Transitions

Things have been fairly quiet here, as far as Foreign Service life can be quiet. Mid-January I went on my first R&R, which was delightful. I met my parents and one of my best friends in Nairobi, and together we went on a 2 week tour of the Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro Crater, and Zanzibar.

It was wonderful to be outside and breathe clean air. It took about 4 days for my lungs to stop burning (Yep, lots of air pollution in Dhaka). We had really great luck, as well, and saw several leopards, baby lions, elephants, and even baby hyenas. I had been to both Tanzania and Kenya before, but this was something even more. It was great to share it with wonderful people, but it was difficult to leave them behind at the airport.

Shortly after I came back from R&R, I travelled to Ko Samui, Thailand with some of my Dhaka colleagues. We rented a beach-front villa together, and so began 5 glorious days of beaches, swimming, and relaxation.

 

So now I am back in Dhaka for a bit, with no vacation in the near future. Luckily, rainy season is coming and the air quality should improve a bit with the wind and rain coming in. I also look forward to slightly warmer days where I can sit in the sun by the pool, instead of the smog-ridden skies.

Work is fascinating as usual. I enjoy complicated visa cases and trying to figure out what is really happening. This summer will definitely be a challenge – the vast majority of the older, more experienced staff are leaving and suddenly I’m one of the senior folks. We will also be very short-staffed, so I will get a lot of different types of experiences. It will be strange to be training new folks, since we have no had any in the past 11 months. I know the dynamic will change, but I’m also excited to get some ‘fresh blood’ in the section. Hoping we can hold it all together!! Until next time…

 

 

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2017 At Last!

Finally it is 2017. The holidays are always a little bit rough, but this one seemed especially so with many of my friends gone out of Dhaka. The Consular section was extra quiet, with only a few of us staying behind to man the post. Thankfully, though, it was generally a quiet holiday season, though a few raids on militants happened and Bangladesh experienced its first female suicide bomber.

On January 5th, our Authorized Departure status was terminated and we are now considered “partially unaccompanied” or something to that effect. We issued a newly updated Travel Warning. Only spouses that are working at the Embassy can accompany their spouses, and no children allowed at all. It has been a little over 6 months since the Holey Bakery Attack, and I think we are mostly relieved that the wait for AD to end is finished.

Another disturbing event recently was the shooting of a consular officer in Guadalajara, Mexico. My A-100 colleagues working there are safe, but I’m sure in shock. No motive has been discovered yet, but it reminds us all that we do not live in a safe world, and I do not have a safe profession. That being said, even when my life here seems difficult, I’m proud of my position as a Foreign Service Officer, and I am still so happy to have the opportunity to serve the United States and its people.

In a few days, I’m headed on my first R&R. I’ll post photos when I am back, but I can say that I am really ready to get out of town for a bit. The air pollution here is just brutal, and my lungs are never happy. Also the lack of sun and freedom definitely gets one down. I’ll desperately miss my friends here but happy to have a break. It has been nearly 2 months since I last walked outside in public, so bring on the clean air, open skies and freedom!

 

 

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December Reflections

I’ve been at post for over 8 months now, and its definitely been a whirlwind. Earthquakes, terrorist attacks, dengue fever, and more. My time so far in Dhaka has been eventful, and I still struggle sometimes to reconcile my current life with my previous. Christmas time here at post seems especially strange, with a large chunk of the Embassy gone on vacation. Things will be quiet at the Embassy, and hopefully quiet in Dhaka as well!

Since my last blog post, I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with friends and had a wonderful time. It was lovely to just walk around and be normal people. Nobody stared at us, we could walk the streets freely, eat in delicious restaurants, and have a normal-fun-person-time. I’m looking forward to my first R&R in January, when I will travel to meet my parents and friend in Kenya and Tanzania for a 2 week long safari!

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A few weeks ago, I was sent a list of about 70 cities to bid on for my next assignment. This time around felt quite different than A-100 bidding. I at least knew a little bit more about how the State Department works, and a little more about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ posts. A few places popped out to me immediately, and I was surprised to see that I would statistically most likely be learning another language, as most of the posts were language designated.

