Bring on 2015

Enough time has passed that the idea of writing a concise blog post on life in Dhaka is formidable. I’ll start with this, I have moved, started a new position, embarked on my research and said goodbye to my Bashundhara goats. For the duration of these transitions, Bangladeshi politics went wild.

Holidays:

A Bangladeshi Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Birthday.

I will spare you every detail of my holiday season in Bangladesh. But I will say that I am the luckiest lady in the world to have a family like mine. Everyone uncomfortably squeezed their head into the Skype screen on Christmas morning. My cat had a very disinterested cameo while my mom prepared cinnamon buns. Thank you for letting me make the strange decision to travel halfway around the world. Thank you for continuing to make me feel special and loved even when I can be a pain in everyone’s behinds.

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Hey miss you too Ginger.

On Christmas Eve the Fulbrighters had a 4-6 hour final Bangla exam, the length dependent on your stamina. Theoretically I am an intermediate Bangla speaker now. If you speak to me in very slow, very well-articulated Bangla, I will catch the main idea. If you speak like a normal native person, I will nod my head to the side in agreement, feigning comprehension. Sometimes if I try to get fancy and use infinitives, people are so taken aback that I get discounts. It’s been working well enough. On the other hand, I get a kick out of reading Bangla street signs while stuck in traffic. Pah-reh-ke-nngg. Parking! : )

We threw a party for Christmas, invited the Bangladeshi gang, and ate mass quantities of Fuchka and chocolate. My favorite truly christmasy moment was gifting a wallah, Anis bhai, a rickshaw so he no longer has to rent from the company owner. Kelsey and I went to his neighborhood and hung out for a bit, meeting the rickshaw crew. Who were entirely baffled by our presence but welcoming all the same.

Thanksgiving was a similar idea. I had a lovely birthday, with a whole new set of Dhaka friends at a sushi place. It should be noted that I ate raw fish here and didn’t nearly die. The same cannot be said for Los Angeles. New Years was the first time I showed my knees in Dhaka at an American Club party. An entire second blog could be devoted to the ex-pat lifestyle and social scene. It’s, well, it’s something.

Immediately following Christmas, the Fulbrighters dispersed across the country, to Sylhet, Chittagong, Kushtia and Mymensingh. All places I plan to visit. Once the government lifts the national blockades.

Which brings me to-

Politics:

If you have absolutely no idea about the political situation in Bangladesh, I won’t have a complete overview. The word miscreants has been tossed around a lot in the news lately. That should take a quick google search. Here’s a CNN update from today.

In short, on the anniversary of last year’s controversial election, the ruling party locked the former BNP Prime Minster, Khaleda Zia, in her office. For 17 days. Using tanks and water cannons. Conveniently, my new apartment is down the street from Ms. Zia’s.

I live in a safer area in what is called the diplomatic enclave, and foreigners are not targets more than anyone else walking down the street. So don’t stress out my mother any more than need be. That being said, there is the occasional blast, ominous text message from the US embassy, and a general alertness about town.

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US Embassy is throwing a cocktail party?!

For example, on a walk home yesterday, a Bangladeshi man carried a homemade pesticide leaf blower- a mosquito-killing, cancer-inducing contraption. When turned on, the machine produced a blast and small cloud of fog. A friend and I leapt into the air and began to trot down the street, both immediately assuming it was a petrol bomb. Or last night, when a few cocktails went off in the distance, my housemate Cami knowingly looked at me and said “so….Fireworks?”.

I don’t feel at risk, and usually go about the day normally. But the government is more than a little dysfunctional at the moment and is facing a wave of random acts of violence. Happy hartal-idays.

Fun stuff instead:

I ride a mountain bike around the city. I go on runs with a hash group. I was taught how to make real coffee. My previous use of instant nescafe was truly offensive. I’ve started painting a little again. I bought a guitar that looks really pretty sitting in the corner but doesn’t get enough attention. I listened to the entire Serial podcast while running on a terribly boring treadmill. My housemates are all great cooks, and I feel totally inferior in the kitchen. I’m meeting new, brilliant people everyday and enjoy sitting on rooftops discussing everyone’s unique story that landed them in Bangladesh.

