Monday, April 25, 2011

Dhonnobad Bangladesh

When I first set out on this journey, I figured the time would go by quickly. But just how fast, I wasn’t quite prepared for. Though my bags are packed and my flight departs in a couple hours, I still can’t quite grasp that I’m leaving. 

Several people back home have asked me whether I’m sad about going. The answer is, yes, I’m sad to say goodbye to the many wonderful people I’ve met, but this sadness is overshadowed by my feelings of gratitude. I am so thankful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve gotten to know, and the journey that I have been through.

I believe one of the major lesson for me in all of this was discovering what I can do with a little determination (and a great network of people). At this point I’d like to say a special thank you to this network and some of the people I’ve met along the way – Mark and Andrew for being the links in the chain that connected me to Sir John Wilson School, Ann and Mike for being such welcoming and caring hosts, Sarah and the Tulips and Azmoon and the Starfish for allowing me to be part of their classes, and Morjina and Sabrina for making many of my extra adventures possible. Of course I am also grateful to all the faculty, staff, and students at SJW School for making me feel so welcome and for being such a wonderful part of time here in Bangladesh.

Another key lesson was learning that even when I find myself on the other side of the planet, not knowing anyone but a few people I’ve “met” via email, I can be fine – a great deal more than fine in fact. Knowing this now I realize what an empowering experience this has been for me.

On a slightly less serious note, I’ve also learned that power outages can become so normal that you stop reacting to them and dinner conversations carry on in complete darkness without so much as a pause, that deet mosquito repellent “melts” nail polish, that learning and using just a few words of another language can brighten a person’s day, that one can sweat from every pore on the body without having to do bikram yoga, and that contrary to what I thought when I first arrived, it is possible to sleep through the morning call to prayer. 

This country was my introduction to Asia - for that reason, and all the others I’ve mentioned, it will always have a special place in my heart. I’ll look back at the time I’ve spent here with fondness and a great big smile on my face. I leave feeling nothing but positive and excited about the future.

Dhonnobad (thank you) Bangladesh!

Sunset in the Sunderban

A Taste of Bangladesh

My suitcase space may be limited, but lucky for me learning how to cook Bengali food doesn’t take up any space, and thanks to Sabrina and her cook I can now add this skill to the long list of things I’m taking with me. The menu included parata and luchi (flatbreads), coconut curry with prawns, ginger beef, and alu dum (curried potatoes). We did well and it was all delicious!

The recipes were done freehand – Sabrina’s cook is such an expert that she doesn’t have to measure anything. Therefore, the recipe I provide below cannot be guaranteed until I’ve duplicated the process at home, but feel free to give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Parata and luchi are flatbreads. Bengali cuisine is traditionally enjoyed without utensils – using your hands. Certain foods lend themselves well to being scooped up with bread. As if that wasn’t a good enough reason, these pita-like breads are scrummy (a quick thank to Ann for introducing that word into my vocabulary). 


3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons canola or sunflower oil
1 cup water

  1. Combine flour, salt and sugar.
  2. Gradually add oil. Mix ingredients using your hands.
  3. Add water a little bit at a time.
  4. Knead dough by flattening with your fist, folding, then kneading. Repeat until dough is firm.
  5. Form dough into balls that are 2 inches in diameter for parata and 1 inch for luchi.
  6. Roll out the dough to “tortilla thickness” using a rolling pin.
  7. Rub a thin layer of oil onto the surface.
  8. Fold the dough into thirds, and then fold the sides into the middle to overlap. You end up with a square. Folding the dough in this manner will create layers within the parata.
  9. Let the square sit while you prepare the remaining dough.
  10. Using the rolling pin roll the dough to about fajita tortilla size for paratas and street taco size for luchi.
  11. This is where the process diverges.
For Parata
  1. Place one piece of dough into heated frying pan. 
  2. Drizzle oil around the edges.
  3. Using a spatula, press and turn the parata – removing the air bubbles.
  4. Flip and fry the other side until lightly brown. 
  5. Repeat. 
For Luchi
  1. Fill a wok with enough oil to submerge the luchi.
  2. Gently ease the luchi into the oil.
  3. Fry both sides until golden brown.
  4. The dough may form a big bubble. Don’t worry, that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.

These breads are simple to make and delicious with curries, dips, and I imagine the parata would make a great little flatbread sandwich too!

As for the rest of the recipes, I’d be happy to share if there’s interest. But posting will have to wait, those near capacity suitcases I was talking about in the beginning, they still need to be packed. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lost and Found

At work with wax statue in foreground.
The lost wax method is an ancient technique used to create metal statues. During my visit to the Sukanta’s Dhamrai Metal Crafts workshop, I found out just how much goes into creating these beautifully detailed pieces of art. Contrary to what I thought, it’s called “lost” not because the art form is slowly disappearing (which it is), but because the wax is lost through the process. I’ll explain.

Molding the wax is the first step. The wax, which is kept soft and malleable under a lamp, is formed into the basic shape of the to-be statue. Using additional wax and a knife heated over an open flame, details are gradually added to the shape. Over the course of days, weeks, even months depending on the size of the object, the wax takes on the shape of the final product.

Once the artisan is satisfied with the wax sculpture, the clay is applied. Leaving openings at the base of the figure, first a thin coat is painted on, followed by two additional layers of increasing thickness. After the clay dries, the objects are placed in ovens heated to 200 degrees Celsius. This is where the origins of the technique’s name comes into place. As the object is heated, the wax melts and runs out of the clay mold – it is lost.

Applying the clay.
What you’re left with is a clay mold. At this stage, the process is nearing the end. To avoid cracks, the mold is heated to the same temperature as the molten metal – 1000 degrees Celsius. The ovens look like old-fashioned wells – nothing more than a hole in the ground with a wall around it. Though the wax figures and molds are produced daily, the casting is only done once a month. Unfortunately for me, today was not that day. However, when Mike visited the workshop, he was lucky enough to witness this step of the process. His photos showed shirtless men wearing lungis -sweat glistening on their bodies – using metal tongs to move the clay molds and pour the glowing hot metal.

Cooling takes three to four hours. Once the metal has reached room temperature, the clay mold is broken. What emerges is a metal replica of the wax figure. Slight imperfections are carefully repaired – holes are welded and patched and rough edges are sanded. 

From start to finish, producing a palm sized Ganesh takes about two weeks. A thigh-high guardian horse (like the one pictured above) takes between two and three months to complete.

Because the clay mold is destroyed during the process, each piece is one of a kind. The labor, love, sweat, and care that goes into each piece is incredible.

After Sukanta’s tour, I spent time walking around observing the men at work, taking pictures, and debating which piece of art to buy. I walked out of the Dhamrai Metal Crafts with a great appreciation for the art they produce, a couple dozen photos, an imprinted piece of a clay mold, and my very own (mini) guardian horse. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hope Floats

Today I visited the floating hospital. This Impact project is appropriately named Jibon Tari, which means Life Boat in Bangla.

The floating hospital looks like any other three-story building when you see it from a distance. But as you get closer, you realize it’s not connected to land – it’s sitting in the middle of a river surrounded by rice patties.

After parking the car, we made our way down the steep bamboo plank. Jibon Tari was parked on the edge of a river, but for some reason this edge happened to be several stories above the water.  We were warmly received by the hospital staff who escorted us to the dining room where we had a delicious breakfast.

