We haven’t had any rain for the past three months and everything is covered with a thick layer of dust. All of the construction in my neighborhood and throughout the city only adds to the debris in the air. It’s still not nearly as bad as Ghana, where many of the roads aren’t paved, and after a day outside one is caked in dust.
The new semester is off to a good start and running. I have 30 students and the classroom is packed. We havn’t had any power outages during class – I take that back, there were two a few hours ago- and the internet speed is showing signs of improvement. I love the fact that during a “typical day” I’ll be out photographing in a Madrassa nearby and half an hour later in the my class teaching students how to use Photoshop or construct a website.
This morning over at Nari Jibon I met Rezwan. We have been online friends for close to a year and I frequently link to his blog from here. He is the South Asia Editor with Global Voices, a citizen journalism news room for voices from the developing world.
Where I live in Oregon people go to tanning salons and expose their skins to G-D knows what to get some color. Here in Bangladesh where the average person is darker then President Obama they face the opposite dilemma. Woman, and to a lesser extent men have been under cultural pressure that is reinforced by the media and corporations that lighter skin is more attractive. The Anglo-Dutch company Uniliver that manufactures soap and cosmetics with the tagline “Fair and Lovely” say this about their products: “Our brands help people to look good, feel good and get more out of life. Celebrating life for over 40 years in Bangladesh and today, a company bringing world class consumer products to millions of people in the country we are Unilever Bangladesh.” Sound familiar? It’s a sensitve issue that I brought up in class last week that went over like a lead ballon. I wish someone would start a campaign here in Bangladesh with the slogan: “Brown is Beautiful.”
Cities by nature are dynamic and ever changing but Dhaka reinvents itself every other week. It’s a work in progress and without meaning to sound disparaging doesn’t really feel fully formed. Old Dhaka, the original hub is an exception but the rest of this sprawling city feels more like a collection of various towns and villages more or less linked together. The demarcation between urban and undeveloped lots hardly exists. Alongside what looks like an established neighborhood are gigantic open fields being cleared. Near my guesthouse the second largest mall and entertainment complex in Asia is nearing completion. The place looks like a newly constructed city and has absolutely nothing in common with the surrounding neighborhoods.
Sangu River, Bandaban
Bandaban is only about 50 miles from Burma as the crow flies but since there are no roads near the borders it’s a four day hike. And from there it’s a no mans land. The town is predominantly Muslim but there are large numbers of Hindu, Buddhist and tribal (mostly Marma) people in the region. The tribal people are more reserved and shy compared to the Bengali’s. The landscape is beautiful: rolling hills and pristine rivers with rice and fruit being cultivated.
Tanvir and I met with some of the field officers from an NGO and went by motorcycle to some of the villages close by. On the way back we stopped at the Golden Buddhist Temple perched on a hilltop. Built in 1995, it looked much older and included over a dozen very impressive standing Buddha’s donated by neighboring SE Asian countries. The next morning we went up river on a small boat and walked through some of the tribal villages. Thatched houses, woman huddled around fires to stay warm smoking pipes while pigs run freely. There is a constant sound of people clearing their throats and coughing besides those who have more serious health problems. Despite the beauty life is hard in these Hill Tracts.
Returned to Dhaka two days ago since classes resumed at IUB today. With only four million people Chittagong wasn’t exactly relaxing but definitely easier to navigate compared to Dhaka. I met with Alam Khorshed, a former engineer who studied and worked in the USA and Canada for 17 years. In 2004 he changed careers and established a cultural center called Bishaudbangla for the purpose of exposing Bangladeshi traditions- older and newer ones- to the younger generation. The place is very inviting and has a cafe/book store, gallery, offers Bangla language classes and sells beautiful clothes- a great chance to get some shopping done. One evening Alam and I went to an art exhibit by a local painter at the Alliance Francaise which was a lot of fun.
One of the things that struck me were the amount of hospitals in this city. There seemed to be at least one on every street- modern but shabby looking building that resembled a Motel Six. Alam remarked how private industry has caused this situation to explode. In the past, the government played a larger role in providing health care.
While photographing a marching band preparing for a gig in the old Portuguese district Shubasish Barua (his last name is very common among Buddhists in Bangladesh) appeared out of nowhere. He informed me that he was also a documentary photographer working for Drik Agency and in less then five minutes I was sitting in the living room of his families beautiful old home drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake. He excused himself as he was rushing off to a family function but I had a chance to have a good parent to parent talk with his 76 year old father that was very interesting! Never pass up an opportunity to talk with wise old men.
