A long overdue post about the amazingly beautiful Myanmar – Part 1

Hi everyone! I am SO sorry it has been so long since I’ve posted! First I was super busy when I came back from Myanmar, then I went into the good ole’ culture shock rollercoaster downward dive, then came out of it and found myself super busy again! This post is just about my AMAZING trip to Myanmar back in … August.. (so long ago, I know), but I PROMISE I’ll write another one soon about all that’s been happening in Dhaka since.  I’ll post this in stages, so that at least there’s something up here! First up, Yangon. Pictures of Yangon are now up! Smile

Yangon

My first impression of Yangon, or Rangoon, was that it came across as far more developed, from a public services sense, than Dhaka: the roads were good, lanes were brightly painted, the traffic lights not only worked, but were respected, and the silence from the lack of the never-ending symphony of horns was amazing. As I spent more time wandering around the city, from crumbling colonial buildings next to more modern but uglier cement apartment complexes, I retracted my original feelings to a certain extent.  The busses were, like in Dhaka, on their last legs and completely beat up, and though they drive on the right side of the road, probably more than half the cars were imported second-hand from Japan and thus had the driver’s seat on the right!It took me a bit to notice that, but once I did, it was pretty amusing.

Dhaka, especially the area in which I spend most of my time, is full of modern amenities; supermarkets, coffee shops, expat clubs, and restaurants serving the Dhaka version of every well-known cuisine from around the world are especially common.  In Yangon, however, I could not have gone to a North-American style coffee shop and sat down to sip a cappuccino and use the free wifi.  Internet was dismally slow.  I decided that those aspects of the city that were new and polished (the roads leading to the airport, some new hotels, etc.) were easily explained by an effort of the military government to make tourism as attractive as possible to foreigners, as it was the country’s main access to foreign capital.  Though I was a young woman traveling alone, I felt perfectly safe in Myanmar anywhere I went, even at night, because the military junta had done everything possible to make the country safe to tourists, by enforcing extremely outrageous punishments for even the smallest crime committed against foreigners.  Thus, combined with the wonderful hospitality of most of the people I met, was a very welcome change.  It was so exciting to get into a cab and get driven somewhere without having to worry that the driver was going to take me somewhere to rob me!

One of the other things I noticed really quickly was how much more gender equality there was in Yangon and the rest of Myanmar than there is in Bangladesh.  In Bangladesh, women wear almost exclusively traditional clothes, saris and salwar-kameezes, while men wear Western clothes at least as often, if not more often, than they wear the traditional lunghi (middle to upper class men NEVER wear lunghis).  In Myanmar, both men & women wear the Burmese lunghi, and both men and women sometimes wear more Western clothes.  In Bangladesh, you often see men hanging out at tea stalls, and rarely (if ever) see a woman at a tea stall.  In Myanmar, you always see men and women at tea stalls, and even sometimes see women drinking beer (it’s mostly men who drink beer).  Finally, in Bangladesh, you rarely, if ever, see a woman driving a car or motorcycle, and as I’ve said before, the ratio of men:women who cycle is about 100:1 on a good day! In Myanmar, women were cycling and driving motorcycles all over the place! It wasn’t 100% equal, but coming from Bangladesh, it was amazing to see how a culture next door could be so much more equal from a gender perspective, especially a poorer country by any economic measurement.

Unfortunately, gender rights is about where Myanmar’s good scores on human rights ends, as even as the country opens up and democratizes slowly, it is still very repressive and not free for all of its residents, rife with ethnic-based violence, and extremely discriminatory against a certain ethnic – and religious – minority, the Rohingya, who are Muslim.  I was really struck by the extent of brain washing that exists as regards the Rohingya; even very well educated Myanma people that I met, who were all about rights for other people, including such typically discriminated against minority groups such as transvestites and trans-gender people, still could not even recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar, referring to them as Bangladeshis (even though they’ve been in Myanmar for generations upon generations, they’re still considered illegal immigrants with no right to Myanma citizenship), and would sprout stories that were clearly untrue about Rohingya people burning their own villages to blame others.  The reason this struck me, again, is not that I don’t know that such deep-seated hatred and misunderstanding of a different group can exist within a country, but that even well educated people who fought for the rights of the marginalized, who I’d typically assume to be more open-minded and questioning and critical of the general sentiments of their society, were still extremely close-minded and full of hatred towards an extremely prosecuted group based on years of perpetuated lies.  Maybe I was just being naive though!

In terms of what I did in Yangon, I’ll leave the pictures and captions to tell the story- the pictures will be up hopefully by what will be Sunday morning for you guys (i.e. I’ll upload them tomorrow at work).  I will say, though, that despite the fact that by going through a tour agency, my first few days were more expensive than they otherwise would have been, having a hotel already booked and the first few days planned meant that I could relax when I arrived, and by the time I left Yangon, I had a much better idea of how to go about getting places and what to see on the rest of my trip.  The tour also gave me a ton of background information on the country, history, and peoples, and took me to many hidden gems in the city that I never would have found on my own (as they were all down tiny little alleyways and hidden paths, completely open to visitors just very hard to find).

Click the picture below for the rest of the story:

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Dhaka Bideshis have a Bengali wedding (almost)

Hey everyone! Hope you’re all doing wonderfully and enjoying the end of your summer.  Topics for this post are: Itadi filming, BD Cyclists, Ramadan, and Bangla lessons.

PS- sorry this post is so late. I was almost finished it, then got rather sick for a few days, and then left for Myanmar with next to no internet access.. so that’s why I’m only finishing it & posting it now!

