Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Facilitating, Understanding

aka: Lost in Translation

Language is a funny thing. We used to be more uptight about it, and would get irritated at the pervasive misspellings and random punctuation found on signs and public displays all over the US. Living in a country where you don’t have fluency changes your perspective though. Language is supposed to be a tool right? The point is to convey ideas, not to perform some rigid set of grammar and syntax equations. Here, we use language more basically and have been reminded of the purpose. Also, we have a generally high degree of linguistic representation going on in the house- we speak English, Bangla and Spanish intermixed, and Atticus throws in some French here and there. On top of that, half the TV channels are in Hindi and the commercials on the English channels are often in Hindi so we hear that too. The style of English spoken in Bangladesh is also not our usual English - it is British English, for one, and for two, it has been mixed (in many funny and creative ways) with bangla and various other influences. We’ve had to reconsider our notions of what is “proper” English.

In fact, language is usually the most beautiful when we relax the rules and let the words flow freely. Sam and Jon frequently make use of their poetic license, although stuffy academia continually tries to keep us down.

So, having said that – it is one thing to be creative, but it is another thing to just have a mistranslation. Yesterday, Sam was standing in line at the little grocery store by our house and she was reading a sign that was in Bangla and English. The English sign said, “Buy textiles here and facilitate local weavers.” The bangla sign said “If you buy textiles here it will help local weavers.” Just as Sam was reading the sign and thinking about how facilitate just wasn’t really a good translation, one of her many friends that works in the store came up and started chatting- as many workers there always do.

“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m good,” Sam said, “but that sign has the wrong English word actually. It should say ‘support’ not ‘facilitate.’”
He replied with much more concern than expected. “What? Really? Please, stay here one minute” he said and ran off to get the manager.

Meanwhile Sam began checking her groceries out and chatting with the cashier (also a friend…). A minute or two later half the store’s employees and possibly all of the senior management are mobilized around the sign (did we mention it is just a typed printout on a piece of paper taped to the wall?) asking Sam about it.

“What is the problem with the sign?” asked some important looking man.
Slightly sorry that she mentioned it, Sam explained again that the word facilitate doesn’t really work here. You could use support or help and it makes sense. [It is an understandable mistake actually - the bangla word was one which usually translates as help, and facilitate is a synonym for help, kind of…].

The cashier then chimes in, in a tone that is very in-the-know, “You know, she’s a professor at IUB.”
“Really? You are a teacher at IUB?”“ he asked incredulously, now seeming even more upset about the sign.

Finally, once the error has been identified (and undoubtedly someone has been blamed) and there is the usual chit chat about where Sam is from, how she learned bangla, etc..., and Sam has been profusely thanked, she gets to go on her way.
On one hand, she is glad that she was able to help them fix the sign- it is, after all, a good cause to facilitate local weavers. On the other hand, it was quite a fiasco, and she isn’t sure it was really such a big deal as it was made into. Did the entire force of the store need to be involved in correcting the sign?

For the record though, whenever Sam has pointed out spelling and grammar mistakes on sign in the US, people have not been so friendly and, if you can believe it, have even been hostile or annoyed. Just another cultural difference, we guess…

Monday, August 30, 2010

Delicious Dal

So one question we get asked a lot is “What do you guys eat over there?” and we thought we’d continue our tradition of food entries and discuss a classic food of Bangladesh (well, really all of south Asia): Dal.

Dal really just means lentil, but it also refers to the prepared soupish medley of lentils and spices that most Bangladeshis eat at every meal, or close to it. We eat a lot of dal here- like really a lot. About two times a week Sam makes up a big pot of it, and we have it as either the main dish with some rice and salad, or as a side dish with egg curry or some other curry vegetable dish. It makes a big pot too, so we often have it for two days from each pot. It is a great and really healthy source of protein for us, cheap as can be to prepare, and Sam has worked dutifully to perfect her skills and the recipe. After a great deal of work, she has finally reached the point where she feels able to make changes here and there depending on our mood, and she has gotten a lot of compliments from Bangladeshis and non-Bangladeshis on the dal. So, we thought we’d share with you the recipe (in illustrated, narrative format!).

