Postcards from the Edge

of Bangladesh

Archive for April, 2009

I’ve died and gone to fruit heaven

We seem to be right in the middle of fruit season here in Rangamti. It’s just fabulous. This morning I had a custard apple picked from the tree outside my house, after lunch I had some jackfruit picked on the complex, and after work a mango picked from a tree outside my house. Ok so the mango was green and we ate it with salt (?) but it still counts. And I have a pawpaw waiting for me to eat it tomorrow for breakfast, also picked from a tree outside my house. This stuff just seems to grow everywhere here. Talk about shopping locally.

Below is a picture of Shushorita (mother), Nitol (eldest son) and Beakon (youngest son) of the family who lives next door to me. And often providers of various items of food for me (see jackfruit and mango above, and last night’s dhal and tonight’s fish). Shushorita is picking/plucking a mango from ‘our’ tree using a piece of split bamboo. Quite clever really. Nitol loves to practice English with me and laugh at my Bangla, and Beakon just runs into my house every now and then to stare at me. But he’s starting to get used to me now and can even say ‘hello’ (in English). He is terribly cute. Must be the second cutest child in the universe (after my nephew Jack of course).

 

Picking mangoes

Picking mangoes

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Morning walk around Moanoghar campus

I set my alarm for 5:30am for an early morning walk. I got out of bed at 6:40am. I’m not sure why it was such a struggle, I am really tired out here at the moment. Maybe it’s the heat  and humidity (a constant day time temperature of about 37 degrees, no aircon and frequent power cuts that kill the fans PLUS 80% humidity). Or maybe it’s my anti-malaria medication (I’ve read it’s one of the side effects. But then again just about everything is listed as a possible side effect for Doxycyline). Or maybe it’s my ridiculously thin, hard mattress. I can feel every slat of the bed through it. Despite me previously bragging about being able to sleep on anything after the ashram I think I’ll have to buy another mattress (or bed roll as they are called here) to go on top of this silly mattress. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll be sleeping on a stack on mattresses. Like in the Princes and the Pea.

So after I dragged my arse out of bed I did still manage a bit of walk around Moanoghar. It’s quite difficult to explain the campus/complex. It’s set on 15 acres with various buildings dotted around. A good place for a walk. I meant to check out the Moanoghar dairy but didn’t have time. Apparently there are about 20 cows and I can have morning milk delivered to my door. Will put in my milk request today and maybe check out the diary tomorrow.

I took a few photos on my mini walk. Below is the mini hospital and the office, along with a very large mango tree. Mango season is coming up in 15 -20 days I’m told (fruit seasons seem to be very specific here) so I’m looking forward to the mango feasts. It’s only the small mangoes here though. But there appears to be enough of them to make up for their deficiency in size.

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The mini-hospital with the office behind it.

One of the many, many Jackfruit trees here.

One of the many, many Jackfruit trees here.

I’d never tasted Jackfruit before I came here, but it’s the Bangladeshi national fruit. Does England have a national fruit? Does South Africa? People keep asking me, I must google it. I think it tastes like a mixture between a mango and a banana. You don’t eat the whole thing, just the fleshy bits/sheaths around the large pips/seeds. I find it a strange looking fruit. It doesn’t quite look right hanging from the trees, as if  the fruit is too big for the tree. (I’ve just googled Jackfruit and turns out its fruit is the largest tree borne fruit in the world. So there you go.)

View of one of the boys' dormitories

View of one of the boys’ dormitories

Photos of the dairy tomorrow hopefully, if I can get my lazy arse out of bed early enough.

First day in the office

Today was my official first day of work at Moanoghar. In fact, my first day of work in 6 months. Good job they took it slow. Real slow. Everyone was out of the office this morning for a meeting with the district council, and this afternoon I found it difficult to even broach the subject of work. BuddhaDatta (pictured below) did however show me some of his photos from South Korea, Taipei and Paris. For a monk, he sure does get around.

