Keeping on keeping on

I wrote this post about a week ago.  There is an ebb and flow of “things are fine” and “things suck, when are we leaving.”  While I try to stay on the “things are fine” side of life, it’s not always possible. Things are fine now, but I’m still going to press “publish.”  The security situation here has made things difficult, and this is one of the challenging realities of life in Dhaka.  Anyway, here you go.

We have been here for 10 months now.  Time is flying, and I’m thankful for that.

Life in Dhaka hasn’t been easy lately for me.  I am an outdoorsy person, and I feel like here the most outdoor exposure is getting into the car and back out again.  And it really sucks.

When we were initially looking at the bid list before coming here, there were all these places that we ranked low because we wouldn’t be able to go out and do much.  Now, all those places, like Saudi Arabia, seem like they’d be wonderful because, while we’d be living on a large compound, at least we’d be able to walk around the compound.  Here I can’t even walk out the front gate of my apartment building.  There’s a beautiful park a few blocks away with a playground, and M will never get to play there.  Heck, he might never even get to actually set foot on an unguarded road here.

The other day I was daydreaming about what it would be like to be able to walk on the streets here, and I was thinking about taking M and Athena for a walk together.  I started wondering whether it would be best to put him in his Ergo carrier, or to put him in the stroller.  If I put him in the Ergo and someone shoots at me, then he could get shot too.  So maybe the stroller would be best.  But people here drive like maniacs and what if his stroller got hit by a car?  I mentioned all this to Nate, and he said that tactically the Ergo would be best so that we could more easily escape from a dangerous situation.  And you know the really sad part?  I am not worrying about crazy scenarios that could never happen.  These are actual possibilities.

If anyone had ever told me I’d be seriously mulling over things like this I’d have told them they were bat-shit insane.

Things aren’t really that bad, but sometimes the bad overpowers the good.

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The mosquitoes

There have been shit tons of mosquitoes in our apartment lately.  We never open the windows and we have a screen door, but they still manage to get in somehow.

We have a mosquito racket, which is a lovely device that looks like a tennis racket, but you press a button and the mesh part becomes electric.  So you swipe at a mosquito, there’s a satisfying snapping sound, and the mosquito is dead.  Electrocuted, I suppose.  They get no sympathy from me.

For some reason the mosquitoes seem to prefer our bedroom over all the other rooms.  Luckily we have a net over our bed and M’s sleeper, but sometimes they get under the net.  Those nights are the worst.

Before we go to bed every night, we shake all the bedding, curtains, and drapes, and that usually rouses the nasty buggers.  One of us stands there with the racket, waving it all over the room, while the other anxiously points at the mosquitoes, shrieking “There it is!  Get it!” (I should note that Nate doesn’t shriek.  That’s primarily me.)

But the mosquitoes are so darn fast, they can be almost invisible.  So there’s a lot of frantic racket waving, pointing and yelling.  It’s quite the sight, I’m sure.  You know the night has been a success when the smell of burnt mosquito lingers in the air.

Luckily these aren’t Aedes moquitoes, so they won’t give us dengue.  But they’re still annoying. Thank goodness M hasn’t figured out how to itch mosquito bites yet.

Haha, I just got up to get something from the bedroom, and I killed another mosquito.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to the intolerably hot summer months just because it seemed like there weren’t as many mosquitoes then.

Eight months in

Dude, we are one third done with our tour here!  A third!

The other day someone asked me what I thought of living here, and I said that I didn’t love it, and I didn’t hate it, which is pretty accurate at this point.

Before I left on OB medevac, I loved it.  I don’t anymore.  I’m hoping I’d be happier if they lift the walking restrictions, but who knows if that is ever going to happen. There are definite benefits to living here and I am in no way miserable, but I am also really looking forward to our next post, wherever it may be.

Athena had a small eye infection, but luckily we had some antibacterial eye ointment that we brought with us.  I’m really hoping she doesn’t get sick here or need any urgent medical care because I don’t know what we’d do.  I think the vet that helped Hootie would be our best bet.