The basis for this recipe actually comes from Sam’s friends’ parents, who own a restaurant in New York City down on lower 2nd ave, where all the great Indian restaurants are (or used to be). Her parents are Bangladeshi and so this is a great traveling recipe- it went from Bangladesh to New York back to Bangladesh and now it goes to wherever you are! Sam has modified the proportions a bit, but basically this is a pretty standard dal recipe. A big part of South Asian cooking is the process – while it seems lengthy at first, the payoff is worth it and it is actually very soothing and nice to consider that you are recreatig a process people have followed for generations and generations (a nice change from our microwave and frozen food culture in the US).

So, first you start with lentils – not the brown lentils that are in the US supermarkets. This calls for yellow lentils and red lentils – mostly yellow. You can sometimes buy them mixed together, or, as Sam does, buy them separately and mix the proportion to your liking. Sam likes about 3:1 or 4:1 ration for yellow to red.

Soak the lentils in water for about 2 or three hours. This will make the cooking process faster and they will be tastier. If you absolutely can’t do it, skip the soaking, it will still work but will take a bit longer to cook.

After you drain the water off the lentils, give them another rinse. Then put them in a big pot with about 4 times as much water. Turn the heat to medium and bring them to a slow-ish boil. As they boil, a white foamy scum will form along the top. Skim that off as it build up. About twenty minutes in, the lentils should be softening up. Add in about 1 or 2 bay leaves, a couple of sliced or diced garlic cloves, and a small sliced onion (that is probably about ¼ of an American grocery store sized onion). Continue to boil for about ten more minutes.

Once the lentils are soft, take a potato masher and smash them up a little. Next add the following spices – the amount will depend on how much lentils you started with, but generally about 1 or 1 ½ cups of lentils makes a big pot of dal. So, add about ¾ Tbsp. turmeric, 1Tbsp EACH of ground cumin and ground coriander, and about ½ Tbsp of salt. Stir it all up- the turmeric is going to help break down the lentils.

Next, add about 1 or 2 chopped tomatoes, depending on how much you like in it. You can even skip the tomato, but we like it. Add in about 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger or ginger paste (don’t use ginger powder – it isn’t right). Smash it up a little more as it cooks down (yes, it is ok to smash the tomato a little too). Turn the heat to low and let it all simmer together.

Meanwhile, in a separate frying pan, heat about 1/3 cup-1/2 cup of oil (we deviate from tradition on this point and use olive oil instead of soybean oil because it is really kind of a lot of oil and at least olive oil is a little healthier). Add two or three dried red chilis – more if you like. Sam likes to take one and tear it in half and leave a few others whole. Cook them in the oil for a minute and then add about 2 Tbsp. of whole cumin seeds. Next add about 5 cloves of chopped garlic – about 3 Tbsp or so if you are using pre-chopped). Then add several sliced onions- the amount depends on what you like. Sometimes we have a really thick chunky dal with a lot of onion when we have it as main course, but sometimes we have a thin soupy dal with only a few onions. Generally, one or two big American sized onions would be a lot, so adjust it as you like. Fry it all together- it is a lot of oil, but the oil will be basically be the only fat added to the dish, so you need it to get the legumes to come together.

After the onions are nicely browned take the whole skillet full, oil and all, and dump it into the pot of dal.

Stir it all together. Now add about one lime’s worth of squeezed lime juice and about 2 or 3 Tbsp. of fresh chopped coriander (which it turns out is the same thing as fresh cilantro, it just has two names - go figure!). Add about one green chili chopped, and another de-seeded and chopped. Add more if you like it spicy- this recipe is kid-spiced, so it is fairly mild. Keep in mind that one goes a long way though, especially on day two when it has all melded together more. Stir and simmer for about a minute or two, check to see if it needs salt, and serve with rice.

Here is a picture of our thick version from the other night- it is heavy with onions and thickness. You could also do a soupy version by cooking it for less time and having more water. (You can also have thick one night and then make it thin the next day by reheating with extra water to stretch it a little).

You should serve some fresh lime to squeeze on top and a traditional salad of sliced cucumber, carrot, (and sometimes tomatoes) with limes and green chilis. Squeeze the lime on the sliced carrots and cucumber- it is so delicious and a perfect side to the dal and rice.

