Education is the key to a countries success. With education comes creativity, technical knowhow, free thinking, critical thinking, and specialization. Each of these things is critical for a country to become successful by giving it a huge amount of soft power. Soft power is a term coined by a Harvard professor Joseph Nye in the 1990’s to describe the ability to co-opt and attract rather than coerce others through money or military might (hard power). Not to say the two later forces aren’t important in fact you can make a case they are equally important; but let’s face it capitalism and democracy flourish in times of peace. Nye sums it up pretty well, "Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” Cooperation almost always leads to prosperity, as each party can utilize its best assets to complete the task rather than attempt to go at it alone (recall JICA). Bangladesh is battling its way through the pangs of early democracy but it seems to be making a lot of good choices, yet many of them involve outside firms investing heavily in the country rather than use home grown talent.
One of the bright spots we have discovered has been the government’s dedication to two of the UN Millenium goals involving education over the last 15 years. Let’s take a look at all the United Nations Millennium Goals for a second:
1. Reduce those suffering from hunger and poverty by half
- 2. Ensure all boys and girls get a full course of primary
- 3. Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education
- 4. Reduce child mortality of those under the age of 5 by
- 5. Reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters
- 6. Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/Aids
and other diseases
7. Integrate sustainable development practices into state policies
8. Develop non-discrimintory open financial systems
Bangladesh is slated to meet every one of these goals. Way to go Bangladesh, that is a major accomplishment, especially when they are expected to complete the last of them by the end of this year. What I do find interesting is when talking to locals, including the NGO the other day, the numbers reported while successful are not so promising in reality. Bangladeshi education is split into four categories:
Higher Secondary School
US Equivalent grades
The system is a little confusing as it also encompasses Muslim school and separate tracks. The Muslim schools, Madrasa education, can really be a great thing; with some schools taking in homeless kids and providing them housing and food as well as education. Additionally, the education system is going through a transition right now moving away from separate Secondary and Higher Secondary and making Secondary School 6-12. Maybe you can make sense of the graphics provided by the government below. Age is on the right, grade is the next column, and the column on the far right is the Madrasa track, but from there its anyone's guess.
As the tertiary level is not free, but rather is set up similar to what we have back in the
states. While these are the reported figures I can tell you from experience these are highly inflated. On any given day when in the village about 25% of the kids are not in attendance at school. I am not sure this is due to overcrowding at the schools, apathy, or a lack of truancy officers. Additionally, according to the government girls are ensured free access to completion of a secondary school
degree. This seems odd to me that this specific policy is called out when Millennium goal #3; I guess it’s needed though given the cultural tendency of the “traditional housewife” stereotype for women here. In fact when you delve down into the school structure it becomes a tangled web of options and routes. In a way Bangladesh has really done a great job identifying the need to
specialize and starting training from an early age for a desired profession, but it does leave a white elephant in the room. How many of you reading this thought they wanted to do a specific job when they were 14 years old only to change your mind when you graduated high school and then changed your major in college? If you specialize at an early age the investment to switch tracks can be drastic. Never the less it is a wonderful step in providing the entire country with a solid platform for literacy. Right now the literacy rate stands at 71% for people over the age of 15, yet somehow when broken down by gender males have a 63% literacy rate and females are at 68%. In fact, Muslima we think had just learned to the alphabet not long before we came. The amount of pride she had, and the speed at which she was reviewing the letters, made me think she had just mastered the alphabet and was still working on her confidence. With 23.9 million kids enrolled in the education system things are looking up, but with 120 million people in the country there is a long way to go.
Now here comes my criticism and subsequent suggestion. Almost all of the people I have encountered no matter what the education level have no creative problem solving skill. The education model for the country is based off of a teach to the test concept. While teaching a theory and ensuring students understand the theory and can apply it in an abstract manor is a time and labor intensive education process it can result in students being able to apply that theory in a novel way in a field far different from its origin. From my experience here when a new situation comes up that Bangladeshis have never been exposed to before react to the problem in a very predictable way; they almost shut down or go into parrot mode where they repeat every word back to you. Not to say there are not any Banglas that can critically think but often its like talking to a brick wall.
My fellow grad students stateside have commented to me in the last few years about a similar issue that’s occurring at home. No student left behind. While it has its graces, and has a noble purpose, many educators I have talked to are disenchanted by it. There has been a notable decrease in the
creative problem solving abilities of the latest freshman class to start at SDSU this last year. This trend has been confirmed by my colleagues in other areas of the country as well. What is the fix, none of them know, including a good friend of mine who got her Ph.D in pedagogy (study of teaching). What every educator has told me though is that teaching to the test is the opposite of what should be taught. We have an idea at home that if all of the requirements are the same
across the board then all of the output will be the same. This idea is inherently flawed as what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander (I know I changed the phrase around). Think about it we all have different learning styles, some are tactile, some are visual, some are auditory,
and some are reading-writing learners. If we apply the same mold to all we will not all succeed. Bare with me while I switch gears, I worked on a transition for like 20 min and nothing came to me so, sorry...
To learn more about the students Jordan was teaching, he and Nazmeen asked the students to give a short presentation about their families. Out of the 80 students only two had mothers that did something other than keep house. The favorite activity of house wives was almost exclusively cooking or reading the Holy Quran. Now, yes we are dealing with a pious culture that is highly traditional, so I would anticipate a high level of old school domestic roles; but when you ask the girls what they would like to do when they get older they almost always they say they want to be a house wife. If they aspire to work at Panigram their absolute dream is to be a maid. Being of Western culture it’s a hard pill to swallow that someone's biggest dream is to be a maid for the rest of their lives. I have to constantly justify these statements with the fact my culture is on the opposite side of the world, these people have their own culture, and no persons culture is right or wrong it’s just different from our own. While there are deplorable acts conducted by some cultures that can never be justified in my eyes, is the dream of becoming a maid really that bad? It is a step up from house keeper where the woman makes no money at all. It’s a philosophical question that I urge you to think about some quiet evening, what would you do in a situation where someone is so excited to attain a job we regard as bottom of the barrel? How would you advise them? What would you say? Would you challenge them to attain better at the risk of upending the cultural norm?
Thinking big (globally, personal potential, creative, career, all the different day dream kind of thinking) is another problem here. My thought is it has something to do with the relative isolation of the country. With only two connections to the internet, and very few foreign tourists there is little
exposure to the outside world outside of the capitol. Even then when Jordan and I walk down the street in the diplomatic enclave of Dhaka we get stared out intensely.
So now for my recommendation on how to fix this problem. Creativity is missing from the schools almost compleatly, and while creative writing is not something many people make a living off of in the states, it sneeks its tendrils in everything we do. Architects write their mark in a building they design, software engineers creatively write code, chemists imagine new ways to activate different taste receptors, it’s a critical skill in our countries success. If I had one recommendation for Bangladeshi schools it would be to implement an art program in your schools that is mandatory. This program should be focused on traditional handicrafts allowing history to be woven into the lesson. Engage both the left and right sides of the brain encouraging inter-hemisphere communication. This will come at minimal cost to the school, will provide national pride and
respect, and strengthen historic cultural identity ensuring it isn’t lost as globalization continues. To really make this motive succeed supplies are needed, think of what goes into some of the best novels you have read, for me if a book has a map in it I’m game! Savaila once said to me as she was reading a copy of A Brave New World that I brought along, “I love books written in English, they are always so full of imagery.” She read a passage to me about how one of the Delta’s had a bubbly of
milk in the corner of his mouth. As she read I looked at the passage from her eyes and could see that yes our novels are incredibly vivid. Typically to achieve this level of writing requires practice, it requires art, and it requires a supportive and through education.
So in terms of meeting your Millennium goal Bangladesh I congratulate you, but overall your students, even those who have college level degrees, are not up to the global standard in problem solving. It will take time to improve and you are making progress toward universal education, keep a primary focus on education you will find your economy busting at the seams in a few years. You will have a batch of students ready to combat the challenges of the early to mid-21st century that have strong national pride. Most of the country is at sea-level or slightly above, and with raising ocean levels homegrown ideas to mitigate the effects will be an amazing saving grace. You have the potential, embrace it, but most of all run with it.
A staple problem in much of the developing world is the presence of corrupt governments. Bangladesh is no exception to this trend and in fact corruption is so bad here it cripples the development of the country. While having a discussion on Bangladeshi culture with a high up at a local NGO that focuses on education (more on that next), we came upon the topic of corruption. What this guy told me was truly shocking, for every Taka dedicated to a specific construction, or public works project only about 15-20% ever make it to completing the project. Can you imagine such a thing? 80% of the money disappears. This is made perfectly clear when you stop to take a look around at the street scene in any part of Bangladesh. Private cars have a 100-150% tariff levied against them. So that $25,000 Camry is now a $50,000 Camry; and that’s before tax is even applied. In terms of Bangladeshi income that is Tk3.75 million. In a country where the median male income is $12,000 (Tk900,000) and generally only the male of the household works this is quite a drastic markup. Yet somehow there are private cars everywhere, even more so in Dhaka. From the locals I talk to think most of the private car owners make illegitimate money on the side; most likely through bribes. As terrible as this system may be in helping the rich get richer and keeping down the growth potential In a way this system is helping lessen the strain on the poorly developed infrastructure.
There is a rampant problem with bribes, called bakshish , most times you deal with the government. You can get stuff done the legal way, but be prepared for it to take up to four times longer; and if you live in Dhaka even traveling 10 miles can take you two hours and you may not get an answer that day. Most of the time bakshish is only about Tk100 but that amounts to little over $11 and on a salary of $12,000 a year that can add up if you need something to get done in a hurry. There does seem to be a trend with the new government employees shying away from bakshish, and the people are starting to voice larger amounts of frustration at the practice so hopefully soon this will be a problem of the past.
One of the things that has really gotten to Jordan and I while here has been the occurrence of hartal. If anyone missed that blog post hartal is a general strike called by one of the political parties. Hartals are called for a variety of reasons, court decisions, government decisions, arrests, etc. During this time NO ONE can work, the political party that calls the strike ensures that limited amounts of businesses open, the long distance and local bus services are disrupted, and numerous marches through the streets occur with members chanting support or anger toward the hartal. There can be some extreme violence during hartal days; if enough people get riled up buses can be stopped on the highway and flipped over and set aflame. Often at the start of hartal a few homemade bombs will be set off in Dhaka. Amazingly, no one ever seems to get injured when the bombs go off. I have a feeling that these bombs are more like an M-80 or something similar and not like what went off in Boston or in suicide bombings. Still come on Bangladesh it’s time to grow into a democracy and use your voice not violence. The most maddening part is the current political party, the left leaning Bangladesh Awami League or BAL has the power in both the executive and legislative branch to ban hartals completely. They refuse to do so for one primary reason, in all of Bangladesh’s democratic history not one political party has ever held power for more than one election cycle; the second leading party is the conservative leaning Bangladesh National Party or BNP. Being able to call hartal is a romantic thought for the process here as in theory it can be a powerful tool to rally the country. In reality the people hate hartal. The people want hartal to be made illegal but the minority has a loud voice and for some reason the government doesn’t really follow the will of the people (hum seems to be similar to other areas too, 12% ahem, ahem). Things got really interesting earlier this month when the Supreme Court of Bangladesh deemed the leading Islamic party, Jamaat-e Islami, to be in violation of the country’s constitution. While Bangladesh is officially a Muslim country it is also secular, meaning it doesn’t make laws based on religion. Since this clause is in the constitution and Jamaat-e Islami is an Islamic political party they were banned. While banning a political party can be a dicey proposition, if the political party is platforming on an Islamic interpretation of life and wanting to impose various forms of Islamic law then it was the right move. So, another kudos is due to Bangladesh for sticking to the constitution, I hope the hartal and violence that ensued after the decision was passed down was a lesson to stay on top of these issues in the future; something tells me it won’t though.
We can take a lesson from this book back home too. We live in a similar country where there is to be no state religion, however, we also live in a country where people are more crafty and can sneak in agendas under our noses. We should always be vigilant during our own elections to make sure propositions being made are not founded by religious ideals. What may be right for the spiritual morality of some may not be for all. Not saying that all laws crafted from a religious ideal are always bad, but great care must be taken to ensure the law does not impose specific morals on others not of that religion. Fact, logic, and debate are all cornerstones of our culture and we are envied for it around the world; Fear is rampant in Bangladesh (soft vs. hard power, more on that in the Education post) and the people are miserable when hartal is called; let’s work together to keep fear out of our lives at home.
