Sunday, January 28, 2007

Computer Nightmare!!
January 25, 2007

Ugh! I am now living a computer nightmare! About two weeks ago I got internet access at home. It worked beautifully for five days, and I got a lot of work done in my new home office. Then, without any reason, provocation, or change, it suddenly stopped working. I tried defragmenting my hard drive, freeing up more memory by deleting files, and reinstalling the software (15 times!) to no avail.

The next day I went back to Bashindara City (a large mall on the other side of town) to return the card. It took me an hour to get there and when I arrived it was closed (on a Wednesday!) I then went to Grameen phone, my internet provider, to see if they could help me. A nice gentleman came up to me and immediately found someone to help so that I would not have to wait in the very long line. The men who helped me where very nice, but we determined that it was not a problem with my SIM card, which meant they could not fix the problem for me. They said it was either a problem with my computer or with my Edge card.

Today I went back to Bashindara City and spoke with the guy who sold me the card. He was very nice and got me another one. Unfortunately, that one didn’t work either, so he said he would take me to the corporate office for the distributor of this brand of card to see if they could help.

We got into a rickshaw and after answering the usual questions – what country am I from, am I married, how to I like Bangladesh, etc. – he asked me something that I didn’t understand. At first I thought he was speaking Bangla, but then I realized it was English. It took me a few more minutes to realize that he was asking me if I liked ice cream. I laughed and said, “Yes!” He then got off of the rickshaw and bought me some ice cream. Where in the US can you find customer service like that?!

A few minutes later we arrived at the corporate office. A man there spent 45 minutes installing various programs and trying different devices. We finally came to the conclusion that it was a problem with my operating system. So it seems at this point I have two choices: 1) I can back-up my files, reinitialize my computer, reinstall the original Windows ME operating system, and then upgrade to Windows NT (Sony has a 250 page manual on how to do this) or I can breakdown and replace my seven year-old computer. Neither option is appealing…

For the moment I am able to check my e-mail on the ancient computer at the American Club. I will not have Skype access until I get my computer problem fixed though. Everybody send positive computer thoughts my way!!

When I Need an Ego Boost, I Will Go to the Post Office
January 24, 2007

I have some very good news to report today: I am finally in possession of the two packages that I sent myself from the US in September! After two unsuccessful visits to the Gulshan Post Office, I decided to check the Mohammadpur Post Office because the package was originally addressed to my work address in Mohammadpur. (At the General Post Office I gave them my new address and they told me they would deliver the packages to Gulshan.) My hunch was correct and my two packages were in fact in Mohammadpur!

As always, my trip to the post office was very exciting. As soon as I walked through the door I became the main attraction. Since I went to work today, I was wearing a sari. I immediately received several compliments – “You are very pretty!” and “You look very beautiful in Bengali national dress!” I was then invited to have some tea with them (when were you ever offered tea in a US Post Office?!), which I politely declined because I had just had a cup in my office before I left. (The gentleman was quite sad that I refused and tried to get me to take a cup twice more before I left…)

Three men then offered me a chair (I am not allowed to stand anywhere in Bangladesh. If I stay in the same spot for more than ten seconds I immediately hear “boshun!” which means “please sit down!” Even if I tell them that I prefer to stand, they will yell “boshun!” every ten seconds until I agree…) After I gave in to the request to “boshun,” I gave them my package numbers and told them that I was looking for two large packages sent from California. Since there are not many foreigners in Mohammadpur, and they do not get mail from California that often, they recognized the boxes right away.

After declining my third cup of tea, one of the gentlemen carried my (very heavy!) boxes outside for me and helped me load them into a CNG. It was definitely first class service all around!

Wildlife Spotting on Road 79
January 23. 2007

This morning the most amazing thing happened! I heard a bunch of crows cawing like mad outside of my study window, and when I went to look, an owl landed on the windowsill! I grabbed my camera and slowly opened the screen to get a better photo. The picture was still dark, however, so I slowly opened the glass windowpane. At that point, the owl turned toward me and like an idiot I said, “Hello!” which scared it so it flew off before I could take a glass-free photo. I was close enough to the bird to touch it though. This photo was taken without zoom:

(I will insert picture later as I am having computer difficulties today.)

Everybody Has a Village
Date: January 22, 2007

In my Bangla class this morning we were talking about grams – the small villages that dot the Bangladeshi countryside. The subject came up because we were discussing the differences between the words "bari"and "basha". Basha's closest English meaning is "house" and bari's is "home". Nobody ever refers to their city residence as "bari", however; that term is reserved for their village home.

