Thursday, May 27, 2010

Archives, Accidents and...something else that starts with A

Today we all went down to Dhaka University together. Sam has been working in an archive there and the archivist has really been itching to meet Jon and Atticus for a while now. The archivist, Mr. Gopal, is a great and interesting guy. He has personally compiled the archive of the Dhaka University Central Student Union (DUCSU) over the last fifty years. He came to Dhaka University in the 1960s and worked as a canteen boy. Then he somehow managed to get a job as a photographer on the campus, and then he eventually became the curator of the little archive collection/museum on the campus. Even before he had an official space and title as an archivist though, he was collecting up things and photos as he came across them and kept them in his home. He stole –er, “rescued” university papers out of trash cans and compiled a history of Dhaka University that is fascinatingly random.

He is also just an incredibly nice guy, and he knows virtually every person that ever went to Dhaka University since he arrived it seems (which is also just about every powerful person in the country!). On the campus everyone knows Gopal, he is above any partisan divisions, and all day students come by to chat, look at the collection and say hello. He is also a great source of information himself- he has seen all the major student movements that Sam is researching, he was a freedom fighter in the Liberation War and his wife is a war camp survivor. Even better, by some stroke of ridiculous luck, he thinks Sam is here as the pinnacle to his career and her research will be the culmination of his life’s work, after which he plans to retire. Really.
It is a little bit of pressure, actually.

So anyway, he’s a nice guy and today was a half day of school for Atticus (as is every Thursday) and we decided to go do the family meet and greet. He was delighted. We arrived and the campus was a little dead, and the gates were locked up. Today was a Buddhist holiday though, so we figured it was closed down for that reason. When we got to the DUCSU collection center to meet Gopal he told us that earlier that morning a student was hit by a bus and killed. That may be part of why things were in lock-down too. The campus generally erupts into processions, road blockades, and occasionally there is vigilante justice enacted in various form when something like this happens.
Here is a photo of Sam, Atticus and Gopal at the DUCSU collection center.

The bus hit a student who was in the first year of study, and it is of course a tragedy whenever a young person is killed. In this case, the bus was subsequently burned and the driver was carried away and killed (according to Gopal’s son who told us this later as we passed the burned out bus). So really, two men lost their lives in the accident. It is hard to defend these crazy bus drivers that recklessly and carelessly endanger the lives of thousands of people as they barrel along through crowded streets, but it is equally difficult to accept mob justice and the ad hoc murder of any man. It was just a sad situation in all ways.

It was interesting to be on the campus during a day like this because we often read about these events after the fact in the newspaper, and it being present on the campus revealed some of the sensationalism that these events are usually given in the press. The campus was lively, there was an angry procession that marched by, and everyone was certainly a little more tense than usual, but it was certainly not a war zone (which you would expect based on the hundreds of riots cops stationed at every corner!).

Here is a far-way picture of the burned out bus and some riot cops. Gopal and his son wouldn’t let us go closer to photograph the bus better because they were too stressed out about our safety. (although really, we are usually more safe than people think- we are often more interesting to people than whatever mischief might occur, so we might in fact, diffuse a situation. Oh well.)

So anyway, after arrival we headed over to Gopal’s house for lunch. Sam has been to Gopal’s for lunch before and his family was extremely excited by the idea of Sam bringing her husband and child (or baby as he is considered) back over. Today, we fulfilled the promise (but made another promise to return, of course). The best thing about Gopal’s house is definitely how much he loves his wife. He frequently talks about how good his wife is, but when she is present, he can barely contain himself. It is just refreshing to be around a couple that has been together fo 40 years and is so clearly in love and happy. It is also funny that the way he described her goodness “She is a very good wife. She makes no demands” might lead you to think it would be one of those super patriarchal type families, but actually they seem pretty progressive. Most couples we encounter here don’t really express their emotion toward each other at all – either because they don’t have any and it is one step above a business agreement, or because they would never express any love in public. Either way, it is a little depressing to never really encounter . Gopal and his wife, however, are an adorable couple.