Ten minutes later my mobile phone rang and Shubasish arranged for a photographer friend of his to accompany me to Bandaban in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I had already gone through the formalities of securing my travel permit from the district commissioner for the region since it is considered a sensitive area by the Bangladeshi Army. The next morning Tanvir and I were on our way.
Winter time is wedding season in Bangladesh. They are easy to spot: huge strings of lights in front of houses and hotels throughout the city. My former student, fashion designer Aneeta Azad invited me to a friends wedding two weeks ago. Her email said that the reception was going to be very colorful and festive. Bengali wedding are elaborate affairs that involve four or five days.
The above photo is not a political rally. It’s the grooms extended family arriving for the festivities. What made this wedding extra special was that the grooms mom is Bibi Russell, the Lauren Hutton of Bangladesh. Bibi was a former model working with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in Europe during the eighties. She studied at the London School of Fashion and is a one woman global ambassador for the woman weavers of Bangladesh. Bibi describes her work – which has been recognized by UNESCO- as fashion for development. “People in the fashion industry think it is about expensive things. My saree cost three dollars. Fashion is about culture. You have to know how to wear it. Village woman who have not eaten for two days still cover themselves gracefully. Fashion dosen’t mean items costing five hundred dollars.”
Local bus, Dhaka
A few days ago I hailed a cab on the way back to my guest house. It was one of the deluxe yellow models without the seats ripped out. Still, the wind shield had a huge crack down the middle. I was sitting up front on the left side next to the driver and all of a sudden we got swiped on my side by a bus. There was a popping sound and the side view mirror snapped right off luckily not in my direction. What surprised me more then anything else was I didn’t even bat an eyelash.
A minute later we caught up with the bus and blocked its path. I had already seen the scenario of what might happen next: yelling, fist shaking, crowds quickly gathering deciding what the verdict should be. I didn’t bother to stick around and find out but jumped into a CNG parked next to us and made for a quick exit. The Bangladeshis are extremely civil and considerate but when you stick them behind the wheel of a car I just don’t know. Still, there is none of that road rage that is so common in the states. They have an extraordinary amount of patience and good will.
This afternoon I take off for about ten days to visit Chittagong and the hill tract areas before the semester begins on January 18th. No computer, so posts will be few and far between.
Waiting to get picked up by this ocean liner
I shot this from a much smaller oversized row boat on the last day of 2008. I was getting a bit antsy hanging around my guesthouse these past few days so decided to take a boat to a town nearby called Munshiganj (pronounced Moon- she -gansh). Sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss. The idea of sitting on the upper deck of a boat with the sun on my back and watching the Buriganga river go by sounded like a relaxing way to spend the day. The trip over was calm enough with only a few people on the upper deck. Most were camping out below- huge families. Packed. It looked like a giant pajama party with Hindu musicals on the television.
The town was pleasant enough with several huge ponds the size of a city block surrounded by houses on four sides. Two young men from the local university got hold of me- this usually takes about 10 seconds to happen in Bangladesh. Their English was very good so at least we could communicate. They took me to their school and I thought this is a Bangladeshi version of Reed College complete with a quad/green area. I got to even meet a very talkative Chemistry major.
Had my usual lunch when I’m away from the guesthouse. A big plate of Indian samosas stuffed with potatoes and peanuts with tea and milk. I discovered a small street with men crouched in open air shops writing documents- some even with computers. They were translating and processing information for people who are illiterate. There must have been a dozen stalls set up for this purpose alone. When one man asked me where I was from and I told him Am-mer-reeka he smiled a called me a terrorist. First time that ever happened. A minute later he insisted on ordering me a cup of tea so I guess he wasn’t too hostile.
Back at the boat terminal over sized row boats ferry passengers out a few hundred feet and these huge steamers carrying what looked like over a thousand people stop in the middle of the river to drop off and pick up new customers. It’s pandemonium as the ship hands are selling and collecting little pieces of paper ticket out in the middle of the river. The return fare for the two hour trip was 40 cents. The ship going back was packed. Nowhere to sit on the upper deck. Only enough room to stand packed with everyone else except for a few people who spread out blankets and camped out on the floor. I tried not to think about those stories buried on the back page of the newspaper reporting several hundred people drowned off the bay of Bengal. We passed ship building docks and brick factories and as we got closer to Dhaka I noticed that they must be pumping an awful lot of raw sewage into the river. More pandemonium as we arrived unloading passengers. Absolutely amazing the way those ships come barreling into the terminal and somehow manage to squeeze into the tiny spaces allotted to them. Very typical of the premium for space in this country and the way people adapt to it.