Tuesday, April 29, 2008

wild thing(s)!

my last days in bangkok proved to be sweet indeed. i have my first-ever 'all you can eat fruit in 90 minutes' buffet. there is corn on the cob, fresh green coconut, spicy tamarind, the choclate coated cantaloupe, besides all different kinds of tropical fruit.

and then to maintain that sugar-high, i spend half an hour at the driving range next door- aiming for the top of a building! thats what you aim for when you are on the 17th floor :) the rest of the day was spend doing the last bit of shopping for things i need and most that i don't.

my last day at bangkok is spent watching 3 movies in a restaurant next door, running a few errands and an afternoon nap!

early yesterday morning, i get up after an hour of sleep and board the train to kanchanaburi. the only other 'farang' who boards this train AND who can converse in english is eric, from france. he traveled through south america for 6 months and is now exploring asia. a mellow train ride turns hilarious after eric's seat falls off seconds after he gets up to take a stroll! three hours of a scenic train ride later, i am at a guesthouse in kanchanaburi in a bamboo-roofed room overlooking the river.

everything is bit out of city limits here, so we decide to rent a motorbike for a day instead of taking tours, which prove to be expensive and are certainly not as much fun! its a sleepy town without crazy traffic, the freeway offers a view of pristine thai countryside with its coconuts and lotuses and paddy fields.

this is the town with the famous bridge over river kwai, although technically "the" bridge is not over the river kwai! after a quick stop at the bridge, we visit the tiger temple, essentially a petting zoo with tigers!

tigers are rescued and raised by monks here, and they are docile and used to human interaction. most of them are taking an afternoon siesta and seem to be fairly oblivious to crazy people posing with them. inspite of being a bit critical about wild animals in a zoo, i couldn't pass this one up! there are even playful cubs, with their cute chubby paws! its amazing to be able to touch such a beautiful and ferocious creature (and live!)

next is a burma-thailand railway museum, which has details about the railway track built from thailand to burma by PoWs of WWII. a 100000 men have died building this track, which was used by the japanese to extend their asian empire. there are heart-wrenching postcards written by PoWs to their families, people's life histories etched in aluminum mess containers, photographs and videos, presumably taken by the japanese for their television broadcasts. i wonder if it is still the truth in some parts of the world with all the wars going on?

my travels "really" began today, and the first day ends with me journaling this in front of my river-facing room, and moving tables every 10 minutes to avoid gheckos and red ants on the tables!!
life's good!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

closing my eyes

bangkok has grown on me, just as its almost time to leave. my plans have changed and instead of heading to cambodia (three weeks didn't seem enough for cambodia and southern laos) i leave for kanchanaburi(of 'The Bridge on river Kwai' fame) on monday and cross over to laos around may 12.

i am at khao san road, the backpacker's ghetto, in bangkok. it's a great place to shop for everything imaginable, fake student IDs, pirated CDs, DVDs, funky clothes, braids etc. even the post office has extended hours daily - 8 to 10 PM! this street never sleeps (at least not when i am awake)!

on another side of bangkok, there are the big malls that i have frequented (for maccenter) the siam center, MBK region. even these malls have everything- from a cafe (or true urban park as its called) where you can listen to your ipod via a listening dome over your head, cool stationery and the "routine" mall stores - gucci, pucci, ferragamo etc. it also has the "gourmet market", where there are free samples of all different kinds of food- my most favorite and recommended thing to do!

still another side is the chatuchak weekend market, with its endless stalls of clothes, accessories, everything camouflage, tailor made suits ready in less than 10 hours.

away from all these, away from central bangkok is a small town of pak kret, with a skills development center for the blind- they offer traditional thai massage and all the masseuses are blind. they say the blind have an enhanced sense of touch, so they make better masseuses and they sure are.

two days after my arrival in bangkok, i decide to go there, my friend azfr joins me. getting there is indeed an adventure- anyone needs a massage after that! its an hour on a local bus to get to the city (#32 to pak kret and a 20B motorbike ride to the center). after 2 boat rides across the river (finally ending on the shore we started at) and 2 motorbike rides later, we are finally there.

getting a massage from a blind person is a different experience altogether. although i can barely imagine his dark world- without color, something we take for granted too- still i try. i close my eyes and enjoy the sense of touch.

