Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Technicolor Wars and the Local Handyman
February 27, 2007

Since my internet was not functioning for several weeks, many of you have not yet heard about my neon Pepto-Bismol pink living room! I believe that in one of my previous blogs I wrote about the hazards of picking paint colors in Bangladesh. Well, I have two new chapters to add to the saga!

1) Pepto-Bismol Pink
The first new chapter starts with six bright orange couches that I designed and had custom-made for me by a little furniture store (Dola Furniture) in Gulshan-1 circle. I had been searching furniture stores for weeks with no luck finding affordable couches that I liked. I had been to dozens of stores and either I liked the furniture, but it was way over my budget, or the furniture was affordable, but I thought it was hideous. As I was about to give up and just buy some cushions for the floor of my drawing room, I stumbled upon Dola. They had a couple of very inexpensive couches is a similar style to what I was looking for - plain, simple, sectional. The fabric was horrible, however, and they were smaller than what I wanted, so I started to leave. Then it somehow came up that they made their own furniture. I asked them if I could have some couches custom-made to my specifications. They said "yes" so I told them I would come back the next day with sketches and fabric.

I wanted a tropical feel to my drawing room (since there are coconut and mango trees outside the window...) so I chose bright orange for the couches and magenta for a fabric accent. (My drawing room is really large, so I am going to visually shrink the room by hanging fabric like a tent on the back half of the room...) I wanted to get a lighter color paint that would tie the orange and magenta together, so I went to the paint store and selected a hue that I thought was a dusty mauve. Now I really should know better by now, but I was still quite surprised when I got the paint on the wall and it looked like Pepto-Bismol, BRIGHT Pepto-Bismol pink that is...

I invited my friends Tuni and Clay (the couple who got married in Kolkata) over to give me their opinion. When I opened the door, they both said, "Wow!" with shocked expressions. They both really loved my orange couches, though, and politely told me that the pink was not so bad once they got used to it. So now I am trying to decide whether I will once again repaint (I repainted my yoga and meditation room three times before it was a color that I was happy with) or if I will just live with an extremely bright living room. I think that I will hang the magenta print "tent" up and then have a "pink party" where all of my friends can come (wearing pink of course) and vote on whether I should keep the pink or repaint the room a less neon color. If my drawing room were a candy store or a malt shop, the color would be fantastic! As a drawing room, however, I am not so sure. It is definitely very modern though!

2) Banana Milkshake Yellow
The second new chapter in the technicolor/ home decorating saga also begins with furniture. I ordered a custom dining table and chairs from the same furniture shop. Armed with two tiny little fabric scraps of what my chairs would be upholstered with, I went to buy paint. This time, I decided to try another paint store to see if I would have better luck. I went to my favorite little hardware store just south of Gulshan-2 Circle. The people there are very nice, their prices are reasonable, and they speak a little English (which seriously cuts down on my tool pantomime time.) Since the store is primarily a hardware store and not a paint store, however, they only had a limited selection of pre-mixed shades. I did find one that I thought would work, though, so I took home two gallons. When I got the paint home, however, it was much lighter than the sample in the store. I looked at the label and they gave me "light off-white" when I ordered "off-white". The next day I went back to the store and explained to them that they gave me the wrong color. They told me they were out of the other color so they gave me this one instead! He tried to explain to me that they were only a little different, and perhaps to his eyes they were, but to my designer's eyes, they were as different as red and blue! Thankfully they are very nice there, so he agreed to take the paint back and refund my money.

After exchanging the first paint, I went back to my regular paint store. The owner was in a bad mood because the caretaker government has just imposed a restriction that all stores must close at 7pm to conserve electricity. I smiled, hoping that might cheer him up a bit (and hoping that he would not take his frustration out on my paint!) He gave me the color book and I selected what I thought was the perfect color. Then, when the owner wasn't looking, I peeled a bit of the very old lamination off the edge of my paint sample to get a look at the "real" color. Sure enough, it was brighter than it looked. I selected another shade (which I couldn't peel the lamination off of because it was in the middle of the page) and hoped for the best.