It is currently “winter” in Bangladesh, which means that the temperatures in Dhaka are in the 70’s or 80’s during the day, and sometimes dip down into the 60’s at night.  Most Bangladeshis are wearing sweaters, scarves and jackets, and you’d think it was below freezing.  For the first time since we arrived, I finally feel comfortable outside in light-weight pants and a t-shirt.

The only problem is that now that we actually want to spend time outside, the air quality is terrible.  There’s a nearby tall apartment building, and when that building looks hazy from our house, I try to limit my time outdoors and I don’t take M outside at all. There are some days where you can almost taste the particulate matter in the air, and it sticks to the back of your throat.  It’s disgusting.

Those apartment buildings in the background are my air pollution barometer

Those apartment buildings in the background are my air pollution barometer

This sounds ridiculous, but I have been avoiding getting my hair cut here.  I like to keep my hair short, and I was worried that no one here would be able to cut it just right.  Considering that my general philosophy towards hair is “Who cares?  It will grow back,” this is particularly silly. A few days ago I got my hair cut by Andy at the Nordic Club and he did a great job!  And it was only 2000 taka (about $25), which is probably expensive for here, but it seemed like a bargain to me.

We experienced a small earthquake a few weeks ago; it was centered in northeast India and we felt the tremor here.  We woke up because Athena was freaking out, and within a minute everything started shaking.  M slept through it, and, aside from some crooked pictures on the walls, you wouldn’t even know it happened.  Thank god for seismically safe housing!

Nate and Athena also got stuck in the elevator recently.  That was scary.  I got a call from Nate telling me to go downstairs and tell the guards they were stuck in the elevator, and as I was rushing down the stairs with M in my arms, a guard and our driver Kalam were running up.  They pried the doors open, and Nate and Athena jumped down out of the elevator, which had apparently stopped after going up a few feet.  Nate was hurrying off to a reception, and I almost took M and Athena up alone, and that would have been a real disaster, especially since I usually don’t bring my phone with me when I go to the rooftop.

We are keeping busy and life is always eventful, sometimes in good ways, sometimes bad. Only 16 more months left to go!

Baking at home in Dhaka

I love to bake, so whenever I move to a new country, it’s always kind of an adventure figuring out what will and won’t be available on the local market. Sometimes I guess correctly, sometimes I don’t.

Before we came to Dhaka, I stocked up on baking powder because I’ve never been able to find baking powder outside of the US. Baking soda, on the other hand, is usually available everywhere, so I thought there was no need to bring that.

My first week in Dhaka, I was perusing the baking aisles and what did I see? Shit tons of baking powder and zero baking soda. Also lots of custard powder, whatever that is.

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

I did eventually find baking soda at Dhali, but only after I spent $4 to order a tiny box of it on Amazon.

There are lots of things you can find here on the local market that surprised me: Crisco, cake and brownie mix, pre-made frosting, vanilla extract, sprinkles and other decorations, brown sugar, powdered sugar, nuts (including walnuts and pecans), cream cheese, heavy cream, yogurt, peanut butter, and dried fruits, including cranberries. Some of it is expensive (nuts are ridiculously pricey), but mostly the prices are about what I’m used to in the DC area.

The peanut butter selection at Dhali.  It's not bad!

The peanut butter selection at Dhali. It’s not bad!

Since we are with the embassy, we are also able to shop at the commissary, which has some things (when it’s stocked, anyways) you can’t find on the local market, like puff pastry, Pillsbury croissants in a can, cinnamon rolls in a can, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

If you are moving to Dhaka and love to bake (or if you’re coming to visit and want to make me even happier), you should bring: unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate (chocolate chips, dark chocolate, etc), corn syrup, yeast packets or jars of dry active yeast, and nuts.

One thing you will not find anywhere and cannot ship or bring in luggage is cooking spray. If you can’t live without it, I suggest investing in an oil mister thingy. I butter baking dishes with butter wrappers, which works really well, and so far hasn’t been too big of a problem. But I do miss the convenience of a big container of Pam, that’s for sure!

Two months in

I know I say this a lot, but time is flying by.  If the first two months of our tour here have gone by this quickly, I feel like if I blink for too long, we’ll already be packing up to leave.

