Thursday, October 29, 2009

Eco-Cottages and Layers of Tea

So, the story of Srimangal continues… Part 2 of 3 maybe?

After fun times playing in the river at Lalpahur, we walked around exploring the area some more. Atticus got to see rubber trees and S. showed him how the rubber ran down the little taps into buckets. Of course Atticus loved this and Jon got it on his favorite pants. Sigh.

So we walked back to the house and had another wonderful meal. We went in the afternoon to have tea with R.’s family, and Atticus and S. took off for a nice evening walk through the rice fields. Atticus learned about rice growing and cricket and told S. that in Boston he was really good at baseball (what? since when?... ah well, upholding American stereotypes I guess!) Once again, Atticus now has a whole body of knowledge about the area that Jon and Sam are missing (This was the same in Boston when everyone came to visit Atticus in the summers and he went on all sorts of tourist adventures while Jon was at work and Sam was in Dhaka!) Anyhow, the sweetest part was watching Atticus so comfortably walking along with S. and just having a little independent time here in Bangladesh.

PHOTOS: A paper boat, rubber trees and walking through rice fields at sunset

After tea we went home to relax and pack up for the next morning when M. and R. would go back to the little village they live at during the week and we would switch over to Nishorgo Nirob Eco-Cottages. We were already excited and didn’t even know how wonderful a place it would be!
So, we arrived at Nishorgo the next morning at around ten or eleven and it was just incredible. The project was actually initially funded by USAID. It has created environmentally sustainable/non-intrusive guesthouses and money from the guesthouses also goes to conservation of the very nearby Lowacherra rain forest. Nishorgo is a great initiative, here is more info on them for those interested.

The Srimangal guesthouse project has huts that are built by local craftsmen and run by locals. The guesthouses here consist of two bamboo huts (but with lovely concrete/tile bathrooms with actual toilets and running water so it doesn’t become too rustic- if you know what mean…)and a main house where meals are served that has another room available there. All in all, it is a small venture but just perfectly suited to the environment. Also, for the price (1000 taka a night - which is less than 15 dollars)the cabins are a bargain to say the least. It seems to appeal to bideshis, and by the looks of the guestbook and the other guests we encountered, it is mostly Europeans that come stay there. We met a very nice Spaniard from Catalonia and it was fun chatting about travelling, and naturally, anarchists!

The cabins at Nishrogo are really a nice mix of modern and roughing it actually. There is electricity and a fan, but not a lot of extra stuff – just enough. The beds have mosquito nets, which Atticus adored, and the food was a close second to R.’s cooking as some of the best we’ve had in Bangladesh. It was all typical ‘deshi food- egg curry, dahl, rice, veggies and potato chop (Atticus’ favorite) and so delicious! The manager of the resort (who lives just across the street from it) is an awesome guy named Shamsul. He was a perfect guesthouse manager in every way. He was very friendly and available, but totally gave space and wasn’t overbearing and over-helpful in the way that some well-meaning Bangladeshis can be. He arranged for transport when we needed it since there wasn’t the same overabundance of rickshaws and cngs as we are used to in Dhaka, and he had great suggestions for local things to do. He had information on local wildlife, and was just generally so laid back and genuinely nice that you kind of wanted to just hang out with him all day!

The thatched hut we stayed in was located alongside a flowing stream with a little thatched gazebo and the whole thing was also on a working lime orchard. There were cows grazing about and a local population of street dogs (friendly ones) that apparently like bideshis and show up when they are staying the guesthouse - Shamshul said he thinks they like the white skin! We named one of the particularly friendly dogs Murray, and he slept on our porch every night and pretended he was guarding us – even though the one time he tried to growl at a cow grazing in the yard he got completely scared when the cow charged at him and took off tail between his legs. He came back in a minute though and pretended like he won the battle, as he stayed on the porch! At least Murray tried to protect us though, because Jon was a little uneasy with that particular cow… We spent some time playing around in the creek and just relaxing in paradise.

PHOTOS: Here are a few pictures from around the grounds of Nishorgo. Murray is the dog with the white spot and they are camped out on our porch.

