Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Winding Down

Well, not surprisingly we were having some serious internet problems over the past couple of weeks. It seems the internet wires in my building were cut. Who would do this you ask? The competitors, of course. And to think of the millions of dollars Verizon and Comcast waste on advertising and promotions, when in fact all you need is a pair of wire cutters!

It has been another full week of learning, both inside and outside the classroom. This past weekend we visited a large well-established NGO called Proshika (Bangla for training). The complex had a sustainable farm with bee keeping, a full dairy, chickens and a fish hatchery. They also had a small fabrics processing center with all facets from spinning and dying thread to the machine and/or hand weaving. Finished fabrics are then block printed or painted in the traditional fashion. The premise of this organization is to bring village people (no, not of “YMCA” fame) from across Bangladesh to be trained in sustainable and economically feasible cottage industries. The highlight for me was the two village schools run by Proshika that we visited.

Today the American Ambassador visited our school, along with two embassy point people, which assist in arranging Fulbright positions. I’ll tell you, 5 weeks ago I would not have thought I would consider returning to this crazy place, but it is the kind of crazy that once you become accustomed, you grow to love. Mastering the language is a large part of that comfort. Speaking of which I got my best grade so far on this week’s test!!! It was only an 85%, but that is gold to me considering the arduous road of speaking Bangla.

One of our students, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College, has contracted Dengue Fever. She has been in the hospital for the past 4 days. With that said, this is the nicest hospital I have ever been in and she is in excellent care. She just needs monitoring and lots of rest. Dengue Fever is contracted by an infected, AKA “rabid” mosquito. She has the first case of Dengue in Dhaka this season. That gives her some serious bragging rights!

My language partner has invited me to her home in Mirapur on Thursday. This is a lovely honor to meet her family and get to know more about her life. I will post pictures on the weekend.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Beautiful Bangladesh

The trip north to Bogra was amazing. The past week I was missing my previous summer in Poland and other comforts of the familiar. I was beginning to think that Bangladesh was a place I would never return, a feeling which I don’t usually have while traveling. The fact of the matter is I don’t like Dhaka, but I love Bangladesh. This is a beautiful country of bountiful nature and kind-hearted people. There are many large cities I avoid when I travel, I just happen to be studying in one of the most crowded cities. Now I know Bangladesh is an absolutely wonderful place!

Now back to the beautiful Bangladeshi countryside. There are not enough adjectives to describe all of the amazing sights of this past weekend, suffice to say it was very National Geographic (yes that will be my adjective of choice). Bangladesh is blessed, and sometimes cursed, with an abundance water making it prime for growing many crops. In the area we traveled there were small plots of rice, banana trees, sugar cane and jute. The abundant fields are interspersed with small man-made holding ponds for washing and gathering drinking water. This is a way of managing and directing all that water into a manageable and useable location. In the short video clip below you can see the countryside as our group travels down the road on a small side trip.
The focus of our Bogra adventure was Bangladesh’s archeological treasures. There are several old ruins in this area. On Friday we visited Pararpur, a 1400 year old Buddhist monastery. Parapur is the largest monastery south of the Himalayas. It was chosen as the secluded educational site for 177 Buddhists monks. The monks lived in small chambers that surrounded the main temple area in the center. Mahashangarh is the ruins of an 8th century temple and town center. You can walk the old city walls for miles. You can see some of the photos on the right.

Of course we ended the trip with another trip to a sari weaving factory in Tangail. These saris were woven on mechanized loom (not electric) similar to a large treadle sewing machine. The patterns were formed by cardboard hole punch cards that the silk thread passed through. The ‘factories’ are the size of a large garage. The people often work 6 days per week. Needless to say, it was enlightening to see where these goods originate.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Escaping Dhaka

I realize I haven’t posted at all last week, but it was a bad week for the whole language learning component. Not only did I not have anything good to say, I was dedicating most of my time to studying. Now I feel as though I have committed some of these grammar rules to memory, which was a major accomplishment. Grammar, in any language, has never been my forte. After all of this studying I can put a simple sentence together on paper and my Bangla vocabulary has improved, however, I still am not confident enough to speak in Bangla on the street. It’s all part if the language acquisition process.

This past week’s theme was on Islamic architecture. It included a lecture on Tuesday about Bangladesh’s architectural influence in the Islamic world. Then on Friday we visited a mosque for afternoon service. We watched, us girls in a separate room of course, the prayer ritual for an hour. Then the Imam wanted to have a little Q and A, which was a special treat.

The culminating activity was a trip to the old capital of Sonargoan/Panam, just southeast of Dhaka. Panam was a deserted town with fascinating architecture. The first buildings were built by the Hindus in the 13th century. It was abandoned with the rise of Muslim controlled Dhaka in the late 19th century. Not only was the architecture beautiful, the fresh air and absence of the hectic city life was a welcome relief. The people, especially the children, were very kind and interested to make new friends. We would take pictures then show them their smiling faces captured in our digital cameras. They thought that was the coolest thing and followed us all afternoon. They were also excited to practice the English they are learning in school. One boy proudly proclaimed in English, "I am in reading class 3." I was ashamed to confess my Bangla reading level, so I willingly allowed him to practice his English with me.

We ended the trip with a visit to the village where jamdani cloth is hand woven. Jamdani is incredibly fine, light weight muslin that is a specialty of Bangladesh. Legend has it that a jamdani sari, comprising approximately 13 yards of fabric, can be folded into the size of a matchbox. The people were so friendly and eager to let us try our hand at the weaving process. It was priceless and ironically they didn't take Visa.

