Just another day in Dhaka, Hillary Clinton

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It was a historical event at the International School of Dhaka today as US State Secretary Hillary Clinton paid us a visit. To maintain security, we were only notified of her visit the day before she actually arrived. What does this mean? Well, let’s just say prompt organization is simply not a Bangladeshi forte! In fact, using those words in the same sentence seems like an oxymoron! To prepare for this massive event, pretty much the entire city of Dhaka transformed into a semi-well-functioning metropolis and it was nothing short of a miracle! We had newly paved streets overnight, security guards on every corner and hardly any rickshaws (because true cosmopolitan people drive cars, you know). When we got to school I was greeted by very serious looking security guards in street clothes running a metal detector. Since I work there, they let me pass on through, and I didn’t even have to show them the contents of my bag. Hm. Call me crazy, but I do believe that kind of defeats the point of security… though primary teachers do not look very menacing, I suppose.

At 10:15, teachers gathered in the staff lounge for their morning tea, but there was a buzz of excitement in the air. Just as I took my first sip of coffee a colleague shouted, “She’s here!” at which point every teacher abandoned their much coveted seat at the snack table, and ran to the windows. It was such a sight to behold! Not only had Hillary NOT arrived, but now about 50 educated individuals had reverted back into small children with their noses pressed against the glass holding their breath in anticipation! They waited and waited…but nothing.

The excitement slowly dwindled as teachers realized their break time had lapsed and it was time to get back to class. As everyone gradually dispersed from the staff lounge and made their way downstairs to get back to work, Hillary finally did arrive and, again, a mass of bodies pressed against the window for a star sighting! One car pulled up… but it was just some embassy officials. A second car followed and then a squeal of excitement resounded through the reception area as Hillary came into view. Out she stepped and…. she was just a regular person I’m afraid. Nothing too exciting to see except for a gigantic orange purse on her arm. Yep, that’s all I felt when I saw her. In fact, after spending the year being openly gawked at in public like some kind of wild animal, I admittedly had some sympathy for old Hillary. I looked around and had to giggle at how bizarre it must be to show up someplace only to find hundreds of faces smooshed up against windows in every direction!

Apparently her “conversation with Bangladesh” went quite well, though I wouldn’t know! Yes, she did visit our campus, but only 20 people (out of a mere 800+) got to actually participate in this “conversation”. My 4th grade students who are currently studying government were quite miffed that they were not considered when all the arrangements for the day had been made! Don’t worry, Hillary, I covered for you and told them that government officials aren’t really comfortable with kids because they always seem to ask the questions that are impossible to answer, which can be a little embarrassing!

When It Rains, It Pours

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Part of life in Bangladesh means exotic weather. Having never lived in a tropical climate before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a country that has six seasons rather than four. The seasons are: Barsa (June to August) rainy season, Sarat (September to October) autumn, Hemanto (October to November) late autumn, Seet (November to December) winter, Basanto (December to February) spring, Grisma (March to May) summer. Obviously, each season lasts about 2 months before it subtly morphs into a new season.

We have been here since July and have, therefore, enjoyed only the first season, Barsa. This season is the monsoon rain season and it is really a sight to behold when you are graced with one! Before moving here, I tried to find out exactly what monsoons were like. Were they torrential downpours, which lasted minutes or day-long affairs? No one really seemed to be able to answer the question for me, so I just decided to pack a couple of pairs of rubber boots, an umbrella, a rain jacket and call it good!

The first few weeks of living here delivered absolutely no rain. There were plenty of gray skies, but no rain ever seemed to fall. It was hot and muggy, but never a drop of rain. And then it happened; the skies opened up and poured buckets of water down on Dhaka! It rained for days on end and I finally saw what a monsoon rain looks like! Apparently this is not always the norm during monsoon season, but can be quite common. The streets flooded and cars looked more like boats slowly plowing through the water leaving pedestrians in their wake! An umbrella is pretty much useless on such occasions, I might note, and it’s far too hot to don a pair of rubber boots. Basically, you are more or less defenseless should you get caught in the path of a monsoon! It was such a riot to watch people traveling through the small rivers, which were once the streets of this busy city. We toyed with the idea of rolling up our trousers and joining the locals barefoot in the water, but alas, never got up the nerve to brave the filth that floated along the streets (a topic for another day)!