The other big part of dal and rice is that you really ought to eat it in the traditional way- with your hand (your right hand to be exact). This helps you appreciate the textures and the process of mixing it together with your rice in order to pick it up helps keep the rice/dal ratio. Basically, you mix it together to make a ball-ish mound, and then pick it up and plop it into your mouth, usually with your thumb. There is apparently an official, proper method for this, which we have worked hard to master, but then whenever we watch Bangladeshis eat, the method seems less standard-mostly you just shove the food into your mouth.

So, enjoy the recipe and we hope you give it a try! It is intimidating at first, but actually quite easy once it becomes familiar. Dal and rice is about as healthy as it can get nutritionally- it is well rounded, animal-product free, low calorie, and full of ingredients known to be super good for you (like garlic and turmeric!).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

August 25 was our one year anniversary in Bangladesh . It is hard to believe we’ve lived in Dhaka for a year. In some ways it feels like we just got here, and in other ways it seems like a lifetime ago that we arrived. It has been fun to reflect back on the things that seemed so remarkable back then which have become so mundane now. Of course, we have also been commenting to each other about how much Dhaka has changed in just one year. This city is just growing and changing so rapidly that we have been able to watch fairly major transformations occur within the time we’ve live here.

One of the most striking changes has been the availability of goods- particularly import goods- in the shops. When we arrived last year, the grocery store down the street from us carried a small basic stock of goods, but nothing really imported. In fact, it was part of the total unfamiliarity of new arrival- the shops held bare shelves and the products were strange and unfamiliar. Today, the same store is brimming with imported goods (we still don’t buy them because they are expensive, but they are at least available!)

In fact, possibly the most major and shocking change Sam has witnessed since her first visit in 2007 occurred just last week in that very shop. She glanced over to the aisle behind her that usually just carries diapers and maxi pads, and lo and behold- TAMPONS! You may wonder what was so surprising, but in the past (as any female visitor can attest) they were definitely not available anywhere. Nobody knew if it was a matter of them just not having a market or if there was some sort of disapproval involved, but they were just nowhere to be found. Now, they were just stocked on the shelf – what a sign of the times!

Anyhow, so a lot has changed and a lot hasn’t. We decided to celebrate our one year anniversary with a dinner out to one of our favorite restaurants, Arirang. This is a Korean restaurant that Sam has been going to for a long time. We like it there for many reasons, including that they have the best miso soup in all of Dhaka, it is actually fairly cheap for us all to eat out there because the portions are huge enough that we can share one dish, they give you a bunch of free appetizers, and now we know all the people there well enough that we barely have to order. Of course, the best reason is that you can get cold beer with your meal. We enjoyed a few Foster’s with our supper, and Atticus always enjoys the free cinnamon tea at the end. It was a fun little dinner at a place that certainly signifies our familiar place in the city.

We also decided to get a celebratory cake for our milestone. We decided not to get a King’s Confectionary cake this time because they are kind of expensive, and we thought we should try another place out. More on this decision in a minute. Here is our cake – it is beautiful, and says “Ek Bochur Dhakai” which means one year in Dhaka, and we had a perfectly fun time picking it out. Here is also a picture of us with the cake- we don’t know what we were going for with the photo- we wanted us all with the cake, but there was a shortage of places to put the camera on timer, so we just ended up with a fairly awkward shot of us with the cake kind of in the picture. It just didn’t really work out like we intended, but oh well, it’s a freaking family picture with the cake, ok?

So, as we said, we thought we’d try out a new cake place, even though a lot of cakes and cake places in Bangladesh are terrible. There is a general mis-translation of the notion butter-cream that often leads to cakes being literally frosted with butter. Often these cakes are beautiful, usually in fact, but underneath is nothing but a dry cake and a bunch of whipped butter. When we went to get the cake, we got a rickshaw ride home from a guy that had been eagerly wanting to give us a ride home. He followed us as we walked through a congested area and finally we figured, sure, let’s actually take this guy home. A few minutes into the ride we noticed that he only has one leg.

