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. 

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Last night I went to the Bagha Club (one of the British ex-pat clubs) with Sam and her friends.  The food was bad and the drinks cheap, which I suppose makes it very typically British. It was a nice escape nonetheless. After leaving, I went to the Westin to find a taxi, as is my new normal routine. However, this routine appears to be so normal that all the rickshaw and taxi drivers on the corner know me and where I’m going, and erupt in a chorus of Mirpur 1 when I arrive (that’s the neighborhood in which my hotel is located). And now the taxi drivers even invite me to sit in the front passenger seat rather than the back seat. I must have Ali to thank for all this, since he is clearly talking me up with his friends. I’m not sure it’s a good thing the whole corner knows who I am and where I live, but I suppose it is nice to belong. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Axis of Evil Tigers

I had another good night at the American Club yesterday, and met some more interesting friends of Tania. One of her friends was a documentary film maker who had just come back from the Sundarban region – where the Bengal tiger wildlife preserve is. He had gone down there to speak with the people of an NGO called LEDARS, which specializes in assisting “tiger widows”. Now, I know what you are thinking – they are helping tigers that have lost a mate to human predation – but no. A “tiger widow” is a woman who has lost her husband to a tiger attack. Apparently tiger attacks are a real problem for some of the local populations. More specifically, and somewhat counter intuitively, the victims are mostly fisherman – on boats. These tigers leap and attack fisherman on boats who are fishing too close to the shore in the rivers of the preserve. And I heard figures of as high as 100 people or more get attacked by tigers per year in Bangladesh – that’s almost one tiger attack every three days!

My immediate reaction to this incredible information was excitement; though, I had some immediate remorse for that excitement, as well. I suppose the nature lover in me likes to hear stories of when an animal overcomes man, who has hunted it almost to extinction. It’s just unfortunate that there is a real, and visible human cost to this victory. Moreover, it’s said that once a tiger gets a taste for human meat, it will be a man-eater for life. We are too delicious. However, on the flip side, the film maker also told us about the footage he had seen of when an elderly tiger wandered into a village, because it could no longer catch wild prey, and how the entire village surrounded it and savagely strung it up and beat it to death (the word piƱata was used for description). It seems these people have a somewhat long and mythical relationship with the tigers of the region – like medieval European villagers and dragons - sworn enemies. But these beasts are real.

Another of Tania’s friends told similarly mind-blowing story. Apparently, North Korea owns an international restaurant chain. And even better, there is a location here in Dhaka. Essentially, these restaurants are like typical (South) Korean karaoke bars, but the waitresses – tall, North Korean women in miniskirt uniforms - sing with/for you.  If, like me, you are wondering why such a place exists? Why a state that can’t feed its own people would own and operate an international restaurant chain? The word on the street is that these restaurants serve as money laundering outfits for the North Korean government. Also, the waitresses are forced to remit a certain amount of money back to North Korea each month; and in true North Korean fashion, if they do not, or if they try to flee and seek asylum, their families back in North Korea will be executed.

Now, I am really not fond of the idea of directly supporting the North Korean government, but, needless to say, this is something I have to see for myself. And I would hate to think some poor woman’s family might have been killed because she couldn’t make enough money to send back home during a seasonally slow month. I don’t want that blood on my hands.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beard Update: Week 5

My attempts at keeping my beard trimmed have yielded uneven, or rather lopsided results. However, I’m kind of scared that further attempts to even it out will just make matters worse. I am in need of professional help. Ironically, there are barbers everywhere – even in the streets of Old Dhaka – giving shaves with straight edge razors. But that is a whole different kind of scary. This is certainly an act of determination.

In other news, I shampooed my face this morning. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Office Daze

After finishing my first day at the Yunus Center, my reaction is mixed. There is a lot of interesting work going on in the office, but as was my fear, with a Western style organization comes a Western style internship. As such, I spent most the day doing ambiguous research, i.e. googling stuff. I’ll have to see if I can carve out a more interesting role for myself that deals specifically with social business, otherwise it may not be worth the time. If that’s not possible, I may be better served by going back into the field and studying the businesses first hand. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Forward to the Past

OK. I’ve finally finished writing about my experiences from the village, and now it’s time to catch you up to present – or the more recent past – since you’re reading this at present.

Thursday was an interesting day. We had a meeting with the Director of the Yunus Center, the branch of Grameen that deals with the social business agenda. And I was very happy to find out that it operates on a very different wavelength than the International Program. It much more closely resembles a western organization (it’s air-conditioned and every desk has a trash bin), and even has work for its interns to do. It gives me some hope that I may be able to learn something about social business while I’m here. I went back on Sunday to discuss the opportunity to work with them directly and am excited to say that I am officially starting my internship there in 45 minutes.

But back to Thursday….

