Bridge(t)toSomewhere

some more random pictures from Sylhet.

I have to say, that trip was one of my highlights. Going to school in Maine has really spoiled me. After weeks in Dhaka I just craved fresh air and space. However, of course, Sylhet is not just a green paradise. Wage slavery, malnutrition, and pollution (note the workers spraying pesticides above) are just as present here as anywhere else.

With the month of Ramadan coming to a close, I have to say I am so thankful to have been here during this holy time. Yes, the traffic is infinitely worse as people are hungry and in a rush to get home in time for Eid shopping and then iftar. Yes, it has forced me to be more creative about where I source and eat lunch since the cafeteria at work is closed. Yes, it has limited my abilities to travel for the sake of work and fun. Yes, beggars are now more aggressive because they know that this is the month when they will be able to receive the most income, because their fellow muslim’s hunger will be a constant reminder of the Quran’s chief teachings: to remember God in all things and to be Charitable with a capital C.

However the beauty of seeing Bangladeshis come together at prayer and iftar time, no matter where they are, is incredible. Islam’s clear rules on how to conduct your life and your daily religious requirements makes the spirituality of believers here far more visible than anywhere else I have been. But in Bangladesh, I have not found it to be a showy “I am more committed than you” contest. Rather a simple practice of humbling oneself to a higher power.

This not only has been a beautiful learning experience, but a time for personal reflection. Melodic calls to prayer, even if not publicly heeded by those around me, serve as a constant reminder of the possibility of something greater than whatever, usually petty, thing I was worrying about. I am someone with a religiously inconsistent upbringing (a mostly apathetic family and evangelical nannies) trying to make sense of my faith in God. Ramadan has inspired reflection I usually push off or prioritize beneath school and other pursuits.

Islam is a beautiful religion. It celebrates compassion, not hate. It teaches respect, not oppression. Violence is a tool of last resort, reserved for defense against the extermination of your community. The Quranic encouragement of modesty (of all people, not just women) is not the same as individuals using out-of context passages to justify cultural practices that subordinate and exclude.

Anyone who says different is clouded by ignorance.

Pictures taken in New Market, Dhaka and from the women’s section of Baitul Mukarram (Bangladesh’s National Mosque).

While in Sylhet, we visited the Ratargul Swamp forest… no, it is not a former haunt of Smeagol and the river people, but rather the only swamp forest in Bangladesh, and one of the few freshwater swamp forests in the world.

After a long ride in an autorickshaw and climbing into a low, less than stable canoe (with the same design as a venetian gondolier) and trying on some of the local head gear, we were transported to another world.

Because it is the rainy season, the forest was especially spectacular. We were among the canopy branches of ancient trees submerged in 20-30 feet of water. Being the heat of the day, there wasn’t too much activity, both human and wild. However, we were able to see some fishermen setting their traps and climbing to a high platform to, I assume, survey the prospects of their next catch.

We had a real treat just as we exited the forest: our driver / drive steered us to see a macaque as it bounded through the trees.

On our first day in Sylhet we went to a near-by tea estate and saw how they prepared the tea for sale. First, they grind it up into pulp and then little pellets of varying coarseness. the more coarse, the higher the quality (less processed, retains more natural flavors, etc. Then it is sent into a kiln to be dried. The tea when it comes out is extremely hot, but workers still hold and move it with their bare hands… they have some pretty aggressive callouses. 

It was striking how much tea there was even though the factory was relatively small and did not have too many workers. It was stiflingly hot in there even though it was spacious and there were windows. It’s hard to know who suffers worse conditions, them or the pickers, but seeing as all the staff were men (unlike tea pickers who are women, men, and even children) I’m guessing they at least get higher pay for their sweat and blisters.

From Thursday July 3rd until Saturday July 5th, Chelsea, Shaan, and I went to Sylhet, Bangadesh’s tea producing region. We stayed at a beautiful resort (of course we found out about it through Zara’s connections) and tried to see as much of the countryside as we could.

