Friday, September 3, 2010

Exploration Nation

After a week or two of worrying how I was going to make the next month a productive experience, I am feeling pretty good about my remaining time Bangladesh again. I had previously scheduled in one week of time just to travel around, but wasn’t sure it would be enough to see everything I wanted. And since I hadn’t met many people with spare time to travel, I wasn’t sure how far I would be able to make it on my own – not speaking the language. But now, I’m rearranging my schedule, working in enough time to see most of what I want, and looking forward to having a wild journey that takes me across the lush green lands of Bangladesh. One way or another I’m heading north, south, east and west. I did not come to Bangladesh to sit behind a desk.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beard Update: Week 6

A little shaping went a long way. Utilizing a few utensils and a bit of luck I seem to have evened out my beard. And now, I am comfortable saying that I am fully bearded man, this is no longer just stubble. I just hope I can keep it under control for another month…

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Haggler’s Heaven, Non-Haggler’s Hell

Nearly every price in Bangladesh is negotiable. And while that means you can get nearly everything on the cheap, it can also mean that nearly everyone is trying to rip you off. Perhaps this duality creates an “efficient” market in which people can negotiate to reach a natural market price at which supply meets demand, but for me it creates a nightmare. One problem is that, as a foreigner, I have very imperfect knowledge of the market itself. I have no concept of what labor and materials cost here, and thus have no way of determining if I am overpaying or not. And while I am more than willing to pay a slight premium for goods and services due to this handicap, I do not like being taken advantage of simply because I am foreign, and don’t know better.

I’ve been told that the general rule of haggling here is to offer a quarter of the asking price, and then negotiating to somewhere near half. However, I am somewhat uncomfortable with this proposition. I am non-confrontational, and feel like it is almost offensive to say to a vendor - I value your work so little that I am going to offer you one quarter of what you think it’s worth - especially since both he and I know that I could probably still easily afford the inflated price. I’d rather pay a slight premium for a fixed price that I know is fair. The alternative of me trying to take advantage of some vendor, or him trying to take advantage of me is much less desirable. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fielding Questions

I spoke to the director of the Yunus Center about the work I was doing. As promised, she is the most helpful person at Grameen. We talked about ways to combine my interest in going back into the field with working in the office. So, now I am back to working on a plan to go visit the Grameen social businesses, where I will help gather data for case studies. Unfortunately, at this point in time, I may only be able to get a single day at each business. Otherwise I would need to further extend my stay, which may not even guarantee greater access. I’m hoping to go in prepared, and get all my questions answered. Though, from what I hear, that could also prove challenging. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Pyongyang (or I heart Dear Leader)

In the spirit of research and cultural learning, last night we visited the North Korean restaurant I had been told about, aptly called Pyongyang. Now, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, perhaps something seedy that betrays the rumors of money laundering and indentured servitude, but it was not at all. Shockingly, it was the nicest dining experience, with some of the best food, I’ve had in Dhaka. To be honest, all I could think the whole time was, “I wish North Korea owned and operated the hotel I’m staying at, since at least then the service would be decent.” The place was clean.  The staff were courteous North Korean women in skirted uniforms (tasteful, not mini – they pretty much looked like stewardesses).  However, as promised, they did sing karaoke for/with us, which was amazing.  

I know you must have many questions, the first of which is: Do I have video of our North Korean waitress singing the Celine Dion song from Titanic? The answer is yes. You are probably also wondering if I have a photo her singing “I’m a Barbie Girl”? The answer is also yes.

There really are no words to describe the joy I had from watching this scenario in action. I don’t know if irony is quite the right word, but it was certainly something…special….

With regards to the money laundering and indentured servitude rumor – at this point I can neither confirm nor deny it. What I can say is that the service was extremely prompt, as perhaps it would be under such conditions; and that the manager, and older North Korean woman, was planning to bring the waitresses directly “home” after the restaurant closed. I foresee a few trips back for further investigation. 

General Disarray

As a stranger in a strange land it can be difficult, at times, to not try and generalize individual experiences as representative of the country as a whole. And it becomes even more difficult to resist the temptation after that experience starts to repeat itself. It is easy for the weary traveler to dismissively say, “That’s typical Bangladesh.” And I have been avoiding that by trying to keep an open mind, but it’s getting tougher.

I think I’ve benefited, somewhat, by having met many people and done many things outside my program, and having already stayed at three different hotels, because I could see how one might adopt a very negative view otherwise. When I first moved to this hotel, and met the other interns staying here, they were of the opinion that service in Bangladesh is typically horrible - as the service at this hotel is always horrible. However, I was of the opinion that service was very good, since I had just moved from two nicer hotels, and had eaten at many nice restaurants. Though, after a month here, I’m beginning to get jaded myself. I suppose maybe you just get what you pay for – here like anywhere else.

With that in mind, here are some scenarios that have repeatedly found myself in, here in Bangladesh. I won’t say they are typical, but they might just happen to you, too, if you were to visit:

The cab driver has picked you up with no gas in the car, and no money in his pocket. So, he will stop at a crowded gas station for half an hour, while you sit there, in the overheating car, with the windows rolled up, because there is a gather crowd of beggars sticking their hands in to ask for money from the foreigner. And not only will the driver expect you to wait through this ordeal until he finally gets gas, but then pay for it, as well.  

Or, your cab driver will not know where the street you are going to is, so he will stop and ask every person along the street, since they will all give a different answer, and then try to charge you more because it took a long time to find, even though it was because he got lost (and even though he is already overcharging you).

You work in an office in which every computer is riddled with viruses, and the printer practically shreds the pages that it prints.

It’s quite warm in the restaurant you’re in, so you ask if the temperature can be adjusted. The a/c is not working properly, so instead they place a high-velocity fan directly in front of you, which promptly blows most everything off the table.

 You go to the same restaurant multiple times and order the same dish multiple times, and receive a different dish every single time, since there is a different cook in the kitchen each night, and none of them follow a recipe.

The list goes on….

Friday, August 27, 2010

Tired of Being Tired

I’m very tired and having trouble sleeping. Last night I wondered why, then I was reminded, and wondered how I could forget. My hotel is situated in very close proximity to a mosque, which, because of Ramadan, has a blaring loud prayer calling/reading for two hours straight every morning from around 2:30am to 4:30am, the time for Suhoor.
I haven’t had a good night of sleep all week, and it’s really taking its toll. It’s making me very irritable, and in a city like Dhaka there are a million things to get on your nerves. So, all the “eccentricities” that I have been trying to take in stride, are now affecting my wellbeing and sanity. I really think I may need to take a night off, and stay at another hotel. Otherwise, I will not make it through the next month.  

Note: Please try and excuse the cultural insensitivity of this post. It is more a reflection of my state of being, than anything. I have since gotten some rest and feel a bit better. Though, as a traveler from a different culture, I will be quite happy when Ramadan has ended.