be spent peacefully in Rio. I cannot wait to finally see New Year’s Eve in Copacabana. Yey!!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Toga, Lessons and Astonishing Dental Hygiene

Life is going on in sunny Rio de Janeiro. We have just endured a long and dark winter with average daily temperatures of 72 degrees and sun only five days of the week. Oh, yeah, and the ocean is pretty cold, too! OK, fine, in all honesty, this year the winter was a bit capricious, raining copiously for days on end, taking turns with 90 degree weather and back to freezing rain. The other night, we had the loudest and scariest thunderstorm I have ever seen in my life.

To save ourselves from the suffering, the Diplomat has been drowning his sorrow in various sports. Now, most of you already know that he is an avid tennis player. To that effect, he still takes a tennis lesson with a teacher once a week, because, well, one can never be good enough. Some of you would also kindly remember that the Diplomat has picked up the noble pastime of golf, for which he also takes lessons because perfection there still eludes him. And recently, he has also applied himself to swimming since, he says, “it is a life skill.” Believe it or not, when I met him, the Diplomat could not swim at all. With the help of his devoted swimming coach, I am proud to say that the man is now swimming. Not to be left behind, Son is also taking swimming lessons with the same teacher (arguably, with less remarkable results for now), a soccer class (coach just quit, apparently working with kids proved to be too much for him) and, lest he be any less well-rounded, an art class with a super artsy teacher, Rafael, who comes to our house once a week for a two-hour, free flowing creative session. To the horror of my housekeeper, Rafael wears crumpled artsy clothes and has long, messy hair, which, according to her, smells something awful (they apparently had to ride together in the elevator one day). Son, however, seems to think that the sun shines out of that horrendous hair so Rafael is staying. So, in this very learned family, I am in a distant third place with paltry weekly tennis lessons. Clearly, my tennis game leaves a lot to be desired.

Another way we have recently entertained ourselves is by hosting the annual birthday parties for Son and me – we both have birthdays in September. Last year, I decided to prove myself and hosted a riotous kids party in the apartment, which resulted in astonishing amount of high-pitched screaming and cupcake frosting in various tough to believe spots afterwards. This year, we tried to distract Son from the thought of having yet another party in the house by promising to take him to the Amazon, a trip we have been planning for years now. I spent a whole day convincing him of the value of travel over gifts and cupcakes and actually succeeded. Except that in the end, the Diplomat and I decided to go to Uruguay instead. Not missing a beat, the child immediately posed the problem of having a birthday party again. Faced with total destruction, I came up with what I thought was a lesser evil – a sleepover with his best 3 buddies. It was met with glorious delight. One of his friends could not make it, so it was down his two besties. And boy, party they did – I can safely say that the three kids more than made for the lack of a bigger party. Somewhat embarrassingly, Son fell asleep eventually at 9.30, while his friends kept the action going till 11 pm. Everyone was awake and agog bright and early at 6 am. What gives, children??? And there still were cupcakes everywhere. At least I was pronounced a cool mom by Son.

My birthday was celebrated somewhat differently, if not less childishly. I decided that I needed a twist to the usual, and announced a toga theme. I am happy to say that half of the guests valiantly did show up in toga after all. There is no sight like a bunch of international diplomats, all draped in white sheets, drinking the night away in the balmy warmth of a Rio de Janeiro night.

On a completely unrelated subject, I wanted to tell you about an aspect of Brazilian life that has always amazed me, namely – dental hygiene. Along with samba and string bikinis, Brazilians are also obsessed with their teeth and their cleanliness. They brush teeth seemingly after every single thing they eat. Son was asked to bring to school toothpaste and a brush to use them after snacks and lunch. I was impressed. But the day I saw two homeless people sitting on the ground, carefully flossing while asking for change, I was simply left speechless. While food might be an issue, old rotting teeth would never be! 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Travel, Fat Cat makes a Statement and Son falls into a pond

The last month and a half have been a complete blur to me. In fact, the past 10 months have been one endless work/party/travel/visitors/Carnaval blur to me. We have been lucky to have many of our friends and family visit us here already (in sharp contrast with NO ONE but the closest family coming to see us in Bangladesh). We also have been traveling as usual.

To make a quick summary of the latest, after the Diplomat came back from India, we took a 5-day trip to Salvador and the small coastal towns of the state of Bahia, before Son came back with Grandma. Salvador has been the capital of Brazil at some point, and later on remained as a major commercial hub since it has a port. Carnaval is a whole new beast up there; apparently, according to the Guiness book, it is the biggest party in the world annually. Salvador has gorgeous colonial architecture and good food. The last day in the area we decided to explore the famed deserted beaches north of the city. After we took a frivolous right turn off the main road to what appeared to be a beach within visible distance, we ended up driving for over 20 mins through a maze of sand dunes on a really crappy road to finally end up in a sleepy, disheveled village whose inhabitants enthusiastically confirmed that indeed, the beach is just over there. It was, and we found ourselves on an endless blue green ocean beach, with snow white sand, and no soul for miles. Except for the owner of the beach shack that just happened to be there, something out of a decadent bohemian movie, and he made us many caiprinhas, glorious giant fried fish and all the works that should go with that. Just as I was nodding off on the ancient lounge chair, put just for me right on the edge of the water, a very naked man came out of nowhere, strolling with not a care in the world along the beach. He nodded to me in all his naked glory and kept walking firmly forward. The shack owner explained that the place we so happily found was indeed a nudist beach.

When we flew back to Rio, tired and wishing only upon a comfy bed, we discovered with dismay that Fat Cat did not appreciate our prolonged absence and had taken not one, but two incredibly foul smelling poops in our bed. Mind you also, both were on MY side of the bed, one practically tucked under my pillow, sort of a delayed surprise of the first discovery of poop was not enough.  Since I had just spent 3 weeks alone with him at home while the Diplomat was gallivanting in India, I took this to be a meaningful statement for me to teach me a lesson what would happen if I ever leave again for a prolonged period of time. It was 5 days, people! And the neighbors took care of him every day. Damn cat! Those of you with pets surely know that it takes several scorching laundry cycles to wash that cat feces smell away from your silk satin sheets. We were not on speaking terms for a week.
A week after Salvador, I had to leave for a week of work in Sao Paulo. The Diplomat decided to join me for a weekend of exquisite Japanese food gorging; at least we did go to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art, otherwise it would have literally been a trip for the sole purpose of eating. After I came back, exhausted from travel, we welcomed a family of old friends and their kids. The following weekend, the Diplomat and Son joined them for a blitz weekend trip to Iguazu Falls, while I decided to rest home. And rest I did – I got up at 11 am, played with the plants on the balcony for an hour, then had a massage, a facial and a blow dry. After which I went to 1) a bachelorette’s party, 2) a birthday party, 3) took a friend for a drink on the rooftop of a super hot hotel for her birthday, and 4) re-joined the bachelorette’s party in a nearby club. I got home that night about 4 am. I felt absurdly cool about myself. I still do.

Life is more or less back to normal here. Grandma left, Son is back in school, the Diplomat and I are back from endless travels and Fat Cat is using the litter box for a change. This past weekend, we decided to be good parents for a change, and took Son to a goat farm about a couple of hours away from Rio, up in the mountains. I admit, the idea was not mine, but of a friend’s who is a much better parent than I am. So, armed with two kids, the Diplomat, my friend A and I took off for the goat farm on a balmy Saturday morning. We only got lost 2 times, and the kids did not stop yelling the entire time. The farm was called Fazenda Geneve, and had a fabulous outdoors restaurant, various smelly, delicious goat cheeses, a bunch of goats and a dirty, muddy artificial pond. After we sat down to a lovely Carmenere and several cheese creations, the two boys disappeared running about the farm, shrieking in delight. We yelled at them to make sure not to fall into the lake and proceeded to sample cheese. So naturally, 10 minutes later they fell into the lake.