After lunch we went out to a place called Nilkantha, which is famous for its “7 layer tea.” It has seven distinct layers that stay distinct. It is also a little famous for not being very delicious, only beautiful, so we had to try it out. We took a rickety rickshaw over to the grounds of a nearby tea garden and enjoyed a nice outdoor seating area (there is a shortage of these in both Boston and Dhaka!). Since we had heard the tea was pretty but bad-tasting, we only ordered one 7 layer tea and three regular milk teas to actually drink.

The tea was just as promised- beautiful, but not so tasty. Well, this is what Jon and Sam thought, but Atticus loved it! He identified the main flavor of ginger, and loved dipping his coconut biscuits in it. Which may be leading you to wonder- ‘What? Is Atticus drinking tea now?’ We made a little exception while in Srimangal to our usual no-caffeine policy. It is the home of tea gardens after all! Somehow that also expanded into him getting a caffeinated cola in the afternoon one day too and sweet milk tea with his breakfast every morning. We got to see a whole new side of Atticus on the afternoon when he had a cup of tea and a soda- he literally didn’t stop chattering away for about 2 hours straight. He was wired! (and we were exhausted by the end of it) It was cute though, and now that we’re back home the no caffeine rule has been re-instated. He’s actually usually quite opposed to caffeine because he says he doesn’t want it to stunt his growth – he apparently has some big plans for something requiring height in the future.

PHOTOS: Nilkantha Tea Cabin and 7 layer tea

Anyhow, not far from our cabins was a copy-cat business that just opened with 10 layer tea (and 9, 8, 7, etc… it is 10 taka a layer!). We had to compare, so we took a trip there the next day. This place is called GreenKontha, and is a total rip off. It was not as good and the environment was not really pleasant at all, so we decided we preferred the O.G. version, even if it is short 3 layers.
PHOTOS: The copycat 10 layer tea (still pretty and still not delicious!)

On our last day we went back to Nilkantha with S. for a last visit, and he explained that it gets pretty rowdy there and there have been numerous political factions having fights, and in one case, even a murder occurred there. We felt bad for taking S. to such a notoriously seedy place, but it was perfectly fine (as it had been the day prior) and every tourist goes there, so the risk was pretty low.

Later in the afternoon we went back over to the stream next to our cabins with the idea of playing in the water some more. However, as we stood out on the gazebo, Jon spotted a long slithering snake creeping across the water. As many of you may suspect, Sam immediately cancelled all contact with the water and nearby vicinity. Jon and Atticus went down to look around a little later, but Sam opted to skip that. We asked Shamshul later if the snake we saw was poisonous (because many water snakes are) and he said no and knew the name of it and everything. Good news, but still no way Sam is going near that creek again! It is really a testament to the beauty of the place that even with a snake sighting, Sam still loved it and is willing to go back.
So that’s it for now, and we will continue next time with the rainforest, a guided tour/death march, leeches, many many monkeys!!!!, and beautiful lake Modhobpur lake.

A Quick Breath of Fresh Air

Aka Srimangal post part one

Well, we mentioned last week that Atticus had a break from school for a week, so we took a quick trip up to another part of Bangladesh. It was high time for a break from the hustle and bustle and stress of Dhaka and so we headed to Srimangal, a smallish town in Sylhet, the northeastern state of Bangladesh.

Srimangal is known for the many tea plantations in the area and the whole state of Sylhet seems to be just ridiculously beautiful. There are some hills to break up the usual flat delta views of most of the area, and the slightly higher elevation creates cooler temperatures and amazing misty mornings. The trip was over 5 days and we took an obscene amount of pictures (but no obscene pictures!) and so we’ll break it into a few different posts until we got caught up to now.

