Thursday, November 30, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 30, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Some of you have been asking me about the food here, so I thought I would give you a brief overview of what I typically eat each day...

I usually have a few pieces of ruti (a flat bread that is a bit like a tortilla) with sliced banana and honey or sometimes yogurt drizzled with honey. Fatima makes the ruti fresh every morning... I also have one or two cups of tea.

Normally I eat lunch at work at 1:00pm. For 20 taka (about 30 cents) a day I can have my lunch prepared by the office cook. Normally we have steamed white rice (bhat) and dal (literally means "lentils", but the dal at work is like lentil soup; I am not very fond of the liquid dal, so I don't eat it. I do like Fatima's thicker dal though...) Then the cook makes me (and me only!) a special shobji (mixed vegetables) made from onions and misti kumra (sweet pumpkin). Everyone also gets the main dish of the day which is usually a type of fish (mach). The fish are small, so they have many little bones (onek choto kata) which you have to carefully remove by rolling the fish between your fingers before you eat it. Normally I really like the fish, but sometimes she makes it with lots of chili peppers, so it is too spicy for me to eat. Sometimes they also have these little piles (?) of cookie-dough-consistency stuff that are made of various types of beans or potatoes. Often these are REALLY spicy though, so I tend to stay clear...

I eat lunch with my work colleagues which is very useful as they have taught me all of the Bangla food names that I know! Also, Bangladeshis eat with their hands. There is a little sink in the lunch room area that everybody uses to wash before they eat. Also, the plates are rinsed out with filtered water before we put food on them. Since Muslims use their left hand to wash after using the toilet, you are only supposed to serve yourself and eat with your right hand. The first time I ate with my hands it was a bit strange - I kept hearing my mother's voice say "don't play with your food!" - but after the first day or two it became natural...

Fatima will come back to the apartment in the evenings to cook my dinner. Normally it is chicken in a curry yogurt sauce with rice and some type of shobji. Since I don't know how to cook and I don't know what types of Bangladeshi foods are available, my dinner menu is pretty much limited to the things that I know how to ask Fatima to make. I am hoping on increasing my dinner repertoire soon though!

Bangla misti (or Bengali sweets) are very yummy. Most of them are some version of a doughnut-like cake that is soaked in sweet syrup. There is also another, dryer misti that I like that is white and has a slight pistachio flavor. I can't remember the name of it though... Fatima also makes this great thing called paesh. It is a rice pudding made with milk, rice, coconut, cinnamon, and raisins. It tastes a lot like the "rice and raisins" that Dad used to make when I was a kid and is simply delicious!!

Since fresh fruit is so abundant here, I will normally have that for a snack. Pineapple and pomegranates are my favorite. This morning Fatima brought Hanako and I a new kind of fruit that I had never seen before (I forgot its name!) It looked like a small potato on the outside, but when you opened it up on the inside, it was separated into sections like an orange, with a few large black seeds that looked like pumpkin seeds. The fruit was orange in color, had the consistency of a kiwi and tasted like a fruit version of gouda cheese! (No kidding! It was quite bizarre! Hanako and I joked that it was "smoked fruit!")

All in all, I really like Bengali food. It is very rich, however, as everything is served with a curry sauce. I think that I need to teach Fatima how to make some "bland" dishes as well so that my tastebuds will not be overpowered!


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 29, 2006
Place: Dhaka

The weather here is lovely now. It is in the mid to upper 70s. The Bangladeshis, however, think this is terribly cold and many of them are wearing shawls and sweaters. I find it very humorous!

I finally have a new Bangla teacher. She comes to my office for an hour (traffic permitting!) every day. She is very nice and helped write the textbook that HEED Language Center uses (though she is no longer affiliated with the institute.) I can’t remember if I had blogged about my language class debacle earlier or not. In case not, the short version of the story is: I initially went up to the HEED Language Center in Banani every morning for class. Class started at 8am, however, which meant that I had to get up at 6am to leave by 7am. Since I am not a morning person, that was not a very attractive arrangement. Especially considering that with traffic it took me an hour to get there and an hour to get back. Consequently, I decided to hire a HEED tutor to come to my office. Figuring in transportation costs, it was actually less expensive! Unfortunately, my tutor did not really like the transportation arrangement either, so he quit.

