Saturday, December 22, 2007

Back to Sonargaon
October 26, 2007

I decided to take Heather to see Sonargaon since it is a nice day trip from Dhaka. Intrepid girls that we are, we took my scooter through the city into the countryside. We wanted to go to the museum first, but it was closed, so I took her to the street with all of the old houses. I didn’t find the rajbari last time I was there, so I was hoping to see if I could find it this time. Thankfully, we ran into a boy who spoke English and knew where it was, so he took us on a little tour. Unfortunately, like the other buildings here, the rajbari is quite run down and nobody is doing anything to maintain it.

After generously tipping our young guide, we went back to the folk art museum and guess who we ran into… Faisal!! The little boy that I met the first time in Sonargaon! He was so happy to see me and I was really happy to run into him again! Heather and I bought him cookies and soda and then he again took us back to his house. We ran into the little girl Eva that I had also met the first time I was there. Everyone remembered me. I was so upset that I left my bag of toys at home!

The kids all put on their nice Eid clothes and asked Heather and I to take pictures of them. Eva and Faisal were particularly possessive, feeling that since we were their friends the other kids should not be hogging the attention.

Again Faisal’s mom made us a special sweet. I was glad that Heather had the opportunity to experience Bangladeshi hospitality first hand.

As we got ready to leave, Faisal and Eva wouldn’t let us get back on the motorcycle. Faisal wanted to go for a ride again, but Eva was not to be left out, so we squeezed all four of us (Asian style) onto my little scooter! I really wish that I had gotten a picture of that! When we got to the market in front of the museum, Heather bought Faisal and Eva little musical pianos. (A fitting gift since Heather is a musician, singer, and actress…) We literally had to lift the kids off of the motorcycle when it was time to go back to Dhaka though. They begged for us to take them with them. Faisal even said, “My mom said it’s OK!”

We were sad to leave them, but we had to get back since I threw Heather a little party that night so she could taste Bangladeshi food and meet some of my friends.

I will definitely go back to Sonargaon again and next time I will bring toys!!

Sonargaon Old Town
Woman carrying water home from a well.

An old, abandoned mansion that is sadly in disrepair.

Detail of the rajbari.

Eva is in the orange dress and Faisal is the boy in the blue shirt on the right.

On the Scooter!
Eva and Faisal on my scooter.

October 15, 2007

I have been having so much fun seeing the Bangladeshi countryside, I thought that I would finally take a trip down to the Sundarbans for EID. The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest. It was a cruise, so I boarded the boat at Dhaka and we took the river all the way down to the forest. When we arrived, we took smaller boats into the smaller river channels. Of course we all hoped to see one of the famous Bengal Tigers, but alas, the closest we got were some freshly made footprints. I did get to see some spotted deer and a few monkeys though.

One of my favorite creatures were the mudskippers. These guys are about as big as your pinky finger and look like the missing link between aquatic and amphibian species. I got a lot of really blurry photos of them (hey, we were in a moving boat). Then one jumped onto the side of the boat and I snapped its picture (see below).

The roots of the trees are the most unusual part of the forest. The come up out of the ground instead of down into it!

The cruise had a great mix of Bangladeshi and foreign guests. I made several friends on the trip and may have even found one of the managers for my resort! All of the people that I talked to about my eco resort project were very enthusiastic and can’t wait until it is up and running!

Mangrove Forest
This is what the trees in the forest look like. You can see their roots poking up out of the ground. It really looks like an alien landscape!

Close up shot of the roots.

More Trees
Trees and bushes by the side of one of the smaller tributaries.

Another tree... This one's roots grow from it's branches instead of up from the ground...

Water Lilies
Gorgeous water lily pond! The water lily is the national flower of Bangladesh. I want to have water lilies at my resort!

On the River
Typical village boat on the river.

