Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tour Guide Tours

I went on another guided tour today to take in more of the sites of Dhaka. Though, this time, the guide was much more interesting than the actual sites. He was a fiery, young college student who was eager to tell me everything about himself. For example: he is in his third year of an economics degree at the national university; his dream is to get an MBA after he graduates and then find a job abroad; his father is a farmer, his mother is a home-maker, his sister is married and pregnant; he is single, having broken up with his past girlfriend; he is 5’9” and 128 pounds, which is considered underweight (apparently even in Bangladesh). His English was decent, though I could not help but chuckle when in answer to my question about the role of the president in Bangladeshi government he replied, “All power are belongs to the Prime Minister” (the younger generation may get that). And I’m not 100% sure about his ability to fully understand English, since the first of many questions on American culture that he asked me was, “I heard from the news that Angelina Jolie, great American actress, is a spy for Russia. Is that true?” I told him I think that is just a role she is playing in a new movie, but he affirmed, “No, but this was from the BBC, I read it in the newspaper.” Another American news story he brought up that had literally made the front page of the Bangladeshi papers the past three days was Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Really?? Is it that important?? The rest of the headlines that day were about workers protesting the minimum wage hike by rampaging and burning cars, the rising price of commodities in the local food markets, the death of two government ministers in a car accident, the Awami Party’s efforts to repeal the 5th Amendment to their constitution, and Chelsea Clinton’s dream wedding.

Anyways, he was clearly curious about American culture, and asked a lot of questions, and I was curious about Bangladeshi culture, so I asked him all the same questions back. I saw this could also be my chance to clear up the confusion about the country’s political history – universities are the center of political activity here, so he would certainly be able to help. However, with a topic as culturally sensitive as the “Father of Our Nation” I was going to wait until the end of the tour, after I got to know him better.

Our first stop on the tour was Lalbagh Fort - a 17th Century Mughal Palace. It was built by Shaista Khan, but never completed. Construction stopped when his daughter died, as it was a sign of bad luck. The main building now holds her tomb.

As we walked around, Jony (the guide) would point out all the young couples walking around, and relate the Bangladeshi dating culture to me. Occasionally, when we passed next to a couple, he would translate their conversation for me. “She just asked him if he would be willing to kill himself for her love….” When the girl in one couple was “liberally” dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he said to me, “For your kind information, I think that girl has relationships with more than one boy…many boys.” I guess she dresses the part….

Next we went to the Pink Palace, a colonial center of government from the 18th Century. Then we visited the Sadarghat boat terminal, where we took a very tippy canoe trip across the river. I can report that the boat traffic is almost as reckless as the car traffic in Dhaka.

Then, after a short lunch, we drove out of the city to Sonargoan, the ancient eastern capital of Bengal from the 13th Century.
In the surrounding village, there were hundreds of years old, falling-down buildings that were still inhabited. In the face of such poverty, no roof goes unused.

As the day went on, my conversations with Jony became more serious. He told me his dream was to find a job abroad after his MBA, and once he was out of Bangladesh, never return. He talked about what he thought was wrong with the country and the government. He said they are narrow-minded, which hampered productive relationships with great powers such as the US and UK. I finally asked him about Sheikh Mujib and the successive political leaders, and he confirmed my thought that each party had rewritten history each time it came to power. I was very interested in learning more from Jony, and he was very interested in learning more from me – including working on his English. So, I told him we could meet again sometime to have more discussions. He was extremely thankful for the offer. I think he will be a good friend to have on my journey deeper into Bangladeshi culture.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Not So Distant History

Today, I took a guided tour of two of Dhaka’s major museums, and came to the realization that the bloody history of the creation of Bangladesh is still very much a part of the national mentality - much more so than I first thought. The scars are still fresh it seems, as multiple generations who have witnessed the atrocities are still alive and well. I’m certainly not an authority on the subject, and am still trying to clear up some confusing contradictions I’ve read, but the short and gory is this:

When the British granted India independence in 1947 they partitioned it into the Hindu state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. However, Pakistan included what is now Bangladesh as East Pakistan, and present day Pakistan as West Pakistan, with the ruling authority located in Karachi. This was a poor decision. For those of you not familiar with the geography of the region, Bangladesh and Pakistan are not adjacent. They are separated by about 1400 miles of India. Moreover, they don’t even share a common ethnicity, language, or culture. The only thing they have in common is religion. This led to tension immediately, which escalated when West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu, but not Bangla, as an official language of the state. Bangalee students staged protests, which were quelled with violence. The final straw came when the Bangalee Awami League won the majority of the 1970 parliamentary election, which would have installed their party leader, and soon to be founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib Rahman as Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, the West Pakistan administration disbanded parliament to avoid this outcome, and arrested Sheikh Mujib, which prompted an uprising and eventual call for independence within East Pakistan. The Pakistani government responded by indiscriminately killing students at Dhaka University – the intellectual center of the uprising - and thus began the Liberation War. This war lasted nine months, and has been labeled genocide, as the Pakistani army indiscriminately killed, raped, and plundered the Bangalee population. The death toll is estimated at somewhere between 200,000 (Pakistan’s claim) and 3,000,000 (Bangladesh’s claim). The war ended when India intervened and drove back the Pakistani army, granting Bangladesh its freedom under the rule of Sheikh Mujib.

Flash forward to present day, as I am taking my tour of the Liberation War Museum. It starts off fairly slow, as the first room is mostly newspaper clippings and photos pasted on the wall, interrupted by a few miniature, diorama-like models that strongly resemble my social studies project from third grade.

However, my guide begins to tell me his version of the story. He says, “It is the British’s fault for putting us together with Pakistan. We are not like them. We are more like the Indian people. They are different. They are taller, and stronger, and ferocious.” He says it with meaning, and ends up repeating those words, “Taller, stronger, and ferocious,” a few minutes later. As we walk into the next few rooms, the scenes become grimmer. The articles are on rape and genocide, the pictures are of dead and mangled bodies, the models are now real piles of human skulls and bones. I’m thinking this is not so much a war museum as a genocide museum.

And I must mention, as I take in these sights, twenty gleeful Bangladeshi school children buzz around my hips. They’re there on a school trip to learn the history of their country, but clearly don’t get the gravity of the material. Perhaps it’s for the better at their age. They are chaperoned by a group of warm, school-teacherly looking young women, and one very angry looking man. He passes by me with a grimace, and an extended, cold stare. I sense he does not like my presence there. However, he keeps gravitating towards me. I keep my focus on the displays, avoiding eye-contact with him. I’m thinking about the inevitable headline of “Foreigner Starts Fight in Sacred Shrine of Bangladesh.” But then, as we are nearing the end of the exhibit, he comes up next to me and starts talking. His voice is very guttural, as if he has just lived through everything I just read about, and he says “There is nothing left…. There is nothing left to say.” He’s not angry at me. He’s angry at Pakistan. I can see it - he’s scathing.

I say, “This is just to remember…what happened.”

“Yes,” he says with assent.

I ask, “Is there still a lot of animosity towards Pakistanis?”

“Yes,” he says again. “We hate them.” He glances up at the propaganda war poster above us: “ANNIHILATE THESE DEMONS” (it depicts the Pakistani General Tikka Khan).

While I’d like to engage him more for the sake of cultural education, his intensity is raw, and I don’t care to get into a discussion with him about how evil Pakistanis are. I feel I am not here to judge, but to keep an open mind and learn as much as possible. This was certainly an eye-opening experience, though; and one that exposed a real area of cultural ignorance on my behalf. I truly thought that a war fought in 1971 would be in the past. I never think about the Vietnam War. But I could not see what this war meant to the Bangladeshi people. I do now.

Next, we went to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Museum - the house in which the country’s founder and first leader lived, as well as the one in which he was assassinated. Bangladesh’s bloody history continued after the war, as a string of leaders were assassinated and displaced by rivals. However, the modern political history of Bangladesh is where I really get confused, so I won’t try and explain it quite yet. There seems to be contradictions created by separate political parties’ revisionist histories. For the purpose of this recounting, suffice it to say Sheikh Mujib is a revered political figure, and the father of their nation (and the father of their current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina). He’s like the Bangladeshi George Washington, but still so much more revered. His house is not just a museum, but a shrine, preserved as it was right after his assassination. Before even going in, I could tell this place was different/special. People are not allowed to even bring in their cell phones or cameras. You must check them at a security desk. And not one where they place your belongings in a locker or bin; they’re all just laid out on a desk, with a number chip casually placed on top. I was wary about leaving my brand new camera at such a place, but my guide said, “This is the house of the father of our Prime Minister, the father of our nation. Your camera is safe, I guarantee.” No one would dare desecrate the name of such a sacred place by stealing…. Once we were inside I really came to realize just how revered Sheikh Mujib was; and not because of anything in the house, but because my guide kept referring to him as “the father of our nation.” As in, “This is where the father of our nation ate…this is the stair well where the father of our nation was shot dead…this is the father of our nation’s sleeping cap…” And I say this all with respect – to illustrate the point. There is no “he” or “him” when referring the Sheikh Mujib, only “the father of our nation”. George Washington never gets that honor. And as this place was sacred ground, I got a few more concerned stares than perhaps usual... and one under-the-breath groan of “Foreigner!” on my way out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Welcome to Dhaka

