So I’m jumping on the blog-bandwagon. I figured that for the next year while I’m out of the country in Bangladesh, instead of bothering people with a flood of impersonal mass emails, I would post it all in a one of these hip and trendy blog thingies, so that those interested could read about my life as they pleased. I have an affinity towards digression and half of what I write will probably be more like journal entries for myself to reread one day than anything else... but enjoy...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

One Week Reflection

OK, so it's been over a week. Lots to reflect upon. Getting settled in. Stayed at HEED Language Center for a few days. Then decided to move in with Syed and his family. I guess they host people rather often. It's a pretty nice set up. My own room, private bathroom, hot/cold shower, internet, meals whenever I need them. I left a pile of dirty laundry on the floor, and hadn’t even told anyone about it, but got home that night, and they’ve all been washed, dried, ironed, folded, sitting on my bed… OK, I’m f*ckin spoiled…

Obviously can't stay here at Syed’s too long, but it's a nice cushy transition until I find a more permanent place. I guess it's common, but they have a house maid, a guard, and a couple boys, probably late teens, maybe 17 or 18 to help around the house. It is a little weird that this kid sets the table for me, pours my tea, stirs in my milk and sugar, waits patiently by the door until he is given permission to leave the room. I don't know, I guess, like anything else, this may be a great job for him. Lives in a nice house, gets good food, clothes, can watch TV, etc. But of course still weird... weird because, like in Sri Lanka, there is quite a lack of middle class. So if you have some money, and can afford to send your kids to college, etc., you probably have maids, and other workers around this house... it's strange, because while in the US even if you are very wealthy you will rarely have servant's and cooks quarters in your house! But these are standard rooms whenever new houses are built. Of course we may have people to come and clean our house for us in the US, but come on, a cook to cook every meal, someone to drive us everywhere, clean all our laundry... it seems a little excessive, but just the way things are.

Bangla classes are going well and it can be frustrating but also fun, because I can use something everyday. Bangladesh is obviously not a place for tourists, and while you can get around in English, most rickshaw-wallas, waiters, store owners, etc. will only speak broken English. So even a little bit of Bangla might not get you too ripped off when taking a cab or something.

Met with my main contact at the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services, Mr. Malik Fida A. Khan. Good guy, very supportive. Got a little tour of their place and saw a bunch of the stuff they are involved in. A very professional office doing lots of interesting stuff… they are actually involved with some of the stuff that good ol’ Tetra Tech was doing, developing a web-accessible database of National water resource and geographic information, environmental impact assessments, etc. They are actually in the process of digitizing a refined coastline of Bangladesh from higher resolution satellite imagery. Someone is sitting at the computer and drawing lines around the coastline, and drawing in boxes for different landuses - forestry, squatter settlements, agricultural areas. Some of the fieldwork may involve actually going to these places on the coast and talking with people and verifying with a GPS in hand that indeed what looks like squatter settlements from the satellite imagery, are in fact this… Some of what these guys are involved with is creating good geographic baseline data to help with the planning processes – urban planning, regional planning, environmental planning, demographics. Some pretty cool stuff…

From the roof of the CEGIS office building there's a great view showing some interesting contrasts of the city. The office is in Gulshan-1, on Banani Lake, southwest of Banani across the water. You can see one of the largest slum squatter settlements in Dhaka that happens to be in Banani, with the Banani skyline in the background. There is lots of contstruction going on, where they use bamboo for temporary supports and scaffolding. Also, there is an empty lot across with a sign saying 'Proposed Luxury Apartments', where there was a bunch of street kids playing...

Extremes of Banani


Proposed Luxury Apartments

I don't stand out as much as most of the ex-pats. I walk around with my tall blond American buddies and entire crowds just stop and stare. But if I don't wear anything too flashy, and don't wear shorts, which is rather immature for men to wear apparently, I won't be hassled as much or stared at as much. I suppose it makes for a more authentic observation of how people go about their lives here.

Apparently I’m told I even look Bangladeshi. Apparently Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis share some similar heritage, so go figure. Of course whenever someone asks my name and I tell them, instinctively the next question is “Are you Muslim?” I need to come up with a better answer… I sort of vaguely explain that my father’s side of the family is Muslim, my mother’s is Christian, but I was not raised with anything. My bangla teacher actually suggests telling people that I have some religion, rather than none, not because people will be upset or anything, just because apparently many people don’t even understand the concept of not having a religion. I don’t know… of course when I give them my vague answer, I half jokingly hear that now that I’m here in Bangladesh, it’s a good time to find Allah… we’ll see…

While staring is not at all inappropriate in this culture, neither are most things we might find a bit offensive. OK, so in our culture men can get away with scratching themselves in public… fine. But I’m meeting with the main director of CEGIS, probably a PhD in Water Resource Engineering or something. Older guy, white beard, very intelligent… he burps real loud when he needs to, picks his nose when it needs picking… I’m pretty sure he’s releasing gas when it needs releasing. I guess in a masculine culture, men are allowed to be men…

I was hoping I could get away with wearing a lungi or sarong but I don’t think it would be real appropriate for me to wear. It’s generally worn around the house, and a while lots of men wear it all over the city - rickshaw-wallas, fruit stand sellers, etc. – apparently it’s not really worn by the ‘educated’ class. But I’m sure if I’m not going far I can get away with it… there’s really nothing like the freedom of a lungi…

