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.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Simply Happy

Today was one of those days that started off well and just kept getting better.

The Tulips were in great spirits this morning. Sarah provided some cards with letters and pictures of words that start with that letter. Without prompting, the children were sorting them by letter – zebra and zipper were in a row together, as were, lemon, leaf, and lion. Sooner or later, all the cards and all the kids were on the mat with me.

To cheer up Mehjabin, who was saddened by the fact that she had to share her cards, I started to sing a song. I was inspired by the The Wheels on the Bus and Ramisa, who was holding a card with the letter E and a picture of an egg on her head. “The egg on Ramisa’s head cracks open and drips, open and drips. The egg on Ramisa’s hat cracks open and drips. All day long.” The song proved to be a hit. “Pick me! Pick me!” and “Me next! Me next!” they shouted as they jumped up and down holding different cards on their heads. With parrots, fish, lions, queens, lemons and oranges on the children’s heads my creativity was challenged. Yet, no matter how silly phrases I came up with were, they loved it! Eventually it was time to start the real lesson, but the positive tone had been set.

In a bed of Tulips
Excitement was once again at a high when the kids made their very own binoculars. Based on their enthusiastic response to the project, you’d have thought that the binoculars worked or at least that they’d been constructed of more than just two stapled-together toilet paper roles. In fact the kids were so thrilled that after they painted the binoculars and we set them aside to dry, we could hardly tear the kids away - they were literally watching the paint dry.

I’m enjoying every moment with the Tulips and really trying to soak up their energy and bask in their smiles. They’ve hired a more permanent assistant teacher for their class and I’ll be moving over to the other building to assist with Class 1 Starfish starting Sunday. So sadly tomorrow will be my last day with them. I’m sure the Starfish will be great too, but I’m going to miss my Tulips!

In the afternoon, I joined the photography club on a field trip. Lead by Ripon Sir, they were taking a bus to the future site of the Sir John Wilson School (the land’s been purchased and the building plans are making their way through the bureaucratic system at the speed of frozen molasses). We met in the art room at 1:30 PM and we were scheduled to leave at 1:40. In true Bengali fashion we boarded the bus at 1:50 and departed just before 2 PM.

Shop keeper along the road.
To get to the site we ambled through narrow streets lined with vegetable stalls, bicycle and rickshaw repair shops, pharmacies, butchers, and barbers. The bus did not have air-conditioning, and all the windows were open. The smell of exhaust, slightly decayed fruit, and fresh fish wafted through the windows. Three large fans installed on the ceiling sucked in the scents and swirled them around. The kids were wide-eyed. “This is how we’re going to have to get to school?!” The adults all responded by pointing out all the pros – every morning you’ll get to go on a tour, you can go shopping after school, and just think of how much more exciting photo club will be!

We arrived at the site - a silt peninsula off the main street, which was wide enough so that one bus and a rickshaw could just barely pass each other. The local children started to gather as we took a quick glimpse of the land. With the kids following us, we set off down the tree-lined, dirt road.

When I rounded the corner, I saw two women, dressed in saris, standing at a gate and watching us. I approached them and asked if I could take their picture. My question really consisted of me pointing at my camera, smiling and saying, “picture?” while moving my finger up and down pretending to click. They responded with the famous Bengali head tilt/nod. I took their photo and showed it to them. They smiled and then, to my surprise, the older lady beckoned me to follow her.

Stepping through the gate I found myself inside their family village/compound. She quickly gathered what were presumably her grandchildren, situated them in front of a sari that was hung to dry, stood behind them and waited for their picture to be taken. Happily I obliged. Within a few minutes more of her family members had gathered.

Using the little Bangla I know, I started to converse with them. “Abnar nam ki?” (What is your name?” Amar nam Andrina (My name is Andrina). They were delighted! I was invited to step into one of the rooms and look around – as with the village I’d visited in Chuadanga, everything was spotless. I gestured around and said, “sunder” (nice). They smiled. When it was time to go I waved and said “donobat” (thank you).

The school is holding a function at the future site on Friday. Before then I plan to print the pictures I took so that I can bring them to the village when we go back.

