Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Khulna by Motorcycle

“We’re going to take a tour of Khulna,” said Ashib.
“Great!” I replied.
“By motorcycle,” he added.
“Any questions?”
“Is there a helmet?”
“Yes. For the driver.”

I was aware I’d be taking a tour of the city, but a motorcycle was not the mode of transportation I had imagined.

After changing from a skirt into pants, I apprehensively climbed onto the back of the Honda Hero.

Weaving through traffic into spaces that moments ago hadn’t existed and seconds later would disappear we made our way to the center of town. All the while I’m worrying that I may leave a knee cap behind on the wheel of a rickshaw, break my elbow on the side of a bus, or worse hit the ground without a helmet. The exhaust stung my eyes and throat and I could feel the heat of it on my legs. My toes were cramping trying to hold on to the footrests. I was not relaxed.

I tried to keep track of where we were going and how to get back - make a right at the Great Wall paint shop, exit the roundabout to the right, head left by the main traffic circle. It was no use. After viewing the dark banks of the river, being trapped amongst rickshaw drivers, men pulling bags of cement on carts, and fellow motorbike riders at a train crossing, and then ducking through alleys I had no idea where I was.

The streets were organized like the inside of a department store. There was a block dedicated exclusively to the sale of bicycle. A narrow road had nothing but gold jewelers on both sides. Fruit vendors and toy stores had their own sections, and cell phones could be found around the corner.

At one point we ducked into an indoor mall. I thought it might be reasonable to park, but instead we cruised through on wheels - barely squeezing by displays and people.

Over an hour later we made it safely back to the guesthouse. It was time to get my bags and go to the bus. Surprise, surprise! We were getting there by motorcycle. Unenthusiastically I watched as they strapped my roll-aboard suitcase to the back of the bike. Then, wearing my backpack and holding my purse, I squeezed in between the driver and the luggage. At this point I was actually looking forward to the peace of the dusty, mosquito infested bus.

But my bus was delayed. It wouldn’t leave for another four and a half hours and during that time I’d be getting on the bike again.

All that being said, the motorcycle ride and the wait for the bus were the most authentic Bangladeshi experiences I’ve had so far.


A patchwork of green rolled out from the road. Each piece a unique texture and color – from the soft leaves of the rice paddies to the bristling palms, and the whispering dark green corn stalks to the floppy banana tree leaves. The quilt stretched out for miles in all directions; sewn together by little dirt pathways. This was my real introduction to rural Bangladesh.

I arrived at the Impact-funded hospital in Chuadanga around 6 PM and was greeted by Monowar. We took a very brief tour of the hospital during which he informed me that there was a surgeon in town who was conducting cataract surgeries in the operation theater as we spoke. I was intrigued. I asked whether I could watch.

With approval from the doctor, I was taken down to the theater. I had imagined I’d be sitting and watching the surgery from the other side of a glass partition. As it turned out, the theater was really more of a room and I was going to be in it. I changed into scrubs, which, though clean, were permanently stained, and took my seat in the corner of the room approximately five feet away from the patient.

The surgeon was in the midst of a removing a cataract. Next to the bed, a TV showed a close up of the procedure. The unblinking eye was staring at me. The attendants were speaking to each other in Bangla over the steady beeping of the heart rate monitor. Using cauterization to close the cut in the eye, the doctor wrapped up the surgery. The eye was bandaged, the microcope moved, the patient propped up, and then the nurse helped her off the table. Wait, she was awake this whole time?!

Given the fact that the heart rate had stayed so regular (and the fact that someone was digging around in the person’s eyeball) I had assumed that the patient would be under general anesthesia. “No” I was told, “that would take to long.” In a little over an hour, I witnessed seven surgeries. Each procedure took between 7-10 minutes, with about 3 minutes in between to swap patients and tools.

On the screen the cataract looked very gooey, but to be sure I asked what it really felt like. At the end of the next procedure the surgeon turned to me and dropped the extracted cataract on my bare hand. Reflexively I pulled away and it dropped to the floor. I was slightly appalled. For the rest of the time I held my hand far away from me and made sure not to touch anything (later, I would wash it repeatedly, use hand sanitizer, disinfectant and an anti-bacterial wipe). A cataract, in case you were wondering, feels like a piece of cartilage.

By the time the surgeries came to an end at midnight, 64 patients had been treated. (I left to have dinner long before the end.)

The next day, I received a more extensive tour of the facilities and other Impact projects. First we visited the outpatient area. That morning the resident optometrist was seeing the men and women who had had surgery the previous day. I was there when one man’s bandages were removed. This man, who had been virtually blind in that eye, was now able to correctly identify the letters on the first three lines of the eye chart. Pretty incredible!

