Busted

Me: Blathering on, for a good five minutes, about my favorite pen. It’s a great pen, it’s a perfect pen, I used to import them from Japan because I couldn’t find them in America, and I’m so bummed that they’re not making them anymore, and I’ve been looking for a new favorite kind of pen, but I can’t find one, so I’m really bummed about that…

Co-worker: Were you ever a teacher at some point in your life?

I’m almost sure this wasn’t my fault

As the Accountable Officer, I’m responsible for locking up our unused visas and passports at the end of every day. We keep them in a very secure, very heavy safe. We keep all of our visas in one safe (big mistake). The safe is kept secure (too secure) by a special kind of electronic/mechanical combination lock. The Department is very clear that we have to use this special kind of lock, because of how secure they are. In fact, the locks are made by the same company that secures the US gold reserves at Fort Knox.

We found out just how secure they are last week, when the lock malfunctioned and we were locked out of the safe.

The security guy at post said that he knew a few tricks to try to get the lock working again. He suggested tipping it on its side. My boss and I exchanged a glance that said: “I’m middle-aged, you’re middle-aged, and he wants us to do what, now?” Already heavy even when it’s empty, when it’s full of visa foils, the darn thing weighs a ton, literally. But the security guy (a much, much younger guy than us) said that gravity can help the lock mechanism engage. Piece of cake, he said.

Tipping that damn thing on it side was most definitely not a piece of cake, and it also did not work.

Then he handed me a ball-peen hammer and said: “OK, I’m going to spin the wheel. When I tell you to, hit it as hard as you can, right here (three millimeters from his hand), but don’t hit my fingers.”

That didn’t work either (no surprise there), but I didn’t hit his fingers (big surprise there). At least there was no screaming that afternoon.

My boss thought that we’d have to get the facilities guys to come over and cut it open with a welding torch or something. When we asked them about that idea, the facilities guys sort of laughed at us, then hung up the phone.

In the end, they had to use a special diamond-tipped saw blade to cut open the safe. I took some pictures of the process, but the security guy forbade me from posting them online. He didn’t want this blog post to turn into a how-to guide on breaking into a State Department safe in 700 easy steps. Ask me next time we meet up, though, I’ll show you. They’re pretty funny.

So now we have one less safe to store our stuff in. We had to reshuffle our stuff around in our other safes to make room. Even though the security guy told me that this happens occasionally, and the the locks give out after years of use, I feel bad about having had to destroy a piece of equipment.

But at the same time, I have a satisfying feeling of revenge. That drawer that we cut open was the same drawer that ka-chunked my finger a few months ago.

Take that, you evil safe.

Household Help

Americans in general have an egalitarian mindset. I definitely do, myself. We don’t like the idea of social classes, or even social positions. I think part of our fascination with TV shows like “Downton Abbey” is the strangeness of a clear line between the nobility and the servile class. As a matter of pride, we don’t like hierarchy. For example, I have never called a boss by anything other than their first name (except the Ambassador, of course, but that’s different).

I sometimes wonder if that’s why we in the foreign service call our servants “household help.”

In my first tour, I hired an “auntie” to come to my apartment once a week to do my laundry and mop my floors. I was pretty low-maintenance then, and my apartment was quite small. I didn’t need more than a once-a-week cleaning lady. In my second tour, we lived in a serviced apartment. The building’s cleaning staff came in almost every day to clean the apartment. We did our own laundry and cooking, but again, I’m low maintenance, and in addition, it was easy in that country to go grocery shopping for my own food.

This tour, though, the situation is quite different. Security restrictions limit where we can go. Also, for the first time, I don’t speak the local language. That, and the fact that I don’t understand the local culture, complicates my life quite a bit. But the biggest difference for me is that for the first time in the foreign service, I live in a huge house. I don’t know exactly how big it is, but it has to be at least 2,500 square feet. It wouldn’t be practical for me to do all the work that’s necessary to maintain this house (plus, I don’t want to).

It seems to be common here in Bangladesh to employ servants household help. Even the locally-engaged staff in the Embassy have housekeepers. Many of them have drivers, too. Part of it is because life here is pretty complicated. Another reason is because labor is very cheap in this country.

My housekeeper has been working for Embassy employees for years. I “inherited” her from an officer who left post right after I arrived. She was able to start working for me with only a few weeks of unemployment. Her English is good enough to communicate, she knows all about Americans’ strange lifestyles, and she has been taking great care of me and the house.

She cooks for me whenever I ask her to. Her first day, I asked her to make me something Bangladeshi. I didn’t care what, I told her, but I wanted some vegetables. This is what I came home to:

Plus all of the dishes were washed, plus she set the table for me.

No idea what I ate. There was yellow goop, red goop, and brown goop! And it was delicious!

It’s been working out really great so far. I ask her to buy fruit, and when I come home at night, she’s cut up my fruit and put it in the refrigerator. I suspect she’s started to feel the need to take care of me. Today was the second day in a row that I didn’t ask her to cook anything. Tonight, I came home to see a cooked meal on the stove, and a dozen chocolate cupcakes on my counter. No complaints!

A coworker here told me that Americans pay more for our household help than employees of other Embassies. That might be why so many people want to work for us. Right after I moved in, people were hanging out on the street outside my house, with their CVs in hand, asking if I wanted to hire a driver or a cleaner or a “bearer” (still not sure what that job category means).

My housekeeper seems to have enough work for now. But she only takes care of the inside of the house. I also have a yard. My house came with a gardener. For almost ten years, he’s been working for families that live in this house. So I was expected to hire him too. It’s like he came with the house. I don’t know that I need a full-time gardener, but if I didn’t hire him, the poor guy would be unemployed. He has a wife and kids back home in the village, and Lord knows that with the poverty in this country, they need the money that he sends home. So even though it seems like something I don’t need, I also feel an obligation to provide employment to the guy. So I’ve been keeping him busy planting flowers and vegetables. My yard has a big coconut tree, a banana tree, mango tree, and a jackfruit tree. I actually like jackfruit quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I actually get a harvest.

So another weird part of this strange life of mine, is that I now have a household staff. I recently acquired a car. Even though most people hire a driver, I am resisting that for now. I just can’t imagine adding a third person to my payroll, it seems like it would be too much. Actually, it already feels like too much.

I choose to look at this practice of hiring household help as a way to help the local economy. We are paying people more than they could get on the local labor market. Most of these folks are poorly educated and don’t have marketable job skills. We are treating them fairly and honestly. In fact, an Embassy policy requires us to give every household helper a labor contract, pay them a yearly bonus, and give severance pay when we leave post. For a reasonable amount of money, I get time to write blog posts, rather than mop my floors, and pick up coconuts from my lawn. Everyone wins.

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.