Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Consular Fellows Program and the game of registering your car in Virginia

I have been meaning to write about the Consular Fellows Program (formerly the not-so-elegantly named Limited Non-Career Appointments, or LNAs as they are still popularly known) for a long time. Rejoice for today is the day! So, what is this program thing, you ask?

Well, essentially, the State Department has finally realized that visa demand in certain countries, affectionately known as “visa mills,” will just not slow down and will keep growing, while at the same time there can never be enough foreign service officers to tackle that demand. They did hire a whole bunch of us about 5 years ago (also know as “the surge”), which dealt with the immediate need for entry-level visa officers, but only resulted in a glut of us once we got promoted and started moving into the mid-level ranks. So, in a stroke of genius, rather than continue the surge, the Department instead began hiring smart folks who speak key languages in countries with high visa demand, for 4 to 5 year gigs as visa officers. The initial program proved to be so successful that now it expanded to hire speakers of languages like French and Russian. Thusly, currently, DOS is recruiting awesome smart people who can speak any of these: Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and French and are curious about living and working overseas for a few years. Check the recruiting schedule here: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/consular-fellows.

For the duration of their contract, the Fellows are treated 100% like Foreign Service officers - they get trained in the supercool (not) Foreign Service Institute, get the dip passport, the paid housing, the consular immunity, their kids can attend private schools in that country, they get perks like student loan forgiveness, the usual health insurance and so on. In exchange - you get to do visa interviews and deal with American citizens overseas, or whatever other fun activities a consular section can throw at you. Depending on where you are, you can even go for a short period of time to a different embassy to help them out if they have a staff shortage (also called a TDY, or a temporary duty assignment). All of my LNA colleagues in Brazil got to go on at least one, if not more TDYs during their tours, to places like Jamaica, Cuba, Chile, Peru, China, you name it.

As the name of the program cleverly suggests, this is a limited gig only. The original contract is for 4 years, and you can extend for a 5th year, which almost everyone does. This is not a shortcut into the Foreign Service (although you’d think it would be?!) and after finishing, people go on to bigger and better things in life. Since I have not done the exam myself, I can’t really speak to it, but my understanding is that once your language proficiency is established, you will then go to an Oral Assessment exam, which is quite rigorous and resembles the FS one. Here is pretty good info on the way the exam is structured with some great examples. After that is all said and done, you will go through the exasperating and excruciating security clearance process, and if by then you haven’t given up, you’ll be ready to ship your life overseas for the next 4 years. All of your immediate family gets to go with you (unless you don’t want them to, which um, well, is your own problem, really). I have been asked many times on this blog whether I recommend the program and I cannot say YES with more conviction. I think it is an awesome gig, especially if you are fresh out of college, happen to speak quite good Mandarin and want to see if the whole living overseas thing is for you, or you really need to live close to Target, be able to call your aunt without international charges and have hairdressers actually understand how you want your hair cut.

In other news, we have finally managed to register our car in the great state of Virginia, no matter how much they tried to make us NOT to. Who knew that trying to register your car and actually driving it legally in the state of Virginia, in the county of Arlington, was tantamount to winning Survivor - full of hidden obstacles, pure endurance and Catch-22 challenges. The car arrived on a hot Wednesday afternoon, delivered by a 6’11” giant and his colleague. It was so filthy, you’d think they’ve used it in the mines for a week before they brought it back to us. In the remarks from the U.S. Customs, it was (possibly sarcastically) written - “Very dirty!” It sure was.

That same afternoon, rather naively I might add, the DIplomat and I went to the nearby DMV to register it. We only had the few customs forms sent to us from the Transportation Office at the State Department, essentially stating that this car is coming back to the US from Brazil and is in compliance with whatever obscure environmental standards there are. After staying in line for only 34 minutes, we presented ourselves, breathless with excitement, at the check-in desk at the DMV where a surly and officiant employee listened to our request to register the car that same day in disbelief, looked through our documents and asked us (fairly enough) for the title to it (since our car had never been registered in VA before, they had no record of it). We did not have it. What is worse, we did not know where it was. We looked guilty. We were clueless. We were poor excuses for car owners. We probably did not deserve to own a car. Until I remembered that when we were leaving FOR Brazil, I had to give a copy to the Transportation Office in order to ship it. The title was with the lender (the car is still not paid off) and I actually had the copy in my email. With some flair for good measure, I triumphantly waved the phone in her face, showing her the title. She couldn’t have been any less impressed. With a steel look in her eyes, she barked - “I need the original” and our little hearts sank.

We began to call frantically our lender to see if they would somehow agree to mail the DMV our title. Like, tomorrow morning, if possible. The lender pretended they did not understand for a while what we were talking about. Then they told us that we need to send them a formal request to send our title. We paid an unreasonable amount of money to fedex overnight such a request (a one page paper that could have easily be scanned and emailed). Two days passed in nail biting anticipation and when nothing happened, we called them again. They pleaded utter ignorance. Then they promised to overnight us the title after all if we paid for the mailing charges. Naturally, we did (interesting fact - overnight Fedex is expensive). Two days later, after I ripped the crisp fedex envelope apart, I stared in disbelief at a letter from BMW Financial Services, cheerfully listing the registration requirements for the state of Virginia, along with a form letter for us to fill out, requesting our title. Not the title itself. Not even a teensy little copy of it. Or maybe a teaser picture, you know, like proof of life with kidnapped people. I cannot tell you why the contents of the expensive fedex package could not have been e-mailed to us to save us 1) time, 2) money, 3) many expletives. Considerably pissed off, we called them back and after some yelling, the clerk sheepishly told us that actually, they do not have our title after all. Nope, never had it, not even for a moment. Turns out, the state of NY (where the car was previously registered) has our precious car title.

