Saturday, December 11, 2010

3 More in Six Million

We are happy to present a guest blogger for this post! Jon's sister Keicha has been kind enough to give us her perspective on her recent visit here, and frankly, we thought you guys might enjoy a change in tune. She'll give a two (or three?) part series on her visit, and we're only slightly scared about the deep dark secrets she'll reveal about the real 3 in 6,000,000 (like for example, that the population of Dhaka is more like 12 million).

The most common, and nearly unanimous reaction from people upon hearing I was taking a trip to Bangladesh was "Why are you going there?!" The surface answer was simple. "I'm going to visit my brother and his family." The real reason was a bit more complicated. First, some background...

My brother Jon, his wife Sam, and their son Atticus temporarily relocated to Bangladesh in the summer of 2009, and soon started blogging about their experiences there. I was quickly sucked in, and their every blog post left me eagerly anticipating the next one. Most conversations with my family usually involved us discussing their latest post. We were all enjoying living vicariously through their experiences.

Late last year my dad planned a visit to Bangladesh. As his trip drew closer, my sister Julie and I talked about joining him, or taking our own trip there together. We spent hours discussing the pros and cons of going. In the end, both of our pragmatic natures won. We both had bills to pay, Julie was saving up to buy a house, I was training for a race, and there were work obligations. We couldn't just throw caution to the wind and go traipsing off to a third world country! So, dad took his trip, and when he returned I listened to his stories and poured over his pictures, wishing I'd been there. Julie and I still talked about going later in the year, but didn't do anything serious about making it happen. Then, in May, the unthinkable happened. Julie committed suicide, and the bottom dropped out of my world.

During the week following her death, fourteen of us stayed together under one roof. All four remaining siblings, plus our kids were together for an entire week. Jason was there too. It was Jason, Julie's dear friend, former boyfriend, and confidante, that had the courage to confirm our worst fears, finding our beloved sister and daughter, and staying with her during those awful hours while the police and coroner did their work. We'd all loved him before, but now he was part of the family. Most evenings that week were spent on the deck, talking, reminiscing, laughing, and crying. It was during one of those evenings that the idea of going to Bangladesh was brought up again. Sam issued an invitation, and the seed was firmly planted.

Life carried on, and I functioned through a dense shroud of grief and confusion that permeated nearly every moment. As I worked through my grief, there were lots of in-depth discussions with friends and family about life, its meaning, and what really matters when it's all said and done. It started to dawn on me that my well-ordered, safe little life hadn't protected me at all. The worst had still happened, and nobody had checked with me first! My good friend Aimee and I talked a lot about losing loved ones, and how important it is to make memories with people you love. Because when they're gone, the memories and experiences are all that remains. One day in early July, as we talked about my longing to see and experience Bangladesh, and to spend time with my brother's family, we looked at each other and said, "That's it. Enough talking, we're going." Since Jason was already about 80% convinced of going, he was ecstatic when I sent him the text saying "We're going to Bangladesh baby!" or something of the sort.

The next few months were a flurry of passport and visa applications, immunizations, planning, stressing about what to wear in a mostly Muslim country (for Aimee and Keicha), and detailed emails from Sam explaining everything we could expect and exactly what we should do every step of the way. If she ever decides to throw in the towel on being a historian, she definitely has a shot at a second career as a travel agent/tour guide.

Finally, the big day arrived. Off we went on our big adventure. It all still seemed a little surreal that I was traveling to the other side of the world. The reality of it started to set in at the Abu Dhabi airport. There were the three of us, tired and a little dazed after 15 hours on airplanes, standing in line to board the plane to Dhaka. Nobody spoke English, and an endless line of women in black burka's with only their dark eyes showing, accompanied by men in traditional Muslim dress, streamed past us. We weren't in Kansas anymore! We boarded the plane, and found ourselves unexpectedly, delightfully, upgraded to Business Class. Aaahh, now this was the life! There couldn't have been a starker contrast than when we left our comfortable Business Class bubble and stepped into the Dhaka airport. I really felt like Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole.

Enjoying the comforts of Business Class.