We took the train from the station that is pretty close to our neighborhood (the airport station) and avoided the long schlep down into central Dhaka and the hassle of the main train terminal. Of course, with every hassle avoided, new issues arrive – the main issue with the smaller stations is that while they are less crowded (and because they are less crowded) the trains only stop for about three minutes. Seriously. Boarding is a mad rush of luggage, people, yelling, and general mayhem. Of course, in the true Bangladesh style we know and love, even amidst the general havoc of boarding, everyone went out of their way to move everyone aside, help us get on, make sure we found our compartment and seats, made sure we were ok- one man even helped us before he helped his own family!
Once we got our seats, we were delighted. For less than $12 US (combined!) we had an entire compartment to ourselves with AC, a long cushy bench seat, a window, and beverage service of (overpriced) hot delicious tea with sweet milk. Train travel here is definitely the way to go! The only complaint is that there are no announcements, so you have to know when your stop is arriving. Of course, being bideshis, half the train was mobilized to help when the time arrived. Along the way we saw beautiful little towns pass by, field after field of rice, and Jon and Atticus got their first real look at the non-urban beauty of Bangladesh.

PHOTOS: Here we are happy to be waiting for the train and very happy to be on the train!

Once we arrived in Srimangal and hurried off the train, Sam’s old friends M. and R. (a Bangla teacher from years past and his wife) hosted us for our first two days. They are the world’s best hosts. (We aren’t posting names here in case they don’t want themselves identified!) M. is here doing his dissertation research as well, and lives most of the week in a village where he does ethnography. On the weekends they have a sweet apartment in Srimangal, which we were graciously welcomed into. R. is easily the best cook in Bangladesh, and it was a real treat to indulge with her wonderful meals. We only feel bad that it was a lot of work and, of course, she wouldn’t let us help her. Atticus seemed immediately at ease with M. and R., which was nice and a little surprising. It may be that Sam has talked about them enough in advance that they didn’t seem like strangers, but Atticus was definitely over whatever shyness he has ever exhibited in the past and made himself right at home.

We had arrived in the evening so other than an amazing home cooked dinner, we didn’t do much on arrival. We woke up the next morning and after a leisurely breakfast headed out with R.’s brother (who we’ll call S.) and M. for an exploration of the tea gardens and a place called Lal Pahur (Red Hill).
We took two rickshaws and ambled down quiet roads lined with beautiful tea plants as far as the eye could see. We ended at the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute and we allowed to go in and walk around the gardens. The beauty of the area is really difficult to describe and/or capture in photos. It is just amazing.
Atticus and S. hit it off like nothing else. The two were having a great time palling around and looking for various insects and plants. S. taught Atticus how to make the lojjapoti (or "plant that has shame" as Atticus called it) close when you touch the leaves and generally within about one hour Atticus much preferred the company of S. to either of his parents!

PHOTO: Rickshaw through plantations

PHOTO: Atticus looking for grasshoppers and Atticus and S. playing with some sort of thing they've caught!

Part of the reason Atticus didn’t want to hang out with mom and dad may have been because Jon and Sam were naturally discussing the politics of the workers in tea gardens – and for good reason. The tea laborers are a remnant of the British introduction of the tea plantations. At the time, the British intentionally imported workers from nearby areas so they would be isolated from the local population and easier to control. Today, people generally view them as a completely unique ethnic identity – so basically their identity is just “worker.” Most are miserably poor, completely unrepresented, and exploited. The workers live in quarters on the grounds, never really leaving and getting povery wages. The word “plantation” seems appropriate in all the connotations it brings to mind. They are also marginalized in that they are part of the minority religion (hindus) and all of the tea pickers are women. (Men seem to have some other types of jobs, but only women pick the tea leaves.) We got a close up glimpse of the system in action when we were walking through: we saw women loading bags of tea onto a scale to be recorded by a foreman of some sort with a ledger book. The scale was facing away from the women, so they couldn’t see the amount it weighed, nor could they see what he wrote down. They are, of course, paid by the amount they pick though. It isn’t surprising, but it still makes you angry to see such overt exploitation of workers.

So, after our labor outrage subsided, we arrived at Lalpahur, and had a great time playing the river. Atticus and S. had a lot of fun with the various colors of clay earth that Atticus could be decorated with, Sam and M. continued academic discussion but in cool, calf-deep water, and everyone played and had a great time. S. showed Atticus how to make a paper boat, everyone got a little sunburned, and everyone had a really fabulous afternoon. See some of the pics below and get ready for the second installment in which you get hear about the amazing thatched hut eco-cottage we stayed in, more delicious food, snakes, rainforests, monkeys, and ten layer tea!

