River cruise

I’d often heard about The Boat Consortium, in the two years that we’ve been here.

Here is what the Bradt Travel Guide says about them. “Long-term residents in Bangladesh may eventually bump into someone who has membership in “The Boat Consortium”, a group of expatriates who have purchased and refurbished 3 vessels explicitly for taking leisurely cruises around the city. Generally these kinds of events will be by invitation only and involve significant quantities of alcohol.”

Well, I’ve now had the privilege of receiving one invitation, and I can confirm that all information above is accurate to the last detail.

One of my friends, whose extraordinary organizational skills and zest for life I already mentioned when I recounted our trip to Barisal on the occasion of International Woman’s Day, happens to belong to the Boat Consortium, and she brought together a group of sixteen ladies, the other night. We were to meet at 4 Pm, in order to reach Bashundara, where the boat is moored at the moment (the water being high after the monsoon), as early as possible. Night falls around 6.30 PM, here. And each of us was to bring something to munch on, or to drink.

I had no idea what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised when I saw the colorful boat waiting for us.

The upper deck is protected from the sun, and the floor entirely covered with large mattresses. One after the other, we walked the plank with the help of one of our boat men holding a long bamboo pole, hopped on board, took our shoes off and climbed the ladder. Our captain started the boat, and off we went !

Anyone who knows Bangladesh will tell you the country is best seen from a boat. Once on the river, you forget the ever-present filth, chaos, and pollution of Dhaka. You even forget the depressing statistics about over-population. Traffic and concrete give way to water, luxuriant vegetation, and the tranquil, peaceful feeling one experiences floating slowly down a river. It’s pure magic.

Of course, the occasional sign sticking out of the water reminds you that this piece of land has been claimed and soon, the water from which it emerges will disappear, and ugly buildings will be erected.

As you can see in the picture on the right, the ground is basically sand : it makes you wonder how these buildings will fare in the long term…

But we were there to have fun, and already, bags and coolers were being unzipped. Soon, plastic containers crowded the middle of the deck, along with bottles of wine and beer cans.

One of us had brought a Mean Martini cocktail that put us all in a great mood, and our host, never short of ideas, launched a game to break the ice and help the few newcomers to Dhaka get to know everyone. We each were to say a few facts about one of our friends. Easier said than done, in some cases, but it worked (along with the Mean Martini). Soon, everyone was mingling.

Here is the Mean Martini, complete with the olive, if you please

We spent the following three hours eating diverse delicacies, from Indian Chats to fresh spring rolls, chicken satay, baba ganoush, quiche and even some fantastic homemade cheese cup cakes.

Occasionally, we’d float past another boat, and exchange joyous greetings. One of them had Bollywood music blaring, and young people dancing on the deck.

And so, slowly, the gorgeous scenery lost its verdant colors, and the day faded and turned into night.

At some point (don’t ask me when) our captain turned the boat around. Lamps glowing in the dark, we continued to glide on the water, until we reached the point where the cars were waiting for us.

We were home by 9.30 PM, well fed, some of us more than a little tipsy, and ready to do it again very soon. Thank you, D.

Racing boats and celebrating Women in Agoiljhora, Barisal

Last week, I (along with 8 fantastic ladies) visited the village of Agoiljhora, a couple of hours drive from the port town of Barisal, in the south of Bangladesh. We were gone only 48 hours, just enough to travel back and forth and partake in the celebrations around International Women’s Day, but these hours were filled with intense, fun-filled, and unprecedented experiences.

We left Dhaka aboard one of the Rocket Boats, a paddle-wheel river steamer built in the 1920’s, and I’ll dedicate another post to that first leg of our journey. For now, I would like to rush to the Barishal regional office of TARANGO, the acronym for Training, Assistance and Rural Advancement Non-Goverment Organization, where a traditional welcome with marigold garlands, and the traditional Tilaka or Tikka (the area is predominantly Hindu) awaited us.

In the past 30 years, TARANGO has helped tens of thousands of women through their programmes (Handicrafts, Women Entrepreneurship Development, Village Savings and Loan Association, and Women Institutional Development.) They’re best known for their beautiful jute bags, and their baskets sold across the UK and other European markets, including fancy stores like The White Company, London.