What a day. This is gonna be a long one, but hang in there, it gets interesting. I had a crazy afternoon… but let me start with morning. The manager of my new guesthouse came to pick me up, and we fought our way through Dhaka traffic to get back to the hotel. The new neighborhood is completely different. It’s much more residential and surrounded by embassies. And the hotel is much smaller - bare bones. It only has 15 guest rooms. Though, it is equipped with a fitness center that is “life changing” to say the least.

The room is also small, but it has a bed, a bathroom, and A/C, so perhaps it will suffice. On the plus(?) side, living here will force me to really get out of the hotel and get to know Dhaka. No room service or hotel dining here!

As this realization hit me within minutes of putting my bag down, I decided I may as well head out and find something to do with my afternoon. Since the hotel is walking distance to the US Embassy, I would start there, and go fill out a traveler registration form. I ended up walking past the embassy since it was somewhat inconspicuously marked (go figure), and I had been expecting to see Marine guards, but when I stopped to look at my map, a rickshaw driver pulled up and asked if he could take me. I told him I was just going to the embassy, which was somewhere on that block, but he insisted, and I thought why not, it can’t be more than a 10tk ride, and it’s a long block…. We pull up to the embassy and I go to pay him, but he says no – he’ll wait outside, and I can pay him later. Ok. I go inside, and when I come out, he’s right there waiting. I was planning on crossing the bridge to grab lunch/walk around Gulshan (which is the main dining/shopping district of Dhaka) so I supposed taking a rickshaw there would save me a little time, effort, and confused stares. I told him a place that was listed in Lonely Planet, and he knew right where it was. His English was pretty broken, but at least he seemed to be able to understand the names of places I needed to go.

We get to the restaurant and, again, he says he will wait outside. I feel kind of bad having him sit out there while I eat, especially since he is stick (or rather twig) thin. So, I invite him in to eat with me. This is my first meal at a “local” place with “local” prices. I figured it would be a kind gesture. He is, of course, surprised, but accepts the offer and finds a place to lock up his rickshaw. He helps with the ordering, and we each get a chicken platter and naan. I pull out my hand sanitizer, and give him a few sprays, as well. That may have been another first for him, even though most Bangladeshis eat with their hands (or at least one, but that’s another story). I tried to make conversation by asking him questions. The situation was a little awkward - more so because, as the place was crowded for lunchtime, we were sharing the table with a professional looking man, who would probably never otherwise be sitting at the same table as a rickshaw-walla. Clearly he thought I was a na├»ve westerner. Perhaps true. He did not look pleased.

Finally, the food came, and the other man left, so at least we could shift our attention to eating. As a sign of gratitude, the rickshaw-walla gave me half of his chicken. Yes, with his hand. And while I was now super-glad I had given him that hand sanitizer, I was thinking my immune system is not quite ready for that just yet. I left it on the side and tried to politely offer it back to him after I had eaten my own portion, motioning that I was already full, but he refused. I paid the bill, which was 300tk, or about $4.30. As we walked out a beggar came up and asked for some money. Standing there, with the driver, having just bought him lunch, I thought “Isn’t that enough?” But then felt guilty, especially with the driver standing there watching, so I gave him 10tk. Then another beggar came, having seen me just give money, and this one was a woman with a baby. My refusal didn’t work. I gave her 10tk. I thought, “If this is gonna be a trend I better get more small change.” So, I went back inside the restaurant and got more “10s”. Another woman was waiting when I came back out, but this time I got on the rickshaw and we left. I could tell the driver understood. He said, “If you give to one, they all will come.”