Next door to the hospital is the physical therapy department. It is also the place where they produce a wide array of assistive devices – from back braces and crutches to arms and legs. Using plaster a model of the body part that needs to be fit is made. The technicians then use a variety of ingredients including metal, resin, and plastic to create these devices. The process takes three days and is done in house. With the help of the physical therapists, patients learn how to cope with and use their new limbs. People of all ages are able to overcome their disabilities and regain their independence.

While the hospital, physical therapy, and assistive devices help people cope with existing conditions, another mission of Impact is to prevent these ailments. One of the ways they do this is through Mothers’ Clubs. These clubs meet once every month. Each meeting, lead by a community liaison, focuses on a different topic.

The topic at the meeting I attended was vitamins. Mothers, dressed in their vibrant saris, were sitting on mats laid out in a U-shape. The liaison and Monowar were teaching and interacting with the group. The meeting took place outside in an open courtyard area and so I wandered about, taking photos and attempting to talk to the older children, grandparents, and villagers that were around. None of them spoke English and, aside from a few very basic phrases, I don’t speak Bangla – so in the end we just smiled at each other.

Part of being healthy is having a good diet so Impact has created another program – Home Gardens. Participants are provided with instructions on how to create and properly irrigate a garden and are then given the necessary supplies free of cost. Not only does having a home garden provide people with nutritious foods, they are able to save precious money. The women proudly showed us their neatly organized gardens of lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, radishes, carrots, and cabbage.

The last garden we visited was located in a small living community (perhaps a family “compound”) that belonged to a larger village. I was struck by how clean everything was. Though the ground is packed earth and the homes are made of mud with thatched roofs, nothing was out of place and the ground was swept and spotless.

The grandmother greeted us when we arrived. She showed us her garden, which was located in the middle of all the huts, and then took us on a little tour.  Like the moon pulls the tides, I seemed to pull the people. By the time we were wrapping up the tour a substantial group had gathered.

One little boy, perched on the grandmother’s hip, was very shy and refused to look at me. He swung his little fist at anyone who tried to turn his head. So imagine how surprised I was to see his face in our group picture. I showed it to him and for an instant a quick smile flashed across his face before he hid again in the comfort of a familiar shoulder.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Sunderban

The Sunderban are the largest continuous mangrove tree forest and Bengali Tiger reserve. They are located in the southern part of the country and spread all the way to the Bay of Bengal. I went to the Sunderban for a two night/three day tour.

The tour started from Khulna. To get to Khulna you can take a plane, a boat, or a bus. Being that it was the cheapest, I opted for the bus option, and so the adventure began…

The Journey

My bus was scheduled to depart Dhaka at 10 PM (call time was 9:45 PM). The bus stop is about 20 minutes from where I’m staying, but given the traffic here we gave ourselves one and a half hours (just in case). We set out from Gulshan II towards Malibagh bus stop at 8:15 PM. The driver warned me that there was traffic, but this was stop-and-go unlike anything I had experienced before. About half an hour before we were supposed to arrive, the driver muttered “we have problem. We have problem.” At first I was unphased by his worry, but as time went by I began to get nervous. I did not ask how much further it was, because I was afraid of what the answer would be. So I sat in the back and tried to stretch time. We got there at 9:46 PM, and in the end it turned out that the bus was stuck in traffic too(go figure) and so we were delayed an hour.

When the bus finally did arrive, we all eagerly got in line to board. The first thing that struck me about the bus when I got on was that the inside looked as though it had just come back from a week at Burning Man. Every surface was covered with a film of dust – the seats, “white” pillows, windows, the crevices along the floorboard, etc. Once I sat down, and moved that dusty pillow so that my head wouldn’t touch it, the second thing I noticed were the mosquitoes. They seemed to be hovering everywhere. Great! I took out my DEET aerosol can and gave myself a good spray down. We left the station and I settled in for what would be, according to the Guide Tours representative, “a minimum seven hour drive.”

After 7 hours, we’d gone a whopping 100 km. We had another 200 km to go. After 10 hours we made our first stop. I was grateful for the chance to get up and stretch my legs. I was less grateful for the gas station bathroom. Without exaggerating it was probably the least fresh bathroom I have ever been in. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was thrilled to get out of there and breathe some clean air. While waiting for the bus to refuel, I met a few of the folks that would be joining me on the Sunderban tour. Making small talk, I commented on the lush, green rice paddies that surrounded us and pointed out what a stark contrast it was to dusty Dhaka. One of the men quickly replied, “oh it’s just like Arkansas!” Now I’ve never been to Arkansas, but palm trees and rice paddies is not how I imagine it.

12 hours after leaving Dhaka we arrived in Khulna and boarded the boat. The rest of the tour participants were thrilled to see us - they’d been awaiting our arrival since 6 AM.


