The oyster, to me, is something to eat- it is most likely out of my price range but I have to have my fix, in those rare moments. After being abroad for a year and having this short visit to Boston and DC, one of the things I wanted to eat were raw oysters, slipping them into my mouth from their griny shells with a splash of lemon, tomatoe dressing, and a drop of tabasco sauce. It has the most fishy taste and the most slimy texture that easily slips through you so that you are only really enjoying it for a second. A short lived high.
I had this high first in Boston where me and my friend were going through the historic Haymarket and as we passed the aisles of raw vegitables, we stumbled on a 4 for $5 deal, on a stand, with buckets of oysters anf mussles sold by two very Italian residents from the North End.
While commonly consumed as a high-end product, found in the nicer bars and restaurants, oysters are perhaps known better as a figure of speech, folktale, and proverbs. The most common of which is the saying that the world is your oyster- whatever that means. Perhaps it has something to do with how the oyster’s essential price is not associated with its exclusivity in the menu, but its purpose of making the pearl after a long period of growth and waiting (though it must be noted that the kind of oysters consumed are not the same as those that make pearls).
Oysters have the tendency of being health-hazard-seeker’s target. Hepatitis A infection was first traced to the consumption of oysters in 1961, drawn from a series of cases in Alabama and Mississippi. Seventeen years later in 1978, a sudden outbreak of gastroneteritis in Australia was linked to oyster consumtion from the area. A decade afterwards, the hepititas A link with oysters were revisited from an outbreak in Florida. While oysters have been presented as a delicacy, served on a bed of ice and specialized thin forks on the side and rumored to be an aphrodisiac (for its large quantitiy of zinc), they have also been a subject of the popular investigations to link shellfish to, if we wantd to be direct, death.
My love for oysters this year stems from being far from it in the first place. They remind me of the summers and the sea salt scrub that I am inevitably gifted every Christmas except that last one. The inaccessability of it in South Asia led me to happily order a dozen at a bar near U street in D.C. at 11:30 pm last week, when the $1 oyster happy hour began. Me and my friend Bev came early and sat, looking at out cell phones every few minutes, wondering how strict the men behind the dark lit bar were about ordering. We sat in the tall oak booth with out large metal platter of two dozen oysters, consumed by both of us in ten minutes, garnished nicely with chopped horseradish.
I could use many words to describe this again, but no one really does it better than Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast where he wrote:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Bangladesh’s last game of the world cup ended in the team allowing South Africa to score just fifteen points shy of 300, and Bangladesh making up only 78 of it, all out. I was at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur for the game yesterday and left right after Bangladesh’s fifth wicket, as did many others in the stadium. Many did not even sit in their seats anymore but stood in the space in front of the gates, ready to leave once they saw another terrible play. The guards could not even tell us to go back to our seats since there were so many who could as one said nearby, “beat them up” if they tried anything of that sort. Conversation of precious time and money wasted could be overheard repeatedly as fanatics started to take off red and green pieces that they had prepared for the game from their bodies in frustration. Thousands poured out of the gates looking disappointed more than shocked by the afternoon.
Disappointment is a look I see often in Bangladesh- the look of getting your hopes up really high, because just maybe the impossible is possible as it often can be in the country, and then to have it crushed suddenly and quickly. It is a quick shot, crisp and clean. There isn’t much space for sudden reaction. And then it sinks in and people start to get emotional and use their words to get violent. It’s not clean anymore. Car windows get shattered whether it is the cricket team losing or a sudden hartal. Words are used to spread thousands of messages across newspapers, blogs, and television and in the streets.
I had talked about the fascinating way in which sports are able to unite a country and bring forth nationalism about a month prior to the start of the tournament. I forgot to think about the aftermath of it all. People are united pretty obviously and perhaps more than ever but for the reason that they are disappointed in their team and need the venues to vent. But nationalism however you choose to define it has also been obviously dazed. It is going to take some time when the signs of the world cup are everywhere in Dhaka- the lights, posters welcoming you to “our land”, billboards of painted fans, and the several enlarged cricket bats on Airport Road with signatures of thousands wishing the national team luck. While I am not a maniac fan of cricket, driving through the city last night still resulted in a bang of defeat as we passed lit strands of lights and colorful decorations made just for the world cup, and most importantly, for the national team.