Damn it! All three of us are piled onto the rickshaw and he’s going along in an impressive yet terribly depressing fashion to haul our butts, and our cake, home. Naturally, we feel like monsters. Sam tells the guy “Look, we are three people, if this is too difficult just let us off and there’s no problem at all,” but he said it was ok. We got a lot of looks, and the ride seemed like the longest rickshaw ride ever, but finally about 2/3 of the way back he pulled over and we got off. We gave him a ridiculously huge fare and walked the rest of the way of home . It was a reminder that even when things are just a running along in a boring everyday life mode, there is still a reality and a harshness that can pop up at any moment that we live in one of the most dense cities of one of the poorest countries in the world and life is just really hard for a lot of people here.

Our cake, which was entitled “Caramel Dream” was not the worst cake we’ve had here, but by far, not the best. The cake itself was actually tasty, but the frosting was clearly made with vegetable shortening and powdered sugar whipped together- not surprisingly, the result is that it tasted like shortening with sugar – not exactly yummy. Jon and Atticus had an easier time stomaching it than Sam, but all in all, the new cake place was very much not a good decision. Next time, we’ll just shell the big bucks out and go back to King’s. Lesson learned.

The final milestone of our anniversary is that Jon finally finished peeling all the paint off his water bottle. He bought a black metal water bottle a while ago in the US and since then has been picking at the paint. At some point, the project became formalized and he set a goal to turn the bottle silver. Here it is in the final stages. He’s quite proud of the accomplishment.

So, we have about 4 months more of living in Dhaka. Sometimes it seems like that can’t go quickly enough, (like today when the construction work upstairs started back up) but we know in truth, that December will come way too fast and we will truly be leaving home when we go from here. Dhaka is sometimes hard to live in, but more often we are reminded how lucky we are to be here and what a fun experience it all is!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


So pretty soon we will be hitting our one year anniversary in Bangladesh! Unbelievable. We also just passed our one year anniversary for our blog- thanks to everyone still reading !

So, we’ll naturally have an anniversary post on our REAL anniversary, but being here for almost a year has put an interesting lens on our experience. On one hand, things seem so much more familiar and we’ve really settled into our life here. On the other hand, some things are just as difficult as ever. After almost a year, we’ve adapted to the food availability (and non-availability) for the most part. We have actually really enjoyed adjusting our diets to the local markets, and we’re too poor (and cheap) to buy a lot of imported goods, so we’ve happily shifted to a healthier diet of less processed food. Of course there is still some processed food- but unlike in the US, where it seems like pre-made, instant or boxed everything is the cheapest and most prolific aspect of the grocery store, here it is much cheaper to buy the produce, butter, and dried goods that are produced locally. As a result, we end up eating a lot of basic ingredients, and have a fun time learning new ways to work with flavors to make it exciting.

Sometimes though, it is also a fun (or psychologically necessary?) challenge to try and re-create our favorites from home with the ingredients available here. For example, the other morning Jon and Sam both awoke with a craving for a good hummus sandwich. In the US, hummus would most likely always be in our refrigerator and a favorite restaurant where Jon and Sam both used to work had an excellent hummus sandwich that we remember fondly. We decided to go on a mission to recreate the sandwich. Let us share.

So, for step one in a hummus sandwich we needed hummus. Not available. OK, so we’ll make it. There are a few places that sell chickpeas in cans so we pile on a rickshaw and take a trip to the grocery store that we know has it. We get some chickpeas, some lemon juice, and olive oil. As an exciting bonus we saw that they had some roasted red peppers in a can and we splurge on some artichoke hearts –hooray!

We get home and Jon sets to smashing the chickpeas and some garlic together. We don’t have a food processor, obviously, so it is a manual operation. First we had to mash up the garlic. Then we had to smash up the chickpeas. Even with Jon’s awe-inspiring arm strength, it actually takes quite a while. We add our lemon juice and olive oil until the flavor is about right (no, we didn’t use any tahini for you hummus purists our there- it is not available).