So after two weeks of Bangla lessons, I was without a teacher. I wanted to find someone else who knew the HEED methodology, because I did not want to learn yet another English syntax for Bangla pronunciation (I had already learned two others in New York…) Thankfully, after a few weeks of searching, my roommate, Hanako, came through! Her Bangla teacher knew my new Bangla teacher. The price is quite a bit more, but still reasonable and I don’t have to travel, so I now have a new instructor!

Today’s Observations About Bangladesh:
  1. Horns are an essential component to driving. None of the rickshaws or CNGs have rearview mirrors, so everyone honks to make their position known.
  2. Massages are illegal here. Yes! That's right! Isn't it crazy?! Apparently in Islam, massage is a form of prostitution, even if it is a same-sex massage. Foot massages and facials are allowed though... Shefali told me that a few salons in Dhaka that gave massages were shut down. That might explain the really bizarre curry massage I got on my birthday...
  3. Muslim women generally do not wear nailpolish. This is because before Muslims pray they have to wash so there is nothing between their bodies and God. Since nailpolish does not wash off, it is therefore not allowed. Thankfully, some less religious women do wear it, so I was able to pick up a lovely shade of pink at the market the other day...

On a separate note, as the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party wage war in the street, I am waging a war at home against the mosquitoes. Sadly, I am losing. I have so many bites now that I look (and feel!) like I have chicken pox. I have run out of DEET and I can not find any analgesic balm in the pharmacies. I read an article the other day that baking soda relieves bite itch, so I bought some last night, but sadly it doesn't work very well and I leave a trail of white powder wherever I go. They only seem to go after me too! My roommate is bite-free! She does have mosquito coils (that she brought from Japan) though. I think I am going to make it my goal to find mosquito coils this weekend as I seem to put off a scent that Dhaka mosquitoes find irresistable!! I can not continue this itchy existence!

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 23, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Steve Micetic, one of the other Fulbrighters, threw a Thanksgiving party. Everyone brought a traditional Thanksgiving dish - I volunteered for the squash. I thought this would be something that even a non-chef like me could prepare. I couldn't explain to my boua in Bangla exactly what I was looking for vegetable-wise, so I went to the market with her. I felt like I travelled back in time. There was nothing in the market to indicate what year it was. The road in the market is made of dirt and very uneven. There were stands were people could buy live chickens, goats, and even cows! All of the stores were just open stands with rudimentary coverings - no electricity. The vegetables were all laid out and the weight was measured with a hand-held scale.

I didn't recognize many of the vegetables there, so I picked up several that looked squash-like in shape, shook them, smelled them, asked what they were (as if their Bangla name might reveal their identities to me...) I found one that looked like a small, green pumpkin, so I bought that. I found another really large looking thing (maybe 15-18 inches long) that was shaped like an eggplant. It wasn't an eggplant though as Bangla eggplants are very small and green. The name was "law" in Bangla which I think means "gourd" so I bought that one too. Then I saw these small little things that looked like cucumbers. They weren't cucumbers though, because those were on a different table... So after I selected my vegetables, Fatima haggled for the price (because she knows what things should really cost). We then went to buy some large tupperware containers to put cooked squash in for transport and this time I bargained because I thought I could get a better price (and I did!)

When we got home, I was resolved to cook the squash myself, because squash Bengali style is saturated with spices and I wanted to bring the more bland squash-tasting American style. Fatima was clearly a bit concerned with me being in "her" kitchen, but she humored me none the less. I boiled some filtered water and started to chop the vegetables. Me chopping my own vegetables was apparently too much for Fatima, so she jumped in and started doing it for me.