The shores on the outskirts of the Sunderban were dotted with little fishing villages. Nick, a Canadian who is one month into his two year stint in Dhaka, commented on how the small groupings of huts looked just like the ones he’d seen in Newfoundland. (Again, I’ve never been there, but that wasn’t how I imagined it.) Once we entered the Sunderban we were surrounded by green trees and blue skies (to my surprise it turns out that the skies in some parts of Bangladesh are actually blue!).

There was nothing to obstruct the sun when it set several hours later. The golden light spilled over the water and we all watched from the deck and roof in awe as the sound of camera clicks filled the air. Post-sundown, but before dinner, a drum/song circle was organized by some members of the Bengali TV station crew (they were on board to film a story about the Sunderban). We took turns singing. For lack of any better ideas, but to the delight of the German couple on the cruise, I sang a Swiss kids’ song, “Alli mini √§ntli” (All my little duckies). Bengalis, it turns out, all know the same Bangla songs. The same, we learned, cannot be said for a group of Americans (plus one Candian). While they sang beautiful, complete songs, we stuttered through the chorus of a few popular American songs yet were never able to sing anything from start to finish. In fact, the Bangladeshis often new more words than we did. Side note, when it comes to American songs, the national favorite is Country Road. Several times over the next few days someone would start it up.

At 6:30 the next morning we set out on the morning patrol. Leaving the big boat behind we climbed into a 30 person canoe. The sky was streaked with brilliant shades of purple and pink as we navigated our way into a smaller river. As the sun continued to rise, the colors changed to soft orange and yellow. Mist rose softly from the surface of the water and all around us you could hear the birds chirping. Bright orange and cobalt blue kingfishers darted through the air, barely visible bright green snakes hid among the trees, and white, graceful egrets flew through the air. It was all very peaceful.

We had lunch back on board before trekking to a beach on the Bay of Bengal. The walk to the beach was not shaded and the sun beat down on us relentlessly. By the time we made it to the Bay, the water was practically shouting our names. While the local women waded in the water wearing their salwaar kameez, the rebellious foreigners took refuge around the bend and, wearing shirts and/or shorts over their swimsuits, went for a dip.

Back on board I had a Bengali breakthrough – my first authentic head nod. The words “yes” and “OK” here are often accompanied by this quick flick of the head. It’s kind of a like a half nod, but to the side. It can also be used as a greeting. In this instance I was responding with OK to someone’s offer for help and without thinking about it utilized this Bengali motion. Very exciting!

The morning of day three we went out on another patrol. This time the focus seemed to be on the people who live in the Sunderban. Throughout the course of the morning, fisherman were setting up nets in rows towards the center of the river. Children’s voices could be heard as they helped their parents. The people who live here are very poor. Most do not own their own boat or net. Rich people from the fishing industry provide these materials to them, and in return receive most, if not all, of the catch. Because these fisherman do not have access to modern modes of communication, they have no way of checking market prices and are often tricked into selling at very low prices. “These people are born here, they live here, and they will die here,” one of the Bengali passengers told me. Most of them will never see anything else.

Leaving the fisherman behind, we headed back to Khulna. Over the roar of the engine you could see and hear sounds of life from the banks – the thud of clothes hitting the ground as the women washed, voices of children at play, and the rattling of wheels.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


While San Franciscans are experiencing temperatures in the low 60’s, and Philadelphia and New York are averaging around the mid-40’s, here in Bangladesh the high has consistently been in the mid-80’s. Calling it winter was a stretch (or rather impossible), so I was quite pleased last week when I learned that Sunday would be the first day of spring. Here in Bangladesh, yellow is the color of spring. I was kindly told by many to make sure I wear this color on Sunday. The true Bangladeshis would be wearing yellow saris, but I’m taking baby steps. Thus my mission for the weekend consisted of finding a yellow shalwar kameez.

Doing so on Friday was out. The French School had organized a soccer tournament that our school was participating in. Teams had been selected from KG I all the way through Class 6, and they were competing with kids from all kinds of different schools around Dhaka – some private, international schools and others schools for the street children. It was a positive day and everyone was very enthusiastic. So enthusiastic in fact that the KG I teams, unable to decipher between which team was being applauded for, would accidentally cheer for each other’s goals.

After the tournament we had a quick break to freshen up, which, after a day in the sun was very much needed, before heading out to a Bengali folk music festival. When we arrived at the California Banquet Hall, we received a small bouquet of flowers and were asked to remove our shoes before entering. The music, though slightly too amplified, was really enjoyable. I was most impressed by those playing the tabla, a hand drum. The way their palms and fingers flew over the instrument laying the beat was incredible.

After the event, the driver came to collect us outside the hotel. From the door we could see the car, which was only a few yards away. However, in true Bangladeshi style what should have been a one-way street had somehow turned into a two-way road. Cars were coming in both directions and were unable to pass by each other without some serious back and forth. Thank goodness for the attendees who helped sort out the mess.