All the hard work paid off though and for dinner we had tasty sandwiches that at least hit close to a certain flavor we were craving even if it was a more “chunky style” hummus than we were used to. Some alfafa sprouts would have made it excellent, but we couldn’t recreate those. Since hummus isn’t exactly a shining star in the realm of appetizing food shots, here’s our night’s build-your-own sandwich table (with the hummus included) – I bet you wish you were coming over for dinner…

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gettin' Fancy

Recently we were able to enjoy some traditional wedding festivities here and it was so much fun. Sam’s friend invited us to her mehendi ceremony and wedding reception. We were very excited to see the events and see the bride all dressed up in the traditional outfit. Of course we also got to get dressed up, which Atticus is particularly a fan of.

Getting dressed up for a traditional ceremony here means that Sam must wear a sari, and Jon and Atticus can choose to either wear the Punjabi suit or a western suit. We asked around regarding which was most appropriate and for the mehendi ceremony, Jon and Atticus wore their Punjabi suits and for the wedding they wore suits. It was fortunately the correct combination- at the mehendi ceremony everyone had Punjabis on and at the wedding everyone had on suits. Whew- another local social-norm test passed.

So, before we get to the actual events, we thought we’d share a little of our befuddlement at the proportions of fancy ‘deshi clothes. You may or may not already know that the sari is basically a really long piece of fabric that is wrapped, tucked and pinned in a confusing jumble of pleats and drapes into a petticoat underneath. Sam can’t actually do it herself and every time she needs to dress up she has to go downstairs to our landlord’s apartment where his mom or sister helps her put it on. Sometimes, such as the case of the wedding reception, they also get really excite a offer to do Sam's makeup, loan her jewelry, purses (oh, sorry- "party clutch"), etc - basically, they try their damnedest to make Sam into an acceptable Bangladeshi woman- lots of makeup and lots of bling. Sam has yet to allow the makeup, but this most recent time she did get loaded up with jewelry and it worked out ok. The bracelet was was pretty hardcore.

For Jon and Atticus, the traditional Punjabi pants came as a bit of a surprise. They are cut just like the skinny pants that go under kameezes that Sam sometimes wears and we just still haven't figured out the logic of the design. The top is really really big, with a drawstring waste, and the bottoms taper down to ultra-skinny. They are worn at about 2 or 3 inches below the nipple. The Punjabi top itself is fine- it is basically a big tunic, and once it covers the pants it looks nice, but the pants on their own are really something.

Of course, once we figure out how to wear the clothes, we clean up ok.

Atticus of course loves his Punjabi and looks adorable in it. He also loves his shirt and tie though, which he also looks great in. Basically, he likes whenever things get fancy- so both the mehendi ceremony and the wedding were a real treat for him.

We arrived at the mehendi ceremony about twenty minutes late, so naturally we were almost the first people there. We should have known to show up an hour late and we would have still been early. Anyhow, we got to check out the nice decorations of the banquet hall. In true Bangladesh style too, no event hall would be complete without a graphic depiction of the 1971 genocide.

About two hours later things got started. We didn’t completely know what was going on all the time, but basically the bride and groom arrive separately and walk in covered by a marigold thing over them and head toward the stage.

Then they sit on the stage and everyone takes pictures of them and some people feed them. The mehendi ceremony is when the bride gets the traditional henna applied to her hands and we assume that several hours into it the mehendi actually happened (because she did have beautiful mehendi done at the actual wedding reception) but by about two and half hours in, we had gotten a few photos, sat around, had our pre-ceremony snacks, and realized our camera battery wasn’t charged, so we had little reason to stick around longer. We knew the dinner would likely be meat, so we ducked out a little early and headed home. We did stay long enough to hear the band play though – and of course, we were delighted to see that band was a group of teenage and twenty something year old boys singing Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”. (One of the boys was the bride’s nephew, so maybe this was a bit of charity gig!)

Here are the bride and groom on the stage- those are all real flowers strung together in the background too.

And here's a creepy picture of Sam and Atticus at the snack stand:

The wedding reception was actually a lot more fun than the mehendi ceremony. For one, we knew people at the wedding since there was other IUB faculty there and we were able to hang out with them. The reception was held at the golf club by our house and so it wasn’t a long journey to get to it (especially nice, since earlier traffic had made our trip to the liquor store take over two hours!). And of course, even though we forced ourselves to get the a little late we were still some of the first to arrive. The hall was huge, and it reflects the increasing elaborateness and size of wedding ceremonies as the middle and upper classes acquire more and more wealth they need to spend.