During our meeting, the Director brought up an interesting point. Although the Grameen model of microcredit has been replicated all around the world, the ownership model (Grameen is 95% owned by its borrowers) has never once been replicated. Fortunately, our next meeting was with the Director of Grameen Trust, the branch responsible for spreading the model around the world. I asked him why, and his answer was sensible, if not satisfying. He said it simply takes time – it even took Grameen six years. Legal structures need to be developed, etc. Though, he said he is confident the ownership model will be replicated eventually.

Thursday night was also very interesting. I met up with Mehreen, who is another friend of a friend from the US here in Dhaka. She spent much of her life in the US, having recently moved back to Dhaka to pursue a career in fashion design and production. Meeting her and her friends exposed me to a whole new side of Dhaka – the playground of the elite youth. They are the cool kids in Dhaka. Beyond that I had some very interesting conversations. One of her friends owned a garment factory (which produces her stuff), so I asked him about the recent minimum wage hikes, and how they will affect him (I’ll cover those in another post).

On Friday, Mike and I decided to check out Old Dhaka again before he departed, so I called Jony to see if he wanted to join us. Luckily, he did. It’s very useful to have a tour guide as a friend, especially in a place like Old Dhaka. The muddy, congested streets of old Dhaka make walking around almost as dangerous as driving. Rickshaws, CNGs, and the occasional car rip their way through crowds of people, making the chances of getting hit by one or another near 100%. We also visited the Sadarghat again, and I took a quick picture with Jony for your viewing pleasure.

The rest of the weekend I spent working on the blog. Boom. Back up to date.

Note: I put up a total of 15 posts from my time in the village and a few new ones from the past week, so check them all out!

Note 2: Yes, the title is a play on Back to the Future. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Md. and Me

I almost miss the village after spending the last few days at the Grameen Head Office. Almost. While we had a few interesting meetings, the International Department is somewhat disorganized, and most of our time was spent waiting around. You definitely learn the most about Grameen out in the field. Now, I’m thinking it may be a challenge to learn as much as I’d like about the social business side of Grameen. I’m going to work with another trainee on coming up with a specific curriculum, which will hopefully help us make the most of the experience.

On the plus side, yesterday we finally got the opportunity to meet Professor Yunus. It was mostly just a photo session, but I was impressed by his patience. While he was, perhaps, too busy to have a sit down conversation with us (and he is an extraordinarily busy person), he did wait to take a photo with each one of the interns (and a group of 17 Japanese students – who had a total of 38 cameras).

Then today, we visited some of the Grameen sister companies: Grameen Shikka, which provides subsidized vocational training; Grameen Shakti, which sells solar panels, biogas, and improved cooking stoves; and Grameen Kaylan, which operates affordable healthcare clinics in the villages. Grameen is like the Google of development – spreading its good intentions into every sector of social service. Actually, they were all very interesting, and deserving of an individual post. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010


My first day back in Dhaka was bittersweet. It had its major ups and downs. While I was at first so excited by the return to modern conveniences of electricity and air-conditioning, the modern inconvenience of traffic was enough to make me miss the village. Traffic was awful – the worst I’ve seen so far. I decided to join Sam on a trip down to New Market, and it took us about four hours, one CNG, two rickshaws, and a considerable amount of walking to get there. The traffic, more than anything, makes this city feel unlivable. Fortunately, after I left the market, the day took a positive turn.

Tania had invited me to join her family for Iftar and then diner and drinks at the American Recreation Association, or the American Club as its known (an ex-pat members club for US Citizens). After a shorter bout with traffic, I made it to Tania’s house and had a very nice Iftar (especially nice because I didn’t have to worry about getting sick after), and some interesting conversation with her parents. Then, Tania and I went to the American Club, which I can only describe as a paradise of simplicity. There is nothing fancy about the atmosphere of the club, but everything just feels right and familiar. The grounds are clean and kempt, and remind me of a typical Florida country club. The A/C is pumped refreshingly high blast. And the menu is dominated by burgers and beers. 
Half way through my dinner my only thought was - I could live right here. Some of Tania’s friends came, as well, and we had some interesting conversations about Bangladeshi culture and politics.  When we left, one of her friends dropped me off at the Westin to get a taxi, and who did I see but my rickshaw driver, Ali. And luckily, his friend with the phone that he used to call me happened to be a yellow cab driver. Sometimes Dhaka feels like a small, friendly city….  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Beard Update: Week 4

I received the first compliment on my beard today! Hooray!

