A few thoughts having been here over a week: Bangladesh

– Baridhara, is not the real Bangladesh. The lush greens, beautiful bungalows, new cars zooming around, the quiet and clean neighboring streets and well dressed people and English language heard everywhere is not the country’s reality.

– Air conditioning is a luxury to avoid- rather than central AC, the individualized systems has already made some of us sick.

– You are getting real, organic food, for real prices. I love that I eat food prepared for me that is not infused with hormones and just taste like what vegetables, fruits, and meats are supposed to taste like. But the prices of food is quite high and I can’t imagine how the average Bangladeshi feeds himself/herself and the family.

– Talking out loud about how lattes and pizzas are available in cafes around the city is rude- while it is a developing country, you really can find everything here and having to hear foreigners exclaim at the menu with surprise comes off as condescending to me. Yes, I myself was surprised but you don’t have to make a show of it. The country is diverse in wealth, obviously, and modernity has been rapidly slipping into place, and this is a reality that should have been clear right as one landed at the airport.

– No matter, I will always be ripped off and will have to pay a bit more for rides, clothes, food, deliveries, services…

– That still doesn’t make it right. But, oh well.

– The no plastic policy here is so amazingly ahead of any environmental reforms in the United States. It is a weird transition to throw garbage in bins without plastic but still, talk about protecting the environment. This also includes the CNGs that don’t use petrol. Amazing.

– 6:30 is the unsaid, social curfew for women. Sad, but true. If in a group though, not a problem. But I think this has been one of the biggest transitions as in a way, I am giving up some of the independence I enjoyed growing up in the U.S.

– People stare. It doesn’t matter if you are Bangladeshi, look like you are South Asian, or if you look like a foreigner. You will be stared at, and I thought this was interesting because it really does not just apply to foreigners.

– I have never had such fast internet in the apartment but when it goes off with the electricity, the frustration can be a bit of a shock. But I am getting used to it and almost like the bit of disconnectedness I face as a result from the rest of the world.

More thoughts to come soon.

Landed in Dhaka

My flight out of Saudi Arabia left thirty minutes late. It was a two-story Saudi Arabia airline, and almost full, mostly with Bangladeshi male laborers returning to their country, and very few women. It was slightly uncomfortable because I received a lot of stares at the airport, and one guy even took a photo of me with his phone. I was completely irritated and wanted to say something but didn’t want more attention. My seat was upstairs and I got more stares as I saw down from the men surrounding me. I almost wanted to snap and ask if they planned to look my direction the entire five hours. The hostess though right before take off came by and told me she has a “more comfortable” seat for me and I was taken to the back where I got an entire row to myself.

Landing in Bangladesh was really cool since I find the view to be breathtaking when we cross India and you can see the rivers snaking around the country. The city itself is vast looking and dense, with buildings clustered around each other, and the slums pocketing around spaces. You could feel the volume of people from the air, even if you did not see them yet.

After landing, I found the man holding my name pretty quickly and was taken immediately to the diplomatic counter which was really cool since I got to avoid the line and pretend I was more special than I really am. He filled out everything for me and I was escorted by two men who helped me locate my luggage. This part took forever and it did not help when my mother called and told me that last time it took three hours for her luggage to come out. I didn’t realize there were so many people on my flight and that they just had so much…stuff. Mostly wrapped around in what looked like comforters and then tied around in ropes. It reminded me of my childhood when we used to come to Dhaka and wait forever and almost every time, some luggage was missing and my dad had to fill out forms and we would get those two weeks later, often with items missing. A guy nearby who was on my flight asked, “is it always like this?”, and I told him that yes, as far as I heard, flights from the Middle East to Bangladesh were chaotic since they were usually full of labor migrants who probably were returning after years.

After they located my luggage we walked to the VIP section to greet the car that awaited us and off we drove to my apartment in Baridhara. The ride did not face the dreaded traffic that you hear about in this city. As we drove through Khelket, I just stared outside where I met familiarity of language and culture, though all unfamiliar at the same time. I wanted to buy the guavas sold on a stick by the random boys- they are cut like a flower and spices sprinkled at the top, a favorite of mine- but I didn’t want to risk getting sick already. I saw a train pass by with people sitting on the roof, to which my driver told me that they were “low class”, as translated from Bangla, and that they did not have the money for a seat so took to the roof instead. When I told him I wanted to try that, he looked at me in the rearview mirror and laughed, but in that foreigners-are-crazy way. The buses always amused me on the streets too, as they are packed beyond humane means, and all sorts of things are shouted from it. I saw a boy lean out of the bus and wash his entire head with bottled water, and then use it to spike up his hair in the front. The water dripping from his face was landing on the roof of a brand new white Toyota, and nothing was being said.

The familiarity of the honking followed me to my apartment where on my first night you could hear it all through the window. I forgot to sleep with a mosquito net but I always hated them, leading to a few red bumps on my feet.  Welcome back.

The day before.

Luggage allowed: two checked in, max, weighing 40 kg all together. 40kg is all I can take for a year abroad to embark on what I hope will be an eye opening experience in Bangladesh. 40 kg so far is comprised of clothes, shoes, and hygiene products even though people I know in Dhaka tell me that you can find “everything here”. But while I believe that, I also need to use things close to home, something that will give me comfort in a world opposite of what I know.

