Thursday, September 30, 2010

A $10 Ride

What to you get when it has been a long and stressful day, it is raining and you’re in a panic? If you’re Jon, you get a $10 box of Froot Loops ™.

As you may know Jon has been teaching a course at the University nearby as well as continuing his Bangla language courses. It is now mid-term season so he has been especially busy with making and grading tests. On top of that, he has been having a hard time getting students to turn things in on time, do the assignments correctly, and dealing with the students making excuses for this or that and just being generally a kind of a pain. Over the last three days he had decided to meet with all of the students individually to get them all on track, so his days have been somewhat more busy and stressful than usual (a far cry from his normal days actually, which generally consist of lounging about until bedtime). Today while he was meeting with a student , he heard rain and thunder start and made an off-hand comment about how it was just in time for the trek home, and thought to himself that it was a perfectly fitting way to top of a kind of crappy day.

So, as he stepped out of the door to leave, it was raining much worse than he had expected. The road in front of the university was basically a river. He definitely didn’t want to walk home in the downpour and flooded streets so he searched for a rickshaw. There only seemed to be one guy that was working nearby and he was a pretty old dude, probably pushing 110 years old or so. The rest of the rickshaw wallahs around were all taking refuge under their covers, but this old guy had tied a trash bag around his head and waist and was ready to roll. He apparently also saw this as a perfect opportunity to price gouge Jon since the streets were so flooded.

So Jon asks the rickshaw wallah if he would go to his neighborhood. The rickshaw wallah says yes, so Jon gets on the rickshaw. We don’t usually negotiate a price ahead of time (like some people do) and instead we just usually pay them a little above the average fare when we get where we are going. This guy decided to bargain beforehand though. He holds up a single finger and Jon says ‘ 1 Taka? ok, sounds great.’ The guy, un-amused ,says eksho (100). Jon says no way (that is well over twice the usual fare) and tries bring him down by half. Meanwhile, as he is bargaining, Jon quietly begins to wonder what kind of money he actually has on him. As the two continue to negotiate, Jon checks his wallet and realizes that he only has two 10 Taka notes or a 1000 taka note (rickshaw wallahs never have that much change, and many places refuse to give change here). As the two are haggling over the price and Jon is realizing that this may end up being the most expensive ride he has ever taken, a car is waiting to pull out and continuously honking. The rickshaw wallah wants to go and get his fare, the car wants to pull out , but Jon is worried he doesn’t have the right money for the trip, so Jon says “hold on, hold on, let me call my wife” because he thought well if Sam has some taka he could get some from her when he got home – no luck she doesn’t answer the phone. Finally, Jon agrees to 100 taka since the guy was really old and funny and kept indicating that it was raining and water was up to his thigh. ‘Ok, but I need to stop by the market first’ Jon says, so that he could buy something to get some change.

So Jon and the rickshaw wallah set off riding down the flooded streets, which weren’t quite up to his thigh, but at points may have been up to his knee (though he was a short guy). While on the rickshaw Jon tries calling Sam again hoping to avoid going to the store that is notoriously stingy with their change – still no answer. Jon tells the rickshaw driver to stop at the store and tells him he will be back in five minutes. So Jon rushes into the store as quickly as possible because if it took too long he knew the rickshaw wallah would raise the fare. He goes in knowing he only has a 1000 Taka note so he needed to buy expensive things otherwise the teller may not have the change. “Expensive things, expensive things, what are some expensive things that we need at the house?” Jon thought. At this point Jon is rushing through the aisles in a panic looking for the most expensive things in the store, basically. Some soda? That’s kind of expensive. OK, he grabs a few of those. Then he sees it -- Froot Loops™ -- perfect! These are a new import item and Atticus hasn’t had any good sugary sweet cereal for almost a year. In fact, just earlier in the week we had all been in the store and Atticus was drooling over the new import cereals available now, but we were appalled at the price. So Jon grabs the cereal and sodas and checks out. Total: 752 taka, great for change.