While we stayed there, we visited several tea plantations and the villages and factories that accompanied them. More to come!

Continued from July 1st:

The best stop of the day was to one of the BRAC schools. These schools offer opportunities to students who fell behind or did not get the chance to go to traditional schools, almost always for economic reasons. They are private, so the schools are not free, but they are far less expensive and far more accessible than others of similar quality. The vast majority of these students were girls, as were the leaders of the classroom, in charge of the group attendance, songs, and dancing.

The best part of the visit was when they went around and told all of us what they wanted to be when they grew up. The vast majority said teacher, there was one hopeful journalist, engineer, banker, and this little girl, who despite her darker complexion, usually a source of insecurity for women and girls in Bangladesh, was one of the most charismatic of the group, and told us with a giggle that she dreamed to be a Doctor.

Keep studying ladies! Your intellect and education can’t be robbed of you even in the most desperate circumstances.

On July 1st, Lamisa and I went with a group of new BRAC Bank employees on the BRAC experience. Because BRAC the NGO is the majority shareholder of the bank, the management of BRAC Bank sends everyone on these trips when they start their assignments as a way to motivate them. Indeed, from what I’ve heard, BBL’s mission to bank the unbanked and its connection with BRAC are a large part of why they are able to retain such qualified staff despite the longer hours and lower pay than their competitors.

Our first stop was to see a maternal health meeting. BRAC has community health workers they train and give a small compensation to (mostly out of the proceeds from the sale of medications / personal care products). They go around the village, distributing basic medical information and connecting the ill with those who can provide treatment. Pictured is a TB patient in his 4th month of treatment taking a dose of antibiotics.

These community workers (usually women who are well-respected in their village) also hold informational meetings at different houses of village women on the basics of what to do in the case of complications during pregnancy and also do check-ups. Despite having only a scale, stethoscope, blood-pressure cuff, and their hands, they are able to track the progress of the pregnancy and check for a surprising number of issues during pregnancy. As one might imagine, there are many economic, societal, and psychological barriers that women face regarding sexual and maternal health, so these grassroots-level resources are often the only thing standing between them and the myriad of health risks women face.

After, we went to a meeting of a micro finance group. All women, they pool their earnings together to save with BRAC (the NGO) and grant each other small loans. Amazingly, almost all of the women were entrepreneurs entirely separate of their husbands, in many cases, earning the most in the household and in the process of expanding their businesses. They began their meeting with a recitation of 16 oaths, specifying the rules of borrowing, lending, and general conduct within the group. Afterwards, they all made their contributions to the communal pool, keeping track of the payments each individual made and her status towards paying off her loan. I was struck by how organized and innovative these women were.

Afterwards, we visited a tire recycling business that had grown because of the assistance it received from BRAC in its early stages. Interestingly, for the first time that day, no women were to be found.

I have heard from informal estimates that around 98% of BBL’s loans are to men, while the reverse is true for micro finance loans. If these women’s businesses grow and are given recognition for their entrepreneurial spirit by BBL’s CROs (the agents who go into the field to seek out potential SME loan customers) those numbers can even out and the bank can similarly empower the other half of the population.

Ok! Final post from the grand adventure through Old Dhaka… which was actually three weeks ago (Saturday June 28th)!

After the Sadarghat Boat terminal, Shaan and I, with the help of a local who worked for the new Dhaka office of Metlife, took a rickshaw a few kilometers down the road to get to Nazara Bazar to enjoy the fabled Haji Briyani. Despite the horrible dhaka traffic and going through the crazy narrow streets of the oldest parts of town, we got there earlier than we had anticipated.

To kill the time we went to the Hossini Dalan, a beautiful religious center and shrine to one of the grand sons of Mohammad who was killed in battle. The director of the center personally took us for a tour, of the newly tiled building, which was, interestingly enough, funded by the sale of fish living in the pond on the property. In addition to the shrine, there was also a school and library. Unlike the mosque we previously visited, this seemed to be much more of a resource for the whole community. There were women, families, and even some local kids taking advantage of the free space to squeeze in some world-cup fever soccer.

