Monday, January 21, 2008

Gai Holud
January 9, 2008

My friend Natasha took me to her cousin's gai holud tonight. A Bangladeshi Muslim wedding ceremony apparently has four parts: the bride's gai holud, the groom's gai holud, the wedding ceremony, and the reception.

The gai holuds are tumeric ceremonies. ("Holud" means "yellow".) The family decorates the groom (or the bride, I attended the groom's gai holud) with gold and silver for prosperity. Then guests come and put tumeric on the groom's forehead and feed him sweets so that his marriage will be healthy and happy. It is also traditional for guests to give the groom a small amount of money.

All of the guests traditionally wear yellow, though many people at this gai holud were wearing bright saris of other colors. It is more important to wear your best sari than to wear a yellow sari, so if guests don't have a very nice yellow sari, they wear something else. (Fortunately I have three fabulous yellow saris!)

Normally I believe that guests eat after the tumeric ceremony, but because there were so many people there, we ate in shifts during the ceremony.

Unfortunately I was not able to attend the actual wedding ceremony because of a previous commitment, but hopefully I will get to witness that part another time!

The reception is actually held a couple of days after the wedding. This is when guests greet the bride and groom as a married couple.

Here are some photos I took of the gai holud:

The Stage
This is the stage where the ceremony will be held.

Silver and Gold

The groom is decorated with silver and gold. Sometimes with actual jewelry (like the ring), sometimes with tinsel.

This guest is applying tumeric to the groom's forehead.

One of the guests feeding the groom sweets. He must get a stomach ache by the end of the night!

Very Serious
Before going to the actual gai holud, Natasha showed me pictures of her own gai holud. She wasn't smiling in any of the photographs. I asked her why and she said that it was a very serious ceremony. That the bride and groom are leaving their families, so why should they be happy?

The Guests
All of the guests watching the ceremony are dressed up in their best saris.

Me and Guests
Photo of me with several of the women in their pretty saris.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Cows and Christmas Trees
December 20, 2007

Tomorrow is the second Eid, the second of the two main holidays in Islam. This is the holiday where Muslims sacrifice a cow (or goat) in recognitions of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael. (For more details on the holiday you can see my blog from last year: Christmas, the main Christian holiday, is also only a couple of days away.

I was sitting in my friend Borhan's cafe, Cofi 11, tonight talking to him. Borhan is a religious Muslim (he has a beard and doesn't drink alcohol) and we were sitting next to a Christmas tree with Christmas carols playing in the background. It was all a very surreal experience. I asked him about the tree and he told me that over half of his staff were Christian and that they found the tree.

We then got into a light-hearted philosophical discussion about cows and Christmas trees and about how as symbols they are actually amazingly similar:

1) they start out alive and then we kill them
2) they are both decorated (the cows wear paper necklaces)
3) they symbolize rebirth - Abraham got Ismael back and the tree was originally a pagan symbol of rebirth
4) they are the primary symbol of the major religious holiday of their respective religions

So who says Muslims and Christians are so different? :)

Jessore Again - Disappointment and Hope
December 15, 2007

I went to the Ministry of Land and talked to the Director of the Survey Department about my porcha issue in Jessore. (Senior officials in Bangladesh are surprisingly accessible to foreigners...) He told me that he could look up the title, but that he needed the plot number. I called the owner of the property, but he refused to give it to me over the phone. He said that he wanted to see me in person again. The Director told me that was probably not a good sign, but always filled with optimism, I decided to go back and talk to him anyway.

I brought my architect with me so that she could look at the land and tell me whether or not it was acceptable. She could also help translate for me, because my Bangla is not good enough to understand all of the details.

We flew back to Jessore and met with the owner. He explained the same thing to Marina as he did to Monjurul - how he didn't want the community to know that he wants to sell, but that he would be willing to part with the land. Apparently his two daughters live in India and he would like to join them there.

Then his wife showed us the boundaries of the land. Nazrul showed me the boundaries when I first went there, but I had never had the owner show me. I was quite surprised to find out that he owned much less of the land than I thought. He only owned a small piece by the river - the rest of the riverbank property he had sold. The plot was much narrower than I was originally led to believe too; he only owned one of the houses, the other two houses were owned by people who would not sell. That, combined with the fact that the price he wanted was about six times what the land is worth, turned me off for good.

After that disappointment, I called a guy named Koli that I had met on my last trip to Jessore with my attorney. Koli's brother is a prominent attorney in town and Koli told me last time I was there that he would look for some land for me. Even though I gave him no notice, Koli took Marina and I around to look at some properties. The land we saw didn't suit my purposes, but Koli seemed like a nice, honest guy so I decided to stay a couple of more days to look at some more property. Marina took the evening fight back; Koli offered to let me stay at his house. At first I was very skeptical, but he told me I would be staying with his family and I trusted him, so I agreed to go home with him.