Ittadi 2012

Ittadi is this big talk / variety show that airs a few times throughout the year, and has been doing so for decades.  It’s hosted / directed by a Hanif something or other, who is quite a superstar in Bangladesh.  For the past few years, he’s included a bideshi (foreigner) component in his Eid special show, and this year, I took part.  The show is only watched by over 75 million people, no big deal. So, way overdue, here are some pictures of my fifteen minutes of fame as a bideshi bride in the silver-screen version of a traditional Bengali wedding.  I say “almost” in the title because, in the script, the bride (myself) and groom (Matthew from Louisiana) never actually say a word to each other, or shoot a single scene together.  You won’t see the wedding.  Apparently, hearing the bride & groom separately affirm to their elders that they will wed each other is all you need to see to know that it happened!  This aired over Eid, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, and I’ve added the youtube link below.  It was a very fun day, where we arrived on set at 9am (a small village complex owned by the director), had a breakfast of a plain omelette, a Bangladeshi flatbread of sorts, & the typical mix of fried “vegetables” consisting of onions, potatoes, and carrots.  As people were eating, the crew began pulling people away for costuming & makeup.  Just after getting dressed & made up, I switched with another girl to take on the part of the bride, and had to get re-dressed and re-made up, this time with copious amounts of makeup applied to my face.  By 10am, I was fully dressed and made up (or so I thought).  I then began to wait, as everyone else filmed all the outdoor scenes (to finish them if/before it rained, which it didn’t).  As I waited over the next 8 hours, every few hours or so, the makeup ladies would decide there was more makeup they could put on me.  Apparently after this airs, people will begin to recognize all the main characters, but I don’t believe that will happen to me because 1. there is too much makeup on my face to make me look remotely what I look like normally in Dhaka (tired & covered in sweat), 2. I’m sitting down in my scene so you can’t see how tall I am, & 3. I’m only actually on the screen for maybe 30 seconds!  Here’s the final product (click it for the rest of the photos):

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It became a running joke amongst the other bideshi cast whether the bride would even appear in her own wedding, as everyone but me had at least one or two scenes to film throughout the day.  However, eventually we did film my scene, where my lines consisted of saying yes, yes again only louder, and something along the lines of “shush do you really think that?” Nonetheless, it was a very fun day, and I met a lot of lovely people who are here doing all sorts of diverse things.

The only other thing to mention is that, though I spent hardly any time on camera, throughout the day, every Bengali around (except the director at least) HAD to have his or her picture taken with me.  Often, this would mean someone would come and stand near me as I was talking to someone or doing something else, and all of a sudden I would glance over and realize my picture was being taken with this random person standing a foot or so away.  A few asked shyly, and stood right next to me, and then thanked me profusely afterwards. It was hilarious.

Update: I was right, even my coworkers who were looking for me said they had a hard time recognizing me!

For a blurry view of the final product (in Bangla) check out
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdSytiE3vP0.

Nik Squad (BD Cyclists)

Following the Ittadi shooting, a friend mentioned that he knew of a group called BD Cyclists that organized big bike rides around the Dhaka area.  I checked them out on facebook, and joined the group, along with one of the smaller groups that I thought included my area.  It didn’t, but they nonetheless were extremely helpful, taking me to get a bike and inviting me on my first rides around the city.  The way the BD Cyclists group seems to work is as an umbrella group that organizes rides every weekend and acts as a meeting point for all the smaller, neighborhood-centered groups.  Nik Squad is the group of people living closest to my place, and the name is short for Niketan Housing Project, the name of the sub-neighborhood of Gulshan-1 (I live in Gulshan-1 proper).  Don’t worry- it’s the cheaper section of the most exclusive neighborhood in Dhaka, nothing like the housing projects of Baltimore!

I cannot express how much joining this cycling community has positively impacted my stay in Dhaka.

The members of the groups have been extremely outgoing & helpful, from accompanying me when I went to buy a bike & doing all the translation, to taking me to their hangout, Cafe Cyclists, or CC (the basement of someone’s home), to inviting me to all their rides & other social events.

There’s virtually no local night-life in Dhaka, and I was feeling rather unimpressed by the expat club scene for a variety of reasons (Western prices, excessive & stupid exclusivity, and frustration over not having made any local non-work friends).  Then, I went on the monthly “Critical Mass” ride, where they attempt to “reclaim the streets” (but wisely choose to go out at the time of the week when there is the least traffic- Friday morning!).  Because it was during Ramadan, when the majority of the country fasts from sunrise to sunset, only about 40 people showed up: I was told normally, there would be well over 100.  During the ride, I met some cyclists who live in my neighborhood, and ever since I’ve been going out with them a few times a week, sometimes going for a long ride at night (it’s much more pleasant to ride when there’s no sun & no traffic), and other times just biking to a cafe for some tea & hanging out, or to someone’s house for a movie night.  Again, I can’t stress enough how much it means to me to have made some wonderful local friends, whose budgets are more like mine (a meal out with BD Cyclists (BDC) cost 200 taka, while a meal out with expats costs between 1500 – 2000 taka..).  Cycling has opened up Dhaka to me in ways that I never would have otherwise known- who would have known that there’s a “restricted” area where cars aren’t allowed, and is full of green space & trails!  Here’s a picture from a ride there, where we were lucky enough to see a rainbow (you could see the rainbow better in real life):

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Unfortunately, instead of turning that area into a much-needed park, the city is rushing as fast as it can to split the place up into lots & have them developed.  Ah well.  For now, it’s awesome.  The group is mostly male, but there are a number of female riders, especially on the weekend BD Cyclists rides.  Most of the other women riders tend to wear more Western, but still modest, clothing, and so around them I feel comfortable in jeans or capris & a loose-fitting tee shirt; SO much more comfortable to wear in the heat than the copious amounts of clothing comprising the salwar-kameez.  Though I get plenty of stares and “wow”s while biking, being surrounded by a group of mostly big local dudes means people never do more than stare or exclaim.

