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.

What is the Purpose of your Tuxedo?

Idiot Boy didn’t plan ahead and bring his tuxedo in his check-in luggage. It is either in a warehouse somewhere in the United States, or on a boat somewhere between America and Bangladesh. If Idiot Boy wants to be dressed appropriately for the Marine Ball, he needs a new tuxedo. Luckily, tailors are plentiful in Dhaka.

I visited the office of the “CLO” (community liaison officer) in the Embassy to ask for some recommendations. As luck would have it, another LE staff member, who is a clothing snob expert, happened to have been in the office at the time. He helpfully gave me a list of several tailors, along with a rolling commentary about which tailor was the equivalent of what French and Italian label. Of course, Idiot Boy is also Philistine Boy. I know which side of my pants is front and which is back, I (usually) remember to zip up my fly before leaving the house, and I know not to put both socks on the same foot, and that’s the extent of my haberdashery knowledge.

So I did what any resourceful and responsible person would do: I chose the first name on the list: K.L. Sweden (spoiler alert: he is NOT Swedish).

Stairway to the tailor shop. The name of the shop is helpfully printed on Every Single Step.

I don’t speak Bangla, but luckily for me, most shopkeepers have at least functional, if very heavily accented, English. I walked into the shop and announced my presence. “I called yesterday to come in for an appointment. I need a new tuxedo.”

I was not prepared for the question that they posed. “What is the purpose of the tuxedo?” The shopkeeper asked me.

How many purposes do tuxedos have?, I wondered to myself. In my experience, tuxedos are for prom, weddings, Marine Ball, and spycraft (if your name is James Bond). That’s it. I’m too too old for prom, already married, and God knows I’m not James Bond. That narrows it down quite a bit.

I didn’t know how to answer that question, and told him: “it’s a tuxedo,” like that was self-explanatory enough. Which, to my pea-sized brain, it is. I mentally encouraged him to evaluate me and confirm for himself that I am much too old for prom, and am clearly not James Bond.

Maybe it worked, but probably he took pity on my ignorance, and told me to sit and wait while he Made Some Phone Calls.

A few minutes later Imran came in. He was much less suspicious of my intentions, and got me measured and fitted. Imran doesn’t care what the purpose of my tuxedo is, apparently. I can pick up my new tux next week.

If only I can determine the purpose of the tuxedo.

Still Trying to Figure This Place Out

Two weeks into my two-year tour. The work is familiar enough. The basics of Consular work don’t change much from country to country. And the Locally-Engaged staff are helping me get up to speed on the local peculiarities. I interviewed visa applicants the other day, and it wasn’t difficult at all. Other than the fact that I don’t speak Bangla, and many Bangladeshi people don’t speak any English. The local staff helped me out with translating.

Life in Dhaka is both similar and different from other countries that I’ve lived in. It’s a big city with a lot of people who make a lot of noise and a lot of trash. But Dhaka has some additional complexity. Because of security concerns, our movement is restricted. We can’t walk on the street after dark, for example. I wasn’t planning to buy a car, for a couple of reasons. I managed my first two tours without having a car. More seriously, they drive on the wrong left side of the street here. I wasn’t sure that my brain could make that transition. But we can’t take taxis or other public transportation. My transportation options are limited here in Dhaka. So I will probably have to bite the bullet and buy a car.

I was right that we aren’t allowed to ride in these taxis. They are essentially cages, which makes them hard to escape from in case someone tries to kidnap up. I’m both relieved and disappointed at the same time.

I spent my weekends walking around the city to get a feel for the society. I live in the “diplomatic enclave,” where there are a lot of rich people. Nevertheless, we get a full cross-section of society here. There are a lot of people with money here sure, but grinding poverty is never more than a block away.

Breakfast in an upscale eatery in town. Yes, that’s an avocado smoothie!! 🙂

A LE staff member told me that this area is where the 1% live. And yet:

An empty lot between some upscale stores.
Big piles of garbage on the banks of the lake. Sad and yucky.

I’m enjoying the local color. Just like everywhere else in the world, people here are just living their lives. They say that outside the city, people are quite surprised to see a foreigner, and they stare a lot. In this neighborhood, Though, foreign faces are more common, and I rarely rate a second glance here.

Just another citizen going about her business.
Workers preparing to continue work on renovating a building (I think).
He offered to sell me a pack of smokes when I walked past his little stand.

Except this guy. I think he knew that I was surreptitiously photographing him, and he snarled something at me that sounded less than friendly:

I think I will call him “Snarly Charlie.”

Oh, well, can’t win them all. Most other people have either ignore me, or smile at me. Maybe he was just having a bad day.

Birthday with Celebration Cakes

Yesterday was the birthday of one of the locally-engaged staff in the section. We had a small celebration. “Happy Birthday” was sung in English, not Bangla, to my disappointment, but the birthday treats were very nice.

Of course, we had a cake:

But we also had some savory local snacks. One is like a samosa, and the other was a meat-filled pastry. Very yummy.

I was too busy eating to get a good photo…

The treats came from a friend of the Embassy staff, a housewife started selling her homemade snacks, and it grew into a business (“Shumi’s Hot Cake”) with several branches around the city.

A house hold name in Celebration Cakes

I told the LES that I was interested in trying the local foods. They took me at my word, encouraging me to try the treats, and explaining what was in them. I’ve said it before, interacting with LES might be the best part of this job. They are very sweet and welcoming.

One of them also told me that Dhaka is known as a “ten pound post.” Standing on the bathroom scale this morning, I realized that she was right. The food is really good in Bangladesh, so I will have to hit the gym a LOT if I want to maintain my waistline here…

A Whole New Engrish Country!

I’ve arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Someone described the country as “wild.” That’s a pretty accurate word. The people are great, the traffic is unbelievable, the city is a mixture of rich colors, dirt, sounds and smells (some not too good), smiles, and energy.

And bad English everywhere. As a former English teacher and lifelong language learner, I love to see the earnest attempts by people around the world at using the mess that is the English language.

Here’s a little taste. Much, much more to come over the next two years!

Identifry yourself!

So long for now, America!

This “home leave” is over. Today I leave for my “onward post” in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I left Vietnam in July, more than two months ago. After a few good training courses in DC, and some quality time with family, I feel re-energized and ready for the next challenge.

The Department requires us to stay in America at least 20 days between posts, so that we can get re-acquainted with America. I suspect that this requirement was more meaningful before the Internet allowed us to keep in touch with the news and with family back home so easily. Home leave is a real hardship for officers who don’t have a permanent house in the U.S., especially for people with big families. Either they have to impose on relatives, or else spend a fortune on a short-term rental. “Hemorrhaging money” is a common phrase on our Facebook group.

I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted this time, unfortunately, but we did get to do some traveling. A cross-country train trip on Amtrak showed us some really beautiful parts of the country.

And of course we really enjoyed Michigan’s summer weather.

Look closely. See the deer? Bonus points if you see more than one.

All good things must come to a end. Today I’m on an airplane to my next post. This time, I’m really putting myself out of my comfort zone. I know almost nothing about Bangladesh, I don’t speak Bengali, and I’m going to be in a supervisory position for the first time in my State Department career. All of that means that I will make a fool out of myself and get myself into ridiculous situations even more than in my previous tours.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!