The beverage of choice during breakfast - though I didn’t know this until afterwards - was river water. Stifling a twinge of panic, I waited for the explanation and slowly recalled that Ann had previously told me about this unusual water source. The Jibon Tari, in an effort to become self-sustaining, has been outfitted with a filter system that purifies the river water making it perfectly safe for drinking. (So far, so good)

Following breakfast, we were taken on a tour of the hospital. Friday is the day of rest here in Bangladesh, so although the hospital staff was busy showing us around and making sure we were taken care of, the doctors and nurses had the day off and no patients were being seen. Though I would have loved to see the hospital in full swing, the absence of patients made it possible for us to view all of the rooms, including the surgical theater, which brought back memories of the cataract surgeries at the Impact hospital in Chuadanga.

Leaving the theater behind, we climbed onto a speedboat and took off down the river. For Rachel and Philip, who were accompanying me and Monsur, one of the founding chairmen of Impact, on this trip, the sights were new and different. To me they’ve become familiar.

Women washing clothes in the river, children swimming and playing, men fishing, and the sounds of life all around. The wind in my face felt great as we raced across the water. People waved to us from the boats and scrambled for their cell phones so they could grab a quick picture of the foreigners on the river.

Back on the Jibon Tari, Monsur informed us that lunch would be served in an hour and a half and that, in the meantime, we could “take rest”. Seeing the inquisitive expressions of the people watching the hospital from the riverbanks, resting inside was about the last thing I wanted to do. I asked for a staff member to accompany me on a walk.

A parade of adults and children slowly formed behind Raihan and me as we walked through town. A large trough of rice over a fire caught my eye, but much of the rice, still in its husk, was spread out on the cement floor, drying in the sun. This was a familiar sight - driving around the rural areas, I’d seen women walking through the carpets of rice, kicking it to stir it up for proper drying. After interacting with the women of the home, I took off my shoes and attempted to thresh the rice myself.

The soles of my feet scuffed along the asphalt and the hard grains of rice jabbed at my feet, but I was having a great time! One of the women soon joined in. She refused to pose for a picture with me until we’d finished going through the whole batch of rice.

On we went down the road stopping periodically to visit a house. Whenever we did, the neighbors would undoubtedly come by to invite us over to see their home as well. Without meaning to, we turned our walk down the street into a Jibon Tari campaign. At each stop, I asked whether anyone had visited the hospital, if they had plans to, and with Raihan’s help we even referred some people to the hospital. The response was great. 

Back at Jibon Tari, we ate lunch before heading back to Dhaka. The trip was short, but well worth it. Jibon Tari will remain in its current location for 3-6 months. During that time, basic ailments will be healed, sight restored, clubbed feet repaired, and smiles will take the place of cleft lips. All of which will bring hope back to the people of rural Bangladesh.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tea Time

My first thought as we entered the Lungla Tea Garden was that it looked like Africa. Now I’ve never actually been to Africa, but the low bushes, sporadically growing trees, and grassy plains matched what I’d seen in movies. This wasn’t what I’d expected in the gardens. But as we continued to drive up the narrow and very bumpy dirt road the scene began to transform. The rolling hills covered in low, evenly pruned tea bushes looked like islands in rivers of grass. Individually each bush looked like a smooth river stone (or for those of you who remember the Disney movie Aladdin, they looked like the lava bubbles in the Cave of Wonders as it collapses), but together, they looked like one continues green carpet.

Ann and Mike's bungalow.
We pulled up to the bungalow. Now you may imagine, like I did, a rustic, simple wood house, perhaps even with a thatched roof. Instead the circular driveway lead us to a white, one-story building. The roof of the large veranda extended over the driveway where the car parked directly in front of the steps. Salek, the Assistant Manager and his wife, Polly, stood to welcome Ann, Mike and I.

As we sat in comfortably cushioned bamboo furniture sipping lemonade, Salek told us that Lungla was established as part of the Duncan Brothers tea estate in 1877. In this place, I could feel the history and even see it. I imagine that the vistas we were looking out onto differed only insignificantly from what existed here over a century ago.

After lunch, as I rested on the veranda, which was quickly becoming my favorite place, I noticed the sounds. In many ways it was much quieter here than in Dhaka – there was no honking, no construction noises, no vendors shouting to sell their goods, or calls to prayer blaring through the air. Yet, it wasn’t totally still. Nature was filling the air with her own soundtrack – the leaves rustled in the breeze, birds sang, geckos called, and crickets chirped.

Later on, Salek, Mike and I went on a tour of the estate. First stop was the boarding school. Its student body is made up of the children of Duncan’s employees from Lungla or any of the other fourteen gardens. We stopped by the various rooms where students were preparing for an array of exams. Each time we entered the class everyone stood up and would stay standing until Mike asked them to please relax and have a seat. In each room we did a quick little spiel about where we’re from and how this was my first time to the tea gardens. The students’ attention and the way the headmaster and other school employees took us around, you could have thought we were visiting royalty. After signing the guest book we left the school and drove down the road to the tea factory, but not before I took a photo of the intriguing buckets filled with sand and labeled “fire” - a relic from the past that is still being used in this part of the world. 

Outside the factory, were rows of double-decker troughs where the freshly picked tealeaves were brought stored. As soon as we entered the building, the strong smell of freshly cut grass hit my nose and the sound of rumbling equipment filled my ears. Salek took us through the process.

From the trough, the tealeaves were brought indoors on an oddly tall, three-wheeled cart, from which they were unloaded into a sort of grinder. Passing through this machine, they were turned into damp, green mulch. They rolled along a belt, traveling through increasingly find grinders. At the end of the first row, a teenage boy piled the refined mulch into a box. The box was carried to the next conveyor belt by a man who likely looked much older than he actually was. Salek, picked up the “leaves” at various stages of the process, allowing us to feel the texture. At one point, hot air was introduced into the process to help try the leaves, making them feel warm. By the end, what had started as damp, shredded, greenery had turned into dark brown sand so fine it could have been used in an hourglass. Later, when I smelled a cup of freshly brewed tea, it smelled exactly like the factory. And it tasted like it too.

I was eager to explore more of the gardens, and was very pleased when Mike suggested that we go for a walk. As eager as we were to see more of the gardens, so was Salek to show us the dam the dam that was being built. Looking down from the top of the dam, it really felt like we’d gone back in time. There were no bulldozers, no wheelbarrows, no cranes, no heavy equipment of any kind. The tools consisted of hoes and baskets. The machines were human.

The workers resembled ants as they moved about efficiently on predetermined paths passing off baskets from one head to the next as others continued to dig. I was transfixed. With Salek’s permission I descended into the pits. The rushed manner in which they moved made it clear that the loads they were carrying were uncomfortably heavy. Knowing this, there was no way I was going to ask them to pause for a picture. It was only by chance that I caught one person looking directly into the camera.

We could see the sky darken as we stood on the dam and soon realized that if we were to avoid getting soaked we’d have to start heading back immediately. As the thunder and lightning drew closer, we picked up the pace. Following the narrow pathways we made it back to the bungalow just before the skies opened up. The suddenness and the amount of rain were mind-boggling. Within no time the gutters were overflowing. The rain on the metal roof sounded like roaring applause. We sat on the veranda feeling as though we were under a giant umbrella, until the rain started to come in sideways, which is when we moved indoors.

In the days that followed, we were invited for dinner at another estate, attended a Bengali New Year party and visited the cemetery and rubber factory.

Sheltered among the tall rubber trees, is the Duncan Brothers Christian cemetery. It is the final resting place for many of Duncan Brothers earliest managers and their family members. It just so happened that we visited the site on the exact same day that one of the people buried there had died – 126 years earlier. Though it was chance that lead us here on this exact day, it made the experience just a touch more powerful.