Bidding for your second Foreign Service assignment is pretty complicated, because unlike in A-100, you are given start dates and you know when you will leave your current post, but you have to work out your own training schedule that has to fit in between those two dates perfectlyl. And you have limits on how much training you can take in your first 5 years, so this adds further complication. Plus you have to work in 20 days of home leave. Since I’d already spent 11 months at FSI, I had to be careful to bid on posts that did not put me over the limit. We were given about 2 weeks to research, so I had a lot on my plate. Finding posts that worked with my training timeline, were consular-coned, could accomodate my cat, and most importantly, allowed me freedom of movement, reduced me to tears a number of times. But I narrowed the list down to a top 10, held my breath, and pushed the submit button.

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On November 22nd, I woke up around 3:00am to my phone buzzing. I had a dozen text messages asking “Where are you going??” Apparently, assignments were out. Being at home, I had to remotely log into our system to check my email. My computer decided it didn’t like to do that, and it took me a good 30 minutes (interspersed with a lot of cursing) to log in. I had just woken up from a dream that I’d been assigned to a post that I didn’t really want to go to, so my heart was definitely in my throat. I found the email from my Career Development Officer, scrolled down, and smiled.

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Dakar, Senegal!! 

It was my number #1 choice! The timing works perfectly with my schedule, I get to learn French for 6 months at FSI. There are so many reasons that I chose Senegal. When I turned in my bid list, my top choice surprised many (who may not know me all that well) in my office. With my equity from Dhaka, most thought I should try for Paris or London. But for me, Dakar ticks off a lot of boxes. Great food, fantastic music scene, an Embassy directly on the ocean, interesting consular work,  minimal pet import restrictions and freedom of movement. Furthermore, it is a travel hub for West and North Africa and easy to get to Europe and the US. Plus, there is a 20% differential to help with travelling expenses, and a large expat community to hang with (plus awesome locals too of course). Senegal itself is a great country – relatively safe, lovely beaches and some nice parks…I can’t be more happy. I’ll be heading out of Dhaka in April 2018 to go back to FSI. It’s a long way off, but a nice something to look forward to.

Until next time!

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Skipping around the region

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Work has been increasingly busy, and I’ve been on a few trips since my last blog post. Due to the new security restrictions, it has been more important to get out of the country to recharge. Thankfully, we have had no other large attacks and things have been relativiely quiet in Dhaka (well, as quiet as anything can be in Dhaka…).

First, some work updates. We are still on Authorized Departure, and nearly all the children and spouses are gone. In the consular section, this means that we try to fill some of the gaps. We are all getting rotationally trained in American Citizen Services, and the workload overall feels like it has increased. I still love the work, but I know it will only get busier as some of our consular folks leave post and new ones have yet to arrive. Embassy Dhaka is incredibly tight-knit and I feel like I have a very large extended family, which helps with the challenges of not being able to go anywhere. We have organized sports, game nights, happy hours, dinners at each others houses. Nevertheless, getting out from time to time definitely makes me feel less clausterphobic!

In early August, I travelled with a colleague to Dubai, UAE for her birthday. It was hot as hell there, but we managed to have an amazing time. We ate delicious food, burnt our feet on the beach, went dune-bashing, perused a gigantic mall, and generally just lived it up for a weekend.

 

In late August, we got word that Secretary of State John Kerry would be visiting Dhaka for a day. This threw our Embassy into a bit of a frenzy as we prepared. I, being fairly low on the totem pole, was given minor tasks to do, but even these kept me busy. It was exciting and seeing John Kerry in the flesh was surreal. His last activity before swooping off to the airport was to come chat with the American employees – photo op and everything. His staff was amazing and made things flow fairly smoothly, and I was extremely proud of our Embassy staff for pulling off such a successful visit with such short notice.