Thankfully, it was shallow. On the other hand, it was still full of wet water and decomposing flora and fauna, all of it quite smelly. After some piercing screams from the sopping wet kids, there was nothing else to do but strip them down to their boxers and prostrate the wet clothes and shoes on the neighboring trees to dry. It was rather picturesque, if I may say so. The restaurant graciously lent us two large white tablecloths, which the kids happily donned like white capes and ran around the farm like two deranged mini ghosts. It was a visit no one will forget soon, including the farm owners.

In other work news, I actually finally got tenured. Yey me! We are also currently bidding for our next tour, an exercise of particularly cruel torture, equal to none in the world. More on that - next post. Hopefully with some news.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Epic July 4th week

Among the many fun things we do as U.S. diplomats overseas is host the annual Independence Day celebration for all the post’s local and foreign contacts. As far as I know, this is done by every single Embassy, consulate or whatever else diplomatic presence overseas we have (unless it isn’t, in which case I don’t know what I am talking about). Generally, each foreign mission abroad tends to celebrate their national day, whatever that might be and it is considered to be the mission’s main representational event for the year, where everyone goes all out and tries to throw a nice party to show just how cool their country is. One of my favorites ever remains Bangladesh’s Independence Day hosted in Beirut, which I attended while I was there on TDY, because they had all the awesome Bangladeshi food I was missing, all cooked by the Bangladeshi Navy cooks, whose ship was docked in Beirut that week.

In the U.S. missions, the super event is frequently organized and managed by a whole team of people, often lead by a hapless entry-level officer or two. In a fit of patriotism and misguided dreams of becoming an event-planner, this year I volunteered to spearhead and organize the July 4th celebration in Rio de Janeiro. This is one of those examples of the proverb that the road to hell is filled with good intentions.

Now, you should know that those events are never organized with taxpayer money. Relax, my dear U.S. taxpayer, why should it be so easy for us? Instead, all these events, all around the world, depend 100% on donations by U.S. companies overseas. We are always at the mercy of the generosity of corporate donations, Pete bless them! and the way this fun process works is like this: only direct hire Americans are permitted to solicit donations by our internal regulations. Thusly, depending on the size of the post, frequently the enviable task of cold-calling sponsors falls on the shoulders of the bright-eyed entry-level officers. You know, some people love fund raising. Some people, in fact, are excellent at it and even get a rush. Some people are born fundraisers and thrive on it. Some people are also tremendous figure-skater and lion-tamers. I am not one of either of those. I love party planning. No one told me, however, that I had to organize also the entire fund-raising amazingness. But it had to be done.

So, my very first task was to ask for valiant volunteers among my splendid colleagues and bless their hearts, they came through. In the meantime, another volunteer from the consulate decided to co-organize the party with me and we were also soon joined by the Diplomat who wanted to hone his management skills. With money in hand, the three of us began to search for a venue to hold over 500 people for virtually no money in Rio de Janeiro. Shockingly, we were not immediately successful until the Diplomat, in a fit of later-recognized genius, suggested we hold the shindig on the soccer field of the American School. Horrified, I objected strongly – I had visualized an elegant affair in black tie in one of Rio’s old palaces. Except that we could not afford them palaces. Soon, all Consulate leadership embraced the idea enthusiastically and so, grudgingly, I had to go with it. Luckily for the Diplomat, when the decision was made, I was still in Lebanon, otherwise I am afraid he would have suffered from my wrath. Once I came back and was ready to deal with him, he promptly disappeared on a TDY to India and left me and my other co-coordinator to deal with the planning.

Having a massive event at a soccer field far, far from the Consulate and the business downtown rather than in a smaller, contained space used to catering large events meant that we had to think of everything ourselves instead. Think of an outdoor wedding for 500, and you will get the idea. We also had to find a way to bus all of the employees there, find a band and procure food and drinks, all for very little money (well, as far as event planning in Rio goes, I suppose). In the end, we ended up with not one, not two but three bands (granted, the last one was comprised of folks form the Consulate and they made sure they played after all of the invited guests were gone), and incredibly generous catering provided for free by various donors. It was an affair to remember, if I may say so myself. After the party, our highly esteemed guests commented that it was possibly the best one ever organized by Consulate Rio. Well, why, thank you! And truth be told, despite the weeks of planning and frustrations, several nights of actual nightmares, a week of solid rain immediately preceding the day of the party and constant last minute changes, I loved doing it!

Loved it or not, I was most definitely July 4th-ed out and needed a break from work after it was all done. Son had left the week before with Grandma for his usual summer stint in Bulgaria, and with the Diplomat in India, I found myself going on a small vacation all by myself for the first time in my entire life. I knew I wanted a warm place (it is winter here and temperatures drop to 70 in Rio, brrrr!!), on the ocean, with a fabulous hotel with a pool and a spa, which was also easy and cheap to fly to and I had not been to before. Recife it is! I left on a grimy Friday, and giddily announced my little vacation on Facebook (oh, what, like you don’t do the same??) as I was waiting at the airport. Suddenly, I got a message from a friend on a TDY to Recife saying that we should get together once I get there, and by the way, Consulate Recife’s 4th of July party was on Saturday, would I be interested to go to it? It also did happen to be in the same hotel I was staying. I laughed so hard that my eyes teared. So, I got to celebrate our independence twice this year. I can tell you that being a guest at such an awesome party, however, is way more fun that being the organizer of it.

I have become one very irritated flyer lately. As I write this, I am on a plane on my way back from Recife and my neighbor is a young dude who apparently seems to think that this particular plane ride is the best place to watch the most recent Terminator movie. I agree, it is a boring 3-hour ride. I also agree that the Terminator is one heck of a great way to spend your time. What with all the loud explosions, chases, screaming and shootings and all kinds of Oscar-winning sound effects. What I disagree with is that one should watch said super loud movie without headphones. Dude, seriously!

This recent trend of watching loud crap on the plane, where a bunch of people are crammed particularly closely together in increasingly smaller and smaller spaces is simply driving me insane. On the way to Recife, across the aisle from me was sitting a family with a 5-year old who apparently could not possibly breathe without his iPad. That is fine as far as I am concerned - Son has also been known to enjoy extra computer time on long flights. The problem here was that the stupid contraption was set on the highest possible volume and the kid was playing a horribly inane game, learning the names of animals with loud voices and various obnoxious chimes. Neither his father nor mother seemed to think anything was wrong with this scenario. At takeoff, after we were asked to turn off electronic devices, dad tried to take it away from him. Holy crap, you’d think they were taking away life-sustaining care from him. His screams went on for about 20 mins as we were going up, and then the exhausted little menace fell asleep and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Sadly, shortly thereafter, the stewardess came to distribute drinks and he woke up. A minute later, and we were all back in the land of loud iPad infant gaming coupled with his delighted and unbridled screaming as he whacked his mom on the head with the iPad ever now and then. She appeared to think it was all adorable. Unable to sleep or read, I finally asked politely if they could lower the volume. Mom gave me a murderous look and told me she is trying (she wasn’t!). Then she did actually try and the kid gave such a blood-curdling scream that I picked up my stuff and moved at the very front of the plane. Which wasn’t particularly helpful since the portly lady behind me was happily watching some loud recording of a wedding party on her iPhone. Damn you, modern technology!!!