It’s been a full month since I’ve been growing the beard, and it’s certainly getting fuller, but also a little beyond the point where I can just let it go unattended. It’s now long enough that it can stick out unevenly and make me look scraggly. Unfortunately, I really don’t know the steps involved in grooming a beard properly. All I do know is that I feel like kind of an idiot combing my face – though, it does feel pretty good to do so.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Back in Dhaka City

I’m finally back in Dhaka, after a six hour train ride from Rajshahi. It was supposed to be a five hour train ride, but apparently the train made some unscheduled stops to aide in the illegal ferrying of goats (or at least that’s the word on the street). My time spent in the village was unforgettable, but I must say I’m extremely glad to be back in the city. I’ve never been so happy to see a toilet in my life; and I can’t even describe how good it feels to have air-conditioning again. Heat is the overwhelming reality of life in rural Bangladesh, and it just made everything difficult to endure. Unfortunately, the category of everything includes keeping a journal, so I now have a lot of work to do to get my experiences and ideas down on paper and get them to all of you. I was able to get words down on some days, but only take notes on others. I should have everything up by the end of the weekend, so check back a few times between now and then to read the many new posts. I’ll be pre-dating them for their respective days, so they will be listed BELOW this post for the dates of 08/04/2010 - 08/13/2010 (if you’re reading this after the 08/15/2010 all the posts are probably up already). It will certainly be hard to capture the true and full essence of my experience and learnings in a few relatively short blog posts, but I’ll do my best. Please ask as many questions as you like in the comments, and I’ll try and expand on any subject requested.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fast Food

Today was the first day of the holy month of Ramadan - a time when Muslims fast all day, and may only eat or drink after sunset. People may eat a meal, called Suhoor, before sunrise and the first call to prayer, which is around 4:00am. Then, once the sun has set, the breaking of the fast is a meal called Iftar. It’s usually around 6:30pm. I read that one of the purposes of fasting is to teach empathy for those who are less fortunate, who may often go hungry and without food, thus encouraging acts of charity and alms to the poor.

It will be interesting to observe how this month affects people - both physically and spiritually. At some point I will have to try fasting myself. Though, I will wait until I am back in a place with air-conditioning. I cannot imagine getting through the heat of a day up here without a single sip of water. Matin and the branch employees fasted today. Then, we all celebrated the first Iftar together after sunset.

Traditionally, in Bangladesh, Iftar is made up mostly of fried foods - samosas, pakoras and the like. I think things are mostly fried because that is the easiest way to cook mass quantities of food, which must be prepared in advance, and easily transportable. Often people will pick up their Iftar meals on their way home from work, then wait until sundown to eat. I would have assumed people lose weight after a month of fasting, but after eating my first Iftar, I’m not so sure. 

It’s Not Easy Being Gr(am)een

Today we visited a new branch, and attended a new group recognition ceremony. I found the visit particularly interesting because the Branch Manager said something I hadn’t heard before: “Getting the poor to pay back isn’t easy, it takes work…. It’s not like flowing water. You can’t just give away money and expect it to come back….”

I don’t mean to say everyone told us it was easy. They did not. It’s just that it is challenging to get people to talk about the challenges involved in the Grameen Bank model. Taking a look back, it is easy to talk about the challenges. When the bank was first starting, simply getting people to join was a huge challenge, as many naysayers and overbearing husbands started crazy rumors, such as, “They will steal your money, they will convert you to Christianity, they will send you abroad….” But 30 years later, that is no longer a problem. Everyone here knows Grameen.

But instilling a sense of discipline, and teaching new borrowers the rules and regulations, remains a challenge. As these women are often poor, illiterate people, not familiar with these types of financial transactions, they may not just understand right away. You need to keep going back to ensure they understand, and are utilizing their loan properly. The Area Manager, who was there for the group recognition, clarified, “It takes new members time to learn all Grameen Bank rules and regulations. They can’t just read them in manual. They must learn from older borrowers, center managers, branch managers, and by gradually moving through the Grameen system. It takes time for new staffers to become efficient, just as it takes time for the new borrowers to become efficient.”

That makes sense. And as I think about it, how many of us will live and die and never understand all the rules and regulation of our own banks. These poor women are way ahead of us.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Waste Not, Want Not

On the ride back to the Branch from the Zonal Office, I did some reflecting on the week. Everyone I had met - from the borrowers, to the students, to all the employees of Grameen Bank – they were all extremely hard working. There was no end to the hours they worked, and the heat through which they toiled. It made me even question how a country with such hardworking people could be in such a state of underdevelopment. So, I asked Matin if this behavior I had witnessed was typical. Were the people of Bangladesh, generally, hard working?

The question was almost rhetorical, but Matin surprised me and said, “No.” He said that it was not typical – some people worked hard, others did not. Like any other country, you can’t generalize. His answer made sense, but I explained that I had thought otherwise because of what I had witnessed in my time at Grameen. To this, Matin replied, “Grameen is giving them opportunity, and poor people will not waste an opportunity. They have not yet been spoiled. They have to work hard to get out of poverty.…” His answer resonated with me, and certainly gives me hope for the replication of Grameen’s success around the world. 

The Invisible Hand (That Takes)

A trainee from another group joined us for the day, and his translator happened to be a university student who was getting his masters degree in criminology and law. I thought he would be there perfect person to ask about corruption in Bangladesh.

As I have mentioned before, corruption remains a problem here, but besides the alleged electricity siphoning, we hadn’t witnessed much of it in person. Until 2005, Transparency International ranked Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world; however, over the past four years it has improved its lot to the 139th most corrupt out of a total of 180 countries. So, either the government’s reported efforts to crack down on corruption have been working, or the rest of the world is just getting more corrupt. My new friend’s response suggested perhaps the latter.

