Posts Tagged ‘bangladesh’

I like to think of myself as a person who is culturally appropriate, widely accepting of many different aspects of culture – and while I may not agree with everything, at least I am able understand that different cultures have different customs, traditions and beliefs.  However, Bangladesh has challenged a lot of what I believe about the way I react to different cultural practices.   A lot of people have asked me what Bangladesh, specifically living in Bangladesh, is like, and in unsurprising, idealistically positive, “typical kate” fashion, I usually say that it’s different, and challenging at times, but overall wonderful and positive — people are extremely hospitable and excited to share their country with us.  None of that is untrue, but there are certain characteristics of Bangladeshi culture that have recently overshadowed many of the good aspects of living here.  Much of this recent attainment of my saturation point is due to being overworked and stressed, working under a great responsibility to get our students to an adequate level of English to continue onto university.  It hit me, when I was sitting in the airport coming back from Dubai with 3 of our students on April 1st that, for the first time, the stress of work was infiltrating my impressions of Bangladesh and I was having a hard time preparing myself to arrive back in Dhaka.

The worst part of the Dhaka airport is the gigantic crowd, 99% male, awaiting you when you first walk out of the arrivals gate.  The crowd is probably 4-5 people deep, at least, and blocks the exit for taxis until a car forces its way through.  Their sole purpose for being there is to watch and stare at the people walking out of the airport.  Heaven forbid you want to walk through the exit to catch a CNG (the cheaper, local transportation).  Like many other crowd situations of Bangladesh, you prepare yourself to get groped.

The inability of people to stand in, or abide by, lines while waiting for just about anything that needs a line to maintain some semblence of order (bus tickets, airport checkins, grocery store checkouts, etc.) is something I can get past. Ripping off foreigners, while I do frown and do my best to bargain, is another thing I can forgive because, really, how can you blame people for trying to get a little more money out of the bideshis (foreigners) who live in a country where 40% of the 140million+ population lives on less than $1/day (even though they incorrectly assume I’m loaded because I’m white). What I cannot reconcile is the constant staring from men. 

My fellow volunteer teachers and I have been speaking a lot about this issue lately, mostly because for a very long time we tried to make excuses as to why it was continuing to happen and bother us.  I, especially, was continually forgiving, asking myself how it must be to see white women walking around in local clothing, when that rarely happens in Bangladesh, let alone Chittagong.  But what has struck me recently (I know I’m tagging myself as fatally idealistic and naïve right now), is that constant objectification of women is not, in any means of the word, culturally appropriate, especially through staring at them. It’s no appropriate in any culture. Under any circumstance.

When I walk home, whatever time of day, there will be men who don’t get out of my way but stop and stare at me – western or local clothes.  If there’s a bunch of men, some will purposely not move out of the way so I have to literally walk into them, or nudge them a little, so I can continue on whichever path I’m on.  I’ve spoken to women here who are uncomfortable walking in areas of the city, or being out during certain festivals, because they feel uncomfortable with the way they’re looked at by many of their male counterparts.   In a male dominated society with very little public, shared space available for women, it’s difficult to feel at ease outside of one’s home.  And it’s frustrating to think of the long ways to go before gender equality can really be achieved in Bangladesh.

It is promising, however, that women are speaking out within Bangladesh (http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=83301) AND there’s been a law passed which bans this ‘eve-teasing’ (http://www.independent-bangladesh.com/2009040110788/country/parliament-passed-anti-beggar-bills-on-tuesday.html).

It’s unfortunate because Bangladesh does have a lot to offer. As someone who’s lived here for a significant amount of time, however, I can see why many tourists might feel it unpleasant and unnerving to venture out into public without locals as guides and without full covering.  Even when you are appropriately, fully, dressed, however, you have to prepare yourself to be constantly objectified and stared at.  As my roommate Angela has dubbed it, ‘it’s not cultural, it’s just wrong’.


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Last weekend I, along with 4 other WT teachers, decided to make the 8 hour-or-so trek down to St. Martin Island, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in Bangladesh.  It’s a coral island, and a very popular tourist destination for bideshis and upper class bangladeshis. 