His family is absolutely fantastic! They are an extended family (four brothers and their families) all living together. His family absolutely epitomizes Bangladeshi hospitality. On just a few hours notice they prepared a room for me. They shared their dinner and even bought me a shalwar kameez because I didn't bring any clothes with me. The teenage daughter whose room I stole gave me a present and we spent a wonderful weekend together. They went out of their way to make me feel welcome. If I can translate that level of service into my resort, I think it will become the most popular place in Asia!

Over the next two days I saw several properties. Two I liked even better than the original property, but both of them had some issues (one was too close to a market and the other was too expensive). Seeing them definitely gave me hope though! Koli now knows what I am looking for and I have confidence that he will be able to find the perfect piece of land for me. It is better if he can pre-screen the properties because that way a) I don't have to keep flying to Jessore and b) the prices start out at Bangladeshi prices, not bideshi prices!

So even though I still don't have my land, I do have hope that something fantastic is just around the corner!

Here are some more pictures I took in Jessore:

Ghur Collection
Wherever we went, we saw these pots hanging off of trees. I asked Marina what they were and she said they were for ghur collection. Ghur is similar to molasses and comes from these palm trees. It is collected like maple syrup and then is boiled into a brown sugar that Bangladeshis use to make sweets. I thought the pots were quite attractive!

Mustard Flowers
It is winter time in Bangladesh now and in many places the countryside is brown like in the U.S. (See the photo of the hay collectors in my last post on Dinajpur.) I had been in Jessore just a couple of weeks before, but when I came back this time, all of the rice had been harvested and many of the fields were barren. Fortunately, however, in the non-rice seasons, the farmers in Jessore plant mustard seed in the fields. Mustard seed blooms into these gorgeous yellow flowers! So instead of brown fields, there are yellow fields! Even the fields that I saw that were brown, had small specks of green poking out from the soil, so I think there are probably only a week or so when the fields are empty.

More Mustard
Close up of a mustard field. The mustard fields are great news for the resort, because even in the wintertime when rice is not generally grown, the fields are beautiful, not brown and barren.

Mustard Field Next to Purple Field
I don't know what the purple flower is, but it looked gorgeous next to the yellow mustard field! This time of year there are also all kinds of fresh vegetables available in the area. Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of any of the vegetable gardens...

There is Still Rice
Some people do still plant rice, however. Even in the three days that I was in Jessore, I noticed several rice fields grow seemingly overnight! This is a picture of one of the "new" rice fields.

Another Rice Field
Dinajpur is gorgeous in the spring and summer, but it is actually not very attractive now in the winter. Jessore, however, is gorgeous all year round, so it will always be an attractive place to come!

Koli's Family
This is a photo of Koli's family. His sister-in-law Sara (wife of the attorney brother) is holding his son on the left, his wife Maria is on the right holding her nephew, and Supriya, Sara's teenage daughter is in green in the back.

Dinajpur Again - Farewell to Anna
December 9, 2007

After I spoke with the owner of the property that I liked, I was excited to start work on the project again. I called Anna to give her the good news. She congratulated me and told me that she was going to be leaving Bangladesh in a couple of weeks. I really wanted to see how the bamboo work is done on her project, so I decided to go back to Dinajpur to say good-bye.

After a grueling 10 hour bus ride I finally arrived at night. When I got there Anna explained that there was a mela the next day and that the workers would actually be off of work. Unfortunately, that meant that I would only have one day to observe the workers as I had a meeting to go to on the 10th.

Because it was dark when I arrived, I couldn't see the progress that they had made on the school since I was last there in early October. When I woke up the next morning, however, I was absolutely amazed! Foundations had become walls and they had already completed a lot of the bamboo work. Anna said that mud and bamboo construction goes up fast, but this was really incredible! (See the photos below.)

I got to see Stephan and the workers again. I also got to meet several of Anna's Bangladeshi students (they were off for Eid the last time I was there) and a few Germans and Austrians who were visiting the project site. The mela was a lot of fun. I even bought some great village pottery - two banks and a cookie jar (well, I am using it for a cookie jar.) All three items only cost me 80 cents too! Pottery is really cheap in Bangladesh. I think that I am going to have all of my dishes for the resort made by a local potter...

The next day I observed the crew building the ring beam on one of the small houses that Anna is also building. The ring beam is the foundation that all of the bamboo work is built off of. I watched all day and took many pictures and movies.

