Pondering the virtues of chaos over the illusion of order

The reaction of many of our friends and relatives, usually those who have never lived outside their home country (and this is in no way meant as a negative judgment, simply an observation) when we told them that we were moving to Belgrade, was: “Oh, wonderful, Belgrade is Europe. This is going to change your life.”

It certainly has, in more ways than one. And as I’m still in the first transitional year, I have decided to refrain from trying to decide whether this is indeed a wonderful thing. But something happened, a couple of days ago, that had me reflect and come to this conclusion: if I must choose between one disorganized way or another, I’d rather go with the kind found in places like India or Bangladesh.

Of course, the following rant is colored by my current mood, a sort of confused and forgetful nostalgia where the many difficult moments spent in my last host country tend to blur and smudge even as the good times come into bright focus, effectively distorting my memory. No matter, a little rant from time to time keeps this brain’s cells working. So, here comes:

Before I even landed in Beograd, I somehow heard about the Serbian way of driving : fast, reckless, macho (although I’d like to add a twist to that one, because I have found women behind the wheel to often be as aggressive as men, here). I just laughed, responding that after driving in India 4 and half years, not much could phase me. I was also told that even though Serbia is requesting entry into the European Union, it retains enough quirks and idiosyncrasies to keep things interesting – a comment I found enormously reassuring.

So, I was quite surprised when I found out about the parking system in place. Cities are divided into zones, according to the number of hours we’re allowed to leave our car in the same area (one, two, or three hours). The parking spots have their colored markings, and signs planted at street corners indicate the zone and give a phone number. You SMS your plate number, and that’s it. Of course, I had not been told that you need to send an SMS for each hour that you’re allowed to park in a 2 or 3 hours zone, and I collected a ticket on my very first day. Neither had I been told that when you’ve collected a ticket, you are entitled to remain in that parking zone for 24 hours, and if you are to return to the same area before the 24 hours have expired, well, you may send as many SMSs as you want, they will not be validated. BUT, the second the 24 hours deadline expires, here you have an agent leaving a nice blue rectangular ticket on your windshield. You do receive an SMS warning you that your time is up, but as it is in Serbian, well, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. So again, I learned the hard way. Five months later, and apart from one time when I totally forgot to send the SMS (I was late for a Flamenco class), and received another ticket (these parking attendants walk their assigned area with utmost zeal, I can vouch for that), I’d say I have pretty much mastered the parking system in Belgrade.

Then, the other evening, I was driving along the street, trying to park. Two empty cars sat on the side of the roadway, each in front of an empty parking spot, effectively blocking it and disturbing the traffic along that 3-lane avenue.IMG_2753 I slowed down, and pressed the horn, thinking they might come out of a shop, but nope, no such luck. I grumbled, drove around the block, twice, and eventually found a spot in a nearby street. I was still grumbling as I took pictures of both cars, thinking: “honestly, who would do that? Block a parking spot, not even bothering to enter said spot, and leaving the car on the road instead.” Then, I noticed two parking attendants. “Ha! they’re gonna get it,” I thought gleefully. Yeah, I can be vindictive, that way. Imagine my astonishment when both parking attendants walked past the cars, not even looking at them. If my Serbian were better, I might have run to them and started gesticulating, asking them why I get a parking ticket if I’m two minutes late sending my SMS, but they don’t give a ticket to these two people, even though they are so blatantly breaking the mighty laws of rational parking? Maybe it’s a good thing I still don’t speak Serbian.

IMG_2754In India or in Bangladesh, there are basically no road rules. Or rather, the mightiest road rules of all is: the biggest car gets priority. As for parking, anything – and everything – goes. It is absolute chaos, everyone knows that, and I, for one, find some semblance of order in that notion. What I find hard to deal with are places where some things obey a number of rigidly enforced rules and regulations, except for the times when they don’t, but when does the exception apply, well, that’s anybody’s guess.

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My Global Book Shelf: Almost Home, by Janet Brown

almost homeAlmost Home, The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop, is Janet Brown’s second travelogue. In Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which I reviewed in my previous blog, here, Janet took us on a journey through the back alleys of the Thai capital, offering us glimpses of the city that very few tourists care to see. More importantly, she took us on her own private journey, as she explored facets of her identity. In her own words, Tone Deaf in Bangkok was a “thank-you note to Bangkok which became a book, a long series of stories about my years there.”