I got the paint home and put it on my walls, thinking that I really liked the color (it is a banana milkshake yellow). Then I put my fabric sample next to the wall, and it did not look quite so good. Coincidentally, my table and chairs were delivered today, so I got a better look at the colors together. The chairs do not match as well as I hoped, but I will give it a few more days before I decide whether I am going to have to repaint this room too. (It is a good thing that I enjoy painting!!)

The Handyman
And now a word about the carpenter who works for the furniture store. In addition to the furniture that I designed, I also bought a pair of ready-made nightstands for my bedroom. They were just raw wood when I bought them, however, and (frankly) looked like they were in terrible condition. The dokaner (store owner) assured me they would look terrific once they were stained and polished. He told me that the handyman would go to my house and match the stain color to my bed.

The next day the nightstands and handyman showed up at my apartment. He spread some old newspapers on the floor to protect it and took several items out of a well-worn canvas bag. First, there was a wooden box that was divided into ten or so smaller sections. Each section had a different color in it, like a paint box or makeup compact. Second, he removed two small, handmade, clay bowls. Finally, he removed several sponges, knives, rags, and paintbrushes.

He looked at the color of my bed and then took some color chips out of a bag and put them into one of the clay bowls. He poured something that looked like turpentine on top of it - apparently to soften or melt the chips. Then he took bits of colors out of the color box and added them to the other clay bowl. After sanding the stands and filling in all of the holes and nicks with putty, he mixed all the chemicals together and started putting it on the wood. Several coats, sandings, and polishings later, my nightstands did match my bed and they looked much better than they did in the store!

When my table was delivered this afternoon, the handyman was also there to polish it and remove the scratches. The furniture here is delivered on bicycle-pedaled, bamboo flatbed carts, so furniture generally gets pretty nicked and dirty by the time it arrives. Consequently, a handyman usually comes along to put the final finishing on the furniture at the person's house.

A Side Note
My research assistant, Sajeda, came over to my house today. She noticed that I was painting and then asked me in a confused voice if all of the people in my country did their own painting. I laughed and told her that some of them hired painters, but that many people did paint their own houses!

Monday, February 26, 2007

I Have Unexpected Visitors
February 26, 2007

This evening as I was scrubbing my light sockets (yes Mom, I took safety precautions...) to turn them from a hideous aging yellow back to white, my doorbell rang. When I opened the door, Hamida, her mother, her aunt, and her two youngest sons were at the door. She said that she wanted to show them my house (which I guess is like me showing my Mom my office), so I let them in. She explained to me that because they lived in a gram (village), they had never seen things like a refrigerator before. She gave them a complete tour of my apartment. My refrigerator, water heater, and shower were apparently the highlights. My gas stove, however, was also very exciting for them. I was trying really hard not to laugh out loud. Not because they had never seen these things before, but because it seemed so funny to me that my boua was giving her family a tour of my apartment!

I gave the boys some pencils with lollipops on the top. I also gave them some hats that Heather sent from Disney World. I wanted to give them the hats the other day, but unfortunately, only two of the hats were for boys and Hamida has three sons. I found another baseball hat that I got from a convention though and gave it to Hamida to take home to her oldest son. The two little boys LOVED the Mickey Mouse hats and they looked just adorable in them! (I now need to find some girls to give the princess hats away to…)

I was planning on making chocolate chip cookies tonight, so I will give some to Hamida to take home to her kids tomorrow. She is sad because on Saturday her sons will go back to the village and she will not see them again for quite awhile…

Sunday, February 25, 2007

I Go to Hamida's House
February 25, 2007

Today I was invited to go to Hamida's house. We took a rickshaw to Baridara (the neighborhood just east of Gulshan) where she lives. I was there last week too, but her children were not home, so she invited me back this week because they are there visiting. (Hamida's two younger children live in her gram with her mother. The oldest boy lives at home with her and her husband.) Last week when I was there they were building a new sewer, so the odor was quite terrible. This week, however, they finished building the pipe and the sewer line was all paved over.