So much foreign aid has gone into Bangladesh to build infrastructure most of which has disappeared due to corruption. This country faces many of the same problems faced in The States when it comes to large public works projects, getting the land. A great example is two new projects slated for construction in Dhaka metro and the Dhaka expressway. Both of these projects are sorely needed in the capitol as there is no real commuter rail from outlying urban areas and there are no freeways in the country at all. The most traveled highway would be akin to a red highway on a Rand McNally atlas, two lanes, no median, and a small shoulder. While I applaud the foresight of needing this upgraded infrastructure I do question its size. The expressway is a 27km long elevated freeway that is a total of four lanes. While you do need to balance size and cost two lanes in each direction in a city of 20 million?!? San Diego can barely function with an 18-lane freeway (I-15). It isn’t quite a fair comparison as Dhaka doesn’t have as many cars, but still, anyone heard of future-proofing. Bangladesh has to start somewhere, and investing in an elevated freeway in a flood area while maintaining a lot of residential buildings is courteous it is still an odd call for the country. The Dhaka metro will be an amazing addition to the city, possibly allowing people to get from one end of the city to the other in a timely manor and for little cost. It has the potential to revolutionize the way the city operates. With $2.8 billion in funds having been approved on February 20th 2013 with help from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) I sincerely hope this succeeds. The JIAC is like US development aid but from Japan, yay other countries are helping the world! I really like the JIAC mission statement
“We, as a bridge between the people of Japan and developing countries, will advance international cooperation through the sharing of knowledge and experience and will work to build a more peaceful and prosperous world."
In another uplifting sector of Bangladeshi events since we have been here the 2013-2014 budget has been released. Within this budget is $0.88 billion toward the construction of the Padma River bridge. The Padma River is the name of the Ganges once it crosses into Bangladesh. This bridge will be over 6km long and will link the southwest portion of the country with the central portion. The money was unthinkable even just a few years ago, but the currency reserves bolstered by increasing remittances and foreign exports have really done something to boost confidence in the nation. Currently, road traffic either has to take a ferry across the river or drive 2.5 hrs north and out of the way to cross a bridge further upstream. The government of Bangladesh has decided to forgo foreign investment in the project vowing to show the world it is not a nation of beggars. I hope this project can be completed with minimal corruption as it would bolster national pride and inflate GDP growth by an estimated 1% every year. The World Bank withdrew its $1.2 billion funding offer on allegations of corruption just a few years ago, so it remains to be seen if Bangladesh is really trying to become the little engine that could.
Here’s to investing in the future! But now back to the now, we have left a gaping hole in Bangladesh’s woes – Education.
Sorry it’s been so long since we have had a blog update. It’s been an interesting time here in Bangladesh. We are wrapping up our time with our internship and have spent the last few weeks reflecting on our time here and what we have learned. What we have discovered is a culture that is facing a crisis of identity and responsibility. I have struggled with this post for the last few weeks trying to decide what way I wanted to go with it. I have decided to take a matter of fact hard line approach but with little bits of hope and suggestions that we can all learn from. So pardon the negative spin at times in this post. This is mostly an observation of where Bangladesh is at. Coming from both of our backgrounds we have spent many a night discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the country we have come to understand. Our snapshot is from a small area of the country and what we have come to know may not be true about the entire place, but from our friends we have made we have gotten a good understanding of what goes on in most places. Sorry for the essay like nature of the following writing but I was thinking for those interested in the material presented here it could be an unprecedented look into the workings of a culture in many ways opposite of our own. We have both experienced moments where humanity comes shining through in ways that reassure us we all share a common thread. Yet there are also times where we are caught totally off guard by cultural difference. While these moments were frustrating and often hilarious when looking back they are also reassuring, knowing no matter how connected we think we are there is always something in the world to set you apart. I will be splitting each section up and posting each one at a time, that way it’s something a little more manageable.
Bangladesh if I were giving you a grade on your ability to handel and process trash you would surely get an F-. If I had visited 10 years back this may have been a different story but what the current state shows is nothing short of failure on your part to take responsibility for your actions. Let me explain, as that last sentence does sound a bit harsh. Every day I walk down the street to my favorite soda vendor, the man’s name that runs the shop is Babu, and all I can ever think about is the Charlie Brown quote from Lucy to Linus, “Oh, my sweet Babu.” Babu is the nicest guy, always has a smile on, always laughing, and remembered after trip three that I had a thing for cold 1-liter bottles of Coke. All of the soda Babu sells comes in plastic bottles, ok, that’s normal back home, but here that’s a relatively new concept. Today you can still find every soda in glass bottles; the problem is they only come in 10-oz portions. Generally, I share my Coke with Jordan and Nazmeen so not only the cost of buying three 10-oz glass bottles but the packaging amounts to more than one 1-liter plastic bottle. Well after two months of this little habit I started to think where does my garbage go when I throw something away? All I had to do was stop and ask the question to myself before I realized the horror of the answer; across the street in the ditch. Within the city center people to make an effort to dump their garbage into common areas, but with the primary garbage being vegetable matter and cooking scraps the stench is at times unbearable in the area of about one city block. Usually there is a herd of goats or cows munching on the newly discarded waste but then you get the added benefit of manure mixed in. Another common area to dump garbage is against walls abutting lakes. Many of these walls are cement and were built either before the war for independence or shortly after in the early 70’s. Almost every lake has a wall around part of it and at the bottom of the wall goes the garbage. As time goes on the ground under the wall erodes away into the lake and the wall crumbles a little allowing the garbage to just fall right into the water. Generally only a few yards away there is inevitably someone washing their clothes, bathing, swimming, or fishing. Truly there are times when I wonder how has disease not taken this entire country. I don’t understand how you could smell the garbage, see the garbage, and then bathe in the garbage. People here know about bacteria, how do they not put two and two together?!?
As you may have put together there is no trash service here, none at all in the entire city. The population of Jessore is 1.17 million… let that sink in for a second. 1.17 million People are making trash every day; 1.17 million people are throwing their trash in ditches, lakes, and ground level patches all over the city. If Jessore city has 1.17 million and it’s the most developed area of the district (county) and the entire district has 2.76 million people imagine the amount of trash people are producing every day. For an at home comparison, San Diego has 1.3 million people in the city, 3.1 in the metro area, so similar in size. Now most of the trash people are making is biodegradable, most packaging of snacks occurs in news paper, all veggies are bought using reusable bags, but the fact still remains trash is discarded in close proximity to people’s homes. It’s not just soda bottles that are a problem but candy wrappers and chip bags, each thing that comes pre-packaged from the outside world gets dumped on the street. Things we don’t even think twice about in city centers like the availability of trash cans is not present here; if there is no trash service there is no trash cans.
Sometimes people will burn small collections of garbage, but that has its own unique issues with air pollution. This is compounded when people burn plastics as the fumes are not only terrible for the environment but also for people burning the garbage.
Time for a bright spot of hope. In the village that Jordan and I work in there is a form of recycling that is occurring, yet it isn’t quite what you are thinking of. On the edge of the commercial sector of town there is an area where people put things that are technically recyclable. There’s a man there who we think is paid and he sorts out the plastic from the cans and the flip flops from the wood. Every few weeks a truck comes by and they load up and take the “recyclables” away. Dhaka does have a garbage collection service in parts of the city too. SO as a whole things are starting to look up for Bangladesh in terms of plastic. But on a bigger scale I am scared for the amount of plastic and foil packaging that’s going to end up in the Indian Ocean before they can get US style garbage collection. As an Ecologist this is a nightmare, knowing there isn’t anything I can do. Even if I tell people to stop throwing garbage on the streets, it still ends up in a gutter.
I had a very enlightening discussion with one of the engineers at site a few weeks back about greenhouse gas and climate change. He was aware of the problems we are facing with our increased consumption of fossil fuels, sea level rise, salt infiltration into freshwater in Bangladesh, and how the developing world is generally powerless to stop it. He was scared about this topic, not wanting to offend me knowing I come from a country that produces so much CO2. I could sense his anxiety and beat him to the punch saying my friends and I were all aware of what our country was doing and we were trying to slow the consumption. I told him how we try to walk rather than drive, how we have implemented energy saving measures at home, and how we really don’t use a heater or AC. He was so glad to hear there were people in the States that cared and were aware what sea level rise was doing to his country. He was so moved, almost to tears, that there was hope in the world. I told him you have a voice and you should keep challenging those he meets. It has been one of only two conversations on climate science I have had in the last 3 months, and it was something that changed this man’s mind about Americans. However scary climate change may be, plastic pollution has a larger psychological effect. Seeing trash on the beach always hits people hard, at least back home. I have had limited discussions with people about the feelings they get from seeing trash everywhere. The limit in my ability to talk about this comes from the fact this is a highly abstract concept for people who have never traveled more than 150 km away from the place they were born. In these travels they generally stay in Bangladesh where the feelings on trash disposal are the same anywhere you go. Telling someone the trash you throw on the ground here ends up in the ocean and can kill fish and other life along the way is beyond their scope of the world. It will take many years of education and a large public works campaign to change the mindset of the people here. Look out Indian Ocean looks like your garbage patch is going to grow a little larger before it starts to shrink.
If I had to give Bangladesh one thing to make this problem better it would be to start communal dump. The creation of a modern landfill can be costly, but there are only a few things that are critical in creating a fully contained garbage collection area. Earth movers are in short supply here, so it becomes a challenge to actually dig the landfill, but it is still something that when comparing the health costs associated with garbage disposal within the urban setting may be well worth the investment. Liners to prevent the lechate (trash juice) from getting into the ground water are also critical. This step CAN NOT be skipped in this area as many of the people get their water from public wells. These wells are only about 60 feet deep and there is almost no bedrock in the area. A non-permeable liner in a relatively shallow landfill could be just what this area needs to getting well on the way to being health and tourist friendly. There are plenty of nacimons (flat bed diesel powered tricycle) that could have small sides added, similar to a wagon back home, and could collect the refuse from central cement lined dumping points to drop off at the landfill. While this would require a large public education movement and a small amount of investment from the local government it could really pay off. Chips, soda, and cookies are still new enough to the culture that mandating recyclable packaging or biodegradable plastics would still be feasible. This however, would require a focused and strong movement from the federal government. That leads me to the next portion of the discussion…
Sorry for the lack in posts the last two weeks. Things have gotten a little crazy. The week of July 8th was very, very, busy. We had a bunch of projects that we were all working on. Savaila and Clark had a lot of manual labor with the organic plot requiring them to drink about 2 gallons of water each one day and downing a few packets of ORSaline (oral rehydrating salts). I had a bunch of lesson plans to prep as well as a solo day teaching English class. In addition to all the work Ramadan began. This is quite an experience for both Clark and I as the number of Muslims we know is very small and the number that actually fast during Ramadan comes in at a grand total 0. During Ramadan the people that fast become lethargic, stores are closed, food is scarce and expensive, and tempers run high. Of course a summer fast doesn’t help the situation. Right now the fast is almost 15 hours every day. Therefore, the theme of the week, ORSaline for the save OR Ramadan the omnipresent limiter.
Islam really is a fascinating religion. I am very open to religion but it has been quite a shock to me to see the sheer number of people that follow a religion so closely. While many Christians follow their religion very closely, going to church every Sunday, volunteering, going on mission trips, etc when it comes to the tithes due and sacrifices asked during Lent many are very lax with the requirements. Yet when Islam requires people to stop eating food and drinking water from sunrise to sunset people are devout to no end. In addition to the fasting during Ramadan many people do all 5 daily prayer sessions, and if not all five they do the lunch time and dinner time prayers often. In each prayer session the number of prayers varies between two and four different sets. In addition to these required prayers many people will say up to an extra three sets of prayers that act almost like brownie points. The evening prayer with all the options takes at least 15 min. Now there is definitely the analog in Roman Catholicism with the Rosary but ask yourself how many Catholics that you know do the Rosary every day. Not only is there fasting and prayer but there is also a general rule to abstain from anything sexy and violent. So in general the next month of our life will be a generally pure, food scarce version of what we have become accustomed to.