At this point, about 10 days had already passed from the day the car arrived. In the meantime, I managed to get car insurance, get it through inspection and do all kinds of other required things. So, when the Diplomat called the NY DMV and asked them to transfer the title to VA, which they did instantly, you’ll have to understand his unbridled enthusiasm going to the DMV 3 days later, reams of papers in his hands, ready to drive off with a freshly registered vehicle. After a minor snag, where he was sent back home to retrieve more documents after a testy exchange with yet another indignant DMV clerk, it all went fine and miraculously, at the end of the day we had a brand-spanking new VA-registered vehicle! Which was good, since we had been renting a car for over 2 weeks by then, which was yet another expensive element in the whole coming-back-to-America experience. Not a second too late, we received a letter from Arlington county to tell us that we owed them money for a (very classy) Arlington county decal because they have noticed that we “garage” our car frequently in the county, as well as some awesome car taxes. Now I am just waiting for our street association as well as the block community to shake me down for some more cash for more cool decals allowing me to “garage” my car in front of my own house. Welcome back to America!

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Olympics, Fat Cat does us a favor and we unpack in the U.S.A.

For the last year and a half, the Rio Consulate has been preparing for the influx of Americans for the Olympics and all the possible imaginable and unimaginable dramas that can come with that. Then the Games finally came and with them that enjoyable beast – the “official visit.” Now, every Foreign Service officer, at one point or another in their illustrious career, has had to deal with or, as we say, “work” an official visit of some type. It could be a CODEL (a Congressional Delegation), or a STAFFDEL (Staff Delegation), S visit (Secretary of State, our boss), a VPOTUS (the Vice President of the United States), POTUS (I will let you figure this one out), or even a FLOTUS visit (any guesses? No? Ok – First Lady of the US)(yeah, we have awesome acronyms in the State Department). These visits are meant to advance the interests of the United States in that country and our job at the numerous Embassies and Consulates around the world during said visit is to facilitate them in any way possible so that the visitors can concentrate on their mission.

So far, I have been lucky to work two S visits – of Secretary Clinton in Bangladesh and of Secretary Kerry in Rio. The first one lasted 23 very busy hours on a stifling Saturday. The second – 2 days, right before the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio. With about a ton of other heads of states and various important people from all over the world, in the midst of traffic and gazillion tourists, I am proud to say that Consulate Rio made sure that the S schedule went off without a hitch. Other than that, my work during the Olympics, thanks to all the great prep we had done, was rather unexciting apart from a visit to prison on my very last day of work to calm down an arrested American. It was a classy end to a fabulous tour.

We did manage to see some Olympic events in the meantime. Most sports were easy to get tickets for and we did enjoy some particularly riveting ping pong, badminton, and golf qualifiers. I went to see the rhythmic gymnastics finals (Bulgaria took bronze!) and even the basketball finals, where we saw the Dream Team destroy Serbia. A couple of days later, after an epic goodbye party at a friend’s gorgeous penthouse overlooking the ocean, we packed our bags and went to the airport to leave the stunning city of Rio de Janeiro and come back home. You’ll remember that at the time, Son was in Bulgaria with Grandma, and so it was just the Diplomat and I, plus a highly hostile Fat Cat.

For those of you traveling with pets around the world – this is yet another cautionary tale of how absurd travel can be with those beasts (whom we love, arguably). We booked our flights with the amazing American Airlines back to Washington, DC as we did not really have a choice of carrier. The government has contracts with all three US airlines, and wherever they have flights, we are obligated to fly with one of them if we are on official travel. So, AA it was. Once the tickets were booked, I called the airline to make sure we can take the cantankerous animal with us as checked luggage (as opposed to cargo, which is much more expensive, even though he’d travel in exactly the same place in the plane’s belly). I was told that I can and just to bring him in with us as we check in. So, armed with 4 suitcases, one carry-on, a large golf bag and a big cat carrier, the Diplomat and I presented ourselves brightly at the AA check-in counter at the Rio International Airport with only one thought in mind – how to upgrade ourselves to business class with miles! I handed the airline clerk our passports, smiled more obsequiously and broadly than a Cheshire cat and watched him as he began clacking on the keyboard completely expressionless for about 5 minutes. Then he said – “You cannot go on these flights.” Perplexed, and with an even bigger (admittedly, fairly fake) smile I asked him what he meant. Placidly and somewhat lethargically ven, he informed me that the connecting flight from Miami to DC was too small and would not accept cats.