Recently,  TARANGO started organizing a women’s boat race on International Women’s Day, but this year, the race involved a group of unexpected, if rather conspicuous participants: eleven Bideshi (foreigners in Bengali) women crazy enough to embark on a traditional flat bottom boat without any preparation whatsoever. All we had was a pair of arms each, and plenty of enthusiasm.

I had somehow accepted the responsibility of steering the boat, being blessed with reasonable good balance, but after only a few minutes during which I narrowly escaped falling headfirst into the water, and almost clobbered my friend sitting at the tail of the boat, a man wearing a dhoti tucked high up on his legs jumped aboard, grabbed the steering paddle from my hands, and proceeded to steer the boat while yelling orders in Bengali that none of us could hear – the racket was astonishing – forget about understanding them. In his considerable enthusiasm, our rescuer also cheered us up, shouting, and swinging his arms wildly back and forth. Incidentally, he also hit my head and shoulders (and those of my friend paddling on the other side of the boat) whenever they happened to be in his way – pretty much all of the time. And when he felt we were not paddling fast enough, he’d drop the steer, leap forward to the middle of the boat, which immediately diverged according to the current (which was pretty strong and contrary, I forgot to mention), yell and swing his arms some more, before he remembered his mission and bounced back to his steering position.  I have no idea how long the race lasted, but thanks to this impromptu collaboration, we eventually did glide under the red string marking the finishing line.

Of course, we lost the race. But it’d been a long time since I’d laughed so much. And, if the joy and appreciation demonstrated by the very large public is any indication (the banks of the river were packed with throngs of people on each side, as shown in pictures below), the story of our clumsy participation will keep the area’s villagers entertained for many years to come. Invitation was already extended for us to come back again next year, and indeed, why not ? It would be nice if we could train, though, so we don’t look so utterly ridiculous, next time. Maybe I’ll bring a helmet, too.

None of us took their cameras on board the boat. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to operate it without capsizing it. Besides, we’d seen a few of the local participants frantically scooping water out of theirs, so we also had to worry about it sinking. But I still hope some pictures or short video will turn out, somehow.

In the meantime, here are photos of the area, the crowds cheering on each side of the river, and last but not least, the official participants to the 2011 TARANGO Boat Race.

This lady kindly demonstrated the paddling moves for us.

Before the races, we sat under a colorful tent as they kicked off the day's celebrations with a few speeches and, much more to my taste, a couple of songs.

As we only participated in the last race, with the winning team, we first got to follow the action onboard a "speed boat" - well, it had a motor. This was the bottom! See what I mean when I mention the possibility of sinking?

On your marks! Get set! Go!

As I said, there were a few people around...

The winners, their red and white saris still soaking wet. It was a joy to witness their pride and unabashed happiness. The team was awarded medals that we each passed around their necks, and... a television to be shared by the community.

By then, it was only the middle of the day, and we still had a few mundane things to do, like break a clay pot blind-folded, sing a cappella in front of hundreds (more?) people, and dance, but this is for another post…

Baikka Beel, one of the many Wetlands of Bangladesh

On our second (and last) morning, we packed our bags, and left our basic, but very nice eco-lodge to go to Baikka Beel. By the way, during our week-end there, Srimongal was the coldest spot in Bangladesh with temperatures down to 5.9 Celsius (about 42 Fahrenheit). We certainly felt it at night and in the morning.

A beel is a pond (or wetland) with static water (as opposed to moving water in rivers and canals – typically called khaals), in the Ganges-Brahmaputra flood plains of the Eastern Indian states of West Bengal and Assam and in the country of Bangladesh. Baika Beel is part of a larger water body called a Haor (a depression shaped like a bowl, flooded every year during monsoon) and part of a successful environmental project to save Bangladesh’ wetlands. Baika Beel has been a sanctuary since 2003, and  native swamp forest trees were planted to restore diversity. Fishing, hunting and the collection of aquatic plants is forbidden by the community, and as a result, fish (on which the local community depends for survival) are more abundant and large flocks of birds have started coming back, including species which had totally disappeared for many years, and others globally theatened.

During the monsoon, almost half the length of these trees (below) is immersed by water.