I met with my PI from JHU this week. He grew up in Dhaka and it was fantastic to stroll around Banani with someone reminiscing about Bangladesh in the 90s. He also noted “I feel like I’m walking around with JLo!”. This is because blatant staring at female foreigners (or any females) is a Rickshaw wallah’s favorite pastime. It’s akin to perpetually being on stage. In defense of Bangladesh, Morocco was 3000 times worse.

Dhaka is a place where in a 10 minute span, you can lose all faith in humanity and then regain it. I’m plenty happy, often challenged, and learning a lot. I’m constantly confused as to why things are the way they are, and have accepted that state of mind. I’m currently watching Adeeba, another housemate, dance around the kitchen to Bengali folk music while she cooks for a family dinner tonight. 

Finally started my research this week. Next post.

Before I lose all of your attention, please enjoy some pictures, they are in no particular order:

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Spent Thanksgiving in class

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Abar dheka hobe my little goats!

Finally finished with exams

Finally finished with exams

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আমার বাড়ির কাজ, last homework for a while! Bangla quickly disappearing.

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Giving thanks

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A dhaka run would obviously include zebras.

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Miss these guys

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Running through a village outside Dhaka.

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Running through side streets in Dhaka gets a bit crowded

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Gorgeous national flower

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This is how much I liked the state of the union Mr. Obama

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Anis and Kelsey!

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Our balcony in the new place

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A fond farewell

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I creepily sketched Rehana but she loved it. I think.

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So many puppies, so many fleas. Its the ultimate dilemma.

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About to learn Cricket at the office party

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Big candle, small cake. Happy mid twenties to me.

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Sally looked at this scene and named it “a day at the beach”. An optimistic one, Sally.

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A birthday goat card that I enjoyed painting way too much

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Some rooftop dancing on Liberation day

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yes I know how silly that helmet looks

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Picking teams for criket

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On wednesdays, we wear jean jackets.

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Holey, a bakery. a terrible/wonderful new discovery for my sweet tooth

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And hopefully, I’ll get back into the swing of updating the blog.

Love,

Pauline

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Second day of work tea break

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The sound of settling

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Hi-

I missed a week or two on the blog. Life went from cooped up to chaotic very fast. This post will be a compilation of the moments that I managed to capture while discovering the city. I find it extremely risky to try to take photos while on the street. For one, I would prefer to keep my phone. Secondly, stopping to smell the roses in Dhaka foot traffic is no easy task. You may get hit with a live duck. (This happened.)

It is amazing how my normal is consistently redefined. The novelty of peculiar smells, crowds, unpaved streets, daily turbulence, and the overall feeling of being an absolute stranger are already starting to fade. Truthfully, I will always be extremely foreign here, but at least the process of settling has begun. More truthfully, I have not grown accustomed to the smells, and doubt any human ever will.

Bangla class, which consumes most of my time, has graduated from the “my name is..”, “your name is…” level of comfortable difficulty. I probably should be writing in my Bangla journal rather than my blog, but that would be responsible. Every night we are expected to have a full page or so of written script. Currently, I can explain my life in an impressive display of Bangla prepositions. The banana is on the bed. The banana is under the bed. The banana is through the bed.

I thought you might like pictures better.

Notable Experiences from week 2 and 3:

-I met some of my soon-to-be colleagues at DNet- very excited to see where I will fit within the company

-Cheered for young Bangladeshi beat boxers and break dancers at an American embassy event

-Drank tea and jammed out on a rooftop

-Watched a classical dance performance at the Hay Festival, a wonderful literary/cultural event with guest authors and poets from Bangladesh and abroad

-This is a fabulous one, I witnessed a former Fulbrighter launch her mobile health project, Critalink.  More to come on her team’s progress but take a look at the short clip if you have the time:

-Met Mohammad Yunus. I know he might not be everyone’s rockstar, but he is a stud in my world. We attended a fascinating micro loan event where small social business entrepreneurs pitched their plans to a panel of economists, agricultural experts, marketers, and Mr. Yunus himself. One man brought in his quails for good measure. An incredible space for development.