People, what kind of a plane is too small for a bloody cat – are we going on a hang-glider, for Pete’s sake?? Perplexed, I asked him what exactly we were supposed to do and for the next 1 hour and 4 minutes the clerk and three of his head-scratching colleagues tried every single flight combo from Rio connecting to DC in order to re-book us. Additional complication was the summer heat rule, which says that if the average temperature on the tarmac on the day of arrival is above a certain temperature (say, 90F), a pet cannot land there. Since our original flight would land at 5 am, that was not going to be an issue. It was, however, a problem for the flights the rest of the day – the ones that would actually accept a portly cat aboard. Thusly, a feline Catch-22. Eventually, defeated and deflated and freezing (don’t get me started on Brazil’s obsession with the A/C), we were told that we were successfully rebooked on a NY flight that same night, from where we would fly to DC, Fat Cat in tow. Relieved, we immediately asked our burning upgrade question and the bleary-eyed clerk sent us to the Business Class lounge to sort it out, he was so sick of us. I like to think everything in life happens for a reason – once we got there, we learned that the Miami flight’s business class had been fully booked so if we had gone on it, we wouldn’t have been able to upgrade, but the NY was not – it had exactly two last seats left. Boom – champagne and warm nuts at take-off, score! Thank you, Fat Cat!

And we are back in the U.S.A! As every Foreign Service officer will tell you, the reality of living back home can be jarring and rather expensive. For starters, even though many of us have our previous furniture stored in some mysterious storage place in Maryland, after that gets delivered, one inevitably needs more crap to settle as we have acquired a lot more “ethnic” crap along our tours. And so begin the trips to IKEA and Home Depot (I have to say their legendary bad customer service has actually worsened, which is a feat in and of itself) and Target and Walmart, and then the countless hours putting all your new flimsy stuff together. Just when you think you have it all under control, the HHE arrives. For the uninitiated – when we move from post to post, our precious possessions get shipped to us in two distinct batches. One is called UAB, or the unaccompanied air baggage. That one is small, about 300-500 lbs (size depends on how many family members travel), travels on a plane and since it arrives fairly fast, folks generally pack their most important things there. The other one is called HHE, or household effects (I think?!) and that one goes on a ship. A real, big cargo ship, which moves at, you know, ship pace. Depending on where you are going, it might take up to 3 months to see your stuff, and usually when it finally makes it, you have almost forgotten what is in it. So, it is like a really bad Christmas where you get up to 7,200 lbs of your own old stuff, some of it moldy (depending on how long and where it has traveled), some you have hoped you had tossed away years ago and some you found delightedly (like a pair of brand new leather booties you had just bought before you moved to Rio, and then once you unpacked there, you never found them and thought they were lost). But it is all there, and all at the same time, all thousands of pounds of old clothes, books, forks and knives, ancient candles, your kids’ artwork from 2 years ago, broken Christmas toys, a large ornamental vase, which looked great in your living room in Guangzhou but screams kitsch in your 1950s Virginia town home, workout bench and two large bags of wine corks. We actually did not have that much stuff, and “only” had 138 boxes (trust me, that is not much compared to many others!). The issue was that all those 138 boxes got piled up in every nook and cranny of the house.

Our new house in Arlington has probably about a quarter of the closet space of our apartment in Rio, even if square-footage-wise it is much larger. That has made unpacking a challenge and at the same time rendered some decisions very easy – for example, to finally throw away a denim skirt I have not worn in 7 years but looks so damn cute, I was sure for all those 7 years that I would find a good occasion to wear it. I have not yet, and so the skirt has left the house. That said, I am not a hoarder and this lifestyle has been very conducive to regular purging of household effects. I even threw away a few pairs of shoes (collective gaps, I know, but they were fairly old and somewhat ruined by Rio’s salty air). Overall, progress has been made and almost all has been unpacked. Now all we need to do is register the car in the august state of Virginia and fight off the slugs in the yard, who keep eating the newly planted lettuce. Not sure which one is more challenging. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 25, 2016

A wedding in Bulgaria, monsoon in India and honeymoon in Rio

We just spent two eventful weeks in my homeland of Bulgaria, where we did absolutely nothing useful besides seeing family and friends, eating, drinking, shopping and playing golf and tennis. We arrived on a beautiful warm Saturday night after a 12-hour tortured Lufthansa flight, during which I was sandwiched in the middle seat in the middle of the plane, with Son’s sleeping head on my lap (more like, on my bladder). The child sleeps well on a plane. In fact, he does not wake up at all until we land. Which makes going to the bathroom a nightmare for me. At least I watched Zoolander 2, which, as you can imagine, was excellently terrible.

On Sunday, the Diplomat began exhibiting alarming signs of restlessness, explained only by desperate desire to play some sport. He even mentioned going to the new Sofia golf course, a proposal met with an icy stare by me. But the next day I capitulated, and after a lunch at Grandma’s, we embarked on the task of finding the damned golf place. It is newly built, and while everyone can point you in the right direction and tell you that it is a mere 20 min drive, no one really knows exactly where it is. My Mom bravely said that she will drive us, and so we all piled up in her car, along with a sullen Son, who’d rather stay home and play with the myriad of kids in front of the building. Nearly breathless with anticipation, the Diplomat was glued to the car window. We quickly got to the area where rumor had it the golf course was. And there the trail got cold. Nothing around suggested that there was or has even been a golf course there, or in which direction to go to search for one. We began asking. The first guy at a gas station sent us a few kilometers further down the road. The second guy at a car shop told us to turn around and go right back to the same spot, and turn left, from where it would be pretty obvious, he said. It wasn’t. We were in the middle of a village with no one around us. Suddenly we spotted a young woman with a lanyard and a formal looking ID dangling from it. We asked her and she exclaimed: “It’s right here!” and pointed to the nothingness behind us, and then rapidly disappeared. In utter disbelief, we tried out luck again and asked an aloof-looking man with faded blue pants held together by an old rope. He gave us a wild stare and silently pointed towards the sky. Finally, utterly exasperated, we asked an unassuming man on a dilapidated bicycle and a dainty hat whether he had ever heard anything about a golf course around there. He calmly gave us exact directions and rode off into the heat of the day. 15 minutes later we found it – in the middle of nowhere, really and with no signs whatsoever. We sent Mom and Son back home, and I kept the Diplomat company as he blissfully played the beautiful course.