We went through a local tour company, Fun Ferry, who did a fantastic job arranging everything for us — we stayed on the southern part of the island where there were NO other tourists.  It was as deserted a place can be in Bangladesh, I’m assuming (there were still hundreds of families in the area, living in the middle part of the island, but we didn’t really see many adults. did see lots of children).  The beach was tempting, and we were told we could swim, but we also were constantly worried about being modest and culturally appropriate enough — it was a weird feeling to be on this gorgeous beach, wanting just to wear shorts or capris and a tshirt (it was pretty hot) and still feeling the need to cover myself up. 

Regardless, we had a wonderful time and I’m so happy we were able to get down to St. Martin before we left — it was basically one of the last ‘safe’ weekends to go down there because next month, with the onset of rain, the water will start to get rough and ferries won’t run everyday. Check out the photos…we honestly couldn’t believe we were in Bangladesh half the time!

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Kodala Tea Estate

Ah, tea.  

I think if I could move anywhere else in Bangladesh, I would move to a tea estate.  I would probably end up trying to live with the estate workers, just because of the guilt I would feel living in the main bungalow while they survive in cramped houses without many modern amenities, but it would be a splendid existence nonetheless.  When you arrive at a tea estate, you’re immediately offered a cup of fresh, black tea while relaxing on the veranda of the head manager’s bungalow.  All three tea estates that I’ve had the pleasure to visit thus far have had a calming aura to them, life seems to slow down. 


The reason we traveled to Kodala Tea Estate this past weekend is because Angela’s mom is visiting from Canada, and it’s become one of ‘those things’ that angela and I do for visitors.  In addition to getting the opportunity to see the countryside of Bangladesh, get out of Chittagong, relax away from the costant honking and construction, you have the rare opportunity to see life as it normally functions in Bangladesh – albeit from the manager’s jeep as he tours you through his estate’s grounds (talk about feeling like you’ve been transported back to the early 20th century when the British ruled and sat atop their colonialist throne, espousing the benefits of modernity and ‘the way the west does it’…it can get a bit uncomfortable). 


The way we get set up at tea estates near Chittagong is through a local friend, Murad, who is the husband of our current interim Access Academy Dean and tea taster extraordinaire.  He is the person who told me that Obama would never be selected as the democratic presidential candidate because of his race, and he is the person who scoffed at me when I asked if Bangladesh grew herbal teas (“Herbal? Herbal? Herbal isn’t a real type of tea!”), but for most things Bangladesh- or Asia-related he’s right on point.  Last May we visited Karnaphuli Tea Estate with him, Zarina, and their daughter.  While we were there we met Shahedur Rahman, the manager of 4 tea estates under BRAC’s ownership.  As we pulled up to the Kodala Bungalow, it was a pleasant surprise to see him again, and we had the opportunity to catch up on the past year’s goings-on during our overnight stay. 


BRAC’s ‘take-over’ of Kodala happened in 2004 (Angela and I joked that the language lent itself more to a military victory rather than a business investment) however, the estate itself has been around since the late 19th century. The estate was run by Brits, or other foreigners, until 1964 and since then, the managers have all been Bangladeshi. Compared to the other two estates I’ve been to, this one had much fewer ‘shade trees’ (necessary for a prime tea-growing environment) in the fields, and a more organized rubber production area.   The estate is smaller than Karnaphuli, BRAC’s largest estate in the area, at 250,000 acres with 2,000 people living on the grounds, 600 working on any given day during most of the year (Karnaphuli is 850,000 acres, has 8,000 residents and there are 2,000 working every day).  Even though it’s smaller, it certainly doesn’t feel it with tea bushes and rice paddies as far as you can see in any direction.


From Mr. Rahman and Mr. Belayet Hossein (the Kodala estate manger), we were treated with typical Bangladeshi hospitality you experience as a foreigner — tours of the estate, invitations to walk with them on rounds, endless offerings of tea and wonderful (some of the best) Bangladeshi local meals. Everytime we go to a tea estate it seems as if our internal clocks start to revolve completely around mealtimes.


The estate had not begun the year’s plucking/production yet — apparently they’re waiting until the first rain of the season, that is supposedly coming soon, in the next few days — so we got a tour of the processing machinery in the prime time of preparation.  Mechanics were fixing engines, painters were high on ladders sprucing up signboards and areas that are heavily trafficked and laborers were setting up for the anticipated beginning of processing.  There was definitely a feeling of relaxation, even among the workers, that was nice to be a part of. 

