Root: Adventure in Bangladesh
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
 
Time. It is odd how we view and experience time. For the majority of my life, I have always viewed the passage of time in terms of school years and academic calendars. My life flowed on the redundant river, which is way over used, as I passed through an easy nine month block of scholastic progress with the needed three month vacation when I somehow managed to evolve to the point of jumping up one entire grade level, yet I still feel like I never really learned what I was supposed to which made me no longer a third grader but now a full fledged fourth grader. Regardless, it has traditionally always been this progress through the grades that I viewed time. Even post graduation from my place of higher education, I still used this lens in which to mark the time. Living in DC, I was still connected enough to the academic world that I had no need to discard these lenses which have served me so well.

During all of these formative years of mine, I watched and experienced a steady progress of time. Now, living here in Bangladesh, time is not following this pattern. Two aspects of my perception of time are paramount to my experience here. Firstly, time has stopped. There is no flow, no progress, I rest in stasis without the steady change and growth. I am locked in a little eddy of still water as the river rages around me. My friends and family continue with their separate journeys, the world continues to drive head long on to continued destruction; but, it is I here that am stagnant, watching the changes of the world around me. Funny, I can’t explain why I feel stagnant. Perhaps it is cause I have so much time on my hands now, endless quantities of time that I struggle with daily to fill and be occupied. Yet, I think that I have learned how to just be and relax and float down the daily passage of everyday time. This is funny because it is while I am here that I have changed so much. At least, that is what I suppose. This is Peace Corps, this is living and breathing the damp dank air of the over humanized zealot Bangladesh. I know in my mind that I was supposed to have to have changed here, but I don’t see it. Where is that three month break before I enter the higher grade, informing me that yes indeed David, you have grown? Where is the self-awareness of ones own development? Some here have it, I do not. Will those friends and family of mine be shocked with the evolved David as he crawls out of this land?

I will leave this experience with a wife. That is change. Obviously, my life and my being has been transformed into something new. Four nights ago was the first time that Shannon and I have slept apart in nearly exactly eight months. How can a man not be changed after sleeping with such a wonderful woman all that time? We spend nearly every moment of every day in the same room. My consciousness is not complete with out her. I’m not sure I can accurately view the world without my Love in my view. Some may shake their head in disgust at the loss of independence, but I can only laugh at them. Do they not realize that I have never been so complete? I am by far a greater creature now than I have ever been before. I am stronger, smarter, and definitely more compassionate. Yet, here I am wondering as to my own change. How am I stronger, smarter, and more compassionate? I am more of a realist now, still an idealist and also probably more militant as well. Is this true? Are these things that the people who have known me be able to see and pick out as a change in my character? This will all be something for you to decide. Unfortunately, there are only a very few of you that have known me on a large enough timeline to attempt to mark these changes.