While in Bulgaria, we were also lucky to go to the wedding of my closest cousin, which was pretty darn cool because 1) I have never been to a wedding in Bulgaria, 2) I like his wife, and 3) well, he is my cousin. In the midst of all the leisure and good food, the Diplomat and Son took off for India to see the In-Laws, while I devoted myself to fervent shopping and reconnecting with former middle-school classmates and various friends, while getting occasionally shafted by savvy cab drivers (don’t get me started). The Diplomat went to India, all ready and excited to continue his life of leisure on the swanky golf courses of Mumbai. Nature, however, was apparently concerned that he wasn’t spending enough time indoors, so it rained for seven days straight. It rained day and night, and some more in between. I kept receiving mournful pictures of thick rain and flooded streets. Monsoon ain’t for the faint of heart. Or those obsessed with golf. All in all, it was a time very well spent on all ends.

Son, as usual, thrives in Bulgaria. Speaking at times broken Bulgarian, he spends his days outside playing with the kids in front of the building and the innumerous kittens residing there. Apparently, the garden besides our apartment building had turned into a halfway house for libertine single cat moms, and at the time I was in Sofia, there were at least five of them, each with a litter of cute fluffy babies (brimming with lice) much to all the kids’ (and mine) delight. We thus left him with Grandma for the next two months and came back to Brazil to face the Olympics and enjoy free time like newlyweds.

It just so happened that recently was also our 13th wedding anniversary. To start off the celebrations, I booked us a couples’ massage at the Rio Sheraton hotel, in one of the most gorgeous spas that I have ever seen, perched on top of cliffs overlooking the fabulous Rio beach line. It has a luxurious common lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows, and delicious petit fours. The massages themselves are, of course, excellent. It is only fair albeit a bit embarrassing to admit that the Diplomat and I are addicted to that spa. (It does help that our health insurance, in a fit of genius, covers massages, recognizing their immense benefits for one’s wellbeing and kind disposition.) We go there often enough that the spa staff and its manager actually know us. Thus, it made all the sense in the world that we will go and have a massage in the spa for the special occasion, so earlier that day, I had called to make an appointment and did mention that it was our anniversary. After the sumptuous one-hour massage (ruined partially by the sonorous snoring of the Diplomat occasionally puncturing the serene silence), we put on the white robes and stumbled back, dazed, into the common lounge, only to by greeted by the splendid sight of a bottle of champagne, strawberries, cream, and chocolates, along with the smiling staff of the spa, congratulating us. See, that is why I love that place – they have class! And champagne! From there, after a solid dose of the champagne, we went on to one of the best restaurants in Rio, Lasai, which serves cuisine that I can’t really describe. Stuff with foams and sauces and tiny things mixed into bigger things and surrounded by some other things in surprising combinations, served in odd plates or on stones, all absolutely creative and incredibly delicious. Also, atrociously expensive but by then you are too full and drunk to care. It was a pretty good anniversary.

We have exactly one month left in stunning Brazil. Our ample possessions were packed out last week (typically that happens just a few days before one leaves post, but because of the Olympics, the Consulate had to pack us out way in advance since no one here would really work once the Games begin). As is Foreign Service custom, once our stuff is gone, the Consulate delivers to you the notorious “welcome kit,” which varies in quality and form all over the world, and depends largely on the creativity and taste of the General Services officer at that post. The idea is to give you enough household goods that you’d be able to survive in the empty living space until your own stuff arrives, things like pots and pans, cutlery, glasses, linen. In Dhaka, we got sheets with negative thread count and blankets made of what could only be described as horsehair. In Rio, we have fluffy blankets and nice sheets, but also pillows about 2 mm thin. Also, no wine glasses but a top notch grater. Seriously! But all over the world, no matter how many plates (usually 4) or trashcans (1) you get, regardless of whether you receive a working iron or a colander, or whether the pots and pans were actually washed by their previous owner or come with who-know-what grit caked on them, you will invariably get a snazzy 22-inch Coby TV smaller than your computer screen. We all get this welcome kit upon our arrival at post while waiting for our own crap to arrive, and then again once our crap is packed and shipped off. And so, depending on how long it takes for your own oversized TV to arrive or how much more you have left at post, you get to spend some quality time huddled around the tiny screen. But fear not, courageous Foreign Service Officers! There is light at the end of the TV tunnel – apparently, apart from the Foreign Service General Services Offices around the world, no one else was buying the tiny, exotic TVs and in 2013, after a costly dispute with Phillips, Coby Electronics went out of business. So, once these TVs finally give out, we might all get upgraded to - oh, call me frivolous! - 28-inch non-Coby TVs in our welcome kits! Until then, however, keep huddling!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Rio Shakes it Up and Son Grows Up

This has been a rather intense past 2 months, where our usual relaxed, beachy Rio lifestyle was pleasantly shaken up by a series of parties, receptions, dinners, weekends away and friends visiting. I have also been on an inexplicable kick to cook Asian food, which has understandably deeply excited the Diplomat. I also managed to fly back to the Motherland for a weekend to furnish our newly-acquired house and rent it out. In the midst of all that, the Diplomat played more golf than a retired military colonel and Son began to ask all sorts of grown-up questions about babies and their origin.