That night I had to take the bus home, so I said "goodbye" to Anna and her crew and headed home. Unfortunately, about two hours into the trip I got terrible food poisoning and was vomiting out the window of the bus the entire ride back. There was a huge traffic jam too, so it took 12 hours to get back to Dhaka. I don't think I will be riding on a bus again anytime soon!

The Second School
This is the second school! They had just finished the first layer of mud on the left section and had just started to build the right section when I was last here.

Front of the School
In this shot you can still see the mud pits on the left side of the photo.


This is the veranda that separates the two wings of the building. Isn't it beautiful?

Second Floor
This is the second floor of the school. They are just starting the mud walls for the second floor.

Here is a close-up of some of the bamboo joins.

Cook's House
This is a view of the small house for the cook that Anna's students are building. Anna designed the second school for Dipshika and teams of her students (Austrian and Bangladeshi) designed three small houses for the villagers to demonstrate that her construction techniques are an affordable building method for the community.

Ring Beam
One of the workers standing on the ring beam.

Building the Ring Beam
One of the workers assembling the ring beam on the cook's house.

Bringing Hay
There is still mud work going on, so the workers need to continue to bring hay to the mud pits.

Back to Jessore - Renewed Hope!
November 30, 2007

Today I went back to Jessore with my attorney. We went around and talked to people and saw several pieces of land. There was one gentleman that we met who was extremely helpful. He owns a nursery and showed us a few properties. One piece of land was beautiful, but it was located off of the main road and was next to a brick factory, so unfortunately it would not work for the resort.

We saw a few other pieces of land - mostly open rice fields - in the same area where I found the first property I liked. While the areas were nice, I really want a plot that already has some mature trees on it, and open paddy fields do not fit that bill.

I have several specific requirements for the property:
- It is large enough to build 10 bungalows and a guest house
- It is located off of a small road (not the main road) between Jessore and Khulna
- There are mature trees on the property
- The land is not next to a marketplace or other houses (nilibili jaigai - quiet area)
- Preferably, the property is off of one of the many rivers in the area
- The price is reasonable and affordable

Unfortunately, none of the properties that we saw fit that bill. We went back to the Union Parishad office of the village where I found the first piece of land. We met a guy there who told us he knew of a piece of land that met my requirements. Monjurul and I went out to the property and as I was walking up the walk, I got really excited. It looked just like the first place I liked! Then, as we got closer I realized it WAS the first place I liked! We saw the owner sitting out front. I didn't want to bother him, but Monjurul told me that he thought that the guy really did want to sell, but couldn't say that in the marketplace because he was Hindu and the rest of the community was Muslim. Apparently saying that you want to sell your family's land is like saying that you don't like the community anymore.

I was a bit annoyed he didn't tell me this earlier, but we did go up and talk to the owner. As it turns out, Monjurul was right! The guy was willing to sell! There is a title issue with the land, however. In the past 100 years, Bangladesh has been owned by four different countries - Britain, India, Pakistan, and finally Bangladesh. The law states that in order to transfer the ownership of land, you have to have a document (called a porcha) that proves your ownership during each of the four periods. Because the owner's family had been on the land for a long time, he had the first three porchas, but apparently there was some issue with the fourth porcha. He told us that the government had finalized everything for the fourth porcha in 1993, but that the plans had never been filed with the Jessore District office, therefore he would be unable to sell.

The owner refused to discuss the price until the fourth porcha issue was cleared up, so I resolved to go back to Dhaka and see if I can get the fourth porcha.

I am really excited! It looks like I might get this piece of land after all!

November 22, 2007

Inspired by our expat Thanksgiving last year, I decided to host the party this year (with a real turkey this time though!) I also invited several of my Bangladeshi friends so they could share in the celebration and taste some real American food. (Sadly, many Bangladeshis - including intelligent, educated people like my friends - tragically believe that KFC and Pizza Hut are high quality American cuisine. I know, I cringe whenever someone suggests that we go to an "upscale restaurant" like KFC or Pizza Hut!)

Now hosting Thanksgiving for eighteen people is a large undertaking for anyone, but for someone like me who doesn't know how to cook it is extremely daunting! Thankfully (!) I have four American friends (Tuni, Clay, Jen, and Ben) who DO know how to cook and who were very happy to come over and help me prepare the feast. Thanksgiving was Tuni's birthday, so I took her to breakfast at the American Club before I locked her away in my kitchen for the rest of the day. Tuni's husband, Clay, unfortunately came down with the flu the day before (in fact all of my chefs had been sick within the previous few days), so he stayed home and rested while we began. Clay did manage to make mashed potatoes at home, though, and brought them when he came over.