after spending a few days in malls and checking out some of the major attractions, i decide to make better use of my time in bangkok and learn traditional thai massage- it keeps me off shopping, i learn something new and the school is air-conditioned :)

i have had a busy last week, with classes at the Wat Pho Massage School from 9 through 4 and after class activities i.e. hanging out with new friends. of course, the massages that i have been getting all week as a result of being in school, have been very relaxing :) after all, you get what you give (so give it your all --- 'here's to life by shirley horn')

thai massage is pressing of a lot of acupressure points in a specific sequence, in specific postures (forced yoga on the clients) for the masseuse and the client. as with everything else i have tried, i have renewed respect for thai traditional masseuses now- there's nothing intuitive about acupressure points.

its been a wonderful week, with new friends, a working laptop, healthy breakfast every morning (muesli with fruit, yogurt, and nuts), chao phraya express to school everyday, lots of mango and sticky rice (black, green, purple!) and the fact that i am certified masseuse from one of the most prestigious centers for learning the art :) now for more such weeks ahead..

Saturday, April 19, 2008

goin' back

during my journey from rayenda to dhaka, the bus is loaded into a ferry on river padma and we float towards dhaka for 3 hours. there's water all around and yet, there is an acute shortage of drinking water.

i get acquainted with a photo journalist from bangladesh, akash. amidst talks about issues that bangladesh and he faces in his profession, i get a preview of his work- every single picture is a work of art, it tells a story- silently, eloquently.

it gets me thinking about my experiences in bangladesh. for every country i visit, i decide to register my impressions, how/what will i remember about it, what i take away from it (and they will always be "live" lists)

for bangladesh, i will remember
- my life experiences with an amazing group of people from all over the world, out to make a difference in a forgotten part of this world- my money (and manual labor) will be for hodr!
- a maze of water and land
- children laughing and playing in ponds, rivers while taking their afternoon dip
- questions, questions from everyone, everywhere
- the best milk-tea i have had (with condensed milk)
- palms, coconut trees, purple flowers (hyacinths?)
- precarious bridges of all kinds - bamboo, log, concrete slab
- life moving at a snail's pace (and internet connections, too)- without a tv, fan, car, refrigerator- things i have taken for granted
- but most of all, i will remember the generosity, humility, love and kindness of the people of bangladesh- from the little girl, who insisted on me having the last bit of her cookie to mahmud, who invited me to spend new years with his family to saleem and shahjahan, who fed their guests more food than they could probably afford.
- my hodr experience - which deserves another blog post

my most memorable moments
- the celebration at rasulpur bazar
- sitting on the sidelines and watching the laughter, when we opened the playground
- the two hours i spent in the village, distributing photos

i end with a poem by walt whitman that i read recently
location and times, what is it in me that meets them all, whenever and wherever, and makes me, at home?
forms, colors, densities, odors- what is it in me that corresponds with them?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

city of blinding lights

i'm in bangkok - the capital of sex and drugs (and is that a surprise with a name like that?) and shopping, amazing street food etc..finally settling in - now that i will be here for another week. my laptop is being fixed for free- the parts are still under warranty and i bought it used ;) this place is full of surprises!

i also have a new friend, azfr - also known in david(??!!) in the corporate world- and guess where he is from originally - bangladesh :)(lives in NYC) so i continue to say 'bhuji na' (i don't understand) and 'kothai' (where) till he leaves for laos soon.

so far, i have explored (on buses and bikes) the wholesale clothes, accessories mall (platinum mall - not mentioned in the LP surprisingly!), the computer city (patnip plaza), siam everything (square, paragon, center, discovery etc), a lot of street food and the best thai massage ever.

about buses- great system, some waiting time ('my top rated' reduces the pain), mostly incorrect information from strangers about bus numbers and you have to flag them down - fascinating!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

concrete jungle

my selection of photos from bangladesh are up and now this blog has live update!
more soon as i wait in bangkok to find out if my laptop can be fixed :(
i am back to the real world.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

all shook up

the last one month i
- worked 6 days a week
- had no alcohol
- had 6 ice-cream bars (a lot for me)
- had about 5 sodas (sodas are a bi-annual event normally)
- had lots and lots of samosas
- had jalebis!
- ate a huge amount of rice
- lost an hour of my life crossing international boundaries ( how i hate going west to east)

the amount of sugar in my system is probably the reason for my shocked state or it could be the sudden change from burqa-clad women to a scantily clad girl dancing on a stage in the middle of a road covered in foam! i have arrived in bangkok and its new years day in thailand and bangladesh.