Finally, Jon gets home, and gives the guy his inflated fare and yet still throws in a few taka because he liked the guy, and then unbelievably the guy asks for a soda! Jon says no, they’re for my wife (always a good excuse) and the guys says, “oh, ok” and smiles and goes on his way. As Jon was walking up the stairs to his apartment he realized the absurdity of what had just happened. He had just paid nearly ten dollars for an imported box of cereal from some huge US corporation so he could avoid “overpaying” some poor, old rickshaw driver that was hauling his ass around in the rain. Really, where would the money have been better spent? (You don’t have to answer that since the clear answer is supporting the glorious bastion of capitalism, Kellogs ™). The even worse part for Jon, of course, was explaining to Sam why he had just walked in with a ten dollar box of cereal.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Welcome Back Friend

Some astute readers may have noticed that we haven’t really mentioned Taborok (our friend and rickshaw driver) for some time. The reason is that we weren’t sure what to say. A few weeks before we had to make the emergency trip back to the US for Julie’s funeral, Taborok started getting really sick. He had been slowly losing weight for a few months and we had talked about how he was getting sick. We paid for him to go to the doctor here and they kept running tests and saying he had a “blood problem.”

Sam went with Taborok to the doctor because she was frustrated with the fact that he didn’t seem to be getting much information from his provider about his condition, and the encounter was infuriating. Taborok had brought over his medical papers for Sam to look at to try and make some sense of and we tried looking things up online to figure it all out. The clinic, tucked into a back alley, had a doctor ostensibly trained in Calcutta, although honestly, her credentials are fairly suspect and we’re sure she could have bought them as easily as earned them.

The entire doctor’s appointment consisted of him sitting in front of the physician’s desk (with an audience of the entire waiting room) for five minutes while she glanced at the papers from his last visit that he brought her and she wrote a new prescription on it. She asked if he had been taking his medicine and he said all but one, because one of them made him vomit violently. She then (instead of asking if he needed a different treatment or considering her prescription’s tolerability or appropriateness) commenced with scolding him and saying “well, if you don’t want to get better I can’t make you take the medicine.” She was equally unimpressive in response to Sam’s questions regarding whether Hepatitis should be tested for(it is super common here), why his anemia was so severe, etc… it isn’t like Sam is a freaking doctor; these weren’t highly complicated questions- why did you run this test? Why didn’t you test for this? Why did you prescribe this? What is the diagnosis? Well folks, do you want to know what her diagnosis was? He’s poor. He’s poor, she said, and eats poor nutrition so he is sick. So… Ok, why did he suddenly get sick when he is in fact making more money than ever in his life and eating better than ever? Her reply, He’s a rickshaw puller, he’s poor and unhealthy.

So, we had decided to take Taborok to see the doctor that we know and have as our doctor here (although we’ve never needed to actually go). He treats a lot of foreigners and speaks English so Sam could go along and hopefully get some actual medical explanation. Unfortunately, right as all this got planned out, we had to leave. By that point, Taborok hadn’t been able to work for about a month, and we were all stressed out about what was going to happen.

Sam and Atticus got back to Bangladesh a week earlier than Jon. Sam called to see about Taborok and he said he was feeling a little better. He wanted to work, and was more concerned about making sure we were all ok after the family trauma. When Taborok showed up to take them to the market one day , it was pretty clear that he wasn’t able to work. He looked like a skeleton. His face was completely emaciated and he was just weak and frail. It was awful, actually, to see him so broken down. Sam described him to Jon as “barely alive.” He insisted he could do it, but could only make it a few blocks before Sam made him stop. In that moment, it became very clear that he wasn’t going to be driving a rickshaw again for a long time, if ever.

Within the week Taborok decided to leave Dhaka and go to his parents back in the village. There was an NGO doctor in the village that he could see and he was just unable to survive here. He knew he couldn’t continue to take a salary from us and not work, nor did he want to, and he knew there was no way he could pull a rickshaw in his condition. It was terrible. It was also terrible to deal with as we were so heavily grieving the loss of Julie at the same time. In some ways, we couldn’t really face the reality of what was happening.