But not to worry, all the rains since early August have been short, refreshing downpours. Your best bet is to wait them out under shelter of a shop or garage until they pass, and then be on your merry way. The plants are vibrantly green and flowers in bloom during this season. It is a lovely sight to behold, though it is still quite hot and extremely humid this month. I find it pretty much impossible to be outside without breaking a sweat, and that’s before I actually start moving! Aside from being so green, the biggest bonus to this hot, sticky season is the lack of mosquitoes!

We are now moving into Sarat, which is autumn. I must admit it hardly seems like autumn since the trees all keep their leaves and stay green year round. However, the skies have been much bluer lately and there have been breezes to cool down the heat of the midday sun. It is still humid out, but rumor has it, one can catch a “slight chill late in the night… I’ll keep my fingers crossed on that one!

Skola un skolēni

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Skola ir ļoti labi un skolēnii brīnišķīgi. Pati skola tika uzcelta Bashundaras rajonā un uzņēma pirmos skolēnus 2009. gadā. Pats rajons ir pierādījums ātrumam, kā attīstās Daka. Ja skolas pirmsākumos apkārtējie laiki esot bijuši nopludināti, tad tagad apkārt slienas daudzstāvu dzīvojamās mājas, blakus ir modernā Apollo slimnīca, bet aiz stūra valstī lielākā mobilo sakaru operatora Granmeen Phone galvenais birojs. Rajons ir arī pierādījums nekontrolētai attīstībai, jo neviens nav gribējis padomāt par pietiekami ietilpīgu ielu un citas infrastruktūras izbūvi. Būtībā uz rajonu ir izbūvēta viena kārtīga iela un alternatīva ir šauras uz bedrainas ieliņas. Netālu no skolas slienas arī pierādījums politiskās piederības nozīmei Bangladešā. Tas ir milzīgs, Āzijā lielākais iepirkšanās centrs, kas ir pabeigts uz izbūvēts, bet tā arī nav sācis savu darbu. Īpašniekiem ir nesaskaņas ar pašvaldību un, kā es saprotu, abas puses pārstāv dažādas politiskās partijas. Lai tur iepirktos būs vien jāgaida uz nākamajām parlamenta/pašvaldības vēlēlēšanām.

Lai arī mums sākotnēji teica, ka vietējo skolēnu īpatsvars ir 70-80%, tad realitātē tas varētu būt 90%. Mani tas netraucē, jo skolēni ir brīnišķīgi. Pārējie 10 procenti ir Indieši, Pakistānieši, Korejieši un Japāņi. Eiropas izcelsmes baltie zvirbuļi ir vienmēr auditorijā pamanāmi un pamatā tie ir skolotāju bērni. Es pasniedzu Ekonomiku 11. klasei, Biznesu un menedžmentu 12. klasei, bet Sociālās zinības 6. un 7. klasei. Darbs kaulus nelauž un ir interesanti. Man ir arī iedalīta audzināmā grupa – 8 skolēni no 11. klases. Darba diena man sākas ar audzināmās klases reģistrēšanu un ikdienas jautājumu parunāšanu, noskaidrojot kā viņiem iet mācībās, kas jauns, utt. Pagaidām tas neprasa daudz laika, bet drīz vien būs pirmās atzīmes un būs jāsāk runāt ar viņiem par konkrētiem mērķiem mācību vai disciplīnas uzlabošanai.