The first item of business was to find the proper ingredients. This is American food, remember, based on native American produce, so not all of it is easily available here. Thankfully, I had ordered my turkey from the American Commissary several months in advance. I also managed to pick up cranberries, stuffing, frozen broccoli, and canned mushrooms there. My sister brought me yams from the United States when she came to visit. We sent Hamida to the market to get some vegetables: squash (Bangladeshi version), carrots, pumpkin, and celery. We knew the celery would be hard to find, but Hamida came through! (See the photo below!)

Tuni and I then tried to figure out how to cook a turkey. I had only cooked one before and Tuni had only assisted. We found a recipe online where you cook the turkey uncovered breast side down. Thankfully the turkey did fit into my small oven, but the breast-side-down suggestion meant we couldn't use the built-in turkey thermometer, which we needed because there are no temperature settings on my oven. (Plus I have a history of food poisoning my guests!) We rigged the wire shelf with a foil container to catch the drippings so the thermometer could poke through the bottom. Also, we didn't have any poultry skewer things, so we just safety-pinned the wings and things in place... It ended up working out really well! The turkey tasted fabulous!

Jen and Ben made pumpkin pie from scratch while I... set the table! (Hey, I also put the cranberry sauce into a bowl!) Because I had so many people coming, I had to rent two more tables and a set of dishes. The chairs at the rental place were hideous though, so I borrowed chairs from people in my building.

We had to schedule Thanksgiving for the evening because my Bangladeshi friends had to go to work that day. Friends started arriving around 6pm for drinks and I think we finally sat down to eat around 8pm. Everyone LOVED the food; they all wanted the recipes at the end. I had friends from several countries attend - USA, Denmark, India, and Bangladesh. I was really happy to share one of my favorite American holidays with them. And I was quite happy to show them that American cuisine was more than just pizza and hamburgers!

We all went around the table and said what we were thankful for. At the end, one of my Bangladeshi friends told me that she thought that maybe one of the reasons that America was such a great country was because once a year we all take a day to be grateful for what we have. I thought it was a very interesting observation...

In traditional Thanksgiving fashion, we all stuffed ourselves. Because it was getting late, several of my friends started to leave. I had baked a (very lopsided!) birthday cake for Tuni though which I brought out before more people left. I then brought out the desserts (pumpkin and apple pie), but people were so full they couldn't eat them! (Since it was an evening meal, we didn't have the luxury of a 2-3 hour post-turkey break like we do in the U.S.) Consequently, I sent pies and cranberry sauce home with my friends.

All in all, it was a fantastic Thanksgiving. I definitely plan on doing it again next year!

Tuni with the Celery!
Tuni proudly displaying our celery. It's not much, but it was all that was available! I was surprised that we could find it at all, as I have never seen celery in any of the markets.

Our Turkey!
And no! This picture is not Photoshopped! The turkey really was this beautiful!

The Guests!
The chefs: Jen and Ben are in the front on the left and Tuni and Clay are on the right.

More Guests
Some of my Bangladeshi friends who were able to join us.

Disappointment in Jessore
November 16, 2007

After my sister got safely back to the U.S., I decided to return to Jessore with my attorney to purchase the land I found. We met up with the Nazrul, the guy who originally showed us the land. He took us to the marketplace to meet the owner. (Who was actually not a relation of his at all!)

The owner was a very stern-looking older man. Monjurul (my attorney) and I went to talk to him and he told us that he had no intention of selling the land. He said it was his family's ancestral land and he would never sell it.

I was really disappointed. We had definitely been misled by Nazrul. While in town Monjurul and I looked at a few other properties, but nothing even came close to the property that I had originally seen. We returned to Dhaka and decided to come back a few weeks later to resume the property search again...

November 10, 2007

Blog coming soon!

November 7, 2007

Blog coming soon!

November 5, 2007

Blog coming soon!

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

November 3, 2007

Heather and I began our whirlwind trip of India in Delhi. We were immediately accosted by the extremely polluted air. Both of us got sick almost immediately upon entering the city. It was so sad because Delhi would have been a really beautiful city if the air were breathable. We marveled that people could actually live there at all!

We checked in to a little hotel called the Blue Saphire (which was actually quite nice, especially considering the low price.) When we asked the manager where we could buy a map, he directed us to a local tour guide, thus initiating us into the Indian world of commissions. The tour company sold us a package tour including a driver that would take us around to see the Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). Heather and I were initially skeptical, but it seemed like hiring a car would save us a lot of hassle traveling around, so we agreed.

We really liked our driver at first, but then he decided that he wanted to take us to every tourist junk stop in Delhi (where of course he got a commission.) We told him to stop, thinking that warning would be sufficient, we decided to keep him as our driver for the rest of the trip.