Our final stop before we left for Dhaka, was the rubber factory. The smell outside the car was peculiar – the scent of latex was easily identified, and made sense, but the other odor was indecipherable to me. Affixed to the floor of the factory, which was a building with one side and a roof, were tubs of white liquid into which men were sliding rectangular metal sheets. The liquid contained fresh latex, which had been harvested from the trees that morning, and acid. As we stood by, men and women continued to deliver buckets of this diluted, Elmer’s glue-like liquid. Next to the factory, was a rustic side-less shed with rows and rows of drying latex sheets. At this stage, the white liquid had turned darker and the sheets resembled the rawhide dog bones. Beyond this, hanging like clothes over a line, were the fresh white latex sheets that had been produced that morning. The quantity was extraordinary, especially when you considered that this product was the result of human efforts alone. 

The one thing I hadn’t seen during my visit was the tea pluckers, women whose job it was to pick the top most bud and the two leaves below it on every single bush. I was a bit disappointed, but as luck would have it, we saw them working in the hills as we drove through the estates. Getting out of the car, I unsuccessfully tried to avoid the muddy patches of grass in order to get closer to them. I said hello and, as usual, spoke my few words of Bangla. Since it is piece rate pay (meaning they are paid based on the amount of tea they bring in), some of the women didn’t stop their work. Those who did, were delighted to see pictures of themselves on the camera screen. I nodded and thanked them. They thanked me in return.

When all is said and done, the tea gardens were a fascinating glimpse into a time gone by, a relished escape from the bustle of Dhaka, and a chance to see yet another face of Bangladesh.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Happy New Year!

Never has a New Year’s Eve day been so hot. According to it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit but felt like 103, in the school courtyard where we celebrated the Bengali New Year today. It was a colorful and spirited celebration.

I managed my own hair and makeup this morning, but still required help with the sari when I got to school. The colors of the  New Year are red and white, which anyone would have guessed immediately upon arriving as everyone was decked out in those colors. Since arriving here I’ve strived to embrace as much of the culture as possible, so in order to recognize this tradition, I borrowed an “approved” sari from Morjina. Aside from my skin tone, I fit right in.

Classes were canceled for the day – instead the students arrived in shifts to enjoy performances, food, music, face painting, henna, and other fun activities.

First up was the Senior Section. The students were hardly recognizable. The boys, dressed in punjabis, were looking fairly grown up, but it was the girls that amazed me. They look like kids dressed in their school uniforms on regular days, but today, they looked like young women in their glitzy saris, with their hair down and their faces made up. The girls in particular seemed proud to be wearing their traditional dress and they all had an admirable sense of confidence about them.

Though the sound system experienced some technical difficulties during the seniors' performances, they did great. There were several groups and individuals who performed traditional dances. Another set of kids did a fashion show – displaying not only the day’s colors, but a much more extensive palette – turquoise, pink, orange and so on.

The stand out among the first set of performances however, was a song which was sung by the winner of the school’s music competition. The student belted out the song – sending chills up my arm, which were obviously not due to the temperature. He did great and it was wonderful to see how supportive and encouraging his classmates were. They cheered for him from the beginning and erupted in applause every time he hit a dramatic note, which was often.

After the seniors, the Early Years Section arrived. They were, to put it simply, adorable. Two and three year olds paraded around the covered courtyard with their parents. The boys again wore little punjabis, while the girls wore the smallest saris imaginable. Though they are only a few years old, they too were wearing make up and had their hair done up in fancy ways. The tiny bangles on their wrist clinking together - they jingled as they walked around.

Mehjabin and Ramisa, two of the Tulips that I taught during my first month, performed a dance routine with several other nursery students. The bell-covered anklets they wore made a beautiful sound as they moved on stage. Their poise and grace surprised me. No wonder the proud parents were all pushing forward, eager to get a closer look and snap another picture of their precious little girls.

During both the Senior and Early Years sessions I was busy walking around checking out the various booths, eating food, and taking pictures, but once the Middle Section arrived I had a job to do. Tania and I were assigned to sell sweets.

The kids were each allowed to bring 300 taka to school (the equivalent of about $4). For some this was probably the first time they were managing their own money. It was cute to watch them weigh their options and dig through their wallets and purses to figure out whether they had enough money left. Thanks to Tania’s superb saleswoman skills our stall nearly sold out.

There was no shortage of things to see at the carnival today. That coupled with the festive atmosphere and great company (and a few fans) made it almost easy to forget about the heat.  On the way out, I stopped by the henna station where Azmoon had just enough time to decorate my left palm before it was time to go. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wish upon a star

We could see the building from what seemed like miles away. Strands of delicately arranged twinkle lights spilled from the roof announcing the nuptials. A line of cars stretched to the main road waiting to drop off elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen. It felt as though we’d arrived at a red carpet event. But instead of walking on a rug, we entered the main ballroom through a tunnel of sheer, cream fabric and glimmering lights. It was the second of two wedding events I attended this week. 

I’d been hoping to experience a Bengali wedding while in Dhaka, and thanks to Morjina, my wish came true. On top of this, I was able to realize the glory of wearing a sari. No single piece of fabric can make a lady feel as feminine and fabulous as the sari can. Every woman should experience a few hours in a sari at least once her lifetime. Back to the wedding…

Maroon, cotton sari in hand I met Morjina and her daughter at the beauty parlor on Friday afternoon. We were escorted into the more private area of the vast salon facilities. To avoid ruining my hair once it was done, I was asked to change into my sari blouse before being shown to a chair in the corner. I’d brought a picture of the hairstyle I wanted and Morjina brought a lei of richly colored, orange carnations. Using 34 bobby pins, the stylist combined my vision and hers. Virtually simultaneously Rina applied my makeup.

I put on my petticoat in the adjoining room and slipped on my healed, sequined, gold shoes. I handed Rina the sari as I returned to the room where I’d been dolled up moment earlier. With the flick of her wrists she unfolded it. My arms out to the side, she worked around me. A cluster of women formed to watch as her hands nimbly folded and tucked the fabric. Draping it perfectly around me body, she secured it with safety pins. Rina finished dressing as the women murmured their approval and compliments. I gazed at a transformed reflection of myself in the mirror. I couldn’t imagine feeling any more fabulous than I did.

We left the parlor and climbed into the car. Having lifted myself and all seven yards of sari fabric into an SUV, I can now appreciate the oddly placed handhold at the door jam – it was crucial.

The first of the two events was held outside of Dhaka. After hurtling along the bumpy, poorly lit road, we pulled up to buildings from which cascaded, what looked to be, the world’s supply of twinkle lights. The outdoor patio was lit with candles, torches, strands of lights, and dimly lit sconces. This pre-wedding event is known as the holud.

Rows of chairs were set up facing the stage where the bride and groom sat. In front of them a was a low table covered with foods and sweets. After meeting the bride’s family, we followed the lead of the other guests and took turns greeting the couple and feeding them a spoonful of food, and after dipping our fingers in turmeric paste, we swiped it across their brows. Leaving the stage, we wandered to the far corner of the patio where finger foods were being served. From here you could looked down onto a large pond where floating candles flickered among the reflected twinkle lights.

We made our way through the maze of seats to the other side of the patio where we found a low platform on which three women sat doing henna. I eagerly took a seat and extended my left hand. She gently took hold of my hand, palm down. With her other hand she held the silver cone of henna. The started the design just past my wrist. As if following a secret blueprint she drew on my hand without hesitation. The paste felt cool against my skin. The lines and swirls delicately looped up to my index finger before she decorated the rest of them as well.

A band began to play, and to my surprise, a bar was set up. All over the women seemed to glide around the party - effortlessly floating about in their saris. It was mesmerizing. We lingered for a while longer before heading back to Dhaka. As soon as I reached home, I was already counting down the hours until the reception.