A couple days after the SecState visit, I flew off on a longer leave vacation. I started in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to meet up with some A-100 colleagues.  We travelled together to Siam Reap, where we explored Angkor Wat and more amazing ruins and temples. It took me about a week to feel normal again, with the headiness of freely going to Mexican food restaurants and walking to a Dairy Queen a little too much to handle for some time. I really enjoyed my friends company and the sites were just spectacular. Again, hot as hell, but so so worth it.

 

From Cambodia, I then travelled to Hanoi to begin a week long solo tour. My tour began with an overnight Halong Bay cruise, which was delightful and gorgeous. I then went to Hoi An, where I had a couple of suits tailor made (now I just need an occasion to wear them!), went on a bike ride through rice paddies, scootered in the pouring rain, and perused little streets. I also had the best curry in my life at a little restaurant.

 

From Hoi An, I flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I had booked a Mekong Delta river cruise on a 12-cabin boat. As the bus drew nearer to the Delta, the tour guide turned to me and said “Did they inform you that you that you were upgraded to a private boat?” Apparently the larger boat was undergoing maintanence, so they had no choice but to put me on a one-cabin boat. It was a glorious overnight introvert heaven. I had my own chef and waiter. I lay on the top of the boat and watched the world go by. Because I was on a smaller boat, I was also able to go on smaller canals. We visited villages, a floating market, and saw rice noodles being made. The food was spectacular and plentiful.

 

Upon completion of the cruise, I joined up with other A-100 buddies in Saigon. I had a more Western experience here, with malls, Haagen Daz, and general touristing. It was great to catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in over 6 months and hear how their lives were going in their own Consulates or Embassies. It was also nice to see how life functioned in a semi-normal post, where people can go where they please and safety is not something they regularly worry about. My vacation in Cambodia and Vietnam was stellar overall and definitely one of the best I’ve ever taken!

Shortly upon returning to Dhaka, I was packing again, this time for a workshop for First and Second Tour Officers. I travelled to Hyderabad, India with a couple of Embassy colleagues. We spent 3 days learning more about opportunities to us and were counseled on how to excel in our careers. There were also a couple of cultural events scheduled, one to a fort and tomb and another to a local market. Hyderabad was lovely and I would not mind returning – the weather was dry and not horribly hot.

 

After all this travelling in the past couple of months, I’m ok with taking a break here in Dhaka. Sometimes routine is not a bad thing, and my cat has missed me terribly. I love my friends and colleagues here, and while our daily lives are challenging, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks to spend my time with. Until next time!

 

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The new normal

The past month has been a time of adjustment towards our new situation. After the Holey terrorist attack, our movements are extremely restricted now due to potential security issues. We can go to work and home and very few other places in between.

On July 10th, our post went on Authorized Departure for EFMs (Eligible Family Members). It’s a status that means that families of officers were highly encouraged to depart from Dhaka and go back to the United States. While they could stay if they chose, most took this suggestion seriously and decided to take their families to a safer place. Some remained behind because they don’t have children and wanted to stay with their spouses. For those of us who had to stay behind, it means a much emptier community. It also means a higher workload for officers, since EFMs also work in valuable positions at the Embassy. In my own section, we have lost all but one of our EFMs. It does mean I get to learn new skills as we try to fill the void, but it is definitely a strain to maintain our old workload.

I was also moved last week to a new apartment due to some issues with the previous place. I like my new place a lot, but I’m now having to re-unpack, re-decorate, and try to figure out how to adjust to my new surroundings. I love the new place though – it’s far quieter, better laid out, and has a much bigger kitchen. I feel safer here than I did at the previous place, so that is something.

One bright event in the past couple weeks is that a colleague and I were able to get out to Kolkata. Walking outside was so wonderful, and I felt very safe for the first time in weeks. I hadn’t realized what a pressure I’d been feeling until it was gone. Even though we were only there for a couple of days, it made a difference in my peace of mind.

