Friday, May 12, 2017

Evacuation

It's been a long time since I've posted - mostly I've been busy.  Then again, I've heard that "being busy" is never a good excuse; the reality is that you make time for things that are important.  So... I guess that means that recording the trials and tribulations of the last year have not been as important as "other stuff".

Here goes:
One of the benefits afforded to us based on our overseas duty is that we get a free ticket home once every two years (or two times over the course of three years). It just so happened that we were in the US taking advantage of these tickets home when a truly unthinkable event took place. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_2016_Dhaka_attack  This was a location close to our homes, within the "safe zone" and a restaurant often frequented by embassy members.  Witnessing the news reports from afar was bad enough, but what quickly followed was the realization that as family members, we were not going to be allowed to return.

We were "stuck out", left with only what we had packed in our suitcases for summer vacation in a location that actually had four seasons.  We got less than one week notice that J would be doing his next (and final) year in Dhaka unaccompanied.  There was always a chance that things would improve to a point where we could return, but based on our own observations over the past few years there, we found that to be unlikely.

Being in the military and being assigned to an embassy is not that unusual, but when compared to the number of people doing "other things" in the Army, there's not a lot of knowledge out there on what happens in a situation like ours.  Tracking down the people who have the answers and then convincing everyone else that they're actually supposed to help you has been... difficult.

Our first six months stateside, we're supposed to receive a living stipend to help offset expenses.  We chose to live with family because we had no idea what our future assignment might be, and - let's face it - unaccompanied tours with kids are tough.  Sometimes just having an extra set of hands is a godsend.  This meant we were not eligible to receive a housing stipend, but were still entitled to a meal allowance.  Our evacuation lasted from July until January (at which point the post became officially unaccompanied and all evacuation allowances stopped).  Our point of contact in Hawaii who was handling the financial piece of this often went weeks or months without responding, so our reimbursement for expenses was significantly delayed.  It didn't help of course that our evacuation spanned a change in fiscal year (which required an entirely new set of orders with new fiscal year data in order to allow for payment).  Sometime around mid-March I finally got our settlement for accrued payments due from October-January.

Once those payments were taken care of, we started our process of trying to work out the other financial kinks:
The Basic Allowance for Housing was supposed to kick in at the end of the evacuation (January).
The Separation Allowance was supposed to start after the first 30 days (February).
J had to have other allowances he had been receiving in Dhaka stopped based on the fact that we are no longer with him.
As of mid-May, we are still waiting for any of these actions to process.  Things slip through the cracks, email boxes get filled to overflowing every single day, and stuff happens.  I get this. 

The other piece of the evacuation involves our "stuff".  Without us there, J has little need for all of our clothes, toys, and assorted items.  He was able to get approval for a small shipment shortly after the evacuation was announced that allowed him to send home basic essentials, but we were restricted on weight.  After it was determined the evacuation would become permanent, he had to request a new set of orders to allow him to ship home all of our other household goods.  These orders took from January until the end of March to generate.  Again, it becomes an issue of tracking down the right person in the right office to figure these things out since they're just not done very often.

Initially, Hawaii thought we would need to have an Early Return of Dependents approved, since that's generally the process to have family members (and their things) returned stateside.  However, we were ALREADY stateside, so the final determination was that an ERD was not required.  A new set of orders was cut granting approval for J to ship our HHG home in accordance with evacuation regulations.

Having purchased a home in the meantime (with a power of attorney), I began preparations to get our furniture out of storage and delivered to us in the DC area. Generally, this is handled by the nearest military installation, so I called Ft. Belvoir.  After three days of no response, they called to tell me they couldn't help me - I needed to call the military installation that had put my items in storage.  Now, I know this to be false.  I know that in fact Ft. Belvoir is supposed to help me.  But as much as it sometimes pains me to use the path of least resistance instead of pushing for things to be done the "right" way, I offered to try things their way.  I called Eglin AFB and explained my situation.  Naturally, the first thing they told me was that my nearest military installation is supposed to handle this for me.  When I explained that I had already contacted my nearest installation, he offered to call instead on my behalf.  He called me back 5 minutes later and said Belvoir was not going to help.  He asked me to send all of the orders I had to him and he would take care of everything. 

After receiving the papers, I got the dreaded (yet somehow expected) phone call that there was no funding in any of the orders I sent him to authorize payment to bring my items out of storage - nor was I as a the dependent authorized to do any of this without a power of attorney.  Now, luckily I have one, but I was highly entertained when he commented that "normally" in these situations, an Early Return of Dependents order is cut to authorize all of these things.  Right... Back to the ERD that Hawaii decided we did not need.  His final words to me on he phone today were, "We'll get through this, ma'am."  Sometimes it's these little things - hearing that someone else has an interest in making things right - that helps me make sense of the madness.

And so now I wait - again.  For someone to start my housing allowance, for someone to authorize me to get my furniture out of storage, for someone to decide yet again that they "know" what really needs to be done.