Knowing that my days of being able to afford this sort of luxury were numbered, I returned to the parlor after school on Sunday. This time I carried with me a cobalt blue, silk sari. Again I brought a photo of my desired hairdo. This time Rina alone would be responsible for my transformation.

She started with my face. In an unhurried manner she applied the make-up. Eyes closed, my head resting on the back of the chair, I felt the bristles of the brushes on my face. Next, using 54 bobby pins, Rina sculpted my hair. Though I couldn’t yet see the back of my head, Rina’s coworkers came by one at a time to take a look. They exchanged words in Bangla and smiled at me – I took this as a good sign. When she was done, Rina held up the mirror and beamed at me. She was clearly proud of the masterpiece she’d created with my hair. So proud in fact that she asked her co-worker to take a photo. I was happy with the result too.

Again a group gathered as Rina wrapped the sari around me. The iridescent silk draped beautifully. Though I couldn’t have imagined it two days earlier, I felt even more fabulous today. The silk and the way the fabric rested on my arm made all the difference.

Holding on to the perfectly placed handle, the curved toe of my sparkly shoe touched the ground right in front of the canopied entrance, as I slid out of the car. Paparazzi would not have seemed out of place at this location. Everyone, but especially, the women were dressed in their finest.

As we entered the ballroom, I was struck by the wonderful array of textures, patterns, and jewels. The room was filled with saris of every color of the rainbow. 

The bride and groom again sat on stage. Repeating the theme of the outdoors, twinkle lights provided the backdrop. The bride was adorned in gold bracelets, and weighed down by a multitude of necklaces. She looked like a wax figure - not a hair was out of place and her makeup was flawless.

Unlike other wedding’s I’ve attended, there was no ceremony (it had been performed earlier in the day) and the interaction with the bride and groom was limited to the greeting on stage. The guests mingled.

I was surprised to find Andrew and his wife, Jan, as we made our way through the room. We sat down at their table for dinner. As the couple was expecting 1400 guests, and the room did not have capacity for everyone, we ate in unassigned shifts. After our meal was complete we got up, the table was cleared, and set for the next round.

Though I can’t be sure, I imagine that this wedding was similar to what Donald Trump’s daughter’s wedding was like back home. As we circled around the room, the Minister of Finance, the “man who owns half of Dhaka”,  and many other important members of society were pointed out to me, adding to the glamorous celebrity feel of the evening.

“Hello again,” said Professor Yunus when I saw him. I was flattered by the fact that he seemed to remember who I was. But the best compliment I received was from two Bengali women, “you look very comfortable in the sari. You carry it well.” I’d esteemed to be as graceful as the women around me, but until they confirmed it, I hadn’t been sure whether I’d succeeded. Their words sealed the deal - the sari is, without a doubt, my new favorite outfit. 

The evening was perfect. The only thing that could have made the night better was if I’d had another place to go. That way I could have worn my sari for just a little while longer. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Sense of the Riverfront

Mix together one-of-a-kind sights and smells, vegetables, betel nut, add a dash of spice and you’ll end up with the unique blend of flavors that make Puran Dhaka what it is. Though I visited Old Dhaka a few weeks ago, I felt my time in Bangladesh wouldn’t be complete without seeing the riverfront.

The drive there was once again very interesting. En route we passed a two-storied “apartment complex” that looked as though it was constructed from multi-colored shipping containers. People were milling around and children were playing on the building’s balcony walkway. Men trotted along the street balancing baskets loaded up with cucumbers, eggplants, potatoes, and other vegetables on their heads. Their gait was remarkable – the upper body remained virtually motionless as they held on to the baskets, their legs and feet moved with seeming effortlessness. The strain was visible only in their faces.

There was shockingly little traffic on this particular Saturday morning. And so it was that I arrived at our designated meeting place in front of the Sutrapur Police Station about twenty minutes early. Like a spy, I observed the going-ons outside the car window as I waited.

The storefronts had been opened – and by that I mean that the garage doors had been lifted – but store hours had not yet begun. The tailor and his assistant, who’d been setting out bolts of fabric, took a break to brush their teeth and oil their hair. The police car parked in front of us was simultaneously being washed and examined by a mechanic. The tailor, once his personal hygiene needs had been taken care of, set up his sewing machine on the sidewalk. Rickshaws rolled by laden with sleepy businessmen, precariously stacked egg crates, and eager morning shoppers. A proud man, with dyed black hair toted around his granddaughter, tea in hand, to survey the scene. He stopped periodically to chat with one of the merchants. As I took in all sights, two women watched me from the opposite side of the street.

At 8 AM I joined up with the rest of the group. Taimur from the Urban Study Group and two couples from South Africa. The buildings we visited were similar to the ones I’d seen on my previous Old Dhaka tour, but what we found at and near the water’s edge was totally different.

Heaps of limes, baskets of tomatoes, carpets of garlic, and piles of potatoes lined the uneven rows of the market place. We clamored through the crowd taking care not to step in any muddy puddles. After successfully avoiding collisions with any of the stream of unpredictably zigzagging rickshaws, we arrived at the river.
Most of the banks on this side of the river were garbage – literally. But between the piles, stairs lead to the water. At the base, two canoe-like boats were loaded up with pumpkins. These were being relayed up to the market place balanced on the workmen’s heads. With 5-6 pumpkins in each, Taimur estimated that the baskets weighed as much as 100 kg (that’s about 200 lbs). The work is dangerous. In fact, these workers often sustain significant neck and back damage, including paralysis. But with few other options, they risk their mobility for a few taka. I was taken by this unbelievable sight and at the same time horrified by the bodily harm that this work was causing.

The smells in the air changed drastically – in a good way – as we left the river and entered the spice market. Chilies, coriander, ginger, turmeric and an array of other scents combined to create a spa-like fragrance. Mild at first, the potency escalated as we pushed through the people towards the heart of the market. Through eyes made blurry by the chilies, we viewed stall upon stall filled with bags upon bags of Bangladesh’s everyday spices. Sacks of dried, red chilies were literally bursting at the seams.

Following Taimur out of the spice market, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a betel nut leaf auction. As you walk around Dhaka, and presumably cities across the Indian Sub-Continent you’ll find red spots on the ground. It’s not blood, but spit. Paan – a package of areca nut, lime paste wrapped up in the leaf – dyes the saliva red. The place was bustling and we were constantly moving out of the way to avoid being bowled over by men, once again, carrying heavy bags of goods on their heads. This was our last market stop.

It was time to clear the senses.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April Fools’

I suppose you could call me a fool for thinking that my flight from Kathmandu to Dhaka would be on time – it was, after all, April first. I guess my prompt arrival in Kathmandu a week earlier was nothing more than a matter of luck.  

I arrived at the airport just under two hours before my departure time. The line in front of the GMG Airline counter was long, but no one was at the desk. Interesting, I thought nonchalantly as I waited to buy a coke. There was a letter-sized piece of paper taped to the counter, but until someone sent me into a panic by telling me that “the flight is probably canceled” I didn’t bother to check that either. When I finally did, it told me that the flight was delayed – instead of leaving at 3:50 PM, we were now scheduled to leave at 6:50 PM. I was not thrilled by the news, especially since I’d called GMG earlier to confirm the flight was on time. (I secretly think that the pilot caused the delay because he was watching the Cricket World Cup Semi-finals, but I suppose we’ll never know.)

Given this news, I decided to search for the most comfortable place to wait out the extra time. The Thai Airlines Silk Lounge was my solution. All I had to do was buy a cup of tea – done! After a couple hours of sitting a completely empty restaurant, I started to grow anxious and decided I should go to the gate.