 

Esmu atpakaļ

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Es esmu atpakaļ. Esmu atgriezies pierakstu un publikāciju apritē. Mani nebija nolaupījuši rikšu braucēji vai arī nopludinājuši Bangladešas lieti. Es vienkārši sāku strādāt. Jauna skola, jauna mācību viela, jauni kolēģi nozīmē maz laika jebkam citam. Ja vēl pieskaita Dakas sastrēgumos pavadīto laiku un naktsmieru, tad pāri paliek 4 minūtes un 30 sekundes, kuras veltīt bloga vai dienasgrāmatas papildināšanai. Tas nav pietiekami, ja grib uzrakstīt kaut ko vairāk par īsiem uzsaukumiem un komentāriem. Šodien man ir vairāk laika, jo ir sācies brīvlaiks!!! Bangladešā drīz svinēs Eid ul-Fitr, jeb kā šeit vienkārši saka Eid (Izrunā kā „Īd”). Tie ir Islama pasaules ziemassvētki, bet pats interesantākais ir tas, ka katru gadu datums, kad tiek svinēti Eid svētki ir savādāks. Datumu nosaka pēc mēness cikla, kad mēness sākt augt. Šogad Eid būs 31. augustā vai arī 1. septembrī. Jā, jūs uzmīnējāt, precīzu datumu bieži vien nezina līdz pat pēdējam brīdim. Kādēļ? Kalendārā noteiktie mēness cikls nav  pietiekams pierādījums tik nozīmīgu svētku dienas noteikšanai. Imamam (musulmaņu priesterim) ir jāuzkāpj minaretā un pašam par to jāpārliecinās. Dzirdēju no kolēģiem, ka mākoņainā laikā valsts galvenais Imams sēžas lidmašīnā un dodas novērot mēnesi virs mākoņiem. Eid ir noslēgums Ramadan, jeb gavēņa mēnesim un tā ir pirmā diena, kad ticīgie var ēst arī pēc saullēkta. Labu apetīti visiem musulmaņiem.

Eid Mubarak!

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Eid is a tricky enough occasion for the non-Muslim because it’s all based on the phases of the moon, so if you don’t read or speak in Bangla, it’s hard to know when the holiday will actually begin! When we asked locals, the usual response was, “Maybe tomorrow.” We finally found a Bangladeshi newspaper in English at a small cafe which bore the headline: “Eid Likely to Begin Tomorrow”. Can you imagine? We laughed till our sides ached because this is the quintessential response to the question! Basically as far as I understand, Eid-ul-Fiter began Tuesday… but that might just completely untrue! The only thing I have to go on is the fact that every single shop in Dhaka was closed tighter than a drum and the streets were completely deserted.

Why is the beginning of Eid so important, you ask? Well, Janis and I were invited by our maid, Piarie, to visit her family over the Eid holidays. Our communication with Piarie is fair, at best, so we weren’t exactly sure what we had agreed to when she asked us last week if we’d come for a visit. We didn’t know which day that actually meant. To be honest, we weren’t even sure if a visit is what we had actually agreed to! As we understood, Eid is a time when family and friends can drop in unannounced, and the expectation is that they will be fed. Bangladeshi people LOVE their food, but they also cannot be bothered to stick to any kind of schedule or time frame, so… you can see where this becomes a challenge to the average westerner!

We called Piarie on Monday to try to clarify the plans and she told us that she would be at our house at 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon to pick us up. Seems simple enough- except we didn’t know if that meant we should arrange for our own rickshaw since Piarie has no car! We decided to go with the flow and do…nothing! Around noon, there was a knock at the door and it was Piarie. Since we were not expecting her for another hour, we still had to change clothes for the celebration. Muslims believe that on Eid you should wake up, take a shower, put on new clothes and begin the day with a prayer. Shower? Check. New clothes? Nope. Prayer? I don’t even think we can enter the mosque! At any rate, we rushed downstairs to find Piarie standing beside an old beat-up taxi with a huge smile on her face. We apologized many times and told her we understood she would come at 1:00. She said, “Yes, this is what I told you, but I thought madame might be hungry! This is a better time.” (Madame is me, by the way— and I HATE it! At least it’s not as bad as Janis who is “Boss”!)

We took an eventful cab ride to Piarie’s neighborhood. The taxi turned into oncoming traffic down a one-way street to get to her block, and that was just about as much excitement as I needed for one day! We got out when we came to a road block of some Bangladeshi guys playing a game  that looked something like Novuss. They had put a large wooden table up in the middle of the street and had no intention of moving! We climbed out of the taxi and and walked the rest of the way. When we reached Piarie’s house, we were greeted warmly with “Eid Mubarak” by her sisters, husband, father, parents-in-law, nephews, niece and even the landlord! I had read that Eid-ul-Fiter is a happy celebration, and it seemed to be true.