after celebrating new years in bangladesh in the morning with mahmud and his family, i arrive in bangkok to everyone waging water (and talc) wars against each other on the streets.
i reach my hotel and its tropical pool. its a completely different world from 24 hours ago, and it was only a 2 hour flight away. i am experiencing withdrawal symptoms right now.
i need some time for reflection.

Monday, April 14, 2008

blue sunday

i head back to rayenda from bagerhat, where temps are touching 100 degrees F. Its a friday, my last day off before i leave on sunday. i sleep the whole day. evening as i am headed to have a quiet meal at the 'Haj' i am mobbed by a group of little girls. one leads me to her aunt, who she promises speaks perfect hindi and she does!
i sit on a chair for an hour, graciously accepting an invitation for tea, while i am questioned by about 25 community members and this time, i have a translator at hand! one observes, the volunteers wear dirty clothes. and yes, we sure do :)

of course, everyone is being mobbed these days, more so than normal days, for everyone in the village wants an invitation to the goodbye party(or picnic as it was being called) on the 12th. the party itself was a short, yet wonderful affair with short speeches, a short entertainment program including a rock star performance by alan and a slideshow of 200 photos as the highlight. all women volunteers looked stunning in salwaar kameez or saris while men looked sharp in bangladeshi caps and kurtas (embroided shirts).

the last one month, every morning, i get up, dig into an 'any mountain' plastic shopping bag nailed to my bedpost, and get ready for work. the attire is a paint and grime ridden HODR t-shirt, a worn pair of pants, a red bandana and the coveted HODR cap. on the heavy lumber days, i wear my running shoes , otherwise i wear tevas. yesterday, i get up and for the first time, wear a salwaar kameez. i am ready to board the bus to dhaka.

its funny how a place you share with 20 people from around the world, with a bunk bed and 4 sq. feet of shelf space for your personal space, can feel like home. space seems so inconsequential and yet, i search for a roomier apartment every time.

i break down as i give marc a goodbye hug. 'its like i am leaving home', i say. 'hope you will find another home during your travels', he says and wishes me good luck. a hug to stef, and i leave, scared to look back.

i have said goodbye once too often now, but it hits me every time still.
i am human- still and for that, i am thankful.

all of my memories

one afternoon my work requires me to go around the village looking for people in the photos, that everyone has taken since we got here. it is called the village photo project and its an effort to replace the tangible memories that were lost in the cyclone.

two hours in the village, surrounded by a mob of 50 people, children and adults screaming 'photo, photo', me occasionally screaming 'thaama'(stop!)- made me realize how precious photos are to everyone here. its a snapshot at a moment in time, when they are so thrilled by foreigners taking their pictures with fancy cameras instead of mobile phones!

so, i decide to go a bit farther with my photos as well. there is no photo studio in rayenda with digital photo printing capabilities, the closest is in bagerhat, a 2 hour bus ride away. on a sultry afternoon, i get on a bus to bagerhat. the mundane bus ride becomes interesting as the old man seated next to me adopts me. Shahjahan is the kindest, gentlest soul i met in bangladesh. having watched us toil in the sun in the lumber yard, he has the deepest respect for the volunteers.

an hour after reaching bagerhat, and a coffee and snacks later, i have the photos in hand. mission accomplished. now i will proudly adorn my flickr portfolio with those pictures!

Monday, April 7, 2008

sweet little lies

i choke when children ask me about my baba-ma.
i wonder if they already know about death. not wanting to be the one to tell them, i lie, and make them believe that they still live on this fertile land, where wheat and water is in abundance. i just wish it wasn't a lie or maybe it isn't.