The security procedure for Kathmandu is marginally better than Dhaka. At least this time, no one who beeped going through the metal detector was actually allowed through without further scrutiny. We were herded into a waiting pen. Bored and facing walls that simultaneously displayed several different local times, I waited out the next hour. A quick side note for those interested in random, amusing facts, the time difference between Kathmandu and Dhaka is 15 minutes.

6:30 came and went and no boarding announcements had been made, so I decided to investigate the situation. I was informed that the plane was scheduled to arrive at 6:50 PM, but no further details were provided. It was only when I pointed out that this obviously made it impossible for us to leave at that time, that I was told we’d be departing at 7:30.

At 6:50 an inaudible announcement was made and all of a sudden the crowd mobbed towards a door. When I finally made it to the front my boarding pass was torn and the little stub was handed back to me. We waited again, this time in a smaller pen, until the bus came to take us to the plane. 

I didn’t know you could board a plane from the rear (such that when you enter you’re standing at the very back of the aisle), but when we disembarked from the bus, we were lead to the back of the plane. Then the official in charge reconsidered – all the men were to board from the back, but the women would enter through the front. Brilliant! Now people will have to squeeze by each other in the middle of the plane to get to their seats. To avoid this problem, we were told to ignore our seat assignment.

I didn’t mind my seat and since there wasn’t any traffic coming from the back yet, I made it to seat 12A without any trouble. However, the steward instructed most of the other women to sit at the front of the plane – “most of the women” came to a grand total of no more than 15. The men filed into their newly assigned rows in the back.

Once everyone was more or less settled, the in-flight safety instructions began. I’ve always found the seatbelt instructions to be particularly useless, but apparently they are necessary for some. The atheist, as his t-shirt proclaimed, next to me was unable to undo the buckle when I pointed out that our belts were switched. He required help from his friend across the aisle.

Buckle conundrum aside, the plane seemed to be filled with first-time flyers. There was a blatant disregard for any instructions provided by the flight crew - people were getting up to talk to their friends and making phone calls as we taxied to the runway. I was a bit unnerved. To top it off, it turns out that leaving late in the day has other pit falls (excuse the pun) – my cabin mates were not smelling very fresh.

As the plane sped along the runway, the stewardess announced, “inshallah we will arrive in Dhaka in one hour” (Inshallah is a term frequently used in Bangladesh. It means “god willing”). Without any further issues we landed in Dhaka 50 minutes later. Immigration was painless, as was baggage pickup. And after the joke that was the rest of the day’s travel experience, I was very thankful for that. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011


reflection in a teapot.
I began my year in Israel and here I found myself in an Israeli restaurant on the other side of the world. After spending the morning wandering around the Kathmandu Durbar Square, taking in all the sights, and fending off the never-ending stream of wannabe tour guides, OR2K had just the vibe I was looking for.

I happily slipped off my shoes and walked to the mat that was to be my seat – all the while feeling the texture of the uneven, woven rug on my feet. Taking a seat and stretching my legs under the low table, I was very much reminded of the meal I’d had in the Bedouin tents just a few months earlier. I glanced through the menu, and quickly decided on falafel with humus, tahini, a cucumber salad and warm naan.

Facing forward I looked out through a wall of windows flanked by ornately decorated curtains. To my left the “wall’ was open – the tarp that usually covered it was pulled to the side. All around were old and new buildings – people were coming in and out of their apartments, watching us from their balconies and going about their business. From the ceiling hung an empty iron chandelier, a strand of chilies, and two large cloth butterflies – one orange, one blue. Hamsas decorated the wall. The voices of Nora Jones, Tracy Chapman and Colbie Caillat filled the air. Through a glass door to my right I could see the stereo – the bass indicators resembled the iconic Buddha eyes.

As I was enjoying my meal, and watching the people next to me sip pints grass green drinks, the likes of which one usually sees in the form of a shot at Jamba Juice, the San Francisco Bay Blues came on. Feeling content and wanting to prolong my time in this comforting place, I ordered some tea. The weather had been temperamental that morning, so when I’d finished my tea and biscuit and the sun peaked out again, I decided I should be on my way.

Next stop, Boudha. The Boudhanath stupa is one of the largest in the world. The population of the surrounding town consists primarily of Tibetan exiles. Crimson robed monks wander through the small alleyways and seas of tourists.

As I did at the Monkey Temple, I circled this stupa several times and on several different levels. First I scoped out the shops, then I climbed up the stairs and circled the upper level of the stupa, but I was drawn to the beautifully simple flower displays on the lower level and so I did a lap there as well. Eventually my luck with the weather ran out and so when a monk offered me a seat on the monastery steps, I gladly accepted.

The prayer wheels clinked away, bells tolled, and the prayer flags fluttered as I watched an elderly lady go around feeding the stray dogs. Carrying a large can, a bowl and a ladle, she approached each pooch. Carefully scooping food into the bowl, she placed it in front of one dog after another, making sure to gently shoo away anyone who tried to interfere with another’s food. She went so far as to come up the monastery steps and wake the sleeping dog behind me to make sure that he too got his meal.

When the rain intensified, I moved further back onto the porch, where an old lady invited me to sit down. Soon I found myself, with this lady and a monk on one side, and a mother and her two-year old on the other. A wall of legs in front of us, we settled in to wait out the rain.

I don’t speak Nepali and none of my companions spoke English, but we managed to interact via body language and smiles. Wanting to document this moment, I asked - by pointing at my camera, raising my eyebrows, and shrugging my shoulders – whether I could take a photo. Wagging their heads and smiling they agreed. Anisha, the two-year old, was most thrilled by this activity. She’s run to the column, pose for a moment, and run back to see herself on the camera’s screen, thus making it extremely difficult to capture a sharp image.

I wanted a picture of me with my female companions and so I asked the monk to take a photo. I don’t think he’d ever used a camera before. With my gibberish, unhelpful instructions, and the more helpful assistance of the interested crowd around us, he managed to snap a few photos. Yet someone was always missing from the frame. The monk settled back into his spot and I asked a younger member of the crowd to please take our photo.

There was one more destination on my list for the day, so when the rain subsided I decided it was time to move on. Anisha waved and then putting her hands together and bowing her head said goodbye in the more traditional Nepalese way. My simple interaction with this little group of people was the highlight of my week.

Having spent a significant time at a Buddhist temple that afternoon, it was now time to visit one of the world’s largest Hindu temples, Pashupatinath. Hindus believe that the body is made up of four elements – earth, wind, fire, and water. Through cremation these elements are released back into the atmosphere. 40-50 cremations take place at Pashupatinath every day. I arrived at dusk and as I approached the Bagmati River I could see smoke rising. Off to the right smoldering piles could be seen on cement blocks at the river’s edge. A man was sweeping ashes into the river. To my left there was music, dancing, and a festive atmosphere. Following the sound, I crossed the river.

On the opposite bank, a bed of logs had been created, and an elderly woman’s body rested upon it. A white sheet was draped over her. Final preparations were taking place. Ceremoniously the fire was lit and her body was covered with additional wood and dried grasses. The singing and chanting continued on the stage-like area behind me as the smoke rose. The whole ceremony was natural, peaceful, and beautiful.

From the simple - being in Israel then having Israeli food in Nepal, to the more complex - spending time with a young girl so easily amused by the simple pleasures in life to being present as another’s body is returned to the world – it is all part of life’s cycle. With night falling, I left the temple, but the images will stay with me forever.

Namaste Nepal

From the bustle of the Kathmandu airport straight to yoga – so my trip to Nepal began and so it continued - switching between chaos and calm from one moment to the next.