This plant grows along the rivers in Bangladesh. It is hard for me to properly pronounce because there are two different kinds of "k's" in Bangla. This is the unaspirated "k". Someone told me that to pronounce it properly you have to inhale at the same time you say it so no air comes out. Well, regardless of how you pronounce it, it's pretty!

Me on the Boat
A friend took this photo on the boat. It turned out so cool! Because the camera and I were moving at the same speed I am in focus, but the beautiful sunset in the background is blurry.

Another gorgeous sunset!

This is the semi-blurry shot of them in their natural environment (the mud of course...)

Mudskipper Up Close
This was the mudskipper who landed on my boat... It is a bit more in focus...

Alien Autopsy Bangladesh
October 15, 2007

We were sitting in the dining hall on our boat engaged in a conversation when this creature from another planet jumped into a cabin. We captured it and tried to interrogate it, but none of us could tell what it was or what it was doing here… The next morning it mysteriously vanished…

Movie coming soon...

Back to Dinajpur
October 7, 2007

I was so inspired by my trip to Jessore that I decided to make an impromptu trip back to Dinajpur to meet with Anna to see if I could convince her to design a resort for me!

After a grueling 12 hour bus ride (it is supposed to be an 8 hour trip, but they are repairing the roads around Bogra), I finally arrived at Dipshika, the NGO where Anna is building her latest school.

I was immediately put to work. Stefan, the German engineer, and I were assigned the task of mixing the borax solution that Anna would treat the bamboo with. (If left untreated bamboo will quickly be devoured by termites.) She had built a pool to fill with borax solution, but apparently it had a leak, so they built another pool and Stefan and I were in charge of transferring the borax to the new pool and making sure the concentrations were correct. Our tools were an aquarium salinity monitor, a very old set of scales with some missing weights, and a couple of empty water bottles.

First we had to figure out how to weigh the borax and boric acid using some very old scales. As I mentioned, some of the weights were missing, so Stefan held the scale while I looked for rocks that would make the scale balance with 100 g on one side and 90 g on the other side. (We were missing a 10 g weight…)

After we had calibrated our scale, we had to figure out how to test the concentration of borax solution. I suggested mixing one batch that was the correct measurement, one with a higher concentration, and one with a lower concentration. We used the aquarium monitor first to see where the correct setting was. We took note of where this was on the measure. Then we measured the higher and lower concentrations so we knew if the scale would go up or down if it was off concentration. And it worked! Stefan and I felt very smart at the end of the day having figured this out with just a few rudimentary tools! It was a test of resourcefulness and I think that we passed with flying colors!

The next day Anna suggested that I observe the mud mixing process. She said this was the key to a good building and that it was important to know what the proper ratios should be and how the mixing is done. I took copious notes and even walked around in the mud pits with the water buffalo myself!

I definitely learned a lot, and I don’t think that I have every sweat as much as I did during that visit! (It was extremely hot and we were working very hard!)

Unfortunately, Anna will not have the time to come back to Bangladesh to supervise my hotel project, but she did recommend a Bangladeshi architect friend of hers, Marina Tabassum. Marina had a project that was also nominated for the Aga Khan Award. Her style is also very much in line with mine, so I am eager to talk to her. Anna said that she would be able to act as a construction consultant on the project though and is happy that her techniques are going to be adapted elsewhere.

While I was there I also spoke with several members of her construction crew and they are all very eager to come to Jessore to help me with my project. I am really happy about this because these are new construction techniques and so far Anna’s crew the only ones that are trained in them. I am hoping to take half the guys from Dinajpur and hire another 15-20 men in Jessore. This way another team learns the new building techniques and hopefully they will be able to use them to homes in the Jessore area. The technique was designed to be used with low-income housing and it a great alternative to the traditional mud construction because it is much more durable and holds up to rain and pests much better. The natural cooling ability of the mud walls also makes it much more comfortable that the typical concrete and CI sheet homes.

So things are really starting to come together!