So time passed. We tried to call his phone, but the number said it was turned off. Sam wondered if it had run out money (it is pre-pay) so she put some money on it, but still nothing. She tried to call many times and each time the phone remained closed, which honestly, was a like horrible kick in the stomach. We started to allow ourselves to admit that he might not have made it, and that we might not ever know. We kept wanting to write a blog about it, but weren’t ready to deal with the emotions it involved.

Then, one day last week, as Sam was sitting by herself in the immigration office waiting for the appropriate window to open, she got a call. The phone said Taborok! He’s alive! He’s ok – mostly! It was all Sam could do to keep from bawling like a baby in the waiting room of immigration.

So, Taborok is back. We now know, thanks to the real docor he saw in the village, that he has Tuberculosis, which is in fact quite prevalent here. So common, actually, that any doctor worth a crap would have tested him within the first few visits. He came very close to death, and got down to about 60 pounds in weight. He spent 15 days in the hospital. He is getting better though, and he is on antibiotic treatment, so he should recover . He had to sell everything he owned for his medical costs, his parents went into terrible debt, and he is now living back in the same slum that he started in when we first met him.

On one hand, we find it hard to not feel like total failures. We tried to just help one man, but in the face of the insurmountable poverty and totally, completely, unfair balance of wealth and access, all it took was an illness for him to lose every single advantage he had worked to get. He feels like a failure too – he feels bad for selling the rickshaw, but what choice did he have? He couldn’t drive it and he was dying. He has 4 children and a wife to consider – it would have been stupid not to sell it.

On further thought though, maybe this isn’t the tragedy we initially felt it was. He is alive- without the wealth that owning that rickshaw had created, he would not have been able to afford to go into the hospital, or get his family to the village with his parents to be cared for. Maybe, instead of feeling sad that he had to sell his rickshaw that we all worked together to buy, we ought to feel elated that the act of kindness we took part in almost a year ago, did so much more than we could have imagined. It might have saved a man’s life. Not just any man either – Taborok. A man we care about, and who is part of our life and family. So maybe this all worked out the best it could.

Now he is back, and has been driving a rickshaw for a few days. We told him to take it easy, but we put him back on full salary and he comes in the morning and afternoon for Atticus’ school pick up and drop off. We don’t use him for extra stuff- ideally he can take it lightly and get his strength back over the next few months before we leave.

He also still comes over for tea and adda (chit chat) and it is so incredibly nice to have him back. He is literally our favorite person in this whole country, and we’re so very happy he’s ok. Although, Sam’s former nickname for him “TB” now seems somewhat off-color, so she doesn’t use that any more.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

5k for Julie

Today we ran 5k in solidarity with our friends and family running on Team 8:08 for Jules in the Race Against Suicide back in the US. We ran in memory of Jon's sister Julie and with the hope that more discussion and openness about suicide will result from events like these (well, not really our event because it was just us running in circles in our apartment, but the REAL Team 8:08 has raised over $2600!).

Today our thoughts were with Julie and while the running was actually quite a bit less physically difficult than we expected, it was more emotionally tough than we anticipated. Jon remembered that he never really got to run with Julie (becuase Jon doesn't usually run), but today he had flashbacks of riding his bike alongside her while she trained for cross country in high school.

We ran about 12 hours before everyone else running the US race due to the time difference (and because we are time travellers), so having already completed the race we are happy to report that everyone did great! Good luck anyway (not that you need it) to everyone running and walking today and know that we wish we could be with you guys and love you all so much.
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Happy Birthday for Atticus in Dhaka

A little less than a month after our arrival in Dhaka last year, Atticus turned 7. We had a little family birthday and a fun little time at Pizza Hut, but we were all still learning the ropes of life in Dhaka, and it was a fun, but certainly, foreign-feeling birthday.

This past Wednesday Atticus turned 8 and this time around he was right at home. He has really become quite a Dhaka-kid and this birthday gave us a chance to see how he is really in his element here now. For one, he loves school this year. Last year he had a hard time adjusting and was still kind of the new kid, but this year he was no longer new and has lots of friends – which means he could have a real party! We decided it was a great chance for us to let our inner dorks fully out, and we threw a pirate party (No, not the Swedish Politcal party).