The cook we have that makes our meals is actually Catholic so he still makes us lunch, and a few of the Muslim workers aren’t actually fasting this year; so food is still available. Outside though many restaurants are closed and many of the tea stalls have put up curtains to shield the gossiping eyes on the streets from seeing who is breaking fast. It really is amazing though to see how scarce food has become especially in the village. One on occasion last week we were supposed to have eggs for breakfast yet no one in the entire village was selling eggs that day until later. Normally, people would buy a dozen, keep them in the fridge and when they needed more they would replenish the supply, but because of the unreliable electricity (average power outage in the village – two hours, two times a day) and the cost of a refrigerator, the food supply is typically very sporadic.
Over the past two weeks, we have each fasted one day. I tried fasting the first week and was successful save the one cup of coffee that saved the students lives, as you all know, Jordan without coffee is a beast to be avoided. I didn’t think it was too bad and would like to try a full fast on a day off, but when we had Iftar, the large pre-dinner snack at sunset, I was a happy man. Clark experienced his first fast about a week later when we had hortal. He made it without even a cup of coffee, but we all stayed away from him, because he gives the notorious Austin/Omera looks and Clark with low blood sugar is just as bad as me without coffee. It is customary to break your Ramadan fast with dates. Many nights Clark and I join that day’s fasters for Iftar, as usually this is a communal meal, but at Panigram for some reason, individual plates are created. As we have been told, this is unlike any experience anybody has ever had. We have dates, a few pieces of mango or pineapple, chop (some mashed potato patties that have been deep fried), piaji/bora (lentil paste with onion and deep fried), Jalopi (funnel cake soaked in simple syrup), cucumber, jal sola (kind of like garbanzo beans mixed with spices and onion), morgi (puffed rice), sometimes french fries or eggplant wontons, and tang. It’s a lot of simple sugar, carbs, and fat; but man does it taste great. Dinner usually follows about 2 hours later so we end up eating at about 9:00p. This past week we have had hortal due to the verdicts being released from the International War Tribunals that were setup to bring justice after the Independence War in the 1970’s and the organic farming plot was being put on hold.
Even though the last two weeks have been racked with hortal, Panigram has still been able to carry on with PAE (Panigram Apprenticeship Experience). Two weekends ago Panigram hosted three travelers, two guys hailing from Switzerland and one lady from Vietnam. They boys, Edi and Stephan, had just finished a three month internship in India centered on hospitality, while Janice works in the finance sector in Singapore. Just before visiting us they spent a full day in Dhaka and welcomed the pastoral relaxation surrounding Panigram. We had a jam packed few days where the guests were able to participate in a wide variety of activities.
All three were quite interested in construction techniques here at Panigram and really got into mud brick construction. They even were interested in the preparation of the mud mortar and insisted on carrying some of the mud on their heads like the locals do. Janice even tried driving the flat bed tricycle that is used to carry the mud bricks.
The guests were very lucky this week when they toured the pottery village as one of the potters decided to show them how different types of jars are made. During the rainy season pottery making all but stops as the rain generally doesn’t allow the finished product to dry properly. Everyone was thoroughly amazed at how fast one of the villagers was able to make five jars and a money bank, it only took him about 15 min.
On the second day, again the PAE guests were invited back to the pottery village to watch a cow milking demonstration, and Janice even got a few squirts out herself. Clark tried and wasn’t so successful. He blamed it on going last. After the cow milking the guests were all invited to a local villager’s house to have a traditional Bangladeshi meal served on banana leaf plates. Edi, Stephan, and Janice really enjoyed this, and one of the little girls in the village even brought Janice flowers. It was a fantastic end to the boy’s trip, and Janice really enjoyed interacting with the locals. PAE is always such a great adventure, SO WE THOUGHT… This past weekend, we had the opposite experience. After a weeklong hortal, we were anxious to get out and interact with people. Not only were we having 4 PAE guests for the weekend, but we were having Mr. Roqib and two of his colleagues come to site to start making plans for the bio-gas generator that will be used to power the kitchen. The PAE guests all arrived on Thursday night and were all originally from Spain. They have all been living in Dhaka for some time now and one would think that they have become accustomed to the ways of the Bangladeshis. This was not so.
Mr. Roqib’s visit went flawlessly. It was not only productive, but informative and a lot of fun. Mr. Roqib, explained each and every step along the way to us and even provided us with information for ways to possibly implement a biogas generator at Svecia or in Guatemala at the Catamaran Island Resort. We definitely made a good friend and invaluable contact. Our friendship was cemented when we were all sitting around the office table and the monsoon came rushing in. Instantly, for the first time in over a week it started to rain. Roqib had just finished telling us about his former intern from France who loved the rain and toward the end of her internship experienced a sudden downpour while they were out on a project. She began to swing around and dance in the rain. (Just as I am writing this, the infamous monsoon, just arrived. It just got very dark, the temp dropped below 80 for the first time all trip and rain!) While Roqib’s intern was out on site, the villagers started to join her and Roqib couldn’t resist and joined in with her. The timing couldn’t have been better when the monsoon arrived and Roqib suggested that we should all go dance in the rain. Clark and Roqib spent the next 15 minutes playing in the rain and mud while I just looked on. I did not participate, because for the first time that day I had finally been dry. I wasn’t wet from rain all day, but from sweat. I was not about to go voluntarily get drenched again. Roqib eventually finished his work and spent the rest of the weekend tagging along with the PAE guests and participated in the activities we had planned. For as good as Roqib’s trip was, it was hard to believe how bad the Spanish ladies’ trip went.
The ladies were the most culturally insensitive people we have met yet. They gave all Westerner’s a bad name. They were demanding, rude, insensitive, and at times verbally abusive to the staff at Panigram. Remember guys, Panigram is a construction site. PAE is an apprenticeship experience, which is very clear about the condition of the resort and the program that is established. These Spanish ladies obviously came with the intention of going on an all expenses paid vacation to a 5 star resort. We knew they were going to be a handful when they demanded that meals be prepared to the Spanish timetable and not the Bangla timetable. We all know that the Spanish are more relaxed and enjoy their meals at later times, so we made it happen without a fuss. PAE is used to breakfast at 8, lunch at 1, dinner at 7. It gets dark by 7:30 and people are asleep by 9. Having a request for dinner at 9 is a really demanding on these poor Banglas who have been fasting all day in 110-115 degree weather.
PAE, as you have learned, is filled with a lot of activities that are hands on and has to do with the local village and village life. The women refused to participate in the set activities because they did not like that wherever they went a crowd gathered (just like in those National Geographic documentaries, the whole village does come out to stare and sometimes interact with the bedeshis). They didn’t feel comfortable. I don’t know where in Dhaka that they are living where this doesn’t happen, but from our experience, this happens everywhere around here. They refused to learn how to make pottery because they didn’t want to interrupt the man’s business day. They wanted the pottery making materials brought to their bungalow. They didn’t like the village experience because, “we can go anywhere in Bangladesh and see this.” The directors of the PAE program went above and beyond and tried to accommodate these women, but nothing they did was good enough. I stepped in on Friday morning when I heard what was going on and organized an itinerary based off of what they wanted to do. We made all of the plans and when it came to the time to do these activities, they changed their minds and refused to participate. It would be one thing to have Panigram change plans if it was all internal, but it is not, all of the activities include villagers or families in the village. They really interrupted families’ lives this weekend. To finish up their experience, they demanded a 1/3 discount. Clark was asked to witness the interaction between the women and the directors in order to “shame” them. This didn’t work. The women were so rude and verbally abusive that Clark came away literally shaking in anger. Thankfully, they are gone now and we can move on, but what a horrible experience and a complete 180 from the experiences of the European ambassador’s wife and sister a couple weeks ago and that of Edi, Stefan and Janice’s visit the week prior. Same program, completely different outcomes. Oh, and as we found out yesterday, they stole an antique lock and key. Those women really were something else.
Other than PAE the last two weekends, hortal has really interrupted our daily lives. No English classes, no farming or advancement of plans, we have just been stuck inside reading and playing cards. Every night we rush outside to grab a Coke, Sprite, or go to Café de Light to get ice cream, just so we can get out of the house.
This past week we had two great experiences. First, we made a trip back to the fair and brought along Savaila and Jeana. Savaila was extremely excited when she saw the Pakistani Pavilion. Within minutes she made friends and the next thing we knew, Clark and I were being summoned to the Pakistani tent. We arrived a few minutes later and were warmly greeted. We entered and were told that we had been invited to iftar with them. The pavilion closed up shop and we were asked to sit behind the tables where we were served an assortment of fruits and vegetables and all of the traditional iftar foods. We were introduced to a new drink, it was fruit syrup mixed with milk, water, and sugar. It was delicious! Then to mix things up, half way through, 7up was added. Who could have guessed a milk drink and 7up would be good? We sat around and chatted and made friends with everybody and after we were all given gifts. It truly was a great surprise and experience.
Also this week, we celebrated Tazul’s (Ta-jewel)26th birthday. Tazul is one of my M6 students who has become a good friend. We go to tea regularly after class or we go back to his house to meet/interact with his family. Most of his family doesn’t speak English, so it is a lot of charades. Anyway, Clark and I bought him a T-shirt which we found that said Pipeline, California and new soccer shorts. Tazul is the captain of his village’s soccer team, which just won their “tri-sectional” championship a couple weeks back. Nazmeen also got in on the celebration and bought Tazul a birthday cake. We invited Tazul to our house in Jessore to have lunch with us since he isn’t fasting. After lunch we surprised him with the cake and gifts. It was his first birthday cake, first birthday song, and first gifts he has ever received. From what we have learned, birthdays really aren’t that big in the Muslim religion to begin with, but in Bangladesh, where people are living day to day, a birthday is just like any other day. For the first time since meeting Tazul, he was speechless. He had no idea how to react. At first, we weren’t too sure if we committed some awful cultural faux pas. Tazul literally sat at the table for 5 minutes without speaking a word, looking confused, contemplative, and generally aloof. He got out his phone and started fidgeting. Even Nazmeen didn’t know what to think. It turned out that he was texting me thank you and how honored he was to spend his birthday with us. Phew!! He just couldn’t verbalize his thoughts. It was a moment I will remember the rest of my life.
Ok, sorry for the long post, but two weeks leads to a lot of experiences. To finish off this blog, here are some interesting facts/things we have learned thus far.
Starting a new portion to the blog every week: Interesting facts/things for the week
In Bangladesh they sell rope by the kilogram not by the meter.
In Bangladesh all food has bones, because bones add flavor.
In Bangladesh you do not eat pineapple after drinking milk.
In Bangladesh you do not drink water after eating fruit, but you must drink at least a liter after having jackfruit.
It was a relatively quite week here in Asia. While our friends back home feasted on bbq and gathered together to watch fireworks we were busy sweating. Don’t you fret none, we had our own 4th of July celebration here but we had to wait until the 5th. It was a great party we hosted and we even got our hands on some hooch. Jordan has the misfortune of having the first sickness of the trip, therefore, delaying our celebration one day so he could partake. All I can say is thank you doctors at home for prescribing us a prophylactic dose of Ciprofloxacin as it kept Jordan from being flown to Dhaka to see the doctor. Therefore, I am reminded of a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon in naming this week’s theme; In sickness or in health, OR, A hooch a day keeps the doctor away.