We’re both busy with work and we’ve settled into our daily routines. I’ve figured out where my favorite places are to buy groceries, produce, pastries, jewelry, and handicrafts.  You know, all the important stuff.

We got a car on July 1, which has simultaneously made things a lot easier and been a huge pain in the butt.  It turns out when you buy a old SUV and drive it in pothole-riddled Dhaka, things break a lot.  I don’t know why that caught us by surprise, but there you go.  We’ve already had to replace a tire and we need to get the engine looked at.  And there was the time the car died in the DIT-2 parking lot.  Not in a parking space, but blocking traffic in the middle of the parking lot, around noon, on a hot day.  That wasn’t fun.

Really it hasn’t been that bad, I guess it just seems like it sometimes.  The ability to move around freely and go where we want outweighs the occasional car trouble.

The embassy was closed for four days for Eid festivities, and it was really nice to have a four-day weekend when you don’t celebrate the holiday that causes the time off.  We didn’t do any extravagant cooking, we had no guests, and almost everything in Dhaka was closed, so there was really nothing to do.  Most people leave Dhaka during Eid (expats go on vacation and lots of Bangladeshis go to their villages), so we were able to drive in minimal traffic and generally do nothing.  Plus it rained like crazy the entire four days, so that in itself was a great excuse to stay inside and watch Netflix all day.

Empty streets: an Eid miracle

Empty streets: an Eid miracle

Athena has made friends with lots of street dogs, and at this point she has established areas where she knows all the dogs and she doesn’t hesitate to go running up to them. We’ve given some of them names, like “black and brown dog” and “howly lady,” and some of them we refer to by the road that they live on. I’m trying to not let myself get too attached to any of her friends, and anytime I see one of them lying on the road I worry they’re not getting up.  But our neighborhood is probably one of the better neighborhoods to be a street dog.  Actually, the only dogs I’ve seen being abused are those that are out with their “dog walkers.”

Athena and her buddies

Athena and her buddies

Oh, our HHE is here!  That deserves it’s own blog post, but we’ve been busy trying to put things away, and wondering why we ever found it necessary to own so much stuff.  Our kitchen has massive cabinets that sadly do not contain enough shelves, so finding storage has been a challenge.  But, hey, at least all the kitchen stuff is actually in the kitchen, instead of being scattered in storage nooks and crannies in the study, dining room and living room! Our mentality has basically been that if we were able to find someplace for something in our house in Alexandria, we can certainly find space for it our much-larger apartment in Dhaka.

One of the most exciting things about our HHE arriving was the random consumables.  The pumpkin butter and huge chocolate bars from Trader Joe’s, real maple syrup from Wisconsin, and all of our spices have definitely made life a little better.  Given that we didn’t use even half of our HHE weight, I wish we’d stocked up more on consumables before we left, but now we know for next time.

If you live near a Trader Joe’s, please wander the aisles, savor all the goodies you could potentially buy, and know how lucky you are!

The Iftar experience

So much yummy food!

So much yummy food!

During Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at sunset with a meal called Iftar.

There are lots of Iftar parties, restaurants offer special Iftar menus, and it’s generally a time when you eat a lot of food, which is understandable if you’ve been fasting all day.

But for most Americans, who go about their day eating as they normally would, and then go to an Iftar, this when they start to pack on the pounds if they’re not careful (myself included).

The fast is traditionally broken with dates,* and the other food that is served varies depending on where you are, but there seems to usually be a good amount of fried food.

Cheese-filled pastries, potato and meat fritters, fried eggplant, Bangladeshi hush puppies, and more!

Cheese-filled pastries, potato and meat fritters, fried eggplant, Bangladeshi hush puppies, and more!

Nate and I were invited to an Iftar at the home of a Bangladeshi friend, and we’ve also been to some restaurant Iftars.  As you might expect, the home-cooked Iftar was hands-down the best.

Our friend and her family made fried meat and potato fritters, fried eggplant, fried pastries filled with cheese, fried lentil fritters, and fried semonlina fritters that tasted like Bangladeshi hush puppies.  She also made Vietnamese spring rolls, which were just amazing.  They served homemade limeade, made from the limes grown on their rooftop, and freshly made lassi, a sweet yogurt drink.

