Saturday, March 29, 2008

your body is a wonderland!

the sundarbans safari folks were in a fish bowl, constantly under watch at every moment in time for a week. after dark, they notice that the women of the village come out to watch the "bideshis" (foreigners). rajeeb mentions that these women don't generally come out during the day, and hence the night visits.

the volunteers step out of the classroom, and lie down on the ground under the stars. the women approach warily, then touch their noses and their arms.

the last few days, i have been to the independence day celebration function (march 26), saleem's(our carpenter) place for lunch/dinner, abul's (our landlord) place for lunch, a tailor to get a salwaar kameez with hana (our landlord's wife), a school ceremony held in honor of hodr (they built the school)

at the independence day celebration, a woman with an amazing voice from the local NGO presents a narrative using a scroll, none of which we understand at the time. the sight of camels with dead people, village gatherings, aeroplanes etc. didn't make much sense until someone explains that bangladesh children are smuggled into the middle east to be camel jockeys for camel races there, which seem to be a sport for the rich and which also happens to be responsible for quite a number of deaths. the program ends with a fabulous solo performance by asha, our landlord's daughter.

it's been a very social couple of days, tomorrow morning i am off to a safari to build a playground finally.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

losing their religion..

sunday, the 23rd, we took a boat to the school across the sunderbans, the site for pg#4. after a relaxing two and a half hour boat ride, broken by an occasional coastal village, waving children and adults and river dolphins, we reach our destination.

the entire village, including children as little as 5, helps us unload the lumber we had on our trawler. ben and louisa play with the kids and are, subsequently, the pied pipers.

after a quick lunch, its back to work again. we start painting wood, which is, by far, my favorite thing to do (besides using the hand planer ;) after about 2 hours of painting and scrubbing wood, i am back on the trawler to go back "home" (bari) with ben, louisa and rajeeb, our landlord's son, also our translator.

an hour into the ride, the trawler stops and i am jolted up from my nap. in the middle of nowhere, we are out of fuel! so we get off, walk through the mud, and village roads, for a good half hour, before stopping at a roadside stall to have a drink and snacks, while rajeeb secures two motorbikes to get us back home. half an hour later, we are back home having dinner and retiring for the night after what seemed like a long day!

marc, our operations director, landed up in a fairly remote village one hot afternoon, 3 days ago. people in the school seemed exceptionally withdrawn and wary of him. later he finds out from rajeeb that they thought he was there to give them injections to convert them to Christianity.
it startles me, confuses me, humbles me, amuses me and yet saddens me but most of all, it makes me be thankful for my life,

on one playground install, someone asked us what we were there for. someone tried explaining to build a playground. how do you explain what a playground is to someone who has never been outside their village, doesn't have tv or a computer or books to even imagine what a see-saw/teeter-totter or a swing is. playground to them is the same ground they sleep on, work on and walk on. there's no separate space to play.
a simple thing such as a frisbee, a soft toy amuses the entire village for a few hours, i can only imagine what the sight of a colorful playground will.

i feel particularly blessed and fortunate to have seen two different worlds and to have grown in both of them, not only in age but life experiences.
for someone who was born and raised in a third world country, and then migrated to the US, it gives me a wider perspective to things. but at the same time, it puts me in the space in between. i don't fit in in either place completely..

there is such a huge world out there and yet, most of us might never know about it. there's still so much unseen and untold - not necessarily good or bad but just different.. one lifetime can certainly not be enough.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


of bangladesh.. are up on flickr. well, some of them

let me tell you about safaris today.
pg = playground

A safari is a group of people qho stay on site for a week of the playground build rather than come back "home" every day. it's as exciting as a regular safari, except the "animals" are the group themselves. its normally in some remote village. so there are eyes watching them every moment in time, waking or not, through windows.
one left yesterday for pg#3 and they will be staying in a cyclone shelter. one leaves tomorrow for pg#4 and they will be staying on the school premises across from the sunderbans. unfortunately, i won't be going to either because i am the official "laura", the wood planer and i will be busy planing wood for #5

we have a day off today. we completed finishing wood for playground #4 by 3 PM yesterday.

i visited a school yesterday to attend a song and dance program. i ended up being in the first row among the teachers and other guests of honor. not wanting to steal the spotlight from the contestants, i decided to not take out my camera. they wanted me to sing a song in hindi, but i sneaked out!