In the grand scheme of life here in Bangladesh, my day was rather ordinary. But captivated by the simple pleasures in life, it’s left me smiling and simply happy.  

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hollywood, Dhaka, Bangladesh

“I didn’t bring my Marilyn costume,” I replied when Taheera first invited me to the Hollywood Ball. When I saw her at the American Club a few weeks later, she was surrounded by Ball attendees and selling tickets left and right. Without a clue about who I’d dress up as, go with, or what it would be like, I agreed to buy a ticket as well. If nothing else it would be a unique experience.

Once the decision to go was made, the real work started. I needed a dress. I have one at home that I really like, in fact I like it so much I was planning to have another one made here. If I found a Marilyn wig, I could wear this new dress and be all set. Perfect! I asked my mom to take pictures of the dress so that I could take them to Shaheem the tailor, and went out to buy some fabric. Standing in front of the rows and rows of silks and Sopura, I was overwhelmed. Did I want a dusty lavender dress? Should I go mauve? Maybe turquoise? I left without buying anything.

It was Saturday afternoon when Ann and I headed to the tailor. I needed the dress by Thursday. Shaheem advised me on fabric options and told me that as long as I brought the material by Sunday it could be done. Ann and I went back to Sopura and settled on a pale rose silk.

That night I had a change of heart. The wig would be difficult to find and even if I did find one, in this heat, it would be uncomfortable. I was starting to think that Taheera was right, I should just use my natural hair. But who to be? Someone suggested Audrey Hepburn, and though I’d never even seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I was all of a sudden in love with the idea.

I brought pictures of the long black dress she wears as the peers into the Tiffany’s window during the opening scene of the movie, to the tailor the next day. He suggested a fabric and said it would be done by Thursday. We scheduled a fitting for Tuesday and I was on my way.

Going to the Ball as Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly without ever seeing the movie just didn’t seem right. So I went to the video store up the street and purchased the DVD for $1. Though the movement of the characters mouths and their voices were out of sync for the majority of the film, I enjoyed it.

Now that the character study was done, I needed accessories – a tiara, cigarette holder, and earrings (the pearls I already had). The tiara I was told would be very difficult, if not impossible to find. I secured a back up from one of the school staff – it would do, but it just wasn’t quite right. After school on Thursday the day before the Ball, I headed down to Gulshan I shopping mall. On my way I stopped at a party store where with guarded enthusiasm I bought a very kitschy kids tiara. Again it would do, but it wasn’t perfect. The Gulshan I mall is much larger and much more Bangladeshi than the one I’d previously gone to (where Mr. Baker is) – many more shops, sights, and smells. I strolled through the tightly packed alleyways when a little stand caught my eye. I went over to look at some of the costume jewelry that was displayed and to my surprise there were a whole bunch of tiaras in the case. I pounced on it and a pair of pearl drop earrings immediately. I was so excited I completely forgot about the cigarette holder. (We fashioned it using paper, spray paint, and a receipt on Friday morning).

By Friday afternoon the dress, shoes, accessories were ready. I went to Nelo’s to get my hair done. No more than 15 minutes after they started, I was out the door. The amount of teasing they did to my hair was mind-blowing, but the real miracle was that they managed to pile all my hair on the top of my head. Total cost under $5.

Audrey, Jay Gatsby, and a lovely lady from the cast of Mad Men, arrived at 3rd Annual Dhaka Women’s Association Hollywood Ball at 7 PM. Following the red carpet, we entered the reception area where cardboard cutout celebrities mingled with a bunch of dressed up expats and Bengalis. Champagne was being passed around and after the cocktail hour ended, the doors opened and we were lead into the ballroom.

The decorations were great! Fabric and twinkle lights cascaded from the ceiling, red table clothes and matching chair were set up, large Oscars flanked the Gone with the Wind movie poster on stage, and live video of the attendees was streaming to big screens at the front of the room.