According to him, corruption was still quite prevalent in Bangladesh. He said elections were still far from free and fair – they were rigged and bought through various methods: turning people away from the polls, telling them voting had already closed, or even telling them their vote could be recorded from home; buying votes with direct payments to people, or to their village or union leaders. When I asked how a whole village’s vote could be bought, he explained that if the village leader says you must do something to continue to be a welcome member of the village, you do it. He also mentioned corruption at the bureaucratic level in that bribes are required to move paperwork from desk to desk, otherwise it just gets lost in the pile. And with regards to energy, he said people are pocketing money at every level. So, if 1000kw of electricity are budgeted, only 200kw actually get produced – the rest of the money disappears.

He said there were many obstacles to oversight. First, the academics and officials responsible for oversight are often being paid off themselves – perhaps creating the false sense of improvement.  Second, there are tremendous obstacles for NGOs such as Transparency International to get access to the areas of heavy corruption – most prominently rural areas. And he said this having previously worked with Transparency International. The problem is that Bangladesh is simply impossible to navigate as an outsider. If you don’t speak Bangla, you can’t get around. Outside the city there are many unmarked roads, and more than a few that would not even be shown on maps. So, international observers never even see the bulk of the problem. 

Motivating the Center

Today was a busy day. The Zonal Manager picked us up at the branch with his SUV and brought us to a Center Chief Training Session, then the Area Office, and finally the Zonal Office. While we learned a lot about the structural organization of Grameen through these visits, the highlight for me was the center chief training session, where we got to see the process of borrower motivation in action. The session was not so much real training, but the Zonal Manager giving a speech, and pointing out issues he wanted the women to emphasize in their respective centers. And I thought his explanation for this was very interesting. He told the women, “I don’t have to tell you the rules and regulations of Grameen Bank, as you probably know them better than I do. Grameen is YOUR bank. You built it. My telling you about it would be like you telling your mother the story your parents’ house. You are the mothers of Grameen Bank.” What an amazing concept – a bank that belongs to its borrowers. 

The Zonal Manager continued to focus on the women’s roles as mothers by talking about the importance of educating their children, which, as I had witnessed in the villages, is the most powerful motivation for many of the borrowers. He quoted Napoleon and said, “Give me an educated mother, and I’ll give you an educated nation.” As the mothers of Grameen Bank, the responsibility of their children’s education, and perhaps the future of the nation, was in their hands. One mother stood up and said she was saving everything for her son’s education, and that she would not even tell her husband what was in her savings account. Everyone applauded her. The Zonal Manager then said he would approve Higher-Education Loans for any and all of their children who complete 12th grade; or if they had top marks, they could apply for the Grameen Scholarship program. And, if they wanted to start a business after graduating university, they could apply for a New-Entrepreneurship Loan. Grameen really is one of those thoroughly good organizations, sincerely working for the betterment of the Bangladeshi people. And providing these types of opportunities to borrowers’ children is a powerful, positive system of incentive that keeps women motivated to pay back their loans on time, in full. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Struggling Members

This afternoon we met three “struggling members”, which are beggars who take out small, interest free loans to create a revenue stream separate from begging. The ultimate goal is that they will, one day, be able focus solely on their new venture, and give up begging all together. While it was especially inspiring to see such extremely poor people find ways to utilize microloans to improve their lot in life, it was also especially sad, and somewhat confusing to see the conditions in which those beggars exist.

From what I’ve observed, the whole concept of a beggar is different here than what I’ve seen before in Western culture - it is the result of a different social dynamic. They are not loners, drifters, drug addicts, or alcoholics. They are just the disadvantaged members of a society with no social welfare system. They are people who can’t work, because of old age or disability. They often have families, but who can’t support them.
So, to eat, to survive, they must beg. Really, it’s as if your family could not afford to take care of your grandmother or grandfather, so they were forced to go begging door to door - even if they can barely walk. There is no social security. Though, giving alms to the poor is a central tenant of Islam, so communities accept the responsibility of giving to these beggars; but it does not even come close to being sufficient. It is difficult to see such frail, elderly people beg to survive, and just barely.

Of the beggars we met, two were very elderly women who had come to the branch office to receive their second loans. They had paid off their first loans of 1000 Taka (about $14.30), which they had used to buy chickens, from which they sold eggs to their neighbors. One woman had a daughter who worked as a domestic servant; the other had a ten year old grandson in school. It took them two years to repay the previous loans, and they were scheduling their new 2000 Taka loans, with which they planned to buy baby goats for fattening, for two years, as well. The Branch Manager told them that if they repaid this one on time, they would be graduated to “regular member” status, and could then apply for a Basic Loan – which could be for as much as 15,000 Taka. While it was great to imagine the progress these women could make with that amount of money, and the prospect for social mobility after years of begging, all I could think was: I would be impressed if these women survive another two years, let alone repay their loans. They were so extremely frail. When I asked how long they had been begging, one woman answered by saying since the war - as in the Liberation War in 1971.