BuddhaDatta, a monk well travelled.

BuddhaDatta, a monk well travelled.

I went to a local tea shop with Kollol for lunch, who is the IT guy in the office. Mostly the locals just stared at me and spoke about me in Chakma. But the tea was good. I’ll go along tomorrow again and take some pictures of the place. Quite a different experience than getting my chai tea latte at Starbucks.

After work, Memory (who is the woman who works in the mini hospital next door to my house, which is also incidently next door to my office) was waiting for me to take me shopping at the local village market. Not something I was aware was going to happen, but through broken Bangla/Chakma/English/sign language I figured out what her plan for my evening was. It also turns out that we are the same age (I’ll get a picture of her on here too). Village market was good (only bought tomatoes and cucumber as I didn’t really need to go shopping) and the locals were most curious about me. I think I need to get myself out and about a bit more so that the novelty of the new badeshi (foreigner) in town wears off. Children stop and stare, and actually so do the adults. One of the fathers pointed me out to his son and just said ‘badeshi’, as if that explained it all to him. Perhaps I am the text book example of a badeshi here.

Lowlight of the day: I made a little Chakma girl cry in the office today. She was there with her father and she stared at me for a while and then just started crying. And continued to burst into tears every time I walked into the room. Do I look that weird/different to her? Shame, hope she doesn’t have an Estelle shaped monster in her dreams tonight.

Meeting the kids

On Wednesday afternoon, BuddhaDatta (the head monk here at Moanoghar) summoned all the residential girls together in front of the girls dormitories to officially introduce me. In total there are about 200 girls in the dorms, from Class 1 to Class 10. Moanoghar provides education up until O level and if students want to progress further they need to go to college to do their A levels. Moanoghar used to teach up to A level, but had to cut this due to cut in funding.

So all the girls were lined up when I arrived, and Bhante (a respectful term used when referring to or talking to a Bhuddist monk) gave a little spiel about me, in Chakma. I’ve done some Bangla classes but the predominate language here is Chakma, of which I understand F all. Every now and then some Bangla and English words crept into his speech, like Management Advisor (which is my official work title), South Africa, England, dual nationality etc. Then it was my turn to say something, with Bhante translating. I tried out a little of my Bangla by saying ‘Ami ektu Bangla boli pari’ (I am able to speak a little Bangla), for which I got a round of applause. (I did later realise I made a grammatical mistake in that sentence, must try harder). Now I need to learn Chakma. Bhante seems to think I’ll easily pick it up in no time. Hmm, unlikely or at least not without a lot of effort on my side. It doesn’t help that he speaks 7 languages: Chakma, Bangla, English, Sinhala (Sri Lankan laguage), Korean, Hindi and Pali. I have suggested that he lowers his expectations of me but he’s having none of it.

They were excited to meet me... promise

The girls were excited to meet me… promise

BuddhaDatta rearranging them to get closer to hear my terrible Bangla.

BuddhaDatta rearranging them to get closer to hear my terrible Bangla.

I felt a bit like the Queen sitting there being introduced, and I think being here in Bangladesh is the closest I’ll ever come to being royal or famous. Pretty much my every move is observed, commented on and usually laughed about. Memory (who works in the mini hospital next door) thinks my water filter is hysterical. Why on earth would I clean already clean drinking water? I tried to explain that my stomach isn’t used to the local water and I can get sick from it (again, this makes me feel like I’m the damn Queen or something. One couldn’t possibly drink the local water). Memory called other people into my house to look at and laugh at my water filter. But my previous stomach upset is reason alone to put up with the ridicule and insist on filtered water. Besides, I’m getting used to being laughed at or giggled about. My ego will be a very different beast by the time I leave here in a year’s time.

I met the boys yesterday, and several of them tried out their English by asking me some questions and welcoming me. Some of the Class 10 students have asked me to help with their English, but I have no idea how I’ll go about that. There are 105 Class 10 students. I expect I’ll have to manage their expectations, but I’ll have a think about what is possible.