So, if you failed to read that last paragraph, I am stagnant. Time is on hold and I am locked in the 23yr old body and mind that I came here with. (But then again, I always considered myself old for my age, but now I think I have started to catch up.) The second aspect of time perception here deals with the seasons. Never have I been so aware of the subtle, and not so subtle, changes that exist with the world and its passage through space and time. The seasons change here. The seasons never made a big deal for me in the states. Why would they? Though I lived in northern climates, with long cold winters, I have had the luxury of living separate and removed from these natural time markers. In the states, we live everyday in artificial environments that place us on a different plane of existence from those that do not. Here, I do not have those luxuries. The monsoon has finally arrived. It was about 7-10 days late, and that little difference I felt, and I have only been in this environment for two years! Nearly overnight, my existence went from a hot and humid oppression to a dank, mud infested, moldy and mildew bed of a world, but it is cool. At least cooler than the hell that gripped us for the past three and half months. Its still humid, it is as if I have gone swimming fully clothed and am now walking around a dark and subdued swamp. Everything is wet, mold and mildew have sprung up everywhere and on everything. The bed in which I share with my wife reeks of microscopic organisms and fungus and everything has a damp feel to them. Nothing is dry. Then again, this marks the start of the blessed fruit season. Mangoes and pineapples are flooding the markets. Palatable vegetables have disappeared, but that happened three months ago. So during the past three months we existed in a world of no food. There was, and is, rice. There is always rice. But now we have fruit! It is hard for me to explain why this is so important. The environments here are not simply mere changes in the temperature and amount of moisture in the air, it is a complete change in diet. During the winter months, we freeze at night as there is no system of heating in our cement block world. We eat rice and vegetables, no fruit. The hot season hits and we are baked in our cement block world. We lose the vegetables and yearn for our fruits. We are a continual pool of salty sweat, nothing we touch is dry due to that sweat, and hot oppressive heat prevents us from moving in the world. Then the monsoon blasts us from India. The time in which the mosquitoes will reign supreme…all fucking day long! Everything is wet, not with salty sweat but with cool refreshing rain. Too bad the fabrics that get wet don’t remain cool and refreshing. They become damp breeding grounds for spores and fungus and everything crawls with the algaeic growth of slime. The streets are flooded and everything is a giant mud pit. But for lunch, we eat the best fruit salad imaginable. The relentless heat has been beaten back, and now we are locked into our cement block world due to the incessant downpour of thunder and lightning as storms roll across the landscape. The twilight sky of sunset is phenomenal. The blazing sun finally drops below the clouds and fires off amazing tendrils of light that fuse in surreal color combinations that few artists could ever imagine.

Through all of this, I exist. I feel these changes and within a year my body is tuned to these rhythms of this world. Never before have I felt such a tuning of body and environment. Everything of this environment effects me, there is no escape, I must adapt to the weather around me. How far removed we have become in the states?
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
 
A Bus Ride:

You arrive. In front of you lies a colossus mass of confusion, noise, and filth. Finding your proper bus in this mess will be an impressive task. After dodging numerous hawkers assaulting you in the attempt to temp you to take their particular bus, you are correctly directed to your personal chunk of piecemeal metal, scrapped and twisted, set on top of a set of dubiously bald rubber tires. Scaling the steep steps you notice that the interior is worst off than the outer casing. The reject busses of China at the peak of Mao’s Cultural Revolution placed each set of seats precisely three inches too close, no matter how you sit. The cushions are askew, padded only with the dirt and grime from thousands of lungi wearing asses. Red stains of beetle nut are splashed across the seats and floors from where lazy men spat the leaf wrapped chew into the bus instead of out the cracked and dirty windows. You sit, get settled, bags between your feet and window opened as far as the man behind you will allow to let the phantom breeze cool your face. Word spreads and the beggars come in. Doors and windows are no obstacle as the footless climb the steps and the blind armless ones drive directly to your seat. Not only must you deal with the plethora of poverty and human dismemberment thrown into your face, but now you too must pass judgment from all of the Bangladeshis on the bus as they stare, wondering whether the rich foreigner will spare two, five, or ten taka for those less fortunate. Following the beggars, the towel man, candy man, newspaper boy, and water boy will evenly flow by offering you all the necessities of a long journey.

With a final honk honk after a standard twenty-minute delay the crew of the bus arrives. One driver, and four guys that handle the passengers climb up. The yell, pound the side of the bus, and work to free the machine from the intestinal congestion of the bus station. As you slowly roll out, the hawkers for the bus lure anyone remotely showing interest in the destination city to board, then argue, get off, argue some more, yell, then finally agree to stand for a slightly lesser fare. This will continue for as long as there is room for any child to rest comfortably propped up between the legs of a mother and a stranger. But in the end, the bus is picking up speed and rolling along. And now that the driver need not concern himself with slowing down, though marginally for the boarding passengers, he is free to open the throttle and prove that he has the biggest and hairiest balls of them all. Your annoyingly slow stop and go local bus becomes a careening mass ride to suicide. Commanding the center of the unmarked road, hand depressing the horn incessantly, crew slapping the sides and yelling at wayward rickshaws and goats, your captain’s eyes gain a glint and his smile becomes just that much more broader as he gambles with your life and throws the bus into an impossible pass between a cargo truck and the oncoming bus with the identical twin of your own driver. Inches are the biggest unit of measurement that you can use to gauge the amount of room between your 60kmh rocket and the one that just barely missed ripping off your arm. Early on you realize that for no reason will you ever stick any part of your body out of the driver side window. And thus you barrel on, no pothole, rickshaw, pregnant lady, or broken down truck will prevent the maniac behind the wheel from slowing down.