While we were standing outside a little boy came up to me. He wanted money, but instead, I offered him my bouquet, which he took with more enthusiasm than I had anticipated. I watched him walk down the street, squeezing between the cars. At the end of the line he walked up to a rickshaw and offered the flowers to the passengers in exchange for money. Though I hadn’t given him any taka (local currency), I had given him a way to get some. The car arrived and we were whisked away to the Dutch club for dinner.

And so we come to Saturday, when, again, my mission was to find a yellow salwaar kameez. Ann was busy at school and Mike was golfing, so I had the car and the day to myself. First stop, travel agent where I booked a spring break trip to Nepal. It turns out my friend’s sister is currently living there and kindly offered me a place to stay. I’m looking forward to exploring yet another culturally vivid country. And by then I’ll also be really ready to cool off!

Second stop, Road 11 in Banani (a neighborhood of Dhaka). The street is lined with restaurants, clothing boutiques, and on this particular day, hundreds of people waiting to pick up and/or purchase cricket tickets. Fighting my way through the hustle and bustle, I began my search. The shops had a wide array of beautiful clothes in different styles and colors, but what I quickly came to realize was that yellow just isn’t my color. I ditched the salwaar kameez idea and opted for a scarf instead.

Third stop, British High Commission Club. Last week I was issued my very own ID Card. The photo for which was taken in front of the English flag while a much younger Queen Elizabeth smiled down at me from a frame. On this particular day, I enjoyed a pesto chicken panini and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging out by the pool and occasionally dipping in to cool off.

The fourth and final stop was a restaurant called Dhaba, chosen because I’d asked Ann to take me somewhere local. Phuchkah consists of a fried puff that is filled with various ingredients. Ambitiously we set out to order seven different variations of this dish. The waiter kindly informed us that that was too much. We’re very thankful he did because we could hardly finish the three orders we got. The consistency of the food reminded me of hard shell tacos, with the crunchy exterior and the mushy insides. The flavors, of course, were much different with curry undertones. In addition to the phuchkah, we ordered mango lassi, a yogurt drink, and a bottle of water. The total costs for our dinner, about $6.50.

Looping back around to today, I arrived at school wearing my yellow scarf, which turned out to be the perfect basanti yellow (sunflower yellow), and I once again received enthusiastic comments from the staff. Unlike my regular routine, I did not make it over to the Early Years Section this morning. Instead, I was asked to accompany children from Class 2 on their fieldtrip. They were going to visit the JAAGO Foundation school in Rayer Bazaar, one of Dhaka’s slums. While this was not the low-key spring day I had anticipated, I was eager to see a different side of Dhaka.

There had been some confusion regarding transportation and so we were short one bus. To make up for this I was asked to take some of the kids in a separate car. No problem, I thought as I started to get into the passenger seat. “No, no, that’s where the guard will sit,” I heard Amina Miss say, and so I squeezed in the back seat – with four of the students. It took us just over an hour to get there – the driver and guard sitting comfortably up front, and the rest of us crammed in the back like sardines in a can.

We entered the slum. It was similar to what I’d seen on our way to Little Italy, but on a much larger scale. A great variety of shops lined the road. These shops, constructed with combination of corrugated metal and palm frawns, were roughly 5 feet by 7 feet. Each shop had its own specialty. The food store was next to the tire repair place. A few “buildings” down you could find the barber – recognizable due to the two old, stuffed, swiveling chairs and mirrored wall. And interspersed among all of this, the occasional makeshift barn with cows tied to posts. Those cows that were not tethered, were roaming the streets with the stray goats, stopping traffic and occasionally munching on some scraps they’d found on the road.

Many of the people who live here survive on less than a dollar a day. They are the rickshaw pullers, the in-house help, and the garbage collectors that make life more comfortable for the more fortunate residents of Dhaka. Often times they cannot afford to send their children to school. Lacking any other options, the kids often turn to the streets to make money. They walk up and down the congested roads selling flowers, popcorn, and newspapers, or simply begging (like the little boy I gave my flowers to). If they don’t work, they don’t eat. These children receive a free education at JAAGO.

After winding through narrow roadways, we finally arrive at the school. The building was in better condition than I had anticipated - clean with its walls painted yellow (the color of the Foundation). The smiling students dressed in white and navy uniforms could have come from any of Dhaka’s schools.

We gathered in a small classroom and Korvi, one of the founders of JAAGO Foundation, spoke to us about the organization’s history and mission. Its focus is to provide long-term, sustainable benefits to children living below the poverty line by offering free education as well as healthy living and hygiene programs. It is their goal to have a branch in every district in Bangladesh and to break the cycle of poverty through education.