I do not even remember when it all started. In the beginning of April, deciding to delight the Diplomat with a befitting present for his birthday, I took him out of town to a bed and breakfast in the former mountain retreat for the long-extinct Brazilian royal family nearby Rio, in pretty Petropolis. Now, you should know that Petropolis boasts a gorgeous golf course and for weeks on end before that I had to endure hints, random mentions, loud thinking and not so-subtle suggestions that a weekend in the immediate vicinity of that golf course would be a rather acceptable gift for the Diplomat’s birthday. I rallied a bunch of our good friends and we spent a beautiful weekend there, during which the Diplomat and his golf buddy J spent 75% of their time at said golf course. To be fair, the 75% included them being badly lost on the way to and back from the golf course until it became clear that there were not one, but TWO courses around. Such are the perils of that game.

The weekend was followed by a series of parties and late nights out dancing in downtown Rio as some of our closest friends and colleagues here were getting ready to leave Rio while others came to visit us. We also attended a swanky party honoring a famous journalist in a gorgeous mansion belonging to one of the oldest families in Brazil, where the champagne was pouring freely while all kinds of intellectuals were deciding the fate of the country in theory.

I do not know if you have heard, but Rio is about to host the summer Olympics and much of our professional lives have been deeply steeped into preparations for the hordes of Americans coming to Rio to support the teams and to get in trouble in general. To that effect, we have been attending receptions and events with various representatives of the local security authorities and Olympics-related folks (it’s staggering how many people are involved in planning these Games), making sure we are all set for the eager Olympics tourists. We talk with diplomats from the other foreign missions to compare plans and exchange brilliant ideas. We take Brazilian officials to the U.S. to have them observe how we prepare for big sporting events like the Boston Marathon or even Superbowl. We plan for emergencies, prepare contingency plans, write secondary contingency plans and overthink outreach to our fellow compatriots. We listen to grim predictions about the state of the infrastructure and impending Zika apocalypse on CNN. And so I think you will understand me when I tell you that, as far as I am concerned, these Games cannot come any faster. Or could move to Newfoundland for all I care.

While the Diplomat and I have been thusly busy, suddenly, Son began to ask many a profound questions on the subject of girls and babies. I would like to remind the kind reading audience that the child is at the ginger and impressionable age of 7.5 years. He is a lanky, tireless kid obsessed with all gross things little boys are obsessed with. He laughs to tears when he farts in front of my disapproving gaze and can make paper planes till he is lost under the pile. In other words – Son is a little kid. I think. That is why I get startled when in the middle of a sunny Sunday afternoon, I am suddenly being asked pointed questions about how to make girls like you. Wait, what?? Didn’t you just spend an entire afternoon trying to eat ants? What girls?

We have also ventured into the land of babymaking. While we still have not had the conversation with the technical details, at this point Son is fairly clear that both mommy and daddy are somehow part of the exercise. Rest assured, it was all presented very nice and romantic to him, with long discussions about love and inner beauty. Which is why I was a tad taken aback when last week Son came to me pensively, looked me dead in the eye, and asked me, “So, how do you NOT make a baby when you love someone?”

Last weekend I finally managed to motivate myself and the family to go climb the iconic Two Brothers (Dois Irmãos) mountain adjacent to where we live. Dois Irmãos are those two peaks that you typically see behind the beach with a serious sunset lighting every time someone talks about Rio on TV. Told that the peaks are not really challenging to climb (in fact, an elderly couple’s blog said that they had done the hike many times in flip-flops under an hour!), I rushed the excited Son and underwhelmed Diplomat out of the house on a pleasantly overcast Saturday morning. After a 7 min taxi ride we got dropped off into the lower parts of Rio’s safest favela Vidigal, from where we had to take some form of transport up the steep streets of the favela to the beginning of the hiking trail. One could choose a motorbike taxi or to ride in an old, rickety minivan. In a fit of misguided adventurism, I decided to get on a bike and wait for Son and Diplomat who took the van. I have never been on a motorbike before in my life. Ever. So perhaps my first ride should not have been through the narrow, broken, crawling with cars and people, steep and winding streets of a favela. One way or the other, we made it up and in a few moments, Son and the Diplomat showed up as well and off we went on our hike. I think you have gathered by now, if you are a regular reader, that we are not hikers. This was only our second ever hike in our lives after Patagonia and I have to tell you – it was challenging. At one point, as we were crawling precariously up a large rock, I wanted to meet that old lady who seems to climb it for breakfast in her peignoir and fluffy house mules while drinking coffee from a porcelain cup and give her a piece of my own mind. We made it in about an hour after all, and the views from above were fabulous. What was even more striking was the amount of Brazilians taking selfies in various state of undress, perched perilously on the slippery rocks. That is a lot of dedication for a duck-face, hair-side-swipe picture.