Even then, hosting the cricket world cup with India and Sri Lanka for the first time in the nation’s history brought in some (hopefully) un-doable developments. It created jobs for many in the city, expanded several commercial sectors and boomed businesses who took advantage of the cup to sell products. It cleaned up the roads a bit and created some conscious among the people to maintain it as they were now the hosts of something historical (instead of stealing parts of decorations in the middle of the night to sell in the black market, for example). It got children out of the house to play cricket in their neighborhood and with other children they were able to befriend with this common interest. It created a conversational topic for literally anyone despite social classes, gender, or age. This alone is worth noting in a society where all three aspects matter more than it ever should. It illustrated the candid potential that Bangladesh has- it can host international guests, it can start building a tourism industry, it does not need everything to be political, it can market itself, and it can allow people to get along for at least some time. Thus, despite everything, it must be admitted that these are some feats for a sport to be able to achieve even if temporarily.
The flower market in Shabagh, near Dhaka University is the largest flower market in the country. It is known for selling an abundance of roses, hibiscus, gada flowers (type of marigold), and some other variations- all beautifully decorated or bundled up for sale. Beyond the street of flower stalls is an area just under the bridge where from six o’clock in the morning until eleven o’clock, flower merchants sell these traditional flowers wholesale. The flower bazaar is open air and an exploration of red, yellow, white, and orange from an otherwise greysih morning. Many are already strung together in thread into necklaces (used in weddings) to bed decorations (chains of flowers used to hang over the wedding bed for the newlyweds). In just these five hours, owners and representatives from flower shops all over the city come early to this location to purchase such flowers in bulk to take back to their stores around the city to see for the day. Those who come early enough will be lucky to score the freshest and brightest of them all.
We reached the market a little before eight in the morning and we were overwhelmed by the smell and noises of the sellers and buyers. Men holding strings of gada would pass by me and stack them in a mountain of orange and yellow, standing over the pile, shouting out prices. Haggling for the best deal resulted in raised voiced and shouts but because the market was open for only a few hours, most just gave in and bought stacks of flowers before a competitor took them away. Nearby, women sat around together on the floor, stringing together giant, bright red roses and stark-white jasmine flowers together. The floor was splattered between dirt from the street and flower petals.
I asked one of the sellers if I could stand in his spot to take a photo with the piles of gada flowers which he happily (and in a confused manner) let me. After the photo though, I fell on the way back because the path was slippery from gada petals. It was embarrassing but I think the man selling the flowers almost expected it. At least I may have provided some entertainment for the day for the few that saw what happened.
The ride to Mymensingh in a rented tour bus with almost thirty other teenagers for four hours was an experience to remember, to say the least. The field trip began early in the morning where by 8 am students in the English Medium section in the 11th grade stood sleepily in the courtyard of Rajuk Uttara Model School, waiting for teachers and the principal to share some words of wisdom and warnings. We were to visit the Bangladeshi Agricultural University in Mymensingh where we were given a tour of their 400 acre campus and various museums relating to environmental studies and preservations. What should have been a three hour bus ride took almost five (naturally, as most rides in Bangladesh) given the traffic from Ijtema (a religious pilgrimage taking place in northern Dhaka).
The students were most excited about the journey rather than the field trip to BAU itself, as it was a chance to be out of the classroom and openly mingle, sing, flirt, take photos, and gossip. The energy and hormones from otherwise restricted group of 17 to 20 year olds was very much expected. The girls took the rare chance to style their hair, put on some makeup, and color their nails black while still adoring the green and white uniform. The boys came prepared with music and practices pick up lines. At some point I was asked to join in them in the middle of the bus where they simultaneously danced to popular Bollywood songs and sang Bangla songs unknown to me. No one wanted to sit down despite having to hold onto the seats as the bus bumped around the countryside. I was told of the various gossip- who dated who, who broke up with who, who liked who, and everything else that made me almost nostalgic for my high school days in Tucson. We stopped at one point for gas where despite my objections students bought me local snacks- roasted peas and spiced nuts, and salted pickled fruit. In just a few hours, I became instantly close to the students in this particular group from Class 11, Business Studies.