After the water boiled, I put in the vegetables, some salt, and some white pepper. I also found another spice in our kitchen that smelled good. (I don't know its name because none of the jars are labeled - or if they are they say "peanut butter" or "yogurt"; we recycle our containers...) Fatima was a bit concerned that I wouldn't add more spices, but I assured her this was "American-style shobji". Finally, we strained the vegetables and put it in the tupperware. It tasted quite good if I do say so myself! Fatima also now cooks my vegetables "American style" much to my delight. (Although she still puts a bit too much pepper and mystery spice in it!)

Anyway, the blockade was still on so I didn't know how I was going to get all the way across town to Steve's house. Finally I asked Fatima if her husband could take me on his rickshaw and then come back at 10:30pm to pick me up. It is quite a long rickshaw ride (about an hour) but thankfully he agreed.

Everyone brought such yummy treats and we had a real traditional Thanksgiving feast complete with cranberry sauce, stuffing and pumpkin pie. We even had a turkey (albeit a very small one) due to the ingenuity of Nabil (another Fulbrighter), Steve, and Tim (a BRAC intern). Apparently the guys were walking one day a few weeks ago and they saw a farmer with a turkey. They went up to the guy and negotiated a price. Just before Thanksgiving they picked up their turkey and slaughtered and cooked it themselves! Here is a picture of the three muskateers with their prize:

They named the turkey "Hasina" after the head of the Awami League party. (If you recall from previous blogs, the Awami League is the one holding the blockade...) This is a picture of Steve carving up Hasina. Sadly, because she was such a small turkey, there was not much meat on her (and the meat she had was a bit tough...) Thankfully, Nabil also brought a chicken with him!

Photo of Erin (another Fulbrighter) with her now world-famous stuffing...

There were many Americans in attendance as well as a few Bangladeshis, Brits, and even a Japanese woman! All in all, it was a lovely Thanksgiving!

A Post Script!!
I just went back and looked at my previous blogs and if you look at the vegetable vendor in the November 13th blog, on the left side you can see one of the "squashes" that I purchased!


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 19, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Friday night Fatima (my boua) took me to her house before taking me to see a tailor who is a friend of hers. She only lives a few blocks away from me in one of the make-shift shanty towns in my neighborhood. I was really shocked to see how she lives. It is one thing to read about the housing situation, it is quite another thing to see it for yourself - particularly if the person who is living there is a friend.

Her house was just one small room, about 8' x 10'. The bed also served as the couch. I am not sure where her son sleeps, as I only saw one bed... Three of the walls were made of brick, one wall and her ceiling were of corrogated metal. She had one light, a fan, and a TV plus a rack for clothes and a small shelf unit that she kept cooking utensils, etc. on. She didn't have a door, just a curtain to cover the opening. Her floor was made of old found boards. There was no bathroom or kitchen. Apparently there is a communal bathhouse at one end of the "hallway". (I say "hallway" because the houses were arranged so close together that there was maybe a three foot distance between peoples' front doors.) There was no shower in the bathroom, just a latrine and a water spigot. She cooks on an open fire in front of her door.

When I arrived, I met her husband (a rickshaw driver), her brother-in-law and his wife. Her son was at her mother's house. She asked me what I wanted to eat/drink. (The verb kha- in Bangla means eat, drink, and smoke...) It is customary to accept food when visiting someone, so I asked for the simplest thing that I could think of which was water. Then after she asked her husband to go buy water, I felt terrible, because I remembered that drinking water is not readily available in Bangladesh! Even tap water needs to be boiled and filtered (and while she could boil the water, she had nothing to filter it.) She also offered me some tea which I accepted.

I was really glad that I got to see where her family lives, because it reminded me of the reason that I am here - to help families like Fatima's move into clean, safe, decent, affordable housing.