After wandering for quite some time, we finally came upon Haji Briyani. Smaller than my bedroom, this little restaurant sells one item, Mutton Briyani, all taken from a large cauldron, well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. after squeezing into a table (benefits of being a very obviously foreign-looking woman, you will ALWAYS get a seat) and feasting to fill our bellies, emptied from a day of walking, we set off to get home… which is when the real adventure started!

It was well after dark. The easiest way to get around Dhaka if you’re going to different neighborhoods is via compressed natural gas powered autorickshaws nicknamed CNGs, however their pricing is… shall we say flexible… they always ask for more than the meter price, and will add a special foreigner surcharge. The first two we were able to flag down charged about 100 taka more than they should have, so naturally the two of us decided to let them go, assuming we’d find others. We were wrong… and had to take a bicycle rikshaw to a busier area near the university in hopes of getting a rikshaw.

Now, it is a saturday night (their equivalent of a sunday since the weekend in majority muslim countries is friday-saturday) well after dark, there are few women in the streets and 0 people as obviously foreign-looking as me, and I am getting pretty worried at this point, and not happy with the decision to forego a ride for less than a dollar each. We have no choice but to take the bus. This image I took from the daily star (at the bottom of the photoset) is no exaggeration… except that the bus is actually moving while everyone is cramming in.

Although sweaty and crowded, as my supervisor explained, buses are actually quite safe so long as you stay aware of your pockets. They’re just too crowded for violence or criminals to follow you. Thankfully, cultural norms obligate men, no matter how old or physically able, to give up their seats for women. After a crazy ride, Shaan and I emerged drenched in sweat (not 100% our own) and dying for a cold drink! After a quick stop for what felt like the coldest and tastiest soda of my life, we took our final Rikshaw back to the BLC. Man, what an adventure!

Because the Sadarghat Launch, one of the largest in the world, is actually just comprised of ferry terminals to travel down the Buriganga River, the life blood of Dhaka. After several failed attempts, Shaan was able to negotiate our way past the ticket collectors to see the terminal. Immediately accosted by offers for boat rides by oarsmen across the river, we stood on ground that was probably a mix concrete and a fill-in of the city’s rubbish. People were going in and out of small row boats (more like skeletons of Venetian gondoliers than any-thing else), larger motorized launches, and the cargo-bays of giant ferries. Additionally deck-hands for all watercraft types were loading and unloading large bags and packages. A group of men were playing Kram Board amidst the commotion and invited Shaan to play a round while I watched and snapped some pictures.

After navigating the crowded, noisy, backside (or maybe it was the frontside) of old dhaka’s food markets, we made it to the Pink Palace, otherwise known as the Ashan Manzil. The structure was the residence for the Nawabs of Bengal during the Clonial rule after the capital of Bengal had been moved from Sonargaon to Dhaka. Since then, the building has served many purposes, making its current purpose, serving as a museum of Bangladesh’s colonial history, a bit difficult as many of the old purposes and furnishings of the rooms were lost to history during Bangladesh’s various struggles for autonomy and peace.

After reading the few english captions for the artifacts and rooms (I’ll see if I can snag some of the photos Shaan stealthily took with his less conspicuous camera) and spying on the other half of the young couples of Dhaka, we moved on to see hindu street, known as Shankaria Bazaar.

We were pretty lucky in our timing, because as soon as we arrived, we were immediately greeted by drum beats, the clangs of bells and relief from the Old Dhaka smell in the form of a cloud of incense that surrounded a procession dedicated to the hindu goddess Kali. The street was narrow and crowded, but had a decidedly different feel to it than the majority muslim areas we had been. Colorful garlands, idols, and hindu gods and goddesses replaced the usual, more understated muslim style of the rest of the city. However, perhaps because it is a very old commercial area, but perhaps because of the difference in culture, the hum of business seemed more manic, almost intoxicated, and more raw.