Here are a few pictures that start to capture the volume of lights outside of the event hall at the golf course:

Here are Atticus and Sam marvelling at the venue . They are prbably saying something like, "Whoah dude, this place is REAL fancy-like."

Similar to the other ceremony, this one involved the bride and groom coming in and then sitting on a little stage where everyone takes photos of them. Then a religious guy says a prayer, food is served (meaty biryani for everyone else of course- but we had plain rice), and everyone leaves. It was actually funny, because even though the affair seemed so big and the venue was so fancy, it is kind of low-key. You come, take photos, eat and then take off. Once you take your picture, the bride and groom are actually kind of secondary. Atticus took a ton of photos and had a blast taking part in the photo sessions. Between this and the recent boat trip, we have quite a budding photographer on our hands. Here are some pictures from the night.
This is the stage before the bride and groom arrive - this guy totally owns it by the way.
Here is the bride (she is supposed to look sad in order to symbolize leaving her family behind). Check out the awesome mehendi on her hands.

Here are the bride and groom together (he shows up a little after she does).

The major point of the night seems to be to take your picture with the bride and or groom, so here are Sam and Atticus with some other friends from IUB doing the obligatry group shots (there were a lot of these...).

We caught a ride home with our friends who had a taxi waiting for them. Actually that was a fun moment too- all the fancy cars of all these really well off guests come inching forward one by one to pick up the guests and right in the middle is a beat up yellow taxi- that’s ours! It wasn’t like we were rolling with the lowlifes- we were with another visiting professor from the US and the dean of the social sciences – we guess we were all just more enlightened than to buy into the obvious displays of conspicuous consumption. We are sure the dean of the business school does have his own car though.
All in all, we had a great time, Atticus had tons of fun, let his shyness fall aside and got to experience a lot of new things. Here is a shot that shows how excited he was for the groom to arrive - what can we say? The kid loves a wedding.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Snakes, Chocolate and Ecstasy

While our guest was in town she really wanted to visit the Dhaka University area, especially the park across from the university. The park used to be a racecourse and it is where Bangabhondu (the father of Bangladesh) first declared independence for Bangladesh. Aside from that piece of history, the Dhaka University area is sort of the social/cultural/political heart of the city. So one day towards the end of her visit her and Jon decided to go down to the area together and sightsee since Jon had a meeting at the university that day.

We started the day with a stroll through the park before Jon went to his meeting. The park was a rather…unique experience. Since Jon’s Bangla is not nearly as good as Sam’s (he's been studying it for much less time after all) going out without her as an interpreter always adds a level of confusion, which can be fun or frustrating or both. As we walked in, reading the tour book description of the park, someone stopped us and asked what we are doing in Bangladesh, what country we are from etc. (the usual questions for foreigners). We soon realized that this would not be the leisurely walk through the park looking at historic landmarks that our guest had especially desired towards the end of her trip.

The tour book had mentioned that many homeless people live in the park as they seek protection in numbers. This wasn’t necessarily unexpected or really all that off-putting since Dhaka is brimming with poverty. There were actually not as many homeless people as we expected, but the street people that do occupy the park were not your usual beggars. For one it is not clear they are actually beggars at all. Although there were the usual adorable street kids begging and selling things there were also groups of somewhat well dressed young women carrying around small containers. The first group of women walked up to Jon and started saying something to him that he couldn’t understand and holding these little boxes up to him and pinching him. Jon’s first thought of course was ‘no, no ladies I cannot accept your proposal, I am already married.’ Then he thought ‘strange, women aren’t usually so forward in their desire to wed me, maybe they aren’t proposing after all.’ In all seriousness though, women in Bangladesh are generally very reserved, they often times avoid eye contact with all men, let alone pinch and giggle at you. This was exceptionally unusual behavior.

As we continued we through the park we encountered more groups of women. At one point as we went to look at a large memorial that seemed like something historically significant we were accosted by several of them. The women walked up to us with their little containers saying ‘money, money, money’ - ‘how weird’, is there money in the containers ? Jon asked – the reply was a pinch on the arm ‘ouch – what the hell?’ Meanwhile as our guest tried to ask questions she was mocked by the women as they imitated the sounds of her words and then just laughed. Jon tried one last time to find out what was going on and what the memorial they were standing in front of was, but to no avail as the mocking, pinching and grabbing continued. We fled the scene.

