Sunday, December 15, 2013

My help is trying to give me stuff...!

If you live in Bangladesh and you are not living in a slum, chances are you have help.  Additionally, if you are in the development world you most likely have help.  It has been such an adjustment for me because I was working class, actually a lower working class American my whole life and I didn't even know anyone who had help or at least they didn't say they did.  I suspect looking back that some of my friends had a housekeeper/maid person that came a day or two a week or a month, but not us.

I eventually got used to the idea and even comfortable, and now way I am way too comfortable with it.  There have been conversations that started with "What are we going to do when we move back to the U.S? We have really ruined ourselves and our kids." Other discussions with other spouses that have been "this has saved our marriage" or "Yikes!  We hardly ever talk anymore because we aren't fighting about who has to do dishes/laundry/pickupthedanglegos".

After only two interviews, because I am lazy and was new to this whole thing, we started out with an ayah/nanny who really is a housekeeper that gets the kids off the bus and keeps them pretty safe.  I was fortunate enough to start this lifestyle when my kids were older and they "knew better" and so most of the ownership was on them if they misbehaved or they broke an arm (yes, it happened and she still has a job with us).  I also had a hard time coming around to the idea because I was working from home teaching for the first 8 months and it was just weird.  Now I am working from home again, thanks to the political instability of Bangladesh and I have embraced the "help at home" lifestyle.

There is no way I could keep my house as "clean" as it was in the U.S. mainly because pollution here is just off the charts.  It is no Beijing, but everything is covered in this nasty black slimy soot, even in closed closets, plus we leave dishes and clothes and shoes all over the place.

One of many reasons that I enjoy it is because of what happened today.  A few months ago we hired a woman to cook for us part time.  I basically have stopped doing anything for myself or my family (I say cynically, but not really) since we moved here and my husband recognized it and hired her so they can eat.  Our ayah could cook and actually enjoys doing so for us, but we just don't love her cooking.  It's "hard" when you are not at home and have to call and try and get it across what you and especially the kids want for dinner.  It would often times end in disaster to the point that my kids loved chili that I made with the McCormick packet.  I do rock that out, but that's MY go to dinner, and she'd probably ruin it with extra chilies or mutton.

Our part time cook "C" was here for the afternoon and our ayah checked the time clock early (just kidding, there is not time clock, we just weren't as messy today).  I got to talk to my cook for a while and it was heartbreaking and inspiring as most stories are from someone from Bangladesh.  C speaks much better English than our ayah and she reads and that is awesome.  Another thing I have come to terms with is that I will have to be hardcore when hiring help at the next post because I like to leave lists of tasks, stuff to buy, people that will be stopping over, and the occasional text.  We will see if that actually happens because I am not so hardcore in that way.  Music, sure.  Helping people make their way in the horrible, crappy world they were handed, not so much.

So anyways C and I were able to chat because our ayah wasn't here at the time.  They seem to really enjoy each others' company, but I don't know what they are talking about.  I don't even want to think about it, considering we have been super sick around them and who knows what else is on the radar for them.

It all started with her worried that she was going to go to her village about a 10 hour drive on a good day home and that she wouldn't be able to cook for us while she was away.  I reassured her that it was no big deal.  She got even more concerned because we are returning from our little trip right around when she would be leaving.  We figured out the meals and she would come in the day before we returned and cook us stuff and leave it in the fridge.

Then it all got interesting.  She, her husband and daughter were going to be taking a bus to Jessore and I was now worried about her doing that, and she reassured me they would be safe.  Then I asked if she would be visiting her parents and brothers and sisters.

I knew that C has a tween daughter and she does all she can for her.  She works for us part time in addition to full time for another well paying man, plus her husband works, too.  It is a rare situation to have help where both parents work and focus on their DAUGHTER.  Then C answered all my questions that I had and I was amazed.  Her mother had raised 5 of 6 young kids after her husband had died, he just got sick and died here as it happens.  Her mother was fortunate enough to work for some ambassadors and other expat folks and sent most of her kids through at least 8th grade. C's siblings are either working as house help or teachers in local schools and one brother is a bearer (custodian in the US).  He goes and teaches as the local school with his 8th grade education and then goes and works as a custodian at my kid's school.

I was so happy to hear that they are all such wonderful giving people and asked what her mother is up to and if she will get to see her when she goes home.

Well, she won't.  I learned that her mother was hit by a bus when she was at home and all of her adult children were here in Dhaka about 5 years ago.  My sweet C got a call that horrible day and made it back to Jessore after at least a 10 hour bus ride only to find out that her mother had died in the hospital.

