I think I have four bathrooms

I just moved into my “permanent” housing (“permanent” in government-speak means “for two years”). When I arrived a post, the Embassy didn’t have a place for me to live yet. So I stayed in a small serviced apartment for seven weeks. It was OK, but small and sterile. I was glad to get into my permanent house this week. And it’s big. For the first time in my (short) career, I am not in an apartment. I am in a “villa,” which might be government-speak for “too much house.”

When we are posted overseas, the Department has to provide housing for us. There are many reasons for this. Sending people abroad is expensive. We are here to do a specific and important job. Asking us to take time to house-hunt an inefficient use of our time. Time taken up by house-hunting is time that we can’t focus on our jobs.

Another reason is safety. Unfortunately, building codes in many countries around the world aren’t up to American standards. And like the houses, social conditions abroad are not always stable. The Department is responsible for our safety. For these and a number of other reasons, people smarter than I am decided that it makes fiscal and security sense for the Department to choose where we live.

I am totally on board with that. I like to be safe. Living a long and natural life, safe from earthquakes and violent riots, is very near the top of my bucket list.

Living in government-supplied housing has advantages, none of which I want to gloss over. In the nearly six years on the job, I have only felt unsafe one time (thanks for nothing, fire-suppression systems in Country X). While at post, I usually feel the safest when I am at in my office in the Embassy, and at home in my government-approved housing. When something goes wrong (*ahem* smoke detector batteries, *ahem*), the facilities management people are there quickly, and solve the problem for me.

The downside is that the Department has to source housing from available properties on the local market. I remember one of my friends was shocked when I told her we don’t live in a sealed Embassy compound. Well, we do, in some countries where security concerns make it necessary. But most of the time we live in rented apartments in the city where we work. We shop for groceries where the locals shop, and eat in restaurants where the locals eat. And we live in houses that typically were built for local people. I’ve lived in some places that could be described as “quirky.” I’ve witnessed in horror the hideous wallpaper and lighting fixtures that other people have lived with. One of my coworkers here has a kitchen with no sink. Yes, that’s right. No sink.

I recently learned that Bangladesh is a seismically-active zone. Meaning that there are earthquakes here. When I was assigned my house, the housing board bragged that my house is “seismically sound.” Meaning that it won’t collapse on top of me in the event of an earthquake. That is a plus to me, as I mentioned above.

Government housing also (usually) comes furnished. The Department bought furniture with durability in mind, not fashion. Archeologists hypothesize that the Department bought a large collection of furniture some time in the early 1800s. That furniture is still in use today. It is in my house. And “beautiful” and “stylish” are words that refuse to be associated with it.

Welcome to my large living room, furnished by Satan Himself. How would you describe the color of the sofa? I call it “dog diarrhea.”
My dining-room chairs. Welcome to 1795!

The house has been in the “pool” for several years. Many diplomats have lived in this house over the years. The facilities folks in the Embassy do a good job of upkeep. My mother likes to say the a coat of paint covers a multitude of sins. Probably true, but some sin doesn’t wash clean.

My kitchen is Western-style and complete, but the cabinets are dated. Not complaining, but it isn’t great.

A few days in now, I no longer get lost in the house. I accidentally walked into one of the bathrooms several times the first day, when I was intending to go into one of the bedrooms. And speaking of bathrooms. I think that I have four full bathrooms: one downstairs (blue bathtub), and three upstairs (pink bathtub, green shower, and maroon shower). For a single guy, this is too much house. The house also has a small yard. I have to cut my grass, or hire someone to do it for me.

The stress of setting up housekeeping is minimal, compared to the relief of finally having a “permanent” home. Living in a hotel room, no matter how large, is stressful. As soon as my HHE (household effects) arrives, I can really make this house a home.

So far, the best part of this house is this one piece of furniture. I had one of these in my apartment during my first tour. This one is even better.

I think I will be happy here.

“Are you bored in Dhaka?” Part 1

I live and work in an area known as the “diplomatic enclave.” It’s still Dhaka, but not as intense as the rest of the city. We are shielded from a lot of the drama and stress of daily life in Bangladesh, which of course is a benefit to us. But it’s also a wall, preventing us from understanding how people here live. We can’t get out easily, either. Security restrictions limit our movements in the city. So I was glad that the Embassy organized a tour of the Old City, led by local university students. Of course, I jumped at the chance to experience parts of the city that I don’t usually have the chance to see.

While we were walking through the winding streets of the old city, one of the students asked me: “Are you bored in Dhaka?”

I seriously thought that she was joking, but she wasn’t. It’s hard to believe that anyone could be bored in this city. Out of all the possible feelings that I’ve experienced so far, “bored” isn’t even in the neighborhood. Overwhelmed, yes. Astonished, sad, outraged, grateful, indignant, confused, disoriented, lost, impressed, also yes. But “bored?” Not yet, and probably never.