Over 90% of Bangladeshis in Dhaka migrated here from the villages. Even those people who were born in Dhaka still have a bari in aBangladeshi gram. The bari is your father's house. When a woman marries, her bari becomes her husband's house. When you ask people in Dhaka where they are from, they will always tell you the name of their father's gram.

Since I am on the topic of Bangla lessons, I should mention that last week I started learning how to read and write in Bangla. While the writing is beautiful, it is also very complex because many of the vowels are implied instead of explicitly written. Also, there are 50 letters in the Bangla alphabet plus almost as many combined letters (which are different characters for consonants that come together – i.e. a"k" sound plus an "s" sound has a separate "ks" character.)

After I learned about a character that made another letter silent, I started complaining to my Bangla teacher about how crazy her language is. She then reminded me that we have silent letters in English too and went off on a ten minute tangent about how English spelling makes no sense at all. "At least Bangla is for the most part phonetic," she told me. She then put two words on the board – "but" and "put". "Only one letter is different," she said, "but they are pronounced completely differently." After she put about 15 more English examples on the board, I finally conceded that English is more difficult than Bangla and I pleaded with her to let me continue with my Bangla reading! Her mini-tirade made me very grateful that English is my native language, because it WOULD be harder than Bangla to learn…

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hamida Learns to Boil Water
January 20, 2007

I am in the process of separating out all of my blogs to put onto my personal website. As a part of this process, the old travel blogs will be put into a different location and this blog will be used for my current Bangladesh entries. Consequently, instead of using "Fulbright Blog" as the heading for all of my blogs, I have decided to spice things up a bit and give them each unique titles!

Today's title is derived from Hamida's Food Handling class at the American Club. I was actually really glad the club offered this class, because most of the bouas here come from small villages and have never been taught the "western" standards of hygiene that we all grew up with. In fact, most bouas cook on the floor of the kitchen instead of using the counters. They use a boti (traditional Bengali knife which sits on the floor) to cut things; since they are down there anyway, that is where they prepare all of the food.

Because we Americans are very sensitive to the microbes in this part of the world, I thought that it would be a good idea for her to go to this class. They covered everything from washing your hands after you use the toilet (again, not common knowledge over here) to what temperature to cook the food at. Hamida is a pretty good cook so far, so hopefully her food will now be both yummy and sanitary!

On a different subject, I am finding that one of the hazards of having a large apartment is that when I lose something, I now must look in many different places for it. This becomes particularly troublesome when you throw Hamida into the mix, because (happily!) she is a very neat person so she is always picking up after me. (Which I appreciate!) Unfortunately, her tidy habits take memory out of the equation when I begin to look for things. For example, this afternoon I decided to finish the first coat of paint on my yoga and meditation room, so I took off my jeans and changed into my painting clothes. When I finished painting, I wanted to put my jeans back on, but they were nowhere to be found! I searched everywhere and finally found them in the oddest of places - the laundry basket!

Thankfully Hamida has wisely not tried to straighten my desk yet...


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 18, 2007

So I went back to the post office in Gulshan today to see if my packages from the States had arrived there yet. I also had to mail a few packages home.

I think that the Bangladeshi post offices are some of the most interesting places that I have been in Dhaka so far! Like the main General Post Office (GPO), the Gulshan Post Office is dark and dingy on the inside with wooden desks, counters, and shelves. The shelves contain many yellowed, dogeared books with handwritten entries of every package that was shipped or received into or out of the post office. It almost seems like something out of a Harry Potter book.

It took me a very long time to ship anything, because you can not just buy shipping boxes or high quality envelopes over here. Consequently, I had to wait until I acquired some boxes. Thankfully, among the old potatoes and bits of string the previous tenant of my apartment left behind, I managed to also find a few smaller sized boxes. They were old boxes covered with writing, however, so I bought some brown paper to cover them with. The paper was very thin though, so I basically wrapped all of the boxes a second time with packing tape!

When I got to the post office, I saw how Bangladeshis wrap their packages. Instead of using paper, they use white cloth that is sewn around the box. The seams are dotted with red wax. This is actually very useful, because after you fill out the mailing form and the customs form, the post office pastes the customs form onto the box (or taped in my case!) and then they SEW the shipping form onto the outside! No, that was not a typo. They roll up your shipping form (like if you were to attach a letter to a bird's leg - hmmm again a Harry Potter reference. Perhaps J.K. Rowling was inspired by a Bangladesh post office!) then they tie a string around it and sew it to your package. They even sewed the form to my package, but they had to stick the needle through the box as well as the outer wrapping. I hope it stays on!

