You know how Indiana Jones would slip through gates just as they were about to close? That’s how I feel about my work in Bangladesh. I leave tomorrow and just barely finished all my deliverables in time. I was super nervous that I wouldn’t get it all done.
Oddly, my work has taken up most of my time here, but I have barely mentioned it in my blog. I guess it’s not super engaging to talk about how I spent my days in front of a computer.
I don’t want to bore you, so I’ll quickly explain my project. The head office for Save the Children sent me here to study how their projects in Bangladesh are aligned with international strategy. When the projects aren’t aligned, I needed to recommend ways to restructure them to fit. All this had to be written up into neat and tidy case studies.
The case studies are limited to 10 pages long, but I must have written 30 pages for each which I then needed to edit down. Everyone and their mother have provided edits – I have never spent so long re-writing just a few documents.
But they are done! I did a presentation today to senior staff about the it all – no one fell asleep or left, so I’d say it went well!
My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow evening. I’ve been working evenings and weekends to get this work done, so it’s awesome that I can spend tomorrow just enjoying Dhaka for a full day. And then, back to Boston and back to Vanessa! Hooray!
Thanks so much for reading this blog. I loved getting a chance to share life in Dhaka with you, and I can’t wait to hear about your summer too!
Ramadan began two days ago, and gee, I’m learning a lot. Ramadan is a month-long fast where Muslims can’t eat or drink between 4am and sundown. This is hardcore – can you imagine what it must be like for a rickshaw driver to pedal people all over town under the beating sun all day and not be able to drink? Aren’t their lives hard enough?
Even the more well-off people at the office are grouching bitterly about how thirsty they are. They are exhausted too because they wake up at 3am to cook food and eat it by 4am, then they take a short nap before praying, then they sleep a little more before going to the office. Once they are at work, they count the minutes until sundown so that they can eat again.
Today the official sundown time was 6:36pm. I went with some foreign and Bengali friends to a Bengali restaurant for “iftar,” which is the name of the sundown meal. Amazingly, we had to get there two hours early to get a seat and reserve our food, because the restaurant fills up quick and everyone eats at exactly 6:36pm.
It was so odd, we sat for two hours, surrounded by packed tables all around us, with folks just restlessly sitting, shifting in their seats, hungrily waiting for the clock to strike 6:36.
And if you’ve been starving all day, do you want to eat an arugala salad or a boiled fish? No, you’re dreaming of rewarding yourself with fun food – sugar and grease. And that’s exactly what they eat. Iftar food consists of deep-friend everything, with generous helpings of desserts soaked in simple syrup. This is delicious, I love grease – um, a month of this though? Can that be good for you?
This fasting does make me nervous for the country. In a country that is already in deep economic crisis, this holiday makes the entire nation so much less productive! Folks are worn out by not eating, getting sick by sweating so much with no water, exhausted because their sleep cycles are all screwed up, plus they eat primarily junky food for the whole month. Even worse, the government abruptly decided to cancel school for all of Ramadan for all children and college students in Dhaka – traffic worsens this time of year, and the government thought that getting rid of commuting kids was a reasonable solution. Maybe government officials just can’t think straight because they are so hungry…
[Note: My last big email was about the hard parts of Bangladesh, so I’m counterbalancing that by telling you about fun parts.]
Shopping is an entirely new experience in Bangladesh. Like most developing countries, shopping is done at markets, where each shopkeeper has a small stall, selling only a few types of goods. This makes grocery shopping very interactive, because I’ll go to one stall for eggs, another for bread, and yet another for toilet paper. After a while, the going gets slower because I’ll be encumbered by my bags of purchases, and when I get to a stall, I have no hands left to touch fruit, take out my wallet, or count change.
Enter the porter.
This may be the coolest part of Bangladeshi markets. Porters will carry a basket on their heads and just put your groceries in the basket as you shop. For example, I’ll buy a pineapple, and the shopkeeper will simply hand it to the porter who will put it on his head, and we’re ready for the next shop. As with rickshaws, I feel colonialist guilt about having someone do manual labor for me, but I rationalize that my purchases aren’t heavy, just bulky, and that it’s a good source of income for otherwise unemployed Bangladeshis.
Today the shopping help was even better. I was at a huge busy clothing market, hoping to find some cheap sweaters for the cold Boston winters. Understandably, sweaters are not big sellers in humid Bangladesh, so I was coming up empty. I was leaving the market when a short, energetic older woman wearing a sari sidled up and asked in broken English if she could help. When I asked her where to find sweaters, she lit up, said “yes, I know where” and rushed off down an aisle, signaling me to follow. I felt like Alice in Wonderland chasing the rabbit through the forest as she quickly darted around corners, almost losing me in the maze of stalls and crush of people.