Part of the tour included a boat tour down the Buriganga River. It used to be a branch of the famous Ganges River, which also flows from India through Bangladesh on its way to the Bay of Bengal. The river is as busy as the roads in the city. Lots of people going to and fro, living their lives.

No Starbucks? No Problem!

I was a little disappointed when I learned that Starbucks doesn’t (yet) operate in Bangladesh. I certainly don’t crave the burned-tasting, liquid heartburn in a cup that Starbucks sells, but I’ve collected Starbucks espresso cups with the name of the city that I served in from my prior posts. Unless the chain decides to open a franchise in Dhaka before my tour is over, there will be a hole in my collection of Starbucks cups.

A good coffee shop is more than a source of caffeine, though. Part of urban life is sitting in a coffee shop with a hot mug, a sweet treat, and a good book or conversation. That’s why I was so happy to discover North End Coffee Roasters.

They offer a vibe like a modern coffee shop. Italian espresso machines, a case of pastries and cookies, Coffee-themed framed posters on the exposed-brick walls, and college-aged hipsters behind the counter. They were roasting their own beans before it was cool, you know.

North End offers a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, comfortable seating, fast WiFi, and most importantly, good coffee. They roast their own beans. The coffee is smooth and flavorful, much better than Starbucks. I even bought some beans to take home for my morning brew. It’s a little expensive at $7.50 for a half-pound bag, but hey, life’s too sort to drink coffee that doesn’t make you happy.

There are chains throughout the city, I’ve been told, and was delighted to hear that there is a shop right across the street from where I will be moving next week.

Good coffee = good life. Put that on a t-shirt, somebody.

Dhaka in Slow Motion

Turn up the volume, the music makes the magic happen.

My boss and I were going to a meeting in the city. I shot some video from the back seat of the car. My phone was accidentally on the “slo mo” setting. I didn’t notice that until later when I was reviewing the video. I was going to delete the video clips, but then I noticed that slow motion might be the best way to view this country. Some quick editing in iMovie, a little music from Greg Hawkes, and I give you: Dhaka in Slo Mo!

Another Country, Another Very Serious Wound

Continuing my proud tradition in the Foreign Service, I managed to reset the Days Without Injuries sign in the office to zero.

One of my new responsibilities is “Accountable Items Officer.” I have to keep our important documents secure. When they are not being used, they have to be locked in a safe. Before you start thinking that I have access to top-secret spy information, I should explain what the items are.  I do not have access to nuclear launch codes (people who know me should be very relieved to know that. The world is a much safer place with that information NOT in my hands), or the keys to Fort Knox.

Rather, the important documents are things like blank visa sheets and the seal that we use to notarize documents. Not exciting material, true, but in the wrong hands, they could do some damage to national (and personal) security. So we have to keep track of those items. That’s my job. My ultra-glamorous task is to open the safe every morning, and hand the visa “foils” to the LE staff to print. Then in the evening, I collect the unused sheets, and lock them up in the safe.

Not 007-level excitement. No one will ever make a spy movie about this task. But it’s important, and I take it seriously. Because I don’t want to get fired, and I want to stay out of jail.

A few days ago, I was doing the morning start-up procedures, and I attempted to open what I am now ironically calling the “safe.” To open the safe, you have to pull a big, heavy ka-chump lever.  One morning,  in my haste to get the door open, I ka-chumped my finger between the handle and the safe. Hence the ironic usage of the word “safe.” Blood and naughty words leaked out.

If I were smart, I would have gone to the med unit at post.  But it’s across the street.  In order to get there, you have to leave the Embassy, risk your life crossing the street, and enter the annex compound.  I figured it wasn’t worth bothering the nice people there, I could patch myself up right in the office.  Being an OSHA-compliant work place, the Consular section does have a first-aid kit.  That dates from World War I, from the looks of it.  And the contents seem to date to the Civil War.  The kit contains a pair of scissors, some gauze, rubbing alcohol, and tape.

My makeshift bandage. This may or may not lead to gangrene and an amputation, which would be 100% my own fault.

No infection so far.  I’d cross my fingers, but I can’t at the moment.

Beef bacon is not awesome

I get it, Bangladesh. Bacon is awesome, but you’re a Moslem-majority country, so real bacon is a no-no. And you did your best, I’m sure. It kinda, sorta looks like bacon.

But.

It does not taste like bacon. Instead of the crispy, oily, smoky goodness that is bacon, you gave me a mouthful of tough, chewy, salty, beef jerky.

Not awesome. Thanks for trying, but you did not succeed. Next time, maybe try goat.