So there we were, in Bangladesh. Thanks to Sam's instructions we made it to the immigration counter and placed our passports in front of the clerk. As he took forever doing whatever it was he did (we still think he was clueless, and just spent several minutes keying random things into the computer in an effort to appear official), I looked up and saw Jon waving at us through the window. Here I was at 4 a.m., in a completely foreign, unfamilar place, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and excited all at once. I'd made it, and Jon was exactly where Sam said he'd be, on time, waiting for us. I could relax.

We drove throught the dark streets of Dhaka to Jon and Sam's apartment. It was very early in the morning, but we stayed up sitting around the kitchen table chatting, and enjoyed our very first batch of coffee made using their makeshift, modified version of a French coffee press.

Where there's a will, there's a way. No coffee pot? No problem.

Our first day was spent exploring the area near where Jon and Sam live, and getting used to the sights and sounds of one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Dhaka is 59.40 sq. miles in size with a population of over 12 million. The energy of large cities has always thrilled me, and Dhaka was crowded, busy, colorful and loud. I immediately knew I was going to love this place!

To be continued...

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Rishka lagbe na?"

(Don't you need a rickshaw?)
Well we’ve gotten behind on posting (shocking, we know!) and we have yet to tell you about the great visit we had with Jon’s oldest sister, and two friends. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hilarious moments – however, it has to wait. We are skipping over that story for now because we want to post about today instead. [Note: we are aware that we rarely, if ever, actually come back to the things we say we’re going to post more about later, but in this case, we will give it an effort. That’s really the best you get.]

So, today Jon fulfilled a year long plan to drive a rickshaw for the day. Lots of foreigners take a rickshaw for a spin here and there, and Jon already drove Taborok’s rickshaw in the past, but this was a more substantial engagement. Jon worked as a rickshaw wallah (driver) for the whole day- taking passengers and working toward a set income goal. It was really a great experience.

The exercise was partly passing fancy, partly sociological research, and part performance really. Jon had assigned an ethnomethodology breaching experiment to the students in the Sociology course he teaches here. This is basically an exercise in which the researcher breaks social norms to view the reactions and/or to illustrate that social reality is shaped by routines that are sometimes rigid but not even noticed until broken. His students had varying degrees of wildness in their own projects, but generally were pretty mild in their willingness to step outside of social norms. Jon promised his students that he would do a breaching experiment here too, and being a rickshaw driver for a day seemed like a great fit. In addition, Jon has some research in mind in which this participant –observation data will be really helpful. Plus – it was just fun.

So we arranged to have Taborok rent a rickshaw for the day for Jon. At first he was confused, and hesistant, and maybe thought Jon had gone off the deep end a little bit. Then he was protective, and thought it wouldn’t work, that nobody would take a ride from a foreigner. Sam had a talk with him, explaining it in more detail, and said that it was about understanding the day and life of the rickshaw wallah and Taborok kind of came around. He already knows we’re a little nuts, so maybe he just gave in.

Jon was actually very interested in understanding the way the work day went for a rickshaw driver. How long would he have to work to earn enough for rent and living expenses? We estimated about 350 taka a day was needed to live at about Taborok’s level, working 25 days a month – this includes a monthly rent of 2000 taka for a house (tin roof), rent for the rickshaw somewhere between 50 and 100 taka a day, and utilities and food. It is a scarce living goal for sure. Jon also wanted to know how much downtime there would be in the day- is it constant work or is there a lot of waiting around? What was the physical strain like? What is the relationship among all the rickshaw wallahs like? How would they react to this experiment? How would that differ from other class reactions--- there were a lot of questions.

It was an interesting day out, to say the least. Jon was a little nervous this morning when Taborok showed up with the rickshaw, but he was also excited. He put on the typical rickshaw wallah dress of a lungi and a button up and headed downstairs for his day of work. The guard for our building, and the other various workers (we don’t totally understand what they do) were really very delighted and laughing hysterically. They couldn’t believe this was happening. Taborok, while happy, was also still a little unsure. This photo as they are about to take off for the day (Jon began by giving Taborok a ride back home)captures Taborok’s uneasiness pretty well.

So off they went.