From yoga we went to a restaurant called Lhakpa’s Chulo, where I ordered a Thai beef salad and garlic bread. The salad arrived – a heap of crisp green lettuce, diced cucumbers, strips of bell pepper, ringlets of green onion, thinly carved pieces of seared beef, sprigs of mint and cilantro with a spicy ponzu dressing. It was delicious! So good in fact that I made it a point to go back and have another before I left.

By the time we wrapped up dinner I actually had goosebumps – I hadn’t had those in a naturally climatized environment since I left home! I was looking forward to snuggling under a blanket while I slept – another thing I haven’t done since I left home – it’s been too hot in Dhaka.

After a cozy night’s sleep, I started by day in Patan’s Durbar Square, which means royal square. Though the cluster of temples in this area is higher than average, I’d be remiss not to mention that temples and shrines in Nepal are about as frequent as fire hydrants back home – they are literally on every corner. Without realizing quite how it happened, I suddenly found I’d hired a guide. He proceeded to take me through Patan square, providing history and pointing out details of the buildings that surrounded us, as well as, taking me to a variety of shops and touristy stores that I’m pretty sure he had some commission deal set up with. That aside, having a guide definitely helped me to orient myself and to avoid spending too much time searching for the landmarks listed in the Lonely Planet. What the guide prevented me from doing was to take my time and really absorb everything I was seeing. In the future, I decided, I’d be guiding myself, which I found out later was easier said than done.

That afternoon, Sven took me to the Thamel district of Kathmandu, which is bustling with countless, over-priced tourist shops. After a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant, I set off on my own with a mission to find Swayambhunath, aka Monkey Temple, so called because of the large troop of monkeys that calls this hill its home.

I’d been instructed on how to get there, but somehow I ended up taking a rural detour. Off in the distance I could see the temple perched on the hill, and I used it as my compass. Winding through people’s home gardens and occasionally using sign language to reassure myself that I was heading in the right direction, I eventually found my way.

I tremendously long staircase loomed in front of me – there was a point at which the incline was so steep it felt almost as if I was climbing up a vertical wall, but the view from the top was worth it. Geologists believe that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake and that Monkey Temple hill at that time was an island in the middle of this lake. Looking down at the sea of buildings, houses, streets and temples that shimmered below it was difficult to imagine that the valley floor was once covered in water.

The most dominant structure on top of the hill is definitely the stupa. Consisting of a large white dome upon which rests a square shaped structure that Buddha’s eyes peer out in all directions. The cone on top makes it look like Buddha is wearing a gnome hat. Surrounding the stupa are countless other shrines and temples, which pay homage to a variety of gods and goddesses.   

The stupa, which is lined with prayer wheels, is always circled in a clockwise direction. Worshipers and tourists who were orbiting the dome with me, were giving these wheels a gentle spin as they went by. The sound of clicking prayer wheels and scent of incense filled the air. Further along a man was meticulously cleaning the wax from a flower-shaped base in front of a temple, and people were queuing up to receive a tika, large red dot that is placed on the forehead, from a living goddess. Having completed a rotation around the stupa, I settled down to gaze out at the view.

Given the location and importance of this temple, I had expected to feel a certain serene energy as soon as I set foot on the mountain. That hadn’t happened yet, but sitting on the steps of a temple I gave it another try. Making an effort to ignore the crinkling of chip bags, the shrieks of tourists encountering monkeys, the clicks of cameras and the general commotion, I started to notice the faint silhouette of the hills in the distance, the peaceful way in which the birds were circling the hill, the snoozing dogs, the steady, warm breeze, the calm monk sitting opposite me, and the continuous chanting of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum.” By calmly observing I was able to see and feel the place in a much different way. And so, feeling satisfied, I made my way down the dangerously steep steps - the voices of the people below blended to sound like a rippling stream, in the distance thunder rolled, and I smelled rain.

Continuing with this mindful approach to life, I opted to take both a yoga and meditation class the next day. The Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Center was located just around the corner from Andrea and Sven’s house. Guarding the front door, much like the statues in front of temples, was a little, black, lion-looking dog. Off to the left of the porch was a great big prayer wheel. The door was hidden behind a tapestry with the endless knot embroidered on it. I made my way inside and found myself in a dark entry hall. Though the Buddha sat peacefully to my right with a colorfully decorated white clothe draped over his shoulders, I was surprised to see him and mistook his shape to be a real person. I jumped. The experience was calmer from there on out. The yoga was rejuvenating – the teacher was calm and his Nepali accent made the whole experience that much more authentic as he calmly told us all to “stay here for a while” each time we struck a pose. When I left, I noticed that the fog had lifted and where previously there hadn’t been mountains there now were, the brick walls seemed brighter than before, and the rain I smelled the day before was now falling.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Nobel Day

It’s not every day you meet a Nobel Laureate – but today was one of those days. And Muhammad Yunus was the man.

The American International School, Dhaka partnered with the Yunus Centre to sponsor a Social Business Competition. Individuals from five schools competed for a chance to be one of the three finalists to present today and, even better, the chance for a summer internship at the Yunus Center.  Anika from Sir John Wilson School was one of those three finalists. Students, members of the school staff, and I were there to support her.

As we left Sir John Wilson School, I told the Starfish class that I’d be going on a field trip.

“Where are you going?” asked Hisham.

“To the American School.”

“You’re going that far?! Are you taking a plane?” He asked in astonishment.

“No, no, it’s the American School in Dhaka.” I replied.

I don’t think he understood, because with a sigh and wide eyes he said, “that’s going to be a long trip.”

The trip was short, but it was as if I’d traveled to a different world. The American School really is American. It looks American with locker-lined hallways, astroturf instead of grass, decorated display boards announcing various social cultural activities on the walls, as well as a covered swimming pool. Even more amazing, it smells like an American school too – like construction paper, glue, and spirit.

When we arrived we were taken upstairs where the four displays from our school were being finished up. The students had arrived around 8:15 AM and had 45 minutes to make their display boards. I recalled the many hours it had taken me to prepare my science fair display in high school, and cringed at the thought of having to do it in less than four hours. Paper scraps,, tape,  glue sticks, and instructions to classmates were flying across the room. But at 9:15 the chaos dissolved and the boards were on their way to the field.

All over the field, white booths, canopies, and tents were pitched and people milled about. Professor Yunus toured the perimeter of the field stopping to greet the students and acknowledge their work. Following the Laureate were photographers, teachers, staff and a mass of other people.

On stage, folk dances and songs were being performed. Members of the school staff and I sat under one of the canopies and watched the show. In a moment of distraction, I looked around and noticed the incredible diversity around me. It was as though we were at a meeting of the United Nations. Meanwhile the dancers on stage reminded me – both because of their movements and because of their costumes – of the little figures in the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland. And in that moment, surrounded by people from countless different countries, that’s exactly what the planet felt like - small.

Professor Yunus wrapped up his rounds and settled under our canopy. People swarmed around him wanting pictures and autographs. However, had I not seen him sit down, I would have thought he was in the booth to my right where a perplexing number of people had formed a line. As it turned out Monique Coleman from High School Musical was there making the whole experience just that much more American.

At 11 AM we were ushered into the largest of the tents. Ms. Subhan, the wife of the school’s founder, and I attempted to seek relief from the heat and headed for some seats near a fan. Unfortunately, the fan’s angle was less than ideal and the air didn’t move at all. When all were invited to move up and fill in the front rows, we did so, and ended up sitting just a row behind Professor. Yunus.