I wasn’t sure where to go from there - my plan had just been to walk around. He said he could take me to a shopping complex. On the way there a car passed with two women in back. He pointed and exclaimed, “Girls!” I laughed and said, “I’m from America, I’m used to seeing girls on the street.” Then he said, “Bangladeshi girls…very good at sex.” I wasn’t quite expecting that, but I feigned approval, so as not to create tension. He was certainly feeling familiar after that lunch. A moment later, he took a turn into a dead-end alley. “Uhoh,” I thought. He knocked on a closed gate. I started to worry this could become one of those tourist kidnap/mugging situations. The gate opened, and there is armed military guard on the other side. “What is this?” I asked him. “Girls!” he replies. OH, he is trying to take me to a Bangladeshi brothel – and a high-end one at that if it gets its own military guard - not to mention, the side of the building was marked “Embassy Security Area”. This must be where all the government officials go for…recreation. I politely tell him “No, thanks.” And he replies, “Ok, shopping first.” Don’t worry, mom. I will not be visiting any brothels here, or anywhere else.

We continued on and he brought me to a shopping complex that just looked like a dirty mall. I didn’t intend to buy anything, so instead of going in I just had the driver bring me around Gulshan and Banani. He seemed to know where all the ex-pat hangouts are. After touring around a while, he said I should buy a rickshaw and hire him fulltime. This seems to be a somewhat common practice from what I’ve read. I told him I would think about it. While it would be pretty convenient to have a personal driver, I’m not sure if Grameen Bank is too far for a rickshaw. I guess I’ll find out Sunday. He kept asking when he could pick me up next. I told him I have plans Friday and Saturday, but he is very persistent… so he is picking me up for dinner in an hour.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day of Rest

Between the Muslim holiday and jetlag, my Wednesday was shot. I took the opportunity to rest, get the blog up, and check out the hotel facilities while I still have them. Tomorrow, I’m moving to a “guesthouse”, which is pretty much just a lower-grade hotel. I’m not too concerned about the downgrade in quality, as long as the place is clean and has A/C. Besides, I’m here for the developing world experience. And even if I’m only half fulfilling that, I can at least put the difference in cost into more useful services, like translator, or driver, etc. Also, I’m happy to be moving locations. The hotel I’m in now, while nice, is in more of a business/city center type neighborhood. The new one is in a more residential/diplomatic one, where there is a lot more stuff I can walk to… or get lost trying.

Sunny / Money

Last night, Sunny and I had a nice dinner at a Thai restaurant near Banani. After we finished eating I asked one of the servers to take a picture of us. As manpower is Bangladesh’s greatest resource, the other two servers came over to assist him, and what ensued was a hilarious, team effort series of photographs. One held the camera, while another held his elbows steady from behind (think Heimlich maneuver stance), and the third spotted – for proper focus, I suppose. I wished I had a second camera to take a picture of them taking a picture. Nevertheless, this is a good, if not strange, example of how important hospitality and service is here in Bangladesh. They truly aim to please!

After we paid the bill and got our change, Sunny and I made an interesting observation about the money. With all the different denominations of bills there in front of us, it was somewhat easy to see the evidence of a significant wealth discrepancy in the country. The “10s”, which had probably been through the hands of countless rickshaw drivers and urban poor, were filthy and tattered looking, while the “1000s”, which had probably never seen any of those same hands, were quite pristine. And while this may happen to a degree with every country’s currency, it seemed particularly prominent compared to any I had seen before.

Beard Update: Week 1

I’ve been pretty jetlagged, and last night could not get to sleep until 6am (the time difference is plus 10 hours). This gave me plenty of time lying in bed to realize how uncomfortable a beard feels against a pillow… or my face. Oh well, I’m not giving up that easily!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day Two: A Little More Lost, A Little Less Sweaty

Today I got a little more lost, but a little less sweaty. Instead of heading out on foot, I decided to take a CNG (also called a Baby Taxi) directly to the Liberation War Museum. However, the driver was just told to take me to the Museum, which usually refers to the National Museum. They are close together, and I planned on seeing both, so I thought no big deal. And regardless, the CNG ride ended up being the highlight of my day. The driver was of course curious to know where I was from. When I told him New York, he promptly pulled out a newspaper that featured a picture of the Statue of Liberty. He pointed to it and said it was one of his greatest dreams to go to America, but all he will ever be able to do is look at pictures. It was a touching, but somewhat sad moment. I told him that at least I could bring a picture of him back to America...

He was quick to say he was fond of America, and that the country does a lot of good for Bangladesh. I said I hope so.