We saw only one lotus flower, and it was a pink so radiant that it seemed artificial and I wondered if it was a piece of plastic. See it ? We could not come close enough for me to take a good picture ; the water was not deep, and the zoom of my camera not powerful enough for a good close-up…

Getting the boats ready for our little troupe to embark.

The children were the first to jump onboard.

Below is the area where the birds sleep, at night.

After Baikka Beel, we had very little time left before hitting the road again for the long journey back to Dhaka. Our guide wanted to show us some tea gardens, a rubber plantation, and a red hill. I’m not sure if it’s called red hill after the reddish canopy of the trees covering it or because of the red clay that borders the river snaking at the bottom. The sun was out, and we were able to shed jackets and fleece. As soon as they saw the river, the children jumped in, ignoring the adults’ numerous warnings not to get wet – most of them were out of clean clothes. But of course, within minutes, they threw caution to the wind and got soaked, one after the other, pretty much from the neck down. Unfortunately, the battery of my camera died just then, so I don’t have pictures of them frolicking in the river. Just trust me when I tell you they had a grand time.

Madhabpur Lake, in Srimongal.

After our jungle treck in the Lawachara rain forest (see my post yesterday), and a vaguely Indian lunch in a Srimongal restaurant (the Nan had the fluffy thickness of brioche, very different from Indian Nan, but the dal was just the way I love it, with lots of coriander, not too dry, and not too liquid either), our guide took us to a tribal village, and then to Madhabpur Lake.

Apparently, people indigenous to the states of Bihar, Orissa and Assam were brought to this area by the British to work in the tea gardens, and pineapple, rubber, and lemon plantations. These ethnic minorities seem to live in isolated communities ; most practice Hinduism, some are Christians, and their prospects are very limited. We saw a young woman at a weaving loom (picture below) : the cloth they produce is for Aarong, a fair trade organization established by the BRAC NGO and a well-known and beautifully supplied shop in Dhaka, and most cities around Bangladesh.

Our children had an absolute ball playing with the village goats. I'm not sure the goats enjoyed their visit quite as much.

After the village, we headed for Madhabpur Lake, the short journey offering a few more photo opportunities.

Tea shop, one of many. Just as in India, rare is a corner without a small shack selling tea - usually served in a glass.

Nothing had prepared me for the sight of the lake and its surroundings. Carpets of purple lotus flowers hem the borders of a lake with multiple arms, so wide we could not see the whole expanse of it. A very short hike takes you to the top of the low hills planted with tea bushes, and from there, the view is simply breathtaking. We were there just before dusk, and watched the sun go down, its reddening disk reflected in the water below. As we waited for some of our companions still taking pictures, I joined our guide, a very tall young student from the area, who was sitting by the lake. He told me that a few weeks earlier, he had taken his girlfriend to this very spot, declared his love, and asked her to marry him. Which is why he sat there.

The following day, as we were walking through tea gardens, I asked him about his fiancée. She’s a student like him and they met at university. Of course, I had to ask him about arranged marriage in Hindu communities. He told me this was no longer compulsory.

Next post, we’ll go back to Srimongal for a bit of boating in the Baikka Beel (Wetlands), and for the children (to their immense delight and their parents’ dismay) a fully clothed dip in the river running at the foot of the Red Hill, after going through a tea garden and a rubber plantation.

Zumba, my cure of choice against Dhaka blues

All the books on expatriation say it. When you find yourself in a “challenging duty station” (I like the diplomatic flavor of that), you need to find your niche, something to do that makes you feel good, whether it’s knitting, baking, volunteering with street children, spending all your time at your kids’ school or the spa, organizing coffee mornings, lunches, or afternoon teas, playing bridge or golf, whatever…

For me, filling my days with things to do is never an issue. I have novels to translate, stories to write, a blog… In fact, I’d need more hours in a day. The problem is that I work from home, which means my social life is basically nonexistent (my VIRTUAL social life, now, that one is thriving, but as retired but not forgotten expat guru Robin Pascoe might tell you, you gotta beware of having only a virtual social life – very unhealthy, that.)  Of course, I could never figure out whether my poor social life is a result of my working from home, of if I never really tried to work outside of home because I’m socially challenged. No matter. The bottom line is, when living in dump places like Dhaka (good-bye diplomacy), one needs to find things to do that make us feel good. In my case, it is imperative that said thing takes me out of my house.