Friday, April 4, 2008

the concert for bangladesh

and finally i am in my bunk bed listening to birdsongs and gheckos. its a friday, and i spent half of it in a cha shop having about 6 cups of tea and samosas and lunch and discussing SE asia. inspite of the rain, i am determined to find postcards/something to mail today.

but before that, its time to recount the events of the last few days.

sunday morning, we load up the lumber for the playground, our supplies of biscuits, fruit and toilet paper and we take a 45 minute "van/bhen" ride to rasulpur bazar.

its a quiet little sleepy village with a row of shops (fondly called the strip mall), most of which were almost always closed! after a quick tour of the cyclone shelter, where we will be staying, and the pond, where we will be bathing, and the cha-shop where we will be drinking a lot of tea, we start work for the day.

at 5, we have an introductions/qa session with the village folks in the school yard. i get an applause because i am indian!

as evening sets in, from the best seats in the house (elevated cyclone shelter), we watch the village men play volleyball and children frisbee and badminton till dark.

after dinner and after setting up our mosquito nets on the terrace, we decide to take a stroll in the village bazar. the first stop is a cha-shop, where we introduce ourselves again at the insistence of everyone around us. after several such introductions, we return to our terrace to take in the quiet of the village.

it turns out to be a wonderful place to sleep or to lie awake and do star-gazing, as i discover later. at about 2 in the morning, a woman, who lives below the shelter, starts talking loudly to herself. gradually, the monologue turn into a mournful wail. surreal, and very disturbing- a cry in the middle of a dark night perhaps remembering lost souls. i lie awake in my bed the entire night, wishing i could understand her.
the next morning, zameel, our translator, tells us that she mourns the loss of her family in the cyclone.

the village is a delight to work in, the community helps in every way possible, the cha-shop is right on our way back home. every two hours i go for 2 cups of tea.

every day i have someone come up to me to tell me how glad they are to have me there and that i am their "most favorite" because i am one of them. kids call me aapa (big sister), adults call me sister. i am in shock- i wasn't sure how a brown woman planing wood and hammering nails and painting would be received in a muslim country and the response has moved me.

tonight, its movie night at the theatre that we discovered the previous night. its a small room (15'X 20'X 5'), with 2 benches against the walls and planks on the floor to squat. there were about 50 of us in that room watching a bangla movie on about a 28" tv. we take in the cigarette smoke and heat for about 45 minutes before heading back.

the next day- our third- its long and tiring. in the evening, we go for our usual tea routine. our tea-break turns into a face-off- with bohemian rhapsody, followed by bangla songs, performed by ben on our side and amazing singers from the village, on theirs! after 2 hours of singing songs we don't know the words to, we have another great evening under the stars.

our last day is a half-day, to be followed by hand-painting by the school kids and then opening of the playground. the eight of us do the customary 5 minutes of posing on the playground, before we get down to leading bewildered kids to put their handprints (for "hands-on") on the playground. and then it was open to all..

it was an emotionally charged one hour, to say the least. we sit on the sidelines and watch as 12 kids jump on the tire swing, 15 on a see-saw/teeter-totter, an endless lines form for the swings, the rope bridge is a trampoline.

it is impossible to capture the joy, the laughter, those smiles ( but i try, nevertheless) a little girl walks up to me to say "thank you" and walks away.
someone walks up to me and offers to take us to the sunderbans. another invites us to play volleyball, and yet another invites us for another song competition in the evening.

after a wonderful game of volleyball with the locals, we retire to have a bath followed by dinner. it has been an incredibly moving day- little did we know what is going to follow this!

after a brief post-dinner rest, we head to the cha-shop as promised. the locals wait patiently, for us to finish and then lead us to the center of the village.

the entire village has come together, including the women and children. there are about 300 of them.. there is a stringed instrument, singers- adults and children on floor mats. they have been waiting for us for an hour, if only we knew. we are made to sit on a bench, tea is served and the program begins.

there are beautiful bangla songs, some hindi songs. the audience requests a hindi song and i oblige- with about 5 minutes of kal ho na ho- forgetting the first verse after 2 lines :) all of us sing amazing grace and then ben, always the entertainer steps up to do a funny song and dance routine. more joy, more laughter, more smiles ..

the 2 hour program ends with another hindi song and an emotional farewell speech and all of us too speechless to say anything.