On their way out, Matin gave them some money which he said was from all of us. He told us it was his normal practice to give money to struggling members he interviewed with a group. We were actually quite thankful about that, because we all had the urge to give them money, but were not sure it was appropriate given the context. We were, after all, pseudo-representatives of the bank that was giving them a loan. However, the Branch Manager also generously gave the women money out of his own pocket to hire a rickshaw to get home. They probably would have tried to walk otherwise, and they lived a few kilometers away. The women very graciously thanked us, and asked us keep them in our prayers.

To gain a better understanding of how a beggar is integrated into a village, we visited the third struggling member, an elderly man, at his home. As was the normal procedure at this point, we were quickly surrounded by the entire village. However, the man’s house was situated at the bottom of a small gulch, so the villagers were all standing above us, creating a make-shift amphitheater. This put a lot of pressure on both us and him, which made it considerably more difficult to ask good questions and get good answers. This man was already on his third loan, which was for 2000 Taka. He had used his loans similarly to the two women, and had bought chickens and goats, and sold eggs, milk and rice door to door while begging. With the profits he was able to build the house next to which we were sitting. It was very small, perhaps 3x2 meters, but it looked stable, and we were impressed. The man was married, and referred to his wife affectionately as his “Mad Girl”. She remained sitting on the ground next to the house, behind the growing crowd, chopping vegetables as if none of this was happening. A neighbor quickly inserted that she was not right in the head – she was “mad” in the more traditional sense of the word, not angry. This prevented her from working much, but she took care of her husband, and helped him with his begging and new vending activities.

When we had exhausted the normal set of question, there was too much pressure, with all those faces staring, to wait in silence while we formulated some new ones, so I asked if he had any questions for us. To this, he thought a moment and muttered, “Are you going to give me anything?” We laughed - nervously. The village laughed – knowingly. The man did not laugh. As Chris Rock once said, he was too hungry to be funny. We had planned on giving him some money, like with the previous struggling members, but were hoping to do it more subtly, and discretely, than with the entire village watching us dig into our wallets. I tried to buy us some privacy by having Matin tell him we WOULD be giving him something to thank him for his hospitality and welcoming us into his home (so we could postpone giving it to him until everyone dispersed), but it did not translate well to him, and the crowd was not going to disperse. So, after a few awkward moments, we dug into our wallets, and gave him some money. A wide, mostly toothless smile cracked through the man’s somber demeanor. We suggested he put the money towards repaying his loan.

Note: This account mostly applies to beggars in the rural areas. In Dhaka, like in any big city, there are many beggars who choose take advantage of people’s charity, despite being able to work. 

Big Man on Campus

Today, after visiting another center meeting, we went to go take a look at a borrower’s rice processing facility, which happened to be located right next to a local college campus.

As we tend to draw attention wherever we go, it was not long before the school’s principal appeared through the crowd of students, and asked us to join him for a chat in his office. We were honored guests. A few other teachers joined us, and we politely exchanged questions. The school’s English teacher, who was also an Islamic Studies teacher and visibly a devout Muslim, asked a few questions about American religion and society. The questions were framed somewhat in a way that they drew negative comparisons of America to Islam. He also asked Sam, who is from South Africa, “Isn’t it true that, in Africa, AIDS is killing everyone over 30, who is non-Muslim?” We tried to explain that AIDS did not discriminate along religious lines. We took the questions in stride, as there was no animosity in them, just curiosity, and perhaps a few pre-conceived notions. Anyways, after a few minutes of questions, the English teacher requested that we visit a class. We thought it might be nice to answer some of the many questions the students might have, so we accepted. 

We were walked over to an empty classroom. It was very long, very dark and very hot – the power was very out, of course. The class being held there was over, but more than a hundred students instantly filled the room, just to hear us speak. Boys sat on one side, girls on the other. We briefly introduced ourselves, and then took questions. I was expecting questions relating to educational matters, but we mostly got the standard inquiries. Are you married? What do you think of Bangladesh? How do you like the food? What religion are you? As we were in a school, to this last question I responded that I am Christian, but that I studied Islam in college, and had a deep admiration for it.  This received a strong positive response, and a student stood up and shouted, “Thank you!” People here are genuinely happy when foreigners take an interest in their culture.

After those few brief questions, we were shuttled to another class – an English class that was just sitting down for its lesson. Though, here we received fewer, even briefer questions - perhaps because they knew they were expected to ask them in English. We exited through a swarm of students watching from the door. On our way out one student actually asked me for an autograph. I told him “I’m not famous.” He responded “Please!” So, I signed the corner of a page in his text book. Wow. They really do make you feel important here.