We went inside and everyone quickly scrambled to put snacks and drinks on a cart which was rolled into a room for us. They kept asking us to sit down and eat, though no one would sit and eat with us. This was naturally a bit of an uncomfortable feeling since where we come from, everyone sits and enjoys the food together! We picked at the snacks and kept offering to help since everyone was so busy outside the room. We were told that since we were the guests, we were to sit and eat. Piarie’s sister told us that they had all been eating sweets in the morning as per Eid tradition. “We wake up for bathing and go to prayers at 10:00. After we are eating many sweets at friends’ houses!” I supposed that was fair, but we still felt completely out of place. We were left with our snacks and a classic Bangladeshi film playing on the television. From time to time a niece or nephew would stick their head in the room just to peek and then run away.

After what felt like an eternity of “snacking,” we were invited into the dining table for lunch. Piarie and her sisters had prepared roasted chicken, rice, beef curry, fruit salad, and veggie salad – JUST FOR US! We finally protested and made Piarie sit with us to eat. She laughed and agreed at last. The lunch was amazing, as all Bangladeshi food is, and I was almost moved to tears when Piarie pulled out a bottle of juice. “I bought this one for you, madame, because I know this is the one you like!” The juice, itself, is not so special, but it costs more than the others at the shop and Piarie is not a wealthy woman. I was overcome with gratitude and compassion. It was truly humbling to share with a family who has so little.

We were invited to sit and talk with Piarie and her husband, Sadiq. We looked at photographs of friends, family and their son who had just gotten married a year and a half ago. Piarie beamed with pride. The air grew still and hot and we were all disappointed at our lack of means to communicate effectively. Just when I started feeling drowsy, Piarie’s sister rolled in the dessert cart! They had made Seviyan, which is a dish made of Vermicelli and sweetened milk. Oh my, I was in heaven! They had also prepared Seviyan with rice instead of Vermicelli and had bought a chocolate cake from the Danish Bakery. Piarie was so delighted to see how fond I was of the Seviyan, that she left and came back offering me yet another Seviyan with coconut and cinnamon from the kitchen. When we could literally hold no more in our bellies, we sat back and enjoyed some more of Piarie’s stories about her life in Dhaka. We got to hear about the time she had a rickshaw accident that chipped her tooth, the time she had her earring ripped out of her ear by a thief, and she even shared the fact that her husband does NOTHING around the house and doesn’t earn enough money. Talk about an awkward situation! We have quickly learned that Bangladeshi people are fairly open with their private lives and don’t mind sharing the most intimate details with those who are willing to listen!

It had been over three hours of dining and strained conversations, so we told Piarie that we probably ought to head home. She called the taxi and you won’t be surprised to hear that he would be there in “maybe 30 minutes or so…” Piarie offered to cook us more food and we begged her to relax instead. Just then the landlord knocked on the door and insisted we come up to celebrate Eid with his family. What? My belly was about to burst and I knew we’d be offered more sweets upstairs, but this was the tradition, so up the stairs we went! We sat with the landlord who was also the builder of the house. His wife offered drinks and fruit while we sat and chatted with her husband. He and Janis talked politics while I fought the urge to curl up and take a nap! There were many long lulls of silence until Janis, bless his heart, could come up with something more to talk about. Those of you who know me, know that I’ve certainly got the gift of gab. However, Bangladesh is definitely a man’s world- so I am learning to sit back and let Janis muddle through the conversation topics with large language barriers, as I heave sighs of relief that it’s not me in those shoes! 😉

We ended up getting a taxi about an hour later (30 minutes Bangladeshi time!) and upon reflection, we agreed it was one of the best days spent in Dhaka so far. The biggest gift of traveling around the world is getting to see the true colors of a place and its people. So, as the Bangladeshi people say…Eid Mubarak!

Take a picture, it lasts longer!