Hamida's house is a bit nicer than Fatima's house was. It has two rooms with four cement walls and a corrogated tin roof. It is built on wetlands, however, so she has water on both sides of her. I am a bit worried about what will happen to her house when monsoon seasoon starts, as the water level is already quite high.

Despite that, the neighborhood is nice and open and there are many children playing there. Last week I brought pencils, erasers, and pencil sharpeners for the kids in the neighborhood and some bubbles, foam airplanes, toy frogs (from Heather), and a set of markers for Hamida's children. I felt a bit bad, however, because there were other children in the room when Hamida's son opened the present, so this time I decided to bring toys for everyone. I brought lots of small bubble bottles with me from the States, and today that is what I handed out to the kids. They LOVED it! As usual, the kids swarmed around me, dozens of hands grabbing for bottles. Hamida became worried for me, so she made all of the kids sit down before they could get a bubble jar. I tried telling them to get into a single-file line, but I didn't know how to say it in Bangla (plus queues are not part of the Bangladeshi vocabulary anyway!) In the end, even though I brought 30 bottles with me, some kids still went away empty handed. I have some stamps that I will bring with me next time (I have 100 of those), but I need to find a more organized way of handing them out! Maybe I will have them each take a number. Ha ha!

I also felt a bit bad when I arrived at Hamida's house because I had already eaten and she had gone through quite a bit of trouble to prepare lunch for me. She even made paesh (a rice and raisin pudding), my favorite Bangladeshi mishti (sweet). I ate already because I didn't know that she was going to cook for me (she didn't last time.) I tried to taste everything to be polite. I was a bit nervous about the safety of the food, however, because the standards of hygene in the slums are not the same as in a Gulshan luxury apartment. Hamida is very clean, but the cooking utensils and water that she has to cook with are not necessarily so. (Her water comes from a communal hand pump and she shares a kitchen with several other families.) Since she had gone through so much trouble though, I could not really refuse. Since I only ate a little, she said that she would bring me the rest of the food in a bowl tomorrow so that I could eat it at home.

Hamida's mother was also there and she gave me a bunch of bananas that she grew in her village. They are enormous! They are about twice as big around as an American chiquita banana and about 2/3 as long. I will have them with my ruti tomorrow and will see how they taste! Her mother also brought some coconuts with her that Hamida used to make my paesh. On my way out, Hamida and I went by her husband's store and he came out to meet me. (The best that I could make out is that he works with rickshaws, but does not seem to pull them. Perhaps he builds the rickshaws?)

Anyway, it was a nice visit. I just wish that my camera were working so that I could have taken some pictures!!

I Am Back Online!
February 24, 2007

So sorry for the long lag in blogs! I was without internet access for several weeks. I was barely able to check e-mail during this "dark period" and was not able to speak to my family at all. The good news is that I am now back online! The bad news, however, is that my camera has now totally broken. One day it worked fine, the next day it would not read my memory cards... Consequently, I am not able to post the pictures of Kolkata that I took and I am afraid that new pictures from Dhaka will not be forthcoming. I am NEVER buying another Sony product!! I have had terrible luck with this camera and it is only two years old. So if any of you have an old digital camera lying around, please feel free to send it to Dhaka! :)

Home Again!
February 5, 2007

Last night I was awakened in the middle of the night by rain. It was a regular thunderstorm and was such an unusual occurrence for me that I was momentarily disoriented and had to remind myself that yes, I was home from India and was in fact in my bed in Dhaka. Since I have been here, I think that this is only the second rainfall that I have seen. (I guess the “dry season” is aptly named.)

Waking up was glorious because three months of clay brown dust was washed off of all of trees and the coconut palms greeted me fresh and green this morning. As I walked to the American Club for breakfast (I was craving French toast and Hamida does not expect me back until tomorrow) the air was scented with jasmine. A week in dirty, decrepit Kolkata made the contrast even greater.