Dinner was served and the entertainment began - music performers, magicians, comics and dancers took to the stage. For those of you who have seen Dirty Dancing – Havana Nights, the atmosphere reminded me a lot of the party the main character attends with her parents. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the dancing numbers was to a song from that movie! Once the talent show ended, everyone headed to the dance floor. The evening was a lot of fun!

In other, non-Ball-related, news:

The Bangladeshi postal service works. I received a letter from Flynn last week (Thank you Flynni Boy!) and it only took one week to get here!

I have re-booked my flight home via Thailand. Carly will meet me there and together we’ll travel around the country for three weeks, so I won’t be seeing the US again until mid-May. Very exciting!

The bad news: Bangladeshi cricket team lost to the West Indies, posting the 11th lowest cricket score ever recorded. The good news: I’m actually starting to understand the game!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wild Zen

Bangladesh is a country full of contradictions. From my bedroom window I can listen to the sounds of birdsong and feel as though I’ve been dropped in the middle of a jungle and moments later be ripped back into reality when the horns start honking and the engines start revving. Walking the street you pass a well-dressed lady in an exquisite sari, adorned with jewels and a few steps later a beggar whose body is so crippled that he has no hope of ever working again. On the way back from school you’ll see homes made of tarp held together with sticks, and just a few blocks down a sprawling mansion. And, as Mike pointed out, the traffic is absolute chaos with drivers and pedestrians disregarding road signs and traffic lights, yet you rarely see a fender bender and cars are surprisingly undented (the local buses are an exception – they look like banged up tins). The contradictory nature of this country struck me again yesterday.

Mike and Ann belong to a boat consortium. The Peacock, the boat, is currently being repaired. When they invited me along to go check on the progress, I imagined that we’d be going to a harbor and looking at a fairly ordinary boat. I was wrong.

Silt boat
We left school around 2 PM and headed towards the “harbor”. Near the airport we turned off the main road and crossed some railway tracks on which vendors had set up shop on pieces of cloth. Mind you this wasn’t along the tracks but literally over them (yes, the tracks are still used). Then we lurched through a bazaar similar to the others I’ve described. We wound through these narrow roads and finally made it out into the countryside. Just a few years ago this countryside didn’t exist. People have gradually been claiming the river areas and pumping silt into them creating vast expanses of sandy ground where the river and rice paddies used to be. This causes severe problems during the monsoon season when run off from the Himalayas causes flooding - with every inch of river that is taken away there is less space for the water to go. The speed bumps we were going over were in facts large pipes that had been laid across the road and were pumping silt to fill up another part of the waterway.

The “harbor” parking lot was a local school’s field and the “harbor” was really a muddy riverbank. But waiting there was a floating meditation room. We stepped onto the Wild Thing, which would take us to the Peacock. Colorful pillows padded the deck and served as back rests along the sides. A thatched canopy provided shade. We pushed off from the shore and Ann unpacked the tea, which we enjoyed with some delicious cookies.

As we chugged along the river at about 5 miles an hour, one thing became very clear immediately. The Wild Thing, with its zen feel and leisurely pace, was not very wild at all. Clusters of people waited on either side of the river. They were waiting for the ferry, a large canoe, to take them and their belongings (bags of cement, vegetables, goats and other goods) across. A man napped under an umbrella in his canoe. Just outside of Dhaka and away from the bazaar, life seemed to be moving at a much slower pace.

As we neared the Peacock, we noticed a group of boats all stuck together in the middle of the river. The captain informed us that, weighed down with silt, all of these boats had run aground. Thankfully we’d arrived at our destination because getting around them would have been impossible.

The Peacock was on the beach. Tilted on its side, it was missing a deck, had holes in its side and looked as though it had just been unearthed during an archeological dig. Yet I could see how glorious it was and would be. Mike, Ann, and Karen walked around advising the repairman in charge while I sat back and took it all in.

“When will you be done?” they asked.
“In one month,” he replied.

I hope he’s right, because a month from now I’ll still be here. 

The pristine, green rice paddies surrounded us as we made our way back through the inky waters. The river is literally black because cloth and leather factories upstream dump all the chemicals and dies into the river. We finished up our gin and tonics (drinking in a dry country) just before we got back on land.