I remain thankful that I have family here to help with the day to day things.  I remain thankful that we have a home we will be moving in to (once we get our furniture) and a car to easily accommodate all of our day-to-day commitments.  Eventually J will get orders to come home and we will be together again.  On the practical side, I remain thankful that we have been fortunate enough to have the financial assets to "flex" and cover all of our expenses while we wait for the reimbursement to catch up with us. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The new normal

As it turns out, it been six months since our lives were... altered.  Six months!!?  I can't believe it's been that long since I could walk outside and freely shop wherever I wanted.  And then I realize that really I didn't walk outside that much anyway.  It was a nice escape when T was little and fussy and just needed a change of scenery (who am I kidding, he still needs that...), but we've found new ways to do things.

This is perhaps the lesson to be learned.  Flexibility in all things.  This is one of those lessons that military life really drills into you.  There are times when I wish for things to be different, but they aren't so...  Right.

We are still happy with our decision (and the Army's graceful acceptance) to extend here.  It's a great situation for family life and the kids remain happy with school, club, and home as their options for entertainment.  Being here has enabled me to get ever closer to finishing my masters degree - just one semester left (and a term paper, group project, and 2 final exams for my current semester). 

The big news recently is that we now have an air quality monitor installed at the embassy reminding us each hour on the hour just how poor the air is here. www.airnow.gov On that note, T is on the nebulizer for the third time in the last six months, but seems to be doing much better finally.  We all seem to be suffering a bit more healthwise than we did last year, but I think some of that is just the ebb and flow of time.  We've got an extra kid in school now, so one more person to be picking up every germ that everyone else brings back with them from all of the places they seem to go all the time.  In K's class, it seems that someone is always absent (and always out of the country).  We're not people, we're actually just petri dishes in some large experiment.  I've been trying to get my hands on an indoor air quality monitor since our windows don't really do a great job of keeping the outdoor air outside, but the one I really want is only for sale in China.  Still waiting and hoping someone might take me up on the offer of sending me one.  In the meantime, we'll operate under the assumption that our indoor air is awesome!

We're enjoying Spring Break this week by binge-playing Star Wars on Wii, overdoing it on tennis lessons at the club, and doing our best not to get rained on while outside.  We hope to have our summer vacation plans finalized sometime soon and are looking forward to a somewhat relaxing time back in the US. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Status Quo

Suffice it to say that things have changed a bit since we arrived here a year ago (almost exactly a year at this point).  We made it through weeks/months of hartals for the anniversary of the election.  We made it through the blockade of the city.

The current situation is definitely something new.  It might or might not have made the international news.  About 3 weeks ago, a "western looking" man was shot outside the grocery store in the diplomatic enclave.  This is a bit surprising for several reasons.  First, with all of the violence we have seen in the past 2 1/2 years that we've been here, westerners have not really been the target.  Occasionally, people are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they get caught up in events.  This was not the case however.  Second, the man was shot in the back.  There is reason to assume that he was essentially picked at random based upon the way he looked and was merely found to be a convenient target when someone was looking for one. 

It's certainly sad to see something like this happen in a country where we (personally) have been shown nothing but friendship.  One of the things I will take away from my time here - however long that might be - are the friendly smiles you get from most people you meet.  This event was clearly something out of the ordinary.  Unfortunately, that fact alone does not make it less likely to occur in the future.  A few days after the first shooting, another man - a Japanese man - was shot while riding a rickshaw.  The circumstances are similar enough that the two shootings are thought to be related.

In an effort to ensure everyone's safety, our movements within the country have been significantly curtailed.  We have very specific places we are allowed to travel and are required to keep very specific hours.  Sadly the grocery store is not one of those places; neither are restaurants or shops. 

We continue to hope that the situation will improve, but naturally there's no timeline for something like that.   So far, we're very happy staying in focusing on school, work, movies, baking, and the things that have always sustained us in the past.  Home is still here - and we're happy to be together.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Online Ordering

There are probably a variety of ways to tackle (accept) life overseas.  You can choose to fully embrace the local culture by only shopping for and eating things that are locally available.  Alternatively, you can import (via Amazon or a variety of other sources) just about anything you could need or want from the US.  We have found that we fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

One of the things I have come to appreciate while living here are the locally available fruits and vegetables.  You become much more attuned to the growing seasons.  Strawberries are available for a matter of weeks each year.  Zucchini is available a bit more often, but still has a definite growing season.  Mangoes, starfruit, grapes, and lychees are some of my kids' favorites, but also have a very limited season.  Who knew I'd become extremely proficient at cleaning and preparing starfruit?  I'm still not that great with the mangoes...  Lychees are my newest favorite (as they're in season right now).  Admittedly though they make my fingers hurt.  All that peeling...  At least they taste incredibly good once you get them peeled. 

Bananas are pretty much always in seasons, but the particular variety you get just depends on the day.  Some days we end up with the mini-bananas and some days the standard sized ones.  They're all good in my opinion.  To my knowledge, all of the apples we get here are imported, but they're available year round.  Carrots, cucumbers, onions, and potatoes are also common at all times of the year.  Meal planning, to the extent that we try to incorporate the locally available produce, depends on keeping track of what's currently in the store.