Once they got to the point where Jon was dropping Taborok off, it became more clear he was still confused. Taborok asked “Where will I stay?” and Jon said “I don’t know- you’re house?” Taborok looked concerned, and at point offered to just drive the rickshaw instead of Jon. Did he think he was going to escort Jon around all day? We think he did. Jon sent him on his way though, and a few minutes later he called Sam all stressed out to see what was going on. She explained again that Jon was driving today, so if he had a problem he would call Taborok. “OK,” said a worried Taborok – clearly not convinced any more of this idea.
About 30-40 minutes later Taborok called Sam back. He said he had called and checked in on Jon and that he had even had a customer. He was more relaxed now, although we suspect he may have been hiding in the bushes somewhere watching over Jon.

So for Jon the day was a fun social and physical experience. The work was tiring, to say the least, and there was surprisingly little down time. In what little there was though, he had a great time hanging with the other ‘wallahs, chatting about strategy and the job in general. He made a friend quickly that bought him some tea and even offered to work instead of Jon to help him earn the 300 taka Jon needed. That’s ridiculously awesome.

There were others that generally wanted to look after Jon, the wallahs passed on tips and strategies, and were all really happy to have Jon in their circle. It was a nice way of validating the work they do everyday. Passersby and passengers were also all very happy and approving. There were lots of cries of “Good job!” “Excellent” etc…

Some of the observations that Jon made were surprising, such as the low amount of down time. Jon found he actually wished for a little more time between passenger! Also, there were many more formal and informal systems in place than are apparent from the outside. There were clearly rules to the way things flowed, and other rickshaw wallahs were nice and helpful as they taught them to Jon.

There was also a running calculation at all times in Jon’s head, as is the case for every rickshaw wallah, most likely. By about 11, after 2 hours of work, Jon had earned enough to pay the daily rent, but had only cleared 10 taka. He had also gotten a free tea and free water from his new friend, but if he’d had to buy those he’d only have cleared about 2 or 3 taka for the morning. Later, he got a few longer fares, a free juice from a manager of a shop he gave a ride to, and some free cold water.

He was struck though by the fact that as he considered whether to get a little something to eat, the economics were pretty prohibitive. It would mean time not working (and thus, not earning) and it would take out money from the days wages. Finally, when he really couldn't stand the hunger any more, he had some bystanders go buy him a few 3 taka singara (fried samosa like pastries with a spicy potato filling) while his passenger was in a store. They got back just as his passenger did, so he had to pop them into his shirt pocket until he had time to stop and eat them later.

The constant calculation of how much you’ve made, how much you need, how tired/hungry you are was really revealing. It is a razor thin margin of getting by or not making it.

In the afternoon, Jon came and took Sam and Atticus to the store, mostly for the photo opportunity, but we like the simulation of having the random foreigner that you've given your number to call for ride in there as well.
It ended being an interesting encounter with some nice young rickshaw drivers from the neighborhood though, and afterwards it was a good place to get a couple more fares.

At the end of the day, Jon had made 290 taka. He didn’t actually make his daily goal. He worked for 7 ½ hours and his legs were aching. If he’d been a real rickshaw puller, stopping early would’ve meant less food for the night, or even bigger financial problems. It was quite revealing how hard it was to make a meager living in a full day of strenuous labor. It is even more revealing to consider that in a real life situation, he’d have to go out and do it again tomorrow, and the next day, no matter how sore his legs were.

The best part of today was the happiness expressed by so many people that Jon was doing this. Rickshaw wallahs were helpful, excited, generous, and overall enormously happy that Jon had participated in their world. They were welcoming and wonderful – just as we have always known rickshaw wallahs to be. It was certainly a deeper level of interaction today though. When Taborok came to pick up the rickshaw, Jon gave him his day’s earnings. It didn’t feel right to take money away from the rickshaw wallah community, so we figured it should go to a real worker.