So, this is my plea for consideration – folks, please, PLEASE use headphones on the plane (and any other place where there are other people around you). THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU IN THIS WORLD!!!!! Shockingly, you are not the center of the universe. At least not the universe of your fellow passengers. Please, be considerate. Ugh.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

We went to Machu PIcchu!

So, I arrived back in Rio on an early Saturday morning (think 5 am), and after a painful 40 minutes waiting to have my passport examined at the airport, I jumped into a cab and ran home to see the boys. In the next four hours, I had to empty my two huge suitcases and re-pack them because that same day, at 3 pm, the Diplomat, Son and I left for Peru for vacation. I am proud to say that we made it to the airport with time to spare and with perfectly packaged luggage.

Lima is a lovely city with incredible food. Everyone has been talking how in the past few years Peruvian food has been one of the best and the most innovative in the world. And it is! Besides cebiche (oh, my God, the cebiche!!), I can’t really say what is typically Peruvian food. Each restaurant has a chef trying to outdo everyone else with creative, at times odd combinations of ingredients, presented exquisitely to the eager eater. One of the nights, I took the Diplomat to dinner for his birthday at one of the fanciest Lima establishments, Maido, featuring Nikkei cuisine (that unique Peruvian-Japanese combo that is, errr, unique? Think cebiche sushi. Yeah, can’t explain it. Anyway). After we overdosed on cebiche and pisco sours, and listened to Son complain for 3 days straight that he was too tired to walk around the city (he was not, blasted child was just bored), we flew to Cusco to begin our amazing Machu Picchu experience.

Now, you might have heard that Machu Picchu is so high up that ordinary tourist folks (like us) suffer from the high altitude. We armed ourselves amply with soroche pills, offered to me by a stone-faced pharmacist in Lima, and were sure to take them before getting on the plane in Cusco, as advised. We gave Son the child equivalent. Either the pills were full of crap and I am amazing, or the pills worked only on me because, folks, let me tell you – altitude sickness hit the Diplomat and Son like a ton of high altitude bricks, while all it did to me was to make me out of breath when climbing steep streets, which was more probably due to my ever expanding posterior rather than rarified air. We started off with a mistake by beginning our tour in Cusco. Cusco is 3,400 m (11,200 ft) above the sea level (at which we live in Rio, by the way), and Machu Picchu itself is at 3,200. Oddly, 200 ft make a difference!

Exactly 8 minutes after we arrived, the Diplomat decided he was already badly affected and began complaining. Son complained too, for good measure. We piled into a cab from the Cusco airport, and went to our fabulous digs at the Sonesta Hotel, a most amazing, cheap hotel in the middle of it all. I was excited and giddy to be there. I had been dreaming my whole life to go to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I was actually on my bucket list. It was all so exotic and ancient and ruin-y and enchanting, and very much lacking in oxygen as far as the Diplomat and Son were concerned. We were greeted by copious amounts of coca-leaf tea (nothing to write home about, so don’t get excited) and some of the most hospitable people I have ever seen this side of the ocean. After we dumped our luggage, I put on all of our sweaters (you must know that I detest being cold; I revel in heat and humidity and shiver the moment it falls below 20 Celsius) and marshaled the gasping Diplomat and the unwilling child to climb through the enchanted steep streets of Cusco to have dinner at the acclaimed and romantic Pachapapa. All through Son kept complaining that he was not feeling well (I did not believe him), and the Diplomat kept stopping and rubbing his chest (I did not believe him either). We pushed through and had a lovely dinner. We took a cab back.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by loud noises in the bathroom, and was son told that Son had just thrown up. Son is 6 and a half years old. He has thrown up exactly one other time in his entire life. Clearly, he was not faking it. I suppose it was possible the Diplomat was not faking it either. So, the next morning, after I took both of my weakened men to breakfast, I decided to leave them to recuperate in the hotel room and go see the local ruins by myself with a promise to come back at lunch. I hired a cab and set out to explore old Inca ruins above the city with amazing names like Sacsayhuamán. During the trip I got a great taste of Inca architecture, acquired two alpaca sweaters and took a side trip on a horse (my first time on a horse, actually). Happy and slightly out of breath, I came back to the hotel to pick up the men, sure that they were in much better shape and ready for lunch. Instead, I found the Diplomat morosely drinking gallons of mint tea, and Son wearing a giant oxygen mask, playing a game on the Diplomat’s kindle in the hotel lobby. A sorry sight indeed. Everyone eventually pulled themselves together and we managed to see the city in the next two days and to eat even more amazing, creative food.

From Cusco, we hired a cab and took the 2-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, a cute little town from where one takes the train to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for Machu Picchu. Oddly, there are two different companies running trains to Aguas – the Inca and Peru Rail, and arguably one is better than the other. I can’t say – it is a one hour journey through fabulous scenery and unless you are booking the Hiram Bingham express (which is a fancy train with a 5-course meal), I’d think that all you care about are the cost and time of the train. We ended up with Inca Rail, purely as a function of those two factors. Perhaps here is a good time to mention that I managed to book the entire trip online, from the hotels, to the trains and to the tickets for Machu Picchu itself. If your travel plans are more or less firm, I’d recommend you do the same for peace of mind and in order to use a credit card. 
Here is what you need:
·         From Lima to Cusco
o   Star Peru -
o   Pervian Air -
·         From Cusco to Ollantaytambo
o   Hire a cab, 3-4 hrs – 100 pesos (about $30)
·         From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
o   Inca Rail -
o   Peru Rail -
·         From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu park
o   Shuttle bus from town center, buy tickets the night before to avoid long lines, $19
·         Machu Picchu -
Or you can climb the whole thing. I am sure it’s fun.
While we were sitting in the restaurant at the train station in Ollantaytambo, waiting for the train, we stumbled upon none other than Son’s first grade teacher. Coincidentally, he had spent the last 2 days complaining how much he missed her and looking to buy her a gift. In fact, we had just spent 30 mins explaining to him who we could not call her from Peru (1. Did not have her number, 2. Would be really weird). So, meeting here there was fairly surreal.

The train ride up to Aguas is enchanting, as the tracks wind along the lovely Urubamba river, surrounded by tall, stark mountains and lush vegetation. We got there, settled into a cheap hotel, ate a really bad dinner in the next-door restaurant and fell into a coma, anxiously anticipating the next day. We got up at dawn and ran to the bus up to Machu, ostensibly to avoid the crowds up there. The thing is, everyone does the exact same thing so the result is that you end up with the crowds anyway. Frankly, my recommendation is to get up like a normal person, have a good breakfast, pack a lunch and head out around 10 am. Unless you are climbing one of the mountains there, you’ll have plenty of time to see everything, have a picnic lunch (secretly!), and climb around some more.
It is tough to describe Machu Picchu, frankly. Y’all have seen it in pictures, and as I write this, I am watching a National Geographic story on it (which happened thoroughly randomly, and the coincidence is freaky!). It looks exactly the same in real life. What is astonishing about it is the extent of preservation of the construction, the phenomenal engineering thought behind it, its purpose and its location. Frankly, it seems to me that there is no consensus on the purpose of the place – our tour guide told us that MP was largely a science laboratory, which on an average day had about 200 scientists and a bunch of support staff, with families staying elsewhere. There were agronomists (the Incas were mad about growing quinoa and corn, for example, and those terraces that you see in the pictures were used to saw things and see how they grow and experiment with cross-cultures); astronomers, physicists, engineers, all kinds of educated folk. Naturally, the King and his retinue hung out there a lot as well. There are temples and granaries, and living space, and all is incredibly well preserved. It seems that it was largely built during the reign of a king whose name I can’t remember even if the preservation of the human race depended on it (it has more consonants than a Polish word), and it seems to have been perfected and finished in the span of 3 generations of people (then again, keep in mind that the average age of death back then was 45 – too much quinoa, I suppose).