When I got out at the National Museum, I went to purchase a ticket, which was 5tk. However, the smallest note I had was 100tk (which equals about $1.40), and he said he didn’t have change, and refused to take it. Frustrated, I decided I may as well just walk to the Liberation War Museum – it’s what I wanted to see anyways. Yet, for the second day in a row, I walked down the street thinking it was Kazi Nasrul Islam Ave when it was not. So, instead of ending up in the vicinity of the Museum, I ended up in the vicinity of a low income housing tenement that resembled a prison – or perhaps vice versa. Either way, it had barbed wire fences and barred windows, and did not seem like a pleasant place to stay. After yesterday’s hours spent wandering I thought why not quit while I’m only slightly behind and hop a rickshaw back to the hotel. I found an impressively fast, young driver, who passed traffic (at least rickshaw traffic) all the way there. I wondered if he was always that fast, or if he was just trying to impress me, being a foreigner. He ended up overcharging me, though, I suppose he earned it. Besides, I was in no place to argue over 20tk.

The first thing I did when I got back was buy a better map and get smaller change.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Grameen Springfield...?

I picked up the Daily Star (a local English-language newspaper) this morning, thinking that reading it would be a great way to get up to speed with current events in Bangladesh. On the cover-page was this article about how Prof. Yunus is to be featured in an upcoming episode of “The Simpsons”, and how Yeardley Smith, who plays the voice of Lisa Simpson, is here in Bangladesh visiting the Grameen Bank :

I thought, “How funny.” Little did I know that I would end up meeting Yeardley Smith in the hotel restaurant late this evening! But I did. It was pretty exciting for me since I’ve been watching “The Simpsons” ever since it was just a skit on the Tracey Ullman Show. I truly grew up with it. Oh, the people you meet in Dhaka…

My First Day in Dhaka: Lost and Sweaty

I walked around Central Dhaka this morning, completely lost for the most part. The language barrier is made all the more difficult in that I can’t even read the street signs. The streets here are a mix of city and squalor. The poverty is very visible, and does make me feel somewhat out of place. Not to mention I was the only white person (or non-Bangladeshi person of any race) out on the street. It was clear that people were surprised to see me, though no crowd gathering just yet. One person did come up and talk to me, and was quite nice. He looked like a university student. I asked him his advice on where to cross the street. He replied, “This is Bangladesh, you just run!” Indeed, he was right. And you better run fast, too.

The poverty is a bit difficult to deal with – though, not necessarily from a sensory perspective. The smell walking past a local garbage dump was like nothing I’ve smelled before. Yet, at least it fits in with the environment. When I noticed what was clearly human excrement on the side of the walkway, I was way less shocked or disgusted then when I saw the same thing on the streets on NYC. What’s difficult is seeing people with so little, when you have so much. One of the things that fazed me was a small child beggar that came up to me and motioned that he was hungry. However, I did not have any money notes small enough that it would be appropriate to give him. I felt bad about this, especially since he stood there, next to me, softly tugging on my sleeve for the whole time I stood waiting to cross the street (about two minutes). It’s tough knowing that I have so much and he has so little, and that a miniscule contribution from me could make a huge difference to him. I need to get lots of small change. I want to help. I’m thinking perhaps I should reserve 100tk to give away each day. Though, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, they are so poor, and begging is part of their culture. On the other hand, giving reinforces the behavior (and apparently the begging societies that have been created to take advantage of such children).

A picture of the street from my hotel room.

Notice the two way traffic running directly into each other...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Arrival in Dhaka

I've decided to put my journal online for everyone (anyone?) who wants to read about it.

7/25/10 - My Arrival in Dhaka

Today, I arrived in Dhaka. I'm not sure exactly what to expect for the rest of my stay, but I know I'm in for a true developing world experience. I could see this from my ride to the hotel from the airport. As reported, the traffic here is crazy. My first impression was that it was something out of Mad Max. Buses and taxis looked like they had been pieced together out of the wreckage of other buses and taxis. Most cars were retrofitted with steel-pipe fenders. Not a single vehicle was in a marked lane of traffic. Instead, spacing was determined by a chorus of honking and high-beam flashing. And in this mess were mixed cars, busses, trucks, motorcycles with upwards of three people on back, bicycles, rickshaws, and even a few very displeased looking heads of cattle - not to mention a throng of pedestrians running across the streets, and street vendors casually walking in between cars, selling popcorn and other snack foods. Yes, this is definitely a developing country.