In Almost Home, Janet pushes her exploration further. After seven years in the US, feeling like an exile, she has decided to move permanently to Bangkok. But the political situation has become deeply troubled, and she no longer feels at home in the city she loves so much. As she travels to Hong Kong, Beijing and Penang, spending weeks and months at a time in each place, she wonders : “Could I live here?” Almost Home is a quest for a place to call Home, that most elusive of notions.

As the author mentions, wisely, at the end of her fascinating journey : ” I’ve found out that exploring can range wide on familiar ground or can be quite narrow in exotic territory. “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau said, while centuries later, backpackers often spend their time in Bangkok in front of a computer screen or a TV blasting Western movies.”

Janet’s way of traveling is conscious, and meticulously deliberate.  She is not interested in sights (as someone who feels the need to see those sights with my own eyes, in a way that sometimes borders on mania, it is something I find equally puzzling and enviable) as much as she’s interested in people. Every walk she takes (and does she walk!) is an adventure to be savored, the way she savors food: slowly, in exquisite, meaningful detail. She has the true gift of observation, turning the most mundane scene into beauty, as that morning when she’s standing at the window of her room, in Chungking Mansion, Hong Kong, and sees “objects drifting past like snowflakes, but very large snowflakes. Plastic bags, wads of paper, bits of Styrofoam floated down from an upper floor, surreal, silent, and somehow lovely as they fell. I thought of living here, where garbage became performance art…”

Janet Brown not only exhibits a wanderlust she traces back to her childhood, when her “mother told some neighborhood children that [she] could not go with them because [she] was “too little to go exploring,”” she also exudes passion, and a daredevil lust for life I find totally irresistible: “The whisper of waves had been replaced by a soft rush of wind moving the surrounding trees and for a minute I greedily longed to stand in this place during a storm.”

Her writing style is precise, elegant, often lyrical, and surpassed only by an immense generosity. Even as she grants her readers the privilege of discovering fascinating places through the magnifying lens of eyes that see well beyond the obvious, she also gives us the opportunity to get a feel for the real people who inhabit them as they go about their daily lives, all the while inviting us to follow her own intimate reflexions.

“Could I live here?” Could I call this place Home? Where is Home, when you can choose the whole world? Where is Home, when you were born with a wandering soul and insatiable curiosity? Where? That question resonates within the hearts of most, if not all expatriates or exiles. I know it looms large over us. Where do we want to live, later, once we no longer have a job or an organization making that decision up for us?

If I still lived in Dhaka, I would definitely suggest this as one of our book club reads. Most of us are now scattered all over the world, some having returned to their passport country, but I know we would all spend a great evening trying to find an answer to this question.

Janet Brown has found it, in a way that gives her quest meaningful and satisfying closure. Luckily for us, her readers, it does not mean the end of her wanderlust. She’s currently back in Bangkok, and you can follow her at her blog, Tone Deaf in Thailand.

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.

Home leave madness, or how expatriation can affect long-lasting friendships, if you don’t pay attention.

I’m referring to the friends I made in grade school. Friends I’m now old enough to have known two-thirds of my life. Friends who are practically family. Often, their own families have come to matter a lot to me, too, as we’ll see.

Each year, our suitcases from our Christmas holidays barely unpacked, I start fretting about home leave. I dread the logistical nightmare almost as much as I look forward to our summer pilgrimage. The mere task of deciding where to be, at what time, requires superior planning skills, or in the case of average people like me, enormous amounts of time and energy. Most expat families learn to juggle and cram as much as they possibly can into these weeks : visits to parents, siblings, cousins, and friends, visits to doctors (it takes us an entire week to do the medical round, each year) and frantic shopping for shoes, clothes, sport and school supplies (where but in France can you find notebooks with the five lines, for proper cursive writing?), medicines, skin care products for Mom and hair care products for my girls curly locks, a few food staples we could live without, of course, but the joy of being able to sample them at home, once in a while, is worth the head-splitting task of working out the best way to pack them and remain within the stringent airlines’ weight limits – things like real moutarde de Dijon, Acacia honey that our girls love above all other flavors, a little foie gras, the ubiquitous saucisson no French person worth their salt will be found traveling without, etc.