Another interesting thing that I discovered at the post office: they put all of the letters going to a particular city into a large gunny sack which they then tie. Around the neck of the sack, they tie a label, like an airline baggage tag, with the name of the city on it. That tag is then stamped with a wax seal.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, no! I have not received my packages yet! I am afraid the post office guy tried calling me and realized that I gave him a fake number! I am hoping that perhaps they accidentally sent it to Mohammadpur instead, since that is what the address on the box says. So, on Sunday I will go to work in Mohammadpur and check out the post office there just in case... Otherwise, the guy told me to come back on Tuesday. It is very frustrating to know that your packages are somewhere in the city, but that you can not retrieve them! I knew that leaving them at the GPO was a BAD idea. Since I had already made the trip down there, why didn't they just let me take them with me??

On a totally different subject. There are two guys in my bathroom right now "polishing" my marble counter. Of all of the things that my landlord decides to fix, this is what he chooses? I would prefer to fix my cracked toilet seat, or my two broken screens. There was really nothing wrong with the counter to begin with and now that they are almost through, it looks exactly the same to me... (Oh, and don't get the wrong idea! My bathroom is not fancy! It has generic linoleum tiles and the stickers are still on the sink from when they were installed ten years ago. Of all of the places that require marble polishing, I would have put my bathroom on the bottom of the list!)


Monday, January 15, 2007

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 15, 2007

Today was an interesting day. This morning my new boua, Hamida, started. She is very nice and is exactly what I was looking for. She is young, quiet, punctual, and a hard worker. Plus, she only speaks Bangla so I will be forced to practice mine! It is so nice to have someone help with the housework again, especially in a place this big! You really need help with the cleaning here because there is so much dust that you have to dust and sweep your apartment every day to keep it clean. Plus there is the daily cooking and laundry that needs to be done. Bouas here also go to the market for you to buy your food so that you pay Bengali prices instead of bideshi (foreigner) prices. Delegating these items to someone else means that I have more time to focus on my project and exploring Bangladesh.

Hamida was only here for two hours this morning, however, because I went to Old Dhaka today with some of my Fulbright friends. Even though I have been here for three months, I had not gone to Old Dhaka yet. After my visit today, I realized that was the right decision, because a single woman would not be at all comfortable there by herself. Today I made the mistake of wearing western pants and a fatua, which is a short Bangladeshi shirt. It only comes down about six inches below your waist, so it does not fully cover your rear end. I was wearing an orna (the scarf that you use to cover your breasts), but apparently my outfit was not conservative enough because some guy grabbed my behind as I was walking by and several other men came close to try to touch me. When the guy grabbed me I whipped around and started yelling at him. Another man on the street saw what he did and slapped him hard in the face. Then several other men gathered around the offender and started yelling at him. We then left the scene because I think that our presence was escalating the situation.

In this culture it is strictly forbidden for men to touch women - much less grab their rear ends! The other people enforce this cultural standard by publicly putting offenders back in line. I knew about this "street justice" which is why I made a fuss about him touching me. If I hadn't said anything, more men would probably have also tried to grab me. Wearing a shalwar-kameez (the long shirts and baggy pants) or a sari and covering my hair would probably have helped, but I would have still stood out because of the color of my skin.

I felt generally uncomfortable in Old Dhaka before the incident because there are hardly any women at all on the streets (maybe 1 out of 100 people) and whenever we stopped for more than 20 seconds anywhere, immediately a large crowd would gather around us. Plus, the streets are very narrow and rickshaws pass by very quickly, so you have to watch your step to keep from a) getting run over, b) falling into the drainage pits on the side of the road, and c) getting too close to the men. Needless to say, after the "grabbing incident" my level of comfort significantly decreased.

Like New York, Dhaka is many cities within one city. I was telling my friends today that I feel like I am living in a completely different place since I moved out of Mohammadpur. Gulshan is much cleaner and there are many more foreigners here (in the three months that I lived in Mohammadpur, I never saw another foreigner; in Gulshan I see several a day.) In Gulshan, however, I also feel like more people are trying to take advantage of me, whereas in Mohammadpur, sometimes people would quote me a higher price, but if I started to negotiate in Bangla and I indicated that I knew what the "true" price of something was, they would usually capitulate really quickly. In Gulshan I always pay the "bideshi price." There are also many more beggars here. There were many poor people in Mohammadpur, but they did not beg money from me. In fact, one day when I went out to give kids presents, many of them initially would not take them from me. (Of course once a few kids proved that it was OK I was mobbed, but it was still me who was offering and not them who were begging.)