After the guide left us a couple of hours later (yes, I do recommend getting a guide), we ambled around pleasantly and decided to climb towards the Sun Gate (a rather un-challenging hike, which we were told would take less than an hour). Plus, Son needed to use the bathroom urgently and the only official bathroom is actually located outside MP. So, if you have gone all the way down to see the lower parts of MP, and then the roasted guinea pig from last night (oh yes, it is a local delicacy, you didn’t know??) decided to remind you about itself in your stomach, that means that you have to sprint all the way up to the entrance of the park, pushing eager tourists aside, gasping for air, fumbling your ticket for re-validation and trying to find pocket change to pay your way into the bathroom (of course it is not free, whoever has heard of such absurd concept as a free public toilet!). Instead, we decided to go for a hike and find a nice secluded spot for Son to enrich Mother Nature. With that successfully done, we panted through another 30 mins or so up, being passed by spritely old ladies and grandpas in khaki shorts, large white sneakers and climbing poles. At that point, the Diplomat was theatrically clutching his chest, gasping for air, Son kept running around like a billy goat and I decided that I will leave the Sun Gate for the next time I go see Machu Picchu. Relieved, we all went back down and just as were nearing the exit, it began to pour down.

Few hours later, we were back on the train to Aguas Calientes where we were to spend the night at a funky B&B I had found on The room I booked couple of night before that was pretty much the only one available in the village that night. I was a bit apprehensive as it did mention that it had a shared bathroom but it seemed that there was only one other room on the same floor, so I was OK with that.  We arrived at 8 pm, in total darkness, and were taken to the B&B by a rickety auto rickshaw (up, in Peru, it exists). We entered into the funkiest entrance, which was clearly designed and adorned by a bunch of drunk hippies on a creative high, and were greeted by two teenagers, one of whom was higher than Bob Dylan during Woodstock and the other was a French girl, who apparently was there on a two-week student work-travel exchange, which seemed to constitute of her sleeping with the stoner Pervuan teenager, smoking pot for breakfast, perfecting her highly accented Spanish and providing dubious guest care. Incredibly exhausted by a day at Machu Picchu, all I could do was ask for our room and the bathroom. Then, incredibly, Peruvian Dylan, who could barely say a word straight, turned around and opened a door to a room, which was separated by the rest of the entrance area by mere glass and severely dirty curtains. Inside were two sets of bunk beds, all made of unpolished wood and covered by the most fantastic colorful blankets, which were probably washed last year.  Then he pointed to the bathroom. It turned out to be a tiny thing with a toilet seat and a shower, to be shared by anyone who happened to be on that first floor and the reception. At that point, the French youth cheerfully went to make me mint tea. It was surreal. Son, however, was happy and immediately chose the bunk above my bed.

Eventually, the Diplomat and I went to our respective bunks and I tried to fall asleep only to be woken up by the French girl, who (30 mins later) had brought me my tea. I didn't drink it, it tasted like pot. I fell asleep again and I woke up, frozen to death, around 7 am and decided to go for breakfast. To my dismay, there was no electricity in the whole village. I cannot say that Ollantaytambo was a great success in our book, although the tiny main square was certainly picturesque and the Diplomat swears it was the best sleep he had gotten on the entire trip. From there, we went back to Cusco, stopping by Pisac to see some more excellent Inca ruins, and then by our old hotel to pick up the rest of the luggage we had stored there before leaving for MP (you can’t take much luggage on the train up). Once we landed back in Lima, and I got off the plane and took my first full breath of polluted air, I realized just how rarefied the air had been in Cusco. It was glorious to be able to breathe oxygen again.

Overall, Peru was wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From Rio to Beirut, with a sidestep to Cyprus

I am currently on that elusive Holy Grail of the Foreign Service – the TDY, or a “temporary duty assignment.” TDY means that an officer is posted temporarily to a post other than her permanent one in order to help out said post due to shortage of officers there for whatever reason. Posts that can spare officers at one point or another send them to help out a short-staffed one for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, and after that the wandering soul returns to the warm folds of her permanent assignment. I was lucky enough to be sent to Beirut, Lebanon for 4 weeks, to help out their consular section.

Massaya Winery restaurant
While Beirut may sound very exotic to my reader, I have to tell you that life at Embassy Beirut is not the easiest, mainly because of the many restrictions Embassy folks face due to the security situation in the region. I have been insanely lucky though since I happen to have one of my A100 partners in crime, K-G, serving here and making sure that I am having a fabulous time. I cannot thank her enough. Largely thanks to her, I managed to see ancient Roman ruins, the museum of the famous Khalil Gibran, visited the charming Massaya winery and drank their incredible wine, went shopping for (unreasonably pricey) gorgeous Lebanese antiques and crafts, and even flew to Cyprus for a weekend where the ambitious K-G ran a 5K race, while I cheered on and sat comfortably on the grass. She has also opened her kitchen to me, which means that I get to have home-cooked meals every night, something the rest of the TDY crowd here can only dream of (they tend to eat their meals at the cafeteria).

I live on the Embassy compound, in a so-called hotel, which can be best described as a co-ed college dorm but with a bar and bigger rooms with their own bathrooms and TVs. Because of its size, Embassy Beirut needs a lot of TDY help, which means that the hotel is always full. I am currently the only woman on TDY, which makes everyone hilariously uncomfortable when I go to do laundry in the basement. On the positive side, the room is very comfy and the commute to the consular section is 45 seconds as it is across the street from the hotel.

I left the Diplomat and Son to fend for each other in Rio. Naturally, Son, a very healthy child knock on wood, chose to get quite ill a week after I left. He developed a viral infection, accompanied by 104F degrees fever and strep throat, and entertained the Diplomat with it over the 3-day Easter weekend and a couple of days after that. Apparently, he decided to wake up multiple times per night, as well as have a couple of his infamous nosebleeds (I hear the Turkish carpet took a blow) while testing the Diplomat’s excellent daddy skills. After a short trip to the children’s hospital over the weekend, he was given antibiotics and slowly put on the mending path. I will now take a moment to discuss the immense increase in free communication methods over the past few years. In the past 3 weeks, the Diplomat, Son and I have spoken and seen each other over Viber, Gmail chat, Skype, Facebook voice and chat, and Whatsapp. It is astonishing how much the world has progressed in that respect despite the really bad internet service I get at the hotel here. So, while Son was ill, I would spend an hour daily entertaining him over Gmail chat. I have to say that Skype fails miserably every time the internet connection is not perfect while Gmail chat has always been, if at times grainy, a winner. To pass the time, I’d ask the morose child to dance while I play music for him and dance on my end, after which we would both collapse on each side of the ocean laughing hysterically. God bless technology. I miss my family.