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I ate more than my fill, only to discover that this was just the Iftar meal, and dinner was still to come. So then I ate some really tasty chicken and rice.  I had flashbacks to hram in Moldova, which is a several-day celebration in each village, town and city in Moldova celebrating the name day for that locality’s patron saint.  You’d go from one party to the next, where you were expected to basically do nothing but eat.

A few nights ago we went to an Iftar party at Heritage, an Indian restaurant.  We were served Iftar plates, full of dates, fruit and fried food, and then there was a buffet dinner.  The halim, a spicy lentil stew with chunks of meat which is traditionally served for Iftar,  was tasty and not too greasy.

Iftar plate at Heritage; jilapi is in the top corner

Iftar plate at Heritage; jilapi is in the top corner

A traditional Iftar dessert (following in the “fried food” theme) is jilapi, which is basically like if you made a funnel cake and it didn’t expand while it was being fried, and then you soaked it in sugar syrup.  It’s crunchy, sweet, and you can’t tell when you bite into it if it’s grease or syrup that’s dripping down your chin.

It’s interesting going to restaurants right before Iftar because the restaurant will be packed, and there will be loads of food and drinks at every table, but no one is touching anything. When I sit down at a restaurant, I always reach for something to drink and it’s hard to see it in front of me, but to not drink it. I can’t even imagine how those that have been fasting all day must feel.

Iftar dinner buffet at Heritage

Iftar dinner buffet at Heritage

Tarka’s Iftar is really good, but the Iftar at Lucknow is the best.  Their saag paneer is just so darn tasty.

We tried Nando’s Iftar platter, and it was way overpriced, cold, and blah.  I think it will be a while before I go back to Nando’s because that experience was scarring.

There were lots of restaurants with Iftar specials that we wanted to try, but we just didn’t have time (or pants that would fit if we kept eating out every night). Luckily, there’s always next year!

Shopping in Dhaka: DIT-2

One of my favorite places to shop in Dhaka is DIT-2.  It’s a two-story strip mall that doesn’t really look like anything special, and the parking lot is a mess when it rains.  But it’s pretty great.

DIT-2 parking lot/lake

DIT-2 parking lot/lake

You can buy all kinds of interesting antiques, jewelry and pearls, and sports equipment, there’s a good grocery store, and if all that shopping makes you hungry (or you dragged your husband along and he’d rather eat than shop), you can even get a hamburger and fries or donuts.

I’m not an antiques person but they have some really interesting stuff: lots of neat wooden furniture, wooden sari stamps, random stuff from early 1900’s British ships, figurines, etc.  If you go earlier in the day (before noon, basically) some of the shop owners are more willing to bargain and they’ll give you a discount for being their first customer.

There are tons of pearl and jewelry stores, were you can buy already made necklaces, or you can tell them what you want and they’ll make it for you.  The pearls here are beautiful and crazy-cheap.  The main problem with pearl shopping in DIT-2 is that there are so many pearl shops, it’s hard to know which ones are the best.  So I guess that means I need to just check each one out!

I really like the grocery store on the first floor, Dhali.  They have an incredible range of products; last time I was there I saw Newman’s Own salsa, queso and bean dip!  And Tostitos!  There’s a guy that sells cheese outside the Dhali entrance and his paneer is amazing.  We get the semi-salty, and it’s really good in salads with tomatoes and cucumbers, served with bread and butter, or on sandwiches (both hot or cold since it melts really nicely).

There’s a burger stand, Naga Burger, that sells fast-food style burgers and fries with spicy sauces. I haven’t eaten there yet, but Nate says it’s really good.  If you’re not looking for the burger stand, you won’t see it because it’s pretty nondescript.  They use high quality beef and cook the burgers to order, so it takes some time.  But that means you can walk across the parking lot to Glazed, the donut place, while you wait!  The donuts are 135 taka (about $1.75), and I was surprised by how good they were.

It’s an easy place to spend several hours, and if you come to visit, we’ll definitely stop by!