The first step was the invitations, which of course, we got crafty with. In our usual DIY fashion, we downloaded Pirate font, printed out invites, then dragged tea bags over them to make the paper look old. Then we burned the edges for another level of awesomeness. We rolled the invitations and tied them with some string to hand out. They turned out fabulous (if we don't say so ourselves) – and created quite a pre-party buzz around the school. Here are some pics:

The party was on the day after Atticus' actual birthday, since his birthday was on Wednesday and Thursdays are a half day at his school. So, basically, he got two full days of birthday fun. On his actual birthday, he took a cake to school (the one pictured at the top) and had it with his friends. Then he got to choose whatever he wanted for dinner and he opted for the Japanese restaurant. This is his favorite restaurant, so not a big surprise. As we were walking along to get to the restaurant we were struck with how comfortable he was strutting along the loud, busy streets of Dhaka. He knew right where he was going, navigated around puddles, rickshaws, sewer holes in the ground, and other random obstacles as if he was strolling alongside a bubbling brook. He is a Dhaka kid now, and this is his ‘hood.

Once in the restaurant we had a tasty dinner as always and he got to enjoy one of his favorite things there- fancy orange juice (you know he likes fancy…). Here are a few pics from his birthday dinner:

After dinner we let him open the presents from the family. We pooled everyone’s money this year and got him the two things he has been asking for over the last many many weeks, and some socks. He wanted a radio-controlled helicopter (Jon wanted this too, actually) and an electronic light saber. Both were pretty pricey, especially with the import tax on the light saber (toys from the US are really expensive) – but with everyone’s money together we got to let him have what he wanted. It was a good decision. He was thrilled, and cried out “Thank you so much!” (what a polite kid!) and has been enormously pleased with his presents. Well, he was less pleased with the socks…

So his birthday was fun, but the really big event was yet to come. We applied our usual enthusiasm to the party, and made a big Jolly Roger flag (which is always good to have around anyway), painted a big pirate (who we decided to call Steven the Pirate and who was on on the hunt for some Pirate booty) for pin-the-parrot-on-the-pirate and decorated up the apartment.
We also blew up some balloons.

As we tried to finish up with some final preparations for the party two of the kids decided to break with the usual bangladeshi tradition of arriving late and showed up a half hour early, d'oh. Jon was able to amuse them with his pirate talk and swordfighting skills until the rest of the kids showed up - late (of course). The fight didn't last long though as one of the treacherous little rascals pulled a gun on him and hollered out "say goodbye my little friend" ala Al Pacino in Scarface.

Finally after all of the kids showed up the party got going in earnest. We had planned four seperate games to keep the little pests occupied. The first game was a game where each team tied as many pirate sashes to a team member as they could. It was a good way to make use of the dozens of ornas (scarfs) that come with all of Sam's outfits. As soon as the game began we were immediatley reminded that 1) kids love to segregate by gender, which was especially bad in this case because there were far fewer girls at the party, and none of the boys would ever want to be on the "girls team," and 2) kids are incredibly loud. Everything kids do together seems to involve screaming at the top of their lungs (maybe they haven't learned to control their vocal chords?) and Atticus is often the loudest of the bunch.

We were amazed at how much louder they could get when they played Pin-the-Parrot-on-Steve. As each child was blindfolded, spun around and sent towards Steven, the children were screaming out directions in multilpe languages - some correct directions, and some incorrect. Then they began chanting in unison "yes, yes, yes" in attempts to confuse their friends into sticking the parrot in a bad spot. It got pretty intense. You could not hear any individual voices - just the chanting, not to mention the kid was blindfolded and the room was incredibly hot and crowded. We decided later that this may have actually been a form of torture, hopefully Amnesty International doesn't hear about our party. The pic below illustrates some of the chaos.

Despite the terrifying circumstances though, most of the kids got their parrots in prety good spots.

Most of the kids...