We met Gopal’s son on the way over to his house, and he was a great guy. He is a student at Dhaka University. He was excited to meet us and liked chatting. He revealed secretly to Sam that he had a girlfriend who is Muslim (Gopal’s family is Hindu), but made Sam promise not to tell Gopal. (Later Sam was walking with Gopal and he said “My son has a Muslim girlfriend, but her parents don’t know.” Apparently his son isn’t as good at keeping things from his dad as he thinks!) Anyhow, we headed to Gopal’s house and had some tasty lichu (Lychees in English) while we waited for lunch. The lunch was delicious and afterwards we were, naturally, offered the opportunity to take a nap by the fan (which we declined). We talked with his daughters and granddaughter too and had a nice time hanging out and chatting.While there, the procession of students went down the street and Atticus and Gopal’s wife and daughters all enjoyed watching it from the window. Here are some photos we took on the way there and a pic of Atticus watching the action out the window with the ladies.

Afterwards we went back to DUCSU (for some reason- maybe to walk together instead of Gopal walking back alone?) and saw the Edward Kennedy tree along the way. You may or may not know, that Ted Kennedy (our former senator, RIP) was a big advocated for Bangladesh, and one of the lone voices in the US government that early on supported the war of liberation and the ongoing quest for justice regarding the genocide that occurred during the war. He was also one of the first (or the first) US official to visit after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971. Bangladeshis love Ted Kennedy – when he died, shortly after we arrived in Dhaka, it was major news here, and the country mourned him as a real friend to the nation. Here is a photo of us heading back from Gopal’s house and the Kennedy tree (it is a nice tree).

After we arrived at DUCSU, Sam started talking to a guy about a book he was suggesting Sam read about the student movement in Bangladesh and Jon, Atticus and Gopal disappeared. In the meantime, Gopal took off with Atticus upstairs and asked if he needed the bathroom, Jon followed along (once Atticus is on the scene we basically become background to everyone adoring him). They ended up in a mostly empty room where some students were practicing for a dance performance they would do this weekend. Jon asked if they would do the dance for them and they excitedly prepared some chairs for them to watch. Sam caught up just before the show and we saw a cute little dance performance, just for us. Atticus said it was just like 9XM (the equivalent of MTV) and they were quite flattered. Here is a still photo, but we are trying to figure out how to upload a video, so check back in a day or two for a possible moving update!

Finally, we headed back home. It was a fun day, and a great example of how work/personal boundaries just don’t exist here in the same ways. We had a nice afternoon and look forward to our next visit with Gopal’s family.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We love...

Daily life here in Dhaka can run the gamut of emotions. While sometimes it is helpful to vent about the frustrations that life here can present, we usually find that it isn’t really that helpful -- in fact it can become downright boring to dwell on the negative. Since Jon and Sam both think, about the worst thing in the world to be is boring, we are opting for the positive vibes (dudes). Therefore, for this blog posting we present eleven things we LOVE about living in Bangladesh.

There are lots of great places to walk – and if at any point in the walk you get tired or want to stop , there are about six or seven guys with rickshaws right there willing to cart your lazy butt home with a smile for only a few cents.

Street tea (rastar cha!)– For the uninitiated, it is strong black tea brewed in a little metal kettle on a kerosene flame atop a rickety wooden cart on the side of the street. The tea is then combined with sugar (um, kind of a whole lot of sugar) and sweetened condensed milk. It must be consumed out of dainty little demitasse cups on the street for the real deal. The result is pure Bangladesh. Oh, and even with the recent price increase, it runs from 4 to 5 taka a cup (about 7 cents in US dollars!).

The ice cream of Bangladesh is ridiculously delicious. It is creamy, perfectly satisfying after a long 90+ degree day (after day after day…)and it does not contain high fructose corn syrup. A particularly wonderful treat are the Igloo Caramel Combo and Chocolate Cheers which have pre-mixed the ice cream, nuts and caramel or ice cream, chocolate chips and syrup, respectively. Honestly though, even the plain vanilla is fabulous.

Smells – well, some of them. The best smells are when we pass by a kitchen where someone is frying up some garlic and spices. Sometimes these delicious fragrances will waft in the window on a gentle breeze, making you immediately starving for whatever they’re cooking!

