Chris's First Impressions of Dhaka

Trip Start Apr 19, 2006
Trip End Apr 18, 2008

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Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Dhaka, Bangladesh Mon 24 April 2006 Cygnet House, Gulshan

It's about 4:15 in the morning. I woke up around 2:30 and had difficulty staying asleep. Last night I dreamt about moving to Switzerland with Luke, being assigned to some remote village, and having the task of trying to find a job there all the while feeling a bit overwhelmed. This is a recurrent dream (at least the part about moving back to Switzerland), though it's the first time that Luke figured in it tagging along beside me. I supposed that's a reflection of our current situation here in Dhaka, having just arrived last Wednesday and still feeling quite new with the place and the job despite my having been here before.

I'd begun a newsletter Friday night while Luke & I were curled up on the sofa watching some suspense movie called "Red Eye". After about 20 minutes of being distracted, not just by the film but by our cat Rita who chose to fall asleep on my right forearm while I was trying to type, I had to give into the movie instead of finishing the newsletter. So even though Rita is back at the moment trying to get my attention again, along with her sister Katrina, I'll try to stick to it this time.

We arrived in Dhaka Wednesday morning after almost 24 hours in transit through Frankfurt & Dubai. Even though we both got upgrades, I think we averaged about 4 hours of sleep each. There were no delays, however. Also, our cats had been sent to Bangladesh via a pet shipping company a couple of days prior, and were somewhere between DC and London, so it was all a rather uneventful trip for us.

One of the pluses of working for a bureaucracy like the Embassy here is that our move had been well organized. We'd been given tons of checklists to follow in the months leading up to our assignment, and two Embassy staff had been assigned as our sponsors. As soon as we got to the baggage claim area, we were greeted by Kevin & Katrina (not our cat) and taken to our temporary house in the diplomatic enclave/neighborhood called Gulshan,

My first impressions of the city were that there was surprisingly little traffic compared to my last (and only other visit) in December 2000. There seemed to be less pollution in the air, and I could only smell the freshly mown grass (and perhaps a bit of diesel exhaust from the mower) as we left the baggage claim area to meet the Embassy motor pool vehicle awaiting us. I've since learned that the public transportation vehicles, including the three-wheeled "baby taxis" now run on natural gas, which has helped the air quality substantially, despite the persistent presence of black dust from the brick factory in town. At any rate, at least the main airport road was clean and landscaped with trees & a brick paved sidewalk flanking it-another improvement since 2000.

It only took us about 15 minutes to arrive at Cygnet house, which is right across the street from the American Club and next door to the house of the Foreign Minister (sort of like living next to Condoleezza Rice, I suppose). Kevin and Katrina then walked us through what was our indefinite residence-showing us the three bedrooms, two living rooms, three bathrooms and an almost equal number of odd outdoor living spaces for the servants of previous residents. Kevin instructed us on how to use the water distiller and monitor that the underground cistern remained full. He was very helpful and had even gone out to buy us some groceries, stocking our refrigerator and even putting toilet paper in the dispensers. There was also the typical care package-three plastic crates of pans, bed sheets, and whatnots left by the Embassy folks in our kitchen. My first impressions where filtered through travel fatigue and a vague frustration since we were still unsure how long it would take for us to be moved into our permanent apartment, which, based on pictures we'd been sent earlier, seemed to have much more natural light and better views of Gulshan. Still, we were experiencing too much sensory overload to care much at the time.

The four of us decided to make another three of stops at the American Club across the street to open our accounts, then at the Embassy Citibank branch to get some cash, and finally to the Commissary to open up another account and pick up a few more groceries. By then, however, Luke & I were getting a bit tired and decided not to fill our day with any more activity & interaction before taking a four-hour power nap underneath our mosquito-netted bed back at the house.

Thursday, 27 April 2006 (5 AM)

Since the last time I wrote I had a little stomach bug and am now about 2 or 3 pounds lighter. Shortly after finishing the entry above, I went to work and immediately began to feel feverish and a bit queasy. By 2 PM I left the office and spend the following morning in bed as well after a night of chills. At least I wasn't nauseated, but I'm still going to the bathroom about 8 times a day and am taking Cypro, which the doctor at the Embassy gave me.