Cycling in Dhaka is about as far removed from the cycling I did at home in Upperco as possible.  Biking around Upperco means going up and down rolling hills on a nice roadbike on paved roads (even if they’re bumpy by North American standards, a roadbike still suffices).  You’re wearing comfy biking shorts & a dry-fit tee-shirt, with hardly a car around & beautiful country air to breath as you fly around getting all the exercise & exhilaration you could possibly want, coupled with pretty sights & only the occasional smell of a cow barn.  Biking around Dhaka means weaving between cars, trucks (at night), rickshaws, CNGs, and millions of people, dripping with sweat from the long, loose fitting pants or capris (at best) that girls can wear & the loose fitting, not-for-athletics tee-shirt (and that’s if I’m lucky enough to be with either BDC or Nik Squad, my neighborhood group- otherwise I’m probably in a salwar-kameez with its long pants, long shirt, & massive scarf, or at least capris, a loose tee, and a scarf).  You’re right at the level of all the exhaust, which makes it unpleasant and at times difficult to breath, and you’re always stopping & going as you slam on the brakes because a motorcycle decided to cut you off or traffic was stopped, which makes it difficult to exercise & often frustrating.  Not to mention that you’re bumping up and down roads with so many potholes it’s impossible to avoid them all, where a fancy roadbike would just be wrecked- so you’re riding a clumsy, heavy mountainbike.  And that’s because you’re lucky enough to be able to afford one- around you, others are riding creaky, heavy pieces of junk passing for bikes with a single gear that, if you try to ride them, feel like the pedals are about to fall off & you’re not sure the brakes really work.

So why ride in Dhaka when it seems so ridiculously unpleasant? Well, first of all it’s convenient- as much as the traffic slows you down, you’re going a hell of a lot faster than all those parked cars!  But mostly, it’s because of the people, and because that even despite all the above incommodities, there’s still something about biking along a wide road- once the streets finally clear at 11pm- with a group of good friends, stopping for tea brakes & photo ops along the way (all the BDC groups are extremely well documented on Facebook).

BDC, and the Nik Squad especially, have welcomed me so fully into their lives, I could not be more grateful.  They often tell me I say thank you too much- thank you for picking me up & dropping me off so I don’t have to bike alone at night; thank you for inviting me over for movies & snacks; thank you for inviting me to the surprise birthday party on the bridge where we always stop (which we decorated with balloons and Christmas tree balls); thank you for taking me to all the places in Dhaka you think I should see, and for bringing me to try all the different kinds of foods & goodies available in different corners of the city; thank you for making me feel like I’ve found a group of friends to enjoy the rest of my experience in Dhaka with.  It means a lot!  So I’ve told them that they’ll just have to get used to hearing me say thank you, and hopefully at some point I’ll be able to return the favor in some way.

Bangla Classes

I started Bangla classes at the end of July at a lovely little place in Dhaka well known for its Bangla language school.  The class for the “phonetic A” course (learning the script comes only after four of five months of phonetic learning!) was tiny- only myself, Mad, and a wonderful woman who works at the US Embassy.  This made it super conducive to learning quickly, as it was practically like a private lesson.  The classes usually are two hours a day, but because of all the holidays from Ramadan & Eid-ul-fitr in August, we were going to miss so much class that they extended the course time to two and a half hours per day, in order to try and finish all the material regardless.  This often worried our teacher, who feared we were rushing through things and often apologized, but I think we all did just fine.

It’s fun to learn a completely different language that has nothing to do with the romance languages I’m used to- but there are still similarities that, knowing the others, I find makes it easier to understand Bangla grammar (such as having two different words for “know” that correspond with conocer/saber in Spanish, etc).  My friends in Nik Squad insisted that I was wasting  my money paying for Bangla courses when they’re perfectly capable of teaching me themselves.. but we’ve since agreed that while they’re great for vocab and slang, it’s very good that I have a proper teacher to deal with all the grammar and making me understand why certain things are so.  Our teacher actually never learned English in a school or anything, but he speaks it fluently and is extremely good at explaining how to translate something in a sentence structure that is completely different from the English ones when there’s absolutely no possibility of any sort of direct translation.  For example, in Bangla, the sentence structure is something like “subj. (+ time) (+location) + obj. + verb.”  So instead of saying I will go to your house tomorrow, you literally say “I tomorrow  your house will go.”  And that’s in the easiest form of the grammar- it gets much harder to translate as it gets more complex!

I can’t really speak much yet- I have to really think about my sentences and often write them down to formulate them before I can say anything, and my little vacation didn’t help.  But hopefully, by the end of this second month I’ll be able to speak more frequently in Bangla.  It’s definitely harder to learn a language when you’re constantly surrounded by people who speak English and are often more inclined to speak English to you than force you to understand & respond to their Bangla.  Nonetheless, I’m working on it!

Ramadan

The month of Ramadan went by quite quickly, surprising given what a slow time it was! The traffic was worse than usual (which is really saying something)- even on a bike, weaving between parked cars doing their best to squeeze into any space to go forward, it would take me almost 30 minutes to go what usually takes about 10, because the roads & sidewalks were JUST THAT PACKED. It was ridiculous. However, we had Bangla class from 8 – 10:30, got to work by 11, and were done at 3:30, so really, it was quite an easy month.  Because almost everyone in the office was fasting (though thankfully not everyone, so it wasn’t just the foreigners eating lunch), the work day is cut short, which for us lazy non-fasters, is pretty sweet.

The daily fast ends at sunset, and the time you break your fast is called “iftar.” Bangladeshis usually break their fast with a host of deep fried delicious goodies which are usually vegetarian and always super tasty (if hard on the digestive system).  I had asked a friend if people lost weight during Ramadan, and was surprised when he said no… but then I saw the iftar foods and understood! Here’s a typical iftar plate, with some deep-fried veggies, something like a spiced chickpea, jilapi (the orange pretzel-ish shaped thing, which is deep-fried sugar as far as I can tell), dates, & some fruit:

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Madelaine has been bemoaning the end of Ramadan, fearing that all the iftar foods (because they’re mostly vegetarian) will disappear, but the past few days it’s seemed like they’re still available, only there are only 3 or 4 street vendors in the market selling them, instead of the twenty or so during Ramadan.  Click the picture above for some photos of the market near my house during Iftar time.. it’s craziness! People rush to get the food & take it back to their families in time to break the fast, which means the traffic in the hours leading up to iftar is INSANE.  However, once everyone gets home, there’s this eerie calm that comes over the city, as everyone is eating and the streets are deserted.  It’s pretty awesome.

