Saturday, October 25, 2003

It's a dog's life 

You don't see many dog's in Bangladesh or Cambodia, although there was a time when every household in Phnom Penh had a guard dog.

As Mick and I sat on plastic stools drinking coke in the front of the grocery shop, I feared for the safety of a dog resting in the middle of the road that reaches up to the front gates of CRP. It is a busy road and taxis push aggressively through the mass of rickshaws and people walking to and fro. How could the dog survive with four rickshaws converging on the same spot, apparently oblivious to its presence. But it did as each vehicle wove expertly around it and each other. The dog arose and walked off. Traffic in Bangladesh is like that! Some sort of ordered chaos that works, most of the time.

Then there were the butcher's dogs. As we walked into Savar we passed a butcher's trolley. He stood there hacking up a large carcass while five dogs lay in the shade of the wall waiting to be thrown scraps of meat.

Chris has just told me that there were dogs everywhere so I guess that dog sightings weren't so interesting after all. Sorry to waste your time reading this, its a dog's life.

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Thursday, October 23, 2003

A Golly Good Time 

It was in Savar, as we reached the top of the steps, that I realised Michael had gone tropo, that is adopted the habits of the locals. He seemed to have learnt the rules of the game as he unobtrusively spat in the corner and moved on without losing stride. Not that this behaviour is unique to Bangladesh, I have seen and heard it in Paris, Amsterdam, Phnom Phen, Canberra, Jahkarta, Shanghai and Port Morseby. Perhaps I was more sensitive to this because I had just had a close encounter with a rickshaw driver, wishing that I had my umbrella up even though it had stopped raining. However, it was just one more indication that Michael had gone native (I hope that that isn't a racial expression borrowed from a colonial era!).

On our first day at CRP, Michael persuaded the coordinator of volunteers to shout us lunch in the staff canteen. He had been successful in this request because the VIP flat hadn't been prepared for our arrival and we had spent hours (well at least one) drinking tea in the waiting room and taking a tour of the hospital while a poor overworked Aya cleaned and washed everything in the flat in preparation for our arrival. Michael hadn't told anyone when we were coming so no lunch had been prepared for us. The canteen became the final solution.

At lunch we sat with Michael's boss and her husband (also an occupational therapist and in charge of the clinical unit). They were impressed with Michael's skill in eating with his hand. He mixed the rice, curried lamb and dhal together into a neat bundle and consumed a very large plate of food no time.

In contrast, Chris and I poked tentatively at our food, spilt it between plate and mouth and ate very little. We were making Michael look good, but what are parents for but to make their children look good to the world. We didn't give him much credit though because we know that he has prefered eating with his hands since he was born. Although I must admit that he hasn't always been such a neat eater.

Then he pulled off a master stroke. Picking up a used glass from the table, Michael filled it with water from the jug and drank hearterly. Our Bangladeshi hosts were most impressed. Here was a foreigner who could and would drink the local water. That is hard core.

In contrast, I became an instant expert in water filters. Constantly boiling up the kettle on the gas burner and refilling the water filter in our flat to keep up the volume of drink that we consumed in the hot days and nights.

Mick has a philosophy of living as the locals do, accepting conditions as they are, not complaining and enjoying the good things. It is a good way to be in a country where the best is pretty basic by our standards.

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Monday, October 20, 2003

right of reply... 

Well, I thought I'd save my account of what happened when Mum and Dad were here until they'd written theirs but now that I've read all I can really say is that I didn't bribe anyone. Although perhaps the cultural idea that bagging a teacher is not cool has helped me out a little bit.

So what's been going on in the big bad world of Bangladesh, the answer is marking. Mountains of it. But I think I've finally got it sussed. All you do is give them a mark and get on with your life. It's not that big a deal and I'm sure some of the local teachers mark much harder than I do so I guess it's only a really big deal if you are planning on failing someone. One student failed the psychiatry exam and 2 did not sit it due to illness so 7/8 so far aint too bad.

Thought it might be funny to write down a few of the things that you see in Bangladesh that you would never see in Australia. Or at least not so commonly that they wouldn't raise an eyebrow or 2. So here goes.

1. Men wearing pink shirts. This is not an isolated incident, I can't walk out the front door of my house without seeing one.