-Hiked through mud, haggled for fabric, got sized at a tailor, found a lizard living in my wall. Named him slim shady.

I’ll be more diligent with the blog, I promise.

Cheers to another week of Bangla and pandemonium… And some kind of Bangladeshi Thanksgiving?

Love,

Pauline

Hint: you must go through all of my pictures to see the elephant. : )

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Bangladeshis breaking it down at the hip hop concert

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 Fused with traditional music and dance.

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Intense speculation as to why there is a new hole in our neighborhood every morning.

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The hole count increases. Bewildered and learning to watch where we step.

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A food market in Bashundhara, near our dorm. Chaotic and colorful. No, I cannot eat any of this fruit without giving it a good long soak in bleach. At least.

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Meg (pale person above) navigating her way through Bashundhara.

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Open mic night on the roof of Jatra.

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We clearly found the bohemian Bangladeshis. There were enough flannel shirts and man buns to be in Silverlake.

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Jennifer, a former Fulbrighter, launching Critalink. A mobile solution to Bangladesh’s lack of emergency first responders. I don’t even want to share the statistics on traffic fatalities here.

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Me, Natasha, Kelsey at the event. In that order.

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Atif, our language instructor. Giving us a translated version of the event along with a few history lessons.

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Jatra, the ex-pat shopping haven with a social development conscious. I cannot afford most of this, but fun to poke around.

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Yunus Center, where Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus put entrepreneurs through Sharktank- Bangladesh. Or at least that’s what I’ve been calling it.

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In contrast to the relative brilliance of the room, it took us some time to discover we were on camera. Consequently, we couldn’t behave or maintain composure.

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Except for Yoni. Who genuinely frowned like Jafar for a full hour.

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Working hard.

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I’m sorry mom, I’m coming home with one.

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I mean, come on.

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The pretty mosque in our neighborhood

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A criticalink meeting, I am pictured back right. I have no idea what is going on but appear quite attentive.

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Just a little take out Bangla-Mexican to give me food poisoning.

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Rehana! Our second Bangla teacher at IUB. I loved her dress. Made by her mom.

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This is what it looks like to ride a rickshaw through Gulshan. With no traffic. Rare.

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Taking a study break to play in the pool with the other 5 year olds at the American club.

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Gardens near the American center

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Hay festival dancers. Our friend Kathleen performed beautifully.

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Hay festival lights

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Photo credit here goes to Kelsey. I have yet to have an elephant sighting. This is the Dhaka elephant. He wanders the city mugging people. He will stand in front of your car until you give him money.

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So I’ve heard. Thats all for now.

Blackout Bangladesh

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Kelsey and I in our first CNG ride

It is hartal season. We have another week of political strikes ahead of us. Meaning as foreigners, we try to stay inside at night and avoid angry-looking crowds. No reason to panic, but most of Dhaka shuts down when a hartal is called by the opposition party. As a side benefit, there’s less traffic.

On top of the general sluggishness brought on by the strikes, the entire Bangladeshi national power grid went down this week. Rolling blackouts are normal, but a country of 155 million people lost electricity for about a day. Remarkable. We spent our time filling in our Bangla language children’s books by flashlights and headlamps. During the evening, the gentlemen Fulbrighters heroically ventured into the absolute darkness to retrieve food from “American Burger”, a friendly sounding establishment. I was sick the following morning. Foodborne illness is a rite of passage here, so I’ll consider myself culturally immersed.

We’ve started the first full week of Bangla. I still struggle to effectively communicate anything past my name and hometown, but I can write and recite the alphabet script. I can read. Moving on up!

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Meg studying in the dark.

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Food vocabulary: Learn the important stuff first.

The insanity that is Gulshan Circle.