Well, I found it : Zumba.

Nothing fancy, mind you. A handful of fanatics (OK, maybe I’m the only fanatic) get together and we all shake our bums (and everything else) in front of a TV screen blaring a fusion of musics. Yep ! No live instructor. But who needs one when you have those DVDs ?

A little backstory, because it’s the kind of story I love : according to the official website, Zumba is the baby of a Columbian Aerobics instructor, Alberto “Beto” Perez, who one day forgot his tapes and decided to use the latin music he had in his backpack to improvise a dancing work-out for his class – and they loved it ! A happy stroke of fate. In 1999, he took the concept to the US, and the rest is history. Today, Zumba is the largest dance fitness program in the world.

His last DVD series has music and dance styles that include cumbia, salsa, merengue, mambo, flamenco, reggaeton, soca, samba, belly dancing, bhangra, african, hip hop music and tango. The DVDs went from having him with two young women who did most of the talking, to a much more professional series with four different work-outs including a Zumba party that had about 6 to 8 people on stage, and what looked like a few hundred in the room, to the last one we were watching tonight. The Zumba Concert has a revolving double stage going up and down, giant screens, and what looks like thousands of people dancing along, every single one of them looking as if they’re in a kind of happy trance. Of course, in all of them, Beto is very much the Presence ! I mean, just looking at him dancing is enough to lift your mood. Picture a Latin version of Shahruck Khan – dark good looks, strong features, gorgeous body. Are you there ? And Goodness me, can he move.

As I was happily dancing, last evening, in a small school room, with a small TV screen, I was thinking how Beto didn’t only seize an opportunity, he also turned it into gold because he knew how to ride a global music and dance wave. Zumba is not only about exercising, and I’m tempted to say that’s precisely the reason it is such a huge success across the world. Call me French, but I could never understand people who sweat on machines. And I did try. Spinning ? You mean people actually do that without someone holding a gun to their heads ? Beats me. But Zumba ! Now we’re talking. I get to sweat and somewhat shape up and tone my drooping pre-menopause body, but those are secondary (if most welcome) side effects. Most of all, I get to dance to musics that lift my spirit, and connect me to Columbia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, India, and other countries around the world. I learn new moves and steps. Oh, and I get to watch Beto’s bare torso while I’m at it.

Is it any wonder I come out of each session feeling so light on my feet, and, yeah ! Happy ?!

Note to self: when feeling the blues in Dhaka, get out of the hole, and go Zumba !

Dhaka, yesterday, and today.

I have been corresponding with the wife of one of my husband’s UNICEF colleagues, as their family prepares to move to Bangladesh. We Skype and exchange emails, and this morning, she sent me a message about an apartment she found on the Internet. As I have, myself, been contemplating another move, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and walked there to see the building, and the apartment. It overlooks the lake, and has the kind of view I dreamed of, when we were looking ourselves, last year. I still do, in fact. It’s the best view anyone can get in Dhaka. But this is not a post about apartments.

My correspondent mentioned Google Map and I went there, and found photos of the park I was mentioning in my last post. Here is one, dated 2006.

Well, here come my own pictures of the same spot, taken a few days ago, five years later.

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What happened to that little bridge ? I was under the impression it was still under construction, but apparently, it’s been there a while, needed to be repaired, and, well, who knows how long that might take ?

And here is another picture from Google Maps. No date on that one.

Where did all the water go ???

A lot of whining, and a little spark of beauty

Yes, it’s been a long silence. My workload is to blame, definitely. But not only. Mostly, my inability to blog for the past weeks, months, has to do with an overall sense of defeat as I watch my reserves of (positive?) energy slowly trickling out of me. I need to be parsimonious in the way I measure and distribute it. Work must be done (contracts have been signed and will be honored), and the demands of parenting cannot be ignored : homework, making sure my daughters attend their diverse activities, getting them bathed, feeding them dinner, and thank Goodness for all these mundane day-to-day tasks, and for my children’s laughter and needs, because even as they sometimes exhaust me, they also keep me from sinking into a state of stupor, and save me from self-destructive tendencies. By nine, most evenings, my whole body, mind and soul can think of one thing, and one thing only : crawl into bed with a book, and escape reality.