We'll also get more scenic photos up ASAP, but with the slow connection, photos are long to load-especially those taken with our good camera, the digital SLR. We try to use the little cheaper camera for snappyshots, and those load faster due to the smaller file size. We promise we'll let you see the good stuff soon though- just be patient!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Today Halloween came a little early. Since the school has a break next week there isn’t class on the real day of Halloween so the kids celebrated early. Today the kids wore their costumes and had a party and a singing program at the school.

Atticus had lots of fun dressing up. We went Old School with the costume and did a classic white ghost. It was nice to be able to use the tried-and-true sheet with eye holes cut out for a costume and have none of the concern we would have in the US that he was going to be mistaken for a Klansmen. Fortunately, his head is pretty wide and round too, so we were able to have a nice, easy to make costume without any terrible social implications.

Anyhow, the kids had fun and even though the whole event was pretty chaotic, we think it was nice for Atticus to have a familiar cultural moment.

Now Atticus has a week off school and we’ll be taking a train to Srimangal tomorrow –an area with lots of tea plantations, pineapple farms, some old friends of Sam’s and hopefully, a little rest from the hectic city life. Expect a lot of photos…

Here are some pictures of the fun times. Not exactly shots of Bangladesh specific things, we know, but it will get you all in the mood for your Halloween next week!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why we are actually here…

So we haven’t really written anything about the reason we got the cash to live here for year- Sam’s research. Most of you know Sam’s doing her PhD in history and she focuses on South Asia and social movements. This trip is to do her research for her dissertation. She is studying student activism in Dhaka during the 1960s (to put it very shortly). The project includes both working in archives (aka digging through boxes of old crap and reading it - they estimate about 10,000 items in the archive) and oral histories (interviewing people who were student activists in the 1960s here). Sam is working with the Liberation War Museum here both in their archives and they are helping coordinate the interviews.

Today Sam went in to the museum for a visit to get some things moving and after chatting informally was able to make an appointment with one of the trustees for her first official interview with a former student activist. This is a big deal, because each interview leads to another, and getting started this early (it is scheduled for November 5th) means there will be time for lots of expansion. It is also ahead of her planned timetable, which is always good. Many of the former student leaders have gone on to pretty important posts here – the mayor of Dhaka, for example – and having the credibility of the Liberation War Museum is very helpful in getting access to these guys.

We also discussed the annual academic conference that the museum puts on and Sam will be involved in planning this as well. In addition, we’ll hopefully get to accompany museum workers on an oral history project that they’ve been doing where they collect histories of the Liberation War from small villages and record the oral testimony. So, lots of great stuff brewing.

We thought some of you might be interested in some more information on Bangladesh and the history, so here are few links. The case of Bangladesh’s genocide was never bought to trial, so there is still a great deal of politics around the issue. These sites aren’t all “neutral” (whatever that means…) but offer interesting information.

For details of the genocide:

For information about the mass rapes that occurred in 1971:

For information on how the United States (specifically Nixon and Kissinger) knowingly (and now officially, admittedly) allowed the genocide to occur:

Hopefully you will all find these issues and this history interesting. We write mostly about our play time on this blog, but we are here because of work, and the history of Bangladesh is fascinating and much more intertwined with the United States than most people know.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The New Rickshaw!

The rickshaw is finished and delivered! Tabarok brought it by tonight and it is easily one of the fanciest rickshaws we have seen yet. It is totally awesome.

Oh and here is the ultra-symbolic message: Jon and Som (that's as close as anybody ever gets to Sam's name - there isn't really the aa sound in Bangla) from USA in Bangladesh. The flag is missing some stars but it makes up for it in stripes, so it all evens out!
It was tough to get great pictures at night but we'll be riding this sucker for almost a year, so you'll see plenty more of it! Thanks again to everyone who helped out - Tabarok has said thanks to everyone again and again (so much that we told him he didn't need to keep saying it, in fact...). This really has changed his life and it is fun that our friends and family could participate.