Taborok was really happy (now that everything had turned out ok) and he said that “We made history today! We made stories for years and years from now!” He was also happy to discuss the physical difficulties of the job, and so were others earlier. Jon mentioned he had a sore back and legs. About an hour after Taborok left, he called Sam to tell her that if Jon was really in pain he had some medicine he could take. It was a fitting closure for a full day of kindness and generosity from some of the poorest men in the country (and even world).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Crossing the Threshold

As is the case with most rich people, the wealthy here in Dhaka are extremely paranoid that everybody is after their ill-gotten wealth. This fear is especially illustrated by the obsession with security and the widespread use of private security guards at every building, walls and gates on buildings and gates and guards at the entrance to neighborhoods as well. There just seems to be a generalized fear (among the rich folks) that people are out to get you here. We are always being warned about how bad and dishonest all Bangladeshis are (by other Bangladeshis, which is somewhat like the “This statement is a lie” paradox) and even occasionally chastised for our apparent naiveté regarding the boogeyman waiting around the corner. We would, and in fact do, argue that if you don’t go around screwing people over and live a good and honest life, then usually people don’t want to screw you over. Anyway, since we live among the bourgeoisie in Dhaka (who are constantly screwing people over, as is the nature of the bourgeoisie), we frequently have to deal with the obsessive security culture.

Our neighborhood, which was a gift from the former military dictatorship to military officers, is one of these gated communities. So is the diplomatic neighborhood that Atticus’ school and Jon and Sam’s work is in. This means that almost everyday we have to go in and out of at least two security gates. Usually it is not a problem, in fact, they oftentimes seem more symbolic than anything. A majority of the time people come and go fairly freely from both of these neighborhoods, but every now and then, for reasons unknown to us or to others, a new “system” (the word system is used to describe various seemingly unreasonable or anachronistic ways of doing things) will sometimes be instituted.

Random changes seem to be devised and implemented overnight. Our particular neighborhood has experimented with suddenly making one part of a road into the neighborhood one way, so that everyone would be forced to travel further out of their way to enter through the same gate, but at a slightly different angle. This was ostensibly to control traffic congestion, but in fact, just led to back-ups as everybody was forced to turn around. Shortly after implementation though, it was abandoned for a different hair-brained scheme - now they have reversed the direction of the former one way road to be one way in the other direction. They have also arbitrarily decided on many other bizarre configurations of the traffic pattern at each gate, and to date- nothing has really made sense or made any perceptible difference in the constant traffic jam that is Dhaka city between the hours of 8 am and 10pm.

Who are the people making these decisions? Well, they certainly aren’t city planners or traffic specialists with any sense of theory or practical experience with this sort of thing, nor is it even the majority of residents in the neighborhoods making a democratic decision (which the recent elections in the US have illustrated - oftentimes don’t necessarily make sense). Instead they are the self anointed leaders that make up the various neighborhood improvement societies. While we wouldn’t usually take a negative stance on neighborhoods organizing themselves for improvements, (we were, after all, both community organizers!) these societies seems to be the same wealthy elites that run everything and make decisions based on their personal wants and needs rather than on what may be best for all (oh, well so we guess it is kind of like the congressional election in the US!).

So recently the gates leading to both Baridhara (the neighborhood where Atticus’ school and the University Jon is working at are located) and our neighborhood have become major points of contention in our lives. Both gates have decided to start policing their boundaries more, possibly to deal with the continually worsening traffic situation or possibly just because they are carrying out social experiments, or possibly because some guy somewhere felt insecure about his manhood. Who knows? The traffic has certainly created a tense situation- it can take an hour and half to go the same distance that used to take 20 minutes, jams last forever, there are fuel shortages and people are getting road rage like crazy.

We’re assuming that because there have been regular traffic jams between our neighborhood gate and the Baridhara gate the neighborhood societies felt they had to do something, even if that something was not effective in dealing with the actual traffic problem. Apparently this meant that the Baridhara society decided to start enforcing their rickshaw ban at the road 13 gate, which has come and gone through the years. There used to be a sign on the gate that said no rickshaws, but it was never enforced. Then they got a new gate. Taborok (who has worked in the neighborhood for years) said the old policy was that foreigners were allowed to come through on rickshaws, but nobody else. In the past, the guards often hassled us for baksheesh (bribe) when we went through the gate, but we usually just ignored them or told them we would give it to them at another time and they kind of gave up after a few months.

Here are some pictures of the gate, and the cars turning to create the jam. It is actually not that trafficy in the pictures, but you can still see the gate and the general situation.

Yet one day on our way to drop Atticus of at school they suddenly stopped Sam and Atticus on the rickshaw and informed us that rickshaws were no longer allowed. ‘But’ we whined, ‘we’re foreigners. You’re supposed to let us through. That’s the system.’ They informed us no, no exceptions, not anymore. Of course, they did let us through this one last time and said that if we wanted to get permission we would have to call the Baridhara society.