Road construction in Dhaka

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There’s a road in our neighborhood that is currently undergoing some serious repairs and construction.  I don’t know if they replaced the water lines that run under it, or what exactly, but they basically ripped up the entire road and installed new pipes and man-holes.

We arrived shortly after they started replacing the man-holes, and they were constructed at a level probably 10 inches higher than the road itself, which seemed ridiculous to me.  There were piles of bricks and sand lining the road.  I thought maybe they were planning on putting in a cobblestone road (because, in my mind, as an American, what else would you possibly do with bricks on a road?), but that would really impractical, overly tedious, and kind of stupid, considering how much traffic this road would normally get, when you could just lay asphalt.  Plus, you’d have to do like five layers of cobblestone streets just to reach the manhole covers.

Unending piles of bricks and sand

Unending piles of bricks and sand

We walk this road every day with Athena because, due to the construction which makes it impassable, there are no cars. So we’ve been able to see how they are progressing in building up the road to the level of the man-holes.

Luckily for everyone, they are not, in fact, laying down a cobblestone street.  Instead, there are men that chop up the bricks by hand, and then the smashed bricks are laid on the road and covered with sand.  Each layer gets well-trodden by pedestrians and rickshaws, and then another layer of bricks and sand goes down on top.  And so forth and so on until the road almost reaches the level of the man-holes, at which point I would imagine they will pave it (but I don’t know because they haven’t progressed that far yet).

Breaking the bricks into pieces the hard way

Breaking the bricks into pieces the hard way

Brick pieces mixed with sand, almost reaching the top!

Brick pieces mixed with sand, almost reaching the top!

Also, we have seen no power tools being used in the construction of this road.  All the work is being done with hammers and wheelbarrows.  Maybe that explains why it’s taking so darn long. Why use electricity or fuel when you have pure manpower?

Ramadan and other random things

Ramadan started last week, and it lasts until July 17, which is the date of Eid al-Fitr (not to be confused with Eid al-Adha.  I had no idea there were two Eids before moving here.).  Eid al-Fitr is one of the main holidays in Islam, and Ramadan is the period of fasting that leads up to it.  In terms of religious holidays, just like Christmas is the big one for Christians, Eid al-Fitr is the big one for Muslims.  From what I understand anyways; I could be wrong.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, which here is about 6:30 am to 6:45 pm. One afternoon, we walked to our favorite bakery, Holey, which caters to expats and is open during Ramadan.  All the usual market and tea stalls along the way were still there, but they were covered in tarps.  You could see some people behind the tarps drinking tea, although there was definitely less hustle and bustle than normal.  This is the first time I’ve been in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan, and it is interesting.

I am not observing Ramadan, and now that we are settled into our apartment, I’ve started doing some baking.  I made a mango upside-down cake for our amazing social sponsors, which was so good I made a pineapple up-side down cake the next day for me and Nate.  I’m sad to say that I made the cake 4 days ago and it’s almost gone… and Nate’s not much of a dessert eater, so, yes, I’ve eaten nearly the whole thing.

Not the best photo I've made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

Not the best photo I’ve made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

This morning I made an apple coffee cake that is also really good.   Nate likes coffee cake more than I do, so I’m really hoping that he’ll eat this one.

Whenever I’m cooking in our kitchen here, I’m always struck by the amount of garbage that we produce.  This is primarily because, since moving to Dhaka, we don’t recycle anymore. Even worse, we don’t pick up after our dog.

A few nights ago, we were cooking dinner and Nate asked if we needed to save a glass jar.  I said, “No, just toss it in the recycling.”  His response was, “Um, don’t you mean garbage?” Right…. Currently in our garbage there is paper, a empty egg carton, a yogurt container, soda cans, and an empty milk box. I feel so guilty.

I’m able to rationalize not recycling here because there are people who go through the garbage and pull out the recyclables. Not that I think that picking through garbage should be something people have to do to survive, but, hey, at least someone is trying to make some money and also happens to be helping the environment.