Yesterday completed our first full week in the country. The workweek here is Sunday through Thursday (so today feels sort of like a Friday to me). It was also the last day for Mary Hobbs, my predecessor. She's been frantically preparing for her move to the Sudan and is probably at the airport this very moment waiting for her flight to Dubai, then Nairobi. She's been very patient bringing me up to speed to the best of her ability during this period. I'd met her in DC last summer when she was in town for a conference, and I'm sure that her positive feedback to the mission played a role in getting me out here. In addition to Mary, there are three more people that are on the Education Team at USAID: Bonnie, Jabeen and Parveen. Bonnie is an American who will be moving to Frankfurt in June with her husband Michael. She's got a wonderful wit and sense of humor, is very open minded (as are most people here so far) and is an all around engaging person to hang around (probably comes from being a New Yorker from Greenwich Village). Jabeen is Bangladeshi and is the office assistant. She's a quiet type but strikes me as very competent. I'll be her supervisor and will be trying to give her more responsibility as our time shrinks from five people to three. Parveen also has a support role to the Mission, though is less directly related to our team. I'll be supervising her as well. There was another person named Fazle, whom I overlapped with just one day last week. He's accepted a job with the British development folks (DfID), and it was his resignation that precipitated my being asked to take on the Education portfolio. Otherwise, it would have become his, so to speak.

The actual work, I'm told, however, should be manageable. There are only two projects which I'll be managing: Sesame Street (called "Sisimpur" here) and another program targeted at preschoolers called SUCCEED (carried out by Save the Children). I can write more about them in a future newsletter as I get brought up to speed on them. For now, though, I've got files upon files of documents, reports and budgets to pour through. My main task today will be to move into Mary's old office and set up a filing system and perhaps get some shelves placed in the office. There will also be some meetings over the next couple of weeks to become acquainted with our Sesame Street, Save the Children and host government counterparts. Then in mid-May I'll be going on a field trip to the eastern part of the country in Sylhet Division to visit some preschools and see some other USAID projects there, just to get a sense of what our work looks like on the ground. I think we may check out a maternal/child health clinic and an environmental project as well. Sylhet is also one of the prettier places in Bangladesh where tea is grown. We'll be staying in a guest house on a tea plantation, formerly owned by the British. It's supposedly nice by Bangladesh standards, though I anticipate it'll be somewhat like camping with a few wait staff. Bonnie and few others will come along and Luke may even get to join us.

In addition to work related to my job description, the majority of my time this past week has been stopping by the various divisions of the Embassy to touch base. I've got this checklist and about 30 forms to fill out an have signed. This involves everything from having my diplomatic passport registered with the host government, clearing our household effects with customs, getting debriefed by the security team and the medical office, getting a phone and a radio for emergencies, opening accounts at the American Club and Commissary--you name it; the list goes on.

I suppose that before leaving Washington I was telling people a lot about the tougher aspects of living here. I admit, though, it was sort of a coping mechanism for me to lower my expectations since Bangladesh was not our first choice of places to be assigned to ( fact, it was rather low on our list). As a result of my mind games, though, I'm noticing some of the plusses to living here instead. For one thing, I actually have an office instead of a cubicle, and three times a day a nice man named Louis strolls down the hallway with a cart of drinks and snacks. So I can have my essential second breakfast (I call it my Hobbit breakfast) around 9:30. Instead of yogurt and a banana, however, here it's a couple of meat samosas, a bottle of water and a coffee-all for about 80 cents. Another plus is that the office staff here are just so friendly and full of smiles. Gene, our Mission Director, also couldn't possibly be a better leader for the team-very personable, a gifted leader, and well respected. It's also nice to be chauffeured everywhere, since the traffic is still rather daunting (we'll have to buy a car in the next few weeks). I was able to buy a lovely hand-embroidered lightweight tunic of sorts for only 8 dollars, and a couple of fancy T-shirts for 2 dollars a piece. The residences have these vast floorplans and are completely furnished (though the standard furniture the US Government selects leaves a lot to be desired). And at the end of the day, I can say that my job is improving education in a country that really needs it, regardless of whether it's through policies and procedures which one might find imperfect and inefficient.

Saturday 29 April 2006

Luke just discovered that the dining room in our house is a hot spot for some neighbor's wireless network. And all this time we'd been falling behind on emailing friends (or my getting out earlier versions of this newsletter). So today my goal is to actually come to a stopping point and get this to you all before it becomes so long and outdated that it's just a nuisance to read.

Well, today Luke & I did something that made us feel a bit less alienated from the fishbowl existence we've had. A colleague of mine named Paul volunteers every Saturday at a special school for street children. It was started by a group of concerned expats here, and now Paul acts as President. Plus, on days like today, he just goes and plays with the kids on the playground and helps the other volunteers prepare lunch and administer vitamins and some medical checkups. So Luke & I were invited along and really worked up a sweat pushing kids on a tire swing and playing catch. These are some of the same kids that used to beg on the street, but who are now in school. I may do this on a regular basis as well, since it's really hard to adjust to living so well while surrounded by real poverty and feeling so detached from it all.
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