Ramadan, or Ramzan, started this week. I guess you hear them year round, but the loud speakers around the city announcing the ajan, or call to prayer, 5 times a days seems particularly prominent. Because it is the holiest month, you see more men wearing the traditional all-white garb and cap. It's the month to sort of get back in touch with your religion. It’s rude to be seen eating in public. Again I’m in the posher part of town, and being American you can pretty much get a way with anything, but you try to respect this because these guys aren’t allowed to eat or drink anything during sunlight hours 30 days. Pretty intense. Even the restaurants around here put up curtains on all their windows so that you can’t see the people inside… It is OK to eat during the day… people know that there are foreigners, and of course there are Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists in the country, but it’s just sort of rude to be seen eating. It’s the time of year to tip the rickshaw-wallas a little bit extra because they are working their butt off in the boiling hot sun all day for crap money and can’t eat a thing… crazy. Syed and his mother are not practicing Muslims… the father of the household was fasting at first. They break fast, with a meal called iftar, at about 5:40 pm (every household and restaurant has a Ramadan Calendar up on the wall giving exact times of meals and prayers). Then they eat again at about 8pm, then get up at 2 or 3 am and eat again… But apparently the father got sick and dehydrated yesterday, so will probably no longer be fasting. It’s interesting to see in the newspapers for politicians to ask store owners not to increase prices during Ramzan… but it happened again this year… average prices went up 30%... I guess people actually eat more during Ramzan, and because demand is higher then prices go up… I don’t know. It’s funny to see all the iftar marketing of the restaurants… special iftar meals, etc. Even Pizza Hut and A&W have an all-you-can eat iftar deals for about 300tk, less that $5! Might have to check those out…

As I’m writing this, there was a power failure in the whole Banani Market, a pretty big 3-story mall… I guess the computers are on a different generator or something… I love the fact that my mobile phone has a built in flashlight. I am so cool… OK, computer finally shut down and rebouted… alas…

Wanted to check out the town last Friday. Of course the embassy says that Friday is the worst day for exploring the city because some might be riled up after mosque and thus it’s the day that some riots start, but it’s really the best day, because you can actually get around. Central Dhaka really isn’t that big… it takes 20 minutes to get across down without traffic.

Syed got his truck that he uses for Hash and we went exploring. We went with Sarah who is Syed’s Danish friend, Mika, Mika’s roommate Nabil (the two of whom I’m thinking about moving in with), and Camille, a friend of theirs from France. Just kind of drove around a bit and got a sense of things. No better way to explore a new city than from the back of a pick up truck!

Cruisin through town

Drove past the famous National Assembly Hall, designed by American architect Louis I Kahn (fellow UPenn grad…word). I'll get to visit all the main tourist stuff at some point, but this day just wanted to sort of drive around.

National Assembly Hall

Went to a place called the New Market, a nice area, blocked off from cars, where you can buy pretty much everything, cheaper than in the Gulshan area.

Entrance to New Market

Poked our head to the popular Café Mango, in Dhanmondi. Apparently a small coffee place designer by a Bangladeshi architect, educated in the US, who realized that while Bangladeshis drink a lot of tea, there aren’t enough coffee joints. His idea was that the crowdedness of a space occurs because you are forced to make eye contact with everyone else in the room. So all the chairs are at different heights, so when you sit down the place doesn’t feel as crowded… I don’t know… we sat outside.

Cafe Mango

The social scene in Dhaka is interesting. It is illegal for Bangladeshi’s to buy, transport, and I think, keep alcohol in their homes. Thus, there really is not bar scene. But there are a lot of semi-exclusive international clubs, e.g. The American Club, British Club, Australian Club, Nordic Club, International Club, etc. I do admit that I got a membership to the American Club. It’s $30/month. You walk in from the craziness of the streets and its this lovely snobby gardenesqe place, with a swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball coursts, gym, restaurant, bar, etc. I don’t know… It’s weird because it’s sort of exclusive, and I think I could only become a member because the embassy sent over my info. Once you are a member of one club, you get admittance into all the others. But you can sign guests into your club… If you happen to have an affinity to drinking alcohol you are forced into snobbery… it is of course nice to have a gym and pool, etc. We’ll see how much I’ll actually use it. I’m hoping that once I really start my work and classes I’ll meet more locals, but until then…

It’s interesting the amnesty of foreigners. Cops have a small tendency towards maybe stretching the law, maybe corruption, but if you convince them that you are American, they’ll smile and walk away. My buddies tell me that cops might walk up to them while they are in a CNG stuck in traffic, and demand money. Or they might just pull you over and say that they need your car. Then my buddies put on their strongest English and American accents and pretend not to know Bengali. Then they walk away. One guy told me about how six military guys sprang up on him and pointed machine guns at him, because he was caught buying a bottle of booze from someone down the street. He pretended not to know Bengali and his driver told the cops he was American, and then the cops were a bit embarrassed and quietly put their guns down.

Even with the bombings last week in Chittagong and others cities, outside some courtrooms, I can’t say that it seems as though security is particularly tough. The suspects are from the banned Islamic group, Jamaatul Mujahideen, associated with the major bombings that occurred throughout the country in August. Luckily violence in Bangladesh rarely targets foreigners… of course leaflets found at the August bombings condemned the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week is Durga Puja, the most important religious holiday for Bengali Hindus, and apparently one of the most festive times in Dhaka. There’s a big colorful parade on the last day, and famous boat races on the Buriganga inaugurated each year by the president.

I was recently told about a Fulbright conference in India at the end of November, for which will I'll actually get money to go.... Get to hang out in Chandigarh, India for a few days and hear about what all the others on the program are doing in their countries. Good times.

Yeah… life ain’t bad…

Kids at Banani Market
(I swear they asked me to take their picture)

Fruit and Vegetable Stand


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