The principal walked us to the edge of the campus, thanked us for our visit, and told us to tell the world about the Bangladeshi students - about how they are striving to learn - in the heat - in the dark. I thought, yes, I definitely will. I have a very profound respect and admiration for all the students I’ve met so far in Bangladesh. They are all working their hardest to make a better life for themselves. And for them to do so in the face of such adversity is beyond impressive to me. I can barley think in this heat. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Beginning of Understanding

I am beginning to understand. Today we visited a village that was more than a little ways down a dirt road. A village that was somewhat remote even by Bangladeshi standards. And we were literally the FIRST foreigners to ever visit. The awe seemed almost justified. We were, in fact, the first white people that many, if not all of them had ever seen in person.

We took our seats at the center meeting, and it seemed like the whole village had gathered round. Children dressed in school uniforms stood and watched. We asked jokingly if they had class, and their mothers responded with a vociferous yes, and shooed the younglings off to school; but they only took a few half-hearted steps before coming right back. Our visit was a much more important event than class.  

After the meeting had concluded, few people disbursed. One of my fellow trainees asked if they could take a picture of one of the borrowers with whom we had talked. She was holding her baby. She modestly accepted, but then another woman with a baby came over and asked if we could take a picture of her child, as well. He had never been photographed before.

We sat down for an interview with the center chief (the borrower elected by her peers to be head of the center). She told us her story. It was like many we had heard the previous few days, and perhaps lacked the drama we had come to Bangladesh expecting, but things started to click. The story was told simply. Her family was very poor, they lived in a leaky, straw-roofed hut, and struggled to feed themselves - the parents sometimes having to go without food so the kids could eat. Then Grameen Bank came to the village. She took a loan to buy a cow, or some cloth to sew, or land to harvest. Now, she can feed her family three meals a day, send her children to school, and live in a sturdy home with a tin roof and a sanitary latrine. The woman has been a borrower for 15+ years, taken out and repaid many loans, expanded her business, diversified her income streams, and saved a considerable amount. I asked her what she was saving for, and she simply pointed to her son. I get it.

That is the Grameen system. It works. It may not appear as if much has changed – this family is still living in a mud-walled house, with a cow and some chickens in their courtyard, but this mother has created opportunity for her children. Her parents were poor, their parents were poor, and she may also always be poor (by our standards), but her children don’t have to be poor. Her son will go to university with the money she has saved, and a higher-education loan from Grameen. He will get a salaried position, and move himself and his future family into an emerging middle class. That is development at work. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Plague Upon Both Your Houses

As there is no retreat from the heat out here, there is also no escape from the bugs. Each new attempt seems more futile than the last, and soon you begin to adjust (or give in). First there are mosquitoes – the definitive pest. In addition to being outright bothersome, they are carriers of Malaria and Japanese Encephalitis in this area. I cover up, wearing long pants and long sleeves in sweltering temperatures, covering the rest of my exposed areas with toxic levels of insect repellent, which seems to repel mosquitoes to some degree, but invoke frenzies among local horseflies, which are almost more bothersome than the mosquitoes, the flies relentlessly swarming around my head. Moreover, the bathroom is a virtual mosquito hide-out, where they lay in wait to get their revenge on your attempts to evade them - when you are most vulnerable and have no choice but to expose those few unprotected patches on your body - which they will surely bite. When you’ve gotten over those nightmares, then there are the ants - all different colors and sizes - everywhere. On the floor, on the wall, on the bench, on the table, then you even notice one crawling out of your dinner. And yes, you keep eating it. At night come the moths. Harmless, perhaps, but hapless to continually fly into your face due to the proximity of the light (flashlight/candle) to your head (the power is out). Green-lit fireflies try to find a mate in the indiglo on my wristwatch. King-sized cockroaches rule the bathroom floor. And just when I thought I had gotten all the bugs out of my bed net, a spider hops out and makes me think again. I hope it at least eats the mosquitoes that are in here with me, too.

The Act of Observing

This morning we went to a Center Meeting in a nearby village. The objective of this visit was to observe, so we tried our best to be unobtrusive, and let the meeting proceed as normal, but our presence was hard to ignore. After the meeting we went to interview a few borrowers, but their answers to our questions were particularly modest and reserved. When asking one woman how her life had changed after joining Grameen, we received the answer, “It got better.” When further probing did not arouse more detail, a neighbor of hers shouted, “Your home was destroyed by a flood, you had nothing when you came here, now you have land, a business and a new house!”Stories like this are common, and it’s a shame it’s sometimes so difficult to get the women to tell them. We are intimidating, I suppose.

After visiting a borrower’s betel-leaf business, we walked to the nearby village marketplace where we found a few borrowers’ husbands to speak with. As we were now in public view, a large crowd gathered around us – 20-30 men – just to watch, and state. I still don’t understand the entertainment value of staring at someone for ten minutes, but I guess there is not a lot else going on out here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Temples of Doom

Lonely Planet states, “If Indian Jones were a real man, than he’d be living in Rajshahi Division. For tucked away in this unknown corner of the country are a plethora of ruins and reminders. In fact there’s so much history stashed away up here that you sometimes feel that you can’t move without tripping over some other forgotten temple or decaying palace.” Well, we all wanted to let out our inner Indy, so we made time for a little sightseeing.