The weather is getting warmer again. (I have abandoned my hot water bottle and long underwear.) I am sure that in a few months when it is hot and steamy here I will look back fondly on the cold weather, but for the moment, I am enjoying a glorious morning!

India Blog
Place: Kolkata
Date: February 4, 2007

Taking the Bus to India
On January 29th I took a bus to Kolkata. I came here for the book fair (which I discovered was postponed after I arrived) and for my friend Tuni’s wedding reception. (Tuni is another Fulbrighter that I met at the orientation in Washington, D.C. She will be coming to Dhaka in mid-February.) I chose to take the bus instead of a plane because a) it was much cheaper and b) I had not seen any of Bangladesh outside of Dhaka.

The ride was very long (12 hours), but the scenery was lovely! Bangladesh is really very beautiful outside of Dhaka! It is very flat (the entire country is basically a delta) and there are rice paddies lined with coconut and mango trees everywhere. I am going to see if it is possible to rent a motorcycle when I get back, because I would love to take a weekend trip to the countryside. Sadly photographs from the bus were not possible…

One interesting thing that I noticed as we were leaving Dhaka is that the entire city is surrounded by brick factories. My friends had told me this, but it was quite a sight to see. You see flat land, rice paddies, coconut trees and then gigantic smokestacks spewing pollutant into the air! Bricks are the cheapest and most common building material here. It is unfortunate that there is not a more environmentally-friendly way of making them though!

The Indian Border Crossing
After about eight hours on the road driving at a breakneck speed (we actually ran over a dog on the way because the driver would not slow down), we arrived at the Indian border. This was definitely the craziest border crossing that I have ever done. We got out of the bus one kilometer from the Indian border. Our luggage was unloaded and we went into the bus station to get a sticker to put on our bags. There were a bunch of rickshaws outside of the office which we took to the bus station next to the border. The rickshaws were free, but all of them ask for baksheesh if you are a foreigner. The bus people somehow transported our luggage to the second bus station. At that bus station, we handed over our passports (a very scary moment) to a guy who went to get them stamped with the Bangladesh departure stamp for us. Then, one of the bus people asked me for a 100 rupee departure tax. (Which, I discovered on my way back, I had actually paid already as part of my ticket. Not knowing that the first time, however, I handed over another 100 rupees which I am sure the guy deposited in his wallet.)

After we got our passports back (whew!) a guy picked up my suitcase and started walking toward the border indicating that I should follow him. He carried my luggage inside and asked for baksheesh. We stopped outside of this very old building that looked like it could fall apart at any second. There were large cracks in the walls, the outside was stained by water, and the window panes had all been broken. Three guys in plain clothes were sitting on the steps of this building. They asked us for our passports. I was not sure that I wanted to hand over my passport to someone sitting outside a ruined building, but everybody else started doing it, so I gave mine away as well. They took it, sat on the steps, and filled in our departure forms for us.

When the form was done, one of the guys led me and my suitcase inside. There I met the customs officer who asked me if I bought anything new in Bangladesh. I explained to him that I lived in Bangladesh and was just going to India for a wedding. After scrutinizing my passport for a few minutes, he let me pass without opening my bags.

Then, inside the building-that-could-fall-apart-any-second, I had to give my passport over to a guy who handled foreigner. He wrote my name in a little book along with an explanation of what I was doing in India, then he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit. I went out and another man picked up my suitcase and carried it to the Shohagh bus station on the other side of the border (and again, of course, asked for baksheesh). Finally, after everyone passed through, we all loaded onto the bus and continued on our way…

I Finally Arrive in Kolkata
The ride was lovely, but extremely long. The man at the Shohagh bus office told me that it would be a ten hour trip, so I told Tuni that I would arrive at 5pm. Unfortunately, the trip actually took 12 hours. We did get to the edge of Kolkata in 10 hours, but because of traffic and all the additional stops (every passenger wanted the bus to drop them off at a point along the route that was closest to their house) it took two hours to get to the bus station in town. I felt terrible when I arrived because Tuni (who had the flu!) and her husband Clay had waited two hours for me! Now that is a dedicated friend!!