2. Moustaches. Now c'mon Australia we used to have such a fine heritage or the mo and what's happened to it? Remember Merve Hughes? I think it's time all the blokes out there decided that razors and upper lips just didn't work. And yes serious consideration has been given to growing one myself.

3. Men holding hands. Now I'm not talking about the Oxford street Mardi Gras kind of men holding hands, this is just mates who feel likea bit of physical contact doesn't automatically make them homosexual. Maybe it's time we all chilled out a bit and learnt that physical contact with a person doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have sex with them.

4. Flair in dressing. Now I think in Australia the idea of flair is what label, that noone will ever see, is on the back of your shirt that basically looks the same as everyone elses shirt. Not here. If you want to wear a pattern that would make the soberest person's head spin, carefully designed in colours that some aussies would say should never go together, feel free. Will anyone complain or give you stick about, hell no, they'll just want to know where you got it from. This can also be extended to include footwear, belts and even trousers.

5. Lungis. Now this is a piece of material that men wear. It is sewn inot a loop and then tied in a certain way so that it stays up. I would like to champion this as an aussie blokes alternative to pants in summer. Maybe not so good at the office but around the house why would you want to wear pants or even shorts when you can have the billowy freedom of a lungi.

6. Men dancing... who aren't drunk. I have been on couple of boat trips now and on every one there has been a boat of Bangladeshi blokes with the music pumping just cutting up a rug without a care in the world. None of this I need a few more beers and then I'll dance. Who cares what you look like. I'll let you in on a little secret, if you're having fun then you are at your most attractive, and definitely more attractive than the bloke sitting in the corner chugging beers as if his life depends on it.

7. Spontaneous singing. Now what has happened to this in australia. Back in the day when people got together they used to love to bang out a few tunes. Here people just burst into song for no other reason than that they feel like it. Give it a go! I recommend buses and bus interchanges as the new ports for spontaneous outburst of song in Australia.

8. Early morning sports. I'm not kidding. The guys here get up at five am to play cricket before work. No recommendations that this be taken up. Everyone knows that the right way to play cricket is in a culdersack with an esky full of beer as the stumps.

9. Calling people fat. This can be anyone. Not sure as yet whether it's an insult or a compliment or neither. But there'd hardly be a week that's gone by without someone commenting on my weight. Usually to tell me I'm getting fatter. Which is crap I must have lost about 5 kilos since I got here..

10. Slaughtering animals. Can't say I've witnessed this first hand myself but have chatted to a few of my students who have skinned and clened goats and cows. We've gone soft in Australia. What aussie bloke would seriously know how to pluck a chicken anymore. I'm sure there's a few out there but this is the exception. Maybe we could lose our insecurities about holding hands and wearing clothes with flair if once in a while we got to kill an animal instead of just picking one up from the supermarket.

Well as you can tell this mainly relates to Bangladeshi men but don't worry this is going to be a running joke for me and I hope some other people out there get a giggle too. Suggestions for different demographics or other topics for top tens would be greatly appreciated.
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Friday, October 17, 2003

Six days in Bangladesh

Enough time has elapsed for Jeff and I to process our thoughts and impressions of our visit to Mick, but before they get too rose-coloured and hazy, we better report.

First impressions were not wonderful. Arriving very late at night, and after queuing for ages to get through immigration, Jeff found himself in the incapable hands of a ‘learner’, making entry into the country even slower and more frustrating than it usually is for foreigners. We then faced the mystery of why Mick wasn’t there to meet us – only to discover that locals are walled up right outside airport grounds behind a big locked gate. Eventually these little difficulties were sorted out and we made our way through late night truck traffic to our hotel.

In this we were lucky! Patrice, a Youth Ambassador working with Mick at CRP had had a recent visit from her parents and had carved out the way for us. The “Radial Palace” was a good hotel - air conditioning, nice bathroom, brekky included. All good.

Mick had decided that there was to be no soft easing-in period – it was in at the deep end, so next morning we set out on foot to experience Dhaka first hand. Well, it’s noisy – horns tooting and rickshaw bells ringing non-stop; and it’s hot and humid, resulting in constant sweating; and it’s dusty – if they’re not digging up the footpath, they’re renovating and building. Makes a walk down the street quite an adventure. However Mick guided us to a really lovely ‘set price’ handicraft and clothes shop – just as well it wasn’t later in the trip, or may have spent our life’s savings in that one shop alone. We got the important item – an orna for me .An orna is a long wide scarf you wear draped over you back to front in order to appear decent in public. This orna became my ultimate fashion accessory – didn’t step outside without it. Not once!