We are preparing to send Son over to Grandma’s in Bulgaria for the summer, from where he will go directly to the U.S. as our tour here comes to an end, and so the sad week of goodbyes for him has begun. Previously blissfully blasé about losing friends and nannies, these days Son moves around mournfully and requests sleepovers and ice-cream on a daily basis. To make him happy, I constructed a tent in his (tiny) room of a rope and a blanket, where he moved in immediately and brought with himself most of his prized possessions and some crumbly food. He refused to take the tent down for 4 days, which made moving about or cleaning the room absolutely impossible until my housekeeper tersely asked me today when we are going to get rid of the “favelinha” or the “little favela” – a perfect imagery since the make-shift tent had completely lost shape, the floors were covered I cookie crumbs and there were clothes and books strewn all over the floor. Like a grim military policeman, she swiftly took the favelinha down. I will miss her!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The House Is In Saturn!!

The last month and a half have been a little underwhelming health wise in our house. If you would kindly remember, at the beginning of February, right after we returned from Patagonia, the Diplomat took off for India to see the In Laws and attend a resplendent cousin wedding leaving Son and me behind to fend for ourselves in the Marvelous City. He left on a warm Monday evening and on an even warmer Tuesday, I was informed that I needed to go into an emergency surgery, which would keep me in the hospital for 2 nights. It could not be delayed for even an hour. Highly distressed, I began to frantically try to call the Diplomat who was living up at Heathrow airport to give him the news. Wi-fi at Heathrow turned out to be highly underwhelming. After an hour or so of unsuccessfully trying to connect with him via Whatsapp, I was already picturing myself dying sadly on the operating table under general anesthesia without saying a few last poignant words to him, voicing my eternal love and barking important instructions for Son’s future upbringing. Finally, the call went through and I managed to relay the distressing news. When he offered to turn around and catch the next plane back to Rio, I valiantly refused and wished him a good trip. I don’t know what possessed me, I am never that gracious. After that, I tearfully asked my housekeeper to stay the night with Son, refused my close friend C’s offer to come with me to the hospital and off I went under the knife. I felt so sad for myself, I cried a bit on the operating table before the drugs hit, which visibly freaked out the (very handsome) anesthesiologist.

I emerged two hours later, disoriented as hell and freezing, with an army of nurses and doctors all over me. (A quick sidebar to give props to the most amazing Samaritano hospital in Rio, which easily rivals any fancy American one.)  As it was a stomach-related surgery, I could not really get up and could not even move much in the bed. That made for a very long and sleepless night. My only solace was the rather unexpected bonus given to me by my doctor - a DVD with the surgery (?!) - which I actually watched and found absolutely fascinating. Yup, my insides are riveting! Oddly, so far only Son has agreed to watch the DVD and I can tell you, he found it amazing.

The next morning, I finally got a call from the Diplomat who had just landed in Chennai and was in the car with his parents. After establishing quickly that I was still alive and very, very hungry, he proceeded to tell me that on the flight from London to Mumbai he had managed to faint 3 times for no apparent reason. Thus, upon his arrival, he was met by the airport medical team who whisked him away to the med unit and gave him a bunch of IV, in the process of which he almost missed the Chennai connection. He was apparently still feeling horrible but I do give him props for commiserating with me.

After one more night in the hospital, I finally went home to my poor child. Still walking with great difficulty, in the next few days I was wonderfully cared for by my housekeeper and an army of fabulous friends who visited me, cooked for me, cared for my child and generally made sure I did not lose my mind in the absence of the Diplomat. A couple of days later, I also developed a fantastic and incredibly itchy rash, most likely as a result of the painkiller I was taking. That is also when Son decided to get a severe strep infection and have a fever of 103F in a matter of an hour, on a Saturday night. Did I mention it was also Carnaval and so my housekeeper was off for 5 days?? Thus, off painkillers and still moving gingerly about the house, I began taking care of the poor sick child while intermittently talking on the phone with the still visibly ill Diplomat in India. After a day of iboprufen and acetaminophen, the fever would not budge below 101 and so I had to take Son to the emergency room on a blazing hot Sunday, through the drunken throngs of festive Carnaval youth. A little later, armed with a prescription for antibiotics, we made it back home, Son feeling worse and worse and perilously hot. I spent another sleepless night, feeding him drugs and trying alternative grandma remedies like vinegar-soaked towel on his forehead (which made the bedroom smell like salad) and rubbing him with cachaca (which made the bedroom small like a cheap bar). In the meantime, the Diplomat kept telling me stories of feeling weak and ill all the time and sleeping constantly.

Around that time I also noticed that Fat Cat was sporting an oozing right eye, which strongly suggested he had conjunctivitis. If you have been reading this blog for some time, you would be aware that Fat Cat is not the type of cat that will allow a loving owner to carefully examine the eye from up close and try to clean it. Rather, in response to your loving care, he will scratch your own eyeballs and hide in the guest bathroom hissing at you for the next two hours. So, I decided that I cannot deal with him at that point in time.