The relationship between teachers and students in Bangladeshi schools is one that I have been particularly keen to observe lately. The candid respect and care that many show to their teachers is uncanny. For example, students took the initiative in the bus to distribute snacks and made sure that we the teachers had it first. Some would come up to the front of the bus to check in on me and Farhana, the other teacher and my mentor for my tenure at Rajuk. They took the time to engage us in polite conversation, even though it was not necessary. Students let each other become natural leaders of the trip and make sure that everyone was in place.
I suppose this was very different from my field trip experiences in the United States were the boundary between a teacher and the student is maintained in many degrees. All this time, I thought that it was more in the United States that a teacher was able to have an open, friendly relationship with their students, but I see that it is not necessarily the case. While students here are afraid of their teachers, they also almost look to them as a parent and a friend if the teacher happens to be kind. The idea of respecting your elders is very much engrained in the culture in Bangladesh in all levels. This of course happens in the United States too, but I believe that the boundaries are more concrete in the relationships. For example, I would never ask my teacher in high school about their relationship status and share personal love stories, or give them a ride back home in my car when needed (apparently, common here), purchase them snacks, and check in on how they are doing during non-class periods. Here in Bangladesh, it has never occurred to me as inappropriate. Rather, it is a sense of a new kind of respect I am just not used to yet. Also, it is a testament to Bangladesh’s culture of hospitality, informality, and respect for the elder.
I spoke about this dynamic with my mother on the phone the next day who told me that indeed in Bangladesh, hospitality is something ingrained in people’s upbringing. She told me how when she was growing up, extended family, friends, and neighbors showing up to your home was the most common and expected. Entertaining guests was something you learn naturally from a young age. She claimed that since moving to the United States she has become more formal in her behavior. Calling before going over to a close person’s home was absurd. She told me that in schools, while teachers were strict, if a teacher ever showed some ador- a beautiful Bangla word that somewhat means affection- the students will give all they can to respect you and become close to you. She laughed and told me that in a school setting, students are used to the environment of discipline and studying, so even a slight ador is met with overwhelming responses.
The fisheries museum at BAU was impressive, unexpectedly. Having seen many museums in Dhaka since coming here, I was shocked to see how well sea animals and fish were presented inside the two story building. It was artist meet scientist inside, where wooden rods and various traditional fishing tools were used along with representations of nature to present various creatures to the untrained eye. Many of the fish were preserved in clean jars around a room, where I also encountered a very grotesque preserved bat as well (random?). Another room included computer modules, projectors, as well as instruments used to research fisheries with neat labels. Seeing the museum gave me a hope for the push currently taking place in the country for environmental preservation.
We also visited other sites and museums around BAU. In a particular garden, I got to taste baukal– a small green fruit that tasted like a more airy, crispier, subtle version of an apple. The fruit itself is known as a kul, but here termed baukul because it was made in BAU. The principal who came along to the tour with his wife also personally introduces me to plants and fruits that I had never seen or tasted before in my life. This example of the extent of the country’s fertility and vegetation was beautiful.
After a lunch of rice, chicken roast, salad and eggs, a soccer match started outside among the boys. The girls played a game of pillow passing where prizes were given, and the members of the winning soccer team were also given prizes. There was a semi-formal formatted ceremony near the end in a dining hall where such prizes and gifts were given to participants, winners, as well as teachers for coming and helping.
I realized that study tours were literally designed as a way for students to bond with each other as well as the teachers. I liked this idea of it being not just an academic tour but a social one, and much needed as well. It was a break for the students in what is otherwise a life of studying and restrictive activities. I was really appreciative of the idea and the thought behind it all.