The principal spoke and introduced the student finalists. Anika presented first. Her social business involved the sale of bananas and the use of any leftover banana plant products to create paper. Not only did her proposed project empower local communities by helping them make money, it also reduced landfill and saved trees. She delivered her presentation with confidence and charisma. The acts that followed were less impressive, especially when you consider the fact that Anika is thirteen years old (in 8th grade) and the other finalists were all in high school (some even in their senior year).

What followed was the speech by Mr. Yunus, who received a standing ovation as he walked to the stage. Though he spoke quite a bit about the origins of micro-credit and his career in social business, I think his three main points were:
  1. You need to undo what exists to solve the problem – when a system does not work don’t make changes to it, but reinvent it, or reverse it.
  2. The world would be a better place if businesses were built to solve problems rather than to make money.
  3. The “social business of today is like the Wright Brothers’ plane.” Meaning that it has endless potential. And Mr. Yunus believes this potential exists in the young people of today. He asked parents and teachers not to push children to get the “best job”, but rather to tell them, “you alone can change the whole world”, and to challenge them to be creative and pursue their ideas. He added, “technology is like a car. It just sits there, unless the driver takes it somewhere.”
Monique Coleman and Anika
Throughout his presentation, but especially while he was discussing items one and three, I thought of a TED Talks podcast I recently watched. It featured Salman Khan, of the Khan Academy, who is changing the education system through the use of video lessons. He is using technology to turn the existing system upside down. Tremendous results have been seen in students who have used the Khan Academy tools. If you’re at all interested in education, I recommend that you check out the podcast.

Just as the oppressive heat was about to melt the audience onto the astroturf, Professor Yunus wrapped up his speech and announced the winner. It was Anika. The Sir John Wilson School section burst out in applause and cheers. Anika came to the stage and gracefully accepted her certificate and thanked Professor Yunus and her supporters.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dancing for Joy

Three years ago a little boy and his friend got on a train near Sylhet. Several hours later they got off in Dhaka. This boy never made it back home, because he could not remember where home was. With nowhere to go, he became a child of the streets and a drug addict. Today, he’s roughly eight years and lives at APON, an Addiction Rehabilitation Residence founded by Brother Ronald in 1994. This boy was just one of the many incredible kids I met while volunteering today.

For the third year in a row, the British Women’s Association organized the Dhaka Children’s Party. 280 street children were invited from five different schools and organizations, and at 9:30 AM today busloads of them poured into the parking lot at the Nandan Water Park.

Rebecca and I were assigned to lead the APON group. The boys stood in line in front of the gates. Most of them wore torn and tattered, ill-fitting clothes. None of them wore shoes. We lead the way with the help of the smallest boy, no more than seven years old, who proudly waved the group’s red flag.

At the picnic area, the kids received brand new t-shirts and bags, which we helped them label. We also fed them breakfast – noodles, a banana, and a hard-boiled egg. They were so grateful for everything they received. Though they spoke hardly any English, they would look us directly in the eye, smile broadly and say, “thank you” with a quick nod of the head.

After breakfast we took them to the water.  The boys changed into the boardshorts and swim t-shirts we’d given them and charged into the pools. First up were the waterslides. It took some time, but we managed to create and enforce a more-or-less orderly line. The slides, however, took a backseat to the wave pool as soon as it was started up. But the most popular area by far was the water disco where water rained down from its ceiling and jets sprayed mist into the center while music blasted from the speakers. The kids were literally dancing for joy. If only there was a way to bottle up all that happiness.

Splashing and diving and scrambling up ladders, they skidded around the park until they were shivering. I had the chills not because I was cold, but because I kept thinking about how all these boys, who in this moment were playing the way all children should, were recovering drug addicts.

After lunch at the picnic area, it was tattoo time. As it turns out, kids all over the globe get incredibly excited about the prospect of having a dragon, heart, dolphin, or ferry on their body or face for a few days. As I applied the tattoos, I was sad to see that most of their bodies were scarred and many of them showed signs of cutting. The sight served as another reminder of what these children have been through in their short lives. Yet, their bright, white smiles helped reassure me of the resiliency of the human, and particularly a child’s, spirit.

“Is this really all for us? Can we really keep it?” The APON boys asked Brother Ronald repeatedly as they left their watery paradise with new clothes and a bag of goodies. As we stood outside the gates, they taught me their secret handshake, thanked us profusely, then waved enthusiastically as we left.  

Today was heart wrenching and heartwarming at the same time. When all was said and done, everyone left with a big smile on their faces. And I am left feeling happy for them and wishing these boys nothing but the best for their future. I hope they can leave their rocky pasts behind and that someday that little boy can find his way home.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Breaking ground

After living in Dhaka for six weeks, I finally made it to Old Dhaka, or Puran Dhaka as it’s called here. Thankfully, given that it was Friday, the traffic from Gulshan to the old sector was virtually non-existent. As we drove through the streets at 7:30 AM, Dhaka life seemed to be moving at a slower pace – clusters of people were gathered at tea stalls sipping milky tea and chatting, rickshaws were still parked in rows in the side streets, and men and women stood in their doorways and gates peering out at the calm. The boundaries of Puran Dhaka, though not marked by a sign or barrier, could be felt. There was a slight, easily-overlooked, difference in the architecture and proximity of the buildings, and the traffic went from mild to moderate.

The tour’s meeting point was at the Old Dhaka Christian Cemetery. We entered the gate and emerged in the midst of an important archeological discovery – at least that’s what it looked like. The headstones could be glimpsed through the tall grass and amongst the trees, and up ahead the relic of a tomb stood with tress growing in and on it. It was a jungle. A cemetery that looked as though it hadn’t been tended to in the past 100 years.

Taimur, from the Urban Study Group (USG) tours, met me shortly after 8 AM. (Taimur and another architect founded USG. Its mission is to protect and preserve the old buildings in Puran Dhaka) He took me through the cemetery and explained its history as we waited for the rest of the group to show up. Though oral history puts the age of the cemetery at 400 years, the oldest grave dates back to “only” March 26, 1724. It is the Reverend Mr. Joseph Pagat who rests in this grave. Dead at the age of about 26, he was in Dhaka as a missionary and, like many others, probably succumbed to cholera, malaria or another similar disease.

Just behind his grave, looms the Angkor Wat-like tomb, which contained the names of several deceased. It has yet to be concluded whether the bodies lie in a crypt below the structure, or whether they were buried elsewhere but commemorated with a plaque here. The latter is the more probable explanation. Nature is slowly trying to take back the land on which the temple-like tomb rests. Roots from the large banyan tree that sprouts from the top of the structure, dangle through the windows in the roof and hang through the doorways. Thick ropes of root wrap themselves tightly around the building and along its walls. It’s a breathtaking sight.

The modern area of the cemetery resembled more of what I’m used to seeing. Still, compared to cemeteries back home, there was something unruly and exciting about it. I remember a fiat lux class I took at UCLA, in which we discussed cemeteries, their similarities and differences. The conclusion we came to in class was that most are designed to resemble people’s perception of heaven – rolling green hills, beautiful trees, and serenity. I think I’d prefer this jungle.

After about half an hour, we established that no one else was coming and so I was to receive a private tour. Perfect! We left through the gate and entered the Puran Dhaka streets. We were headed to the Baldha Gardens. The gardens were constructed by Narendra Narayan Roy in 1904. This landowner and lover of plants traveled all over to collect specimens and seeds to grow the plants we find there today. At one point he even sent for a Brazilian lily to add to his collection. Today, the gardens are the only public open space in all of Old Dhaka. And though they do provide a comparatively tranquil atmosphere, many Western visitors may find that it resembles a dusty nursery more than a thriving botanical garden.