Left: The adventurers gathered, waiting for our transport (Matin, Michael, Sam, Mofise the Dog). Right: A rare sighting of underground pig farmers (it's a Muslim country).

Left: Our vehicle's rain protection. Right: The Branch Manager, Aziz, lost in the tarp.

Left/Center/Right: Siva Temple

Left: The shrine at the Siva Temple, and the fabled grounds-keeper of the Puthia estate. Center: Many of the reliefs were destroyed in the Liberation War. Right: Not sure whether that building is religious or official.

Left: Govinda Temple. Right: The excellently preserved terracotta inscriptions depict the Hindu epic of Krishna.

Left: Us at Govinda. Right: Puthia Palace

Left: Gopala Temple. Right: Old government building that really does look like a scene out of Indiana Jones.

Center: This mosque was lost to history until about three years previous, when a nearby road was laid.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Continuing to Adjust

I’m continuing to adjust. I feel a bit better after getting some sleep last night – the first night I barely slept, if at all. I just lay in a puddle of my own sweat, constantly swatting at real and imagined bugs. We do have mosquito nettings, but a few always seem to get trapped in there with you.

Yesterday evening we decided to take a walk into the nearby village area. Out here, we are even more of a spectacle than in the city, so the staring is intense. And it is not just a regular stare. To give you a sense - Michael, my fellow basic trainee, said it was as if Brad Pitt were walking by - and I corrected him, it is as if Brad Pitt had a third arm coming out of his chest, and were walking by. If you can imagine, that is the type of stares we get: amazement, but also confusion, and perhaps sometimes horror.

And that is not to say people are unfriendly. Once we talk with people, or come into their homes, we are treated as honored guests - especially among the poor women borrowers of Grameen. Our visit is a big deal for them, and it is an honor for them to receive us. Hospitality is very important in Bangladesh.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The (Hot)House that Grameen Built

The heat here is overwhelming. And it’s not that it’s much hotter here than it is in Dhaka (or even New York for that matter) it’s just that there is no escape from it. You just say hot and sweaty 24 hours a day. There is no A/C, no refrigeration, and even though there is no hot water, the cold water is room temperature after sitting in a black, plastic water tank up on the roof all day. Can’t catch a break….

The house we’re staying in is part of the Grameen Bank Branch Office here. It is wired with electricity, and has ceiling fans, but the power is out most of the time – expecting power for more than three hours per day is being optimistic. According to the newspapers, and our translator, Matin, this is because the government officials in charge of energy are corrupt. Bangladesh actually has quite a significant supply of natural gas and coal, but from what I understand, the corrupt officials export much of the country’s resources resulting in vast resource deficiencies at home. On the way up here, I read about an effort to ban the export of energy resources to address this problem.

Anyways, the house has four rooms plus a living room, but it’s basically just cement walls and a roof, which trap and radiate the heat throughout the day and night. The windows are not glass, but just open cut outs with bars. The bathroom has a squat toilet that I’ve been holding out on testing. Though, what makes it all the more daunting, is that the bathroom is packed with mosquitoes – promising some bites in very vulnerable places. There is no proper kitchen – the food prep and cooking happens in an outhouse-style shed with a traditional pit-fire oven. On the plus side, while we’re here we have a personal cook. Her repertoire of cooking is limited to traditional Bangladeshi food, but that’s fine with me. I haven’t had any direct interaction with her yet, but she looks poor, and somewhat sad. She stays in the background – cooking outside, and coming in only to bring the food and clean up after.

Michael, Matin and I share one bedroom, Sam has another, and the Branch Manger a third. The beds are basically wood slabs with about 1 inch of padding (I actually got a bruise on my hip from sleeping on my side). They have one sheet - to cover the mattress pad - as it is too hot to actually require any kind of covering for your body.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day One in Durgapur

I want to write you something great about how beautiful, yet dirty, and how inspiring, yet sad the villages in Bangladesh are… but I’m so damn hot. I’m sweating buckets. I’m paranoid about my growing collection of mosquito bites. And I’m sitting here, writing this in the dark, because the power is out – as is the case more often than not out here. But that stuff aside, I am so damn glad to be here.

Each encounter is an eye-opening experience. And one cannot truly understand Grameen Bank, microfinance, or the true meaning of poverty without actually seeing it firsthand. Grameen Bank is not an office building in Dhaka - it is in the home of the destitute borrower. As the Zonal Manager explained to us today, the real feat of Grameen is motivation: convincing poor women that with just a bit of access to financial resources, they have the means, and ability to help themselves, and earn a better life for their families. It is teaching them that poverty is not inherited or genetic, it is just the result of their surroundings and a lack of opportunity. So learning and observing that motivation process should be a principal goal of any study of Grameen.