After the visit I decided to buy her husband a rickshaw. I was thinking of buying one anyway, because rickshaws are my favorite way to travel and the places that I usually go are not so far away that I could not take one. If I have my rickshaw with a driver, it saves me time and is more convenient. I would also feel more comfortable traveling at night with someone I trust. Buying my own rickshaw ensures that I have a nice, new, safe, large one (some of them are quite small for large Americans!) They aren't that expensive for me (about $80 - $150) , but for him, it would mean a significant increase in income, as he currently has to pay 1,000 taka a month, or 30-50% of his monthly income, to rent a rickshaw.

Fatima is going to talk to her husband tonight about the arrangement. I will keep you posted on how it develops...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 13, 2006
Place: Dhaka

The political situation is dicey again... The Awami League has decided to blockade the country to protest the caretaker government. There are rumors that the army might be deployed today to help maintain order. The BNP also made an announcement that they would not let the blockade go on, so they might decide to take to the streets in the next few days too which would mean utter chaos!!

What is interesting to me is that the election is just a month and a half away, but I have not heard any campaining or talk of candidates yet! They just keep arguing over the neutrality of the election commission...

Because of the potential for riots, all of the cars and buses are off the streets again today (as they are usually targets for violence), which actually makes it quiet and peaceful around here! I take a rickshaw to work anyway...

Speaking of transportation, I thought I would give you an overview of transportation in Dhaka... There are several ways to get around here:

The large public buses are so beat up that it looks like they are wood boxes covered in tin foil. They spew a noxious black smoke into the air and are generally so crowded that you can see legs and arms sticking out of the window.

Mini Bus
These are like the songthaews in Thailand except they are white instead of red. I am not really sure how they work as I have never taken one, but I do see them on the streets all of the time...

Private Car
Upper class Bangladeshis all have their own cars with drivers. You will often see groups of drivers talking together outside of the parking garages while their employers go shopping...

Yellow Taxi
These are air-conditioned, metered taxis. Usually the meter is "broken", however, so you need to bargain for the fare. Sometimes if you offer to give the driver the meter fare plus 10 to 20 taka the meter will be miraculously fixed...

Blue/Black Taxis
These are smaller, not-so-nice, unair-conditioned taxis. These are also metered and the fares are generally less than the yellow taxis, but the "broken meter" rule still applies...

CNGs/ Baby Taxis
These are little green three wheeled vehicles that run on natural gas. They are kind of like a cross between a rickshaw and a car. The fares for CNGs are even less expensive, but in the month that I have been here, I have only found one where the meter "works"! Also, after the security briefing at the Embassy, there is no way that I would take one of these alone at night!!

My favorite mode of transportation. These are tricycles with a seat at the back driven by a rickshaw wala. Each one is painted with a unique, brightly colored design. They have a little canopy that you can put up, but I am too tall to use it, so I always ask them to keep it down. I like rickshaws because you are more connected with the city than you are in a car. The only trick is staying on them, as some of the seats slant down quite severely and the roads are very bumpy here. I found that if I push my feet against the foot rest and grab the sides when we turn, I manage to stay on quite well though! I take a rickshaw to work everyday. I also use them to visit my friends in nearby Dhanmondi. (Since they are man-powered, it is not practical to take them very long distances...)

I have decided to remove the photos from my earlier blog entries to show you some pictures of Dhaka here.

CNGs, a bus, and a yellow taxi


A fabulous little vegetable vendor in Dhanmondi. One advantage of living here is that I get really fresh vegetables every day!

A typical Dhaka street...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 8, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Yesterday was another random Bangladeshi holiday - Solidarity Day. Everyone was off of work...

When I went to the New Market to visit the tailor the other night, Shefali told me this wonderful story which she said that I could share with you. I relay it now because a) I think that it is an amazing tale and b) it really gives a good picture of the woman that I am working with.

When Shefali was a girl, she lived with her maternal uncle to make it easier for her to go to school. She had two female cousins who also lived in the house. The uncle was very strict with the cousins, but Shefali said that he could not be as strict with her because she was not his daughter (plus she probably would not have listened anyway...)