Some time that week, the Diplomat had mentioned to me that his mother had called an astrologer to the house (for the life of me, I do not remember why). Among other highly insightful things, the sage professional had mentioned that our (that is mine and the Diplomat’s) house is “in Saturn,” which apparently meant that we would all get very sick. Which, in all honesty, we already were, so I was impressed by her immense skills. (Ominously, she did not mention when exactly we would be exiting said Saturn.) And sure enough, the next day I saw that the fish, which a friend had given recently to Son and whom he had promptly forgotten and thus (shockingly) I had to care for, began behaving rather odd, twirling all around its little aquarium. In between giving antibiotics to Son, scratching my terrible rash, changing my surgery dressings, listening to the Diplomat’s meek reports of ill health from India, trying to catch the hissing cat to least clean his eye, I began also researching what would cause a beta fish to twirl. After hours on the internet, I concluded that he had a blocked gland and was simply unable to poop. I set out on a treatment course of 3 days of fasting, followed by me defrosting a pea, splitting in quarters and trying to feed him with it. He was having none of it; instead, he began swimming in tight circles, chasing his tail like a frenetic poodle and my housekeeper eventually figured out that, to my horror, he was actually eating his tail.

Luckily by then Son had already recovered and went back to school. I was able to walk more freely and even took a couple of walks out of the house. A week later, the Diplomat returned and mournfully informed me that he had zero energy to do just about anything, including playing tennis and golf. Now, that was serious. A trip to the doctor showed that he had an unusually low blood sugar and a barrage of tests later, he was pronounced pre-diabetic. He was told to stay away from white rice and beer and to generally eat healthier. None of that made for an improved mood but after following that advice for the next several days, he began to feel better and I am happy to say that the local golf course has recovered from its temporary financial crisis in his absence. After enduring the sight of the ever disappearing fish tail, I finally got up one morning and sent the fish in the better swimming fields of the Rio de Janeiro sewer system.

We also finally pinned down Fat Cat and took him to the vet, where he was given eye drops and a crème but zero instructions on how those were to land in the hissing animal’s eye. After we took him home, the Diplomat armed himself with silicone cooking gloves and a towel and proceeded to chase Fat Cat around the house. The idea was for him to grab the wriggling meowing devil while I open his eye and shove medicine in it. Yeah, right. By the sounds he was making you’d think we were trying to cut off his legs. We finally managed to corner him in our bedroom and pounced on him with all our might. After a five-minute breathless fight with the satanic cat, I think I managed to pour some eye drops up his nose. Good enough. Sufficiently scared the next evening, we decided to give it a rest for a day. After a little prayer, we resumed the torture the following days and I am happy to report that now we manhandle him expertly with very little pushback and protests and his eye is back to normal. You’d think that we were finally out of Saturn except that for the past one month I have been sporting a fierce sinus infection, which despite antibiotics and an army of nose sprays is still raging on unabated, making me sound like an asthmatic wolf most of the time. Come on, Saturn!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Fireworks over Copacabana, Penguins in Ushuaia and a Wedding in India

The New Year began rather auspiciously and appropriately on the Copacabana beach with a bunch of good friends. In Rio, folks dress in white and go to the beach to see the spectacular fireworks, meet the new year and generally be very, very merry. The beachside boulevard, which runs along the entire beach through dontown, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon is closed, which cases fantastic traffic jams in the rest of the city and 10-times surge pricing on the 6 or so Uber cabs cruising the streets. So, the Diplomat and I donned some crispy white linen, left Son with an overpaid babysitter, and prepared to join in the merriment with our friends at a party in Copacabana. After 10 futile mins, we realized that at 10 pm on New Year’s Eve getting a cab was simply not an option. This is, however, how Rio de Janeiro is awesome – the whole bus system network was working all night long. So, we hopped on a bus stuffed with hordes of alcohol-soaked people and a mere 15 minutes later got spit out, wrinkled and sweaty, into the balmy night and into the throngs of white (ish) clad Cariocas. We joined the party at our friends’ place, drank kilos of champagne and at 11.30 headed out to the beach in one jolly heap to join the one million or so folks ready to greet the new year.

The thing to do after midnight is to go to the ocean, throw a flower in it and jump 7 times over the waves, each time wishing a thing. By doing so, you are paying your respects also to Iemanja, one of the old Brazilian deities from the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomble. And so, we made our way valiantly down to the water, an exercise, which took over 8 minutes as the Copacabana beach is frankly humongous and got there just in time for the countdown and the fireworks. Our smart friends M+K had just arrived from the U.S. that morning and had cleverly purchased a bottle of champagne from duty free, which was then duly opened and consumed with much new year’s gusto by all of us. Then we all ran into the water and started jumping like confused rabbits over the waves. That exercise soon eroded into blatant jumping into the water and stripping down to skivvies by all kinds of hysterical tourists, followed by mad splashing, screaming and all around excellent time-having.

Soaked and excited, we went back to dry up, liquor up some more and then begin the journey back home. This time, there was no bus either so we had to slowly walk the 6 kms or so along the beach to get home. All said and done, a fabulous experience, which I plan to never repeat again unless I have a chauffer-driven car.

Having greeted the new year in such blissful style, the Diplomat and I decided that it was time to explore the end of the world, just in case, you know. So, a couple of weeks later, we packed in our skiing jackets, mittens and thermal underwear (ok, no thermal underwear since we got none, but a whole suitcase of sweaters) and flew down to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego to gawk at penguins and check out harsh wilderness. I have been dreaming about going to Ushuaia ever since I was a little girl in Bulgaria and watched religiously some awful Fearfactor-style reality show predecessor on TV, which took place there. I was so excited on the way down that I actually squealed a few times on the plane to the underslept Diplomat’s horror. Son, as usual, slept through every single flight – the child has been quite well inculcated by his obsessively traveling parents.