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In Chittagong, being a port city, there’s a pretty large market for fish.  There are two types of fishing that goes on for the city-wide market – local fisherman go out in their small boats or work on slightly larger ships, staying out for usually a week at a time, and bring back their catch to unload and sell between 3am-6:30am OR there are gigantic ships run by large companies that will go out for weeks at a time and have massive quantities of fish to deliver when they finally come back to port. 

This term we’re studying the environment and public health, so for a school-wide project the listening/discussion teachers spoke about the tragedy of the commons, highlighting fisheries and the devastating effects overpopulation, and uninformed consumer base and climate change are having on local fisheries and the people (mostly men) that gain their livelihood from them. 

Obviously I offered to help do a re-con mission the week prior to sending our students, so I went with 6 other teachers to the market at 6am one morning.  We were certainly an attraction for the market goers, fisherman, salesman and runners – I don’t think I saw another woman there the first morning we went.  It was a male dominated environment that was fast-paced, and there were instances where we were yelled at to get out of the way as runners with baskets dripping with water and mud would shoot by us. It was super interesting as we watched the ships unload the last of their catch (everything was basically over and done with by 6:30 – it was kinda nuts) and for one of the first times in Bangladesh,  I was repeatedly ASKED to take pictures of people.   The guys in the market selling fish were more than happy to show off their lot, or pose with particularly large specimens. 

The following week when we took our students, they enjoyed walking around but missed out on the unloading of the boats – apparently low tide was a bit earlier that week.  It was a pretty fascinating experience, minus the smelling like fish for the rest of the day…


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With less than 5 full months left of living in Bangladesh, Angela and I have started our “Thing we have to do before we leave Bangladesh” list.  This is a slightly different attitude than some of the other teachers have taken, some have started counting down the days until they can go home.  Luckily, I’ve found in Angela a kindred spirit, both of us embodying a love of travel and living in other places.  As tough as Bangladesh can be at times, it does offer countless of opportunities to experience different cultures, as well as having a beautiful countryside – when we can get there.


Bandarban is one of the three hill tract areas, and breathtakingly beautiful.  We’re entering the end of the dry season (there are small bursts of rain starting in march, and the heavy monsoons usually start in June), so when we visited for the weekend, everyone kept saying that it was so very dry – and kept reiterating that we needed to come back after the monsoons.  Unfortunately, we missed our chance with the busy post-monsoon season we had this past October/November.  Maybe I’ll just have to come back to visit in the future…


While we were in Bandarban, 7 of us got a guide to take us on a 3-hour walk through some of the villages in the hillside area.  Our guide spoke 7 languages, and was wonderful to speak to about the situation of the villagers.  There is little chance to make money in the hill tract areas, outside of agriculture and handicrafts.  The children have to move to Bandarban town and live in hostels once they get to high school, if they want to continue their education (and it’s even harder to get a chance to go to universities elsewhere in Bangladesh after that if they’re interested).  The living is very simple, and the villages self-sufficient for the most part.  We got to meet our guide’s family and have a snack with them.  His mother, wife and sisters all hand weave blankets to sell, and we took just a few with us upon leaving…in 4-5 days they can finish a large blanket, by hand, that will probably be sold for ~500 taka (about $8).  


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** the following is long…there are pictures at the end if you want to skip the writing!!**

My uncle just recently started a blog, and just this past week sent out an email about an upcoming family vacation.  According to him, he has “big blogging shoes to fill” (i might disagree with that over the past few months…), but  I figured it was a good time to pick up the ball that I dropped somewhere between being slightly awestruck, disillusioned and overworked.


Our third term was absolute chaos, to put it nicely.  We started off with two weeks of ‘lecture-style’ classes (each teacher picking a topic and lecturing to groups of 24 students at a time on a rotational basis), to prepare the Access Academy student body for the Official Opening of the Asian University for Women, held in Dhaka in mid-October.  This was also to take some of the stress off the students as many were involved with parts of the ceremonies…being ushers, cultural performances, and speaking on one particular panel. 