I don’t think there’s any way I could fast- if only because it involves not drinking any water, and I get dehydrated easily enough!  I was floored to see so many of the cyclists biking around during Ramadan, usually only in the mornings or evenings after iftar, but sometimes in the heat of the day as well! I was happy though to see that one friend who I was cycling around doing errands with had the sense to break his fast for the day, because we’d been cycling for over 2 hours in the heat of the sun & traffic exhaust, and he’d probably have passed out or something if he’d refused to drink any water.  It’s funny though, once they have one sip of water, because they’ve broken their fast, they are then free to eat and drink as much as they please.  Apparently there’s no “almost fasting”!

In the end though, I’m glad Ramadan’s over- it’s good to feel like I have time to actually get things done at work, despite having decided to continue my morning Bangla classes, not to mention that my body is desperate for a few weeks of healthy eating only.  I was a bit bummed I missed the celebrations for Eid-ul-fitr, the three days at the end of Ramadan, but being in Myanmar was one million percent worth it.  Hopefully I’ll post about Myanmar in a more timely manner than that in which I put this post up. Wish me luck!

Sometimes you can tell I used to be blonde.

Time is flying by! This post is just about Sylhet, because there’s so much to say about that visit.  I’ll write about the rest (Ittadi filming and my newfound love for the tiny but vibrant cycling community in Dhaka mainly) tomorrow or the next day hopefully.

First though, an apology.  Apparently, there’s this handy-dandy little place on pc laptops where you can insert a camera memory card and transfer the images to your computer. In what was just one of the many moments over the past few weeks when I’ve found myself feeling incredibly stupid, I only found this out a few days ago.  As my dad always says, sometimes, you can tell I used to be blonde.

The other major time I (and Madelaine) felt extremely silly was when we told the office that we had a list of questions about our apartment, and would they mind arranging for someone to go by and check it out. Primarily, we wanted to know if our bathrooms could support hot water gizers (cold showers have been fine thus far but it will get chillier in winter!), and if the light fixture in my bathroom could be fixed. They didn’t mind at all, and promptly had someone go over.  An hour or so later, giggling profusely, Bashir (who’s in charge of anything related to money at the PIU) came by to tell us that nothing was wrong except the dripping tap, which shouldn’t be hard to fix.  Which is to say that actually, we already had perfectly functional hot water gizers installed in all the bathrooms and all we had to do was flip the switch outside the bathrooms to turn them on.  Oh. Oops. Also, there was nothing wrong with the light fixture in my bathroom, the switch was just (oh so logically) located well outside the bathroom.  That might have made more sense if there wasn’t a perfectly functional-looking switch right next to the light in the bathroom.  So now, instead of cold showers in the dark, I can take warm showers and see! It’s terribly exciting.

In other exciting news, we bought a toaster oven.  All these things might seem completely mundane and uninteresting to you all, but in such a situation where so many adjustments are required, there’s nothing more exciting than cooking a meal you might eat at home after three weeks of new food. The Bangladeshi food is delicious, but so far it seems not a single item can be prepared without using copious amounts of vegetable oil, which is not terribly easy on the stomach after a while.  So now we can roast veggies, bake things, and do all kinds of cooking that can be done with a toaster oven.  (Before we only had two burners and a microwave).

Sorry- on to the more traditionally interesting things: descriptions of places I’ve been and people I’ve met! Now with photos!

Disclaimer: a lot of these pictures were taken from a moving car through a tinted window.  They do not do justice to the beauty and colors of the landscape and its people!

Sylhet- rainy, green, & gorgeous

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The drive to Sylhet took a ridiculous amount of time compared to the distance travelled, so despite the relatively small distance of 200km, it was a full day’s drive there and back.  However, it did give us a gorgeous view of the landscapes en route.  For more pictures, click the photo above.

We stayed at a hotel just inside the city of Sylhet.  I didn’t find the city itself to be all that exciting- it’s much smaller than Dhaka but the roads are only slightly less crowded and noisy, and the drivers no less aggressive.  We spent hardly any time in the city though, as the project sites are all in rural areas (so perhaps I’m judging the city too harshly), but especially in contrast with the busy, muddy city, the rural areas were stunningly lush and green.

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In the morning of our first day we visited a pre-school center in a tea garden community.  The one-room schoolhouse was made of mud held together with bamboo poles (everything is held together with bamboo poles here) and had a metal roof.  The kids were all about 5 – 6 I believe, and extremely happy, energetic, and engaged with their teacher and each other.  Outside, we attracted quite the little crowd as the morning wore on, with seemingly the whole community dropping by for a bit to peer at the “bideshis” (foreigners).  They’d stare in through the door, but move back if you caught their eye.  A few hung around all morning, including an elderly man who tried to get his young grandson to wave hi to me (the child was far too shy though, and refused).  I felt a little shy about taking pictures of the community members who came by, but we were encouraged to take photos of the center and its kids, so click the picture above to see them all.

The kids were learning to identify and name colors and a few characters of the alphabet (there are 50 total- 39 consonants and 11 vowels).  When they started practicing writing the numbers 1 – 10, I joined in and got Mahsina to help me.  Mahsina is the program leader for the ECD project with Friends in Rural Development – Bangladesh (FIVDB).  She accompanied us to all the project sites we visited, including replication sites (such as this one, where the primary partner – FIVDB – takes the model they’ve developed for an ECD program and trains another organization to implement it in the communities in which they are active), and the FIVDB “innovation” site (a pilot project testing out a new ECD model designed by the primary partner).