On a side note, and for future blog readers that might want to buy a rickshaw - the rickshaw is only part of the expense, there is also a registration cost with Dhaka city, which isn't small. Thanks to everyone who donated and anyone who didn't get around to it can still definitely chip in. We'll take the button down soon, but for now haven't quite covered the full cost...

Anyway, today was a great day and we are excited to see it in the daylight!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

That Hits the Spot...

So, lest you think we are only about heartwarming schemes and pretty pictures, we thought we'd share a post about something else close to our hearts: B-E-E-R! Yup, beer.

It is illegal for Bangladeshis to drink but not for foreigners in the country. Very few places serve alcohol though, since the market is pretty limited. We only know of 2 restaurants - both on the pricey end - that serve it, though there may be a few more within the ultra-ritzy restaurant and hotel bar scene in which we don't really take part. There is also the American Club, which is the recreation center for Americans and one of the many different "clubs" for foreigners here, but it is a really gross scene on a lot of levels and super expensive to join (70 USD a month for a family membership - that allows you to swim in the pool, play tennis, and BUY liquor in the pricey bar) - not really our style either. For us, the only realistic options for a cold beer are the Korean restaurant and the Japanese restaurant. Both are pretty mediocre food-wise, (although anyone who knows Atticus knows that Japanese food is always his first choice in cuisine) and expensive for the level of quality, but they have cans of Heineken for about 150 - 200 taka (2-3 USD). On occasion it is well worth the trip, but we don't eat out that often and the trip out is sometimes just too tiring at the end of the day.

Thus, at the end of a long, hot, exhausting day, a cold beer at home would be really really nice. Despite our love of most things in the 'desh, we have been missing such little joys. We had a couple bottles of liquor (a gin and a whiskey) that we bought at duty-free in the airport but were allowed to bring in one liter each, and we recently finished it off. We had to act.
It turns out that there is ONE place to legally purchase liquor for foreigners. Sam knew of it from previous visits, but had never gone. We had enough information though to get more information from the internet, and soon we had some moderately to very unclear directions for how to get to it. The place is known casually as The Warehouse, but it is really called the Duty Paid Shop of MK something and sons importers. It is in an area called Abbas Garden, or the street was called Abbas Garden, but it was off Airport road (not to be confused with New Airport Rd) off the flyover (overpass), but don't get on the get the picture- it was a weird address and crappy directions. Still, we marked the general area on the map and set out with confidence that our CNG driver would find it or could read the map or would ask for help.
When we showed the CNG driver the map it was clear that he had no idea how to read it. OK, well scratch the map plan then. Jon has a sense of where we are though, so he can just tell Sam and she can tell the driver. Traffic on Airport road was horrible (naturally, since it was between 4am and 2am) and we sat for a while in the hot jammed traffic and then we finally got to the flyover. The CNG is confused. 'Go on the road by the flyover, (the frontage road) but not the flyover' we say. He does, but we realize then and there that we just don't have enough information - we need to ask someone. We pull over and try to ask a few people - some won't come over, others don't know, then finally a guy is like 'oh yeah, I know where it is' and tells the CNG driver just where to go (maybe). It was loud, Sam was on the other side of the CNG from the guy talking and from what she picked up (it seemed like in retrospect) he said the right directions. However, as much as Sam was trying to listen and understand, the CNG driver was really not paying attention. It was like he lost interest two words into the directions and just heard make a left, so he chose a random street and turned left.

Meanwhile, Jon is feeling like this random left is completely wrong. It doesn't make sense with the way the address is written either. So we tell him to ask again. We ask some cops- they don't know. We ask more people, they don't know. We turn around and go back to the big main road and pull over. The driver goes into a shop and tells Jon to bring the map. They don't know. Then the driver (who so badly wants out at this point but can't bring himself to do it yet) tries to convince Sam that maybe the random building across the street (the communications office for Bangladesh Something-or-other) is where she wants to go. 'No, we don’t want to go to that place. We want to go to Abbas Garden.' we say. Then a guy from the shop runs next door and gets someone else and they finally get it conveyed to the CNG driver how to go.
So we head back in the direction we had turned around from. In fairness, it is a confusing route -you have to go past the flyover, and turn around on the frontage road to come back the direction you came and then turn off there onto a little dirt road marked Abbas Garden. You then go around a semi-sketchy corner to find a not sketchy at all shop with a bunch of security guards out front that seem like they are just hanging out. We had finally, happily, found our place.