the last two nights, i was fast asleep by 9:30 while reading Sightseeing. so today, i get up bright and early and eat some "chana choor" an unhealthy snack with nescafe instant coffee, while browsing through the laos, cambodia, vietnam lonely planet.

n. will be in laos on may 19th, so i have a month to get there from bangkok. i plan to spend a month in cambodia, including one week in a beach town, doing nothing.

this morning i went to the pg#3, with stef and david. i wear my good non-work clothes and armed with a day pack walk towards the bus stand.

we hire motorbikes for 40 takas/person to the site. stef and i get on one with a guy driving it and david gets on another. it was a bumpy half an hour ride on village roads. we finally get there to find a great living space in a cyclone shelter, and a quieter, mellow crowd of kids and elders. the crew was already working hard at painting and digging holes.

after a quick tea break, we head back to the village where we hire a "van"/bhen, a cycle rickshaw with a flat bed, to take us to the main bazar. from here, amidst more stares and speculations, we walk towards the school, where pg#1 was built.

when we get there, the playground is empty. stef jumps on a swing while i take photos of children scrambling to get the remaining swings and lily pads. one makes faces at me and yells, "bangladesh zindabad". i say the same in return.

a mundane place as a playground is capable of bringing of so much joy in someone's life - it is evident in their laughter. it makes me think how blessed i have been in my life.

the principal comes out, pulls the ear of two students playing in the playground and invites us over for tea. we gently refuse and head back.

stef stops by to pay for cement and labor. a crowd gathers around the shop where we sit, while stef argues with the shopkeeper for he charged more than he promised. a man approaches speaking hindi and asking me what the confusion is about. the issue is settled, we head over to the bus stand to board the bus for rayenda.

we climb to the top of the bus, and two young men follow, taking pictures with their phones. sometimes we must pay for all the photos we take in their villages. we sit quietly peeling oranges.

a bird's eye view of the area is exhilarating. a gentle breeze blows as the bus winds through the village roads, and we munch on grapes, while talking about the bay area and ducking tree branches. we reach home to two children watching an owl resting on a bicycle.

it was a perfect outing and now its a perfect time for a nap! i love my days off!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

hard day's night(s)

sunday was a working day and it wasn't my ordinary sit-on-an-exercise-ball and type away working day - we planed and finished wood for 9 hours with a short lunch break in between. we did the same on monday, tuesday and wednesday( wednesday night here).

on my way to paanch raaste to buy water, a little girl came up to me and said "you and us - same, same". i think, by now, the entire village knows my name, age, marital status, occupation, siblings, siblings occupation, father's name, my state in india, where i live, where my siblings live- all of us are still asked the same questions everyday, multiple times a day.. and i have been here only 4 days, the others have been here for months!

i also have 2 thai fisherman's pants as work pants - so good to have tailors who sew this stuff in one day for 240 taka (less than $4. 1$=68.05 taka)

i might be staying a bit longer than i had originally planned (march 26th). the project was extended till april 19th due to a grant from savethechildren to build playgrounds in 5 schools in neighboring villages- an achievement for hodr. 12th of april is the community party, where the playgrounds, houses etc will be formally handed over to the community, which as per our "status board" is maximum fun and hence the plan for extended stay!

today is movie night and all of the 20 people in the house are on the terrace watching a bond movie or austin powers. and i sit here, uploading ONE picture every time i am online (because i refuse to scale down the size of pics!) . i am going to look into getting my own internet connection in the next few days..

Saturday, March 15, 2008

come together

its 2 pm when the paddleboat reaches massua,. we board a smaller boat to our coastal village from there.

after a boat ride that reminded me of swades, we walk through the streets of rayenda to "hello"s and "what country" and "your name"? everyone in the village is still intrigued by all the outsiders who have descended upon them.

i meet all the volunteers through the course of the day - there's 10 of us in the house right now. 9 volunteers are camping in a school in another village for a week.

we get down to business and do not waste the 2 hours of the work day we have left. so i burn the edges of a nylon rope to be used in playgrounds, and then i do some wood planing.. i am officially the "new laura", replacing her as leaves tomorrow for canada.

i accompany laura into the village market to buy a salwar kameez for this little girl- farzana that laura has fallen in love with. the 15 minutes of fame was a myth. we are mobbed every place we go, there is a crowd following us around town. strangers come up to me and start talking in bangla. the half hour passes by soon enough.

dinner comes with a team meeting with updates on the strategy of how to maximize work that we can do in the upcoming days.

i foresee laborious days ahead, which entail taking local boats into other villages and lots of wood planing. i guess, the trails will remain undiscovered for now or else they will be discovered by more than just me (the crowd follows)

ekla chaalo (walk alone..)