Mahsina’s greatest tip for me was how to draw the numbers 5 and 6: for 5, you draw a mango, and for 6, you chop the head off the mango!The numbers are rather confusing though: 4 is written exactly like our 8, while 7 is written just like our 9.  Zero stayed the same, at least.  If you want to see what the numbers look like, check this site out and scroll down (it also shows all the letters of the alphabet).

We drove by a tea garden, but I wasn’t able to get any pictures worth showing unfortunately (they’re all quite blurry).  I’ll be back in Sylhet in September though, and will hopefully have a chance to grab a few better ones then.  The tea gardens are full of rough hills with the little bushes that are the tea plants, interspersed with regular trees for shade (and the odd cow scrounging for grass).

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After the first ECD center, we took quite a bit of time to do some sightseeing, driving towards a town on the border with India.  En route, we stopped by the “Seven Sister Waterfalls” (that are all unfortunately in India).  But at least you can take pictures of them! Left to right is Chandon, one of the drivers for AKF(B), Madelaine, my fellow Fellow, Shehenaz, a Canadian professional volunteer who’s also just arrived, myself, Mahsina, and Khafil.  We drove into a town that is right on the border, called Jaflon, but due to the season (rainy), the part of Jaflon that is actually on the border is inaccessible without a boat; every year, the town is cut in two by the flooding water.  In the pictures (click the picture above), the flat part is Bangladesh, while India starts where the mountains start.

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The second center we went to was in a fishing village, and though we were quite late due to our sightseeing detour, no one seemed to mind. We went down an extremely narrow, muddy lane making a number of turns (we had a contact on a motorcycle guiding us) until we stopped, got out of the car, and walked across a bamboo bridge with no handles that looked very water logged.  Two long buildings faced each other, with a muddy stretch between them.  One looked mainly residential, while the other had some cows at one end and the ECD center at the other (and I think some more sleeping quarters in the middle).

This center was the FIVDB innovation site, where they were testing out a new model for an ECD program focusing on integrated ECD, where there’s a cycle of different kinds of ECD programming.  The session we sat in on was called Reading for Children, where the facilitator read a story (about a fly who gets eaten by a dragonfly who gets eaten by a frog who gets eaten by a cat who gets eaten by a dog, and so on, all the way to a tiger who, if I understood correctly, gets eaten by a crocodile and that’s that).  The children acted out parts of the story, first being the animal in question, then pretending to eat someone else.  It was very cute and they all had a great time learning about animal names, sounds, and the food chain.  The sounds animals make in Bengali are actually quite a bit more similar to those they make in English than the sounds children in Argentina learn.   Older children sat in on the session (these kids were about 3 – 4 I think) and helped out, less so during story time though.  They nonetheless seemed to get a kick out of watching the younger ones act out the animals, and of course staring at the bideshis.  Click the picture of the girl being a dragonfly to see the rest.

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The second day we went off in a different direction to visit another replication site.  The landscape here was completely flat, with none of the tea garden hills.  Like the first, the walls were adorned with colorful posters and drawings, while children’s artwork hung from the ceilings.  The room itself was not much larger than the others, but it had a fan, which made all the difference.  It was sweltering in the other centers, but none of the Bangladeshis (adults or children) seemed to notice or mind.  Maybe it’s just us bideshis still adjusting to the heat, but I really think the fan made for an extremely more pleasant atmosphere in which to learn.

This time, we saw the kids singing lots of songs with accompanying hand motions.  Each time, a child or two (or four) would lead the others, often prompted by the teachers.  The child would say one or two lines at a time, and then all the rest would scream at the top of their lungs the same lines in reply.  For a bit I thought my eardrums were going to explode, but then Mahsina asked why don’t they try being quiet (they’re encouraged to be loud to get over shyness), and after a few tries they were doing something that sounded more like singing than screaming and was far easier on the ears.  One of the songs they spent quite some time on had a chorus that started with a few “we shall overcome”’s, where they all thrust their fists in the air and tried to sound particularly patriotic.

Right before we left, a little girl who had graduated the year before from this center (the replication sites are in their second year) came by with her aunt.  She was all made up and in her primary school uniform, and came bearing the news that she had just won an inter-school competition for singing a national song (not the anthem).  She performed for us, not looking terribly confident but sounding strong.  Bangladesh was the only word I understood though.  She then presented us with a flower centerpiece that I think she’d made (though am not certain) of both real and paper flowers.  It was very lovely, and everyone was very proud that a little girl who’d graduated from the program was doing so well (the project particularly aims to increase access to education for girls, who traditionally are often denied it).  Again, click the photo above for the rest of the pictures.

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Finally, we went to our last site visit, where a meeting with the mothers was to happen.  As we arrived, a session with younger kids (3-4) was just ending, so we saw them practicing their own songs, and then filing out of the classroom to run off back to their village.  Before the meeting started, one of the local community leaders had tea sent to us, and it was some of the most delicious tea I’ve ever had.  They serve it quite milky and sweet, but it still has a terrific flavor.  Sylhet is probably most famous for the seven layer tea, which is only made by one person in the world.  We didn’t get a chance to try it this time, but will for sure when we return- each layer has a distinctive taste, and it’s supposed to be really quite an experience.

As the mothers began arriving, so too did many of their children, who’d come for a supervised free-play session (basically recess).  The meeting being all in Bengali, Mad and I opted to hang outside with the children.  At first we tried playing with them as they played with some blocks and tea party sets, but they were quite wary and not sure what to make of us.  The little girl in the white tank top in particular kept her eyes on us for a while:

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However, especially once they realized they could see the pictures being taken of them, they all got extremely excited and went from ignoring/avoiding us to crowding all around, enthralled by their digital images.  I ended up making friends with the girl in the white tank, but unfortunately other than that her name started with R, I can’t remember it.