Eventually we turned one last corner and arrived at a stall that sold…only sweaters! Amazing. The woman and I rummaged through their selection, and I was disappointed to find only one sweater my size (getting men’s sweaters that fit me has never been easy). I asked if there were other stalls, and she said “yes, I know where” and just threw the sweater I liked over her shoulder as we rushed off to another stall. The storekeeper didn’t seem to mind her taking his sweater, surprisingly.
The old lady took me to five or six stalls, where I sweat liberally into dozens of thick sweaters I tried on, boiling in the harsh humidity of the market. I came up with three sweaters I liked in total and when it came time to pay, we went to an entirely different stall; apparently all those sweater stalls are owned by one person – it’s a sweater cartel if you will. The old woman enthusiastically negotiated the price with the storekeeper, getting the price down from $20/item to $5.
Deed done, she asked me what else I needed. I told her I could use underwear, so she rushed me to just the place, where we pawed through loose piles of undies. I told her which I liked, and she simply looped my selections on her forearm by the leg holes. Again she bartered the price, and we were onto the next item on my list.
We got everything I needed in record time, and she had me packed in a baby-taxi off to home before I even realized I hadn’t taken any photos (and I always remember to take photos). For all her help, she asked for $1.50, which seemed low to me but which she was thrilled by.
We should all be lucky enough to have women to expedite our shopping and men to carry our stuff. Though granted, this kind of guy (on the right) would possibly look out of place in an American mall.
It turns out that Bengalis have trouble pronouncing the “V” sound, and they often add an “s” to the end of words. As a result, my name here has become “Oops.” I find this absolutely hilarious.
Well, I’ve been called worse. You’d be surprised how often people in America think that my name is Poop. This is especially common at loud parties. Way back when I was single, a girl at such a party made that assumption and nevertheless gave me her number. Not bad for a kid named Poop.
Can I be honest? Things have been hard in Bangladesh this summer. And it’s really a shame because the two hardest things were entirely avoidable.
The first reason is that my supervisor here (let’s call her Susie), threw me into the deep end and didn’t teach me to swim. She invited me to come to Bangladesh but then offered little professional support and gave me no orientation to Bangladesh. Professionally, we’ve never had a meeting over a half-hour long, and she’s been on vacation for half the time I’ve been here – two other people who could give me guidance both left on vacation right after I arrived and got back this week (5 weeks later).
In terms of helping me navigate the city, Susie’s been of no use. We had a conversation that literally went like this:
Voop: Can you tell me where I can eat in the area?
Susie: I either eat at the American Club (which you can’t get into) or else my cook prepares my meals. So I don’t know, sorry.
And that was seriously the end of the conversation. All other questions have the same empty result. How can someone be so unhelpful? Fortunately my friend Terry came to visit so together we scoured the entire area and found some restaurants (they do exist!). Susie hasn’t ever asked how I’m getting settled or offered to have lunch or even coffee together. Did I mention that she brought me to other side of the world to work for her?
It’s been frustrating and exhausting to figure out this city with no guidance. There are actually some cool things here (shops, neighborhoods, history) but I have only scratched the surface because I am aimlessly discovering things on my own.
The other avoidable mess has been this apartment that Save the Children put me up in. Since my last post, things have continued sucking. Stagnant water got caught in my room’s air conditioner, disseminating a smell that got worse with each day. The water festered, and it got so bad I slept out on the couch one night. It took me a while to realize the smell was coming from the A/C and once I figured it out, I got it cleaned … only to discover that the stench was simply masking the sewer smell from the next-door bathroom. My A/C is now fine, but the room smells consistently like pee, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
The front door lock broke again, locking me and my roommate in this time. After a few hours, we got a locksmith to come who bravely climbed in through the balcony and screwed the deadbolt off the door to let us out.
Oh, and the apartment cleaners are stealing. It’s not too big, just dishes, nail scissors, and small stuff, but still… gotta put an end to that.
All this said, this doesn’t mean I’m unhappy. It’s certainly character-building, and I’m learning a lot from this. There have been fun experiences which balance out the shitty ones (more posts on those soon).