13th march

the trip to the ghats is quite a ride. no autorickshaw/ tuktuk wants to go there, its old dhaka and yes, it is old! i constantly remind myself to not whisper "Hi" to every person I make eye contact with.

the boat is not leaving today, so another day in dhaka for me.

i come back and read to tahsin, mahmud's 4 year old, for the next 2 hours. i have to strain my mind to remember, starfish, sea-horse, even crocodile.. it must be age.

for the first time in years, i experience lights out. we take chairs to the terrace and watch the city hum by. ruma, mahmud's wife, has a migraine. it is hot and humid, a cloth fan provides some relief.

14th march

i wake up at 1:30 AM after sleeping through the entire evening, read for a few hours and then go back to sleep. seems like I am catching up on the last few years of sleep and reading.

its a friday, and bangladesh's weekend has begun. being a muslim country, friday and saturday constitute the weekend in bangladesh.

breakfast is followed by cha (tea) and mahmud tosses a newspaper my way, saying cha is incomplete without one.. that is a perfect cup of tea.

still not willing to let go of the real world, i head to the internet cafe down the street. i guess, i will be catching up on my patience too :)

next is a ride to the travel fair in the sheraton in an tuktuk. with a bandana over my nose and mouth and sunglasses, I almost fit in. i pick up information about thailand and nepal- 2 more pounds!

the ride back is in a double-decker bus, so i make myself comfortable on the last seat and for the first time in bangladesh, take out my camera. hello, dhaka!

its a special lunch day - with fried fish, beef curry, pumpkin vegetable, potato vegetable and gourd vegetable- only in an indian buffet in sunnyvale have I had so many choices (without the beef, of course)! mahmud and ruma are wonderful hosts and very warm and generous people. ruma quickly packs up rotis and vegetables before we leave for the docks.

the boat to rayenda is not leaving today as well. so mahmud suggests taking the rocket - a historic paddleboat which goes till massua and then you take a small boat (trawler) into rayenda.

i have my 15 minutes of fame right there, standing at the ghat while waiting for the rocket. people stop and stare and then just stop. i am one of them and yet not. confusing perhaps?

i start taking photos, of the place and people around me. i see smiles through the lens and more smiles and then more people. a young man asks me to take a picture of a toothless old man, i oblige and then show him his photo. he waves his aging hands and grins. soon, the mysticism around this flashing device and me is lost - i am one of them. the crowd disperses, some lurk around.

the cabin is 1500 takas, but well worth it. i have a first class sleeper cabin with 2 beds, lots of room to keep the 80 lbs of stuff i am carrying.

while surveying the rocket (and i love saying that!), i meet g - he speaks english! for sometime, i dont have to use sign language! g is volunteering with hodr and is going to rayenda as well. he has been on the road for about a year and a half, with a few days back home and holds the distinction(so far) of being the only one who didn't know of lonely planet before he began his journey! thats pretty hard to beat..

he has been working with hodr for a month and took a break for a week. so i ask him a thousand questions about the project, imagining myself there.

i know i am going to trails that are waiting to be discovered, and paanch raaste (five ways) which seems to have some spiritual significance. the journey has really begun..

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

bangla dhun

i see a sign for free wifi at hongkong airport and can't stop smiling- out comes the iBook.
hmm.. and i wanted to travel to see the world beyond wifi, cable tv, skyscrapers.. so here i am in the perfect place - Dhaka.

coming to bangladesh is like stepping back into time. its somewhat like india as it was before the internet boom, but with less women on the streets.

i walk through an open-air vegetable market, a fish market, bangladeshi bazars, avoiding cycle rickshaws and inviting stares, while following mahmud, of the LP thorn tree bangladesh forum fame to a mega-shoppe where you get everything from hairpins to vacuum cleaners.

internet cafes are few- the cost is less than 30 cents for an hour-- you DO need that hour, its slow! uploading photos on flickr might be a challenge here, i'm sure it will be easier in thailand.

this afternoon, i (try to) go on a 24 hour boat ride to the coastal village where i am volunteering.. the boat runs only when there are enough people, so i might wander the streets of dhaka for another day or two..
more to come..

Thursday, March 6, 2008

move closer..

i move out of my apartment early Saturday morning
so today, i decided to do nothing but bask in the sunlight peeking through my copper curtains.