We told our CNG driver to wait and went inside, walked up to the counter/reception desk, which had a price list and some display bottles, and chose a 24 pack of Heineken and a bottle of rum. Not exactly cheap here either - but less than a restaurant (by a little...). We showed our passport, got our liquor out front, and hopped back in our ride home. The ride home took about 15 minutes- the journey there had taken about 45 minutes to an hour! All in all though, the errand took less than 2hours, and in Dhaka, that's not too bad!

Later we enjoyed a few cold beers on our balcony (Atticus joined the fun but only had water, obviously) and relaxed. It was great. Next time the journey wont be so dramatic now that we know where it is (Jon actually knew all along and was perfectly right in his map marking, but didn't feel confident enough to argue for a particular route - next time he will!).
Oh, and what was Atticus doing during all of this? Just chattering away the whole time about this and that; literally the whole time from start to finish, he never expressed a moment of stress, irritation or impatience. He is amazing!

Here is a picture of Jon enjoying the beautiful feeling of drinking a cold beer shirtless on a hot humid night.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rickshaw Shopping and Family Visiting

So today we went to get a new rickshaw for Taborok. We all went together to an area not far from here and Taborok discussed things with people- and really most of the time we weren’t totally sure what was going on… everyone was very nice and very helpful and wanted to show us things. We sat and waited for the designer/rickshaw maker to arrive and then there was some bargaining and discussion of how it would look and we paid a deposit of half the amount. The rickshaw should be ready in one week, and we’ll pay the rest then, once we determine that it is beautiful.
The design is a little funny because Taborok really had it planned out that he wanted an American flag and a Bangladesh flag on it together. He really seems like he is into the symbolism of this (our two countries coming together in his rickshaw!), and while we aren’t exactly the flag-bearing types, we thought that in the future another American might be inclined to take him if they see the flag on there, so we let it happen. We’ll see how it looks…

PHOTO: A rickshaw before the seat and bling are added

PHOTO: Taborok and Atticus checking out some designs

PHOTO: The artisan shows his wares (these are sides to the roof/cover piece)

So after we left, Taborok wanted to take us over to his house to meet his family. He lives in a very poor area and it was interesting to visit. We turned behind two big glass highrises and there was a sea of narrow, muddy alleyways where rickshaw wallahs and other poor families live in tin and concreate shacks and rooms. We were quite exciting visitors apparantly and everyone was very interested in why we were there. Taborok's house is a very small room with a bed, a shelf, and a few other things, but really not any room for anything else. There is about a one or two foot space for walking around two sides of the bed and the bed takes up the entire room.

It was completely clear when we arrived that his youngest daughter was quite the Daddy’s girl, and he was immediately relaxed and happy once his kids were there. We had a seat and the crowd looking in the door just kept growing and growing with curious onlookers. We has some tea and started to take some pictures and all the children were really excited for that. Some people had glitter on themselves from a nearby wedding festivity and before you knew it, Jon, Sam, and Atticus all had glittered faces too.

PHOTO: Sam and Atticus at Taborok’s door

PHOTO: Jon and Taborok’s daughter

PHOTO: Taborok and his youngest daughter (such a Daddy's girl!)

PHOTO: Taborok, his wife, and two daughters

We had a nice time visiting and then we headed back home. It was fun to see Taborok with his family and it confirmed everything we already knew about him as a good guy. His daughters were really sweet and loved the photos – especially the youngest girl! We got some nice family pictures that we’ll print out for them too. All in all it was nice day and we’re super excited to see the rickshaw on Friday when it is ready! Thanks again to everyone.

We’ve posted a few other nice pictures we got today in a separate post below this one. It is such a small space and it is difficult to capture the crowdedness and just the cramped feeling, but there is also an intimacy of such a little place that turns up in some of the pictures (hopefully).

Photos from Taborok's Home

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