As we visited many monuments we discovered that people were quite anxious to come up and say “hello” to us, especially would-be “guides”. While we also got a lot of attention in Bangladesh, but there we didn’t feel like people wanted something from us, they were just curious. In India, however, Heather and I decided that “hello” actually meant “give me money.” We managed to push through the beggars, however, and did see some beautiful things in Delhi.

Flower Market
We walked through this gorgeous flower market to get to the Qutb Minar.

Qutb Minar
This is a photo of the minar (tower) at the Qutb Minar.

Detail of the Qutb Minar
The carvings at this place were unbelievably beautiful! I think this was my favorite monument that we saw while we were in India. (Yes, that even includes the Taj Mahal!) The quality of the work was unbelievable!

Inside a building at the Qutb Minar.

Jamali-Kamali Tomb
We had to pay the caretaker quite a bit of money to see the inside of this tomb. The decoration was lovely though...

Parliament Building
As seen through the haze of Delhi pollution...

Humayun's Tomb
This building was a precursor to the Taj Mahal. You can definitely see the resemblance.

Window in Humayun's Tomb
I simply ADORE these carved light screens. They are incredibly beautiful.

October 31, 2007

After a frustrating day spent trying to get the bus to Srimangal, Heather and I finally settled into our hotel room at the Tea Resort. The resort had such potential, but unfortunately it was not very well maintained. The tennis court was stained and covered with debris, the pool was so green that we dared not go for a swim, and the rooms were old and sparse.

Srimangal itself, however, was an absolutely gorgeous place! Heather and I decided to rent bicycles to see more of the area. Unfortunately the bicycles that the hotel delivered looked like they were made before I was born. One of the seats had a metal piece that kept sticking out (Heather cleverly found a way to fix it with a piece of jute that we found next to the road, however...) and the other had some issue with the gears which made it twice as hard to pedal as it should have been.

Despite the poor quality of the bikes, Heather and I set out through the rolling hills of the tea plantations to do a bit of sight seeing. There were gorgeous tree-lined paths, small villages, and many beautiful, emerald tea plantations. I think that after I have built my resort in Jessore, Srimangal will be my second location! The area is absolutely gorgeous and it could use a good quality resort!

In the morning we biked up to the Lowacherra Forest. We spoke with some very friendly park rangers and decided to do the half hour hike to get a flavor of the forest. Unfortunately, the paths were not well marked, so we ended up getting lost in the middle of a pineapple orchard. Heather and I had never seen pineapples growing before (they go on bushes instead of on trees), so it ended up being an interesting excursion anyway.

When we finally did find our way back into the forest, we looked very hard for monkeys (the brochure was filled with monkeys so we were sure the forest was filled with them too), but mostly we just saw a bunch of very large, scary spiders.

An hour and a half later we finally found the marker for the “half hour hike” and made it back to the entrance. Just before coming back to where we started, we saw a series of park buildings. And in the trees next to the buildings, what did we see? Monkeys! We saw a couple of different kinds of monkeys hanging around the buildings. (Ironic, we know.)

When we got back to the resort late that afternoon, we were so exhausted (both of us had taken turns using the hard-to-use bicycle) that we could barely make it up the walk.

The next day we went to the five color tea stand before catching our bus back to Dhaka. This place did indeed serve tea that was five colors! (See photos below.) Heather and I both marveled at how they got the layers to separate like that. We asked if we could see them make it, but the shop keeper said that it was a secret recipe and only the store owner and his son knew how to make the tea. Heather and I wanted to unravel the mystery, however, so we took notes on the tastes of each level and resolved to try to make our own five color teas when we got home. (I would love to serve it at my resort!)

When we finished our tea, we took the rickshaw back to the bus stand. All in all, we did have a lovely time in beautiful Srimangal.

Tea Estates
This is the gorgeous view as we pulled into the Tea Resort.

More Tea...
The tea estates in Darjeeling were very similar - densely packed tea bushes with small trees planted throughout the field. I wonder if the trees are there to lightly shade the tea...

Tea Resort
This is the main building of the Tea Resort, the hotel Heather and I stayed at in Srimangal.

Our (uninspiring) room at the Tea Resort.

The (fairly gross) bathroom.

Pineapple Orchard
This is the pineapple orchard where Heather and I got lost. The small spiky plants on the ground are the pineapple bushes...

Photo of Heather next to some bamboo trees in the Lowacherra forest.

One of the very large scary spiders! This guy is as big as my hand! I wanted to put my hand next to him to take the picture, but that idea scared Heather too much!

Five Color Tea
Here is the very awesome five color tea!