Next we played a game that made them pass spoonfulls of water down a line. It turns out kids make a huge mess even with only a few spoonfulls of water. To close the games, we unleashed the hundred or so balloons we had blown up and informed them some of them had candy in them. Then 12 children began screaming and running and popping balloons on wet floor for about ten minutes. We're sure the other people in our neighborhood loved that.

After the chaos of the balloon popping it was time to sit them down and feed them (something besides sugar, that is). We had pizza in circle by lantern light, because of course the power had gone out. These kids all live in Dhaka though, so a little power outage doesn't even phase them. After some kids finished eating pizza and others were still eating, the kids passed the lantern around and told stories. It was pretty adorable.

After that we moved them all to the table for the pirate cake and ice cream.

Finally, they moved back into the living room to open presents. Atticus got a lot of loot - like ridiculously a lot. If you look at the mess on the table in the lower left of the picture below, and multiply it by about 200 all over the apartment, you can get a sense of the wake these kids left behind.
So then everyone's drivers started arriving and we had to make sure each kid got to the right parent, etc. As the kids left, the others occupied themselves with the THREE Nerf guns Atticus got as presents and various other weapons of destruction. The best though, was hearing one kid call out in his little British accent "Let's Shoot Steve!"

Despite all the mess, it only took about an hour and half to clean and sanitize the place. We didn't have any major injuries, no fights, and generally smooth going- especially impressive considering that all these kids had widely variant degrees of English proficiency.

So all in all it was a great party - in fact, several children said it was the best birthday they'd ever been to. Well, of course of it was, little one. We don't mess around.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Running With It

Well Sam let cat out of the bag on her facebook status that we’ve been running lately, so we might as well update on you on what has been distracting us from the blog! Actually, we’ve been doing two fitness-related things – the first, the one hundred push up challenge was sort of a passing fancy on Sam’s part, then as per our usual pattern, we had to get completely get over-serious about it and dedicate ourselves in an obsessive fashion.

See, we should probably give you some background. We (pre-Atticus we, as in just Jon and Sam) have a certain tendency toward lunacy over-zealousness. In fact, we frequently look back on periods in our life which we call “the lunatic years.” Those years involved many late night trips to Kinkos to photocopy hundreds of copies of our revolution-fomenting materials, all night campaigns of flyer distribution, many many trips to army supply shops, creating our own Cop Watch program and listening to a police scanner to find out where the cops were and driving to crime scenes to monitor and photograph the police….you get the picture. In some ways, these early lunatic years were simply us cutting our teeth for later political organizing, but in other ways, we know it reflects a certain lunacy – you see, it isn’t just about what we did- we actually believed, deep down and with conviction, that we two were capable of starting a global revolution to overthrow the oppressive power system. We even became a little paranoid and when we were flying to Guatemala to learn Spanish (again, another example of perhaps a bit of overkill) we were more than a little nervous about being allowed in and out of the country- because OBVIOUSLY we were such a threat to the state that they would be watching our every move and just waiting for one little slip up…

So, this is the pattern. In those years we wholeheartedly dedicated ourselves and put a ridiculous amount of time into our revolutionary escapades. Later epochs of lunacy periods have been slightly less dramatic (although not necessarily…) but honestly, we’ve come to a point of enough self-reflection in our relationship that we know we tend to bring out the crazy in each other. Atticus has fit right into this – he’s as nuts as we are.

So, where is this going? Oh right- the latest manifestations. So, the hundred push up challenge is fairly straightforward- it is an online program that promises one hundred push ups in 6 weeks. Sam can’t even do one real push up, and when we started she couldn’t really do much of a knee one either, so she started with “wall-push ups,” which are mostly degrading and depressing. She does, in fairness, have the upper arm strength of a little baby. Having stuck with it however, she has now graduated to knee push ups. Jon is moving along nicely with the program and Atticus really enjoys time together too. Actually, he has improved significantly himself. We all pile into the only room in our apartment with a/c and take turns cheering each other on.

If we had better equipment this would be a perfect point in the story for us to show a montage of us all working hard at the push-ups. Indeed, it begs for a montage, but given our simple format, we’ll settle for a collage.