Jaago means “wake up” in Bangla. Visiting this school definitely opened my eyes up to the impoverished conditions that so many Bengalis live in. As we drove back to our school, I pondered all that Korvi had said and tried to take in as much of the scenery as I could. I was overwhelmed by what I had seen and it was difficult to concentrate my thoughts as the three boys (we had a little more room since one of the kids went back in the bus) played game after game of rock, paper, scissors, and discussed their favorite cocktails (a combination of Sprite and Coke was the winner). Sitting in the car looking out, I felt for the people around me, and wanted to smack our driver upside the head every time he laid on the horn to pass a rickshaw driver.

Learn more the JAAGO Foundation.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Say "cheese"

Andrina Miss and Sara Miss
Just a week and one day after arriving in Bangladesh, it was picture day at school. That’s right, my face will forever grace the pages of the 2010-2011 Sir John Wilson School yearbook. I’d been told well ahead of time (which in reality probably about 3 days), that I should make sure to wear something very colorful for the photo. Obligingly I donned my new salwaar kameez. Aside from the usual, “aren’t you cold?” I received a flurry of compliments today – from staff and children alike. It seems they were all very pleased to see that I’ve embraced the Bangladeshi culture.

The children showed up wearing their best – slacks and shirts for the boys (Tahzeeb took it a step beyond and wore dress pants, a button up shirt and a dressy vest), and fancy dresses for the girls. As if picture day wasn’t exciting enough, it was also Naveed’s birthday. The cake, decorated with gobs of frosting and a picture of Spiderman, proclaimed, “OMG. Now I am 5.” Thankfully the party wasn’t until after the pictures were taken, because mixing cake, nice outfits, and a bunch of five and six years olds is a recipe for disaster (or a laundry detergent commercial).

Sara Miss and Andrina Miss with the Tulips

The Early Years Teachers

In the week since I arrived, some of the children have learned my name, so a select few call me Andrina Miss or Miss Andrina. Josias, however, calls me English Miss, because I’m constantly telling him that I don’t understand Bangla. It seems the kids have a tendency to associate people’s skills with their names, the computer teacher’s name is Computer Miss and the music teacher, you guessed it, is Music Miss.

Aside from English Miss, I’m also known as American Miss. One afternoon when I was shadowing the KG I Lily class, a boy asked me, “Are you Bengali?” To which I replied, “no.” He smiled and with a laugh declared, “I knew that. You’re skin is too white.” Then without missing a beat asked, “so, America or Canada?” He was quite excited when I replied America, and, as many others do, began to rattle off all the relatives that he has there. With his enthusiasm for America, I’m not sure he’ll ever learn my real name. Yesterday, when I left school he turned to me and waving vigorously shouted, “goodbye American Miss!”

Monday, February 7, 2011

An unexpected holiday

What strikes me most about today is the absence of any honking or other traffic noises. Rumors of a hartal were already in the air last week, but until yesterday we were still awaiting confirmation. Hartals are countrywide strikes organized by the opposing political party to protest the actions of the current government. Learn more about today's Hartal. Shops, schools, and businesses close so that they give the appearance of supporting the hartal and thus avoid getting in trouble from those who organized it. As such, I have some extra time on my hands today, during which I’ll share with you the events of this past weekend – from shopping to ex-pat clubs, and rice patties to brick factories, I saw it all.

Friday – Shopping Bengali Style

As the subtitle indicates, the highlight of Friday was shopping. I arrived in Bangladesh with two suitcases and two carry-ons (I’m still not entirely certain how that happened), but very few clothes. I knew that most of what I own and wear back home would not be appropriate here, and so I packed knowing I’d be doing some shopping once I got here.

The drive to the first store, Aarong, was a bumpy one. The street was narrow and made of packed dirt. On my left were the remnants of what had once been a lake, but has, over the years, been filled in to make room for new developments. The scaffolding surrounding these new buildings consists of thick bamboo poles tied together in a manner that makes you question its integrity. Lining the road were small huts made of corrugated metal. People were milling around going about their business and the occasional cow crossed the road.

Off in the distance is a huge glass building. When it’s completed it will be Asia’s largest mall.  Construction began 10 years ago. This doesn’t seem like the place for it. The mall lays in stark opposition to its surroundings. Just a few miles up the road we’d seen a family sitting on a pile of bricks, breaking them up with sledgehammers. Brick making is a huge business in Dhaka (and the reason behind the poor air quality). Because Dhaka, and much of Bangladesh, is built on a river delta there is no naturally occurring rock. Therefore, in order to make the cement for the many construction projects in the area, bricks are made using the river mud and then broken up to create the necessary rocks.

Pulling up in front of the first store, there’s a vendor selling bangles. They sparkle and shimmer in the sun – all different colors and sizes! So much to look at and we haven’t even made it inside. I enter the store. It’s like a warehouse – full of clothes, fabrics, shoes, jewelry, bags, toys, pillows, rugs as far as the eye can see. But clothes, clothes are the reason I’m here. So I turn right. It is the shalwar kameez I’m after, and it’s not difficult to find. A shalwar kameez, which is very popular here, consists of a pair of pants, a long tunic top and a scarf. Back home I tend towards neutral colors, grays, blacks, whites, but there’s no doing that here! I try on several items and walk to the next department with a full basket.