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So part of being a whitey in a country like Bangladesh, is that you always get stared at when out in public! It doesn’t matter where you go, you will turn some heads. Lately I’ve been in some pretty crowded places and if this is anything close to what fame feels like- it ain’t pretty!  Now, it is very common for Bangladeshi people to actually stop what they’re doing to just turn and stare as you walk by, but if you dare to stop for any length of time, you will actually draw a crowd. It’s humorous but can also become quite frustrating when you actually need to move or… pick your nose, for example!

A day out in Dhaka brings many spectators- no matter where you go! If you are on foot, you will draw the most attention because 1) you’re crazy to walk around in such heat when clearly you could afford some mode of transportation and 2) beggars can catch up with you when you’ve got no wheels! People will whip out mobile phones and cameras to take pictures of you and you just have to laugh. It can feel a bit like you’re an animal at the zoo, but I prefer to think of it as if they’re watching me on television! The stares I’ve received are varied. There are: big smiles and waves, greetings in English, inappropriate noises and heckling made by men since you’re not totally covered as proper Muslim women should be, and finally puzzled spectators who seem to be in a state of shock at your presence. You never know what type you’re going to get, but you can always bet that the people WILL stare. I am hoping eventually I will just get used to it. In the meantime, I am trying to just keep a good sense of humor about the whole thing and understand the view from where they’re standing!

I don’t do pets…

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Part of my morning routine has always been stepping outside to check the weather in order to make sure I’m dressed properly. I’m not really sure why I bother carrying on this tradition in Dhaka since every day is the same: hot and humid! This morning I was just about to step out when Janis came in from the balcony and quickly slammed the door behind him. Feeling puzzled, I headed for the door. “Ummm, there’s a mouse out there, so…” was Janis’ brief explanation. I ran around to the sliding glass door where I spotted a small rodent hiding in the corner and clawing against the frame. I thought it was actually kind of cute. We let it be and went to school.

By the time we got home, I figured the rodent would have been on its way back to where it came from- though that was curious enough since we live on the second floor and it seems to have dropped onto the balcony from nowhere (no, I will NOT choose to believe it came from INSIDE the apartment!) Lo and behold, the rodent was right where we’d left it, so we decided we should take some action before it thought about moving in with us. Janis was concocting a plan and I was having a hard time understanding why this little thing should be such a big deal. Janis’ first idea was that he would drop it off the balcony. I quickly scratched that plan as there are always people walking the streets and I could just imagine someone getting hit with a rat. Ew! His second plan was to catch the rat, but we didn’t know what we’d do with it after that. My vote was for catching it in the garbage bin and closing the lid, but Janis returned with a beer box and a wide grin on his face, so beer box it would be! We each donned a broom and Janis held the open beer box. I slowly opened the door and Janis whispered to be careful. I couldn’t understand why he was so uptight since the thing was really rather small. However, when the rodent saw me approaching, it actually reared up on his hind legs and started to jump into the air!

Janis joined me on the balcony and the rat began to jump and squeak while bearing its front teeth like dogs do. Janis swatted at it with his broom and the rat made its way across the balcony in between us.  I was immediately struck with the giggles at how ridiculous we must look fighting such a small intruder with such rigor. We then proceeded to attempt to corral the feisty rat into the box, but it was having none of that! Janis took on a new tactic in which he would wait for the rat to jump and try to catch it on its way down. Once or twice the rat landed ON the box and Janis’ reactions sent me into fits of laughter. He tossed the rat back onto the ground and each time it was angrier that its peace had been disturbed. I poked one last time at the furious rodent and it leapt into the air for the last time. Janis caught the rat in the air, closed up the box and made his way downstairs. Victory was ours…though not without a good battle.

Janis and his new friend were gone for a while and I had to wonder what in the world he decided to do with the nasty little thing. When he finally returned home, he told me he let it loose in the park near the lake. Hm, why do I have a feeling we might be seeing our furry friend some day soon? If rats have got any sort of memory for traumatic events in their life, we might be taken down in the park by an angry mob of Bangladeshi rats on a dark night!