I have rarely seen a Bangladeshi person cry and the first time that I remember vividly was when I told my driver he didn't need to come to work the next day because I was going home to see my Gram because she was not well.  He asked if she was going to be okay and I had to tell him because our communication between our languages was so bad and had to be blunt, so I let him know that she would maybe die, he cried.  I couldn't hug him because it wasn't culturally okay, but we both wanted to.  C was somehow smiling when she was wiping tears from her eyes with her apron while she told me the story about her mother.

The rest of the time she was at my apartment she offered me her saris that she cannot wear because she is "too fat" and then took a salwar kameez for a pattern to get me another one or two made.  She figured out what patterns and colors I like and will get another one fixed that got ruined from being washed.  Another thing, as if you didn't love her enough already...I asked her to go out and get some soda water for the grown ups and she came back with that and root beer, coke, seven up, and sprite, because she loves our kids and is always thinking of them.  

Friday, December 13, 2013


I flew on Qatar Airlines for the first time ever for this trip, and it was the quickest and most efficient way to get to the U.S.  I paid a nominal fee for an upgrade to business class from Dhaka to Doha because I wanted to sleep a bit for the 5 hour first leg of the journey if possible.  I departed around 3 am I think, and after worrying so much and not sleeping, I got a glass of champagne (complementary with said upgrade) and slept like a baby until we landed.

Once in Doha, I only had about an hour to get to the next plane and tried to see if I could get an upgrade again and what it would cost.  They were not so friendly at the counter and said MAYBE...but it would cost $2,500 cash to do so.  Not happening, I don't normally carry around that much cash and if you do...I'll send you my address and you can share.  Thankfully I was able to convince the unfriendly lady at the counter that I was not comfortable travelling alone from Doha as a single woman and could she please at least get me a seat between myself and the next passenger.  She obliged with a nice eye roll and as we departed I noticed that it was a pretty empty flight and several people even had no people sharing seats and could lay out across several economy seats.  I probably could have been one of them had I not opened my fat mouth at the ticket counter!  I had one seat between myself and nice gentleman who's wife was across the aisle from him.  I wasn't worried about any funny business and was able to rest against the window and drool and snore as much as I pleased.  You may be thinking I am a bit paranoid, but I have read stories about women getting harassed and groped on flights no matter the locations and on some flights I have taken in South Asia, it is not uncommon to have people having very loud conversations standing up while leaning over your seat inches from you to the person next to you. I wanted to avoid anything like that considering I was flying for 14 straight hours from Doha to Chicago and just wanted to sleep.

I arrived at O'Hare and got my bags and went outside to try my luck at finding my ride.  I was hit with a blast of cold air--November in Chicago, Duh Carrie--I had the equivalent of thin pajamas on and flip flops.  My awesome brother-in-law picked me up and knew right where to find me, which was awesome considering I had no local cell phone and had just enough quarters to call and leave a message with my sister that I was through immigration and would go outside the international arrivals doors to wait.  My ride even gave me a little siren "alert" pulling up with his fancy police vehicle that made me happy!

He gave me a crash course in what to expect and dropped me off at my mom and dad's house so I could pick up a car, the convertible my dad no longer drives because he was in a terrible car accident while working and driving a minivan several years ago and broke his neck and miraculously recovered, but is not comfortable with driving anymore.  Can't say I blame him and that is a whole other story of arriving at a hospital to an uncertain situation.

It sure was great to see my dad and knowing that his mom was not doing well made it a bit hard at first, but I was so glad to be there for him and her and knew that I was ready to help in any way.

I went to the hospital and into my Gram's room and I was greeted with the most beautiful smile and look of surprise (no one told her I was coming, and she was totally with it and knew I was living in Dhaka) and oh how she was so glad to see me and I knew I was in the right place at that very moment.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

What's November 2013?

I lost the entire month of November and so now this is my attempt to try and remember.  It all started with a voice mail message on Skype that I needed to call home and I cannot honestly remember if anything was mentioned about the situation back in the the voice mail.  I do know that when I called my sister back that the news was not good.  My Grandmother was in the hospital in the ICU and had been for a day or so. I thankfully caught my sister at a moment where she was not in the room at the time and was able to talk to me honestly thank goodness, because nurses were acutely caring for my Grandmother.  My sister explained what brought my Gram into the hospital and it was quite a story as most of them are when our loved ones are independent, strong-willed, my Gram, and 98 years old.