If you want more information on Anna’s METI school, you can visit her website:

You can also see photos that I took of her school in my September 7, 2007 blog entry:

If you would like to see examples of Marina Tabassum’s work, you can go here:

Stefan and the Scale
Here is the little scale we had to measure the borax and boric acid.

Borax Pool
Anna is inspecting our work...

Water Buffalo!
They are called moesh in Bangla. These guys mix the mud and the straw together. Achieving the right mud consistency is essential to project success!

Nikhail and Me
Nikhail is the second level foreman on the project. We pose for this photo in front of the moesh pit.

Anna is Caught Snoozing
Poor Anna has worked every day without resting. Though she looks asleep, she actually got up five minutes later and resumed work! What a trouper!

As an added treat, here is a small movie of the water buffalo mixing the mud...

September 27, 2007

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I am going to do after I finish my Fulbright lately. There are a couple of corporate career options open to me – one in the States and one in London. Both are amazing positions with great companies, but I am really feeling the entrepreneurial bug. I have wanted to have my own company for awhile, and the timing just seems right now.

I recently started revisiting my sustainable boutique hotel idea. Initially I thought that Bangladesh would not be a good location for a resort because there is not a lot of tourism here. Then I realized that there ARE a lot of expats living in town and having seen the Bangladeshi countryside now I really think that they would enjoy getting out of the city! The countryside is beautiful and the air is clean. Plus, I was really inspired by Anna’s school and would love to build a resort along similar lines – an eco resort that exists in harmony with nature and with the local community.

The problem with traveling in Bangladesh is that it is quite hard to get around – the infrastructure is terrible. The buses are old and dangerous and it takes forever to get places. A trip that would take one hour in the US takes 4-5 in Bangladesh. Plus, there are so many different bus lines it is difficult to figure out the schedules, even if you do speak Bangla.

So I started thinking about where I should locate a resort if I were to build one here. It should be close to an existing tourist attraction and easily accessible by air so that people could avoid the long, tedious bus trips. Jessore is the natural choice. It is only an hour from Khulna which is the jumping off point for all of the trips to the Sundarbans (the world’s largest mangrove forest.) It is also only a half hour, inexpensive flight from Dhaka and there are three flights a day. Plus, it is on the bus route from Dhaka to Kolkata, so if people are going to India, they could break up the 12 hour bus ride with a night or two at the resort. The proximity to India also opens up the possibility for Indian tourists to visit the resort.

I decided to fly to Jessore to check it out. After spending a few hours there, I fell in love! The countryside is absolutely gorgeous! All rice fields and palm trees…

The first day I was there I rented a rickshaw to explore the area. I started in the town where I went to several stores looking for maps. After I acquired a (very poor) map of the district, I had the rickshawala take me outside of the city. He took me to one of the archaeological sites in the area. There I was kidnapped by a couple of girls. They took me to see their houses and their school. I met their parents and their friends and then finally was able to escape and continue looking around.

I decided that I wanted to locate the resort between Jessore and Khulna, so the next day I told my rickshawala to take me some of the villages south of Jessore city. Coincidentally, he was from the area I wanted to see, so he knew all of the smaller back roads (which are just lovely!) The drive there was lovely – only a small portion was on the main road where the buses travel and the rest was on smaller roads. The streets were nicely paved and were lined with gorgeous trees.

I stopped at the union parishad office (like a county office) for the area I was interested in. I talked to some of the managers there and told them that I wanted to build a small resort and was looking for land. As always, I drew quite a crowd and soon several men were coming up to me telling me that they had land for sale. I saw several properties, but they were all open rice fields and most were near the bazar.

As we were driving back to the hotel that night, however, we drove on this small road through a really beautiful area. I resolved that the next day I would go back there.