Ann shows me the sari section. Again the colors are out of this world, and I’m excited to learn that there is at least one holiday coming up during which I’ll need to wear one! Next up, the home section, shoes, and bags. I continuously remind myself that I have time and that I don’t need to buy everything now. We go to the register and I make my purchase.

After stopping at another store, this one less extraordinary looking, but enjoyable nonetheless (made even better by its free trade mentality), I come home with: one new skirt, two salwaar kameez, and a tunic top. With what I brought this should get me through a week or two. One of the salwaar kameez I bought consists of turquoise pants with a gold paisley print, and a gold decorated, red top. Very different than what I’m used to, but picture day is on Thursday and I’ve been told to dress up. (Stay tuned for photos.)

That night we had dinner at a different British club, the one for all the people who can’t get in to the one we usually go to. The atmosphere was pleasant. We enjoyed a nice BBQ, we sat outside and could actually see stars! To top the night off there was a little earthquake. From what I heard it was a 6.4 with an epicenter somewhere in Mynmar, and it was definitely the talk of the school on Sunday.

Saturday – Solo Expedition and a Trip Out of Dhaka

Saturday morning Ann had some work to do. So I set out on my first solo adventure. Decked out in my Tibetan pants and the Indian tunic I had gotten in Berkeley before I left, and a scarf that my friend Jessica had brought me from Egypt, I set out. When our driver saw me, he quickly jumped up and offered a ride, but I wanted to walk.

View from the top floor of the Gulshan II Mall
I had a destination – the Guide Tours office. I walked without hesitation down towards Gulshan II circle. It’s in my nature to smile at people, but I was worried that if I did, I might gather a following. Serious expression it was. I made it to the circle without a problem. But once I got there I was overwhelmed by the number of billboards. I could not for the life of me find the Guide Tours Sign. I stopped by pharmacy to ask where the office was, but my question was met by a blank stare. So I stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the buildings trying to look like I knew exactly what I was doing. A few seconds passed and I spotted it. The pedestrian streetlights weren’t working, so in the interest of safety, I crossed the street closely trailing a local Bengali man. Up at the office I secured myself a spot on an upcoming trip to the Sunderban, a UNESCO world heritage site and the largest mangrove forest and Bengal Tiger reserve.

On the way back I j-walked across a busy street (quite the feat) and stopped in the little shopping mall where Mr. Baker is located. I spent some time perusing the shops on the upper level – all of which are filled with metal goods ranging from pots and pans to pearls, and ornate Buddhas and filigreed bangles. I satisfied by quest for adventure and headed back home.

Later that evening we met up with the DOGS (Dhaka Oddballs Golfing Society), of which Mike is a member. This was my first trip out of Dhaka. We were going to Little Italy. The roads there were lined with more corrugated metal houses, shops, and, what looked like, restaurants. I commented on this and one of the ladies riding with us said something along the lines of, “that’s what’s so remarkable about this country. Give the people a box, and they’ll make a shop.” Past the corrugated metal town, we found ourselves surrounded by magnificent kelly green rice paddies. They offered a striking contrast to the dusty, brown dullness of Dhaka. Though I must say that while the city as a whole may be monochromatic, its people, their clothes, their personalities and the rickshaws are anything but. Off in the distance the brick factories loomed. Radiating out around the smoke stacks, rows upon rows of gray bricks lay waiting to be fired. And next to them, neatly stacked, were countless finished red bricks.

We arrived at Little Italy, which, much to my surprise, turned out to be nothing more than a restaurant. The owner, a Bengali, had traveled to Italy, learned the art of Pizza and returned to teach the locals. I must say the pizza was delicious. Since we hadn’t taken our own car, we snagged a ride with someone else at the end of the evening. Riding back through the landscape I just described, in a luxurious, air conditioned, Hummer, while physically comfortable just didn’t seem right. I was happy to be back home, settled under the mosquito net that I resisted bringing, but that my mom said I’d be glad to have (she was right).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Day Two

The morning of my second day, it was about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. I was wearing loose fitting white capri pants, a turquoise tunic, and a light scarf. When I walked through the school’s gates, one of the ladies looked at me in alarm and asked, “aren’t you cold?!” I gazed around and noticed that most of the staff and some of the kids were wearing sweaters and cardigans. (Later in class I’d see a boy wearing a fleece-lined windbreaker and sweater to keep warm). I smiled and explained that where I’m from this type of weather is considered warm.

I went over to the Early Years Building and met Miss Sara. She had gate duty and so I went upstairs on my own. I met the children in the classroom next to ours and chatted with the teachers for a while. Before class was to start we had an assembly downstairs. The kids lined up and we took them downstairs, where they patiently lined up one after the other, and without complaining stood for the duration of the assembly, which consisted of the music teacher speaking and one of the classes performing a song.