Good news from yesterday. I now have a gas cooker AND a fridge. And as we speak a sink is being installed in the kitchen. This is a very exciting day for me.

I’ve arrived

After a long day’s traveling from Dhaka yesterday, I arrived here in Rangamati at around 5pm. VSO drive us down to our placements when we officially move from Dhaka, as most of us have to provide all the ‘soft furnishings’ for our accommodation. Some volunteers are lucky that they move into accommodation that a previous volunteer lived in, so they have a lot of stuff already and don’t need to lug it all down from Dhaka. I’m not that lucky so I had a serious amount of stuff to bring down with me. The VSO driver took some convincing that it was just me traveling, and that yes, all the stuff was indeed mine.

So today I officially moved into my new little house (I spent last night in the guest accommodation here for reasons still unclear. Nothing has actually been changed between last night and today to make it any more suitable, but there you go). It’s very basic but it already looks much better with my stuff in it, and there are still more things I need to buy/do to make it feel like home (e.g. curtains, maybe paint the walls etc). Anyway, the bedroom is looking good so far (N.B. please add ‘…for VSO accommodation in Bangladesh’ to the end of all such sentences).

My bedroom, a work in progess

My bedroom, a work in progress

And yes, I know there is a hole in my mosquito net. It’s only a temporary one until I buy my own. Of all the things I remembered to buy, I forgot the mosquito net. Hope my anti-malarials have kicked in already…

I still don’t have a kitchen per say. I have a little room that is intended as a kitchen but there is not yet anything in it. I.e. no running water (or tap or sink) nothing to cook on, no fridge etc. It’s just a room. With nothing in it. Even though they knew when I was arriving. It looks like it might take a bit of prodding from my side to actually get my kitchen kitted out with the bare essentials. It’s not really a big deal (yet) and besides how does one get angry at a monk? So for the mean time they have to provide me with 3 meals a day, which isn’t such a bad deal. So far I like most of what they cook for me (the Chakma diet is pretty different from the Bengali diet, not so meat-centric or deep fried).

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My ‘kitchen’

I’m going to be introduced to all the schoolgirls today after their dinner. For now I’m being stared at here like I’m an alien who has just landed. Which in their eyes, I suppose I am.

It’s almost off to work I go

Today was the second last day of our induction training here in Dhaka, and I get bussed out to Rangamati on Tuesday morning to start my new life in the Hill Tracts. I am so excited to get started and start working again. Never thought I’d say that. But then again it has been almost 6 months since my last actual day of work with Accenture. And oh what a joy it has been not working. But now I’m ready start using my brain again. Let’s hope it still works. 

We had our placement shopping day on Friday. We get a ‘soft furnishing grant’ from VSO to kit our new accommodation out with, and since my new little house is only equipped with ‘hard furnishings’ (bed, couch, chest of drawers etc, all this VSO talk) I had a LOT of shopping to do. It’s not easy having one day to buy everything (or even the bare essentials) that you’ll need in a flat. From cutlery to crockery to mattress to water purifier to towels to wok to bed sheets to mosquito net to hurricane lamp – that’s a lot of pressure. 

And bear in mind this was not done in some nice, air conditioned shopping mall or along charming high street or even in a monstrous Ikea, this shopping was all done Bangladeshi style. Hot, humid, crowded market place teaming with people and with vendors who see the badeshi (foreigner) and hike the prices up something crazy. They literally see us coming. Haggling is hard work, and difficult when one doesn’t have even have a clue in what ball park the prices should be. And shopping is never a solo sport here, various people get involved and some just like to watch the badeshi spectacle. But I must say that there is often a member of the crowd who will provide some very useful assistance and even haggle on your behalf. Same goes for when one is lost and bewildered wondering around Dhaka. Despite all the challenges of living in a city like Dhaka, it is the kindness of absolute strangers that really touch your heart. People will go out of their way to help you. Will literally cross the street to see if you need help. People who have nothing at all to gain from helping you, but do it anyway.