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To top off the visit, we went to the FIVDB ECDSP-B project office, and then to the FIVDB HQ (it’s quite a large organization).  We sat in on a meeting about the upcoming midterm review that CIDA will be undertaking in the fall.  Though the meeting was in Bangla, I followed along thanks to Mahsina’s notes (which were in English).  There was a long list of documents and materials they’d have to prepare for the review, and probably a fair bit of data gathering as well.  At the meeting, we were served tea (tea is huge here, people drink it at least twice a day and often more!) and these crepe-like things with a sweet creamy blob in the center.  Quite tasty.  All the deserts here, with one or two exceptions, seem to have milk and sugar as the primary ingredients.  It’s surprising how many things you can make while keeping those two as the primary ingredients!

That’s it for now- there are some more photos of the last place if you click the photo of the mothers.  I’ll try and write about the rest of these past two weeks within the next day or so, but hopefully this will tide you over Smile Much love to you all!

First impressions & adventures

Hello! Today marks the eleventh day I’ve been here, though in a funny way it seems at the same time as if I both just arrived & left home ages ago.  But I guess that’s just what being in a totally new environment does to you!  I’m definitely in the good ol’ honeymoon phase of international experiences – nothing bothers me, and everything is new and delightful.

This post is extremely long as it took me a while to get it up- so sorry in advance for any spelling / grammatical errors, and the length! I’ve split it up into very first impressions, work thus far, play thus far, and some miscellaneous observations on fashion, food, rickshaws and the like.  I wish I could link within this page so you could go directly to whichever section you’re interested in, but I’m afraid I don’t have that much technical knowledge.

I would post pictures, but I realized I forgot the cable to connect the camera to a computer. It’s a pretty standard one, so I should be able to find it in the nearby market, but until then, forgive the lack of pictures, and check out Madelaine’s blog for a few!

Airports, traffic, beggars & Santa Clause

I must admit I felt quite grateful for being a non-Bangladeshi when at airport customs the foreigners’ line was relatively short and organized, while the Bangladeshi national’s line sounded like a stock market floor, only looked more packed.  Either police or airport security (not sure which) came by a few times to try and restore some order- people were being pushed and falling over the flimsy line barriers- but it really looked more like the people (all men at the front) were calling out bids at an auctioneer’s to win the next spot in line, instead of just standing in some organized fashion.  Unfortunately for us, however, the baggage claim was not similarly segregated, and Madelaine and I waited about an hour and a half for our bags to appear.  But they made it, from Montreal to London to Dubai to Dhaka, and that’s what matters!

Through the airport doors, Kafil was waiting for us.  He’s the project team leader for the ECDSP-B project, and has been taking great care of us.  Despite having had to have waited about three hours (the plane was an hour late as well), as soon as he saw us he waved the AKF(B) sign very enthusiastically and gave us a huge smile.  Kafil, if he were to grow a beard, would quite resemble a middle-aged Santa Clause: not yet as round ‘round the middle as the elderly version, but equally jolly and always ready with a smile.  He and Yesmin, the administrative assistant at the office, seem to have done most of the arrangements for our arrival: the apartment was found, fumigated, cleaned, and stocked with sheets (though no top sheets as Bangladeshis don’t seem to use those), pillows and food, which meant upon arrival we could pass out with nothing pressing to worry about.

Earlier, as we pulled out of the airport, my mind was racing with all the things I’d heard before about Bangladesh, and I immediately started comparing what I was seeing to what I’d seen in Argentina.  My first thought was “hm, the poverty doesn’t seem to shock me anymore – those makeshift huts by the river quite resemble the ones in the villas outside Buenos Aires.”  Only then I noticed mounds that looked a bit like large anthills made of straw and dirt and things, with a cloth hanging over an entrance into them, and I realized people were sleeping in them, and then decided that perhaps it was still rather difficult to comprehend the absolute poverty that some people survive in.

Part of our orientation at the office touched on the poverty, and how there is virtually no social safety net for the poorest of the poor, hence the many hundreds of beggars scattered throughout the streets of Dhaka and particularly prominent in the areas of greatest traffic congestion.  The locals seem to have an amazing ability to not see the beggars tapping on the window if they don’t want to (some do and will give a few taka).  Being white, I’m often targeted for prolonged tapping accompanied by a droning “ma’am… the baby is hungry, ma’am” or something similar in Bangla. Many of the babies appear to have been given sleeping pills, which is particularly disturbing.

The traffic really is incredibly bad.  I’d been told that people in Bangladesh drove as if they were driving in one of those speed video games, but honestly I haven’t seen anyone able to go more than 45mph at any time.  Usually, you go for a little bit at around 20mph – 40pmh, then are stuck for a while as the traffic police let another direction of cars, trucks, CNGs (small, green, 3-wheeled caged-in vehicles- quite quaint and funny to watch drive until you notice how close they come to tipping over or being hit), and rickshaws.  The airport is apparently only some 17km away from our apartment, yet it took us about an hour and a half to get there!  Dhaka sounds like a continuous symphony of horns, honks, screeches and the brrriing! of bicycle horns as the various vehicles communicate with each other.  Aside from the rickshaws, all the vehicles have mirrors and tickers, but though they use them a little, they seem far more fond of honking to announce their actions or protest others’.

TGIT! Thank God it’s THURSDAY!

We’re being slowly eased in to work, which when accompanied with jet lag, stomach bugs, and other such brand-new-environment adjustments, has really been quite nice.  Because we arrived on a Thursday, the last day of the working week here, we had the weekend to rest up and settle in, and Sunday the 8th was our first day of “work.”  By that I mean we were met at our apartment by Kafil and Yesmin.  We went over all the logistics of being here (the apartment, internet, safety, etc), and then headed to the office for lunch.  The office is only a ten minute walk from our apartment, which is pretty awesome.  It’s in a cream colored office building (probably cement) and our office is on the fifth floor, and has AC, which is glorious.  I’ve never appreciated air conditioning as much as I have these past ten days.  Walking around, Madelaine and I have often gone into shops and pretended to look around, just to stand in the AC for a bit.