So, the point is that we are zealots- we can’t just kind of do anything. As the saying goes “If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing!” We approach everything with a certain enthusiasm that we think is part of our charm (right?).

Bangladesh has only exacerbated this craziness in that it has meant Jon and Sam spend close to 24 hours a day together on many days, and we have already established what kind of influences we can be on each other.

So we were only allowed to do our push ups every other day, since the program calls for a rest day between sessions. That left us with days of no fitness activity and somehow we ended up running. Actually, we aren’t even sure how it exactly started – Sam and Atticus were challenging each other over who could run in place longer and one thing led to another, and voila- we became runners.

Neither Jon nor Sam have ever really been into running. Jon’s whole family loves running, but he never really got into it, and Sam has, at times, even been actively opposed to running (It turns out though that she doesn’t mind the running so much- it is just the psychopathic suburban housewives that seem to be highly prevalent in the world of running that she can’t tolerate). We also aren’t really into the excessive consumer industry that surrounds most sports- and running is no exception. So, naturally, when we run, it is on our strange terms.
First, we can’t really run outside, because the spectacle of a white woman running around Bangladesh is not exactly a comfortable situation in which to exercise. We are constantly watched even when just walk to the store – the last thing we need is to start running. Second, it is like 90 degrees outside and humid as hell. Third, Sam would have to wear way too many layers of clothing- pants, long shirt, scarf, and she might actually die. So we decided we could run inside.

Our apartment is somewhat big, so we could set up a little loop in our place by moving some furniture around. There was precedent for this indoor track making ; when Jon and Sam were using pedometers and set a goal of 10,000 steps a day back in Boston- when we came up short at night we would walk laps around our apartment until we got to 10,000. Yeah, we know- we said – we’re lunatics.

We weren’t even necessarily planning on doing that much running, we just thought it was a fun way to get in a little cardio. The silliness of running around the apartment made it super fun for Atticus and we figured it was nice way to spend some active time together and set a good (albeit slightly strange) example for Atticus that fitness is important.

Since we were indoors, we decided to run barefoot, since Sam had been doing some reading about it and has a friend that does barefoot running (in uber-long distances) and swears it is the best thing ever. Plus, then we get to avoid the whole consumer aspect of the sport - perfect for us.

As usual, things escalated rapidly. First we were pretty casual about it- running about 10 minutes or so and just having some fun. We added a minute about every other time. Then, everyone in Jon’s family started getting geared up for the Race Against Suicide in memory of Julie, Jon’s sister. As you all know we lost Julie to suicide this past May and since she was an avid runner, it is a great way to honor her memory and raise some money for an issue we’ve become intimately more familiar with.

So, one night we were chatting about Team 8:08 for Julies phenomenal fundraising results (over $2500! You can add donations to anybody’s page here : and we were saying that maybe if we were in the US we’d have run it too. Then we decided that we should run a solidarity 5K here for the folks doing the real thing there.

It was only about 2 ½ weeks until the race day though and we were only running for about 10-12 minutes a time at that point, but we set out with yet another over-enthusiastic plan. First we had to measure our track to see how many laps exactly 5k would be.

Then we had to do math- CRAP! Mathematical calculations aren’t exactly a strong point for either of us, but with pencil, pad and calculator in hand, we sludged through a complex (for us at least) set of contabulations that determined that we needed to do approximately 279 laps to equal 5k. Great- well that’s too hard to keep track of so we decided to go by time- we ran a few laps and estimated our average pace. We worked out the amount of time it would take to run that many laps and decided that at the average pace we run, it would take us about 35 minutes to run 5k- maybe less, but there are a lot of turns and you can’t really get going that fast indoors.

Armed with the calculations, we just had to develop a schedule that takes us from 12 minutes to 35 in two weeks (not really that hard actually). Sticking with schedule isn’t really that hard because as we have made clear, we’re zealots.

So here are Jon and Atticus demonstrating our routine- this wasn’t actually a real run, but you get the picture. The joy on Atticus’ face is actually enough to keep us motivated!

