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.