Hospitality. Everyone wants you to come to their house and eat. Even better, recently when Sam was over at an elderly archivists house for lunch (because you know, she’s working in the archive, so naturally he has to take her home to his house for a meal with his entire family…) and after eating they offered to let her take a nap in the bedroom by the fan. This is hospitality on a wholly higher level!

The Hangout. The pizza is so-so and a little interesting, but they deliver it, you can also get French fries, and they always have Diet Pepsi even when every other place is out. We love them (and we think they love us too!)

Monkey sightings! We love that it is possible to spot a monkey around town. It is just often enough to keep you looking, but rare enough that it is still exciting when you see them. Last sighting: monkeys on the tennis court (no rackets though). Funnest sighting: monkey riding as a passenger on a rickshaw. Yes.

Animal encounters in general. There are cows, goats, sheep, and other creatures that live along the routes we travel. We especially love the little goats that beg for scraps at the tea stalls. Also, the street dogs here are not mean – they’re adorable.

The laid back attitude of Bangladeshis and the country in general. There is rarely a rush, and almost nothing happens before 10 am. There is just not the same feeling of stress to achieve something measurable and less of the usually arbitrary sense of urgency to get things done constantly and quickly. We like to relax, and so does Bangladesh.

Even if you are stuck in traffic, there is an army of street hawkers keeping the streets much like a carnival of consumer choices. You can usually get a fan (for ten taka!), some peanuts or cotton candy, cold or “normal” water, some cucumber or mangoes, a newspaper, a bobble head, the latest best selling book, and other things all from the window of your car or cng and all for cheap!

Taborok. He’s our best friend in Bangladesh and he takes care of us when we need it. He teaches us the ins and outs of real ‘deshi culture, he helps us speak village bangle instead of stodgy book bangla (so we sound less like jerks!), and he’s just a good guy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Double Blowout!

A.k.a. “No, I’m waiting for my shoe.”

We thought we’d share a little story about a very typical experience here in Dhaka that captures something of why this place (despite cracks and bumps) is pretty awesome to live in.

The other day we were walking to a restaurant with a colleague who has been visiting and staying with us while he and Sam did some research together (this is also why we’ve been short on posts). The restaurant is a tasty little Bangladeshi restaurant next to the Westin hotel (the place is Dhanshiri for those that know Dhaka). We like Dhanshiri because it is cheap (the fam can eat all for a few dollars with leftovers), delicious, mostly clean, and not too far from our house. It also stands in stark contrast to the Westin hotel right across from it, in which a cup of mediocre coffee costs almost five dollars and lunch can cost as much a thirty or forty US.

On the way, Sam had a double flip flop blow out. For the flip flop un-educated, this means that not only did ONE of the connectors in Sam’s sandal pull up and out of the rubber base, but TWO. So, while a normal blow out is difficult enough to manage, a double blow out is catastrophic to the shoe.

After a minute or two of trying to cram the thongs back into the base of the shoe we realize it is fruitless, and Sam has to walk on our way with only one shoe. It was tragic, although one of many on a strangely long list of cities in which Sam has ended up barefoot or without a shoe (but that’s a whole different story…). Anyhow, we were a little early and decided to go into the Westin and wait for another fellow we were meeting (the Westin had been the easiest way to describe the location of the place across from it). Upon entering Sam asked if maybe they had some duct tape for her shoe.

The entire lobby of the hotel, probably ten workers or more, then immediately mobilized and began acting to fix the shoe. Men were running about looking for tools, the shoe was being passed here and there, and Sam was told to go wait in the fancy little sitting area. About five or ten minutes later they decide they can’t fix the shoe there, so naturally the little cleaner guy from out front runs off to get it fixed in the market across the street.

While waiting, a car driver came up to Sam to see if she was waiting for the car service that had arrived. “Excuse Madam,” he said, “Are you waiting for a car?” to which Sam replied, “No, I’m waiting for my shoe.” He then said, “Oh, OK, thank you” as if that made any sense at all, and went upon his way.