My mistake, and mine only, was to have agreed to move into a house that I knew could never be the kind of home that I need, wishfully (and fool-ly) thinking that the advantages it offered would supersede its major flaws :  it was a house with a small patch of garden, as opposed to an apartment, and it was located close to our youngest daughter’s school, and close to most everything – and knowing the reality of the Dhaka traffic, that argument weighed heavily in the balance. Also, the rent was cheaper, and the UN having upgraded Dhaka last year (since it is such a fantastic place to be !) the hardship money was suddenly slashed (with one home-leave every other year only, as if the option of spending the whole summer break here could even be considered!), sending all our budget calculations out the window. We no longer had enough to reach the end of the month (I know, amazing, but true) unless we cancelled our school-break trips outside the country (and that was not an option.) So, I ignored my misgivings about the house. I told myself I could do this.

I overestimated my levels of tolerance.

And we moved.

Into a house surrounded with dwarfing buildings that stand in the way of all natural light and force me to use electricity from morning till evening. That would be bad enough, but there is more. The plumbing started collapsing on us, and for the past weeks, the cave has also become a stinky sewage hole, with workers banging on the walls and pipes right outside my office, toilets condemned or we find ourselves literally walking through piles of shit, soiled water coming out of the showers, and our electric installation breaking down at the most frustrating times.

This morning, I decided to go for a walk in the park close to our house. Temperatures have dropped, and so have humidity levels. The air feels nice.

Now, don’t get excited. Said park would most likely be beautiful if only it were looked after. As it is, we have an enclosure fringed with garbage, and inside, two holes containing low levels of stagnant water, a small bridge under construction (seemingly interrupted) straddling it from one side to the other, dirty, uncared bushes everywhere, and a tiled path all around.

As I tried to alternate fast walking and jogging (I should also add that my depressed mood has been compounded by the fact that I’m developing a most unsightly roll of fat on my hips and waist. Call me vain, but I’m totally freaking out, because as someone approaching menopause, I simply do not want to start putting weight on), I tried to breathe in and out, and relax.

Tried to think positive thoughts. As in: come on, it’s not that bad, you can do this, it’s only five weeks and two days before the Christmas break, and then, the rest of the year will fly as it did last year, and then, it will only be one more year… Surely… Hopefully… It’s not so bad. There are people out there with many more problems than you have. Real problems. You’re incredibly privileged, and you know it. And bla bla bla, and bla bla bla. I could almost hear my parents forcing me to finish my plate and reminding me of starving children in Africa.

Of course, the internal pep talk (or those voices from the past) did nothing at all to improve my mood, or smooth out the frown on my face.

There weren’t that many people around me – Dhaka is, after all, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. One or two women wearing salwar kameez and chunky running shoes, casually walking and chatting. One lady in a black burka. Two groups of six to eight men walking together. One or two lone men stretching on the sides.

Suddenly, I saw a bright patch of colour,  a pink so radiant, so totally unexpected in this place where dust and grey seem to overshadow everything else, that it brought me to a halt.

Several gorgeous lotus flowers rose from the water, majestic, totally oblivious of all the dirt and neglect around them, their insolent beauty a welcome slap to my slushy train of thoughts.

People who get out of Dhaka, and actually see Bangladesh, say that it is a beautiful country. Unfortunately, I have not been outside the capital except for a day out on a boat, a few weeks after our arrival (and it was OK, but honestly, nothing to write home about either – maybe because we were still too close from Dhaka). My husband’s commute to the office and back means a minimum of two hours stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. That’s on the good days. He will not hear of spending two or three more hours in the car to get out of Dhaka on the week-ends, and I can’t say I blame him. Actually, I don’t want to spend two, three hours or more stuck in traffic, with the kids, on a Friday or Saturday morning either.

Vicious circle.

I guess I’m just going to have to take it one hour at a time. Day after day.

And remember these pink lotus flowers in the dirty, stagnant water.

A couple of disclaimers

When I first decided to write a blog, in April 2008, I never imagined what it would mean for me in the short and the long run. I had a book coming out, and writing a blog was a way of establishing a virtual presence, along with a website and the creation of a Facebook account.