As many of you have herd us complain about the lack of libations, hooch is well, hooch here. According to the all and mighty Miriam-Webster the definition is: Hooch (n) – slang: alcoholic liquor especially when inferior or illicitly made or obtained. What I can’t tell you is where we obtained this “wonderful” social lubricant, what I can tell you is that “wonderful” is to be said as dry and sarcastically as you can muster; preferably with a face indicating extreme disgust. Jordan and an unnamed party went off to the far reaches of downtown Jessore, to an alley comprising of about five shops. Within one of these shops was a legitimate speak-easy where you were invited back to explore a whole shelf of local spirits. You have your selection of Vodka, Whiskey, Gin, or Rum. All are made in Bangladesh with pride, ahemm ahemm. The rum was called Carew’s Rosa Rum and each of the forms of Carew’s come in the exact same 750 mL plastic bottle. Jordan opted for the rum as it paired best with our various fruits and sodas we have available to us (Pineapple, Coke, and Sprite). In addition to this fine batch of molasses derived ethanol he procured three beers. For all of my Svecia friends, these beers made BEAST taste like a Summer Shandy on a hot lake day. For the non-Svecia crowd, a cold 5% beer in a dry country on a 100 degree day never tasted so good. Jordan, Savaila, and I went back the next day to pick up a few more brewskies to have at our party and let me tell you Friday is like Sunday in a small Midwestern town, nothing is open. When some of the locals saw three Badeshi stop where the speakeasy was they came over to assist. Now let me preface before I continue, Alcohol is not illegal here for foreigners, for the devout 80% of the country however, it is, so what I am about to tell you is not as bad as it sounds but never the less I did feel a little scummy as we walked away. These two men recognized Jordan and said, “Ahh, you are back,” Jordan told them three beers, and gave them Tk 500. Off they went and returned in three minutes with a small bag with three ice cold beers (Beshi tanda beer) and off we went. I had the pleasure of stuffing them in my pack and had a mini air conditioner on my back on the way home.
For our Fourth of July dinner we had chicken tacos, Kraft mac & cheese, garlic mashed potatoes, chips, fruit salad and cookies. Man, what a feast. It cost us an arm and a leg in Bangla prices but we were able to throw the whole feast together for about Tk3,000 or $35 (including alcohol) for 8 people. We even had the pleasure of picking our chickens from the cage. We were fully expecting to take the chickens home alive but the nice men at the meat market went ahead and did the deed for us. I was fully prepared for this to be my last chicken meal but surprisingly watching the slaughter of my dinner wasn’t as scarring as I had expected. Thanks dad for preparing me for the running of the body with your stories from Aunt Triva’s farm when you were a kid. The kicking after the decapitation was odd, but didn’t last too long, and then once it had stopped the bird was skinned, dressed, and packaged in about 2 min. Talk about fresh meat. It wasn’t as delicious as expected, then again the idea of a perfectly cooked chicken here is a little on the dangerous side, I will opt for overcooked meat any day looking at the sanitation conditions. It’s really easy to not think about where you food comes from and how it’s treated. Looking at the chickens at market really makes me want to start eating cage free, organic chicken when I get home. Even though its way more costly, I think I have been swayed. Even though they are there for us to eat, it doesn’t mean their life should suck while they’re living. Food for thought, ha get it.
So as I had said before we had to delay our festivities a day. Jordan started feeling ill on Monday, by Tuesday he had a fever and was only awake to go to the bathroom and drink water. Due to the sanitation in this country life threatening diseases can strike in a matter of hours. Whenever someone starts to feel under the weather, we are supposed to let the boss know, if we aren’t better the next day we are flown to Dhaka to go to a proper hospital. They have hospitals here in town but they are not where you want to be if something goes wrong. They serve their purpose if you have the sniffles or need a prescription but this country has diseases that haven’t been in the US in almost 100 years. Jordan started his Ciprofloxacin right away and our mini-pharmacy I brought will helped lessen his symptoms. His fever broke Tuesday night, and the worst of the danger had passed. The next day the bosses got together and determined he didn’t need to go to Dhaka but the local hospital for some extra drugs would suffice. As a foreigner you are given preferential treatment wherever you go, this holds true in the hospitals too. As soon as he walked in the door he was ushered to a room where a doctor promptly attended him. There are no fancy culture labs or quick tests here, the doctors have an intuition that is quite efficient and strangely accurate at the same time. All Jordan had to do was stick out his tongue and the doctor said, “oh good, you’re ok, you just need some simple meds,” wrote a script for an anti-ulcer drug (antibiotic), more cipro, and a anti-protozoal in case it was Giardia or cryptosporidium. Within 24 hours he was back to his normal self. And in 36 hours was complaining about the fact he still had to eat rice and green banana mash with salt and sugar. I felt bad and decided he needed a little protein so I sneaked him some liver from my curry (I sure wasn’t going to eat it and neither did Jordan). So now he’s back to normal and done with his meds. Crisis averted.
So on a totally different note. The organic farming has movement! This week Savaila and I got wrist deep in 70 lbs of cow manure and made some awesomely stinky compost. We have to turn it every 3 days, and I may start turning it every other day as it’s kind of stinky and it shouldn’t be. In addition to making compost Savaila and I mapped out our organic plots this week. We had to talk to the landscape architect, Rajesh, and the original plan will have to be meshed with Rajesh’s, but it should work perfectly. The plots are next to the river and are the perfect area for what we want to do. Not only that, but the land is completely virgin so we will get to use a cow plow to till the soil! This coming weekend we have Panigram Aprenticship Experience (PAE) guests. These are people that come to stay at the resort and help do tasks while they are here. This weekend I am going to have them make compost, help prep a test plot, help till the field, and collect cow urine to make fertilizer with. I’m am totally looking forward to watching 8 people roam about a herd of cows all waiting for one to pee and then watching as they try to catch as much as they can in a bucket. Should make for quite a video. Kristin has put me in charge of coordinating with Huda various activities for the guests to do so I should be quite busy this coming weekend.
While sitting around after everyone had left the fifth of July celebration Nazmeen, Jordan, and I were solving the problems of Bangladesh. We were all able to really open up and voice our frustrations, concerns, and wants as it was just the three of us. Jordan was feeling a little underutilized and between Nazmeen and Jordan they were able to hash out a plan to make the English classes more efficient; I had hit a wall 30 minutes prior and was pulling a Bangla and staring at a wall. Jordan is going to take one of my assistants, Jeena, to a small village close by and document the daily life of the villagers. This village was set aside by the government for disadvantaged women, and the darn non-disclosure agreement we signed prohibits me from telling you its name, so I will be calling in Village X from now on as that is much easier to say and type. Jordan will be looking at what the people are doing and then be setting up simple lessons to teach the villagers the English translations of what they are doing. Most of these people are not literate so it will be mostly vocal teaching but it will be a great challenge. In addition to this he will be having some of the more advanced students meet him in different locations around the area so they can practice their conversational skills. While most of the students won’t be tour guides it will be immensely helpful for them to be able to express their culture.
In addition to the Village X project, that sounds like either an awesome band name or some diabolical secret plot, Jordan was able to go to a local elementary school this week and sit in on a few classes. The Principal of the school received him and they shared some bananas and sweet toast before he was able to see the classes. One of the students in Jordan’s English classes is a teacher at the school, maybe we can work an organic food lesson in one of these days; although, that will be quite a challenge. The kids seemed to be fascinated by this Badeshi that had come to visit their little classroom. It would be amazing to see what giving these kids some computers would do, the town does have four computers that anyone can use but just think of the potential.
On the food front this week we tried two new fruits and one returning dud fruit. A second chance was given to the Fozlie mango… this one was surprisingly good. Nice and tart with a bright yellow flesh and good citrus notes. So glad this one was better, that first one was just terrible. The new fruits were a local rarity, the Burmese grape (Baccaurea ramiflora), talk about a good find, it tastes like one of those baseball mitt ice creams from the ice cream man when you were a kid. It even has a little of the flavor of the stick in there. They are only around for about two weeks so I plan on eating a bunch while I can and at $1.50 for 2.2 lbs they are a steal. Who knows if I’ll ever have them again so I better eat up. A cool thing we noticed while eating them the seeds turn this awesome shade of blue or purple as you suck on them; almost the same shade as sour grape Jelly Belly’s. The other fruit we tried is Indian Persimmon (Diospyros peregrina), not so great. It had no flavor and let me tell you it was uglier than an ugly carnie at a back country fair. This fruit does have a saving grace though as it’s used extensively in Ayruvedic medicine (Indian herbal medicine). The fruit can be used to treat dysentery, cholera, cures excessive salvation (didn’t know that was a problem), and the stem and bark can be used as an antiprotozoal, antiviral, hypoglycemic. Additionally, the fruit can be rubbed on the bottom of boats and fishing nets to prevent rot. Kinda cool that this terribly tasting fruit actually has a purpose aside from a few groups that eat the leaves in Bangladesh and rural Bengal, India. On a really really cool note, the bark is traditionally used as a cure to Rinderpest. For those of you who don’t know, Rinderpest, or cattle plague, was a terrible disease that would kill 80-90% of cattle during an outbreak that would devastate cattle herds in Asia, Europe, and Africa. It is only the second disease to be eradicated by humans in all of history and that happened just two years ago. The bark of the Indian Persimmon was not responsible for the eradication of Rinderpest but it is cool to know there is a treatment out there that is natural. Yay humans.
Sunday was quite a day. Savaila and I were able to create the boarder of one of our plots and then remove half of the grass. We did this all with a shovel and a hoe, and the land is about 720 sq. feet. Now a sod cutter would have allowed the entire process to be done in 1 hr max, but they don’t even know such technology exists in the world. That paired with the fact they have no leather work gloves means Savaila got her second ever blister yesterday, I got six. The goal is to have one of the plots cleared by PAE this weekend (the Panigram Apprenticeship Experience) so that way they can help mark and clear the other plot. We have some other plans for the weekend but I’ll wait to tell you about them until next weeks, blog.
I was able to try some fish brain on Sunday. Savaila and I had lunch with two of the high ups in the company and we were served a bunch of really cool dishes, a slice of fish, eggplant, bamboo cooked with cinnamon, eggplant innards, and rice. Whenever we eat with Tapon and Moshur (the big wigs) we eat with our hands, I could request a fork but I would be odd man out; besides eating with your hands but it isn’t terrible. The fish head was served in this giant bowl and the big wigs offered it to me first saying it was a delicacy and I can eat anything that’s in it. I politly picked out some neck muscle that looked like the rest of the fish meat but then passed it off to everyone else. As the meal progessed I felt bad that I snubbed their delicacy so I started picking through looking for something gross that I could stomach down. I found what I think was the brain and squished off a sliver. It was this off purple/white/grey color. I showed everyone that I was trying a piece they all laughed and watched intently as I put it in my mouth. It wasn’t terrible, but the texture was kind of squishy and melt-in-you-mouth like. I told them all it wasn’t half bad but the texture was just disturbing. They all laughed.
I was finally able to reconnect with my family this week via Skype. They are in Wisconsin at our family’s summer house called Svecia, and the internet there can be as difficult to deal with as our internet here. For those of you who don’t know my family goes to northern Wisconsin every year to a giant house we all share with the same families year after year. I grew up with all of these people and they are kind of like a second set of family to me. Missing out on the annual vacation has been the hardest part for me while in Bangladesh, the first time I have missed this trip in 26 years. Generally, my family spends two weeks in July up there hanging out on the swimming pier, heading into town to our favorite Midwest small town haunts (St. Vinnie’s thrift store, Moose Jackson Café (only coffee in town worth drinking), Iron Mountain iron mine, etc.) and enjoying the slowdown that comes from surrounding yourself with good friends and low population density. It’s a world apart from what we are all used to, Florence County only has 3,000 people, and “town” is across the state line in Michigan and has maybe 10,000 on a good year. The house was started by seven Swedish families in 1927 and the rooms are generally passed down within families. My family is one of the few, now I’m going to test your recall here, Badeshi families that have ever been voted into the membership. My dad grew up in Chicago and was best friends with two guys who were original decedents when he was a kid and has been going every year since he was 11. Because we are all on vacation and there is upwards of 90 people during Fourth of July week we have two different cooks and a few waitresses from the local area and take our meals together at precisely 7:30-8:30a for breakfast, 12:00-1:00p for lunch (unless it’s Sunday then it’s a 12:30p start), and dinner from 6:00-6:29p (a traditional Svecia dinner is 29 min long, idk, it just is). We do all sorts of fun activities like a rocket boat race, a costume ball, bowling night, a golf tourney, and every Sunday we have church after breakfast where we all sing a few songs listen to a sermon. I caught them at the perfect time right after Sunday breakfast before they went to church service. Now I am not a church kind of guy, normally I prefer to have my spiritual moments in the woods or by myself but I can appreciate a church service from time to time. Very rarely though do I have spiritual moments when I am in church, but going to church in Wisconsin via Skype was the most comforting church services I have ever experienced. One of the members, Donna, passed away last winter and the sermon was involved her and trusting god. I always enjoy church in Wisconsin, but this one touched my soul, so THANK YOU Tim Walker, you impact people even via phone. Never before have I felt the comfort that people talk about involving their church, but now I understand. That’s cool.
