Mosquito Fogging

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.

Home Invasion

An alien life form penetrated the defense network of my fortress this morning.

Its posture within the secure zone indicated that it realized its fatal miscalculation.

Security forces encountered little resistance, and so were able to be merciful. The invader was extracted and banished to a dirt pile outside the perimeter. No casualties were reported.

An after-action review board will be convened to assess the protective measures that are currently in place, and will recommend adjustments to security protocols as necessary.

Big cyclone is coming

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.

Rainy Season has Arrived in Dhaka

It’s been raining almost every afternoon and evening for the last few weeks. The locals tell me that it’s a little late this year, but rainy season seems to have arrived.

This squall caught us just as we wanted to leave for work. Instead of walking home, we waited for a few minutes, then a few minutes more, then finally gave up and called a car to drive us home.

A little mop-up operation

OK, I think we’re really done this time.

This was the fifth time that we put people on planes, but we’re calling this one flight 4.1.

Ominous Airline was contractually bound to give us 365 seats on our previous flight.  They failed to do so.  After they off-boarded 20-some people on their flight, they were obligated to come back and pick them up. Which meant yet another trip to the airport in a hazmat suit.

Guess who?

We didn’t have as many people this time, and they had been checked in already for the prior flight.  So we didn’t need as many people this time, and we didn’t have to be at the airport as long. In fact, the plane left early this time. The fact that Ominous Airline didn’t use their own plane this time might have something to do with the efficiency.

I like how, from this angle, the U.S. flag looks like a necktie. Bonus points for anyone who can identify that yellow thing in my hand.

Although hundreds of people have since contacted us asking for help leaving the country, I think we’re done now. The state of the outbreak here is serious. The Embassy’s medical officer is more and more vocal that these airport adventures are dangerous for everyone, both passengers and Embassy personnel. We should not be exposing our people to the virus. I don’t disagree. I had a bit of a sore throat and a cough a few days after the flight, and even though it passed quickly, and I had no fever, it was still a scare.

I had to self-isolate at home for a week. Now I’m ready to get back to work.

“This will end when we stop being good at it”

An insightful quote from one of the officers at post. She made this observation as we were preparing for our fourth and probably final charter flight out of Dhaka. In some strange way, we have been victims of our own success.

We did a good job of filling the planes the first three times around (we set the world-wide record for percentage of seats filled on our flights). I guess the Department figured that we were efficient enough to justify a fourth flight.

We were successful in evacuating over 900 people over our first three flights. And the demand for additional flights continued. The Ambassador decided that we would continue. As long as there were Americans who wanted out, and as long as the State Department would subsidize the flights, we would try to get Americans back to America.

Of course, while we have been evacuating Americans, the pandemic situation in Bangladesh has been intensifying. This is the most densely-populated country in the world, and the local healthcare infrastructure is woefully unprepared to treat an outbreak. We were ordered to wear PPE at the airport.

We had spent several days building out flight manifest, negotiating with the charter airline, which we jokingly named “Ominous Air.” We thought that was funny at the time. Later on, we discovered the meaning of the word “irony.”

The calm before the storm

The day started out normally enough. A huge crowd of people showed up at the airport, with way too much luggage. We did our check-in process. We even managed to fill the plane, this time to 100% capacity.

That’s when things went off the rails.

Ominous Air informed us that we had to off-board 16 people because of a problem with the emergency exit doors. We re-did the passeger manifest, keeping vulnerable people (elderly, health problems, etc) on the plane. People were paged and told that the couldn’t travel. Then the off-board number grew to 36. Then it went down to 28. In the end, we had to de-plane 27 people. We did all of the work, from the passenger manifest to contacting the passengers. Ominous Air contracted with a local ground support team that was supposed to do that. Then why did we do it? Good question. We’re still asking ourselves that.

Then we had to get the luggage from these 27 unlucky people off the plane. Ominous Air didn’t have a computerized luggage tracking system, and the ground service company didn’t seem to want to look at luggage tags and identify suitcases. We we did it. Why? Excellent question. Two of my coworkers and I crawled into the guts of the plane to look for the luggage.

This is not a task that you want to do.
So glad that I work with good people. Otherwise this job would really suck sometimes.

The plane finally took off seven hours late. Many passengers were grumpy (to put it mildly). The emails and phone calls from family members poured in overnight, asking for landing times, wanting information about the status of the flight. This is a real public-relations mess. Our credibility has taken a serious hit.

I guess we aren’t good at this anymore. So maybe it will end now?

I might get used to this, but it won’t happen soon.

The charter flights continue. The State Department is still encouraging American citizens to return to the United States. Here in Dhaka, we are still chartering airplanes to get people home. This week was our third go-round. This time, we told ourselves, it would be smooth. We knew what we were doing this time. We learned from our mistakes. We can prevent problems, anticipate any complications, and it will all run like clockwork.

We developed a new registration system, we made phone calls, answered emails, sent out information. We confirmed people for the flight.

Then the Bangladesh government extended the government shutdown, and declared a curfew. People kept getting sick. The police set up roadblocks to discourage people from going out.

On Game Day, we got (temporarily) locked out of the airport.

Airport is locked, and we can’t find the key. Oh, how I wish that were a joke.

In the airport, I was walking back and forth between two ends of the departure lobby. On one side of the building we checked in confirmed passengers, and on the other side, we checked in the standby passengers. I filled my daily exercise quota just from covering that distance several times.

It’s not that big of an airport, but when you walk the length several times a day, the steps add up.

I’m forcing myself to look on the bright side of the day. We created some really amazing consular success stories. One PhD student has been stranded in Bangladesh with his infant daughter. He needed to renew his student visa before he could return to the United States, but his passport was locked up in the offices of our courier company. All businesses are closed by the government shutdown order, including our courier service. We coordinated with the company to open the office especially for the student so that he could collect his passport. Then he brought it to the Embassy, where I issued the visa, our locally-engaged staff printed it, and he whisked off to the airport.

A married couple has some health issues and needed to get to the United States. Problem was, only one of them is a U.S. citizen. So we opened the visa window for the non-citizen spouse, issued a visa, and printed it the morning of the flight.

Some people drove eight-plus hours from remote parts of the country to get to the capital city airport. An hour before the airline’s check-in counter closed, a couple rushed into the airport. They said that police road blocks and checkpoints meant that it took them three hours to get to the airport.

But I also had a huge disappointment. Our email inbox on Game Day had several notifications that people cancelled. Understandable. People are getting sick, others are being warned away by their families in the United States. But a lot of people just didn’t show up for the flight. Instead of a full flight, which I was hoping for, we sent the plane off with 30 empty seats. I received that news after having walked round the airport all morning, then standing at the airline check-in desk for over two hours, reviewing every passport. The news, that we would be so far from full, was hard to take. I was so visibly upset that the DCM (deputy chief of mission, #2 officer in the Embassy), who was monitoring the situation, asked if I needed to take a break.

Even after the flight was fully booked, people had been calling us, begging and crying to get on the flight. We told them: come to the airport, we can out them on standby, maybe, just maybe, we can put you on the plane. Our standby list grew to 92 people. Surely, I felt, we would fill every one of the 358 seats on the plane. But we failed.

Still, we filled to 92% capacity, which set a new record for charter flights that embassies and consulates around the world are organizing. And the silver lining to the large number of no-shows is that every single person who came to the airport got on the plane. That’s not nothing.

Social distancing group photo. What a strange world we are now living in.

This is really meaningful work. The safety of U.S. citizens is our #1 priority. I love working closely with the dedicated officers and LE staff. But after a month of 12- to16-hour days, we are all physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

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 our #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.