Next, we headed to the Rose Gardens. The gentleman who built this estate felt as though he was not adequately represented at the Baldah Gardens. Thus he set out to build a beautiful house, surrounded by ponds and sprawling lawns. Unfortunately, the owner went bankrupt in his efforts to outdo the other garden and had to sell the property. The Rose Garden is interesting because it actually doesn’t have any roses. Perhaps it did when it was completed years ago, but today, cows graze leisurely in the front yard and the building is used as a filming location. Leaving the “Rose” Gardens, we hopped on a rickshaw and entered the narrow alleyways.

To the untrained eye the old buildings in Puran Dhaka might be invisible, but with Taimur’s expert guidance I was taken from one site to another. With a bit of imagination, it was possible to see just how glorious these houses once were. The intricate detail of the columns and archways is visible even though the buildings they belong to are crumbling, partially torn down, and rebuilt. Taimur and his group have had an impossibly difficult time trying to convince the government and building owners of the importance of preservation and restoration. The owners, motivated by money, are quick to tear down these undeclared landmarks, and put seven story apartment blocks in their place. One quickly picks up on Taimur’s emotional connection to these buildings and the spirit with which he tries to save them.

When the buildings aren’t torn down, their inhabitants often alter them, sometimes beyond recognition. This was the case at one of the sites we visited. In a beautiful 108 year old building, we found a family of 26. The archway through which we entered was being used for bucket baths. The 5 year-old who was presently getting a washing, was visibly upset by it. The parent who was administering the bath, took a break from dousing the child with water to let us pass. We ambled along the narrow path that lead to the house. The family gathered as Taimur explained the history of the building to me. I noticed and inquired about a stack of bricks on the balcony – I was wondering whether they were trying to do repair work. Not the case, explained Taimur. They’re trying to use every bit of available space. By enclosing the balcony, they can create space that they’ll use as another bedroom, a kitchen, or perhaps even a toilet.

I wrestle with two thoughts. On the one hand, I understand the importance of the buildings and how necessary it is to save them. On the other hand, I can see the poverty, the lack of space, and the need to survive. If only a solution could be found that would allow all those needs to be satisfied.

While I am interested in the architecture, I am more drawn to the people. I once again rely on my limited Bangla vocabulary to interact. The family’s English skills seem to be about as good as my Bangla skills. But everyone, including myself, is in good spirits and excited about the interaction, no matter how limited. One lady even looks at me and, with a big smile, blurts out, “I like you!” The kids especially a giddy about my arrival. They come up and introduce themselves, extending their hand. I feel a bit like royalty – it’s a bit strange. To their delight, I take out my camera, which only furthers the level of excitement.

With the kids following, Taimur takes me upstairs. From the second floor, through a series of buildings that partially obstruct our view, we can glimpse the street below. Looking up from what used to be the balcony surrounding the inner courtyard, we can see parts of the original white building with blue shutters decorating its windows. The colors are very Greek. But the courtyard has been halved. The balcony only exists on two sides the others have either been closed in, or completely destroyed to build the house next door.

Back downstairs, they take me to the back of the property to show me their well. I stand as far away as possible and lean forward to peer down. The walls of the well are lined with green algae and the water at the bottom doesn’t look like it should be consumed by anyone. Taimur pops up from around the corner and warns, “be careful! Don’t fall in. You may end up on the other side of the world.” A shortcut home perhaps?

We say goodbye and exit. Some of the kids follow. Calling “hello” and “hi” as we walk away. I reply and their great big smiles beam back at me.

It’s snack time. We arrive at an alley lined with 15-20 restaurants. Taimur settles on a shop that sells Misti, sweets. He orders for us. A sweet paste made of sugar, water, and flour is brought to the table along with two pieces of piping hot Parata, a flatbread. Moments ago this bread was a lump of dough at the front of the shop. It’s greasy, hot and delicious.

Leaving the restaurant, Taimur takes me through progressively narrower alleys. With each step I feel as though I’m getting a more intimate look into life in Puran Dhaka. Taimur stops in the market place to ask a fish vendor directions. He is splashed by water as a runaway fish launches itself from the shallow bowl and onto the ground. Taimur jumps back in surprise as the catfish wiggles and lurches in a feeble attempt at freedom.

Further down the road, a ten year old boy hacks apart a feathered chicken as its companions watch. A pile of feet and other parts lie at his side. The brilliantly color fruit stalls offer a stark contrast to the morbid scene.

We round the corner to find a group of kids playing a game of cricket. Cricket fever has definitely gripped the nation (and tonight Bangladesh must beat South Africa in order to progress to the semi-finals. I imagine the entire population will be glued to TV screens this afternoon.) Just past that road, we peak into a metal workshop, where two men work in cramped conditions. And at the next house we enter, the residence are preparing for a Hindu festival. Throughout Old Dhaka, the walls of the buildings are adorned with paintings of Brazilian and Argentinean flags – remnants of enthusiastic FIFA World Cup supporters. Lacking their own team, they rallied behind proven winners – too bad the support of millions of Bangladeshis couldn’t help them win.

We return to the cemetery. I climb into the car exhausted, a thin layer of dust covering every inch of me. I’m so glad I finally got a chance to visit this part of town, and I’m already looking forward to seeing more, especially the old harbor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Picture Perfect

I returned to the future site of the Sir John Wilson School on Friday. Members of the school community and other supporters gathered to learn about the plans and bless the site. The program took place under a colorful canopy similar to the ones used in village wedding ceremonies. The bamboo poles used to support the structure were wrapped in green, red, blue, white and yellow fabric. Tassels dangled lazily from the geometric floral designs sewn on the colorful ceiling, and triangular cloth panels hung from the edges of the tent. The humidity level hovered around 80%. The air didn’t stir. There was no escaping the heat as we tried - discretely - to dab the sweat from our faces.

I realize that by Bangladeshi standards the heat we’ve experienced so far is nothing compared to what it will by in a few weeks. But what’s interesting and different about the temperature here is that, at times, I feel as though it’s coming from the inside out. The heat here settles into the buildings and shadows, and though you’re not in direct sunlight, your body feels as though it might as well be. The people who live here are used to it and as such their reactions to the heat range from non-existent to very mild. Due to this, there have been a few occasions where I’ve felt compelled to ask, “is anyone else hot, or is it just me?” There was no need to ask this question on Friday, because looking around I could see that everyone else was melting too.

Prior to the ceremony, I went back to the village where I’d taken pictures with the photo club on Wednesday. Armed with their photos and a translator (a member of the school staff), I entered the family compound. The kids recognized me and helped to gather the rest of the family. They were surprised and pleased to see me, and absolutely thrilled by the pictures. (Though you wouldn’t know if from the group photo - it seems Bangladeshis take "formal" group shots very seriously). The little boy who’d cried when I took his photo on Wednesday, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face when I handed him his picture. Unfortunately I couldn’t make everyone happy. Those who hadn’t been there on Wednesday seemed very disappointed when they did not receive a picture. Nonetheless, I was invited for tea and breakfast. In the interest of my digestive health and because the program was about to start - I skillfully declined with help from the Bangla speaking staff member.

Walking back to the site, I snapped a few more pictures. We were informed of the large market/bazaar that takes place every Thursday, so I’ll be back in the weeks to come. 

In other news, I’ve met a cockroach larger than any I’d ever seen before. He was roughly the length of my palm and he had wings. I’m very thankful that his attempts to take flight while in my presence were unsuccessful. Stifling a yelp, I asked for assistance in removing him from the room we were in. During the removal process, I was calmly informed that they don’t bite.

Though I doubted that I’d ever be able to do it, I am also happy to report that I’ve officially slept through three morning calls to prayer.