Again thanks to K-G, I also managed to go out to dinner at several fabulous local restaurants. Lebanese cuisine is superb and I can never get tired of it. (OK, I CAN but it will take a while). A particularly exciting night took us to the legendary establishment of Em Sherif, which took over a week to secure reservations. The moment we entered, we instantly knew that we were woefully underdressed and under-make-uped for the restaurant. As we poured out of the Embassy vehicle onto the front steps, a tuxedo-ed guard gave us a stern look, clearly disapproving of my jeans and a sweater (in my defense, I had no idea where we were going and it was a solid 55F outside). With distaste written all over his face, he showed us inside what appeared to be a small banquet hall clearly prepared to host the post-wedding reception of Kate Middleton and Prince William. So many silver plates, so many embroidered napkins, so many sparkling wine glasses. And no other customers – we were the first ones for the night. After we announced that we had a reservation, the maître d' reluctantly led us to a spectacularly laden table for four and disappeared for a while. Finally he re-appeared, bent over and intently asked, “You eat?” Sure, why not buddy, since we ARE in a restaurant, after all, might just as well eat. We asked for the menu, and I swear, I heard the entire staff of the place let out a collective gasp. “NO MENU!,” snapped the indignant waiter and stared at us defensively. In case you wonder, we were confused as the “no menu” part was not immediately obvious to us. “We bring food, you eat!” he said menacingly and waited to see if we would object to that. We dared not. We just sat there, blinking, beginning to expect amazing things.

He disappeared again, and a new guy materialized at the table and asked in a high pitched voice, “You drink??” Absolutely, my friend, we drink. Bring it on! Thankfully, this time he brought a menu and stood there, imperiously looking at us to hear our wine choice. We chose and he went away. All of a sudden food dishes began to appear at our table with lightning speed. In under 50 seconds, there were over 20 plates with various scrumptious appetizers (or shall we say, meze) ready to be sampled, with more on the way. I am not going to lie - the food was superb and we ate without a drop of grace!
In the meantime, more people began coming in the restaurant, which was soon quite full with people all seemingly dressed for the imaginary wedding. Now, let me tell you about Lebanese women and fashion. There isn’t a shoe with heels as high in Kim Kardashian’s closet as there are on every gentle Lebanese female foot. Platform pumps 8 inches high are complemented with astoundingly tight dresses and hair so perfectly coifed that any geisha would hide in shame. Lebanese women as quite fashion forward and carry themselves with a respective poise. For example, this weekend, as I was climbing the super steep stairs to a Virgin Mary statue high on a hill, there were at least 6 women in said heels climbing the same steps ahead of me with the grace of mountain goats. But I digress in my fascination.

As I was staring at and oohing and aahing over the fashionistas, suddenly a super famous and quite fetching music star (Ragheb Subhi Alama) walked in the restaurant and all the ladies simply lost it. All ran on those high heels and congregated around him. From who knows where, a paparazzi photographer popped up and began snapping photos of the exquisite ladies and the famous dude. The noise and the chaos were contributing to a happy circus, which combined with the excellent food and the second bottle of Masaya Reserve made our severely underdressed party of four feel a happy part of the fabled nightlife of Beirut. 

Getting back to Lebanese food, I must pronounce it outstanding. It is, in fact, very healthy as it consists of a lot of grilled meat, fresh salads and cooked vegetables with rivers of yogurt and mountains of pita bread. I also had the happy chance to try Armenian food, which, truth be told, resembled Lebanese in a lot of respects apart from the pure Armenian specialties. If I could pack a kilo of hummus, I would, but I can’t. Instead, I have set a goal of eating a kilo of hummus per day on the spot.

I was lucky enough to be here over two Easter weekends – the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox ones – which made for a very festive environment for most of my TDY tour. Beirut has quite a few churches, which coexist happily right next to lovely mosques, thus representing the very diverse religious make of the country (it has a fairly even mix of Shias, Sunis and Christians) and even managed to get myself into the main Greek Orthodox church this past weekend, right in the middle of the Easter service.

Beirut is a city in constant construction. Ruined in the span of several wars, most recently in 2006, the city is constantly rebuilding itself and the landscape includes hundreds of giant cranes and the skeletons of new buildings going up. I would be so curious what it would look like in 10 years. It has the glamorous areas with the obscenely expensive designer boutiques, the streets cluttered with bars, the expensive hotels. But it also has the Corniche, the lovely seaside promenade where people in the evening to jog, get together with friends, smoke a hookah, listen to loud hip hop in Arabic, streaming from the stereos of the cars parked nearby, make out with your date, walk your dog or hang out with your large family while all the kids roll about on bikes. It also has a petrifying Teleferique, or a gondola lift, which takes you 650 from the sea level up to the steep hills towering over Beirut, in a tiny little cabin, within a mere 9 minutes. It does offer stunning views of the city, that is, if you dare open your eyes during the journey. At the top, there is further climbing up to see Our Lady of Lebanon (where I observed the aforementioned high-heeled ladies prancing about the stairs of the monument), from where one can see a spectacular view of the city.

The dizzifying teleferique
Yup, Lebanon is an incredibly versatile city and I loved being here – thank you for making me feel so welcome, Embassy Beirut!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rio Carnaval and How I Thought I Was Going To Die

You know, I do promise myself to write more often. I used to write like, twice a week back in the day. But it was Carnaval in Rio and you gotta be here to understand! CARNAVAL IN RIO! Sounds positively fabulous, and frankly, it IS. Carnaval itself has a few days of shows at the Sambadrome (yup, they have a stadium made especially for Carnaval, that’s how big it is), where various samba schools will put on a massive show and slowly parade in front of the spectators. Depending on which day you go, you can see the B-list or the A-listers. Usually, folks go on one of the two nights the A-list schools parade – the shows are on TV as well and run all night. One school parade would take up to one hour and 20 mins (anything more, and the school gets point subtracted from its overall score) to parade down the 700 meters of the Sambadrome, and there are 7 schools per night. The shows start at 9ish and as you can figure yourselves if you do the math, that means that the night is over at about 7 am.

Part of the Swiss themed school:
Alien was designed by a Swiss guy. Who knew?!
Each school would have hundreds of people in it, a bunch of floats and a theme. The themes can be creative or, frankly, puzzling. For example, one school’s theme was Switzerland and so each group of dancers and floats represented various aspects of Swiss life. Yup, Switzerland. Because if there is anything that screams Carnaval in Rio it is that rowdy country of Switzerland. Another school’s theme was the End of the World. I must say it was rather entertaining – with the message, “if tomorrow were the end of the world, what would you do?” Each group of dancers (there are about 50, I think in each marching group) kept marching with messages like, “Did you eat enough?” “Did you stay stuck in traffic?” “Did you see the world?” and yes, as you can imagine, also “Did you have sex enough?” This last one came on an actual float (there are usually about 5-6 large floats in each school), which had several nice, residential house doors, painted in bright colors, from which suddenly about 50 butt-naked people jumped out and started making out right in front of us.
A Spectacular Float

To be honest though, a large part of the performers in Carnaval don’t exactly come with much on anyway – pasties and glitter is considered a fairly decent outfit there. So yeah, it is entertaining all right.
Various costumes, all part of one a school - a float in the back
The Diplomat and I had bought some pricey tickets for the first night which allowed us to be at the ground level, right next to the marching schools, and could touch and yell delightedly at everyone. Also, apparently our box was right underneath the box for the judges, which meant that each school would stop right in front of us and perform their numbers (rather than just walk). Which would explain why the whole naked scene unfolded uncannily smack dab in front of our eyes. The night did not start well –as we were leaving home, it began to pour and continued to do for the next 4 hours. It does not rain like this in Rio. Ever. Undaunted, we got there and bought the thinnest, most inefficient and cheap plastic raincoats possible. While trying to adjust it over my head, I ripped it on the neck, which meant that for the next 3 hours, I had water slither down my back. So fun. But the show must go on and the samba schools paraded with smiles so big you’d think it was raining gold.