It seems that the various parts of the city operate on a spectrum. On one side of the scale is Gulshan which is very cosmopolitan, residential, secular, educated, and comfortable with foreigners. On the other side of the spectrum is Old Dhaka which is run down, busy, religious, conservative, and not used to foreigners. Mohammadpur falls in between Gulshan and Old Dhaka. Dhanmondi, the neighborhood that I originally wanted to move into, is between Mohammadpur and Gulshan.

The spectrum is important to recognize, acknowledge, and respond to. On the Gulshan end of the spectrum it is OK to wear western clothes and behave in a more "western" way - i.e. speaking to men on the street (as a woman), making eye contact, etc. On the Old Dhaka end of the spectrum, you need to dress as a local, speak Bangla, and maintain a large distance between the sexes. My problem today was that I was in "Gulshan" mode when I went to Old Dhaka. I think that if I had come from Mohammadpur, my experience would have probably been different. For instance, in Mohammadpur, I never wore western clothes out of the house. Here, I wear them all of the time because they are easier for me to wear and there are many other people here who wear them.

Anyway, it was a good lesson today and it definitely brought me back to a higher level of cultural sensitivity.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 13, 2007

Two nights ago I got a phone call from my Fulbright contact in Dhaka saying that the President had declared a state of emergency and that a curfew was in effect. Today, I went paint shopping. Only in Bangladesh! (The fact that the Chief Advisor, who is also the President, stepped down is actually a very good thing. The political situation seems to have relaxed again now that there is a new Chief Advisor.) Anyway, back to paint shopping...

So I wanted to share with you a bit more about how my apartment "remodel" is going, because it brings up some very interesting cultural differences between the U.S. and Bangladesh. For example, a few days ago I went to go buy a mosquito net. I wanted what the Bangladeshis call an "American style" mosquito net - this is the one that is gathered around a ring and hung from the ceiling. I chuckled quite a bit at the name, because I do not know of a single American that owns a mosquito net. Anyway, the Bangladeshi style net is square, the shape of your bed, and you either hang it from a square box frame, or you tie it to various things hanging off of your walls. I had this style net in Mohammadpur. While it did keep the mosquitoes out, it also kept me out of my room because the strings that tethered the net to the wall were always in danger of decapitating me (which is why I opted for the "American style" net this time around.)

Anyway, they do not have that style ready-made here, so I had to order a custom one. My bedroom is all blue (I will get to that in a moment) so I thought that a white net would brighten the room a bit more. I ordered the net and the man at the store (who speaks English and is REALLY nice) told me it would be ready in three days. The next day, however, I walked by his store and he told me that the net would be delayed by two more days because of the sewing build-up after the Eid holiday.

Now, I have no idea how the mosquitoes get in to my apartment, but the first few nights that I slept here there were swarms of them! (Interestingly, now that I have the net, there is not a mosquito in sight.) The first night I was bitten about 10-15 times on my face and another 10 times or so on my hands. (Since I was bundled from head to toe, these were the only parts of me that were showing.) The next day I put on several different kinds of mosquito repellent, but again, the next morning, tons of bites. Plus, I was plagued through the night by the sound of them buzzing around my ears. The next night I bought three mosquito coils and one of the plug-in mosquito repellants and placed them around my bed. Sadly, the smoke was so heavy that I couldn't breath, so I had to take the coils away. They did seem to lessen the bites a bit, however.

On the fourth day I went back to the mosquito net store looking like I had the plague or a really bad case of chicken pox. I told the store owner that I really needed my mosquito net as soon as possible. He took one (horrified!) look at me at promised that the net would be ready by 8pm that night. I stopped back around 7pm (I had just finished some errands in the area) and he had two men at sewing machines frantically assembling my net. He told me that he would deliver the net to my house by 9:30pm.

Around that time, his brother did show up with the net. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate a drill in my building (more about this later too) so I had to move my bed into the center of the room and hang the net from the ceiling fan. The brother unrolled the net and to my horror, the owner put a lavender trim on my beautiful white mosquito net! (Again, I am haunted by lavender!) "It's purple!" I cried. The brother assured me that it was white, it was just a bluer shade of white than the net and that the color would lighten after I washed it. It certainly looked lavender to me, but it was night, so I agreed to look at it the next day in the light. Sure enough, day came and it was still lavender. I was originally going to take it back to the shop, but the store owner has since been so nice and has helped me find other things that I needed for my apartment, that I would just feel terrible hurting his feelings by returning it. Since my room is blue, I am trying to convince myself that the light reflecting from the walls gives it a bluish hue which just adds dimension to the net... Worst case scenario, I will try bleaching it. (Clorox IS available here!)