The first day we walked nearly 7 miles under pouring rain for most of the day. We stopped by an sidewalk umbrella seller and ended up chatting with him under his tarp-covered kiosk, drinking tea, while the rain came down in sheets. My colleague and I were both thankful for our Bengali language ability. Then we walked to Victoria Memorial and some markets. By the end of the day, we were soaked, but content. It was just wonderful to get out and meet everyday people and talk and smile and look up at the sky and feel the rain on my face and the ground below my feet. To feel the breeze on my face and smell street food smells and grass smells and even bad smells. To see children playing on the sidewalk and lovers sitting on benches hiding beneath umbrellas. These are the things that are now closed off to me in Dhaka, at least for the time being.

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However, I know the Dhaka community is resilient. We host each other at our houses for dinner or board game nights, try to think of creative ways to entertain ourselves, and when we ask each other “how are you doing?” we actually want to know. It must be toughest on the people who now have to be separated from their spouses and children – I can’t imagine what they are going through. I think we will have to be even more “there” for each other in the coming months as we assess what the new normal will be in Dhaka. We will watch and wait and keep trying to do our jobs as best we can, and hope for the best. Because how we face the situation each day is the only thing we can control right now.

 

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Dengue and Other Horrors

It’s been awhile since I posted to this blog. My work has kept me quite busy and life started to seem more or less normal. I had a routine: I played volleyball twice a week, went out to brunch with friends on the weekend, and went shopping at the limited areas we were allowed to go to. It seemed enough. I even organized an Embassy-wide Consular Open House Day that opened our usually closed doors to our colleagues. It was a smashing success and enjoyed by all. Life on the nonimmigrant and immigrant visa lines was booming and I was starting to get the hang of things.

Last Friday, I went to a wine and paint evening that our Community Liaison Office put together. As my beach landscape started to come together, I felt like my body was falling apart. I started aching, and my face felt like it was on fire. I felt removed from the festivities and lethargic. When I got home, I took my temperature – well over 102F. he next morning, I called our med unit. They told me that I should wait another day, and if I still had a fever on Sunday, I should come in. Well, my fever soared that day and night, up to 104F. I took a cold shower at 3:o0am to try to cool off.

I went in to the med unit first thing Sunday morning. My temperature was still about 103F and I felt even worse. They took a blood test, and came back 10 minutes later with the news that I tested positive for dengue fever. The next 6 days are a blur of trying to cool down my fever, taking Tylenol (the only medicine really for dengue), trying to drink excessive amounts of fluids and sleeping. I had planned a trip to Kuala Lumpur due to a 4 day weekend, but unfortunately had to cancel plans as I realized my body wouldn’t be up to par.

Thursday a rash broke out over my entire body. My arms and legs were lobster red and my hands were so sensitive I could barely grip a spoon. I itched like mad. However, this is a good development since it signalled the end of my dengue. I rested Friday all day as well, and a friend reached out to me to see if I wanted to go to our favorite restaurant, Holey, the next day. I told her it sounded like a great idea and that I hoped I’d be well enough for a well deserved brunch.

Friday evening, I was lounging in bed and scrolling through FaceBook. One of our Dhaka groups posted something that came up on my newsfeed – they reported shooting near Holey, the restaurant I’d planned to go to and one I went to nearly every week. I texted some of my colleagues to see if they had heard anything, and they had not. Most were out of the country on vacation due to the Eid holiday. I continued to read the comments to the post with growing horror.

About 15 minutes later, a call came out from the Embassy that said there was a shooting at Holey and a possible hostage situation. The news become more horrific as it unfolded. A colleague who lives in my building came down and we poured over Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC, trying to clean some more information. I fell asleep around 2:00am, still waiting for news on who the hostages were and what was happening.

This morning I woke up around the time when the siege was ending. My colleague and I heard gunfire and several explosions outside. More news is coming out on who was involved, and Embassy staff has been instructed to stay put, so I’m trying to stay as calm and productive as possible while we wait for more news.