Anyway we have a very very busy week ahead. Wish us luck.
Until next week.
Hey all, I thought that since today is Hortal, sorry I have been mis-spelling hartal until this week when I found out the Bangla can’t pronounce some letters and its pronounced Har-tal. SMH (that’s for you Alex and Rochelle). As I promised here is a list of some common words we have been getting to know while we are here. Some basic rules on pronunciation, every time you see a letter S you pronounce it sh. There are four different ways to pronounce the letter D and T, and there are a total of 49 letters, we think, its hard to draw a line. The script looks like Arabic and Mandarin mixed together, it’s quite beautiful.
This is an example of a good portion of the letters and conjuncts in the Bangali language. There are many more characters, well over 100 that combine multiple letters into one. Its daunting enough to learn the pronunciations let alone ways to pronounce the letter "D" four different ways by altering your tongue position slightly.
Colors aren’t too bad, they use the color green and red a lot to describe different foods like lal shak is red spinach (even though it isn’t spinach at all its amaranth, same family but still) and shobuj kola for green banana.
The days of the week are a little off especially Thursday. The work week here is six days Saturday-Thursday as Friday is the Muslim holy day. Some people in really good jobs get Saturday off too but it’s kind of rare. Every Friday we get our housekeeper flowers as she is Muslim and has to work, we call them flower Fridays or Fol (pronounced fool) Shokrobar in Bangla; she gets the biggest smile.
Food is interesting, they eat very few raw fruits and veggies as you can get really sick if you don’t sanitize them properly, refer to the poo post a few weeks back. Here is a list of common fruits and veggies. Something we have been becoming aware of is the use of Formalin in fruits to preserve them. Formalin is a derivative of formaldehyde. It’s a common practice in Asia to use small amounts to help the fruits stay fresh on their way to market as refrigeration is a rare and unreliable thing here. When used in larger quantities (there is not FDA to regulate food safety here) it can cause extreme sickness, liver failure, and death. There was a big problem a few years ago and a few people were tried and put to death actually to make an example. It wasn’t an issue any more until this year when in Dhaka there was a terrible formalin poisoning event where a bunch of people became violently ill from eating lychees and other fruits loaded with the stuff. Anyway be glad you are in the states and don’t have to think twice about how your food is preserved, I’ll take food grade wax any day. BTW the veggie above is called cicinga or snake gourd in English, its awesome.
Some helpful phrases we have come to know and love. The bangle have no use for pleasantries, so you don’t say, “May I please have a cup of coffee,” you say, “I require coffee.” It’s really odd and I find myself saying thank you whenever we leave a store only to have the shop keeper look at me like I’m even more of a bedeshi (not from this country, or as I like to think of it, outlander).
I require coffee/tea
What is your name
My name is ____
Very hot water
I don’t understand
I don’t need
Apnar nam ki
Apni nam ____
Beshi gorum pani
Com gorum pani
The numbers for some reason are proving to be quite a challenge for some reason. The most interesting thing is that there is some odd pattern to number names. In English it’s just the 10’s place + the one’s place. Here the numbers follow a rough pattern, for example, 29, 39, 49, 59 are unotrish, unochollish, unoponchash, unoshayt; however, 99 isn’t part of that pattern it’s not unoeksho like the rest of the _9’s but rather its niranobboi. Go figure.
Monsoon, monsoon, monsoon. Ladies and gentleman the heat has broken for now and the monsoon is in full swing. The monsoon beat out circle of life and books as the theme this week, so all in all the week was gray. The monsoon before was intense periods of rain in the afternoon, however, in the last week that has been replaced with a persistent cover of gray clouds that yield a steady rain day and night.
Time for your science lesson everyone. Today’s topic is the MJO or Madden-Julian Oscillation. This is a medium-term large-scale weather pattern that travels across the whole globe in a matter of 1-3 months. It is a cycle of enhanced and suppressed convection in the tropical atmosphere and is partially responsible for the frequency and intensity of rainfall. Currently we are in an area of enhanced convection in Bangladesh, however this should diminish in the next week or so. The MJO moves eastward across the pacific at about 4-8 m/s so it’s a continually moving wave of influence. Typically the MJO weakens as it crosses the Pacific, sometimes regaining strength as it hits the Atlantic and then exploding again over the Indian Ocean. Often a strong MJO wave will precede the start of an El Nino by a few months. People in California, you know how they say El Nino years have a lot of rain, well the worst rain events that last multiple days at a time are the result of the MJO; and the MJO is suppressed during El Nino years so go figure that. Those pineapple express storms that funnel tropical moisture right at southern California are directly linked to this weather pattern. People on the east coast it affects you too; hurricane formation can be greatly influenced from an anomalous wave of MJO influence in the summer months. The more you know – bah bah bah baaaah.
As for how this stronger than normal MJO affects us here in Bangladesh, it’s just rainy. But with the rain comes cooler weather. It’s been quite comfortable the last few days at a balmy 80. I am not complaining in the least bit, but it does take 3 days for our clothes to dry now… oh well.
What pairs best with rain? Books. I was able to finish book three of Game of Thrones this week. Wow, just when I thought it was going to be a happy ending for once, there had to be a little plot twist; not that the plot twist was upsetting but it ruined the total happiness I was hoping for. Jordan was able to finish book five of GOT two weeks ago. This week he was able to get half way through his book Aztec only to find 33 pages were missing ¼ of the way through. Of course Aztec is part of another five book series, guess we know what he’ll be reading till Christmas.
The circle of life made itself quite well known this week. Friday morning we lost one of our cats to some unknown cause. Honey Bunny was never quite normal and always the weaker of the two kittens but she was cute none the less. Whenever she ran she would fishtail out of control and we often found her staring at a wall for a good five minutes. Then again the people do that here too. I can’t tell you how many times we have been walking down the road and find a person standing in the middle of a crowd staring off into space. Naturally a few people stop and look in the same direction and they too just start staring. Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe I should make a foil hat just in case. Anyway, we had to get permission from the home owner (as Panigram rents the house we live in) to bury Honey Bunny. We held a little memorial for her as the rain came pouring down and we dug a hole. It was as nice a funeral as any cat had ever had at this house. At least we still have Pumpkin, our little Simba who has just started teething this week, yay.
We were able to go to an International Trade Fair this week with Naz, and we got all sorts of three-pieces for the quilt. It was a little overwhelming with all of the people, were talking huge numbers of people all crammed into a small area but it was really cool. They even had a Ferris wheel, you can be sure mom and dad we went nowhere near that death trap. It was literally a 20-foot high four-car rebar terror wheel. They packed six people into a car that should have fit four and some cars had 8 with children standing in the middle. It was amazing it didn’t fall apart. There was one International tent, for Pakistan none the less. We all got asked if we were Pakistani… we blankly stared (only for 5 seconds though as we wrapped our brains around the question). The Bangladeshi hate the Pakistani, mostly due to the war of 1971 but it’s this really odd lingering hatred that is present in some people from all ages of the population. One rickshaw driver even told Savaila to get out of his rickshaw and refused to take her “Dirty Pakistani money,” one day when he found out where she was from. It’s really strange, but it was good to see a tent for Pakistan there. Inside this tent was the most ridiculously priced clothing, they wanted Tk6,000 ($85) for a cotton three-piece, it should have been Tk800-1000 at most ($12-15). Oh well Pakistan at least you tried, it’s more than I can say for any other country that wasn’t there.
This week Jordan got to teach on his own. Last Wednesday, Nazmeen was summoned to Dhaka to work out the situation with her visa. Jordan was excited to take over the afternoon classes. Everything went great! In normal Bangla fashion Nazmeen’s visa was held up and all the officials were asking for bribes. A Panigram policy states that there will be no bribes paid for anything, this lead to a stay in Dhaka of almost a week before the situation could be settled and Naz became a legal worker once again. Jordan had the honor of leading his first full day of classes on his own. This turned out to be quite an adventure. The van left a half an hour late, leaving no time for the infamous table naps that are soo needed that early in the morning. It was a very stormy and rainy day and with these conditions we get to experience the lack of infrastructure in this country. NO POWER. The generator was turned on, but the generator only powers three fans and the projector. A dark and stormy day with no lights made it very hard to use the whiteboards and none of the students could see. To top it off, the lessons and video that were supposed to be used for the day, ended up being corrupted and would not play on the laptop. Hooray, a change of plans! Jordan ended up giving his M6 (highest level of fluency) classes the assignment of a presentation due on Sunday. “If I had $10 million dollars…” The M4s (earlier in the progression of classes) got to do a mixed review of everything that they have learned since we have arrived. All in all, after the morning issues of no power, no lights, no nap, and no lessons, Jordan was able to pull off a successful day of teaching on his own.
Now that we have been here for almost a month, we are starting to be recognized. The other day after the international festival we were in an easy bike on our way back and the guy sitting by me leans over and says you live in that blue house and work for Panigram, right? I had never seen this guy and was a little unnerved, but quickly I realized I do stick out like a sore thumb. His name is Regin and he applied for the English teacher position but didn’t get it because English wasn’t his first language. We now see him around town all over, usually with our friend Babu the soda vendor by the railroad tracks. Babu gives us a great deal on 1 liter of coke, Tk50 or about $0.75. Whenever, we pass by he waves at us, it’s nice to have people wave at you. It’s even more noticible in the small village we work in, on market days if we need help translating all we have to do is look around and someone will see us and come to our aid. I am really making progress on my Bangla, I’m nowhere near conversational but I am starting to string words, albeit with terrible grammer, but it helps a lot in terms of public relations. If there is time this week I’ll post a list of numbers, foods, and common phrases.
The girls and I found out that Rajesh, the landscape architect, was planning to have some organic farmland on the resort grounds. This is perfect for our organic farming project as it’s a highly controlled atmosphere that already has space reserved. I have a phone call with him on Tuesday to talk details. I am looking forward to talking to him, as the last week has had little movement in physical progress of the project. We have plans to start our quick compost Monday, keep your fingers crossed that our friend Sumon was able to coordinate 32 kg of cow manure and 16 kg of rice husk. Yup that’s right, 70 lbs of cow poo; and it all gets to be mixed by hand, Yay, more poo!!! I swear. Oh, speak of (you knew deep down it was coming), we have successfully avoided pit toilets until this week when Jordan tackled that problem at Union Council head on (ha, get the pun?). He said it wasn’t bad, but was glad it was a private pit toilet as opposed to the more common communal pit toilet room and that he was really glad there was T.P. available.
Wish us luck as this week we have a full schedule, cow poo, land coordination, a soccer match in Chowgatcha (look it up its actually on a map!), 4th of July dinner (tacos, kraft mac & cheese, fruit salad, and something else) on the roof, guests at the resort, and a supposed hartal on Wednesday. Have a safe and happy fourth everyone. Miss you guys at Svecia, launch a bottle rocket for me, and good luck to everyone in the boat regatta. The Jessore Jet is bound to put up a fight, or fling poo... something that will leave a mark (hehe).
Another week come and gone, and boy howdy was it a week.
We had a professor from the University of Libral Arts Bangladesh ULAB join us who specialized in organic farming. The theme this week was thankfully not poo, but rather mangos; I’ll elaborate below. We had an extended say over at the resort site and are starting to carve a little niche into the village. As a reminder we have to keep the name of the village a secret concerning anything published on the web per our confidentiality agreement, sorry. We made our first fabric purchase, and I am picking up even more Bangla. Gascon clan, Shanghi is now everyone’s favorite game and helps whittle away many an hour. We also have been getting to know some local foods very well.
To elaborate on the theme of the week, mangos, it was a glorious week for what one of our new friends Amadol calls the “King of Fruit.” It all started actually on Thursday evening, quite late in the week for a theme to develop but hey we’ll take it. It all started in the village market and saw the biggest mango we had laid eyes on in this country, it was a Mollika mango, coming into season right now (yesssss). This variety has a flavor that is out of this world, with a creamy yellow-orange color and a tart yet sweet sensation it tastes like citrus, melon, and honey. We were sitting at our favorite bamboo platform at Rotan’s tea and gorga shop sipping lal cha (red tea – not rooibus tea but just plan black tea here is called red for some reason). Amadol, the Bangla version Fez from That 70’s Show, was with us and Samul joined us after we had finished tea. Samul is the oldest member of the English classes at 42 and is a sugar middle man as well as mango and lychee grower. As we finished our tea he asked if we would like to tour of his mango garden.