As if this weren’t complicated enough, imagine what it’s like for families like ours, with members scattered all over Europe and the Americas. And this is just family. Some years, we end up continent hopping and visiting up to 5 countries, and that’s not counting the layovers. Each year, we try to see as many of our family members and friends as we possibly can. And each year, we inevitably miss a few. Try to explain to them why we did not drive the extra hundred miles to see them, too. How come we did not make that extra effort? We get tired, is how and why. When we finally drop our bags in our house in France, often up to two weeks after we left our duty station, we just don’t want to go anywhere for as long as we can. We want to stay put. Because we just travelled thousands of miles. Because our port of embarkation is not a city in France, or even in Europe, it’s in Bangladesh (or India, or wherever), and it took 14, 16, 18 long hours just to reach Paris. And then we had to hop on a train for two hours. And in between, we camped out for a few days, here and there, before we drove almost three hours to finally reach the gate of our house. Most of our friends understand that. They visit us. But once in a while, we get the odd grumpy comment about having to drive so many kilometers to come and see us. And some friends, well, we don’t see for years.

One of these very close friends, who over the years drove hundreds of kilometers to see us many times, lost her mother, three weeks ago. I was in France, but she didn’t call me. She was angry at me for not having made the effort to go and visit her, yet again. We had spoken over the phone, but our conversation was cut short, and I didn’t call back (I’m not very good with phone, I must say. I’d much rather see people, or write.) And so, I feel the loss of her mother, whom I always liked a lot. And I feel the sadness of having lost an opportunity to be there for my friend at a painful time. And I also feel torn, and guilty, for not trying harder. Of course, I apologized. I also promised I will drive the extra miles to go and see her, next year. And I will. Luckily, she’s not the type of person to hold a grudge (unlike me). I know we’re fine. But it all made me think about the importance of not taking anyone for granted. It’s true for all relationships, but the concept seems to stretch and take on a larger meaning in the expatriate context. When you live close enough (in my world, that’s a couple of hours plane ride), it’s easy to make up for such failing. When you’re on the other side of the world, well, it becomes more complicated. I must always remember that.

Jet Lag through the ages – well, mine.

I’m Back in Dhaka, after a 2-month summer holiday that’s taken me to France, to the Dominican Republic, and back to Bangladesh by way of Paris, where we stopped for a few days in hopes of alleviating the effects of jet lag. Fat chance. I have not been able to fall asleep at night since we landed, three days ago, and at 4 am, this morning, my confused, exhausted mind began crafting this post.

In my twenties, when I first travelled far enough to cross a few time zones, Jet Lag had a delicious, exotic quality. It meant that I had become a globe trotter. I was young, full of energy, and even as someone who’s always needed a lot of sleep, skipping a night was not worth even a passing thought.

At 30, I moved to New York City, and for a few years, I went back and forth between France and the US. Jet Lag was still exciting, still something I could negotiate without pain, but I did start to notice some patterns. It was easier to travel from France back to the US than it was to fly the other way, for instance. Going West simply meant that I’d wake up very early for a few days. Going East, well, it would take me a day or two to adjust.

In my late thirties, I became a mother. Oh boy! From one day to the other, sleep became a mirage, something elusive that you desperately long for. During the first few months, until our daughter slept at least five hours through the night, I basically stumbled about life – the perfect Zombie Mama. Taking my baby daughter to France for three weeks when she was only two months old did not help her to settle into a sleeping routine, of course. And then, we moved from New York City to Nigeria. Thankfully, our little one quickly developed the rare ability of adjusting her sleep to the needs of our schedule. Did we go to bed at 10 or 11 PM for some reason? She’d conveniently sleep until 10 or 11 AM the following morning. Not always. But all things considered, pretty often.

Then, came our second daughter, born in New York City, between our appointment in Nigeria and our new posting in India. The first few weeks in the US were slightly easier than the beginnings with our first baby because my mother, who’d come to help, this time, took the 5 AM shift. Still, when the little one turned six weeks old and we had to fly to Hyderabad, ten time zones away, the combination of postpartum hormones, accumulated fatigue, and the usual stresses linked with moving meant that I cried the entire day. I cried as I showered, and frantically packed suitcases. I cried behind my sunglasses as the taxi took us to the airport. I cried some more when we were checking in, and I had to rush to the toilet because  my periods had chosen that moment to return. I was still crying in the plane as it took off, and I continued to cry until we were way over the Atlantic ocean. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go to India. I just didn’t want to leave Brooklyn, not right then. We landed in Hyderabad around midnight, local time, exhausted beyond words, but proud that both our daughters, the 4-year-old, and the 6 weeks old, had behaved impeccably throughout the whole journey. We crashed in our hotel room, and I remember that our baby was sleeping on the bed, beside me. When I woke up, six hours had passed, and the baby was still sleeping! She’d just slept through her first night. I always attributed this little miracle to the fact that we had changed time zone and day had turned into night. A good consequence of Jet Lag.