Since her family was in town, I planned on just grabbing a hotel near Park Street. When I arrived, however, she generously invited me to stay at her aunt’s house for the first night and then at her family house for the rest of my stay. It was great because I got a taste of living in Kolkata!

Unfortunately, Clay and Tuni were both a bit under the weather for the duration of my stay. Consequently, I saw many of the “tourist” sights on my own. I went to the Victoria Memorial in the Maidan which was really beautiful. They also had an interesting exhibit on the history of Kolkata. Calcutta (as the British pronounced it) was the original capital of British India. The name “Kolkata” comes from the name Kali. Kali is a Hindu goddess and the consort of Shiva, the God of Destruction. There is a temple, Kalighat, built in her honor just a couple of blocks from Tuni’s family’s house. (More on that later…)

I tried to see some of the ghats (places used for Hindu ritual bathing) along the river, but access to the water was restricted. I then headed toward Park Street where I found the lovely Oxford Book Store. As it happened, my friend Niladri (another Fulbrighter, but an Indian who went to the US, whom I met at the Darjeeling conference in December) invited me and Debjani (current Fulbrighter in Dhaka whom I also met at the Darjeeling conference) to a book event at the store that night.

I Meet Some Famous Authors
Since the book fair (which is a HUGE annual international event) was postponed at the last minute because of a problem with the traditional venue (it was traditionally held on the Maidan, but for environmental reasons the authorities wanted it moved elsewhere), many of the book events were rescheduled to smaller venues. This event at Oxford was one of them.

The theme of this year’s book fair is Australian literature, so the three authors who were at the book event were all Australian. They were: Margo Lanagan, a writer of science fiction short stories, John Zubrzycki, a journalist who wrote the book The Last Nizam which I am reading now, and Tom Keneally, Booker Prize-winning author of the book Schindler’s Ark which was turned into the film Schindler’s List. Each of the authors read a passage from his or her book and then the moderators and audience asked them questions. Afterward there was a book signing (I got signed copies of all three books, but unfortunately they only had paperbacks!)

Since it was such a small event, we got to talk to the authors. As I was in line to have Tom Keneally sign my book, the woman in front of me introduced herself to him. She said she was a Fulbrighter in Kolkata. I exclaimed, “You are kidding! All of us are Fulbrighters!” (Debjani and Niladri were behind me in line.) Tom was very surprised and started chatting with us. He joked about how he was “bringing the IQ of the group down.” We all had a chuckle and a lovely conversation with him. I invited him (and Diane, the other Fulbrighter) out to dinner with us. Diane accepted, but Tom said he already had plans with the other Australians. We got the feeling that if he did not have a previous commitment, however, that he would have gone out with us. He is a very fun, down-to-earth guy and seemed to really like us!

After the event was over, we went to a restaurant on Park Street and had a lovely dinner together. We decided that we had so much fun that we were going to do it again two days later when Kirin Desai, another Booker Prize winning author of The Inheritance of Loss, was coming to Oxford to speak.

So sure enough, two days later we showed up for the Kirin Desai event. Sadly, Niladri got last minute tickets to a play he had been wanting to see so he couldn’t join us. Diane was apparently at the event, but we never found her because the Kirin Desai event was much larger and the press were everywhere. Debjani and I did see Tom Keneally again, however! He and John Zubrzycki came for the event too. We spent quite a bit of time chatting with them after the event. (I also got my copy of The Inheritance of Loss signed, but the press were pushing everybody aside to take Kirin’s picture so we did not get to speak to her.)

Again we went out to dinner, this time at an Italian place just south of Park Street. Debjani invited some friends that she ran into at the book signing and Tuni and Clay also joined us. We greedily devoured the pizza and all of us were happy for a small taste of home since we have mostly eaten Asian food for the past several months. (I did tell Debjani about the American food at the American Club in Dhaka though, and I think that she might come visit me just to get a real cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake!)