We were lucky to go with a bunch of good friends, including a good buddy of mine from my A100 class who serves in neighboring Ecuador and got enticed to come and see this fabled Carnaval business. We had a blast but due to general fatigue had to leave around 4 am. Apparently, I had so much fun that, in a fit of suicidal enthusiasm, I decided that it would be a phenomenal idea to go and watch the second night of the parade and that time, folks, I was determined to make it all the way till the end! We had some fabulous friends visiting us from Jamaica who had left too early the previous night and were game to go with me as well. The Diplomat stayed back to babysit. And sleep. We managed to score some tickets online, but sadly, those were in nosebleeds and let me tell you – it was not the same. True, you can see the action sort of as a big picture, but the excitement and hysteria of the nearness to the sweaty costumed screaming, dancing and singing bodies was not there. We did make it to the end, though! We managed to get back home by 7.30 am, where I greeted the wide-eyed and Diplomat and Son who were just sitting down to breakfast, and passed out till 2 pm. Verdict – Carnaval was awesome and everything they say it is!

The very next weekend I had to fly back to the U.S. for 3 days for a doctor’s appointment and that is when I thought my time to die had come. After my appointment, I ran to Costco, that Mecca of consumerism where I bought everything I could possibly need in the next 34 years, and then some more that I positively did not. Thankfully, all flights from and to Brazil allow you two suitcases 70 lbs each! Then I rushed to Marshalls and bought shoes for the men (things like that are beastly expensive in Brazil), and then off to the malls for some more useless stuff. I have to be honest, it was great to be back home! Fantastic service, any possible cuisine that you might desire, big portions, and most of all – cheap! Exhausted but excited to get back to the boys back in Rio, around 9 pm on Sunday, I checked in my giant suitcases and boarded the short 40 min flight from Orlando to Miami, from where I was going to catch the 11 pm to Rio. Once we took off, and after the pilot announced that due to the shortness of the flight there would be no service (LAZY!), I tiredly ruminated whether it was worth falling asleep or should I just read my book. As I was cracking my book open, suddenly the plane shook with a massive thump. Then 10 seconds later, again. And again. And again. At which point I noticed that the left engine was engulfed in flames. Bright, happy, yellow flames. The engine kept thumping for what seemed like forever, and then I noticed that no one but me seemed to be noticing the situation. All I wanted to do was scream – “THE PLANE IS ON F-ING FIRE!!!!” But I didn’t, I am not that kind of a gal. I am cool and composed, and very, very calm. So, instead, I burst out in tears. Finally, people started talking loudly and stewardesses and some dudes that looked like pilots (which made my wonder who the hell is flying the plane) started running frantically about the aisles.

It did occur to me much later that most people had no idea the engine was on fire since they were sitting away from it. I, on the other hand, had the fantastic privilege to be sitting right in the line of sight, where I could see it bright and engulfing like 4th of July fireworks. Then finally the flames were out (later on I learned that there is a way to extinguish the fire internally). Eventually, the captain decided to say something, and told us that we seem to be having a bit of a mechanical issue, no big deal really, practically routine and the plane seems to be flying just fine. JUST FINE??????
After prattling cheerfully about it for a minute or so (while we were plummeting to our death as it seemed to me), he said that he is thinking of turning around to go back to Orlando to check it out. You know, no big deal or anything! By then, I was NOT the only one crying in shock. So was the 22 year old Brazilian dude next to me with biceps so big, he could probably fly on his own had he decided to try it. His dad was between us and was calming both of us down. A stewardess came and told us all how normal it all was and how it was just a precautionary measure. 

At which point, the captain suddenly spoke again, this time sort of yelling at everyone to stop talking, hunker down in our seats, shove everything underneath and prepare for emergency landing. I am no expert on human emotion, but folks, that dude sounded petrified! Which, naturally, did wonders for our mood in the back, and now half of the plane was filled with the howling of hysterical middle-aged women, myself proudly included. The plane made a sharp turn (and so did the insides of my stomach along with it), and began a sharp descent with the cabin in full darkness. It was all very sinister and pretty much everyone was freaking out  and praying. All I could think about were all those recent plane crashes and how I really, really did not want to die. Truly inopportunely, right at that moment, all the TVs on the plane lit up and a perky blond stewardess began to thank us profusely for flying American Airlines. The pilot swiftly turned it off, but then it obstinately re-appeared again, this time emphasizing what a pleasure it is for them to have us onboard. Finally, someone had the brains to turn them all off. We landed in 10 minutes and they were some of the longest in my life. We were whisked off the plane and then stood there, wondering what in the hell to do with ourselves. If you’d think that anyone from the airline came to say – “hey, we are sorry this happened, is everyone OK?” – then you are a naïve fool. As a matter of fact, as we were standing there, asking the lady at the desk what to do next, she yelled at us not to crowd her. Good job, American Airlines, you are SUCH a star airline!

It took over 4 hours to be re-booked on the same flight the next day, and by 1 am, I was beyond exhausted. I returned to Brazil the next day without incident. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

India (briefly) and the beginning of Carnaval 2015

Well, by now enough time has passed that so many interesting things are happening in RIO that I’d rather talk about that than the India trip. Which is a shame. Hm, ok, a couple of paragraphs on India!

We spent the first three days in Varanasi – a one of the oldest cities in the world, and the religious capital of all Hindus . It sprawls on the banks of the Ganga river and every devout Hindu wants to go there to bathe in the river before they die.  Another goal is to actually die there because apparently that will ensure eternal peace of the soul (called moksha) and no more irksome reincarnation. Thus, quite a few people who feel it is their time to die soon, say their goodbyes to the world and move to Varanasi to stay in a “liberation house” and wait to die. Sometimes they come with family, often – alone. When they die, they get burned on a funeral pyre on the banks of the river and that is that.
As you can imagine, all that means that Varanasi is quite the unique city. The access to the river is through the so-called “ghats” or piers, of which there are about 100, all built next to each other by various former rulers, politicians and other VIPs. Almost all are “bathing” ghats, where Hindus go at daybreak to bathe ritualistically and pray before they start their day. On the same ghats, at sunset, they come to perform or to listen to the night prayer as well. There are many priests who perform the ornate prayer ceremonies, but some of the ghats feature especially spectacular night prayer (the night aarati, also known as the light ceremony). Only 2 of the ghats, Raja Harishchandra Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat, are authorized to have funeral pyres, and the fancier of the two, Manikarnika, is controlled by the wealthy Dom family. The Doms belong to the lowest of the Hindu casts, the “untouchables,” and they perform the cremations and care for the grim business of dying on the banks of the Ganga. The current head of the Dom family, the “Dom Raja” is a multimillionaire because it seems that his family charges quite a pretty penny to have you burned at their ghat. In exchange, he will provide you with the 5 starter logs of mango tree to start the pyre that will grant the soul of the departed the coveted moksha. The ghat is indeed a grisly sight. During a lovely leisurely walk along the river, watching the sunset, being watched by the local peddlers, the Diplomat, Mom and I stumbled upon the Harishchandra Ghat quite unexpectedly. So much so that I practically stepped on the listless, rather dead arm of a burning body on a pyre. You see, I always thought that the whole funeral pyre thing was supposed to be this elevated, beautiful, ethereal affair. Rather, the dead body is brought on a bamboo stretcher, put on the ground on the bank of the river, a bunch of wood logs are stacked on top and lit on fire. For some reason the pyre does not include the protruding limbs and head, which are later on pushed under the smoldering body. There are anywhere from 10 to 25 pyres on each ghat at any given time of the day. There is nothing elevated or ethereal about it. It just is.