Later that day, Jon was headed to work wondering what would happen at the gate. When he reached it, he was stopped and told he had to get off the rickshaw. See, we should explain. It isn’t that rickshaws are banned in the neighborhood- its just that specific gate that they can’t go through. So, they guard tells Jon he’ll need to get down, walk to the end of the road, where he could just catch a different rickshaw. This is a pain and impractical for us because we pay Taborok monthly, so another rickshaw is an added expense.

The guard told Jon to call the Baridhara society and gave him the number. Jon called, assuming it was just a formality. As soon as they knew it was a foreigner calling they would surely make an exception, right? Surprisingly, Jon was informed there would be no exceptions. Of course, our bloated sense of entitlement would not stand for this. Jon argued with the man on the other end of the line and pleaded and sought an explanation of the policy, but to no avail. Of course he had to also make a public spectacle of all of this, screaming in to the phone and blocking the road. Finally, he gave up and just walked the one or two blocks to work. Meanwhile later, Taborok also called the Baridhara society and they were equally unhelpful.

We decided this could not stand. This was such an injustice! They are only banning rickshaws and CNGs, not private cars. This was clearly class warfare. Not only that, it was inconvenient to us! We marched on down to the Baridhara society and made our case to a midlevel bureaucrat of some sort. They would discuss it at the next meeting, we were told, and asked for a formal request. We returned later with a letter in hand requesting, 1) special privileges for us to use the gate 2) a withdraw of the policy and 3) that they restrict cars turning at the gate (which does create quite a back up since it is nearly a 180 degree turn and always ends up blocking all lanes of traffic). They copied our letter and stamped it with a seal that said received. Aha- we thought, we’ve got paperwork now!

As we waited for a response we told the guards that we had talked to the Society and that we were just waiting for approval. We showed them our stamped letter as proof. This allowed us access for a good week as they assumed we knew what we were talking about. Then finally one day as Jon was about to enter through the gate he was stopped. Jon proceeded to tell the guard that they had a letter… ‘I know, I know, but you can’t come through’ the guard said. No exceptions.’ Our jig was clearly up. They informed us that we would have to use another gate. Jon explained that would be incredibly inconvenient as it would increase our travel time by double, and make us have to use a major thoroughfare instead of side roads. The guard listened and said, that for us they would open the pedestrian gate that is about two blocks up.

This really illustrated the absurdity of the new policy. This wasn’t about keeping rickshaws out, since rickshaws are allowed through other gates. Nor was it about controlling traffic or making the guards’ job easier, since this new practice would cause both traffic disruption and an increase in the guards’ responsibility. But since we had yet to hear back from the Baridhara society we decided this seemed like the best possible solution. So the next day we left a little early to leave time for this extra step, or any other problem that may occur. Instead Sam approached the road thirteen gate in the morning they let her ride through without a notice. But then on the way back out one of the guards shouts something at her and Taborok, which they ignore and continue down the road. The next day we made several trips through the gate without a single hassle. Then one day, Jon noticed them stopping all outgoing rickshaws and CNGs on his way in. As he and Taborok approached road 13 he was dreading another argument with the guards just to get out of the ‘hood and back home. As he rolls up on to road thirteen, he notices the guard has a number of rickshaws stopped with the rickshaw wallahs and passengers all arguing with him as well as a couple rickshaws slowly sneaking around the crowd. Taborok takes advantage of the guard being distracted and swings around them all and down the road, seemingly without a worry of being stopped. Jon says ‘yeah, if all the rickshaws just didn’t didn’t listen…’ After that he looks back and notices that all of the rickshaws that were stopped were no following the road was just a long line of defiant rickshaws – it was great! Later that afternoon. The guards had completely given up. Rickshaws and CNGs were passing through the gate.

It didn’t last though, and off and on for the last few weeks we would get hassled going through the gate. Then they started asking for baksheesh again. Over the last year and half we had sort of taken a principled stance against paying the guards a bribe, but honestly, we were getting tired of the gate uncertainty. Even Taborok admitted we should just pay them a little tip and then we wouldn’t have to deal with the gate problems. It was convenient that we could call this Eid baksheesh (you give out little tips and gifts around Eid to people you encounter often) and not have to admit that it was a bribe to get us special gate access.