Back in the classroom we waited for Miss Sara. The students were more familiar with me now and after one of them, overcome by curiosity, started asking me questions, they all gathered round and joined in. This Q&A soon turned into them wanting to tell me about their lives and I encouraged them by asking them questions. They were so eager to answer, that they all started talking at the same time. Cricket seemed to be a particularly popular topic. One boy started my telling me about the upcoming cricket world championship (some games are being played in Bangladesh) and that he plays cricket. Jumping up and down with their hands up in the air the all said in chorus, “me too, me too!”

Eventually Miss Sara arrived and class got underway. While I’m sure the children were learning a lot, so was I. To start the day we sang a song about the seasons based on the tune (and words) of “Where is pointer? Where is pointer? Here I am. Here I am. How are you today sir? Very well I thank you. Run away. Run away.” Instead of the names of the fingers, you substitute the names of the seasons. We started with autumn, then came winter and spring. I knew summer would be next, but what would our last finger be? Turns out Bangladeshis have five seasons – the four we’re used to and monsoon.

Of course I’ve also been trying to learn everyone’s name. There are some children, Nora, Naveed, Drik (pronounced Drake), and Ariq (sounds like Erik with an A), who have names that are familiar and were thus easy to learn. Others, Ridita, Ramissa, Arash, Mujabin, and Shawdah, have been harder to remember, and then there’s the ones that aren’t listed here because I can’t recall them at all. Every day I’m introduced to a huge number of staff and students whose names I desperately try to remember, but in the end I still get them mixed up. I think I need to borrow a yearbook so I can study the names and faces.

While I’ve been busy learning names and getting a glimpse of Bangladeshi life, I know some of the kids wish I would just learn the language, Bangla. Almost all of the children at school are learning English as a second language. Some of them, you can tell, speak it at home or at least practice, others can understand me but are not comfortable speaking, and some still struggle with comprehension. The differences in English literacy skills often cause me to ask myself whether I can’t understand because of the accent or because they were actually speaking a different language. One girl won’t speak English, not even to Miss Sara. However, when we were in the computer lab I was trying to help her and I thought we’d had a breakthrough when she said “puzzle” and pointed to the screen (i.e. asking me to change the game). I enthusiastically told Miss Sara about this later, and she smiled and said, “there is no other word for puzzle in Bangla, so we just say puzzle.” I guess the breakthrough wasn’t one after all.

I’m quickly picking up on the children’s personalities. Ayaz is Mr. Popular. He’s very outgoing and all the kids, especially Mashirah, like him. When we attempted to get the kids to stand in a circle, Ayaz was stuck in the middle and being pulled in three different directions – literally. Mashirah was clearly the most determined and about to win when, with a smile on his face but desperation in his voice, Ayaz said, “always, always Mashirah wants me to go with her!” The problem was solved when Miss Sara invited Ayaz to stand next to her. Mashira always wants to be the first - she’ll wait for everyone to line up and then slip right in front of the line. Ariq has a lot to say and can always think of something more to add as soon as I focus my attention on someone else. Nora notices every little detail and will point out any time conflicting information has been presented.

Interactions with students have not been limited to the class I’m working in. I observed the Ladybird (aka ladybug) class, level 3, and three of the students came up to me after school. They were very interested in learning as much as possible from me – where I’m from, what I do, my family, whether I like their school, their country, etc, etc. We spoke until it was time for them to get picked up. I lingered awhile longer before heading home.

This first week at school has been great and I’m already looking forward to tomorrow! (Since Friday and Saturday are the weekend, and Sunday is the equivalent of our Monday).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

First day of school

My first full day at school was Wednesday. I arrived and was passed from one staff person to the next. First I visited the science lab. The lab is a small room with counter space on both sides and a cluster of stools in the middle. The school’s science fair had just taken place a few weeks ago so certain projects were still on display. Topics included volcanoes, the human nervous system, and composting.

After visiting the lab, I received a tour of the library. The librarian proudly showed me around. He started working at the school about six months ago and has turned the place around. While I don’t know what it looked like before, based on his description, it’s come a long way. Each shelf is clearly marked with the subject, the book shelves are all new (apparently the room used to be lined with shelves of different sized and styles), and there’s a general sense of order. The librarian is very proud of his space.

In general there is an overwhelming excitement to show me around. I’ve only been there for two days now, but every minute is packed with someone wanting to show me something new. And as I leave I’m always invited to please come back. There’s never a dull moment and the enthusiasm is contagious.

After meeting with Sabrina the head of the Early Years Section, I was escorted over to the Early Years Building, which is just a block away from the rest of the school. The Early Years Section consists of Playgroup, Nursery, and Kindergarten I and II (KG I and KG II). Miss Sara’s assistant teacher is no longer at the school and so I was assigned to help in her class. Each class has a name and this particular class is the Tulips. The Tulips are a nursery class and the students are roughly 4 years old.