Of course we couldn’t refuse, so off we went after paying for all four teas at a whopping Tk12, or 17 cents. We walked through the teak forest and past the primary and high schools where a lively game of soccer was going on. We headed to a secluded corner where the Muslim school was and through a little gate. We entered am orchard that looked like any back home, neat orderly rows of tree after tree some heavily ladened with beautiful green mangos. We made our way to the center of the garden to find his mango shepherd. Not his real title but the job was the same. By night this man sleeps among the mangos protecting them from thieves and has a mango stick both to pluck his wards from their lofty perches and give a smart whack to the fool that tries to steal any mangos on his watch. Samul asked if we would like a mango and of course who could refuse a fresh picked mango right from the orchard. When we asked what type of mango it was he replied, Rupali. Now after doing a little research online I found that while it was quite clear he was saying it with a ‘p’, online the name Rumali is a type of mango grown all over India (of course that’s most likely in Hindi). We also discovered mango is most easily peeled by hand without the aid of knife or vegetable peeler, at least these varieties. Just pierce the skin with a fork or other quasi sharp thing and peel like an orange, then feast. The Rupali has a green rind when ripe and orange flesh and has a very nectar sweet flavor heavy on the melon notes. It’s ok, not as good as the Mollika but still an amazing fruit. I think these are used a lot for juice as they are very sweet and have a nice color. We sat an enjoyed the peace and quiet of the orchard and the sweet fruit it bared. As we prepared to leave he sent us home with about seven more, we had a feast that night.
At the Jessore market Saturday we found a new type of mango called Fazlie. Poor Renee Carlton was FaceTiming with me last night when I showed her how they eat mangos here. The result was me eating a mango as big as my face getting juice and pulp everywhere; nothing like being a heathen when you’re eating the king of fruit. I’m not sure if I just got a bad one but it was just ehh, not very sweet, and very high in fiber. In fact I still feel a little string hanging out between my teeth, looks like I’ll be heading to the market for floss later today. According to the internet it should be low in fiber so I think I got a bad one. Muslima said that this is a good mango to juice and started kneading the fruit bruising it to no end. Then she said you freeze it and suck out the innards when it’s thawed. When we asked what everyone’s favorite mango about 90% of people say Himshagor. Unfortunately, the season for the Himshagor as passed and all I can hope is we tried one without knowing. If only I had been aware that everyone’s favorite was an early season variety.
It was dreadfully hot all week. We’re talking temperatures in the upper 90’s with 80-90% humidity. In case you missed the instagram post one day we had a heat index of 117! The best part we have no AC, yup, none what so ever. That 117 degree day the power went out too, welcome to the gates of hell I believe is the right term. Even in the dead of night its hot with a heat index of 96 the other night at midnight. The monsoon has been non-existent for the last few days too finally returning on Saturday. Today is a much cooler, maybe a heat index in the low 90s, it’s almost like winter in comparison to earlier in the week.
On to the professor. Man, am I ever glad he came to help us, we learned so much and he saved us from embarking down a path that would have led to almost total disaster. You see not only was this man a professor but he also spent many years as an organic farmer here in Bangladesh AND he practices ayurvedic medicine.
Aside warning: Now I’m not going to fully knock traditional medicine because it does work in certain areas and is amazingly wonderful in terms of psychological benefits through meditation; but sometimes it makes sense to blend eastern and western medicine. Take for example water intake. For some unknown reason people here don’t drink enough water to stave off mild dehydration. For goodness sake when its 117 degrees out, you take a liter of water wherever you go and finish it within the hour if your outside. You also should be taking oral rehydration salts (striped down and enhanced Gatorade) every few hours to help rebalance electrolytes lost though sweat. No one here does that, just Jordan and I, guess who’s only had one headache? They seem to seek out medicinal herbs to help with headaches and the doctors say don’t work in the middle of the day (duh); and refuse to take the oral rehydration salts unless they have the runs. I find a lot of resistance when I try to explain simple proven anatomy and chemistry can be fortified if you acknowledge western chemistry. Sigh…
Back to the professor, He was a very quiet man but he was full of information that was so very helpful in our ability to plan this organic farming endeavor. We have been working with a local farmer Dudu to allow us part of his land to use for the organic farming test plot. Well Dudu was much more than generous, he allowed us to use an entire acre. Now that’s way too much for what we can accomplish in a few months. I know it doesn’t sound like much but the goal is to make a plot that is well organized and easy to tend with little to no labor as you guessed it even with oral rehydrating salts I don’t want to work in 117 degree heat. The area farmers can then come and look at the plot and see how the process is done and decide if they would like to convert their farms as well. In Bangladesh they segregate their land into kata, or 435 ft2 areas. There are 20 kata in a Bingha and three Bingha in an acre. We wanted the test plot to be between one and three kata, so you can see why we were amazed at the 60 kata we were offered to work with. Now this acre of land wasn’t empty, in fact it had just been fertilized and planted with a jujube orchard. Not good. With the fertilizer in the soil the test plot was going to do great this year and then terrible next year, because we couldn’t add fertilizer to it. Nazmine was telling me that it was refreshing that I was forecasting for next year’s success; typically the locals would just forge ahead and not think about long term success. The professor was telling us when you add pesticide and fertilizer to an area you kill the ecology in the soil and it takes up to three years to start to bring it back (hence the three year conversion to organic). He told us that if we were to use even just a portion of this land we would have a significant challenge ahead of us. Not only would we have to bring the soil back to life but we would have to make agreements with all the surrounding farmers that they needed to be extra judicious with the application of fertilizer and pesticide to ensure it didn’t blow onto our test plot. Even with a buffer zone and drainage ditch it was a risky endeavor. Not to mention the rest of the jujube orchard would be without pesticide and without the buffer area. In addition to that, if everyone around you is spraying pesticide and you aren’t, where do you think the buggers are going to go? Yup, they are going to make a bee line for the test plot.
When the professor was explaining to Dudu the process in setting up the proper boundary for the organic sector and the types of plants you need to include to rejuvenate the soil you could see his excitement wane. He is still very interested in going organic but the test plot is now even more critical than ever as an educational source for the community. When converting you need to think about how to enrich the soil with Nitrogen, the job that chemical fertilizer typically performs. In organics this is easily accomplished through the use of legumes, they have special little nodules on their roots called mycorrhizae that are fungi that take Nitrogen from the air (air is 78% N) and fix it into the soil. Every four years you plant a field with legumes to infuse nitrogen. For our test plot we will be scattering a small amount through the entire test bed to help accomplish this task. In addition to help act as a pesticide you need to plant different plants that help repel bad insects and attract good insects. This is easily accomplished through the use of marigold and coriander. This is all fine and dandy but if Dudu wasn’t sold on the financial investment to his own land we needed to find an alternate and quick.
We spent the next morning scoping out parts of the Panigram property that could potentially be used for a small test plot. The boss wasn’t too keen on the idea of putting the plot on the resort because they had already planned the landscaping, but when I told her a successful plot was most important to the overall success of convincing farmers to go organic and the original plan would require large amounts of continued labor, among other reasons, she agreed the resort land may be the best option. Luckily the on-site spa is Ayruvedic oriented and they wanted to have a medicinal herb garden adjacent to the building. We will be pursuing this option with fervor as it makes the most sense for long term success for both education for farmers and benefit towards Panigram.
We discovered that even though we have one or two farmers interested in going organic we still need to increase the awareness of organic in the surrounding area. Bangladesh has only 799 acres dedicated towards organic farming as of 2012, there is huge potential for the village to be known as the organic capitol of the country. We are now planning to launch an education campaign in the local village at the primary and high schools as well as in the English classes that Jordan is teaching. If we can get the villagers talking organic and mentioning it in the market maybe we can create enough demand for more famers to want to become involved in the conversion effort. In reality all we need three or four famers that all have land adjacent to one another to commit and we can start the process at the juncture of their land. As I said before a buffer zone needs to be created to help repel insects and filter runoff. Take a little trip back with me to middle school math for a moment. As the size of a shape increases the area increases at a higher rate than the perimeter. So as the more land we get involved in organic becomes larger the cost to the farmers to install the buffer zone decreases.
We also learned how to create bio-fertilizer and pesticides from Shafiq. It’s stunningly easy. For a really great foliar fertilizer you take one kg (2.2 lbs) of new bean growth and wrap it in a used (very important it isn’t new and if it is you must rub it in mud first) cotton cloth and create a tea bag like satchel. Put this in a clay pot filled with five liters of water, cover with an airtight plastic, and bury in the ground for 14 days. After the 14 days, unearth the pot and add one drop of fresh water. If a volcanic eruption ensues you have successfully created fertilizer. You can also do the same thing with cow urine, although the thought of waiting around till a cow urinates is a little too close to last week’s theme of poo. Not to mention having a 6’4’’ guy racing to hold a pot under a peeing cow is going to be quite a sight. You do the same thing as before but without the bean vegetation tea bag. For a great aphid repellant take ash from a fire and mix it with just enough kerosene to make a paste. Then fling this mixture toward the underside of leaves and voila there goes your nasty aphids.
Every time I learn about something new in this country I always seem to mutter the theme song from the “The more you know” NBC public service announcements, ba ba ba bahhh. Its uttered a lot here.
We had an interesting run in with a familiar plant from our SoCal culture the other day. Weed plants, growing well like weeds. Seriously, we get out of the car at the disadvantaged women’s village and the professor walks up to it and goes huh do you know what this is? Jordan and I play dumb and say uh, hemp? I’m not sure if he was just not understanding but he said no and that it used to be used as a drug. I cocked my head, used to… Had he never looked outside this generally drug free country? I had to break out the scientific name, and he shrugged at that, but make no mistake it was a full blown Cannabis sativa. As we were leaving the area we noticed marijuana was EVERYWHERE. I’m not sure if people smoke it, it didn’t seem to be cultivated but rather a feathery roadside shrub. Strange strange country.
Yesterday was a much needed day off, and we relaxed hard. I powered through about 100 pages of the Game of Thrones, getting to the Red Wedding before throwing the book down in disgust and proclaiming I was over it. Then 20 min later decided the best way to get over the shock was to keep reading and move on. For those of you that follow the books or the show, I imagine you had an equally similar reaction. We went to our new favorite place to spend money on afternoon snacks, café de light . We went with Naz and Savaila and we all pigged out on French fries, ice cream, milk shakes, these funky roll things with chicken and spice and some sauce, cake, Faluda (a fruity creamy drink thing with tapioca, gelled fruit stuff, ice, and apple chunks), and a chicken hot dog with cheese. Side note: cheese does not exist here unless it’s American slices, no cheddar, no parmesan, just American singles. All that cost the four of us $5. It was a nice treat. We purchased two saris that will be either turned into a table cloth or a quilt when we get home, and got some greens to have a salad. We had to wash everything in bleach water for 30 min and the rinsing part was a pain because we had to use filtered water. This will be a rare treat as the work was not worth the reward, salad dressing is absent from this place.
Well. Until next Sunday have a great week everyone. We miss you all and can’t wait to come home to a proper salad rinsed in tap water with a nice creamy ranch dressing.
First off Happy Father’s Day! Wish you were here to experience a wild ass day with me pops, but I figured a long blog post would be the next best thing.
What a week. The theme Poo. Yup you read right, poo. This place has a totally different spin on sanitation. Not to say the world is covered in poo here but that’s pretty close. It’s in the street, it’s on their hands and therefore every surface they touch, it’s on the cat (until I gave it a bath which was quite fun), at the school yard (the herd of 24 cows didn’t help), propped up against houses to be used as kindling, formed into patties on the sides of trees, in the river, I assume on all fruits and veggies until they are washed, in essence I am now one with the poo. I’m not pleased about this but for some reason the universe is telling me its time to deal with poo. So now that you have heard the “p” word 5 times in 2 min. You can thank the lovely people of Bangladesh for bringing you back to a state of second grade giggles or repulsion.