More Sight-Seeing and the Incident of the Dirty Feet
While seeing Tuni, Clay, Debjani, and Niladri were definitely the highlights of my trip to Kolkata, I did do a few other “touristy” things while there. I tried to go to the Indian Museum, but they would not let me take my (small) camera bag inside. (In fact none of the women were allowed to take even small purses in.) I was not about to check several hundred dollars worth of electronics, my wallet, and my passport, however, and it was too much stuff to carry with me, so I ended up refunding my ticket and going to the New Market instead. The New Market was actually a bit disappointing compared to Dhaka’s New Market. Kolkata’s market is MUCH smaller and the variety of wares was not as good. Walking around the streets of Kolkata was quite nice though, as they the decay of the old British style buildings is actually quite beautiful. They also have man-pulled (on foot) rickshaws, water pumps on the streets, and old, British-style taxi cabs. Plus, there is a fabulous little tea shop called Flurry’s on Park Street which had great brownies and tea!

On another day, I did go to see Kalikhat. As the story goes, as Shiva was carrying Kali’s dismembered body over the city, one of her toes fell down from the sky and the people erected a temple to her there. Tuni really wanted to go too, but Clay had caught the bug that was going around so she stayed home. Instead, I ended up going with two of the servants from Tuni’s mother’s village house. (They came up for the wedding reception.) When our cab pulled up, a priest offered to show us the temple (for a fee of course).

He took us to a place in the Kalighat market where he told us to leave our shoes. I was not at all happy about that, because the streets of Kolkata are really disgusting (they are used as toilets and trash receptacles.) Most holy places in the east do not allow you to enter with shoes, however, so I took them off thinking we were at the entrance to the temple. Sadly, we were not, and I had to walk through the market in my bare feet. When we got to the temple, I was annoyed, because most of the people there (foreigners and Indians) were wearing shoes!

Apparently only the priests are allowed to see the Kali statue, so I only caught a glimpse of two of her three bright orange eyes when the crowd parted a little. After “seeing” Kali, the priest took me to the bath. It was a very gross little pool of extremely filthy water. There were people bathing in it, however, as is Hindu tradition. At the pool, the priest asked me to write my name in a book. He then asked for a 2,000 rupee ($50) donation and showed me the list of all of the other foreigners who had donated that amount. I am 100% positive however, that the last 20 tourists to come to that place did not donate 2,000 rupees (which is a ludicrous amount for India – my whole trip only cost $200) and that the “priest” if that is what he really was, just added the amount in after the people left. I gave him 20 rupees and then, annoyed, went back to the market to look for my shoes since my feet were by that time black and sticky.

When I found the shoes the woman there wanted to charge me for them and then she wanted to charge me for water to wash my feet with. (So that is why I had to leave my shoes at that particular place!) I took my shoes and washed my feet with the small cup of water. Then I went to the nearest water pump and some nice Indian boy pumped for me while I cleaned my very gross feet a second time. The whole situation annoyed me, especially since if I had gone on my own I never would have taken a “guide”.

On My Way Home I Pass Through a Protest
After a week in Kolkata, I was ready to go back home to Dhaka. I opted for the day bus again instead of the night bus because I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the bus (especially since the driver uses the horn every 30 seconds) and so at least in the day time there is a view to distract me. On the way back, we ran into a bund (strike). The protestors were blocking off the bridge that we needed to cross to continue our journey. After waiting on the road for an hour, we all got out of the bus. Coincidentally, there was another Shohagh bus on the other side of the strike line, so after some conversation (and probably some baksheesh) the protestors let the bus people move our luggage (and us!) to the other bus. After thus switching places, we finally continued on our way. I took some photos and video footage for you that I will try to upload later…

After a 13 hour drive I finally arrived in Dhaka. Ahhhh…. It is good to be home!