The Road to Rajshahi

The 5 hour, 200km trip from Dhaka to the Rajshahi Division is part dream, part nightmare. Once you get a few meters out of Dhaka, Bangladesh turns a luscious green, as is symbolized by the country’s green flag. Unending stretches of farmland make it seem like we’re driving though Nebraska, though, it is rice paddies, not wheat, as far as the eye can see.

But then there are the busses…. Fortunately, my training group avoided having to take a bus by hiring a micro-van instead, but unfortunately it was impossible to avoid having to share the road with those busses.

Generally, when I’m feeling nervous on some mode of transport (e.g. when I’m on an airplane flying through a turbulent area), I reassure myself by thinking that the pilot wants to get through the flight alive as much as I do. However, I can’t honestly say this mentality applies to bus drivers in Bangladesh. I don’t know if they are simply somewhat nihilistic, or if they outright have a death wish, but their driving is reckless, to say the least. The main road is two lanes – one in each direction. There does not seem to be an enforced speed limit, as vehicles simply go as fast as they can, limited only by the other, slower moving vehicles ahead of them on the road. As in the city, a mix of cars, busses, trucks, CNGs, motorcycles, and rickshaws inhabit the road, all traveling at their respective top speeds; and this creates a dangerous game of vehicular leap frog as they all vie to pass each other in the short moments when a lull in oncoming traffic in the other lane provides the space to do so. Though, the space necessary to pass seems to be more of a judgment call here, rather than an absolute. What it comes down to is that you have room to pass, as long as a vehicle of equal or greater size is not immediately ahead of you in the opposite lane. Thus, if YOU are in a bus, and a car, CNG, rickshaw, etc. is in coming towards you in the opposite lane, you still have room to pass, since you can simply force them to the side of the road with your blaring horn and the impeding threat of a fiery death. And if there IS a bus or truck coming towards you in the opposite lane, you may still have room to pass as long as the vehicle in front of you (in your same lane) is smaller, and you can force it to the side of the road as you hastily merge back into the lane - a few meters too early.

Our micro-van fell into a precarious in-between area as to how it was treated in traffic by larger vehicles, since we were small enough to push around, but large enough to cause some damage to them. There was no relaxing on this trip, which made it somewhat challenging to even enjoy the countryside.

Note: When we arrived back in Dhaka, I picked up a newspaper and read about two fatal bus accidents from the previous day. One bus lost control and rolled into a ditch after hitting a tree, and another had a head on collision with a truck while trying to pass:

Beard Update: Week 2

Itchy. That’s all I have to say about that.

This morning we are leaving for a village in the north of Bangladesh. I will, of course, try to keep writing the whole time, but I am not sure about the internet situation up there. So, as a last resort, I will update this blog with all the week’s entries when I return.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Art of Communication

Communicating can be difficult in Bangladesh, regardless of whether the person you are speaking to knows English. I’m not quite sure how to typify or generalize it for you, but there is definitely something different about the way Bangladeshis communicate, and I’ve yet to figure it out. There may be a lot lost in translation. I have noticed that people take words very literally, so you sometimes need to be really specific as to what you want. For example, getting more details about my training program schedule has been like pulling teeth.

I ended up moving hotels this morning, since the journey from Baridhara to Grameen was too perilous to do twice daily. Now I am staying at a larger hotel that is within walking distance of Grameen. However, Grameen (and this hotel) is not in such a great neighborhood, so the walk is not exactly pleasant, either. Though, speaking of having difficulty communicating, my rickshaw driver (his name is Ali, btw) may be making the commute down here to bring me to work in the mornings. There is just no telling if he actually understood what I told him about coming here. He showed up at my old hotel this morning before I left, when I had tried to tell him I would be needing him at the new one. He also invited me to his home for lunch after prayer on Friday. I had to have a hotel clerk translate that I would be away for 10 days from Wednesday. I think he got the 10 days part, but maybe not Wednesday, so he may be waiting outside my hotel for a whole day or two before I get back. I also need to think of a polite way to refuse lunch at his home. I appreciate the gesture, but don’t think it’s safe for me to eat the food. Though, I have been thinking it would be interesting to follow him for a day and see what the life of a rickshaw driver is really like.

My other Bangladeshi friend, Jony, has been very persistent about meeting again asap, so I invited him to join me and a fellow GB trainee for dinner at our hotel. Jony ended up bringing a friend from his university, as well. Conversations with Jony continue to be entertaining, though most of it is unintentional on his part. His English is perhaps not as good as I first thought. Arranging a meeting with him took way too much effort. It was really a two-text messages required event, which took about 12 to actually happen.

Jony was quick to bring the topic of conversation back to Bangladeshi dating, and I think I’ve figured out his infatuation. He was recently dumped. The easy tell was when he tried to explain to us that “Bangladeshi women have no souls.” Who hasn’t heard that before from a heart-broken friend? Jony’s friend was having some romantic troubles, as well. His girlfriend’s parents were trying to offer her up to be married to another man – a dentist apparently. Now that’s tough luck.