Another Week, Another Charter Flight

We learned a lot from the first time we did a charter flight. So when we did the second one yesterday (after many days of preparation), it went a lot smoother. Many problems, headaches, and much heartburn. But in the end we got 321 322 people out.

What a beautiful sight.

Again, everyone from the Embassy came down to the Consular section to help out. Once again, we spent days calling people, building a passenger list.

We partnered with an airline, and on Game Day, we worked side-by-side to get people checked in and on the plane.

The airline checked the passports, then I checked them again.
A panorama from my position at the airline check-in desk.
Airline employees in pink hazmat suits helping passengers.

At literally the last hour, one of our General Services guys drove to a lady’s house, picked her up, and delivered her to the airport. That boosted our total passenger list from 321 people to 322.

After it was all over, I ran into a few of the airline employees, and we congratulated each other on a job well done.
Wave that flag!

We always say that American citizens are out #1 priority. We proved that again this week. Every Foreign Service officer has to do a Consular tour for two years, regardless of their chosen area of specialization (political, economic, management, public diplomacy). So everyone has Consular experience. I’m so grateful to my colleagues in the other sections of the Embassy who gave us a week of their time to work on this effort. When an emergency happens, we’re all Consular officers.

We don't have the luxury of being irritated

The safety of U.S. citizens is the State Department’s #1 priority. That’s what we always say in the Foreign Service, and we had the opportunity to prove it this week.

Last week, the airlines stopped offering flights out of the country. Thousands of private American citizens are still in the country, many of them wanting to return to the United States.

When that happens, our standard procedure is to find a way to get U.S. citizens home. We have a few different options. We can work with airlines to open new commercial flights, or we can organize a charter flight. In some (very extreme, very complicated, and very, very expensive) cases, we can work with the military. That last scenario really only happens when there is a complete breakdown in social order, and the country is on the brink of war. Things are not that bad here in Bangladesh, and no one really expects the situation to deteriorate that much.

So we went with the best option that was available to us: organizing a charter flight.

Here is a little background reading:

https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/foreign-affairs/2020/03/29/us-american-citizens-returning-from-bangladesh-voluntarily

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/30/state-department-playbook-stranded-americans-155832

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am not an airline. I have no idea how to take reservations for a flight, coordinate with an airline and airport authorities, prioritize a passenger list, check people in for flights, and tell people on standby to sit down and wait for me to call them. But that’s what I have been working on for the last week or so. Working with a huge team of my fellow officers, and our locally-engaged staff from the Embassy, we put in 12- to 14-hour days. We had to build a manifest by taking emails and phone calls, then calling people, calling them again, and then calling them a third time. Another group negotiated with an airline to contract a special flight. We had to coordinate with the local authorities to get permission for the plane to land. A million little details that we had to learn on the fly.

Sure, our colleagues in other countries have done this, too, but so much of the arrangements depends on local conditions. We couldn’t just copy what other embassies did. We kept telling ourselves that we were making it up as we went along. The whole worldwide COVID-19 situation is so unique that no one really knows the best way to do this kind of evacuation.

Yesterday was “game day.” The day of the flight. We had the airport to ourselves. All commercial flights were cancelled. We set up our check-in station. A “Solutions Center” helped people who didn’t have their paperwork in order. We originally was going to call it the “troubleshooting center,” but I had a big problem with using the word “shooting” in an airport. Thanks to HvG for the alternative phrase!

They tell us to put a USA flag in plain sight so people know where to go.

Hundreds of people showed up to get on the plane. Yes, some citizens got upset, some complained, some were indignant at the inconvenience, a few didn’t think they should have to pay for the ticket, etc, etc. The Ambassador told me a few days ago: “We don’t have the luxury of being irritated.” And he was right. Our job was to project a cool, calm manner, and to try our hardest not to add to the noise.

People showed up. The airport was crowded but people were cooperative and calm.
Ten points to the person who recognizes the lady in the yellow hat.

A lot of people from other sections of the Embassy came and helped out. We were able to process everyone and get them to the airline counter to check in.

The airline employees were careful to the point of wearing hazmat suits.
The airline employees wanted a photo with the Ambassador. Who wouldn’t?

At the end of a very long day, after a very long week, we got a few hundred Americans on the plane back to the United States. And that’s what it’s all about: being there for U.S. citizens.

This was my favorite sight:

“Departed.” What a beautiful word!

I never want to do this again, but it looks like we will have to. As long as there are stranded Americans in country, our job is to try to get them home. We’ll do our best, but I really wish commercial flights would start back up. I want to stop being the worst airline in the world.

Duck and Cover

It’s a part of life in the Foreign Service.

Every week the Marine Security Guards test the emergency notification system in the Embassy, to make sure that the various alarms are working and that we know what they sound like. Most of the time we don’t have to do anything during the test, just be aware of it. As long as the MSGs announce ahead of time that it’s a test, we don’t have to react.