Well, I’d entered my forties, by then, and our second daughter turned out to be quite different from her sister. She does not need a lot of sleep, and she’s not very good with Jet Lag. She’s now eight years old, and she’s spent the last three nights wide awake, and determined not to be left alone. She keeps barging into our bedroom, declaring that she has nothing to do. When it is 3 AM, and all you wish is to melt into Morpheus’ slippery embrace, having such an imperious little person around is pretty hard on your frazzled nerves. Fortunately, school started again, this morning, and she had to get up at 7 AM. I’m counting on sheer exhaustion to take care of her Jet Lag – and hopefully, mine, too. But as I prepare to exit my forties, I hereby declare that Jet Lag is no longer fun or exotic. It is a pain.

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…

Pnom Penh, back in 1993, and at the turn of 2012.

In March 1993, I was in Bangkok, about half-way through a backpacking tour of South East Asia, when I met some travelers headed for Cambodia. At the time, the mention of Cambodia brought forth thoughts of civil war, mass killings, and land mines ; Pol Pot was still alive, and the Khmer Rouge actively blowing up trains and generally trying to disrupt the fragile peace accord signed in 1991, along with the incoming UN-administered elections. Opinions in the Bangkok guest-house were divided : some thought the situation too volatile to risk going there, while the rest was inclined to override such concern and just go, ’cause, hey! what an adventure!

I was crazy (or wise) enough to belong to the second category, and so, boarded an old Russian plane from Kampuchea Airlines and landed (after being thoroughly shaken, stirred and smothered in thick white fumes) in Pnom Penh’s dust and heat. I have unearthed my journal, and translated some excerpts. On a side note, this was before the digital age, so the number of pictures is limited, as is the quality, I’m afraid. I regret that, and it’s made me realize, more than ever, how much easier and convenient things have become for travelers, nowadays. We can carry hundreds of pictures on a card the size of a thumbnail, as opposed to loading film rolls, having to protect them from rain and dust and sand by storing them in Ziplock pouches, etc. Not to mention the comfort of being able to take a picture, check if it’s any good, and simply delete and start again when it isn’t. But let’s return to Cambodia, in the spring of 1993.

“Pnom Penh is a vast pile of ruins with, here and there, an old, crumbling colonial mansion emerging from the rubbles, a glimpse of splendors past. 

The streets are mostly dirt tracks with some paved avenues and lots of two or three-wheel-vehicles sputtering along as they carry as many passengers and merchandises as possible: strange bicycles fitted with a second saddle lower than the first one, side-cars, cyclo-pousses, and motorcycles. In fact, when we want to go somewhere, we just stand on the side of the street or the road and within seconds, someone stops and offers to take us wherever we want to – for a little money, of course. Moto-taxis. Sometimes, communication is easy, as when our young driver spoke English and explained to us that his parents had been killed by the Pol Pot regime and he’d had to interrupt his studies in Mathematics. Other times, they don’t understand us any more than we understand them, and we have to rely on body language and lots of finger-pointing, as we try to find our destination : no small feat when, like me, the orientation fairy forgot to show up at your cradle. But we always end up where we meant to, if not by the most direct route.

I don’t believe there’s more than two or three traffic lights in the whole of Pnom Penh. People just launch themselves onto the road, and the strongest or fastest wins. To this sputtering chaos, we must add hundreds of ubiquitous white Land Cruisers and trucks with the painted black UN logo on their sides. They’re everywhere. […]

It is brutally hot, dusty, and a rats’ playground. Lots of signs in French, and lots of French restaurants I cannot afford. BUT there is the baguette – without salt, alas! which renders it rather tasteless. With some Vache qui rit (my food staple, here, along with heavenly mangoes, as the food in the streets is rather unpalatable and boring – I love noodle soup, but to a point), it works fine. […]

What is striking is how young people are. You don’t see many old men or women around. Children. Women. And young men. […]

There is a feeling of excitement in the air laced with an undercurrent of fear, as if we’re sitting on a volcano, with no way of knowing whether it is extinct or might erupt at any moment. Hope is strong, almost palpable, and yet shadowed with uncertainty… at the elections, reports of Khmer Rouge bombings here an there, the situation with Vietnam.” […]

“People are extraordinarily nice. They smile constantly. Children run to or after us, laughing and shouting “Hello!”.”