After exploring the local market and having therapeutic coffee and ice cream we found a lovely restaurant for lunch. In the afternoon we decided to visit the Old City – that is until we discovered that no-one was willing to take us there. It’s still a mystery as to why – was it the congestion, the distance or something more sinister? We compromised and took a baby taxi to Newmarket - to get there involved a half-hour hair-raising ride through dodgem-car style traffic. Apart from pedestrians and rickshaws, baby cabs are the smallest vehicles on the road, and have to compete with cars, minivans, single and double decker buses for road space (and I mean any space available, on either side of the road). Dhaka traffic has to be seen to be believed – made tootling around on motos in Phnom Penh seem like a cruisy Sunday afternoon picnic. The worst part was that we had to go back the same way! I’m sure that Mick would be the first to admit that this trip was something of a failure, as Newmarket is officially closed on Tuesdays, apart from all the stalls that were still open.

It was something of a relief to go out to CRP the next day – and be treated like royalty. Indeed, as Mick promised, CRP is like an oasis compared to Dhaka – and we did get to stay in the VIP flat. From the first we could see that CRP is a world apart, in many ways. Everyone was really friendly and hospitable – and anyone who knew Mick wanted to be introduced and have a chat. After only 3 days, people were greeting us whenever they saw us wandering around the grounds. We felt almost instantly part of the community. And everyone seemed extremely positive about mick’s work – his students seem to love him and his teaching style – could he have bribed them all ????? Or was it because they were in the middle of an assessment period???? But his work associates, like his boss Neela, also spoke very positively of him, and Shuhad, Neela’s husband, always described the length of his placement as “2 years - initially” They seem to want him to stay! It was great for us as parents to be constantly hearing wonderful things about Mick.

Just outside the gates of CRP is a little street full of shops – including the local store type shop which sells everything imaginable, the ‘tea shop’ where Mick has brekky and buys snacks, the tailor where he gets his shirts made, the internet café where he occasionally makes calls home, various fruit and veggie stalls etc. All the shops are very small and basic. But Mick seems to be friends with half the owners at least. CRP is a hive of activity with outpatients, and special needs school, workshops, the university teaching wing, as well as the 100 bed hospital. So there is always a row of rickshaws lined up outside CRP gates waiting to take people where they want to go. One of the strange and lovely things about Bangladesh is the huge investment in decorating rickshaws – they are covered in pictures and shiny decoration. Even stranger is that trucks go in for the same thing – they might be dump trucks, but they are the most beautifully decorated dump trucks you can imagine!

After the inescapable grand tour of CRP, which left us overwhelmed by the achievements of the place and the commitment and dedication of the staff, we spent a lot of time hanging out in our flat, chatting and doing crosswords together, meeting Mick’s friends. However, we did a few touristy things, like visiting the inspirational National Monument, just 25 km down the road and checking out Savar Bazaar to use the internet and hit the shops for a bit of serious shopping and bargaining.

Now you all know Mick – he isn’t a great initiator, but he lets life come to him – and it does. So not surprisingly an opportunity came up for us to head out into the country and visit the home of an intern at CRP for a Hindu festival. 12 intrepid members of CRP headed off in a minivan for a one hour trip – which turned out to be the most hair-raising trip of all. Even the Bangladeshies in the van agreed that this driver was a maniac! He didn’t appear to know the meaning of a centreline, sensible speed, oncoming traffic, giving way etc. I think we all thought we would die on that trip, and even the agnostics were doing some serious praying! But it was worth it for the great experience of being fed local treats, wandering through the rice paddies, crossing a rather scary bamboo bridge, with discussions about the degree of difficulty associated with carrying a bike across, or not clutching the ‘hand rail’. Amazingly, no-one fell in (although we were encouraged to take someone with us if we did), but I think we provided a great deal of entertainment for the locals who cross that bridge every day of their lives and wondered what all the fuss was about and why we were so slow.

All in all, it was a fantastic week – great to see Mick so happy and well liked and great to experience first hand his everyday life and meet his friends. We'll be back!

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Friday, October 10, 2003

fasten your seatbelts 

This is going to be a long post, i've had a bit of trouble getting access to the internet for a while so that's my sorry excuse for the lack of updates.