As for my blue room... Several weeks ago I purchased a gorgeous hand-embroidered bed coverlet from a store here called Aarong which sells traditionally made, yet modernly designed, Bangladeshi handicrafts. The cover is turquoise blue with dark blue edging and turquoise, dark blue, and orange block prints and embroidery. Initially I was going to paint my walls a pale blue to match, but since the Bangladeshis are so fond of bright colors (and I would probably get a bright color whether I wanted it or not!) I decided to go with the flow and selected the brightest turquoise color they had. Amazingly, this time the paint in the can matched the paint on the card! And it looks FABULOUS if I do say so myself! My bedroom is now literally a sea of tranquility. When it is all finished, I will post a photo, because it definitely the nicest room in the house. (Well, technically, so far it is the only room in the house that has furniture... But still! Quite nice!)

OK, so before I go, I promised to tell you about the drill. In the United States, if you want to put a hook in your ceiling (or wall, or wherever) you would pull out your drill, drill the hole, get out your screwdriver and screw it in. In Bangladesh, however, nobody does anything like this by themselves. They hire somebody to do it. I was hoping to just borrow a drill from the maintenance guys in my building and drill the hole myself, but they do not own a drill! The guy at the mosquito net store had to help me hire "an electrician" to come drill the holes for me. While he was here, I also had him raise my curtain rod up higher on the wall. It cost me about $4. No wonder nobody does it themselves!

Another difference between the U.S. and Bangladesh is that in the U.S. walls are usually made of plaster. We have steel or wood joists between the walls and then plasterboard covering them. Here, however, the walls are made of either cement (for outside walls) or brick (for inside walls). Bricks are very cheap here because they are made from the local clay and are made by hand (labor is really cheap). Lumber, steel, and plaster are not cheap because they must be imported. What this means is that you actually cannot just hammer a nail into your wall. You have to first drill a hole, then put in a plastic receptacle, then you can screw in whatever you like.

Oh, one more interesting anecdote. When the "electrician" moved up my curtain rod, he uncovered a hole that the casing had been hiding. I decided to go to the market to get some plaster to fix up the hole so that I could paint over it. I went to the hardware store and tried to get the guy to understand what I wanted. My Bangla is still not great, and I certainly haven't learned the word for "plaster" yet, so I tried pantomiming someone who is smoothing something on a wall. The poor guy at the hardware store brought me everything from a trowel (in the right neighborhood, but wrong street) to sandpaper (?) to epoxy (?!!) before he figured out what I wanted. A man passed by who spoke some English and I asked him, "If you had a hole in your wall and wanted to fix it, what would you do?" He said he would call someone. I then said, "If you wanted to do it yourself what would you use?" He said, "White cement". I had previously rejected the "white cement" idea because I didn't want to mix cement. But then I thought maybe it wasn't actually cement so I had the guy bring me some. It was plaster! Just like our plaster of paris, you mix it with water until it becomes a paste.

The poor guys in the Bangladeshi market. They have no idea what to make of this woman who wants to repair her own walls...

Tomorrow I paint my yoga room bright orange. (Yes, I have dedicated one of my rooms to yoga and meditation!) I have decided to all-out embrace the "bright colors makes a brighter day" Bangladeshi philosophy...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 9, 2007

I am starting to get settled into my new apartment. I now need to clean, paint, and furnish it! The "cleaning job" done by the landlord was atrocious! (I certainly hope he did not pay his cleaners much!) They did not even remove the old tenant's things. (I was not that sad to inherit a broom and mop, but I could have done without the old potatoes and papers...) The kitchen was so gross that I thought the shelves were brown. Only after scrubbing them did I discover that they were actually white!! (Or at least they were until I painted them neon lavender, but more on that later...) I had watched Snow White a few days before and my cleaning episode reminded me of the scene where Snow White cleans up the dwarves' cottage. I was not whistling while I worked, however, and sadly there were no forest creatures to help me, but the transformation from "grimy" to "clean" was quite similar...