So Sam and Taborok went the other day and paid a bribe. The guard we paid was one that has been asking for baksheesh most consistently (it is friendly though) since we moved here. He was delighted to have finally succeeded. We gave them 500 taka and it was being divided among the guards that work that gate. 

Here he is happily posing for his photothe day after receiving his bribe:

Since then, no gate problems. They either smile and wave us through or literally turn their head to pretend they don’t see us when stopping other rickshaws. So that’s what it all came down to. All the calls, the arguments, the visits to the Baridhara society, the letter requesting permission, the fourteen page blog entry about it– we ended up just buying the guards off. We probably just should have done it on the first day and avoided all the effort. We also had to admit that when push to came shove, we weren’t really so principled after all. We totally paid the bribe, despite our constant ranting and raving about the widespread corruption and bribery as the example of how the rich people here (and everywhere) are so disgusting.

Oh well, this is just the system…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Critters, Cremation and Things that visit you in your sleep and try to kill you

Recently some of you may have heard a shorter version of the spider-back porch incident on Sam’s facebook page. Let’s review, and get everyone else caught up, shall we?

So, there are some crazy big house spiders here, but we rarely see them. We don’t see them very often at all, but a few times they pop up and are straight out of a bad dream- especially for Atticus, who is scared of spiders (yet also enthralled by them). These suckers are pretty freaky though, the body is easily several inches in diameter and they have long, disgusting legs. They are quintessentially creepy crawly.

So one turned up a while ago in the bathroom. Naturally, Jon had to deal with it. (Despite our usual egalitarian and liberated household, nothing really resets the gender behaviors back to tradition quite like a bug or critter sighting.) So, Jon captured the spider, and then decided to light it on fire. Sam wholeheartedly did not approve and pointed out that this is the sort of thing serial killers do. It was dead before he burned it though, so it qualified as cremation (in his mind). Jon went to the back porch because that’s his little spot for setting things on fire. Soon, Atticus caught wind that fire was being used so he showed up. The burning of spider body was kind of cathartic for him we think.

Apparently though, spiders are not that flammable. Jon kept having to re-light it. Oh, and have we mentioned the lighter that we have plays a little electric tone song when you light it? It alternates between that song from Titanic and Fur Elise. Also, for a reason only he will ever know, Atticus felt it was appropriate to sing Oh Christmas Tree. Finally, with the help of some rubbing alcohol, the body was disposed of.

So, Sam is still convinced that some serious bad hoodoo was conjured up during all this. In fact, a quite similar situation as this might be the very premise for Freddy Kruger’s existence. Sam’s been keeping her eyes out for the spider’s revengeful return. Over the last week or so, we’ve had several close encounters with new little critters on the back porch. First, a dragonfly became obsessed with Jon and would not leave no matter what Jon did to drive it away. He just hung around all night and when Jon even threw him off the balcony, he came right back, landed on the balcony bars and just stared at Jon. Then, we have a new little tiktiki (gecko) that has been hanging around back there too. He likes to come out when we’re doing the dishes and he catches bugs. We like to watch him and kind of feel like we’ve bonded a little bit. So, despite the slightly nagging worry that maybe these are the spider coming back to burn us in his fire of wrath, the back porch has been transferred from a place of horror into one of cuteness and critter love. Sam took the opportunity to get some pics of our new little friends and play with some photos. Here they are.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween (The Sequel)

Today was the Halloween party at Atticus' school. In the afternoon they had a little event for the parents to attend that included a few songs and an outdoor carnival. In fact, this year was much more well put together than last year – but that isn’t really saying a lot. There did seem to be some organization and actual planning this round though- which is a improvement from many other French school events. There were, of course though, still plenty of just weird things. Jon ad Sam are always happy for these potluck type events though, because one of the French parents (we assume) always makes the most ridiculously delicious crepes. There are definitely some nice perks of attending a school full of Europeans!

So, when we arrived all the parents were brought into a dark lobby lit by jack-o-lanterns and the kids were all in costume waiting and making spooky noises. A few kids recited some poems and then they all sang a song. It was a wonderfully short program. Can you spot Atticus in the pictures below?

