Saturday, December 11, 2010

3 More in Six Million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying the comforts of Business Class.

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

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

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

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

To be continued...

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Rishka lagbe na?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

So off they went.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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