Holey was the first restaurant I ate at in Dhaka. I remember thinking “with places like this, Dhaka is going to be just fine”. It’s impossible to reconcile that oasis with the horrors that have happened in the past 24 hours. My thoughts are with those affected by this tragedy.

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Indian Weekend

Last weekend was a 4-day one, and therefore I took advantage of the time and decided to go on a “Golden Triangle” tour with two other Embassy folks. We began in New Delhi, driving to Agra to explore the Taj Mahal. We arrived in Agra near sunset just in time to make it to Agra Fort. Many of the local Indian tourists were fascinated by me, apparently, and I had about a dozen people taking photos of me or asking to take selfies with me (I declined).  It was amusing and annoying at the same time.

We spent the night at a so-so hotel, and woke up at 4:30am to get to th Taj before sunrise. It was worth it!! Sunrise was beautiful and it was not too hot (it would later reach 115F).

 

After the Taj Mahal, we went to some other minor monuments, which we had all to ourselves due to the heat. We stopped by Fatehpur Sikri, but became hot and miserable about an hour into the tour. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of our local guide, who called me back impatiently when I wandered off to look at something because he wanted to finish his spiel about every single carving on every wall. Having to take off our shoes and walk across hot marble while being barraged by persistent hawkers was the last straw! Thankfully my travel companions felt the same about having burnt feet (one of them might have elbowed a too-close-for-comfort hawker in the ribs), and we returned to our car.

After driving a little while, our driver turned to me and said “we now go extra monument.” I groaned a bit inwardly at the thought of more carvings. We drove off the main road and into the country side, and I saw women all wearing bright orange clothing – apparently the official color of Rajasthan. The dehydration made things seem a little magical. We pulled up to what appeared to be a pile of rubble. Our local guide met us and we entered through a doorway. The site was breath-taking and so unexpected we let out a collective “oooooooh.” We’d reached Chand Baori, one of the largest step wells in the world.

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As we toured the sides of the well and saw some pretty interesting carvings, the wind started to whip around us. The skies opened up as we reached the other side of the well, and we took cover as hail started falling around us. As the hail diminished (but the rain continued) we decided to chance it and run to our vehicles, giggling the entire time. The air was suddenly cool and refreshing.

We continued on to Jaipur and arrived after dark. Exhausted and still dehydrated, we retired briefly to our rooms to rest up. The hotel was lovely and the attached restaurant was incredibly cheap and tasty. It was a great rest stop.

Honestly, I fell in love with Jaipur. The next morning our newest guide took us to Amber Fort, which was magical even in intense heat.

As we walked through the area that used to be solely for the king’s 12 wives, I tried to imagine life as a sequestered queen. Sometimes I feel sequestered in Dhaka because of our current movement restrictions – there’s always somebody to open the door for me and greet me, somebody to drive me around, but my freedom is severely hampered by not being able to walk outside. While it’s a semi-luxurious lifestyle, it’s emotionally challenging. At least for me it is only 2 years, and for them it was life. And being able to walk freely in India, if only for a few days, has me now feeling a lot better.

After the Amber Fort, we visited the City Palace Museum, which was nice. Then came lunch and after that, 5 hours of driving back to Delhi. We did not arrive in the city again until nightfall, but met up with a guide the next morning who took us to a large mosque littered with remnants of Mid-Sha’ban (and all night Muslim celebration), a glittering Sikh temple and and Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial.

All in all, it was a great little whirlwind tour before our flight left in the afternoon. It took over two hours to check in and get through customs for our flight, and by the time I got on the plane I was ready for my Dhaka home. Diplokitty was also glad to have me home!

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My first round of HHE (House Hold Effects) came yesterday. I’m still unpacking a few boxes and sorting, but my home is finally feeling like a home! The second one should come in a couple of weeks, making my apartment complete! Diplokitty will have his cat condo again, and I’ll have cleaning supplies and fun food stuff. But for today, I’m cleaning and sorting! And dreaming of my next possible location for vacation. Happy Friday everybody!

 

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