So finally, about twenty minutes later, Sam’s shoe has returned, sewn up and fully fixed. The cost? Ten taka for the shoemaker (about 14 cents in US currency).

So, here’s the thing. Yes, the Westin is a fancy hotel and one would expect a certain degree of service, but we weren’t guests there. We were three pretty raggedy looking people off the street with a cheap broken flip flop. (In fact we could never afford to stay there!) We doubt that a five star hotel in the US would be so eager to let random non-guests hang out in the lobby while half the staff fixed their dirty shoe.

Also, the fact that everyone in the place rushed enthusiastically to help is not unique to the Westin or fancy places at all - in fact, the less fancy the place the more enthusiastic and helpful the service tends to be. We know that our white privilege has a recurrent hand in our treatment here, and we are careful not to exploit it or take it for granted, but it is also a reflection of a genuine niceness and willingness, even eagerness, to help that just isn’t found very many other places we’ve lived.

Considering how hard life can be in this country, and particularly this massive city, we are continually rewarded with kindness and goodness in our encounters with the people who call it home.

Shabbash, Dhaka, Shabbash!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

System System System

Well, it is visa renewal time. We've been dreading this since Sam's friend had a terrible time with the Bangladeshi bureaucracy a few years back, but since Sam got another grant to stay until December and our visas expire on June 1, we've had to bite the bullet and get things moving. Bangladesh is notoriously inefficient and inconsistent regarding anything paper or government related, so again, we were dreading the whole ordeal.

Sam also has a paper accepted to a conference in Singapore in June, so we will be travelling in and out and will need the whole visa thing sorted out soon. It's funny- all this talk lately about immigration and legality in the US (BOO on you Arizona!) and here we are on the other side, asking for permission to stay and having to justify our presence. We kind of like getting to experience this side of immigration coin, although of course we recognize we are in a much better position than the millions of immigrant workers in the US being exploited and taken for granted (but that's another issue...).

Anyway, when faced with bureaucracy, Sam finds it most effective to put oneself into the mind of the bureaucracy and become one with the circular, maddening process. As such, Sam spent weeks researching anything we might need and we went in armed with loads of photocopies, letters to multiple officials, goverment officials' phone numbers, and every piece of information we might possibly need. We turned our application in and now just have to get national security approval of Sam's research (shouldn't be a problem since we got it before) and the police have to approve that we haven't been up to no good (define "no good"...). We go back on May 31 (Sam's b-day) to see how it all worked out...

The office itself was sort of fun actually. It consists of many different windows- first pick up your papers here, then go to the next window, then get things stamped, then pay this guy who will stamp another thing and staple it to the first thing, then the next guy checks all the stamps and lets you now if it stamped all right and when to come back...sigh - all this work to make sure people have certain stamps and papers. Really it is sad on either side of the coin. We will, of course, let you know the outcome.

Oh well, 'til next time F*^k la Migra!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day!

As most of you probably know May 1st ,or May Day, is the International Workers Holiday. Although the holiday was born out of the 8 hour workday struggle in the United States and the subsequent crackdown on anarchist and socialist labor leaders it is not officially recognized in the United States as a holiday. It has, in fact, been cynically redubbed both Loyalty Day and Law Day by reactionary politicians trying to obscure the history of class struggle in the US and the importance of the day for the working class. For many years though we have been organizing and participating in small May Day demonstrations in the United States in order to celebrate the importance of the day. This year, then, we were excited to be living in a country that recognized May Day and looked forward to experiencing it as a fully recognized and celebrated holiday.

Since Jon has been working with the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) here we had been planning on celebrating the day with them. After some planning and discussion it was decided that we would make a banner for May Day, which would illustrate the common struggle of workers in the US and Bangladesh. The banner would then be signed by workers here with May Day messages and later will be carried at events in the US. Of course it is pretty cheap to have banners made here since everything is on a banner, but we decided to make it ourselves, which is really more our style. Jon also helped draft a statement on behalf of his union, the IWW, to be read by the president of the NGWF at the May Day rally here in Dhaka.

Here are some pictures of us making the banner (as well as the aftermath of the banner on our table...) and the final product hanging in the NGWF offices.