It takes time for bloggers to find their niche, and their voice, and even though mine was always a blend, a platform where I could voice my thoughts about what matters to me (writing, expatriation, parenting, and a global approach to all facets of life), it has slowly evolved into what it is today. This is my space, and I have learned to fill it in my own way. If I can’t blog, for lack of time or inspiration, I no longer feel bad or guilty. It is a kind of journal, with visitors who are regulars (and a heartfelt thank you to them, and those who leave comments, as they mean a lot to a blogger) others whom I’ll never know. But a trend has started to emerge.

More and more, I receive emails from people who will soon relocate to Bangladesh or to India, or are considering such move. I’m always happy when I do, and I respond unfailingly, sending my thoughts, opinions, and information, because I know that sooner or later I will do the same, send emails to perfect strangers asking them questions about life in another country. It’s the wonder of a world that’s become virtual in less than a decade. When I moved to Nigeria, in 2001, I couldn’t find any current information about Enugu (only an old UNDP report that turned out to be outdated and totally obsolete.) Ten years later, one only has to surf the Internet to find information on expat websites and blogs like mine.

So,  I’m sincerely happy to share tidbits of my experience about our time in Hyderabad, or my current life in Dhaka, and I trust that people understand implicitly that the views and opinions are mine, and mine only. Still, in view of a recent stream of emails, I feel the need to clarify a couple of things.

1. I cannot help anyone to find work. This is not my field, nor my ambition. You need to do your own homework, and check the laws of your host country to find out about the possibility of getting a working visa, and if you can, how to go about it. And then, you need to do more homework to find out where and how you can find employment. There might be some relocation companies that do that, out there, but I’m not sure.

2. I cannot help anyone to decide whether it’s a good idea to leave everything behind (job, friends, family and life in the UK, Europe or the US) in order to follow their Indian boyfriend/fiancé to India because he wants to go back home and be closer to his family. There also, you need to do a lot of research about India (read blogs, read books, lots of books), maybe see a counselor, preferably with your boyfriend/fiancé, and I’d advise you to meet the family BEFORE you make a final move, etc, etc. I can empathize with your struggle, and I wish you all the best, but ultimately, the decision is yours and I cannot have anything to do with it.

Good luck to all who embark on an expatriate adventure.

The Expat Life, or the art of taking life-altering decisions in the blink of an eye

If your partner works for an international organization, the kind that seems to not give a hoot about the families trailing behind, the process goes something like this.

You’ve been at your duty station long enough to know that you must start studying rotation lists. In some cases, you wait for those vacancy bulletins with an eagerness that borders on obsessive mania (when we were in Nigeria), in others, you have profoundly mixed feelings (as when we were in India). You start selecting postings according to a list of prerequisites : in our case, the number one priority is schools ! We learned that the hard way ; out of our six years in Hyderabad, only the first, when our older daughter was still in Kindergarten, and the last, after we’d switched her and her then kindergartener sister to another school, were satisfactory. The rest was of the pulling-one’s-hair-and-not-sleeping-at-night-worrying-about-my-child’s-education variety. Then come the living conditions and the financial package.

This is when I usually spend days searching the Internet, checking websites like Tales From a Small Planet, the Expat-Blog, and sending emails to complete strangers, asking for information. Then, comes the waiting. And more waiting. Until you hear that all the research was for nothing. And you start all over again.

But one day, when you’re about to give birth to a baby (Nigeria) or just happily enjoying your vacation in France, with zero issue about returning to India where you’re now happily settled – especially since the children switched to their new school –  you’re told that you’ll be moving to Bangladesh in August, and you’ll have exactly six days to pack and move your house, plus, aren’t you the lucky ones, you’ll arrive in Dhaka one afternoon before school starts for your children – the only school which is able to take them, because this late in the day, they have no place left anywhere else anyway.

What can you do but grin and bear it ? I read a good post somewhere, recently, about the high levels of tolerance of trailing spouses. Indeed.

So, you put on your happy face, and show up at the new school on the first day, ready to LOVE that school, because if you don’t, aren’t you in for some miserable time. And more often than not, you do. Love it, I mean. Sometimes for the right reasons. Other times, just because if you didn’t, the worry would drive you insane. If there is one thing I’ve learned, in my ten years+ life as an expatriate mother (being an expat as a single woman was not the same ; it did not carry the same consequences, at least for me, as a writer and a translator with a portable career) it’s the ability of the expatriate to consider their life circumstances through a very peculiar looking-glass, one that allows us to diminish the real impact of our situation as much as we possibly can. It’s a mixture of wisdom – something akin to the beginning of the famous Serenity Prayer : grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference – and total denial.