Despite the madness of the navigation, within the bus an eerie calm, one could call it extreme fatalism, holds firmly to the passengers. The oppressive heat of the sun, because no matter what time of day or night it is the heat is oppressive, bakes any resistance or care for personal safety out of those going from point A to B. The steady rocking, often jarring, and port to starboard roll of the bus gently subdues everyone and they can only stand and stare at you or sit and watch the endless rice paddies flash by. Communication is at a minimum for no one can be heard over the honking of the bus, or those around your own. Yet, periodically you will hear Hello…Hello…Hello, Yes…Hello…Hello as someone attempts to make a business deal on a cell phone. At some unseen cue, from front to back, one by one, the passengers so inclined, who are always more than you would like, begin to light their cigarettes. At these times, you will typically have three to four men in your immediate vicinity smoking Star or Benson & Hedges. Though the windows are open, the smoke will only fly back and up into your face. Say something if you will, they don’t care, there is no law against this, besides the driver sets the stage and he is on his eighth by that point as he chain smokes his way pass death.

If you are lucky, this particular bus will be lacking a radio with cassette player; but, if you are not so lucky, I truly feel sorry for you. You now have to sit through five to six hours worth of scratchy Hindi/Bangla songs from the 70s with women who have completely shrill and out of tune voices. The men will sing of their love and the women of their innocence and the passengers will pass judgment on how sincere they are being by joining in and adding their own take on the tune.

Though this may sound unbearable, you are still offered numerous little distractions that pull your mind and eyes out of the bus. You sit by the window, leaning out away from the smell of your fellow companions and you simply watch. You watch the land of this foreign country flow pass you in an endless stream of consciousness. Brilliantly green rice paddies, softly reflecting the blue sky above, are your standard visual reference. The hamlets, villages, and towns bisect these and you gain a glimpse of the daily lives of the people of Bangladesh, as they are not willing to let you see when you are on the outside. They don’t see you, and by taking no notice of the exotic foreigner, they carry on just like normal. This is a normalcy that is painstakingly missing from your life. Men at the market, women herding the young cows and children, and those same children running off and laughing as they begin a new game. The men and women, boys and girls work side by side in the fields planting, sowing, reaping, and harvesting. The seasons of the arbitrary year slip by in one collage of color and time. The black imposing water buffalo pull the tills through the fertile soil and the tall white oxen cart bricks from one kiln to the next. It’s an endless procession of people living life, undisturbed by the happenings of everyday life. You see them laugh and cry, clap hands in joy and shake heads in disgust. Unknowingly, they are sharing their hardships and triumphs with you as you speed by on an unremarkable bus. You are more of an observer, a cultural anthropologist, at this time than any other point while in this country. By separating yourself from the bus in which you ride, and being separated from the real world around you, you float in limbo existing in neither place, but instead floating in your mind as your eyes are the only windows into this world that your body has become numb to and long ago disappeared.

Friday, June 03, 2005
 
Click click click goes the gas before being ignited and filling the square box full of heat. The main course is stripped down to just its skin and placed inside as the heat steadily rises and the flames lick at the fresh flesh that it is being served. As the food bastes in its own juices, they cry out in misery. The flesh is still alive, and the creatures writher in misery before the all consuming fire leaches the life out of them. With feverish eyes, dehydrated tongues, and parched lips, Shannon and I moan in our pools of sweat that form instantaneously whenever we pause for but a moment. Escape is not an option, we are already home. We lost water for four days, and nearly died. We take about 6-8 showers a day, but still we burn. Welcome back to Bangladesh, one step closer to the gates of Hell.