The second day we went back to the beautiful area from the night before. The town was so small that it didn’t have its own parishad office, so I just went to the market area. There was a small bamboo shelter next to the stores where many of the men had gathered. I went there (dressed in a sari of course!) and introduced myself. There was one man who was clearly a borolok (literally “big man”; it means someone who is wealthy or influential.) He asked me all kinds of questions, and about a half hour later told me that his grandfather had a piece of land. I went to see it and was blown away! It had everything that I wanted – fruit trees, an open area for sports, a pond, far from the market and other houses... It was even next to a river!

The only problem is that there are three houses on the land. Apparently two of the houses are owned by this man’s grandfather, but the other is owned by two brothers who live in India. The man I spoke to seemed to think they would be very willing to sell though. The owner wasn’t there, so I will make another trip back in a couple of weeks to see if I can acquire the property.

These are the girls who kidnapped me in Jessore.

This is the school the kidnappers took me to. I loved the paintings on the wall!

Street Lined with Trees
The rickshaw ride through the Jessore countryside was absolutely beautiful! Tree-lined streets opened up to lush, green rice fields.

Country House
Yes, it really is this green there!

Palm Trees
I stopped several times to take photos of the beautiful fields and trees.

Here are some photos of the site that I want to acquire for my project:

This is the pond that you see as you walk onto the site.

Wooded Area
Most of the plot is wooded like this. There is an open rice field across from the site, however, so you feel like you are in a little oasis, not in the middle of the woods.

I was thrilled to discover that there was a river in back of the property! There is also a small open field next to the river that would be perfect for cricket or badminton.

Village House
This is one of the three village houses that are on the property.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

September 21, 2007

My trip to Dinajpur really made me realize that even though I have been here almost a year, I really have not seen much of Bangladesh at all. I have resolved to rectify that problem and have decided to start close to home. Sonargaon is the old capital of Bangladesh and is only an hour away by scooter from Dhaka.

I decided to leave early Friday morning to beat the city traffic. This plan worked really well as the roads were pretty much empty at 6:30am on a Friday. (Fridays are weekend days in Bangladesh.) Things got a bit dicey just as I was leaving the city, however, as there is a bottleneck going out of town where four hundred buses are all trying to squeeze through a narrow crumbling roadway to get to the highway.

After dodging several buses, vangaris, and cows, I did make it to the highway (which is actually a nice divided road!) A brief scoot later and I had arrived in Sonargaon. The ruins of the old city are located in a small town. I went to the folk art museum there first. There I met a little boy who kept following me around all day asking for tips. He was very persistent!

The outside of the museum was beautiful, but the exhibits inside were old, dingy, and uninspiring. The grounds were beautiful though, and there was a little amusement park in the back.

When I was done at the museum I got back on my scooter and went out to search for the ruins. I turned a corner and there was Faisal, the boy from the museum! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe that he could get there on foot as fast as I could on my motorcycle! I warmed up to him after that and he showed me where the old buildings were. I let him ride on the back of my scooter which he thought was tremendous fun! I bought him ice cream and he invited me back to his house to meet his family. His mother gave me some dessert and I met everyone in the neighborhood. They were all very excited to meet a bideshi (foreigner) and all of the kids wanted their photos taken.

I never did find the rajbari (rich person’s house, literally “king’s house”), but I had a very enjoyable day none the less…

On the Way to Sonargaon
Here are some of the homes that I passed on my scoot out to Sonargaon.

Sonargaon New Town
This is the new town section of Sonargaon. It is very typical of the Bangladeshi cities outside of Dhaka.

Craft Museum
This is the craft museum. It is located in a beautiful old house. If only the exhibits were as nice!

Detail of the main doorway to the museum.

Here is one of the rides in the small amusement park behind the museum. :)

The CNGs here are much prettier than the ones in Dhaka!

Old Sonargaon
This is the main street in old Sonargaon. The entire street is like this: filled with beautiful decaying houses. Only the facades remain. If you walk through one of the doorways you can see that the rest of the building is gone and that people have set up homes behind them.

Another View of the Street
It is quite picturesque!

Photo of Faisal standing in one of the doorways.