When I first arrived in the classroom the kids seemed a bit skeptical (no doubt the fact that I had a mosquito bite on my eyelid that had caused my right eye to swell almost shut didn’t help). Though they were shy, they were polite, and after some encouragement they greeted me with “good morning miss”. All the teachers and staff are called Miss followed by the first name, so I am Miss Andrina, but since they hadn’t (and haven’t) mastered my name I was/am just, Miss.

Miss Sara started the class by asking the students to tell her the day of the week and the date. She wrote that information on the board and proceeded with a lesson about the alphabet and then numbers. So far they’ve learned how to count to 35, but one eager student insisted he wanted to learn to count to five zero! The verbal lesson was followed by some work in the activity book and a snack break. Their day ended with music class where the kids learned a new song about the Bangla language. Once the Tulips left, I went and sat in on a KG I class followed and then visited with the Garfield class (playgroup).

At the end of the day I left with Mike, or Mr. Mike as they call him. After a quick stop at the British Club, we went home via rickshaw. My first rickshaw ride was apparently pretty mild. The traffic wasn’t too bad and the automobile drivers weren’t too aggressive. Even so I felt exposed. The rickshaw seat barely fits two people and there isn’t really any place to hold on. The rickshaws compete with one another and with other cars, all of which are trying to get ahead of the other. On the short trip, I did learn two useful Bangla words – “dan” means right and “bam” means left. Kairod was our rickshaw driver and to commemorate my first rickshaw experience I took a quick photo with him. Now that I’ve had my introduction to rickshaw rides, I look forward to experiencing the real deal sometime down the road. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The first few hours

I’ve been in Dhaka for about 34 hours (less time than it took me to get here), but already it’s been incredible. The sights and sounds are different from any I’ve ever experienced. But backing up a bit…

As we descended into Dhaka I was shocked by the smog! I had wondered what the foggy looking icon on my iPhone weather application meant, but once I looked out the window and saw that, it immediately became clear. Imagine flying into LA on a bad smog day, and then multiply that by 10. The pollution and smog here are so incredible that I think it affects visibility on the ground.

We landed. I had been forewarned that getting out of the airport could be chaotic. The passport control lines were long, but thanks to a diplomat I met at the gate in Bangkok, I was able to enter via the exclusive diplomat line (saving a bunch of time!). I let out a big sigh of relief once that part was done. I had previously been worried that, because Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, the agent wouldn’t be all too happy about my recent trip to Israel. To top it off there was no way to avoid that little nugget of information since the Israeli customs agents had stamped my entry and exit stamps right next to my Bangladeshi Visa. Thankfully it was not an issue.

Once through the passport control, we located our baggage carousel and situated ourselves in what I thought was a pretty prime location. But as the crowds descended we all of sudden found ourselves about one or two people away from the edge. The bags took a while to come – although, since my view was obstructed I can’t say how many times they might have gone around before I spotted them. Bags in hand we walked through customs and I met a member of the school’s staff (the first time I’ve been met by someone holding a sign with my name on it).

I climbed in the van and did my best to absorb as much of the scenery as possible on our 30-minute drive to the school. Honking, I quickly came to learn, is sort of like a form of communication on Bangladeshi streets. Between the buses, which are often very crowded and may have people hanging off the sides or sitting on the roofs, the baby taxis (little three-wheeled “cars”), the private cars, pedestrians, and the colorful rickshaws, the streets are packed! Honks seem to communicate questions (can you let me in?), warnings (watch out I’m cutting you off!), outbursts (move!) and, because of their frequency perhaps hellos and goodbyes.

Honking aside, the most incredible thing I saw was people replacing streetlamp light bulb. Rather than a truck with a crane, which is what I am used to seeing, there was a man on a ladder. But not just any ladder – this ladder was the type you might usually lean up against the side of a house (i.e. not an upside down V). However, in order to position himself directly under the light bulb, there were four men each with rope attached to the ladder pulling in opposite directions. This balancing act was made even more precarious due to the fact that some of the men were standing in the middle of the street. With all the commotion they could have easily been hit.

Once I arrived at the school, I was given a tour. Everyone was extremely friendly! Afterward I left with my hosts, Ann and Mike. We stopped of at Mr. Baker for some cake and came to the apartment and had tea. I unpacked the massive amounts of stuff I brought and later we had dinner. I managed to stay up until 9, but fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

At 5:30 AM I was awoken by the morning prayer. The mosque is visible from my room and I had been told that I would probably hear it. But I underestimated the volume! It was so loud it literally sounded as though a man was standing on my balcony with a bullhorn aimed right in my window. Needless to say I was awake and so began my first full day in Bangladesh.