We walked around wondering what the hell was in those containers and what was going on with those women. Were they drug dealers? Addicts? Prostitutes? If so, what was in the box? Or were they just odd beggar ladies with tiny lunch boxes? Finally our guest thought of someone she had met while here that she could ask. The person replied that if they were younger than 14 it was probably chocolate. If they were over 14 it was probably ecstasy. Ok, we thought. Maybe we should have gotten some chocolate.

Later as we maneuvered around worshippers for the nearby mosque and multiple cricket games we were invited to join a card game, but we thought it better not to join, after all we probably wouldn’t understand what was going on and thus would be easy targets for hustling - especially since we definitely seemed to be in that kind of place. Finally, we reached some sort of massive memorial that was surrounded by water. We struck up a couple conversations and had our pictures taken with a few fellows. One kid that we talked to for a while (because he just kept following us around) was in town visiting the university as he was trying to get in to it. We decided to ask what the big memorial was. He replied, that “it is a type of pond.” ‘Oh, a pond you say, why thank you,’ and we went on our way (A few days earlier we had learned about ponds on our guided river tour. Apparently foreigners in Bangladesh seem ignorant in the way of ponds to the locals). We walked around the ‘type of pond’ (which type, we don’t know) and found the main part of the memorial – there was a bas relief (fancy Artsy term!) of important figures and moments in Bangladesh history and an eternal flame thing. Ah, we must have found the memorial to independence that we assumed would be there. Nearby we found, not surprisingly, the same kid who had explained to us about the pond and asked him what a nearby plaque said. He proceeded to explain it to us in Bangla. Finally Jon stopped him “can you explain it in English?’ ‘Oh, sorry…hmm…something happened in 1997…sorry I can’t explain it in English.’ Oh, ok, that’s ok.’ 1997? Strange, that’s not significant in anyway as far as Jon had learned from Sam. Oh well, another mystery from the day.

After that Jon went to his meeting and our guest went on to explore Dhaka University some more. While at his meeting Jon asked about the women in the park with the containers and finally learned the mystery (the chocolate and ecstasy never quite seemed right. They didn’t seem to be trying to sell it after all. Though they did seem pretty high.) Apparently the women are part of the snake charmer culture that exists here in Bangladesh. Inside the little containers supposedly are little snakes that they are threatening to make bite you if you don’t give money. The folks I asked seemed to split on whether there are actually even snakes in the little containers. Jon tends to think there aren’t since we didn’t have any snakes sicked on us (of course we are bideshis…) and we didn’t give any money.

After Jon finished his meeting he walked out of the campus to meet our guest nearby. As he crossed the street several cops waved at him, ‘oh, hi’ he waved back. Then he noticed a concerned look on their faces and began to hear a commotion from the other side of him as well. He turned to find a little old lady running at him across the street threatening him with a stick. ‘What the hell?’ he thought, ‘Am I going to have to throw down with this little old lady?’ Finally, all the nearby cops and passersby convinced her not to hit Jon. Later two guys told him ‘its ok, she’s just crazy’ ‘Oh, ok that makes it all better. I thought she just hated me.’ Finally the two of us met up and exchanged stories on the CNG ride home. ‘Wow, what a crazy day in Dhaka’ we agreed. A great day for a drink, right princess Leia?

Friday, August 6, 2010


We’ve mentioned before that we’ve had a guest staying with us for the last month or so. She has been doing some research here in Bangladesh and we’ve had a nice time hosting her. We all decided we had been working way too much lately and that we needed a little break from Dhaka city. Not having a lot of energy or time to plan much of an adventure, we went full tourist mode and booked ourselves on one of the guided river cruises available from a bunch of different companies here in Dhaka. It was fantastic!