He’s hardly visible because his costume is so fantastic. So here’s a quiz for you.
 Is Atticus dressed as:
     A) A Zapatista
     B) A member of a Black Bloc
     C) A ninja

The answer is a C, but honestly, this outfit has potential in many other situations. We also like how completely and totally DIY our costume was. It is just black sweats and t-shit (hey, if ninjas lived in the tropics they would’ve worn short sleeves too!), an old piece of black fabric (off the b-day pirate flag actually!) for a belt, and the bottoms of Sam’s black sweatpants that she cut into shorts – Atticus has saved these for months with this express purpose in mind. Jon sewed them up into a mask and it worked great! Total investment: 200 taka (less than 3 dollars) and he has a black t-shirt he can wear again and sweats we’ll probably have to argue about wearing publicly repeatedly.(Sweatsuits are not for public people- they are for home on a cold evening or bedtime – the only guy who needs to be wearing sweats in public is Rocky Balboa, and honestly, his time passed a while ago too.)

So anyway, he was a damned cute little ninja/anarchist and we didn’t break the bank on a costume.

After the song show we all went out back to the school yard and there were various activities. There was “The Nasty Chaudron” which actually, guys, was a little too nasty. We don’t think we’d even want the candy out of that. 

There was also a game where kids ate donuts off of a string. Brilliant! Expect this at any event we ever host!

There was also “Scary Fishing.” What was scary? We have no idea. Atticus loved it though.

Then there were the many piñatas. They had apparently made them a little too thick (and the sticks a little too thin) so each kid took turns whacking it for ten whacks, and it was really mostly an exercise in futility since they were way to hard to crack. Eventually they figured out how to get them to break though and honestly the hitting of the piñata is the most fun, so the kids were happy to cheer each other on as they whacked away. We don’t know why they looked like planets. One of the many mysteries that always come with EFID events.

We call this picture "Another World is Possible." It really is an inspiring picture.

There was also some dancing, delicious treats, and general fun times. It was nice watching Atticus in his element – he’s become really comfortable there and seems to really flutter to and from different social circles easily. We don't know what to say about this picture though.


So, as we were leaving, we are told to sit and watch the show. What show? Oh, you know, the weird random all-in-french show that the middle school girls are performing in the exit pathway. Nobody really knew it was happening, people were walking though it on the way out – it was the complete mess in terms of organization that we’ve come to expect from the French school. Here’s a picture of the play in progress, and the surrounding confusion.

But all in all, it was a fun time. Here are few more pictures from the day.  What the hell is up with that witch though??!

Happy Halloween everybody!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Feed Me Seymour!

Food prices are really high in Dhaka. It has become a problem (actually it has been a problem for a long time, but it has been particularly bad lately) even for us. The rate of inflation here is pretty dramatic and we have watched food prices (and other prices) steadily increase over the last year and a half. It is easy to notice with goods that you buy regularly- a dozen eggs a year ago cost 65 taka; today it costs 95 taka. That’s a pretty huge increase – almost 50% in one year. Wages certainly have not increased that much.

In fact, we were doing the math and figured we probably spend as much on food here in Dhaka as we did in Boston, which is pretty unbelievable. We don’t really buy a lot of imported or fancy pre-made stuff and eat fairly cheap in general, but food has just gotten absurdly priced here. 1 kilo of the cheapest rice is 25-28 taka, which doesn’t seem like much, but consider that the new minimum wage instituted by the government (which hasn’t even been enforced yet and which most people make far below) is 3000 taka month – that is 100 taka a day. So, ¼ of a day’s salary for a kilo of rice- that’s really expensive. It also isn’t a meal- you have to add even more taka for oil, veggies, lentils, fish, meat, or whatever to make a complete meal. It is hard to survive in this city for a lot of families right now, and just seems like it is getting harder.

We’re obviously nowhere near the dire straights that so much of the population here is in, but as we’re winding down to the end of our own living stipend as well, the food prices are hitting us too. For the next and last month and a half of our stay, we’re trying to really keep our budget together and be careful about grocery spending. We’ve been reminded that the more fresh vegetables we eat, the cheaper we eat (what a switch from the US where produce is so expensive!) and the more local we eat, the cheaper we eat. These are great added benefits of eating cheap, and we don’t mind one bit. (On the down side, there is however a much increased food preparation time with preparing fresh ingredients, and any skimping on that means someone will probably get diarrhea for the night or even a few days so we have to be vigilant. It really isn’t that hard to stay motivated on that though…).