Lunch, tea, and other goodies

After meeting everyone, we set up our laptops in the conference room (which doubles as the dining room), and caught up on emails and the like.  Lunch is cooked in a small kitchen in the back of the office, and brought to the conference room where everyone serves themselves.  It usually consists of rice; thin daal (lentils); some sort of cooked vegetables; a mix of raw cucumber, tomato, onion, green chillis, and lime that serves as a “salad;” and either chicken or fish cooked in a spicy (often oily) sauce.  It’s pretty tasty, though the fish is filled with many tiny bones that are annoying.  Bangladeshis eat with their fingers, but luckily there are some forks and spoons available at the office.  Cutting chicken with a fork and spoon can be a struggle though, so I’ve started eating that with my right hand.  Maybe I’ll learn to eat everything that way.  Maybe not.

KFC is right next door, and when one of the woman working at the office had her last day before going to a new job, there was a “special” lunch of KFC takeout.  Not your average KFC meal though- there were individual foil tins of fried rice with a hard-boiled egg and a chunk of mutton.  It was quite a lot, and I couldn’t finish it, which always makes me feel bad because everyone else cleaned their plates.  They eat everything, even gnawing on the chicken bones to crack them and suck out the bone marrow, which makes a combination of sounds that really makes my stomach turn.

The way the work day is structured, you can either work from 9-5 or 8:30-4:30; you just have to choose one and stick to it.  Tea and cracker/cookie-like biscuits are served at 11:30 by Khalil, the office assistant / IT assistant / general helper of everyone.  Lunch is around 1 (depending on when the food is cooked), and there’s another tea break at 3.  It’s a pretty sweet set-up.

Orientation

The second day, we met at the office, called the PIU for Project Implementation Unit, and headed over to the “head office” of AKF(B).  There we met Salimah, the project director, who is also from Canada and has been here two and a half years, as well as Amir-Bai (Amir, with the “Bai,” meaning elder brother, attached as a sign of respect), the CEO of AKF(B).  Yesmin came with us to the head office, as despite having worked at the PIU for two years, she’d never been.  Salimah and Amir-Bai then began our orientation, describing the difference between the offices (the PIU only hosts project staff, all costs attributable to the project and therefore funded by AKFC and CIDA, while the head office is considered overhead, and is paid for by His Highness the Aga Khan), their roles, the project background, and general information on life and living in Bangladesh.

That night, my stomach decided it was unpleased with something I ate, and punished me for the whole night and following day, making me miss the day trip to visit the field sites in Dhaka.  If you want to read about those anyway, check out Madelaine’s blog.

The next two days, we listened to presentations from all the staff on their respective aspects of the project: organizational development; early childhood development; gender; research; and monitoring & evaluations.  It was very interesting, but a lot of information to digest.

Groceries stores are great places to make friends.

After arriving from the airport, we slept.  The second day, Kafil took us to lunch and then shopping for some groceries & other house stuff we needed.  At the grocery store, which was an upscale, expensive one, we met two other foreigners who were grocery shopping for the first time (though they’d been here six weeks).  We chatted for a few moments, and they invited us to dinner with them and some friends, and after to a party happening at the International Club that night.  Though those two ended up leaving two days after we met them, many of the friends they introduced us to will be here for a good bit longer.

Unlike Buenos Aires, where there are tons of clubs open to all (depending on how much you want to pay), nightlife in Dhaka seems to be limited to those expats / friends of expats with expat club cards.  Alcohol is illegal for Bangladeshis, which is why the only places to go out are the expat clubs and a few hotels.  It’s not ideal if you want to meet locals, but as there’s no local alternative and I do like going out at night on occasion, I don’t feel too bad going to them.  Plus it’s the easiest way to meet peers; with a few exceptions, everyone at work is significantly older than me, and even the youngest are married (or divorced) with kids.

We’ve gone to two expat parties so far, and met many lovely people.  The clubs are quite annoying though, as they tend to charge anywhere from 300 to 1500 bdt (Bangladeshi Taka) just to get in, which translates into $3.75 – $18.75, roughly.  The lower number isn’t so bad, but I usually refuse to go anywhere in North America where you have to pay cover, and it’s worse here as it certainly isn’t covered under our stipend!  Then, to make matters worse, drinks are often priced in dollars, which makes them crazy expensive by Bangladeshi standards.  Luckily, many of the expats I’ve met are living on quasi-North American salaries, and thus often willing to buy a few drinks for the poor interns!

The other big fun we’ve had so far is signing up to take part in ITADI, a two-hour special Eid TV show that is hosted by a popular Bangladeshi TV host named Hanif.  Part of his annual Eid show includes a skit or two with foreigners, who he dresses up in traditional Bangadeshi outfits, and then has them act out skits in Bangla, going about what would be normal daily life for the majority of the 85 million people that watch the program.  It’s quite funny – last year’s version is on youtube somewhere – and as we were a smaller group than expected, even those of us who speak no Bangla have a line or two!  I’ll speak more to that next time I write, as the rehearsals and filming start after we get back from Sylhet.  Nonetheless, it was another great way to meet some more people, though again they’re all expats.

That’s not to say that people at the office haven’t been extremely friendly- they’ve been doing much to make us feel comfortable and welcome.  Our first Saturday, Nasirul, one of the drivers, picked us up and took us to a fancy store selling high-end salwar kameezes, the three-piece suits that most women in Dhaka wear.  The store was a BRAC store, and all the clothes were handmade by women in rural areas working through BRAC programs.  The designs were gorgeous, though the shapes of the clothes were quite different to what I’m used to.  Nasirul then took us on a driving tour of our area, showing, through his very limited English, the various expat clubs, embassies, the hospital, and other useful points of reference.  The next day, Yesmin, along with Chandon (another driver), took us shopping for “normal” salwar-kameezes (i.e. not the “designer” ones from Aarong, the BRAC store).  She took us to the district where she lives, called Mirpur (which is also where the slum with the community daycare is) to a street with a number of shops selling ready-made clothes.  The other two outfits for women are futawas (not sure how to spell that, but it’s pronounced foot-awa), long shirts that are worn with jeans or leggings, and the Bangladeshi sharee (like Indian saris).  We haven’t tried to wear a sharee yet, but I do have two futawas now, along with four salwar-kameezes.