The day before May Day we decided that would all go down to the demonstration to continue the tradition of dragging Atticus out to protests, rallies, demonstrations, pickets, etc., which began when he was around six months old. Unfortunately, the night before both Atticus and Sam were up most of the night sick. So Jon headed down to the demonstration himself. (Although, he was admittedly wondering if he should as he had also felt a little sick the night before.) He also ended oversleeping because the alarm did not go off and then on his way to the demo his CNG driver got pulled over. Despite all of these seemingly bad omens the day ended up being great.

Shortly after being pulled over the CNG headed through Tezgoan industrial area, which has many garment factories. As he passed through Jon saw garment workers marching down the street, chanting and pumping their fists. Later he passed busloads of workers wearing their red headbands and carrying their red flags. Finally as he got nearer the area where the NGWF rally was to be held he saw marchers streaming into the area from all directions. ‘Wow’, he thought, ‘this is way bigger than the United States for sure’. He wondered if the mobilizations would be big this year because over the past several days there have been ongoing strikes and street blockades by garment workers demanding an increase in the min. wage (which is a paltry 1,662 taka a month - or about 23 US dollars).

May Day here in Dhaka is almost indescribable. There is such a sense of excitement and quite a lot of chaos as well. Upon arrival at the rally area, Jon noticed more busloads of workers rolling in as well as streams of marchers. The intersection where the rally was being held just continued to get more and more crowded with marchers and bands. Although the messages being sent were serious, the area had a festive atmosphere. Finally, the rally started. As the speakers spoke, more marchers joined in while others just sort of marched around the area with their flags and bands. What is crazy is that although there are marches everywhere in the area, blocking up many of the roads, the roads are still open so there is still the usual crazy Dhaka traffic (though less today since it is a holiday) sharing the road with the marches and rallies.

Jon listened to the speakers and walked around the area taking pictures of the happenings. People were incredibly friendly and excited. All the young guys were especially excited to see a white guy taking pictures of the actions apparently (One asked if Jon was with the BBC world Service). For most of the day Jon had group after group of young men posing for him in front of the camera or showing off for the camera, which was great and made the day a lot more fun. He was happy to have them read greetings from the IWW at the rally as well.

After the rally the NGWF march headed out. Jon took pictures of the march for a while, but was soon distracted by the dozens of other separate marches and groups zigzagging through the area. Each party and union seemed to be having their own rally/march in this section of town. Eventually Jon just ended up walking around the streets taking in the various sights. At one point he was approached by a bunch of young men carrying a picture of Sheik Mujib (the father of the country) wanting their picture taken. After complying they all surrounded him and shook his hand and hugged him asked where he was from (which is sort of the usual question). After losing interest in Jon they eventually ran into the middle of the road and stopped a bus so they could get on and be rowdy on the bus. Shortly after that Jon was hoisted into the back of a big cargo truck so he could take pictures of the folks enjoying a rally from inside the truck. While walking back to the NGWF offices he encountered several other characters. A dancing hippie with a tambourine wanted his picture taken. After the dancing hippie, there was a man who had painted himself up in red and had slogans written on him. Of course, it is May Day after all, so all sorts had come out to celebrate. It was a fun day all in all and Jon is happy to have spent a May Day here in Bangladesh. Workers here have plenty to be aggrieved about. Hopefully the slogans being chanted today will lead to some real changes in how workers here are treated. Enjoy the pictures below and Happy May Day!

NGWF May Day Poster. The demands are: No More Fires, No More Gatelock, No More Worker Death, and 5,000 Taka min. wage. In February, 21 workers died in a factory because the front gate was locked from the outside and the only people able to open it had fled, leaving the workers to burn inside.

Buses arriving full of workers

The boy with the flag kept following Jon around wanting his picture taken, but everytime he would pose for a photo others would force themselves into the photo.

Garment workers from Mirpur where there has been several days of unrest.

Bus making its way through the crowd in the intersection

These guys were just hangin' out until they noticed the camera...

Enjoying the rally from the back of the truck

NGWF Marching

Young guys who wanted their picture taken

Same group running into the road and stopping the bus