Anyhow, for point of illustration, we thought we’d share a comparative of what 380 taka (about 5-6 US dollars, depending on the exchange rate) can get you. Here is illustration A:

On one hand, you have a fairly hefty collection of long beans, bean sprouts, cauliflower, capsicum (green pepper), some limes and some potatoes. Lots of options as well – you could maybe even get a couple meals out of this if you add a few eggs one day and rice another. So for about 400 taka you could maybe get one or two meals. It is also all mostly locally produced- so you’ve given farmers work and contributed to the local economy.

Or, for the same amount of money, you could buy this, illustration B:

Yep, 2 liters of skim milk. 190 taka each. (Although, we love that this is Harvey Milk!) You’d have to add quite a bit to get a meal out of this. It is also shipped over from Australia, so you’ve polluted the environment and done very little for the local economy.

So, truth be told, there is some local milk available. It is weird though, and full cream, which means Sam will be lying on the floor in a fetal position for two hours after eating it (OK, maybe not so dramatic, but still, lactose and Sam aren’t friends). Also, to really drive home the cost of imports, consider that for the same 400 taka, you couldn’t even get ONE bag of Tostitos tortilla chips. Those cost almost 500 taka a bag (um, yes, that is over $7 US!).

The point is that food is expensive, but buying locally and freshly are some great benefits of cheapness. As prices continue to rise though, we see the options for the vast majority of the city getting smaller and smaller. There is a real food problem here, and in a land of such abundance agriculturally, that is inexcusable. If the government won’t voluntarily step up and do something about the populations access to food, then the people will demand it – and rightfully so.

Anyway, we have to go wash some vegetables…

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Sam and Atticus recently stumbled upon a new time eater on the internet.  It is a little movie making site and it is easy, fun, and bizarre enough to keep us entertained for ridiculous amounts of time. Following the debut of Sam and Atticus’ first amazing creation (oh, of course you can see it by clicking  HERE ), we have been brainstorming for all sorts of new dialogues and scenarios for our little friends to depict and it has gotten us thinking about dialogue in general.

Sometimes we look back and have to just stop and laugh at the conversations we have had here. As we have worked through (and continue to work through) different levels of linguistic ability, we end up having conversations that are less content driven than ones we would have in our mother tongue. We thought we’d share a recent example. This occurred all in bangla, but we think the real flavor of it comes out in translation. We’ve tried to keep it a close translation to capture some of the clumsiness.

The scene: Jon is sitting on the rickshaw and Taborok is sitting on the bike seat as they sit in a ridiculous traffic jam. A rooster crows.

Jon: What is the word for that bird?
Taborok: A rooster
Jon: OK. Rooster. Roosters have red things on their heads.
Taborok: Yes. They do have red things on their heads.
Jon: Roosters are men birds.
Taborok: Yes. They are men birds.
Jon: Roosters crow. “Cock a doodle doo,” they say.
Taborok: Yes. They crow in the morning.
Jon: Chickens do not crow.
Taborok: No.
Jon: I think I have seen this bird before. What is the name of this type of bird again?
Taborok: Rooster.
Jon: Right. Rooster. I have seen this rooster before.
Taborok: Yes. He stays here.
Jon: Yes. That is his house. Do your parents have roosters?
Taborok: Oh yes. They have lots of birds.

At that point Sam was walking by and the conversation ended.

In english, the conversation is a bit, um….pathetic. But for Jon it was a great bangla excerise – lots of different constructions, new vocabulary, etc. So it was less about content, and more about language. Of course, later we were talking about it, and realized that for Taborok, it was in his mother tongue. So it was about as exciting as it was for you to read it in English. Poor Taborok. Actually, we think he loves being our unofficial bangla teacher and now that we’ve considered the level of inane conversation he has to suffer through daily, we appreciate him even more.

Anyhow, the dialogue was pretty good we thought. Maybe we’ll make this one into a movie….