School lunches are another ball of wax altogether.  The school offers a prepared lunch each day (for a set fee), but we have opted not to take advantage of that.  We gave B an option, and he said he prefers to bring his own lunch.  There's a new bakery near our house that we have just started using for sandwich bread, but white bread is available at most grocery stores.  Wheat bread is much less common, and is generally not available in sandwich sized portions. 

When preparing to come here, one of the most common things I heard from other FAO families was that snack foods were generally difficult to come by, and expensive to boot.  They didn't lie.  That's one of the things we order online and have shipped here.  We order pretzel barrels, Cheez-it's, and other snack items from Costco in bulk on fairly regular intervals so we have small finger foods to put in lunches.  Sadly things like Veggie-straws (a favorite of the kids) are not carried on their websites.  If you're thinking about keeping your Costco membership while overseas, keep two things in mind: 1) A lot of things from their warehouse are not online 2) They do not ship to DPO.  All of our Costco items have to come through the pouch (which does limit what we can order).

Lack of local breakfast foods was also mentioned as an issue before we came overseas.  Under normal circumstances, our embassy commissary maintains a good selection of cereals at not-exorbitant prices.  Unfortunately, with the ordering issues we've had recently (which we hope to be resolved within the next month), we've been short on cereal.  I used amazon for a while to try to supplement, but I have discovered that walmart.com has better prices on their cereal.  The downside is that you can only order 4 boxes of each type of cereal per order (yes, I like to buy everything in large quantities) and while they claim to ship to DPO, I have had several instances where they put all of my items in boxes much too large to fit in the DPO mailbag and they got returned to Walmart.  I got a refund, no questions asked, but I still didn't get my stuff...  So, for breakfast foods, I recommend Walmart, and I also recommend just paying the shipping on whatever you want rather than trying to stock up enough to get free shipping ($50 and over per order).

For those who do a lot of baking, I've heard great things about King Arthur Flour.  Several times a year, they offer free shipping (or you can purchase a yearly membership and get free shipping all the time).  They don't just have flour by the way.  They stock a wide variety of baking mixes, storage containers, and accoutrements. 

So, share!  What are you favorite online spots for food?


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ahhhh Vacation!

Leave is supposed to be relaxing - and it will be once I finish requesting child meals, making seat assignments, requesting bassinets for the long haul flights, and inputting frequent flier info for five people for every leg of the flight on four different airlines all of whom have their own system to input the info.  I just lost two days worth of nap times and two evenings of TV time and I don't even know that I have bassinets.  That will require 2 phone calls back to the US and one phone call to someone here who will more than likely say yes when what they really mean is a) I don't understand what you want or b) I can't give you what you want, but I want you to be happy.

<Somebody needs a vacation>

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bednets

Please pardon my crankiness today - our house has been taken over by a virus for the last two weeks and the fifth and final member of the family finally caught it last night.  Just want to share a quick thought.  For anyone who thinks bednets are beautiful, exotic, or even romantic... 






Imagine how much fun they are to clean after your child has vomited on them.  That's all, folks!  It's a long weekend here, and if today is any indication, it's going to be a very long weekend indeed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Discontented Ramblings

If that title doesn't draw you in, I'm not sure what will...

Things in Dhaka have been what I'll call "less than ideal" for a while now.  The on-going blockade of the city and the accompanying hartals have necessitated what amounts to a lockdown inside the diplomatic enclave for quite some time.  While I might not have gone to any stores or visited around the city were this not happening, the fact that I CAN'T do those things just makes me a bit stir crazy. 

Even within the enclave, we are facing restrictions in which roads we can use at different times of the day due to the likelihood of protests involving cocktails (the equivalent of weak flash-bang grenades) and petrol bombs (similar to molotov cocktails).  I'm not usually a social butterfly by any means, but, again, these restrictions just make me antsy. 

Additionally, due to unrelated (mostly) issues, our commissary is slowly but surely running out of food.  Were the local grocery store easy to get to, this wouldn't be a huge problem.  However, it's on one of those roads that we can't be on most of the day.  They have not had dry cat food since we got here, and I've been unsuccessful so far in cracking the code on how big of a bag I can buy that will actually get shipped here.  So far, both bags I've attempted to order have been rejected and shipped back.  Awesome. 

Our car continues to give us issues.  Sometimes I wish I'd studied auto mechanics before coming overseas - I definitely wouldn't lack for customers.  So far, we've flushed the radiator, replaced the water and oil pumps, replaced the head gasket, replaced the brakes, flushed the radiator again (since they mixed antifreezes at some point creating a fine mess), and had some electrical work done since stepping on the brakes would make the headlights turn on.  All of this from a car that was in "good mechanical condition" according to the previous owner.

In local news, an arrest warrant has been issued for the leader of the opposition party (BNP) and there's no real way to know what will happen if they actually take her into custody.  Also, a few days ago, an American citizen was hacked to death with meat cleavers downtown.  He was Bangladeshi-born and well-known as an atheist blogger which some apparently felt was justification for murdering him in front of his wife.

And now my lack of cat food seems a petty concern.