And this one was good. Our housekeeper made a chicken dish, it’s a recipe from a local ethnic minority. You wrap chicken and other goodies up in banana leaves and then bake it. She said that she cut down a lot of the hot peppers for us. Bangladeshi food is HOT.
Now I have a problem. We forgot to ask her what the name of the dish is. I’m not sure how we’re going to describe this when we want her to make it again. We’ll probably have to show her these photos.
Four years ago this month, there was a serious security incident in Dhaka. After that, the Embassy enacted some serious security restrictions on Embassy personnel. It was years before the security officer determined that it was safe for Americans to go outside alone, walk around, go to restaurants, etc. By the time I arrived at post, things were getting back to normal. We still couldn’t walk around alone after dark, there were still no-go areas in the city. But we could do some normal daily tasks like grocery shopping, for example. We found a restaurant where we liked to have weekend brunch. Post even got the go-ahead for officers to bring their young children to post. The international school in Dhaka enjoys a reputation as an excellent school. Things were getting back to “normal.”
Then the worldwide pandemic hit. Suddenly “normal” was thrown out the window. A city-wide curfew shut down the city for weeks. No more eating out at restaurants. They were closed. Many went out of business. The legendarily impossible Dhaka traffic vanished. The city was like a ghost town. The State Department ordered all Embassies to stop all routine visa services, in the interest of safety. The feeling when walking to work in a deserted city was eerie, like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie.
We went through the excitement of evacuating Americans on seven different repatriation flights, during which more than half of my fellow officers also returned to the United States. After that, those of us who stayed behind hunkered down to wait for things to get better.
And we’re still waiting.
We adjusted our staffing plans so that people only came to work for essential work. Most of us are teleworking. Today I saw one of my coworkers in person for the first time in five weeks. Even in the Consular section, we have a skeleton crew in the office at any time. We are still providing essential U.S. citizen services.
I’m still busy. There’s always work to be done. But I’m sad that I can’t do more of the visa work that I came to Bangladesh to do. We are doing a very small number of mission-critical visas. This week I issued visas to three doctors to work in U.S. hospitals. We’re processing a handful of immigrant visas for spouses of U.S. citizens. Nothing close to the volume that we were doing back in March, though.
Because of the curfews and closures, Dhaka’s already-limited entertainment options have been reduced to almost nothing. We go to work in the morning, go home at night, and sit in our house. Luckily, we have a big house. But even a gilded cage is still a cage. I’ve been spending time on TripAdvisor, planning a vacation that we might not be able to take until next year. Which is still six months away.
We had some fun last week, moving our home office from the smaller unused bedroom to the larger. This room also enjoys better natural light.
So after that excitement, what’s next? Back to hunkering down.
Like a lot of art, not everyone “gets” these elephant sculptures. I’ve heard some negative comments. But I think they are really something. I’ve been wanting to write about this art exhibit in the Embassy for a few months, and finally have a few minutes to share some images.
A little background: Bangladesh is the reluctant host to nearly a million refugees from Burma. The Rohingya crisis has spawned many tragedies, both humanitarian and environmental. The two combinesd in an unfortunate clash that happened when human beings and wild elephants needed the same space.
A large refugee camp sits right on top of a migration ground for wild elephants. Unfortunately there has been loss of life on both sides, as neither the confused elephants nor the panicked refugees know how to handle the situation.
A Bangladeshi artist had an idea. If the people understood the elephants, maybe they would seek ways to coexist and avoid conflict. His idea was to make life-size sculptures and place them in the refugee camps.
His next insight was to convince the people to not just accept the elephants. He explained to me: “they have to love the elephants.” His approach was to ask the people for their old clothing. He used the scraps to make the “skin” for his elephant sculptures.
The artist loaned three elephants to the Embassy. We have them on display just outside the main door. Aside from the patchwork skins, they are very lifelike.
I had realized that art could be a tool for social activism, but I had only thought about that point in the abstract. This project uses art for conservation and disaster relief. That’s pretty meaningful. I’m grateful to Mr. Shadhin for lending his work to the Embassy for a few months.
Our “garden” is really a collection of pots on the flat roof of our house. It’s the same concept of a raised-bed garden, I suppose. But our version is a lot less attractive.
The guy that we hired to take care of the yard is also supposed to do our garden. It’s taken a while, but he might finally understand what we want.
We inherited about 30 basil plants. They were already on the roof when I moved in. I like basil as much as the next guy, but 30 plants is objectively too much. Especially when they are not really “plants,” but are arguably “bushes.”
When we asked the gardener why he planted so much, he hemmed and hawed, then said that he likes to eat it. I think maybe he has a side business where he sells it. That doesn’t bother me, far be it from me to get in the way of his side hustle. As long as he plants what I want, too. We told him that he had to limit the basil and make room for what we want.
We convinced him to separate the kale out into individual pots. It’s starting to take off and grow quickly. This variety has flatter leaves and the stalks are tender and edible. I think we made a good choice.
We also have a healthy beanstalk. And I didn’t have to trade a cow for it! 🙂
The next challenge is to teach our housekeeper how to cook the kale. She calls all leafy green vegetables “spinach,” for some reason. We have been served what we would call “spinach,” but also vegetables that she calls “long spinach” (morning glory or 空心菜, and “red spinach” (I don’t know the English word for it, in Taiwan it’s called 莧菜). I guess we can call our kale: “roof spinach.”
This happens almost every day in my neighborhood, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. It appears to be an attempt to kill mosquitoes. It might kill some of them, but not all. Not by a long shot.
A guy runs around with a fogging machine. He shoots the stuff into the drainage sewers, where I guess the mosquitoes hide. It leaks out from drains further down the street.
The smell is pretty noxious. Every time we hear the lawnmower-like sound, we run around and turn off all the air conditioners. We don’t want the fumes to get sucked into the house. If it kills mosquitoes, it can’t be good for other living things. Like us, for example.
They call them “cyclones” here. That word used to make me think of a tornado. But a cyclone isn’t a tornado, apparently. A cyclone is a hurricane or a typhoon. Except that it originates in the Indian Ocean. So there you go. A super-cyclone is barreling its way toward Bangladesh. Weather.com is calling it a “Monster Cyclone.” It will make landfall tonight. Dhaka is in its path. They say 14 million people will be “affected.” That means: “their houses and all their possessions will be blown away – literally.” As if they needed more misery here. The universe has not been fair to this country.
We diplomats are safe. My house is earthquake-proof. The walls are three feet thick. I’m not exaggerating. There’s a big generator in the front yard, I have a 20-gallon water distiller and plenty of food. We told our housekeeper to stay home and stay safe. The only danger that we face is extreme boredom waiting for the storm to leave. And I’m not worried about that.
You may see some horrific images on the news and online about the cyclone’s impact on Bangladesh. They will probably be accurate. But they won’t reflect the position that we are in. We’re fine.