Ushuaia is quite the modern, functioning little town. It is indeed considered the southernmost town in the world (although the Chileans beg to differ) and the weather is certainly indicative of that – we went in the height of summer and it was a cool 3 degrees Celsius on a sunny day. It looks and feels like a hippie ski town. There are a few good restaurants serving lamb BBQ (cordeiro asado) and king crab (OMG!!). It is windy and cold, courtesy of the Beagle channel on which it is located. The Channel connects the western and eastern parts of South America and thus part of it lies in Chile and part – in Argentina. The highlight of the trip was a much coveted walk among the penguins of Ushuaia.

Now, if you come to Patagonia to see penguins, there are generally three places you can do that – Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia and the Falkland Islands. To visit the Islands costs my annual salary so no matter how badly I wanted to see the controversial speck of land, I had to decide against it. In Ushuaia, while there are many tour companies that can take you to the island in the middle of the Beagle Channel where the cute critters live, only one company is allowed to actually plop you on the island itself so that you can walk among the curious penguins for a freezing hour. The company is called Pira Tour and they are a nightmare to get in touch with via email, mainly because the internet at the end of the world is not what it happens to be, say, in the middle of Manhattan. Frankly, it is astonishing to me that there is indeed internet there. 

Walking with penguins is magical – there is something so humbling about having the clumsy adorable creatures accept you among themselves, coming right next to you because they are curious like small children and even trying to peck your shoes. When we went there, it was the end of the baby season so all babies were already rather porky but till covered with a ton of fluff, which the adults were dutifully plucking off them. It was an hour I will never forget. I admit to plotting to steal a baby penguin but the lead lady was onto me so I came home empty-handed. In Ushuaia, we also spent a day in a 4x4 vehicle off-roading the muddy end-of-the-world roads and then being treated to a most lavish and tasty asado in the middle of nothing. The Diplomat, true to form, insisted on playing golf on the rather picturesque Ushuaia Golf Club where he tough it out for 5 holes before his ears fell off from the sub-zero temperatures and he gave in.

From Ushuaia, we flew to El Calafate to see the famous Perito Moreno glacier. I had my eyes on a tour offering a 45 min trek on the glacier topped off with a glass of scotch in the end. Sadly, kids under 10 are not allowed and despite the Diplomat’s gracious offer to let me go by myself while he stays with Son, I decided to stick with the group.
The glacier is indeed spectacular, like nothing you have ever seen really. All around it there are massive metal staircases so that you can prance up and down to see as much as possible of it. The best part is when a chunk of ice dislodges and falls in the water with massive thunder. We did board a catamaran boat, which took us as near the glacier as possible and we spent about an hour floating about 50 meters from the wall of ice, staring at it. For one hour. After the first 8 minutes, you have pretty much seen all there is of it. Then the boat floats up and down again and you take some more pictures, and then some more. And then you start taking some goofy pictures and your child begins to climb up and down the boat and lean all over the rails to your utter horror. And then the boat floats again up and down the glacier to make sure you have REAAAAAAALLY seen it all. You have. You already saw it 50 mins ago. Oh, we are going back. Yey!!! Massage time! That said, it was worth it.

It was in Calafate where I also had the genius idea that we had to go for a hike. See, I had read that one goes to Patagonia n order to hike (as opposed to eating lamb and drinking Malbec, which came as an unpleasant surprise to me) and so I was determined to do what one needs to do. Hiking happens about 3 hours away, in a place called El Chalten, a tiny town seemingly built solely to cater to hiking maniacs. From El Chalten begin many trails into the Los Glacieres National Park, which offer gorgeous view of the park, its lakes and glaciers. I chose what was supposed to be an easy hike of 4 kms up and 4 kms down. It was said that it should take about 2 hours in each direction. Sure. About 20 mins into the hike, I thought my life was over. Son agreed. The Diplomat just kept sighing pensively. We ploughed on. I will never forget that day till I am alive. The heat, the fatigue, the old people who kept passing us by gamboling up the path like frightened goats, the way back when I did not remember getting back to the bus. In the end, according to my pedometer, we had walked 16 kms (10 mi).

The last evening in El Calafate we went to a dinner and a show in an estancia (think an animal farm), where we watched a sheep being sheared with massive shears by a fierce looking gaucho, drank some shagadelic mate, ate kilos of lamb asado and watched a folkore show of dubious cultural value but Buenos Aires, where to my shock I sat next to a Bulgarian lady. We were probably the only two Bulgarians in El Calafate and happened to sit next to each. Seriously.
much enjoyment. With heavy hearts, we bid Patagonia goodbye and flew back to

The one thing that struck me in Patagonia was the demoraphics of the tourists. Sure, there were the occasional absurdly buff and severely sunburnt German 20-somethings who probably climb the glaciers with bare hands, the Brazilian families with selfie sticks and the American backpacking college girls who look like they haven’t taken a shower since Ohio. But the predominant group were hordes of pensioners, mostly from Argentina and Spain. Anywhere you turned, there were old people in large gaggles, dressed in orthopedic shoes and most fantastic polyesther pants with knitted vests, taking group pictures and munching packed sandwiches. In the end, I decided that there must be some sort of deals for pensioner clubs – not a bad way to spend your retirement, I must say.

We made is back safe and sound, and a day later, the Diplomat took off for India to see the In Laws and attend a fabulous family wedding. I remain back to hold down the fort. I expect grand presents.