But sometimes the security officers want to ensure that we can react if there is a real emergency. So when the alarm goes off unannounced, we have to assume that it’s the real thing and respond appropriately.

A Duckin and a Coverin. It’s a Foreign Service thing.

Which is why I found myself sitting under my desk in the middle of the morning.

Luckily I had a fresh cup of coffee with me at the time, so I used the time productively.

How was your day?

Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

Sure, that’s not a real telephone pole. And yes, it’s two bamboo sticks. And if you must know, yes, it’s in the middle of the road. OK, I admit it, it could get blown over by a stiff wind. And since you mention it, no one really knows if those wires on the ground are carrying live electricity or not.

What’s your point?

I have proof that this was not my fault

Security is a real thing when you’re posted overseas, especially in so-called “high threat” areas. Where we’re living now is a high threat area. Besides garden-variety crime, terrorism is a real concern. That’s why my house has a high wall around it, and why there are guards on duty on the grounds 24/7.

In this scenario, getting locked out of one’s house is a big deal. An obvious corollary is that losing one’s house keys is also a pretty big deal.

When a certain member of my household first arrived at post, she wasn’t quite clear on the whole “lock the doors and carry your keys with you” arrangement. We were on our way home after work one day, and she suddenly realized that she didn’t have the house keys. When she left the house that morning, the housekeeper was still home, so she didn’t think to bring our keys with her. Waiting in our driveway while the post’s security folks drove over with an emergency key, swatting the mosquitos, will not make my Top Ten Highlights of this tour.

This week it was my turn. I felt pretty stupid when I couldn’t find my keys. Luckily, by this time, we each had a set, so we weren’t locked out of our house (THIS TIME). Still, I lost the moral high ground when I had to admit that I couldn’t find my keys. She was pretty cool about it, didn’t lord it over me (too badly). But I was mad at myself for being so irresponsible.

The regional security office wasn’t impressed, either. “Time to change the locks” was the official declaration. So the facilities folks had to come over and change the locks. I got charged for the core change. I suspect that I was also branded as “one of those irresponsible State Department fools.” But at least we each had a set of house keys, and The Bad Guys wouldn’t be able to enter our house.

They say that washing your car is the best way to make it rain. By the same logic, maybe changing the locks is the best way to find your keys.

But this time it wasn’t my fault. She found the keys in the pocket of her pants. Not my pants. Hers. I have proof. And even better, she admits that it wasn’t my fault. Of course she doesn’t quite admit that it’s her fault, but I’ll still count that as a win.

Squatter

There are a lot of stray animals in Dhaka. The street dogs are really interesting. They literally hang out in the street. Even the crazy Dhaka traffic doesn’t seem to bother them.

Street dog is like honey badger. Street Dog doesn’t give a you-know-what.
Even street dogs get sleepy.

A few dogs hang out in the Embassy parking lot. I haven’t seen them bothering anyone. They ignore me for the most part, although I have received a few tail wags from Brown Dog.

Brown Dog is mellow.

Hungry Cat is another story. He gets in your face. He waits just outside the inner door of the Embassy, sits right in your pathway, and cries.

Hungry Cat is hungry.

One of the officers took it upon herself to get a cat spayed. She arranged the operation with her cat’s vet, trapped the cat in a carrier, and delivered it to the vet.

I ignore cats. I don’t understand them.

The other day as we walked out of our house on the way to work, we saw this little guy sitting on the wall of our compound. He wasn’t doing anything, he was just hanging out.

I didn’t see him this morning, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. I’m not going to feed him, and I’m certainly not arranging a doctor appointment for him. If he wants to sit on my wall, that’s fine, but I’m just not looking for a relationship right now…

Barista Class!

The best coffee roasters in Bangladesh (the one that I found last year) holds training classes for aspiring baristas. They also have classes for helpless amateurs like me who want to pose as someone who knows what they’re doing. When the CLO (Community Liaison Office) at post organized a class, I jumped at the chance to demonstrate my clueless but enthusiastic ineptitude.

We learned about different kinds of beans and roasts, and how to make espresso, cappuccino and lattes. My sad attempt at a latte gave me more respect for real baristas who actually know what they’re doing.

Hands-on help from real baristas
I couldn’t even drink my own creation…
Lipstick on a pig.
She had better luck than I did

We had more luck with the pour-overs.

There is a proper way to make a pour-over

We learned a lot about coffee and had fun sampling our new skills.

Sampling our own creations
Coffee-producing areas of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is trying to increase its coffee production. This coffee roastery is working with local farmers to try to enhance and improve the quality of the crop. They say that in a few years Bangladesh will start exporting coffee. We got to try some local coffee beans. It’s quite good. The hope is that this new crop will raise the standard of living of the local farmers.