One day the girls were told that they could not go to school that day. Shefali asked why not, because they went to school everyday. Her uncle replied that there was a sports competition at school and girls were not allowed to participate. She wanted to go anyway, but her uncle would not let her. So Shefali convinced her cousins to sneak out. They entered the school through the back door and talked to their sports coach who agreed to let them participate. Unfortunately, the uncle happened to go to the market next to the school and he saw the girls participating. He came in and told them that they had to go home. The two daughters were really scared, so they left, but Shefali stayed!

She competed in the badmitton tournament. She wore her sari because they wouldn't let her wear shorts. And she won! The whole tournament!! I thought it was a great story...

Fulbright Blog
Date: November 6, 2006
Place: Dhaka

Sorry for the delay in my blogging. Activity has started to increase here. This week I am searching for a research assistant and a real estate attorney. This process has revealed a couple of interesting things about how Bangladeshis use telephones.

As in the US, most people here have a mobile phone which they carry with at all times. Unlike the US, however, it is apparently perfectly acceptable to answer the phone (and have a conversation) while you are in a meeting with someone else.

Another interesting mobile habit that I have observed is that people will call you repeatedly until you answer. For example, if you do not pick up the first time, they will call you five minutes later. And then five minutes later... And then five minutes later... After all, why would anyone not pick up their phone as soon as they receive a call?!

Most Bangladeshis also do not have voicemail. When I arrived I was initially told that voicemail is not available here. I did a bit of research and found out that this is not the case. Grameen Phone (one of the major carriers) does have voicemail and it's free! You have to pay a per minute charge to check your voicemail, but there is no charge for the service itself... The only catch is that you have to call a separate number to set it up. (They can't do it at the phone store for you...) Mine was setup within an hour after calling though, so it is really not that painful of a process...

Anyway, because most people do not know about this voicemail system (perhaps it is new?) I have found that people react a bit strangely to it. First, they still use the old call every five minutes strategy, but this time they also leave a voice message. Yesterday my phone was turned off for two hours and I received 11 voice messages! I am not really that popular, it was two people who called me several times...

Some people also don't really know what to do with the voicemail, so they listen to my entire message and then hang up (so I have several blank voicemails...) Most people use text messaging instead of voicemail...

I have also found that because it is the culture here to immediately respond to calls, people get nervous if you do not get back to them right away. One friend told me that someone called her at 10pm and she returned the call the next morning and the caller thought that my friend was upset with him!

Another trend is for people to call you and then hang up right away. Apparently this is because it costs money to make a call, but not to receive one. So, the person calls you, hangs up right away, and counts on you to use caller ID to get back to them.

One final trend is that Bangladeshi men will call up white women to "make friends" (meaning they want to date you...) One woman I met was so harrassed (one guy called 15 times a day) that once when he called she gave the phone to my friend Nabil, another Fulbrighter who is fluent in Bangla. He apparently (sadly I was not there to observe the conversation) started yelling at the guy in Bangla "How dare you keep calling my wife!" along with some other expletives that I shall not repeat here. That seemed to do the trick because the guy apologized profusely, sent the woman a text message saying that he would leave her alone, and has not called since!

Thankfully, I have only had one such incident happen to me on my mobile phone. (But 1-5 random men do try to call me on Skype every day...) A person kept calling me before I had given my number out to anyone. My friend Steve thinks that some guy in the Grameen store probably saw me and coaxed the guy at the counter to give him my number. After about 15 calls where I did not pick up (for I had heard about the stories BEFORE I got my phone) he stopped calling... I do not answer the phone now unless I know who is calling me!

Now I am not really a phone person to begin with, so I am not sure how I will adjust to these cultural quirks in the long run. In the short term, however, I am sticking to my old American way, which is to keep my phone off and return voice messages at my leisure! All 100 of them if need be!