When I finished, however, the shelves were still stained (unfortunately the selection of brands of cleaning supplies here is very limited and there is no equivalent of Comet here - which in my opinion is one of the world's best cleansers for tough jobs...) Consequently, I decided to give it a fresh coat of paint to cover the grime.

I was able to negotiate down the rent on my apartment on the condition that I paint the apartment myself, which was fine with me since I like to paint and would have repainted the apartment in the colors that I like anyway. I was not going to paint the kitchen, however, because I will not be spending any time in there (at least I won't one I finally find a new boua!) Cleanliness, however, demanded it. So, I went to a paint store in Gulshan-2 Circle (a roundabout which is the center of Gulshan-2). In Bangladesh (unfortunately!) there is no equivalent of a Home Depot (oh how I miss it and my weekly visits with my friend CJ!) so you have to go to several different hole-in-the-wall-mom-and-pop-type places to get the hardware items that you need. They also do not have the concept of paint chips that you can take with you, so I had to plead with the paint store owner to let me take home his book of colors for 15 minutes while I matched the colors to the kitchen tiles.

Now here I will add an aside to tell you my friend Steve's experience with painting in Dhaka. He also went to a painting store and picked out a sage shade of green. The people in the store kept trying to convince him to get a brighter color, but Steve wanted the more muted version. When he got home, however, he saw that they had given him a bright grass green instead (apparently thinking that a brighter color would make him happier...)

And now with that story in your head, we will return to my apartment where I am holding a weathered book of paint chips encased in plastic leaves to my kitchen tiles. My tiles are variegated with colors ranging from off-white to grey, to a purplish grey. I liked the purplish grey color, so I chose that one and returned to the paint store. I then returned home and put on the first coat of paint. I thought that it looked very bright, but I know that paint can dry to different colors. As I was crossing my fingers, Steve happened to call and ask me to dinner. Over food at the American Club, I reiterated the day's painting events. He asked if I went to the paint store in Gulshan-2 Circle. I answered, "yes," with a sinking feeling in my stomach. He told me that was where he bought his paint too.

Sure enough, when I returned home, the lavender paint was no less neon than when I left it...

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: January 10, 2007

Good news! The packages that I sent myself in September finally arrived!! I almost couldn't believe it! It was a great coincidence that I happened to go to the office today (I haven't been here in weeks) otherwise I may have missed the notice. The notice was in Bangla so my friend Nasim translated it for me. In order to retrieve my packages I had to write a letter to the Postmaster saying that I wanted them. Then I had to bring that letter and the handwritten form they brought to my office to the General Post Office (GPO). The GPO is in Mojiteel. When Nasim told me the name, it sounded familiar to me, but I could not remember why. As soon as I was in Mojiteel, however, I remembered why I had heard the name before. It is one of the hotbeds of political activity in Dhaka and regularly shows up in my security reports as a place that I should avoid!

Sure enough, I passed groups of hundreds of protesters leading up to the Post Office. When I arrived at the Post Office there were thousands of angry Bangladeshis in front of it! I had waited four months for my packages, however, and was not to be daunted! So, I approached the building and a man stopped me and politely said, "Sorry madame, we are having a meeting here today." (I loved the euphemism.) I then told him (in Bangla) that I had a package and just wanted to get into the Post Office. I think that my sari bought me brownie points because he let me pass.

When I got into the Post Office several friendly men helped me navigate the byzantine passageways to the Customs (a.k.a. "Foreign Post") Office. There, I found several dingy, well-worn desks and a large bookcase stacked ten feet high with piles of dog-eared sheets of paper tied together with string. I handed the guys behind the counter the notice that I received. I was then introduced to "the boss" who introduced me to his boss who introduced me to "the big boss" who apparently has to check me over to see if I am worthy to receive my packages. I then answered several questions about my personal life, including what my parents do, how many brothers and sisters I have, and why I am not married yet.

Next, we went to get my packages. They brought them to a table and I practically leaped for joy at the sight of them. (I sent these packages to myself at the beginning of September and had nearly given them up for lost.) The boxes were in surprisingly good condition considering how far they had travelled. They opened the boxes and examined the contents for customs purposes. These items were catalogued in a handwritten ledger. Then one of "the bosses" (one level down from "the big boss") took me back to the room with the dingy desks. He calculated what my duty would be. We had become "friends" (bondhu) by this time, however, so he marked down that it was mostly books which have a lower duty. The entire tax ended up being 1,602 taka (about $25) plus I had to give him my phone number (I "accidentally" mixed up the last few digits however...)