So, on Sept 26 we will also run 5k in memory of Julie and in solidarity with those running in the Race Against Suicide. Of course, because we are lunatics, we’ll do it barefoot, running almost 300 laps around a track in our apartment in Dhaka Bangladesh, but then again - what else would you expect?!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Boys with Sticks

As you know, we try to stay fairly neutral in cultural custom issues. We respect norms of modesty; we use Muslim greetings and expressions and we happily wish people happy Islamic holidays despite the fact that we are non-religious. Generally we try to live in a way that does not indicate any sort of judgment over local practices and are purposely self-conscious of the fact that we need to show people that all Americans do not hate Muslims. (Thanks a lot bigots in the US for putting that burden on the shoulders of people who actually travel around the world…)

There are limitations to this tolerance though, and for us, usually they involve incidences in which one person is being physically harmed by another. For us, that is not a cultural issue- that is a moral issue. Well, the other night we reached one of these moments where we faced the limit. We couldn’t decide if we wanted to share the story, because in some ways it might perpetuate dangerous stereotypes but in other ways it does reflect an aspect of life here that is a real challenge. We decided that in the spirit of sharing our true experience here, we should write about it.

We were watching a movie on tv when he heard a commotion outside. We went to our balcony and checked in on the commercial breaks as a crowd seemed to be forming outside (it was about midnight) and something was definitely going on. We noticed our landlord – the military man- was out there, and so we were interested with whether it involved our building. After a while, there were lots of neighborhood guards (these are private security hired by the neighborhood society – not police) and we noticed they had someone being held. There was a crowd gathering around and we got a really uneasy feeling. They brought out some shoe (apparently it was literally a case of “if the shoe fits”) and then things seemed to start happening. The guy was yelling, clearly afraid (who wouldn’t be?) and we started to get more uneasy. “Oh shit,” said Sam “I really don’t want to see a public beating in front of our house.” We noticed lots of the crowd, including little Al-amin, (the 7-ish year old child-domestic worker in our building) sadly, had sticks in hand.

We have read many articles here about people being beaten to death by mobs of vigilantes for petty crimes like pick-pocketing or theft. Our friend , affectionately known as the Kiwi, had gotten involved in a mob violence issue around this same time last year. He came across a mob ready to cut off a man’s hand for theft, and he demanded that they stop and call the police. It was a brave interjection on his part, and we were proud of his willingness to stand up against the mob.

In some ways, articulating the idea gave us a minute to figure out what our position was going to be. As one of the guards began to hit the guy with a stick, Jon yelled out “Hey- Stop it” and given that Jon has a nice loud voice, everyone looked up. Sam chimed in “Stop it- you have no right” although her voice is less pleasant at high volumes.

Our landlord called up “Go back inside- this does not concern you. You do not understand. Go back to bed.” This was infuriating actually. We aren’t children – and we understood full-well what was happening. It concerned us as much as anyone. So Sam yells back “You can’t do this. This is illegal.” Jon yells out “Call the police so the man can stand trial; he has a right to trial.” They seem to be dismissing us. Sam yells some more “What’s the matter with you? Judges are appointed by the government - you are not a judge.” (or something to that effect). Meanwhile, Jon decides they are not paying attention and he runs downstairs (no shirt and all).
On the way down, Jon saw all the women peeking out of the doorways and he noticed the obvious gender context. He yelled all the way down “This isn’t right- they have no right to beat an accused man in the street,” etc. just to make sure these ladies knew that all men weren’t the same.

On arriving at the ground level (remember we live in the fifth floor) Jon began yelling more for them to stop it. The landlord’s son, who is a guy our age and who has lived in the UK and other places abroad and is fairly Western (at least he wishes he was), pulls Jon aside and starts making excuses. “I know this isn’t the way its done other places but this our custom,” he says. “No it isn’t,” says Jon, “Bangladesh has a court system – this is vigilante justice and it is illegal.” The landlord’s son is interestingly caught in the middle – his father –the classic patriarch is clearly in charge, but he knows this seems (and is ) atrocious to foreigners , which he wants so badly to be like. The debate goes back and forth – it is revealed that the guy apparently stole a cell phone and broke a lock to do it.

