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.

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