Well I guess it's best to start at the beginning, which in this case is when mum and dad arrived.

Went to pick them up from the airport which was a bit of a drama in itself because I had a few problems with guards who wouldn't let me in to the actual airport, apparently the best way to do this is not look at the guards and look like you wonder in their every day. Eventually caught up with them and as it was quite late headed back to the hotel and got a bit of sleep. Spent the next day looking around Dhaka for a bit, eating nice food and generally taking in the sights then headed to CRP the next day. Won't harp on too much about what we actually got up to because I think mum and dad are going to do a guest post.

It was absolutely fantastic to see them and show them around my work, life etc. All of my students said very nice things about me which for some reason mum and dad actually believed. It was very sad to put them on the plane, well drop them at the gate, Zia international Airport is not the best place in the world for goodbyes.

So fortunately sunday was a holiday due to a hindu festival as far as i can tell and i had agreed to go with the children from the special needs school to a party for street children which was held at the british club. They sent out a couple of flat bed trucks to pick us up and that was just the start of the shenanigans. I'm not sure if I can fully describe the scene but there were about 30 special needs kids, about half of those still sitting in their wheelchair's, a few teachers and helpers and about half a dozen foreigners sitting on the back of these trucks along the highway to Dhaka. To say it was hilarious would not really do it justice, I think I need to work out some way of getting photos up here!

So we arrived at the party and I don't think I've ever seen so many people having so much fun. They had a band set up on the tennis court, a couple of big marquees around, a couple of rides and games. And a couple of hundred kids who just went absolutely nuts. I spent half the day dancing in the sun with kids who just never seemed to run out of energy. One of the highlights had to be the special needs kids in the pool, especially seeing a bunch of white women still in their salwar kameses in the pool with these kids who just loved it. There was also a magician who wasn't that bad and even though I could see through most of his tricks I'm pretty sure the kids were convinced.

Unfortunately by the time the kids were back on the truck for the ride home, which by all reports was quite funny, including one quite disabled girl who wouldn't stop screaming, even after Adrian in his newly found proficiency in Bangla said "if you don't be quiet I will hit you" all she did was yell the bangla word for quiet which is chop, every time a car sounded it's horn, which in bangladesh is quite often, the grand final was all but over, managed to catch the last five minutes while I had a beer. I don't think it would have mattered much if I'd missed the lot I had such a fantastic day! One of the best since I've been here and a very good way to help me not miss mum and dad too much.

But from then it's pretty much been nose to the grindstone. It is now the business end of the semester which means lots of marking and writing exams. I think I can understand why it is so hard to write good exams. When you know the answer to every question, how can you tell if it's easy or hard? Quite a dilemma but most of that is out of the way now which is good, well at least the writing of exams, I've still got a pile of marking to do.

It's quite strange to be sitting in Bangladesh writing about having a lot of marking to do. Very strange indeed.

Having been thinking a lot lately about development and especially the concept of volunteering and I am convinced that in a lot of cases it probably isn't that helpful. Here at CRP we get a lot of volunteers who come for about three months, some of them with no experience of developing countries, not a thought in their head about cultural sensitivity and here for a holiday. It also seems that because of their skin colour anything they ask for happens whether or not it is in the best interests of the organisation. There seems to be a common ideology, which is very colonial, that we're better at everything and people should do what we tell them because it's right. We also have these volunteer meetings which seem to be a forum for people to whinge about ridiculous things. I sometimes wonder if even in two years I'll be able to make any kind of sustainable change which will benefit CRP in the long run. Have also been reading a bit about development in Bangladesh and it seems that in comparison to Pakistan Bangladesh has achieved much better in the areas of family planning, infant mortality, immunisation etc in the last 30 years with a lot less resources. I guess people are always happy to point out what's wrong rather than look at what's right... hmmmm. Maybe I've already become a short term volunteer snob

Had quite a funny night last night, most of the aussie volunteers who are in Dhaka and a big bunch from CRP all went to the australia club for a beer, there was probably about 20 of us all up which is a pretty big crew. The real fun started when we left at the end of the night and the rickshaw puller refused to take us because it was raining, I decided that I would be rickshaw puler for the night a proceeded to ride the rickshaw back to circle 2 where the taxis are. It was harder than it looks and I only sideswiped one car, which was parked so no dramas there. Very funny stuff.

that's' probably enough for one chapter....
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