I am currently sitting in my living room in Saudi Arabia avoiding the packing and ready-ing. You would think that after all the time that I have spent traveling before and especially during Wellesley, I would having this process known as ‘packing’ to perfection but false- my mother has not given up an opportunity to tell me that I am going about it the wrong way and reminding me of what to do. I have to say she is right most of the time.

I am leaving on the 5:45 am flight via Saudi Arabia Airlines to Dhaka, 4+ hour journey that I have been waiting for since April when I found out that I was granted the Fulbright for Bangladesh. The catch- I don’t actually have my exit/ re-entry visa from the Kingdom yet. So…I am not actually sure if I am allowed to leave the country and like most things here, I am about to find out last minute if in fact they have granted it to me today, or if I have to reschedule my flight. I am hoping for good news. It is already the afternoon and no word yet though.

Hearing about my friends who are already well into their first jobs, graduate schools, fellowships and embodying adulthood over the summer have been inspiring and now I am about to join that realm. I am ready to start my Fulbright, first by the training and language study that we are going to go through until December, and then my ETA starting in January. Here I say adieu to my long, long summer and I welcome the real world again. You know who you are when I say to keep in touch and find me on Skype. I look forward to keeping this blog up as much as possible and talking with you guys about the many ups and challenges I am about to face and tackle.

Cheers!

Eid prayer morning.

It is really hard to take photos during the morning Eid since it is simply rude and not in the culture where you maintain anonymity with your clothing. The prayer we went to was in the Royal Commission in Jubail, just by the Persian Gulf in a beautiful location where everyone was either dressed in black (women) or white (men), and the kids being the exception with their brightly colored clothing and heels. It was quite adorable to see the little boys dressed in the traditional Saudi outfit as they fidgeted with their headdress and long train of white cloth.

if only I was a princess. or a captain.

Saudi Arabia airlines has the best selections for the category of “title” in their booking website. I have never seen these but I wondered what would happen if I chose my title as princess or a captain or even sheikh. Apparently there are other airlines that does this too, and requires you to choose a title. 5 more days until Dhaka.

Phoenix–> Washington D.C. –> Kuwait –> Bahrain –> Jubail, Saudi Arabia: 7 am (Mountain Time) to 7 pm GMT +3

The route I traveled- September 1-2, 2010

Phoenix to D.C.: September 1st, United Airlines

Only a little more than a third of my flight was full, which was good news for me as the extra seat of space allowed for a great in-and-out sleep for 4 hours. One of our flight attendants was forgivingly hilarious, making  jokes about everything from the “blas” we had to turn off, about knowing that we get bored of watching emergency landing videos but it’s on, to talking about leaving the Arizona heat, finally. I mention this because I am going to miss the friendly attitude commonly and stereotypically associated with Americans.

Washington D.C. : 3 hour layover

My craving for sushi (who knows when I will have some again) led me to drag myself from terminal C to terminal A and endure a 20 minute wait for shrimp tempura roll, salmon roll, and unagi roll all to myself. I also spent most of it talking on the phone with friends who are convinced that I am disappearing from the face of the earth. I had to run back to my gate just before boarding to see my flight to Bahrain with United Airlines of a crowd I have never seen in any of my flights to the Middle East before: mostly men in the American army, some dressed in their jumpsuits, others in regular clothes, some calling their loved ones and joking about the next several months. I was wondering where all the women went…it was quite a scene and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it all.

Washington D.C. to Bahrain, with a stop in Kuwait: 14 hours.

I was not looking forward to the next 14 hours with United Airlines because in general, I do  not like airlines of the American brand. I have way too many personal anecdotes to share (no food, uncomfortable chairs, making us pay for checked baggages, no pillows, no entertainment, paying for everything and headphones, etc. as a result of recent economic terms). I am definitely a airlines-from-the-Gulf snob.

However, this time I was surprised to see that I had a pillow, a blanket, even my own television (wow, United?) and food! Honestly, what a surprise. The guy at the check-in even let me pass with a half a pound overweight luggage (last time my luggage was overweight by half a pound, the woman at American Airlines wanted to charge me $95).

Most interesting was my neighbor, Mr. X, I will name him. He is about a foot taller than me, muscular with tattoos in his arms, shaved head, tight black t-shirt, and one light carry-on, and gold rings with the seal of institutions I wanted to uncover but knew I would look creepy. After two shots of vodka though he started talking to me and I found out that I was right- most of the people in this place were from the army and related military personnel. Mr. X told me that they were all getting off at Kuwait and taking flights into Iraq. He just came off of a thirty-day vacation and going to Iraq again for seven months. I kept blatantly asking questions, which he happily answered except when I asked his opinions about the current foreign policy, which he basically after many words said that he could not say and had no opinions (right…) and he has to follow whoever is the commander. He laughingly asked me if this was the first time I has such a crowd around me and I said yes, and he told me, don’t worry, you are in the safest hands, the plane is full of guns and snipers and weapons in the cargo. Great. United Airlines apparently has a contract with the federal government to transport military members. Maybe that’s why the service was so good the 11 hours to Kuwait.

Mr. X spent the rest of the time covered in his black hoodie, refusing to use the blanket, and watching no television, passing in and out. I meanwhile used all my pillows and blankets, watched Letters of Juliet (not that great), missed a meal because I was fast asleep seven hours later, and read the latest Time magazine about Kanye West and his year in the industry.

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