The girls and I had an extremely busy week prepping our report on the state of the fruit and vegetable market in the greater Jessore area. We even enlisted the help of Jeena’s cousin who lives in the great city of Dhaka in the acquisition of prices from the capitol. What we found is produce here is dirt cheap, potatoes are about 7 cents per pound. In all honesty though that’s about on par with what we pay given the difference in wages earned. In essence it’s like transporting ourselves back to the early-mid 1900’s in terms of purchasing power of a penny. In fact I bought three Mr. Mango lollypops yesterday at a grand total of 10 cents; so ya candy prices of 2-3 cents each.
We have tried all sorts of new foods this week. Many of them, ehh, but some were quite amazing! We tried a fruit called Taal in Bangla or Ice apple in English. It comes from a palm tree. The whole fruit is similar to coconut but more round and with two to three sacks of semi-translucent meat with a juice center. It actually looks strikingly like lychee but without the giant seed in the middle. It’s full of Vitamin A, B, C, Riboflavin, Iron, potassium and some other stuff. It tastes like nothing, literally nothing. No sweetness, no bitter its kind of strange like water flavored grape innards. We also tried Bel, or Wood apple in English. Ding Ding Ding we have an amazing fruit my friends. Muslima took one fruit that weighed about one pound and made four glasses of juice from it. Wow! It’s tastes like cantaloupe, guava, and apricot combined. It was amazing. I am writing specialty produce that they must carry this fruit it would go gangbusters at farmers markets and high end juice bars. We also tried green starfruit, talk about sour, for some reason this country is infatuated with eating fruit that isn’t quite ripe yet. In fact I found out that papaya, or pepe in Bangla, is not allowed to mature all the way. Now I’m not the biggest fan of papaya but when you’re in the tropics for some reason it tastes amazing and when there’s none to be found it’s a little frustrating seeing a papaya tree out your window every day.
We got news from Dhaka that there was a formalin scare with food again. This was news to me, as I had heard about these things but thought they were something that occurred in the past and the governments had cracked down on this behavior. Well I guess about 2 years ago a bunch of produce and meat vendors were putting formalin in their foods to preserve them. Formalin is pretty much formaldehyde and can cause death if ingested. It seems as though almost all fruits at some grocery strores had Formalin this last week, Yikes! Thank god we buy our produce from local farmers and not grocery stores. It looked like lychees were the worst of the fruits and I think the boss may have had a formalin batch. She came to Jessore and had been feeling not so great for a few days and had eaten a bunch of lychees the few days prior to coming. She should be fine but it’s a very bad situation in Dhaka right now.
Yesterday, June 15, we had two guests come and stay at the resort as part of the Panigram Apprenticeship Experience (PAE). They got to stay in a bungalow and help experience various parts of developing the resort. The best part was one of them was the wife to the European Union’s Ambassador to Bangladesh! I got to hob knob with an ambassadors wife, she was so cool. Her sister came to visit from Houston, TX and they man did they ever love the program. They were laying mud bricks, went for a cow cart ride, tried to milk a cow until it was scared away, ate with their hands while sitting on a mud plinth, helped with English class; haha it was great. We went to go eat lunch at a local villagers house (amazing food) and while we were there a calf was born! We got to see its first steps, it was so cute… oh village life. They were one of the most fascinating sister-pairs I had ever met. We talked at length about traveling and their ex-pat status and when I inquired as to what their pat was, I was surprised to find out it was nowhere. The older sister was born in Germany and then moved to Tanzania when she was only a year or so old. That’s where the ambassadors wife was born and they lived there for a while, then spent a lot of their childhood in South Africa. After South Africa it was a whorl-wind of countries they listed off including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Italy, Greece, Bangladesh, USA, Uruguay… and I’m sure many others that I lost track of. I was able to score her email address as she wants me to ID some butterflies that come to her rooftop garden. You can bet I’m going to keep that relationship going, maybe we can get an invite to a fancy ambassador party… oh la la.
Jordan and Naz gave their end-of-module exams to the students this week. I was able to help Jordan give the oral portion of the exam, so in essence we had one on one conversations with about 80 students of varying fluency. We asked them to answer questions on some different cue cards but we were also able to talk to them about their families, favorite foods (one guy loves mango so much he has about six every day!!!), and sometimes for the good ones where they want to go in the world. We found it so interesting that here critical thinking and abstract imagination isn’t encouraged in school. As impractical that I thought primary school creative writing was in the real world I now know it trains your brain to be able to plan for the future even if it isn’t a practical plan. When we asked if you could go anywhere in the world where would you go an overwhelming majority said they would go to the neighboring town, or maybe Dhaka (280km away). Only two out of my 40 students said they would go outside the country, one to the Taj Mahal, the other to Las Vegas. It also amazes me how many Bangladeshi want to go to Vegas, I guess it’s the glitz.
After English class the other day while waiting for the van to come get us Jordan, Naz, and I went to Rotan’s hut (or something like that) to have tea, and gorga! Not sure if I mentioned this stuff last time but it’s worth a second mention. It’s like a churro and brisket mixed together rolled in sugar after it has been fried. We went and hung out with some of the students on this bamboo platform thing under a huge grove of teak trees and chit chatted about anything and everything. The tea was so strong! For some reason they call just straight tea red tea or “lal cha” tea with milk is “doot cha” (doot is also the term for boob) and tea with sugar is “chini cha.” While it technically is street food the water used in the tea is sanitary as its pretty much boiling when they serve it. Even though they reuse the glass mugs they actually sterilize them really well by rinsing them with water from a kettle straight off the fire. The tea is amazing, but the gorga is better. Jordan had the best idea, he wants to get the recipe from this man and recreate it when we open our coffee, beer, wine, and tea café and sell it with 10% of the proceeds going to Rotan. This man has no idea how amazing his creation is. In fact the theme of the restaurant may have to change to coffee, beer, wine, tea, and gorga. It may be hard but I think the two of us combined may have the charisma to get this man to divulge his secrets. Start sending the good vibes so we can make this for you when we get home.
The only thing that weirds me out about water is the Arsenic (Ar) problem they have here. Bangladesh is actually part of history’s worst poisoning event that’s happening right now. Back in the day they used to use surface water but that was resulting in a lot of people contracting cholera and other diarrheal diseases. So starting in the 40’s there was a big push to drill wells to utilize ground water that didn’t have these disease causing bacteria and viruses. Well they didn’t know that the ground water here has dangerous levels of Ar. To give you an example of just how bad it is the US lowered the maximum Ar level to 10 parts per million (ppm) from 50 in 2006. The WHO says safe drinking water is 50ppm. Jessore has 53% of wells testing at 500ppm, and some areas of Bangladesh have 800ppm. What does Ar poisoning look like? Well after about 10 years of drinking this stuff you start to grow weird warty looking things all over your body. They start to go away when you stop drinking Ar water but they are just terrible looking. In Bangladesh 1 in 10 people will develop skin, lung, or gastro-intestinal cancer or get nasty liver damage and die in their life from the Ar. It’s really sad to think that large scale water purification could solve this problem but the country is so far from being able to implement this kind of infrastructure that countless numbers of people will die before it happens.
A bright spot in the health of Bangladesh though comes from the dregs of Dhaka, yet also goes along with this week’s theme of poo. There is a hospital there lovingly known as the Cholera Hospital, the world’s preeminent research area for all things diarrheal. They have a motto that if you arrive alive you leave alive, with like 90-95% of people leaving “cured” within about 12 hours. One of the doctors there invented oral rehydration therapy, it’s like Gatorade but without as much sugar and is credited with saving millions of lives. In fact Jordan and I take one of the forms of this therapy every day, Orsaline. America we need this stuff, screw Gatorade this stuff works magic. Have a headache, feeling a little dehydrated, pound a shot of this salty water stuff then a half liter of water and boom your good as gold within 5 min. Anyway back to Dhaka. Their specialty is dealing with Cholera. Ok, gross yet mind blowing factoid warning. When a person has cholera it isn’t uncommon for them to expel between 15 and 20 liters of “excrement” per day! That’s like 4-5.25 gallons! They even have a record of a some poor man that expelled 35 liters in one day, 9.25 gallons. Yikes. If you remember the terrible Cholera epidemic that Haiti had after the earthquake a few years back, the fatality rate here is like 4%, much lower than the 30-40% Haiti experienced. Bangladesh has two cholera epidemics, one at the start of the rainy season, this year that was before we got here, and one at the end of the rainy season, supposedly September. You can bet we will be far from Dhaka by September.
I was invited to Huda’s house this week to meet his wife Minu and his daughter Manica who is 3.5. We took a rickshaw for a while to the other side of Jessore. It was actually a nice ride although a bit jarring as suspensions here are a foreign concept. Manica watches Bollywood movies so she is learning Hindi as well as Bangla, and Huda is teaching her some words of English. It was so fun once she started bringing me books and toys to share. It is really interesting in that there is no living room or parlor or anything to entertain guests here. Many of the well-off people have a two bedroom house, such as Huda’s, but the second room is bare. I was ushered into their bedroom and was told to sit on their bed. Last time I mentioned how interesting it was that many close friends are very touchy with each other, to the point of making a westerner cock their head in confusion. Well let’s just say if I wasn’t prepared my head would have pulled an Exorcist status rotation but pivoting around my nose not neck. In the west you would only dare change in front of you most intimate of friends and even then that is a rare occurrence, here however Huda changed into his lungi right in front of me. It was a middle school style gym change with putting the lungi on first then taking off his jeans but it definitely caught me off-guard. Then later after he showered the opposite happened. I guess it was just a clear reminder to me how conservative our culture can be about some things, and yet blaringly liberal about other things.
After Huda’s house we went to visit a woman who does embroidery work that was amazing. She was a very nice older woman who made scarves, blankets, saris, and pillow covers. Everyone that works at her shop is a woman and she is a very generous boss. Every kind of cloth was there too, cotton, silk, muslin, I can’t wait to go back and place an order. Today we went and looked at silk at a vendor and wow, talk about overwhelming selection. I have never seen some of the colors we saw today; in short it was a fabric-gasim.
Jordan was invited to Tazul’s house (one of the English students, and z’s are pronounced as j’s) to celebrate his good exam grade. He was able to meet his brothers and nephews and tried his first sour mango. He reports that he likes sour mango, but not as much as sweet mango of “mysti am” in bangla. The both of us were invited into Ikram’s house (yet another English student) to have cake and sprite after exam day. Again we sat in a bedroom. The people here have nothing, yet are so generous with their hospitality it really hits home. Something as simple as offering a soda and cake can make a foreigner feel like everything is right in the world and we all have to look out for one another. Strange and a stretch I know, but this man didn’t even know us, yet welcomed us like old friends. And to top it off, sent us home with 10 mangos he had picked that day. In the spirit of generosity that we had experienced that day we gave a mango to each of the kids that helped us load the van with the school supplies. So in essence we left the village with 5 mangos. It was excellent after dinner snack. Just to remind you no one in the English classes is under 18, and in fact the age range is from 18-42 so were not creeping on some 10 year olds.
After school on Saturday we had about 1.5 hrs to kill before the van came to get us for a terrifying ride back to Jessore. They don’t use headlights and there are pedestrians, bicycles, tractors, rickshaws, motorcycles, easy bikes, trucks, and cows all over the roads. And when they do use their headlights it’s the brights to signal to someone move over or I will hit you head on. Anyway back to the village, we took a brief tour of the town seeing the primary school and high school with a full on soccer game between the two, and then headed to Toideul’s (toy-dull) house to meet his mom, sister in law, aunt, niece, and dog Norman. Nazmine had a hand in naming the dog I think. We tried a new fruit called a hog plum, ya it’s a hog plum because it is only fit for hogs. Tart and with no sweetness, they say adding salt helps but then it’s just salty tart. Nazmine hadn’t seen Norman in a few weeks and man that puppy was waggin’ his tail and crying for a good 5 min. It was really cute. We also learned a new Bangla word, ay. It means come here. It’s kind of strange to hear people calling animals ay ay, it’s really nasally like Fran Dresser from The Nanny, or the seagulls from Finding Nemo.