My Gram had been living in her own home (split-level home, no less) thanks to my sister, despite many, many serious illnesses and setbacks over several years.  You have to understand that this meant that to go the restroom she had to go up or down stairs, and the electric chair lift didn't arrive until the last couple of years.  Maybe it helped her health by having to walk up or down to do the most basic things.  Who knows?

So what brought her to the hospital?  Compression socks.  She had many quite serious ailments, but her most recent ICU hospitalization came down to something that is supposed to be helpful and preventative.  On a day or time of day that my sister wasn't there with her, she was trying to get a compression sock off that was stubborn and pulled a muscle with a dramatic move when the sock was already loose, and maybe caused more damage than anyone realized.  In any case, it started a cascade of events that would not be good.

Gram called my sister and told her, and my sister was there in a heartbeat as she always was.  My Gram refused to go to the hospital for days and tried to find comfort at her home.  A comfortable position to sleep in, sit in, anything, and that would be the case for days.  Finally, after she celebrated her 98th birthday with a party several days later with the rest of the family, she finally admitted she should go to the hospital.  

So, back to the phone call.  I learned that Gram had been unable to get comfortable, to the extent that she was hollering out in pain a lot.  This is totally uncharacteristic of her, a very composed and together woman.  I could tell that it was wearing on my sister and when I said I would come, the reaction I got from her told me that I needed to be there.  There were no words exchanged.

Within about 12 hours I was able to get my flight scheduled and then within 24 hours of that I was on a plane to the U.S.  My Gram is really the only Grandparent I knew.  Both my grandfathers passed away before I was born and my maternal grandmother died when I was either 2 or 4.  I can't remember which because she died, and my Gram's brother and sister-in-law died in that time frame and for a toddler, it seemed to blend together.  Both my parents are only children, so we have had a very close relationship with my Gram. She was always there, and more than a grandmother, great-grandmother, or mother, she was EVERYONE'S friend and confidant.
Fredericka Mary Catherine "Kay" Calhoun

Next post...arriving in the U.S. in November from Dhaka and helping take care of my Gram

Friday, December 6, 2013


After Andrew bidding his heart out for our family to go to the best place we could imagine given the bid list that existed, we found ourselves in shock today with the actual assignment.  For most of you that I know personally that read my blog, you are most likely as unfamiliar with the process of "bidding" for a USAID employee as I was until this all happened over the last several months.  What happens is a list comes out around August/September with possible open positions in your field and the employee has to advocate for him or herself to get the best match for their qualifications and personal life situation.  We had a few good looking posts considering we will only be going to development posts, but the very scary reality of it all was that there were fewer positions for bidders and at least, and maybe half were for Afghanistan or Pakistan, and a little Haiti thrown in the mix.

Andrew did a great job of reaching out to posts he was interested in and did nearly ten phone interviews, and had "air kisses" with at least one.  That means they put him first on their list and he did the same.  There were others that wanted him to put them first, but he didn't and put his top 8 or so posts in ranking order.

We thought we were going to the "air kiss" post up until today when the list is sent via the intranet and he logged in and we read it together and were shocked.  Not to say that we weren't happy, but we were just shocked because we thought we were going to the "air kiss" post.

That being said, we are happy to find out after processing the news for about 13 hours that we will be moving to Nairobi, Kenya in August for the next 4 years.  It has started to sink in and thanks to the positive support from family and friends, I really do think that this is the best move for us and that career-wise it is great for Andrew.

Here in Dhaka, the political situation has been deteriorating day by day and gas stations are running out of gas, shelves are starting to get bare, and the people in power don't seem to care that they are making a pathetic living situation for most regular folks, many of whom are lucky to live on a dollar a day that much more unbearable because they cannot go to work because there are no safe transportation options because buses are getting set on fire and people are getting caught in the stupid thuggish crosshairs of "rebellion" and definite agitation and aggression.  This is not making it into the main stream media, but here is a brief history of the reasoning behind this nonsense, plus two local online newspapers if you would like to keep up to date with the state of affairs here and now.

Another thing to seriously keep in mind is that this is a country where most people are lucky to make the equivalent of 80 dollars a month working in a garment factory as chronicled on Planet Money's latest story of Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.  It gives you some perspective of the process and the people that it takes just to make a t-shirt.

Much love to you all out there and I hope I can keep posting and most of it will be retrospective because nothing much is happening these days to write about due to countrywide strikes and blockades.