Anyway, after all of that, for some reason I still could not take my packages with me. I now need to go to the Gulshan Post Office on Sunday (Sunday is the first day of the work week here) to pay the duty and pick up the packages. At least I now know that they are in the country and hopefully the post office guy does not try calling me before he sends the packages to Gulshan!

Fulbright Blog - Second Eid
Place: Dhaka

Date: January 1, 2007

Today is the second Eid holiday, Eid-ul-Azha. This day is to celebrate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael to God. It is celebrated 70 days after Ramadan, after the Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is required to make at least once in their life.) On this day wealthy Bangladeshi families sacrifice an animal and donate at least 1/3 of the meat to the poor. The wealthier the family, the larger the animal - cows and goats are the most common. In the week leading up to Eid cows and goats of all shapes and sizes can be seen roaming the city. Many of the animals are decorated with bright paper garlands.

As with the first Eid holiday, people dress in their finest clothes and visit their friends and family to partake in a large feast together. The meat from the feast comes from the sacrificed animal. Again I was invited to share Eid with Shefali's family and again the food was fantastic! (I took a picture and will try to post it later.)

Shefali bought a cow and it stayed in the area normally reserved for the car the day before Eid. I felt so sad every time I passed it and I would always give it a pat on the head. Many people in Shefali's family became attached to the cow too. The animal must be slaughtered by a priest, and apparently one comes to your house to complete the sacrifice. I chose not to watch. In fact, I would not even go downstairs until Shefali told me that everything that resembled a cow was gone. Every thirty minutes or so she would go downstairs and check. When she came back she would say "The head is still there," or "The legs are still there". One time when I asked if it was OK she said, "yes" and then I asked if there were still bones and she said, "yes" so I told her I refused to go down until they were gone. When all pieces that resembled the cow were gone I did go downstairs to watch four professional butchers finish dissecting the meat. They were separating it into piles. The family keeps one third, one third goes to friends, and the remaining third goes to the poor. Usually Shefali goes to her home village for this Eid holiday so that she can share her meat there, but this year her parents were not well enough to travel. Instead, she sent one of her brothers to the village after the sacrifice to hand out the meat.

I have been told that most expats leave the city for this particular holiday because of the smell. Because the weather was so cold this year, however, the smell was not really that bad. It just had a bad odor in the house for the first hour after the sacrifice. The only other thing that I personally did not like was that I could accidentally turn a corner and see a cow being butchered. Whenever that happened I just quickly turned my head and walked the other way. It is not a cultural judgement, I just don't think that my stomach could handle the sight...

Photos from Eid day:

Fulbright Blog
Place: Dhaka
Date: December 31, 2006

Hooray! I finally have my own apartment! After losing two apartments in Dhanmondi, I finally found a lovely (and HUGE) apartment in Gulshan! I have been living in Mohammadpur (another Dhaka neighborhood) in Shefali's guesthouse since I arrived. I am glad that I had an opportunity to stay there because I was able to experience a side of Dhaka that I probably would not otherwise have been able to (it is a working class neighborhood and I got to know Shefali's family very well), but I am glad to be finally getting my own place. I was originally hoping to live in Dhanmondi because I really like the neighborhood and it is close to work. I found two apartments that I liked there, but the first landlord (bariwala) wanted a five year lease and I ended up losing the second apartment because I spent too much time trying to obtain the first.

After speaking with my friends I decided to open up my search to include Gulshan - the nicest neighborhood in Dhaka and the place where most of the expats live. Initially I didn't want to live there because it is very residential (as a New Yorker, I like the "city feel" of Dhanmondi) and because it is so far from my office (with traffic it can take over an hour to get from Gulshan to Mohammadpur). In the end, however, my current apartment is so noisy that I actually won't mind the quiet of Gulshan. Plus, I can do most of my work from home if I get an internet connection. Finally, the American Center, the American Club, and other expat clubs are located in Gulshan so I will have more of a social life by living here...

My apartment is a lovely three bedroom, three bathroom place near Gulshan Park. It has lots of light and I have coconut trees outside of my window. The drawing room (what Bangladeshi's call the living room) is enormous - bigger than many New York studio apartments - and I also have a large open dining/living/family area. (Most Bangladeshi houses are separated into a public area and a private area where only family is allowed. A practice with ancient roots and modern relevance in devout Muslim families where the women are only allowed to be seen by family members.) My apartment also has four air conditioners (a HUGE plus since it is very hot here most of the year and air conditioners in Dhaka cost almost $1,000 a piece), hot water, light fixtures, and fans. Plus, my apartment has a generator, so I will no longer have to go hunting for candles in the dark every night.