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We made our way to the American Club, a bizarre little getaway for ex-pats. With a gym! I miss exercise.

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Shooting some hoops

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Yoni played his first game of pool at the club. We’re so proud.

It is difficult to put into words how uncontrolled, chaotic, terrifying, and oddly thrilling a CNG ride can be. It’s a bit like playing an arcade game- dodging random objects that are thrown in your direction, sharp turns, the occasional squeeze between two buses.

CNG: Compressed Natural Gas

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Scattered snaps I took from the CNG as we tumbled home from Banani:

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A game we play in the garage of our building. It’s a bit like pool but one uses their fingers to flick tiny pucks into the pockets. IMG_4235

Rasel, our house manager, taking care of business with the beloved mosquito zapper.

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Finally, another cow for the collection.

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More to come. Love, Pauline

Introductions

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Apni kaemon achen?

“How are you?”

Ami bhalo achi!

“I’m good!”

I have been here almost one week. Several days full of orientations, jet lag, hartals and hand sanitizer.

Thus far- we:

  • Had sandwiches and story time with the Vice Chancellor of the University. A Harvard graduate many times over.
  • Almost all managed to find our way to the US Embassy by rickshaw. The few stragglers got there eventually.
  • Had our first Bangla class. Everyone successfully pretended to hear the difference between “k”, “kh”, “g”, and “gh”.
  • Bonded with Goolap, our wonderful cook.
  • Discovered Mehdi Mart, the place where they have everything.
  • Are utterly exhausted.

Learning a new language is a frustrating task, but also extremely rewarding. After today, I can write six vowels like a toddler and feel like a champion.

 Below are some pictures from our brief explorations in Bashundhara. Enjoy

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We had the honor of meeting Ambassador Mozena at the US Embassy. Bangladesh’s favorite farm-loving diplomat.

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Scenes from the neighborhood.

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We consider the dark opaque water here our own Wonka chocolate river. Only less delicious.

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Staring off the balcony of the Independent University of Bangladesh.

The view.

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Baby goats rule the streets.

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….The rickshaws actually rule the streets, but are less adorable than the goats.

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Intrigued by the cafeteria Chicken Toast option.

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Campus for the next two months.

More Bangla in the morning. Looking forward to it.

The adventure begins

Welcome to Bangladesh

A blog! How fun. And strange. Don’t expect this to be too sophisticated, I’ve been here all of two days. The goal is to share the things I see in Bangladesh with friends and family. This is targeted at those of you who are mildly concerned that I will be eaten by a tiger, and wish to see me happily situated and surviving in Dhaka. 

Eventually my research will be incorporated into my posts, but I’ll leave talk of mobile phones and maternal health for January, when our grant period officially begins. For the next two months, content will be pictures of daily life with other Fulbrighters at the language institute. We have plenty to see and learn.

I will certainly miss people, but this should be an exciting chapter in my life. Confusing, embarrassing, awkward, cultural mishaps are guaranteed. Yet I expect just as many truly beautiful experiences over the next eleven months. 

Here goes nothing.

Lots of love,

Pauline

(For starters, if you had to Google Bangladesh’s location you would not be the first. Helpful hint below.)

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155 million people living in a country the size of Wisconsin. That’s squished. 

And now for pictures from arrival week:

The adventure begins at Dulles

The two full days of travel began at Dulles in DC. Took the obligatory goodbye at the airport photo.

Seems like a good bunch Seems like a fun bunch. We all enjoyed quarantine (read: naps and netflix) during the political strike today.

being cheesy on our rooftop

I also take it as a good sign that we can already take cheesy photos together on the roof.

Mosquito net makes me feel like a princess

My mosquito net makes me feel like royalty.

Would be neighborsOur would-be neighbors.

View from our apartment, cricket game in the distance

View from our apartment, cricket game in the distance.

With my first post out of the way, I’m ready to start shamelessly taking pictures of the cows blocking the road. There are many. 

Thank you to everyone who helped to get me here.