We will take a trip up north to Bogra this weekend. It is our big 3 day trip outside of Dhaka. We are all looking forward to it. This week we have several lectures on Bangladesh’s history from the middle period. In Bogra we will visit very old Buddhist temple ruins. I am eager for more fresh air and sunshine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

There is always more to learn

My beautiful and talented language partner, Anita, helped me study this afternoon. Hopefully, I will not panic and forget everything for my test on Sunday. Here is a picture from her cousin's wedding. Anita is on the far left. The Bangadeshi really know how to celebrate!

We had two amazing lectures this week. The first was with Anisuzziman, an old (92 years old!) guy who was very influential in the 1952 language movement. During that time he was a student at Dhaka University and published a pamphlet on the rights of Bangladeshis to have Bangla as their official langauge (at that time Bangladesh was East Pakistan). This movement united the people and eventually led to the liberation war in 1971. On Wednesday we had a decorated officer, Shamsher Chowdhury, from the liberation war (he was also the Ambassador of Bangladesh in the US and many other countries). His lecture gave insight into the issues Bangladesh was faced from the time of their indepence. These were both incredibly interesting and insightful lectures. This program is top notch.

Tomorrow evening we have a party at an artist's house, which will be a pleasant diversion (see artist's link here). The remainder of the weekend will be to study, study, study!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's been one week...

Bad news: I got a D on my first test :(
Good news: we have a test every week so there is plenty of time to learn more!
I actually do feel like I am learning more now. I don’t feel as lost. I almost have the entire alphabet memorized; next I have to work on my conjuncts. They have like 100 conjuncts, two or more letters joined to make an entirely new letter, uhg! Yesterday I downloaded a Bengali script typeface so I can type in Bengali, check this out:
আমি বাংলা শিখছি। (I am learning Bengla)

I think that is pretty cool!

Today I meet with my language partner, Anita. It will be like reading with a kindergartener! Actually, I want to buy some children’s books. Like the Bangla Dick and Jane. You gotta start somewhere!

This week is a lot less busy than last week. I started running and swimming in the mornings. There are actually many people out at 5 AM walking. It is something to see a group of fully covered women speed walking in their Nikes. Just as I am not down with eating with my hands, I can’t exercise in the traditional suit (it is 90 degrees at 5 AM!) I ran, shorts and all. Just when I was finishing up, I passed an older woman who was fully covered. She covered her eyes with her hand when she saw my legs. Legs are definitely indecent here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Day in Old Dhaka

Check out the pictures from our cultural excursion to Old Dhaka on Saturday. There are also a couple of street scenes taken from the ride down there. This city is HUGE! Old Dhaka is the heart and soul of the whole city. Although it doesn't seem it to me the area that we are staying in, Baridhara, Gulshan, and Banani, were refered to as a "foreigner's ghetto" in the Lonely Planet guide. That is not the case in Old Dhaka. Also, this is were all of the city industry is evident. Lots of shops for home repairs, second run clothing from the garment factories, watches, sunglasses, all by the bizzillions.

Since we were eating in Old Dhaka, I thought this would be a good time to eat the way the Bengalis do, sans fork. I had been reluctant to try this cultural custom. Well now I can say it is just a bad idea. A fork you can put down if you would like to say, pour more water, take a little eating break, wipe you hair from your eye. Needless to say, you cannot put your greasy, rice laden hand (napkins are not provided). You are just stuck with this mess. So then all of the other little meal-time activities must be accomplished with your clean hand. Not very efficient. There is a large sink-trough where everyone can communally wash, or spit as the case may be. So this custom is not for me, some kind of a utensil is required here.

I was woken this morning at 2 AM by the pain of a large mosquito bite on my forehead. It doesn't hurt now, but it's the size of a quarter! I'll be on the lookout for any malaria symtoms.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Settling In

Yesterday was lots of fun. It was our day out and a group of us went on a little shopping foray. I realized that I am suffering from salwar-envy. Everywhere you go, you see more beautiful salwar chamises; in the store, walking down the street, on every woman rich or poor, they all wear beautiful salwars. And all women are on the hunt for the most beautiful salwar, which it seems must exist in some mythical shopping nirvana. The store we went to yesterday was filled with absolutely gorgeous ones in cotton, silk, raw silk with hand embroidery and in every color combination you can imagine. I have three now, two casual/cotton everyday sets and one that is a little fancier. I fully realize that I won’t be able to wear these back home, but it is the best choice here. The Bengali women wear very colorful and ornate salwars, but lime green or fuchsia just don’t look that good on me. Even the guys that braved the shopping trip were buying beautiful men’s shirts. Tony, a recent Air Force Academy graduate whose entire wardrobe is tan, olive green and brown, bought a red embroidered shirt. His Bengali is starting to show!

Afterward we went out for a Thai lunch, delicious. It took every form of local transportation for this excursion; rickshaw, CNG and an actual car taxi, which was very sketchy, like a tin can on wheels. It’s saying something when you feel safer in a rickshaw then a taxi. I think my favorite thing here is riding on a rickshaw. It just feels exhilarating and frolicsome.

I will take lots of pictures on our outing to old Dhaka today. I have been reluctant to whip my camera out in some of these areas, but it will be a big group of us out together today so I think it will be safer.

As I prepare for my first test tomorrow, I thought it would be fun to show you the Benglai alphabet. You can learn along with me! The first line in green are the vowels, the second set in tan are the consonants. The two words in purple say ‘vowel letters’ and ‘consonant letters’.