The weekend itself was a success — the board of advisors and invited donors, I think, were thoroughly impressed by the students and the work that had been done thus far.  The most frustrating parts of the weekend were watching logistical glitches spring up and, in some cases, momentarily freeze whoever was dealing with them.   That one event, above all others, has convinced me that there NEEDS to be a hospitality/event planning program begun in Bangladesh.


At the end of the month we moved to a new building — which is super nice, and I will probably never live in a place this big, or this white, again.  There are three people to each apartment, and we each get our own spacious room and private bathroom. The real draw of moving, though, was getting out of the same building the students live in.  It’s so much more healthy, normal, conducive to being good teachers, for us to live a 10-minute walk away.   The only drawback is that it’s the future university faculty residence, so we’ll have to move out about a month/month-and-a-half before our contract ends.  We still don’t know where that will be to, but we’ve been promised it will be a different building than we lived in before.


November was a relative calm-before-the-storm.  Towards the end of the month we were informed that our Dean and Executive Director had stepped down and would be leaving us shortly.  Luckily for the students, and for us faculty, an extremely qualified and caring woman stepped up to fill the shoes of the administrators that left. 


Angela, my roommate, and I also agreed to take on the role of Student Affairs coordinators part-time.  In theory we would both go down to teaching half-time (2 hours/day), and spend the rest of our non-prep time devoted to planning events for the students.  I gave up one of my classes to a new teacher that arrived in late November…but the month of December was so full of holidays and vacations that we barely had class.  Angela and I spent our Eid vacation at the school, leading activities for the students that stayed at the Access Academy (students are allowed to go home, or go home with friends, so we had about 60 students — about half of the student body). 


Most interesting was learning how to navigate the religious overlappings…our Hindu and Buddhist students were not too keen on being in a city, trapped in our building, on the day of Eid – when it is custom to buy a cow and have it slaughtered in front of your house by the local imam.  Buddhists are pacifists and don’t kill any living creatures (their reactions to our overzealous killing of cockroaches is uncomfortable silence), and Hindus hold the cow sacred.   Getting out of the city to a place where the students wouldn’t be confronted by the slaughtering was out of the question.  Therefore, that day, we planned a pancake breakfast, several workshops, a full-day movie marathon, and nighttime activities.


After vacation was over (we received fantastic feedback from the students…who probably all saw at least 15 movies in English that week), we plowed headfirst into logistics of testing and regrouping our students for fourth term.  It had been decided we’d switch their classes and groupings for the last two terms of their academic year — to mix them up a bit and institute a school-wide academic skills-focused curriculum that was designed by two of our WorldTeach teachers (who we are forever grateful to). 


In the midst of all this, my family came to visit!  It was so fantastic…even made me miss America a bit.  I don’t think my mom will ever come visit me in a developing country again, my brother did little except watch movies on his laptop and make fun of me (typical), and my sister was aghast at the frequent power outages and lack of hot water. If you want to read about Bangladesh from a true bideshi’s (foreigner) viewpoint, my dad’s blog of their trip to Thailand/Bangladesh is at http://meehanfamilytrip.blogspot.com. I don’t think I count as a true foreigner anymore, things here actually seem normal to me…

I never thought it would get as cold as it did during the ‘dead’ of Bangladesh’s winter, however, it was FREEZING when we went to visit a tea estate for Christmas.  Granted, I have been living here for 10 months, so maybe it wasn’t as cold as I thought.


The long-awaited elections happened the day after my family left to go back to Thailand.  In fact, we were caught in two different political rallies/marches while they were here.  Interestingly enough, after a very tame election day and peaceful few days after the results were confirmed (the Awami League won by a landslide, almost ousting the BNP from parliament), people were complaining about the return to democracy and small eruptions of violence over politically charged issues.  As our resident faculty, Dr. Qamar Banu said, “When the military was in power, no one complained. Now that we have ‘democracy’, everyone starts complaining again.”  Should be interesting to see how things go…


The end of the term in January was absolutely nuts. We put all our students through a 3+ hour online test, in addition to their normal finals, and regrouped them based on their results and past teacher evaluations.  I’m not kidding when I say I don’t think I slept more than 4 hours a night the week leading up to our vacation…therefore, Thailand was a nice break.  




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