You Americans are now probably thinking, "Wow! Hot water and light fixtures! What luxuries!" (in an extremely sarcastic tone in your head), but they actually ARE luxuries here. Most apartments do not come with them. Most people in Dhaka boil water to have hot water for their bath; the wealthier ones spend a few hundred dollars for a water heater. (The first few weeks I was here I could have gone without hot water because it was so hot, but it does get much colder here in the winter - especially early in the morning and at night - and taking an icey shower is not really comfortable in 65 degree weather. Trust me! I have been doing it for weeks!) Tenants also buy their own fixtures - not just refrigerators and stoves, but lights and ceiling fans too.

All in all, I am quite happy with my new living situation. My landlord is very nice and I apparently live on an international floor. There are four apartments on each floor. On my floor there is a Bangladeshi family, a Danish family, a woman from Singapore, and me. I met the Bangladeshi man and he is very nice. Apparently his wife is a famous Bangladeshi actress too! (Did I mention that my landlord is also a movie producer?)

I will sign my lease on January 2nd and will move in on the 3rd. Now I just need to find a new boua! (And a bed might be nice too...)

Trip: India
Place: Darjeeling
Date: December 25, 2006

I am spending Christmas in Darjeeling this year. I came to Dooars, India on December 17th for a Fulbright Conference. It was a wonderful event. I learned a lot and I got to meet many Senior Fulbright Fellows from India and Nepal. (I already knew the two who attended from Bangladesh.) Even though the conference was for the Senior Fulbrighters (not the Fulbright Students like me), the organizers forgot to mention this fact to the Embassy contacts in Nepal and Bangladesh so several of the students from those two countries participated as well. All in all it was a great event and I look forward to attending the next one in March.

The conference was called the "Darjeeling Conference", but it was actually held in Dooars, India which is three and a half hours away. (This is a little like saying you are having a conference in Chicago and then actually having it in Iowa City...) Since the participants were all disappointed that they were not going to see the famous "Darjeeling", the organizers took pity on us. They rearranged the conference schedule and set up transportation so that we could spend the last day in Darjeeling. I decided to stay here for a few extra days so that I would be here during Christmas.

Darjeeling is a beautiful town set in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was originally a British hill station and the buildings still have a decidedly British flavor. Darjeeling is also close to Nepal so many of the handicrafts, clothing, and jewelry have a Nepali character to them. The Hindi and Bangla signs, the sari-clad women, and the ubiquitous monkeys do remind me that I am in India, however.

The views are spectacular with Mount Kanchenjunga in the background and rolling hills covered with tea bushes in the foreground. The shopping is also spectacular! I picked up several items for myself and friends at very reasonable prices. The only downside is the cold weather. Since I knew I was moving to steaming Southern Asia I left all of my winter clothes back in New York. Consequently, on arrival I needed to buy a coat, a hat, gloves, long underwear, and 15 handbags. Well... I didn't NEED to buy the handbags, but they were so pretty and cheap that I couldn't resist!!

I found a charming little British cafe in town called "Glenary's". I had a traditional Christmas dinner there last night (complete with plum pudding!) It is a cozy little place with a tea house, restaurant (upstairs), bar (downstairs), and bakery. It is also one of the few places in town that is heated, so I spend a lot of time there! Sadly, my hotel is one of the unheated places, so I bundle up in two sweaters, my long underwear, wool socks, and handbags (just kidding on the last one!) before I go to bed. Thankfully the hotel does provide a hot water bottle. It is amazing, but that little bottle does provide quite a bit of heat and it stays warm all night long!

Today I went shawl shopping again. They have these wonderful handwoven Kashmiri shawls here. The designs are really intricate and beautiful and the shawls are double-sided. They are quite popular, however, and the shop owners only bring four or five each day to sell. Most are in lighter colors like red and green and are fairly monochromatic, but the darker ones - like the blue and maroon ones - are more variegated and are extremely pretty! The black ones are the rarest and I was only able to acquire two of those! For the last three days I have gone out to the the stalls as the owners are setting up to treasure hunt for Kashmiri shawls before the others tourists can snap them up!

After my shopping escapade this morning I went to the Mayfair Hotel. I met the manager there and he invited me to tea. We talked quite a bit about the hospitality industry in Darjeeling. He was an excellent source of information and a really nice guy too! After my second glass of tea I excused myself to do some more sight-seeing before the sun sets on my last day in Darjeeling...