Jon tries to explain that a property crime is not the same thing as violence- they are committing violence, which is far worse. They ignore him. They argue that the “Criminal” is part of a gang and that if they call the police then the corrupt police will only let the man go and he’ll come back again. They say they are only beating him to get him to reveal information about his gang. They also keep claiming that this is their culture – annoyingly simplistic and convenient as an excuse (if a rich man is accused of a crime he gets a trial – how does that fit into this “cultural” practice?)

OK- so on one hand, what they say is partly true- the police are terribly corrupt. We are also aware that in truth, being beaten by these guys might be better than what the man would face in police custody, but that isn’t the point and frankly we don’t have a lot of time to think about all of it. What we know is that a mob of people are beating a man in front of us and we have to decide what we will do about it.

There are moments when a person has to stand up for the things they believe in, and this felt like one of those moments- the guy was accused- not convicted. If he had been a rich man accused he would have gotten a trial, but a poor man gets beaten in the street by powerful men that are pissed off that he dared to try and take a little something of theirs. They are sending a message about power- not culture. This is not a cultural difference between us and the crowd- this is injustice.

As the beating begins again Sam yells out “Are you animals or men? What is wrong with you?” and Jon sees that reasoned argument isn’t helping. He says “Fine. I’m going to get my camera and take a picture of every one of you participating.” He runs up to grab the camera.

By the time Jon gets back downstairs, amazingly despite their insistence that they weren’t doing anything wrong, the crowd has dispersed. (Turns out maybe they don’t want their photo taken? Hmmm…, maybe what they are doing isn’t so morally clear cut.) They tell Jon that they called the police and they haul the guy off down the road. Our landlord gets into his car and heads off.
We’re not stupid. We know they didn’t call the police. We know they just took him out of sight from the foreigners and did whatever they wanted. It is upsetting and we hate that the whole ordeal happened. We could have done more, but we also could have done less. We had to find a balance and in our moral equations we think we made out ok. One thing we really hope came through was that all these guys with their big sticks thought they were oh-so-powerful, but we weren’t impressed at all (we decided there was most certainly a direct inverse proportion of stick size to penis size, as evidenced by the 7 year old having the biggest stick). For some reason, it was especially important to us that little Al-amin saw that being a man, or protector, or whatever cliché gender performance was being enacted, wasn’t as simple as displaying strength by beating a tied-up man from the safety of a crowd. Maybe somewhere in his mind, he’ll understand masculinity in a slightly more complicated way.

We feel like there needed to be someone that called them out for their behavior and while there is certainly some socially awkward fall-out, we are glad we did it. Despite some regret over the possibly excessive cursing and yelling at our landlord, and clearly violating the social-patriarchal hierarchy of our relationship with our landlord, we still feel we did the right thing. We have since seen both our landlord and his son in the hallway and said hello, as if nothing happened so the long-term damage seems to be minimal.

The arena of cross-cultural interaction is complicated, and we don’t always navigate with the ease and confidence we’d like, but we’re trying and it is part of life living in a foreign country. The effort though, we feel, is educational and part of the experience we’re gaining here.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Back to School Again

Sept. 2 was Atticus' first day back to school here in Dhaka. He will continue for another half the year here at the bilinual French international school and then we'll head back to the US in December where he'll go for the rest of the year. This year was certainly a different story than last year (recall we showed up an hour late due to our confusion over the time changes) and things went much better. Atticus was also not a new kid, so he got to see his old friends and since he even has the same two teachers this year (they teach both 1st and 2nd grade) it was pretty easy as far as back-to-school goes. There is a new principal this year and he seems very nice- although he was also nervous on the first day. This year it seems like the school is even smaller in enrollment than last year; he has 8 kids officially in his class, but only 5 were there on the first day. This is the small classroom attention that he loves about the school, and it will probably be quite a shock when he gets thrown into an American public school classroom with about 750 kids in the classroom!
So, not a lot to report but the day went great. Atticus had fun, we went for pizza and ice cream afterwards (where we all had fun) and things are moving right along in the daily grind here.