Sam had actually taken this same basic cruise before when she was here with the language program, but it was a different company (and not as good) and with a large group there is a totally different dynamic. The minimum for the tour is 6 people, and we were only 4, so we just paid the extra between us and got a totally private day out on a boat. Did we mention it was fantastic? Here’s how:

They set you up in every way because it is really marketed to people who are either only here for a short trip or who work for the embassies or whatever and don’t know how to do anything for themselves. First, they drove us out to the boat dock at Demra about an hour away from our house. Then we boarded the boat and had our tea and cake right away.

PHOTOS of the boat and tea

We began our journey down the river and took in the sights along the banks. It is always so relaxing and refreshing to get out of Dhaka and we spent the morning just looking at everything and taking photos. Here are some of them:

After about an hour and half, we docked at an old zamindar mansion that has been converted to a college. We noticed that the hindu temple was particularly pretty with the dark ominous clouds gathering behind it as we pulled to shore.

The clouds brought rain, obviously, so we ducked into a little tea stall to wait it out. Once the rain lightened a little, we took a stroll around the old mansion and took more photos. We had fun talking to the students and looking around (and listening to the sadly inaccurate historical information the tour guide provided). Once Atticus got mud on his leg and hands though, he was finished with it all and booked it back to the boat. Here are some photos from around the area:

We all followed and continued our little cruise down the river. We saw several river dolphins, but never quite caught one on camera- they jump up fast! Here is a tiny piece of one though:

They also provided us with an absolutely delicious vegetarian lunch. It was so great – traditional Bengali dal, all kinds of veggies, bread, rice - it was an excellent meal and to eat it while sailing down the river was just great.

Atticus followed up lunch by explaining to our guest in detail his issues with dry skin on his feet. She didn’t mind, but we plan on following up regarding his choice of pick up lines and tactics.

After lunch we cruised some more and Jon decided he really wanted to go for a swim. (He had been fully clothed for almost the entire day after all…). Sam had suggested that Jon bring his swim trunks along since they had told us at booking that we could swim if we wanted. Jon, however, had turned his nose up at the idea and decided not to bring along a swimsuit. Fortunately, the boat had a pair of trunks Jon could borrow.

And what a pair of trunks! While they were pretty great dry, the true awesomeness was revealed after they got wet.

Jon had fun swimming (Sam was not even remotely interested in entering the water after we had seen a big-ass snake in the water earlier and Atticus has an ear infection so he didn’t go in.) At first it seemed like Jon would be jumping in and swimming around alone, which was a little lame, but the call of the water soon got to the cook and the guide. The cook dove off the boat roof (which meant, of course, Jon had to do it too) and then the guide decided to join in. The swimming was fun, there were no snake attacks, and the mild industrial waste provided a nice exfoliating chemical treatment for Jon’s skin.

After our swim we docked at a little village spot and got to look at some weavers. We saw a little umbrella factory, and then had fun sitting with the weavers and chatting. This time around was especially fun for Sam because previously she had been with a big group and hadn’t really been able to talk to the weavers. This time, we were only four people and Sam’s bangla is better so it was nice to talk about their work and participate in the encounter a little more. Atticus, of course, was the big star though and he was pretty adorable as he worked with the weavers.

Afterwards the children all waved goodbye in true Bangladesh style and we headed back to the boat.

Just as we docked at the car though Sam had one more delightful moment in store. There was a man selling Tiler Kaja, which is a sesame candy that is the most delicious and wonderful thing ever created. Sam fell in love with it in 2007, but in 2008 and since it has been unavailable. You can only buy it from the street vendors, and Sam has always held out hope that soon it would come back, but we hadn’t seen it – until now. Sam delightedly bought up a bunch and we headed home.

The old package of the candy used to have an adorable little girl clutching the candy and smiling. Now it has some stern mustached guy instead, which is much less cute, so here is a fairly close approximation for those that missed the previous packaging.

Finally, upon arriving home, we all looked in the mirror and realized how ridiculously sunburned we all were (Atticus had been wearing sunscreen but not us!). It was also fun to see the perfect outline of all our shirt collars – Jon had a triangle, Sam had the sweetheart neckline, and our guest had the square. Hooray for funky tanlines!

All in all, a fun break from work and great day on the water. This picture of Atticus was technically taken on the boat but doesn’t really show anything about the cruise. Atticus looks so damned adorable though that we’ll end on this!