The trick is to know when we’re being wise and strong, and to recognize when we might be going into denial, which then requires to switch gears and back pedal to that second part of the aforementioned prayer.

Because it takes courage to change things, especially when those changes involve your children, who do not have the experience and hindsight to know that a school they like, where they have their friends and habits, is not the right choice for them if it does not challenge them, does not teach them the basic curriculum that will allow them to be at their grade level, or lets them get away with pretty much anything, as was the case in our first international school in Hyderabad, India.

It takes courage to see your child cry, and cry when you tuck her in at night, because she misses her friends, because she finds it hard at the new school, ’cause, guess what, they have all these funny rules about not crawling under the tables, interrupting the teacher, or throwing paper balls across the classroom. Plus, imagine that, they now have to learn their multiplication tables ! It takes courage, and it takes persistence to listen to them, dry their tears, and explain, again, and again, and yet again, why it may be hard, now, but they will thank us, later. Like when they hear about their good friend who moved to another country and found he had to repeat a class.

Next school year, our daughters will enter their fourth school in four consecutive years – a decision we’ve had to make in a matter of days in order to secure their places. I have lost countless nights of sleep over the matter since April (which is when we realized that our older daughter’s maths level was appallingly low, in spite of a report card at the end of January stating that she was at her requested grade level, and several emails to her teacher inquiring about the alarming dearth of homework throughout the year, and said teacher replying each time that all was well.)

I have mixed feelings about where they will be going next year. It’s very different from what they’ve known up to now. This new school is very small, and has none of the perks they’ve grown accustomed to: nice campuses, great sport facilities They teach a British curriculum, which will be another difference. And they will have to sit through Bible studies. As someone who grew up with a very Catholic Spanish mother, and spent a few years in a Catholic school, you do NOT want to start me on that one. And yet, it feels somewhat right. It’s not perfect. Then again, there are no perfect schools. But the environment seems to fit our values, if not all of our expectations, better than the previous one. Our kids spent a trial day there, and they liked it. I was amazed to see the confidence, and ease with which they both settled into this new place where they knew no one. I’m so proud of them.

I now need to renounce my own dreams of grandeur. Because the truth is, I liked entering their previous campuses and admiring how beautiful and well equipped they were, and thinking that I was giving my children opportunities I had never had. But this was me stroking my maternal ego, and forgetting what really matters : a solid education and sound values.

So far, this posting in Dhaka has all been about tolerating. Our apartment is nice, but we need to move, and the house we will most likely move into is kind of okay, but I doubt I’ll ever really like it. It just makes sense, in our current situation. Same for the school. Same for pretty much everything. If I can tolerate it for another two years (hopefully not more), the time will come again to start studying rotation lists and to send emails to strangers about our next location. And to be prepared to shift our lives, yet again, most likely in the blink of an eye…

Hartal in Dhaka

Hartal has become a part of my everyday vocabulary since moving to Bangladesh. Every once in a while, a general strike is declared and the whole city basically shuts down. As we live in what is called the diplomatic enclave, an area where most embassies sit, I cannot say that hartal has bothered me that much throughout the year. Shops are closed, so you better have groceries at home, and my husband had to hire an ambulance to attend some meeting, recently, but my daughter’s school continues to operate ; they just ask that the children don’t wear their uniform. Of course, only three or fours kids show up in each class, usually.

We had a hartal two Sundays ago, and this past Sunday AND Monday were also hartal. As we’re so close to the end of the school year, and I knew they would just waste their time in class, I decided to keep them at home. I made sure they worked in the morning, and took them to the swimming pool at the club, in the afternoon.

Yesterday morning, I was buying some presents for the family back in France and Spain, and we passed the shell of a bus. The driver, or the owner, must have decided they were not going to loose a day’s takings. Or maybe there is another reason I don’t know of. In any case, and as you can clearly see, it was set ablaze. According to the newspaper, another bus and several vehicles met with the same fate. I wonder what happened to the bus drivers, and the passengers.