Its hot. The temperature has been consistently between 37-40 degrees Celsius for the past two weeks, with humidity in the upper 90%. Misery is extrapolated by the fact that we reside on the top floor of our three story apartment building, on the sunny side, with no shade at all for the building. Throughout the day we bake. By early evening and night when everything cools outside, our home gets even hotter. There has been very little wind to give any sort of ventilation and the last storm we had was last week. Our first week back, Bangladesh lost about 200 people in a series of freak storms that blew in during the night. Lightening and flash floods set the scene, then collapsed buildings and wreaked ferry boats and launches increased that number. And the monsoon is still three to four weeks away.

Back in Jamalpur, Shannon and I finished our classes and had a little party with our students. It was a good thing to come back and finish up with them. I have finally got them organized to play Ultimate Frisbee once a week in the wee early hours of the day. The first day we played, I ended up becoming severely dehydrated and Shannon had to nurse me back to health. This, of course, comes on the heels of when I had to care for my beloved wife as she suffered with dehydration the night before. We were set to begin our next set of classes later this month, but were told to hold off till July. Shannon and I will be co-facilitating two courses, Global Learning, and Community Service. New and fun classes for all ages!! This month we are going to fulfill one of Shannon’s goals and conduct a Photo class at the NGO I used to work with, the one that schools and cares for children of sex workers. We will take a week to conduct a workshop with about 10 kids, teaching them the fine art of taking a really good pictures, then turn them loose with disposable cameras that were donated by some of Shannon’s mom’s mothers. (She teaches a Parent/toddler class in San Diego). We hope to collect the photos and perhaps put on a show featuring the world that these kids see.

Adjustment back to life here in Bangladesh has been difficult, but the worst is over now. We’re here and we have 5 months to go. We will work on our language a bit more, get out a bit more, and try to make a lasting impact on our community. Yesterday, I ran into a former student of mine that was able to get a job for BRAC, the largest NGO in Bangladesh!! He is now doing field organization and development., not sure if my class had anything to do with it, but I like to think so. So many students of mine I never see again, but a few I do, and with a few I can see the difference that I make. In this past class of mine, I taught them how to write a research paper, which is something they have never done before. These are college and masters students, and they have never had to write a research essay before. Going back and reading what was written in the first few weeks, compared to their final papers, I can really see the difference that I am making here.

Tomorrow we lose our catL We will be giving Alaze to a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer that will be here for another year. We are very sad for this cat had been perfect for us. Half dog, half cat, it fits Shannon and I wonderfully. But at least we will know that it will have a good home for another year. Earlier this week I kicked a guy that snuck up on a kitten and kicked it up and into a wall. Bad timing, and not very PC of me, but they guy seriously snuck up and kicked the cat right as I was walking by. And this was on my street! I was not going to take it, so I kicked him, lightly and in the shin and yelled at him. He didn’t get it.

As for politics here, the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) instituted an “Elite Crime Fighting Unit” called the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) about a year ago. They are infamous for their use of lethal force. Every week, there are on average 10-20 deaths attributed to them. Over the past few weeks there has been an especially high death rate amoungst leaders in the opposition party’s (Awami League AL) ranks. Five high ranking leaders have been caught in “cross-fire” that has involved RAB. The AL is declaring that the BNP has made a hit list of potential rivals in next years election. I actually would not put that past them. I apologize for the lack of politics and other facts of life that take place here in Bangladesh as this blog has largely concentrated on my personal life and experience here. The truth here, is that Bangladesh is incredibly corrupt and violent. It is all about the money and power. Nepotismic democracy is what I would call it. There is barely any sort of Rule of Law, the street is what rules here. Fuck with the street and the street will fuck you. She that has more bodies in the street the better, but if you are ruling the government, you control the army and all branches of the police. The BNP has also just unilaterally appointed the Elections Chairman despite united opposition from all opposition parties. This is a process that is supposed to be done by consensus, but they skipped that part of it declaring that the opposition has no interest in working with the ruling coalition. The last time an election took place, Peace Corps had to evacuate due to violence, and I don’t see how that is going to change next year.

Well, that is all for now. Alex, I know you want to hear about the tsunami so I will try to get it out. If you look back at entries after that date, I think I wrote a short something. For anyone else that has an interest in anything, or wants me to address anything, please let me know. Cheers!

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