And if we picked up after our dog, then we’d be walking around with a bag full of poop and no where to throw it away.  We do our part, to the extent possible, and encourage Athena to take care of her business on the trash piles. But still, it feels strange and wrong.

Well I’m not really sure how this when from Islamic holidays to everything we’re doing wrong for the environment, but there you go, that’s my train of thought these days.

One month in

How have we been in Dhaka for almost a month already?!

I’ve started taking Bangla lessons and, as long as I don’t have to read anything in Bangla script, it’s going well.  I know some greetings, basic life questions (“What is your country?”), how to give directions, and names for fruits, vegetables, and food staples.  Some of the vegetable names don’t translate very well.  Like lal shak, which, according to my teacher, is “red leafies.” I had to ask her to spell the second word because I thought she was saying “leafies,” but “leafies” isn’t a word, so that couldn’t be right.  Sure enough, “leafies” it was.  Similarly, pui shak is “green leafies.”  Further googling revealed that lal shak is also known as red amaranth or red spinach, and pui shak is Malabar spinach.  But I kind of like leafies, so I’ll stick with that.

We went to a runway show at Nabila over the weekend, and that was a very interesting experience.  We missed the first half of it because I insisted that we not arrive on-time so we weren’t the first people there.  Well, apparently runway shows in Dhaka actually start when they’re supposed to.  So we missed the sari part, but we got to see the gowns.  The show’s soundtrack was Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” played on a loop.  Every time I thought maybe they were changing to a new song, the chorus started over again.  I had “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world / Life in plastic, it’s fantastic…” stuck in my head for days.

Back to the clothes.  The gowns were stunning and sparkly, and we got a quick view of the saris at the end when everyone walked down the runway.  If I want to buy a high-end sari while we’re here, I know where to go!  Afterwards everyone signed the guest book and was given a little box containing a sandwich and a fried veggie fritter, so we sat down with the models and Nate chatted with his friend, the choreographer, who had invited us.

A few days ago we were walking Athena and a young Bangladeshi woman, named Nancy, eager to practice her English, walked along with us.  She was also eager to get a job, as it turned out, but she was really friendly and said she liked dogs. Nancy got nervous when Athena tried to approach her, although we appreciated her positive attitude towards Athena.  She eventually realized we wouldn’t be giving her a job, but we all enjoyed the conversation none-the-less.  At one point she said to Nate, “Your wife’s face is very red,” and he told her, “She does not enjoy the climate here.”

Speaking of the climate in Dhaka, I realized that I’ve complained about it in every post I’ve written so far.  I think the fact that it’s bad goes without saying at this point.  Although now that monsoon season is in full-swing, it’s cooling off a little bit.  Several days ago it rained like crazy all morning long, and there was lots of street flooding.  I don’t know why people told us we should buy a sedan here.  With all the speed bumps, potholes, flooding, and otherwise uneven roads, a vehicle with higher clearance is really the way to go. We are very excited to finally get a vehicle at the end of the month, and no, it’s not a sedan, because we couldn’t fit Athena’s crate in the back.

One of my favorite things about living here is all the fresh fruit.  Right now mangoes, lychee and pineapple are in season and I’ve been stuffing my face.  I’m also freezing whatever I can’t eat right now so that I’ll still have a decent supply later.  I can’t wait until our blender comes in the sea freight.  That will be a wonderful day. Plus it will be nice to have more than four plates, cups and utensils.

Let’s see… oh, Nate needed his hair trimmed so he called a barber that came to our house and gave him an amazing hair cut for about $8.  They camped out in the guest room for 30 minutes, and then the guy cleaned up and that was that.  You’d never guess it was a temporary hair salon.  Speaking of hair, Athena is shedding like crazy.  We thought she did her summer shedding before we left Virginia, but it’s like her body realized she still had more hair than she needed for the climate here, and now she’s shedding again.  If we have this much dog hair in our apartment, I can’t imagine what it’s like for people with really hairy dogs like golden retrievers (which we see a surprisingly large amount of here).

The next post I write will be from our permanent housing, which we are moving into tomorrow.  I am so excited to finally get really settled in somewhere.  We’ll be able to rearrange the furniture, get photos on the walls, and make it feel like home!