Yesmin is not only our fashion consultant, but she’s been extremely helpful at markets, helping us tell whether the price offered is too high or not, and even accompanying me to the hospital and sitting with me for three hours while I waited to see a doctor.  By all other accounts I’ve heard of expats’ first days here, we’re being taken much better care of than most.

And finally, some miscellaneous observations

I know this post is already ridiculously long (which is why I’ve tried to split it into sections as best I can), but I just thought I’d offer some more general reflections on what I’ve seen so far.

Fashion

One of the main things that has stood out for me is how while the women almost exclusively continue to wear very traditional clothes, the men wear a range of outfits from a long piece of clothing knotted in the front like a sort of wrap-around skirt paired with a button-down shirt, to the men’s version of salwar kameezes (less colorful generally than women’s), to western pants and button-down shirts.  The men are not fans of tee-shirts generally, and will at least wear polos.  Many women continue to cover their heads, usually just by draping the orna (long scarf) over their head, though you frequently see a few with the more tight head covering, and every now and then a woman in the full burka.  Young girls have more freedom, and many wear dresses that don’t even reach their knees (all women’s clothes cover at least to half way down the calf).  Aside from the odd expat wearing a short skirt or booty shorts, almost every girl over the age of about 12-15 has their knees, shoulders and front well covered.

Food

I haven’t gotten up the courage yet to eat any of the food sold on the streets or small restaurants (though I plan to try some soon).  A woman who works cleaning the office has also come a few times to our apartment to clean, and has taught us how to make some Bangladeshi dishes.  Those she has cooked tend to have a lot of oil, and though the amount she uses may be particularly excessive, even the office food and the Bangladeshi restaurant we ate at with Kafil tasted as though there was a generous amount of oil in most of the dishes.  After getting sick, the doctor supposed that the large amounts of oil probably were a significant factor leading to my disgruntled stomach.  However, there are lots of vegetables to choose from, and the quality of what we’ve eaten is very good.  One of my favorite things I’ve had so far was a rice pudding that Hanna (the woman coming to clean/cook) made with mango.  She cooked milk and sugar together for a long time, then added some rice and mango and cooked it even longer, before adding some fried mango to the top.  It was definitely the best rice pudding I’ve ever had.

Markets

There is a market not too far from our apartment, about a ten minute walk, with everything we could need.  There are hundreds of small stalls selling everything from vegetables to furniture to pots & pans, cell phones, grocery stores, hardware stores, and anything else you could think of.  It’s quite large, though each individual store is tiny, and the three floors are a maze of dead ends and many turns.  It’s not a particularly clean place, and walking by the meat shops usually makes my stomach turn, but it’s in our district, which is one of the most expensive in Dhaka, and thus many of the foods are not much cheaper than what we’d find at home.  A lot of the stores sell only imported goods, making them more expensive still – though they remain less than they’d cost in dollars.  We’ve been modestly successful at bargaining sometimes, and learned to walk away from prices we know are just ridiculous.  We haven’t learned the numbers yet (or anything much), but when we start language classes at the end of July, I’m sure it will get much easier.  Like everything else, the market parking lot gets extremely muddy as soon as it starts raining, which leads to a good bit of puddle-jumping.

Riding in rickshaws

We’ve been generally advised that unless you know where you’re going, the CNGs tend to take advantage of you, while cabs are often not safe (they have a habit of taking people to get mugged).  Thus, rickshaws have been our main mode of transportation.  They’re all wonderfully brightly colored, with all kinds of decorations on the place where one sits.  When it isn’t raining, the tops are pulled back, folded like a fan, and I can sit up straight, and if it rains, they can be pulled forward and opened.  Though I then have to slump so I don’t hit my head, it seems a fair trade off for not getting wet and walking in the muck.

Our first rickshaw ride ended up being more of a tour of our area at night, when the poor driver/bicyclist (whatever he’s called) had no idea where the road we wanted to go to was.  He asked directions after directions, and we went all over before finally reaching our destination.  Other than that though, rickshaws have been pretty easy to take.  They tend to demand more from us than they would of Bangladeshis, but can usually be bargained down to a more reasonable price; if one rickshaw driver refuses to take you at the price you demand, eventually another will.

There was one slightly amusing incident where about ten of them asked, all next to each other and consecutively, if we would pay 100bdt to get where we were going.  Despite saying no each time, they seemed to think that if they just asked again, we’d say yes (we didn’t; finally one agreed to 50bdt, still more than locals would’ve paid).  I was initially worried about riding rickshaws in the rain, but I actually stayed drier in the rickshaw than I had under my umbrella.  The driver had a tarp over the seat, so it was dry, and then after I climbed on he kind of tucked me in with the tarp, which I then held up in front of me, and stayed completely dry.

We’ve tried walking a few times to various places, and though the walks aren’t long (up to half an hour), and often take as long as it would by rickshaw (due to the insane traffic), it’s so extremely hot under all our salwar-kameez clothing that we’ve basically decided it’s best just to rickshaw.  Anytime after it gets dark, one of the two late middle-aged men who act as security for our apartment goes and gets a rickshaw for us, though we wouldn’t ride one alone at night or anytime after about 10:30pm.  Luckily, our new expat friends have been very generous with their drivers, and we haven’t found ourselves in a pickle yet.

Overall though, I’ve found Dhaka to be an extremely colorful, welcoming place.

No matter how poor the people we see are, their clothes are always brightly colored with pretty patterns. Though we get stared at and asked “what country??” quite frequently, there does not seem to be the overt jeering and cat calls of Latin America (though perhaps that’s just due to my lack of Bangla).

I’m looking forward to this visit in Sylhet – more on that and the Itadi filming when I’m back!  Much love to you all, hope everyone’s enjoying their summers!