The next morning, desirous to observe the sacred bathing rituals at dawn, Mom and I rented a rowboat for what turned out to be an excruciating 2-hour slow, breezy float up and down the river at 5 am, at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit), while wearing a t-shirt and a sweater for me, and a light jacket for her. It was still pitch black outside, the ghats were completely deserted save for the occasional local bather (see, December isn’t exactly the tourist bathing season in Varanasi given the intense cold) and, to enhance the effect, there was thick fog spreading over the river. It was absolutely fantastic, despite the fact that my fingers got frostbite and Mom slipped on the ghat steps when we were leaving the boat since her legs were so stiff from the cold that she was unable to lift them up the stairs of the ghat. We still managed to see quite a few devotees bathing gamely in the freezing waters, dipping fully inside and then brushing their teeth with Colgate toothpaste, all with river water. I was impressed – just looking at them made me feel even colder.

From freezing Varanasi, we went back to freezing Delhi where we took Mom to the spice market and Karim’s for lunch, while Son was terrorizing the InLaws in the hotel. We also managed to squeeze in the Diplomat’s 20th college reunion which fortuitously was happening right when we were in Delhi, and a brief wedding reception hosted by a couple of our best friends from Dhaka for a family member, again fortuitously happening while we were visiting.

From the freezing north, we finally flew into the enveloping warmth of the gorgeous Kerala state. While the InLaws went straight back to Chennai, the Diplomat, Mom, Son and I spent three wonderfully warm days in Kochi and its surroundings. One of the things to do there is to spend the night on a houseboat, and I was hell bent on doing just that. It all sounded just so romantic – to sail on a regal-looking houseboat through the peaceful, verdant tributaries of the Kerala backwaters, having food cooked fresh on the boat, and then sleeping to the sound of splashing waves. My ever obliging Father-in-Law promptly arranged a boat for us, and so on the morning of our second to last day in Kerala, all four of us piled up on the lovely boat, and soon were gently rolling through the backwaters. So were 93 other boathouses as well. Turns out, there are about 3000 such boats in the backwaters, and they all take more or less the same route. At the same time. The net result is that wherever you turn your head as you lazily stretch on the rattan sofa on the front veranda of the boat, there inevitably will be another boat with another tourist lazily spread on just the same rattan sofa, staring all the same at you.  Determined to keep the romance of the situation alive, Mom and I succumbed to the upselling of the boat captain, and stopped to take a one-hour canoe ride on a side tributary. The canoe guy mist have been about 112 years old, and rowed like his life depended on it. It was actually delightful to be able to explore life on the small river, and to glimpse into the simple, rural life in the houses strung along the river banks.

Another upsell included a one-hour Ayurveda massage at a different stop for only $25. I can always stop for a good massage so we agreed. Apparently, so had the customers of another 35 boats. What was supposed to be an idyllic, holistic massage in a small village (a business apparently owned by the brother of the boat captain), turned out to be a regular tourist circus. It was in a village alright, and the massage parlor premises were in a small, one-story building. Business wasn’t apparently too good since the building wasn’t even painted. In the somewhat dingy inside, several Indian ladies of respectable age were sitting on cement benches, probably waiting for their turn. Outside, a posse of urgent-looking middle-aged men was standing around the front door seemingly without any particular function save for staring at the waiting women. Right next to the parlor was a rabbit coup with several cute bunnies. Which, while very cute, also smelled a bit. After a brief family discussion, we politely but firmly declined the massages. In the evening, the captain moored the boat for the night right next to the village mosque, and the imam entertained us with his evening call to prayer at 7 and 9, and then at 4.30 am as well. The food on the boat was delicious indeed, and included fish with every meal, appropriately spiced. We were sent to bed at 10 pm. Overall, I would recommend the boat ride but the overnight part is perhaps overrated.

From Kochi, we flew to our final destination Chennai to spend a few days with the Diplomat’s family. I have always loved his Uncle’s family and we had a blast there as usual. It also happened that we were going to spend the New Year’s Eve in Chennai as well and so the Diplomat and I decided to leave parents and child behind and spend the festive night at a good party in a fancy hotel. After some perfunctory research, we chose the Taj Vivanta Connemara where we were promised a banging party by the pool. We were by the pool alright, except that the party was inside and if we heard a song we wanted to dance to, we had to ditch everything and run inside to catch its last few tunes. I was the only white person there, and every time I made an appearance on the dance floor, I was closely monitored by a large gaggle of teenagers who erupted in unbridled laughter whenever I tried to bust a Bollywood move. Needless to say, I was discouraged. I was even more so discouraged when the party ended at 12.30 am. Apparently, no establishment in the city can party (officially) after that. Happy New Year, party poopers! I flew back to Brazil the following day by myself (the Diplomat and Son stayed an extra week and Mom went back to Bulgaria) and spent a week doing a juice cleanse and binge watching Downton Abbey. A week later, a very jet-legged Diplomat and Son returned and life was soon back to normal. Another epic Indian journey was over.

I am happy to report that social life in Rio has actually picked up palpably. These past few weeks have been a considerable madness. Among the more exciting events were the opening of a new burger restaurant in Leblon, the OMG Burger Lounge by a fellow Indian American (spectacular burgers, home-brewed beer(!)); a fabulous  at-home “surprise” dinner cooked by a gourmet Canadian chef (the idea is that you go to his house and he cooks a surprise 5-course meal for a group of 6, we were happy to be some of the chef’s test bunnies as he works on the concept); an incredible rooftop party for some of the sponsors of the Olympic Games; a goodbye dinner at our house for a departing colleague (homemade mushroom soup, made from scratch pappardelle with lamb ragu, decadent homemade tiramisu – yup, I can cook too!); an all-night Carnaval dress rehearsal for a Samba school with a bunch of colleagues; a classy reception by the British Consulate and an afternoon BBQ on yet another rooftop terrace. In the midst of all this it turned out that I had managed to pick up a parasite who lived happily in my belly for some time, causing me to eat massive quantities of food and no little amount of pain. So, for about a week, I survived on anti-nausea pills and parasite medication. My spirits, however, were not dampened!

As of this past week, we are officially in Carnaval mode, which means countless organized street parties, aka blocos, festive mood and, of course, Carnaval itself. A bloco is in essence an organized street madness with a defined route of 3-4 streets, a medium-sized float made up of a truck and a bunch of VERY happy people on top of it, a theme and booming music from the top of the float, anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people following the float drunkenly around the streets (median age is 23), and a lot of foul-smelling Port-a-Potties. The level of excitement is incredible and the point of the bloco seems to be to drink for the sake of, well, drinking, hanging out with friends,and possibly even listening to the music. Some of the blocos are famous (for example, today we have the Sgt. Pepper-themed bloco featuring Beatles’ songs) and are attended by hundreds of thousands of people who drink, sing, dance and are generally super merry. Almost everyone is in costume of some sort and about 98% of all men are shirtless. It is common practice for a guy to suddenly grab a girl (randomly met in the crowd) and French-kiss her while his buddies are screamingly delightedly “beijo, beijo, beijo!!” (which means “kiss” in case that wasn’t obvious). Yup, there is a lot of love in a bloco. There is also an extraordinary amount of beer.

I have been incredibly impressed with the city of Rio, who obviously have this Carnaval/bloco thing down to a science. As you can imagine, the amount of trash generated by such happy party-goers is staggering. Completely undaunted, the city has trash trucks and a small army of street cleaners following the end of each bloco, and most of the time, a mere hour after it is over, there isn’t a trace of it on the streets save for the streamers up in the tree tops. 