Things are getting better too. A British girl at Save just got back from vacation, and she’s been fantastic – giving me tips on Dhaka and bringing me to cool places. Also, I’m ditching this apartment and thrilled to be moving in with Cat, who is a fun, dynamic, super interesting woman running the Agence France Presse news agency here.
Moving in with Cat comes just in time. Workers started re-paving the street in front of my apartment, cooking tar in huge quantities. The smell of burnt tar doesn’t mix with the smell of pee – Apartment, I won’t miss you!
I think that my apartment wanted to be something else in this world (a broadway dancer? An RV? A teakettle?) and, bemoaning its lot in life, has gone on strike. Result? Nothing works.
On paper, this is actually a neat apartment. It’s in a guarded building and inside has a big dining and living area, and three bedrooms. It came furnished with beds, couches, washing machine, even a TV and DVD player. Save rented the apartment and set me up here with two interns.
I was excited to move in and happily dragged my suitcase from the hotel I’d been at to this apartment. Opening the door as I walked in, I slipped a little on the dirt underfoot. “That’s not right,” I thought to myself as I began my first walk through the apartment, appreciating the plentiful space but sensing that something was off. Indeed, the apartment was dirty. No one had cleaned it since the last person moved out, so there was dirt just everywhere.
Moving past that, I began unpacking and stopped to use the toilet. I sat on the pot, fumbling with the toilet paper holder when it just unattached itself from the wall and fell on the floor with a clang. I sat there trying to re-attach it, but no luck. Then I tried to flush the toilet and … discovered the flush doesn’t work. What the hell?
And the day just went on like that. In total here is what has been broken so far: two of the three toilets, the laundry machine, the television *and* the dvd player, the fan in my room, the stove, both of the only table lamps, the remote for the A/C, and… the internet. Aside from the toaster and fridge, that’s pretty much all the electronics in the house. The house really is on strike!
That first night, as my new roommates and I were heading out for dinner, I saw them lock their bedroom doors.
That seemed like a safe idea, so seeing a key on the table right next to my door, I assumed it was for my lock. I grabbed it and pushed the button on the inside of my door, and pulled the door shut. I then realized I’d left something in the room and put the key in the door… only to realize that it wasn’t the right key. FML.
I spent that night on the couch and got a locksmith to come the next day who unabashedly overcharged me. That sucked, and later that week, I came home late with my friend Terry who was visiting and we couldn’t open the front door – the door’s deadbolt was broken.
Terry and I spent that night in a hotel. The lock has since broken 3 more times. There’s an admin guy at Save who got stuck with the extra job of overseeing the apartment and makes no secret that he wishes I would stop coming to him with problems. I wish he would fix the issues so that I didn’t have any more problems. As you can see, we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.
Maybe I can negotiate with the apartment to lift the strike. Maybe buy it a teakettle as a goodwill gesture?
My job is to write reports, so I’m spending most of my work days rooted to a desk, and it turns out that sitting still for so long makes me mushy in the brain. You know what else gets mushy? Yep, my keister.
Based on this, I’ve been hunting for a gym. The expat clubs (from the last post) have good gyms, but without that elusive membership, I can’t use those. I’ve been looking at other options, but any gym that is non-affiliated with a club is dingy with crappy equipment; they are also just extremely dusty and somehow also manage to smell of wet mold. Who knew I was prissy?
On a rickshaw ride outside my usual neighborhood, I passed a sign for a gym (above left), and with a huge dude like that who is conveying supreme buff-dom – how could I pass it up?
The gym was up four dark, creepy, there-could-be-a-mugger-hiding-in-a-corner flights of stairs. Arriving there, I was impressed that I found a gym less dusty and moldy than its competitors. I also didn’t find very much equipment. There was a lonely-looking treadmill, and the gym owner conceded that it wasn’t operational right then because there was a power failure.
Aside from that, there were a bunch of weights, one of those jigglers for body fat (remember those?) and that’s about it.
I wasn’t sure how this meager equipment could beef up a guy like the one on the sign, or those on the wall posters. Frankly, false hopes abounded.
Looking around, I blinked sweat out of my eye and asked about why the fans weren’t working. “No fans because no power” was his response. Well that makes sense. And what is the gym’s monthly rate for getting potentially mugged in the stairs, looking longingly at a dormant treadmill and fan, getting an inferiority-complex from the beefcakes on the walls, and using the few weights? This palace of disappointment was $30/month. Seriously?
Shaking my head, I left the gym slowly. Then, I finding myself in that dark stairwell, I startled and bolted down and out, getting more exercise along the way than I would with that gym membership.