We had our first Hartal here this week too. Nothing major happened here in Jessore but there was some things that happened a distance away and in Dhaka. They weren’t kidding when they said if it’s Hartal you don’t leave your house until after 6p when it’s over. Again we were perfectly safe and actually enjoyed the lack of horns blaring. The Imam in the center of town was particularly audible that day and it was really nice sitting on the patio reading a book and listening to a prayer in a strange language being broadcast to everyone.
We got Bangladeshi cell phones this week too! We’re not sure what our phone numbers are, as they are like 50,000 digits long (really only 10 I think), and have no clue if they can call out of the country but we have them none the less. It was nice being without phones for a few weeks, but it is nice to have a little safety line in case we get lost or are in trouble.
It was a busy week, hopefully next week will be just as full of adventure. We have the professor from ULAB University coming to help with the organic farming, and Jordan and Naz with be starting new programs with the English students. Follow either of us on Facebook or Instagram to see photos we update bca5 or jrgascon are our instagram handles.
This place is amazing. Talk about a contrast of culture, the adjustment has its moments of bliss and hardship. Hygiene here is like transporting yourself back to the middle ages in Europe. Garbage in piles by the side of the road, open air meat markets with as many flies as meats, they wipe with their left hand and then just give it a rinse (no soap), they eat with their hands (they say its more intimate, I think curry and fingernails are the worst combo ever).
But in contrast to the truly disturbingly disgusting there are some amazing advances these people have made. There are very few private cars due to the cost, but if you have money you will most likely own a motorcycle. For the rest of the people a bicycle, rickshaw (peddle power), vangari (rickshaw with a wooden flat bed to haul people or produce), easy bike (electric rickshaw that fits 5 or 6 or 7 depending on everyones size), or a CNG (death cage! like an easy bike but runs on Natural Gas with metal mesh doors) are the normal modes of transport. Natural gas has barely formed a market in the US yet is more efficient and less polluting then gasoline. Yet here its the primary method of transportation energy. Everyone honks, all the time, the rickshaws have bicycle bells that ring non-stop, its enough to induce a headache of epic proportions if your in the city for more than two hours. The highways are akin to one of those little red roads you see on the maps at home, two lanes, no more, yet they fit 4 lanes of traffic, plus rickshaws and easy-bikes too, along with cows and goats grazing on the side attached to a tree via a leash. There is almost no crime, the things you hear in the news are all centered around the protests that occur (more in the paragraph below). The social structure here is very integrated, if people have to turn to begging or stealing they are the lowest of the low. Families here tend to be very large with extended family living very close to one another Dipu the cook has five brothers and two sisters an thats normal. All of the money that a family makes in a month is generally put into a big pot and everyone looks out for each other. Its very functional as people almost always have three meals a day that include a little animal based protein. Its almost like the Midwest was during the pioneer days but with cars and not wagons.
It is an election year this year and the two major political parties are duking it out though the use of Hartals. These are strikes that are targeted at specific cities that one party calls and all services stop for the duration. Currently in three districts somewhere in the country there is a 72 hour Hartal in progress. When I say all services stop they entire city stops, banks close, shops close, rickshaws are nowhere to be found. The people that still try to go to work are the ones that generally are the subject to violence as the members of the political party that called Hartal will attack anyone trying to go on with life. It's a very strange and ineffective system in my book. The city we are in, Jessore, would be similar to maybe a Souix City, IW back home. Large'ish, with most of the things you need, but very much centered around the regions agricultural bounty. There have been three separate Hartals since we arrived but none have been in Jessore. Part of me looks forward to the first one as we are actually staying within the confines of Bangladesh's version of West Point we will be very safe and we get a day off to sit around the house and read or catch up with the outside world as long as the power stays on (there are about two or three short blackouts every day).
The people's attitude toward foreigners is amazing/strange/unnerving/empowering. We are the most exciting thing to happen in the last few months so everyone stops and stares as we walk down the street. For many of the people we meet we are the first Americans they have ever seen. When we go shopping it isn't uncommon for about 6-12 people to follow us for about a block just watching from a distance. Most keep an appropriate distance but a few take the cake for experiences you can only have traveling on the path less traveled. The other day we were shopping with the English teacher, Nazmine, that also lives in our house (she's a really cool lady from Yorkshire England that converted to Islam about two years ago) and an older woman came up to us. Now when I say she came up to us she was a scant foot from Nazmine's face, gave her the once over, than again, turned and spit, then the once over again. Muttered something, then turned to Jordan, did the same thing, and then to me. We moved on as it was slightly unsettling to have this woman visually examine us from a foot away, but we all had a good laugh about it for the rest of the night.
We have made some very good friends in the village where the project site is. Sumon (pronounced Shoe-moan) and Sagor (pronounced Sha-gore) are both 26 as well and are eager to learn about where we are from. Sumon's English is pretty good, he can understand what you are saying and given enough time can communicate back, albeit with a very thick accent. Both Sumon and Sagor are in Jordan's English classes but Sumon is at level 5 and Sagor is level 3. Most people know hello, where are you from, how are you, but beyond that your lost in translation.
Another bizarre thing about this culture is the prevalence of arranged marriage. We went to Sumon's village last week and met his uncle who reads palms, and his 22-year old sister who was in her new Sari and let me tell you she was stunning. The family is in the process of arranging her marriage to a man in Singapore. If he says yes she will leave for at least 18 years and the only way the family could see her is to fly to Singapore. If this happens it may be the last time many of her family see her as flights to Singapore are about three years wages for one person. It's quite sad actually to think of the permanence of this decision. After 18 years she can choose to come home and live in the village while remaining married to the man or she can stay in Singapore. She has mixed feelings, and was very difficult to photograph, I'm still holding out for a good one of her before we leave.
Sagor on the other hand just got married about 6 weeks ago to a 14 y.o. girl, and here that's totally normal. Normally I would cringe at that, thinking the man is a total slime ball for allowing something like that to happen, but Sagor is so nice and kind-hearted I feel differently. Huh, strange. I still have yet to meet his wife but I am looking forward to it.
Before I forget the woman and child featured in the photo above was in a small village set aside for disadvantaged women by the government. We went with the boss lady to test their embroidery skills so they can make pieces to sell at Panigram when it opens. The people here love having their photos taken, thank god as I need some portraiture practice. The dot on the baby's head isn't a melanoma like I first thought, but rather a traditional Hindu way to disguise the child from evil spirits. The thought is that if you change the outside of the body from what it really looks like the evil spirits wont recognize the child if it were try to steal their soul. Check out Jordan's Facebook page for more photos of our visit to this small village where we learned how to play cricket and made friends with a herd of children.
A few days ago Sumon took us to his village again, a short 5 minute vangari ride from the project site along dirt country roads with cows and goats on leashes and children playing in the river. His village is Hindu, something more common in western Bangladesh as we are only about 15 miles from the Indian boarder. They have a temple to one of the many Hindu gods that is set under a huge Banyon tree. It was amazing, so peaceful with just the sound of birds and cows and chickens; No cars, trains, planes, civilization, just bucolic serenity. His village is the local pottery village, however, during the monsoon they cant make new pieces due to the humidity and rains. We have photos of the village on Jordan's facebook, if you aren't friends with him yet go ahead and send him a friend request as the internet is so slow here we are posting photos to my instagram account to make them small and then they post to his facebook page (just in case his last name is Gascon, although I think we just figured out how to switch what facebook these photos post to today!). After his pottery village we went to see his Aunt and Uncles handicraft village across the dirt road, there we were invited in for fresh mango and to look at the embroidery his cousin does. I have never seen anything so intricate yet so simple. He specializes in Hindu gods and goddesses but he also does some very nice patterns. He is studying for his entrance exams to university and may not have time for us to commission him to do anything but I am keeping my fingers crossed.
We were expecting to be the only interns this year but Kristin (the boss) was able to find two others this year. Sayeeda Jeena (Jeena for short) and Savaila. Jeena is from the second largest city in Bangladesh, Chittagong; and Savaila is from Kashmir Pakistan. Its nice to have someone fluent in Bangla with us as the language is very hard to learn. I'm making steady progress but it's going to take a while. Savaila is fascinating, she speaks nine languages! Five local dialects from her village, as well as Urdu (Pakistani), English, Hindi, and a little Bangla. She invited us to stay at her house any time, we told her we have to wait until our government and Pakistan's are a little friendlier. It really is amazing how meeting someone from a country you are taught to despise through the media can totally change your mind. Not saying all of Pakistan is good all the time, but the people of her area are the thought of as the model for the rest of the country. They have a 90% literacy rate that's equal among men and women, a well funded education system that sees almost all finish high school, many dislike fundamental Islam in preference for their own mainstream interpretation, and they live peacefully with India, China, and the rest of Pakistan. Her village is thought to be the inspiration for Shangri-la in James Hilton's Lost Horizons
published in 1933. From Savaila's front porch she has a straight on view of K2 the world's second highest mountain! Can you even imagine such a sight?!? Google Hunza, Pakistan I think you will agree its one of the most striking landscapes you have ever seen. One of the things I like most about the girls is their friendliness but also that they wear their cultures' traditional clothing. Savaila has some of the most beautiful embroidery on her camisas (shirts in Urdu), and Jeena has some very nice patterns and amazing silks. They are proud of who they are and where they come from, just like Jordan and I. I guess some things cross cultural boundaries and are truly human qualities.
The food is very interesting. Lots of sugar in their desserts, like lots and lots of sugar; simple syrup covers everything. Very little animal protein is eaten here, as its very expensive. Almost every meal has rice and dahl. Now when I think of dahl I think of a thick lentil based mush, here its like a very thin soup with a few lentils and maybe a sour mango, sometimes thick though. Which brings me to my next point, sour mango. Its strange, its the consistency of a potato, with the bite of vinegar (without the taste), and the faint hint of sweet mango flavor. The sweet mangos they have here make our mangos back home taste like a bad peach. The mango is almost orange in color and they eat them like they will never see them again, which is partially true as mango season is only 6-weeks long. Jordan found out the hard way that mango skin and sap has the same compound as poison ivy and he now has bumpy lips and a big ol' welt on his arm. The area around Jessore is considered the bread basket of Bangladesh, so we are spoilt with fresh produce every day. They are a very superstitious culture though. No water for thirty minutes after you eat an apple or mango, but a liter of water after eating a jackfruit (like a banana and bubble gum mixed together and kinda weird gloopy texture). Cold water is not good when your hot because your body isn't used to it... Dumb. Sometimes I just want to shake them and say your wrong! But then again I am a guest in their world so I'll just stay quite and use all the cold water for me ;)
We are making very little by US standards but here we could live like kings on our salary. We found out that most people make about 2,000 Taka (Tk) a month, that's $25. We are making Tk15,000 so you can imagine the buying power we have here just from our salary. If we were to live here, we could have a four- bedroom house, maid, cook, driver, eat out most meals (although you wouldn't want to do that), have a motorcycle, and buy pretty much anything we could need. University professors make about Tk1,000,000 a year, and with that you are truly a rich person. Don't worry there is no way I could ever live here, three months is going to be the perfect amount of time. Also they have no coffee!!! The closest we get is Nescafe instant coffee... its a sad state of affairs here. On the plus side when we get home coffee will never taste so good, and who knows maybe I'll be an instant coffee connoisseur. To make matters worse they don't drink milk, all they have for the instant coffee is sweetened condensed milk, blah. Oh well when in Rome, right?
So far it has been a fantastic adventure, one I am so glad I have a friend to keep me company and remind me of home. I know this place will change me, and I can't wait to see how. But I do know I respect home so much more than ever. Never did I think I would yearn for the orderly traffic jams that move at 10 mph, or soap in a bathroom. The US is great but the world can teach us so much and we seem to forget at times how good we have it. The drive to improve ourselves can be lost on everyone as we focus so hard to accumulate material wealth. That exists here as well, but the happiness these people achieve with so little would put even the most robust American in a depression few could get out of. The world is a great place, the humor that comes with trying to communicate through charades can connect opposite sides of the world in ways we never knew. The key to a smile can be as simple as learning how to nod hello, here you tilt your head to the side, where at home you generally nod (that gets blank stares here). I can't wait to see what this summer has in store, and I cant wait to come home and share everything we learned.