Weekend trip to Rangamati

I’m back in Dhaka now after a great weekend in Rangamati. It would be difficult to put everything I did and experienced onto paper, but I’ll give it a shot.

On Saturday I took a walk around the Moanogar complex with BudhaDatta, who is one of the Buddhist monks on the Moanogar executive committee. It’s a big complex, over 15 acres. The school has over 1000 pupils, with 600-ish of them are residential, so there are various dormitories for the boys and girls. Only a few children where around, as most had gone back home for the New Year celebrations. They are all seriously cute and I had a chance to show just how bad my Bangla is. This weekend was definitely the short, sharp kick to the kidneys that I needed to up my Bangla game. Smiling and hand gestures can only get one so far. Which turns out isn’t that far at all.

 

Some of the school children at Moanogar.

Some of the school children at Moanogar.

(Unfortunately the view above is from the boys dormitories and not the view from the little house on site. But this does show what the surrounding area looks like)

 

On Sunday we took a trip out on the Kaptai lake, which is beautiful but steeped in a very sad history. When it was built in 1961 (for hydro electricity) over 40% of the indigenous people’s tribal land was submerged, and lost forever. Little or no compensation was provided for the loss of land (can tribal land really be compensated for anyway?) and tribal people have been struggling ever since to regain some form of secure livelihood. We visited a remote Chakma village of 12 families, and I got to buy some of their traditional cloth (soon to be made into a skirt). There are over 13 tribes here in the CHT, with the Chakma tribe being the largest. (One day I’d like to put something up here on the various tribes and history of the CHT.)

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Chakma grandmother and baba in village along the Kaptai lake.

 

View of the Kaptai lake from the village

View of the Kaptai lake from the village

 

On Sunday we took an early morning walk (6am) out to a Taungchengya tribal village, about a 1.5 hour walk away. It was great to get out and stretch my legs a bit, as walking in Dhaka is unsurprisingly not so popular. Sunday was the main day of the 3 day Baisabi festival (called Biju in the Chakma language) so we were invited into every house to eat some food with various families. It also proved impossible to leave without having a very large shot of rice wine. Interesting at 8:30am. We also got to see the traditional waist loom in action. The women below are wearing the Chakma traditional dress (looks a bit like a kikoy I think)

 

Traditional waist loom. Both women are wearing the Chakma dress (all made by themselves) - a bit like the Kikoy I think?

Traditional waist loom.

 

In both villages the people were the most hospitable I think I’ve ever met. Even with so little to their names, it still would have be unheard of for them not to invite you in for food. Actually in Rangamati town I was invited by everybody I met to celebrate Biju at their houses, every single person I met. Sunday night I walked around town with one of my collegues and his wife, to celebrate in the traditional style of visiting family and friends in their homes. At each house I was served food, and as it’s considered rude to not eat at someone’s home, I ate a lot. In the end I could only manage a few pieces of watermelon in the houses, plus the odd glass of rice wine or two. My transport back was on the back of a motorbike. My first time ever, at the age of 33. Helmet-less and side saddle (I don’t like corners). Shameless that I’ve never been on a motorbike before, still not sure if I’m supposed to lean into or against corners. Maybe my new motorbike friend will tell me next time My short visit has 100% validated my decision to come to Bangladesh, and to the Chittagong hill Tracts specifically. It’s a truly remarkable and unique part of the world with an amazing amount of cultural diversity in a relatively small area. There are many tribal communities that need support and I’m so excited to get out there and start working. I can’t change the world, but I can make a difference. Only one more week in Dhaka then I make my new home in Rangamati.

 

Celebrating Biju with a colleague and his friends.

Celebrating Biju with a colleague and his friends.

PS – I also met my first smoking monk. It was quite the sight, had to take a photo of him. 

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