The picture above was taken by the stadium, where families seemed to camp out on mats. And always, always, smiles and laughter.

And a view of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda, from what was then called Lenin Boulevard.

We were allowed to see the gorgeous murals depicting scenes from the Reamker, which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana, inside the Silver Pagoda’s compound.

But in order to see the Silver Pagoda and the Emerald Buddha, an official authorization from the Ministry of Information and Culture was needed. My fellow travelers were much amused when I devoted the next two days to trying to get said authorization. I ended up having long conversations with government officials, usually in French, and they must have laughed a lot, as they sent me from one office to another, from one ministry to another (Department of conversation of monuments, Ministry of Information and Culture, and a few in between – that only was an adventure, as many of the signs for said ministries were written in Khmer), maybe knowing all the time that I would never get said authorization. I don’t know. I didn’t get to see the Silver Pagoda, but in spite of my disappointment, the quest was fun.

I finally entered the Silver Pagoda, this time around. The Emerald Buddha is gorgeous, but the famed solid silver tiles covering the floor are now entirely hidden under carpets. We lifted a corner and saw a few underneath. Oh well ! I’d waited eighteen years to see them, so the reality couldn’t possibly match what I had imagined all this time, anyway.

And now, a few pictures of Pnom Penh, this time in December 2011.

I loved the energy, in Pnom Penh. The city is very different from what I described in my journal. Except for the people smiling. Things work, the food is great, and I loved walking along the Tonle Sap river, on the Croisette, and seeing Cambodians enjoy the evening as they sit about, watch the world go by, exercise with a boom box or on the machines available to all, or buy offerings for the temples. Our stay there was ridiculously brief – about 36 hours, we spent much more time in Siem Reap – to be able to say much more, but it is the kind of place I could totally see myself settling in.

Next post, we’ll travel to Siem Reap, and again, back in time.

Christmas, here or there, one way or another.

Christmas is coming. A friend was in Paris, recently, and mentioned shopping at the Galeries Lafayette. That brought back a flood of memories. As a child, my parents used to take me and my siblings to see the Christmas windows of the famous department store. We lived about half an hour away, and walked there, and back, something we did as a matter of course. To this day, I remember the excitement, the little clouds that came out of our mouths, the lights and colors all around, the smell of hot chestnuts being roasted over a fire burning in big oil drums. Approaching les Galeries Lafayette, we just couldn’t  wait to push past all the people until we stopped right in front of the first window, our cold noses touching the even colder glass, but who cared ? Inside was a magical world: animated scenes with animals and dolls moving, dancing, singing, riding electric trains…

Photo L'Internaute Magazine / Cécile Debise

My children have never seen that. The older one did see the Gigantic Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center when she was 5 months old, but of course, she doesn’t remember it.

I was in that nostalgic frame of mind, when I read an interesting article: What do you do when the kids think Colonel Sanders is Santa ?  The writer is from New Zealand, married to a Japanese, and they live in Japan. Her family has struggled to create a tradition they can call their own.

When we lived in Nigeria, spending Christmas in France, with family, was easy. Then, we moved to India, and after the first Christmas trip, I remember pushing the door of our house in Hyderabad, dropping my suitcase on the floor, and saying : No more !

It’s all right to go continent-hopping with two small kids in tow when you have at least one free month ahead of you. Otherwise, it’s just exhausting. Besides, we wanted to visit India. So, for a while, we just made it a point to be home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we took off on the 26th. But it made for really short vacations, as school started soon after the 1st of January, and my husband was due back at work. So, we changed again. Nowadays, Christmas means frantic, last-minute, separate shopping in Bangkok, taking turns keeping the kids busy, and for Christmas Eve, we might be found sending paper lanterns up in the sky, on a beach in Thailand, or trying an organic restaurant in Bali. This year, we’ll be in Siem Rep, and apart from the frantic shopping part in Bangkok, I have no idea what to expect.

But in the meantime, we will take our tree out (most likely this week-end), and deck it out with our international mix of decorations. Buddha and Ganesha will find their usual place in the nativity scene. And we’ll continue to work around our circumstances. Flexibility is the name of the game.

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.