I will tell you one thing though - it has been an interesting experience going to work in this environment. All the blocos mean that half of the city streets are closed off, and my uusal 40 min commute to and back from work turns into a 2-hour one. Woo-hoo! But Carnaval or not, folks want their visas and so work we must!
Tonight, however, off to the Sambodromo for night 1 of Rio Carnaval 2015! 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Our Big Fat Indian Family Vacation - Part 1

So, we were due for our annual Rest and Recuperation vacation and decided to go to India. Now, you would probably think that typically people who serve in India would go rest and recuperate in Rio de Janeiro. Not us. We are not that kind of people, thank you very much. That is not how WE rest. Indeed, we scoff at rest (no, we don't). Actually, the reason for the trip was that the Diplomat’s mom was not well and we decided to go visit her en masse and raise her spirits. To add to the fun, my own Mom decided that it was high time she visited India and the InLaws – we have been planning this trip ever since we got married 11 years ago. The logistics were daunting:

1.       Mom flies to Mumbai to stay a week with InLaws before we arrive.
2.       We fly to meet Mom and InLaws in Varanasi, using a Rio-London-Delhi-Varansi route = 3 flights.
3.       After 3 days in Varanasi, we, Mom and InLaws fly back to Delhi for a 3-day stint = 1 flight.
4.       InLaws fly to Chennai to wait for us, while we and Mom fly to Kerala for another 3-day tourist stint = 1 flight.
5.       Mom and we then fly to Chennai to be with InLaws and selected other relatives = 1 flight.
6.       Mom and I return to Bulgaria and Rio respectively. I fly Chennai-Delhi-London-Rio = 3 flights.
7.       The Diplomat and Son stayed for an extra week in Chennai, and then came back.

So, if you counted, that is 9 flights per person to India, which was enormous fun. I found particularly fun the satisfying succession of a 9.5-hour flight to London and a 12-hour flight to Delhi, followed by a rapid and hair raising cab ride from the international to the domestic terminal there (a mere 7 km) in order to catch a fairly close domestic flight to Varanasi. I am flied out.

Folks, air travel is not as much fun as it used to be. I know this is a truism, but I still need to say it. It is NOT fun. For one thing, pre-boarding has turned into a farce! “Welcome to flight 666 to London. At this moment, we would like to invite the Queen of England to board. Then we would like to invite our diamond members. Now we invite ruby and sapphire members. Then the platinum ones. Then our gold, silver, copper, nickel and dime ones. Then the peeps with kids. Then those with cats. Then those with really large carryon bags so that they can take up the entire overhead storage bins quickly. Then we invite those of you who appear important. Then those who are really, really hot. Is there anyone else left? Oh, yes, and now the remaining 4 people lurking about the gate hopelessly can finally board. We sincerely hope that we have managed to show you just how unimportant you really are. If not, we will demonstrate that to you on board plenty when we repeatedly ignore your requests for water or the non-vegetarian meal option.”  

Once you are on board, you begin to ponder the 12-hour flight in front of you as the plane begins to taxi off. 12 hours! That is LOT of time to kill. You start by reading the magazine you smartly brought with you while simultaneously trying to convince your child that it is time to sleep for the next 12 hours. After some mutual unpleasantries, that works and Son is soon deeply asleep, freely prostrated across your lap. Clearly, this is very comfortable and adds to your amazing flying experience. That takes you through take-off until you reach the coveted “cruising altitude.” Then they activate the movie screens and you begin to frantically shuffle through the “Latest Releases” selection in hope to catch up on all those Golden Globes and Oscar winners you’d missed while you were busy working and all that. You’d think that the selection of movies in a 12 hour flight would be at least decent. Sadly, you discover that half of the movies are action thrillers of the Spiderman variety, and the other ones you have never, ever heard of in your life. Not to mention that they have been released at least 10 years ago. Almost none of them appear to be romantic comedies unfortunately.  Finally, you find a movie that sounds at least remotely familiar and resolve to watch it. This is when you find out that your headphones don’t work. Also, the child sleeping in your lap has wedged his head against the arm rest, thus making it impossible to open your tiny table tray to eat your tiny airplane dinner. You wiggle creatively for some time until you manage to somehow bend over without squishing your prodigy, and grab his headphones. Which also do not work in the left ear. You press the airhostess button to ask for new headphones. Naturally, she does not come. Your husband is next to you, pretending to be asleep. You try to read a bit more of the magazine with dark resolve. Finally, the drinks cart has come and you immediately order 2 scotches. Since this is British Airways, they happen to be Glenlivet. Your whole perspective changes suddenly. Also, the stewardess (are we still allowed to call them that??) finally brings you new headphones with a frown, and they actually work. Well, you hear much better in the left side, but who’s checking – you can now watch a movie!

We are blessed since Son tends to sleep like a log on planes and usually our long-haul flights are not that painful for both us and him. The Diplomat – not so much. Me – after 4 small bottles of Glenlivet, one unidentified piece of meat on top of pasta and two hours of Hugh Grant on a tiny screen, I fell sleep for solid 5 hours. Once in London, we were facing a 9 hour layover, which I thought we can use wisely by going downtown and meeting two very close friends. Two hours later, and we were still in the line for immigration check at the airport. I began to question the whole venture. Finally, we were free to roam the British land and we hurried to store our hand luggage and find the fastest way into London.

And then it hit me that in London, it was winter. Like, REAL winter, not winter Rio style. That was a small element that I had overlooked, and for which was woefully unprepared. Actually, I had taken a sweater and coat for Son, and a sweater for the Diplomat, but nothing except a long-sleeved summer dress and a woolen scarf for me. Not to mention that I was wearing sandals. So, we were quite the sight when we presented ourselves at Piccadilly Circus where it was 6 degrees Celsius and people were wrapped up in woolen coats and scarves and boots like it was the end of the world. We scoffed at it, and braved the cold to marvel the cuteness of pre-Christmas London. The Diplomat, who had never been to London before, was enthralled. I was not bothered by the cold anymore since 80 seconds after coming out of the Tube, I lost all sensation in my extremities. All this lasted a solid 4 wonderful minutes until Son, still sleepy from his 45 minute nap on the way from the airport on the tube, began to whine that he was cold and resolutely refused to walk just about anywhere where it was not inside. So, we picked the first pub that crossed out path and bravely walked in to dine on fish and chips, burgers and excellent local brew. Everything was exactly as I remembered it from 15 years ago when I spent a year studying in London. Except that now I actually could afford to be INSIDE the pub, and not staring at them mournfully from the outside, on my way back from school. I was a rather penniless student at the time.

After an hour and half in the warm, enveloping insides of St. James Tavern, we hurried back to the airport to catch the next 12- hour flight to India. All went well, and exactly 35 hours and two days after we left, we landed in Delhi, India. Where it was cold. AGAIN! For the love of Pete! You’d think this would be the end of our trip, but why should things be that simple? We landed at about 10.30 am on Saturday, and had a local flight to the old sacred city of Varanasi in about 3 hours. I those 3 hours, we had to collect our voluminous luggage, hop into a cab so that we can get to the domestic terminal of the airport (which happens to be 7 km away??), check in again and make it to the flight. Well, we made it. In Varanasi, we were greeted by the team of grandparents who were ecstatic to see us (well, mostly Son really) and we were all whisked away in a couple of Innova minivans to the stately Taj Varanasi, courtesy of my fantastic Father-in-Law.

Next installment will give you some details from the next 2 weeks of frenetic travel and sightseeing – I promise to spare you all the gritty details and only regale you with the more “fun” parts. Among those – a 5 am, 4 degree Celsius loooooooooooooooooooooooooong boat ride on the Ganges, a 20-year college reunion, an overnight trip on a houseboat in Kerala, along with a sumptuous cockroach and the call of the muezzin at 4 am; a peculiar New Year’s Party in Chennai and how to leave your mother alone in the middle of the night in an largely unknown large Indian city in the hands of a savage looking cab driver who has no idea where he is going.