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’.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Everybody's working for the weekend

Friday is the Muslim holiday, so this afternoon officially started the weekend for us! No class tomorrow and Saturday is a trip to old Dhaka to visit an old Hindu temple. We have a test on Sunday (like our Monday), so I need to study tomorrow, wash my clothes the old fashioned way, and maybe go on a little shopping trip with the girls, then study more. The teachers are really nice, but the class pace is rigorous. We are speaking in sentences and writing in Bengali script. Some of my classmates are linguist majors, so they are cruising right along. Unfortunately, I am stumbling behind. We all help each other, though, which makes a big difference.

Today, as part of our lesson, we journeyed out to the gritty market to buy fruit with teachers! I bought one (ek) pineapple (anorosh) for 30 Dhaka. We began the haggle at 70, but he was so willing to go down to 30, I think the 70 was per kilogram...duh, foreigners, they are such fools!

We also went to the American Center, which is part of the American Embassy. Apparently, Bangladesh is on the high danger list, don't worry I'll be careful. It is mostly petty theft, AKA "crimes of opportunity", due to the extreme poverty. We also filed paper work so we are officially 'here' and you will be notified if I die while I am in Bangladesh.

After that the American director invited us to his flat for a little party. What fun! Cocktails and conversation can be when in a situation completely devoid of such opportunities. Since Bangladesh is 85% Muslim, alcohol consumption is illegal for Muslim Bangladeshis and rare for all others. You don't even see it for sale here. In fact, finding a market that sells regular goods of any kind is difficult to find. It is mostly small market stalls in the alleys selling produce, cow heads, whole chickens and the like. I'll be in a pickle when I run out of shampoo. Hopefully by then I will figure out more of the intricacies of Dhaka life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dawn of a new day

Now that wifi is all set up in our apartment, I can post more regularly. The last post I wrote Tuesday morning but couldn't post until now. So here is my update.

My last two days have been filled with curiosity and general good humor when I am not being tortured in my class. Bengali is so difficult! But I'll write more on that later.

My nights are filled with sheer terror from the cockroaches. Apparently, those little ones I saw yesterday were only the babies! Last night mommy was out when I went for my midnight bathroom run. Rosel and his wife, who live next door, cook for the group here in the flat I share with Bethany. I am such a baby about this, I had them come and kill momma roach when they arrived at 6 AM. Rosel made his wife go in after it, she smashed it and carried it out. What a woman! She sprayed my bathroom and put down poison chalk, so maybe tonight I can pee in peace. Enough roach talk.

Most fun...riding rickshaws. It is a combination between an amusement park ride, a refreshing outdoor jaunt and a near death experience. All for the equivalent of about $.50 dependending on your bargaining savvy. I'm not very good yet, so I paid $.75. See picture at right (dani).

I refer to the heat as "the wall". You would figure 90 - 95 degrees is hot, but humidity is like no other place I've been. It's hot. I have purchased a couple of salwar chamise's, a traditional outfit, which are surprisingly cool and comfortable; 150,000,000 Bengalis can't be wrong.

I will try to be more diligent with the camera now that I am up and blogging. Stay tuned.

Built to travel

I arrived safely after days of travel yesterday morning. The cultural shock was immediate. However, it wasn’t the kids riding on top of the train, the concrete shells or corrugated sheet metal thousands make into homes, or the competition between the cars and rickshaws. It was undoubtedly the stares. One the bus ride from the airport to our flats we were shamelessly on display like zoo animals. The people are so incredible curious. They wave and giggle while riding by, rubbernecking to the point of causing a near accident. Some just walked along with the bus, touching the windows. Needless to say, not that many Americans visit Bangladesh.

Our flats are comfortable and air conditioned. Unfortunately, I am sharing my bathroom with several roaches. As you know, this was my greatest fear. Last night I came face-to-face with those disgusting creatures when I switched on the light on my midnight bathroom run. After I did the creepy dance, I proceeded to put out my Raid roach traps and say a prayer (something close to Psalms). I am very proud of myself, I was even able to fall back to sleep.

This trip definitely tests the limits of familiarity and comfort. It has made me question if I really am built to travel. From my past experiences, I know that after the initial culture shock subsides, I will settle in making this my home over the coming weeks.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Edge of Reason

Greetings from our nation’s capital! Washington has been wet, but wonderful none the less. After 8 hours, I am feeling fully oriented and ready to take on this new adventure! We have spoken to many people today from the State Department, the Bangladesh Embassy, and other organizations. I am confident that the experience will be wholly gratifying. The Bangla people, as expressed through the personal experience of our speakers, are an extremely friendly and welcoming culture. The country is portrayed as relatively safe and secure if we following typical common sense that any traveler should abide by.

I was surprised to find the group is very small, only 14 of us adventurous souls traveling to Dhaka. Two members of the group also participated last year; a willingness to return is a good sign! Unfortunately, I am the oldest member…by about a decade and a half, ouch! And when they caught me knitting at the meeting, they quickly reminded me I was acting my age! They obviously don’t know me very well! I am determined not to be anyone’s den-mother! The group represents a diversity of disciplines. However, we all a share a similar reason for choosing Bangladesh, which is mostly for the weirdness! Ah, kindred spirits!

So I begin this journey with my first post from the edge of reason, Washington D.C. We depart for the airport at 6 PM tomorrow. After that all posts will be from beyond; Dhaka, Bangladesh! Bon Voyage!