Kristina's accounts- before it turned bad (late)

Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

When in Bangladesh everything is an adventure. The simplest outing or task becomes a drama accompanied by laughter, sighs, and confusion.

We've been in the Bangladesh flood plains volunteering with Hands On for a week now and above all else this week has been a cultural experience. I'm working hard to adopt the Bangladeshi "way" and am happy to report that even when situations are trying and overwhelming, I usually emerge with a smile on my face.

Here is an assortment of events which should give you a glimpse of what it's like to work as a female with a baby non-profit in the cuts of Bangladesh- the good, the bad, and the flat out bizarre.

Day 1- Latrine digging (excerpt from my journal)

This is my first day on site. I'm with a group of four others headed to dig some latrines for some needy families. We leave the house. I'm chipper. I'm waving to everyone possible, making faces at the children, trying to use my 2 words of Bangali, and generally being more positive and outgoing than I've ever been at a Hands On project. We arrive at the first house and I can't even remember what my first feelings were because they've since been eclipsed by the uncomfortable events that followed.

So to install a latrine, first you take one of the concrete circles and trace it onto the ground-mud. The circle is removed and now using Bangladeshi tools (primarily a khunta), a deep hole must be dug. I'm eager to get involved. My muscles have grown soft since I left Peru and I'm here to work. Despite the large group surrounding me I'm comfortable enough with myself and feel confident that I can dig this whole. The tool in hand is a far cry from a shovel; instead a long wooden handle with a sheer blade at the end. The tool resembles a long chisel. Essentially the method involves repeatedly spearing the ground. I'm quite impressed at how accurate my aim is. It is difficult to pry the tool out of the ground, the mud, after each spear attempt, but I keep going of course. Until....two men seize the tool from me and proceed to mimic my actions. In exaggerated form, they demonstrate my pathetic use of the tool. I'm mortified. Rage. Embarrassment. The crowd laughs. They're putting on a show and I'm the butt of the joke. By the time my anger and my emotions have partially subsided, the two men have proceeded to ask for Taka. What! They have the audacity to come grab tools from me, make a mockery of me, laugh at me, and then demand money from me. You've got to be kidding. I would have slapped him if I could. There have been very few moments in my life when I've been inclined to slap someone and this was one of those rare moments.

At this point I ask Daniel, a volunteer from Indonesia who's been working with me, if I will be the butt of their jokes every day, and he says yes. Ahhhhh! Will I really have to prove myself every single day on the job? That's exactly how I feel: like I need to prove myself. Did I really come all this way, thousands and thousands of miles, to prove myself to these people. I'm not prepared for that because I don't know what exactly I have to prove. I'm not as strong, not as adept, not as experienced as any of these people. This is not my life, this is not the means of my livelihood, in reality it's nothing more than a hobby. A hobby that I love and that I've dedicated a lot of time, energy, and money to. Of course they can dig holes in the mud better than me!

An entire day spent in the Asian squat

During my last time in Asia, I spent a lot of time practicing the Asian squat. I thought I was quite good. Somehow I hadn't realized that Bangladeshis were equally as enamored with the froglike squatting position as other Asians, but they are. Part of my attempt to act "Bangladeshi" is to spend as much time in the Asian squat as possible. I have concluded that it is possible to spend the full 16 hours of waking life in the squat. Here are some examples of when the squat can be useful and even necessary.
A- My job on the third day at the HODR house was to complete building a shelving unit to store volunteers' things. The shelves had already been half built and whoever the builders were had started at the top allowing me to finish the bottom shelves, forcing me to fit myself into a 3 foot high by 3 foot wide space for multiple hours. How is it easiest to work hammering, measuring, and configuring in a small space? By squatting or contorting your body of course.
B- Hands On occupies the third floor of the nicest house in Reyenda. We're very fortunate to have running water, even from shower heads, but I still choose to bucket shower. This is because the water is cold and if I sit in the Asian squat somehow the water fells warmer. Don't really know why.
C- We have a wonderful lady, Lovely, who keeps the house running. 6 days a week, she cooks us three meals a day and additionally does some sweeping and laundry. Occasionally she seems over-worked and we'll help her with cleaning around the hous. On one occasion, I took the broom away from her and in the Asian squat maneuvered my way around the house sweeping up dust bunnies, dirt, food scraps etc.
D- The first step of building a HODR half is building the mud foundation. The process for building the foundation is pretty simple. You find a source for the mud- a river, a pond, or just dig into the ground, and then you transport a lot of the mud to one flat area. Progressively the foundation grows to be about 3 feet off the ground. While the foundation is growing, it's necessary to use these wooden bats (they look a lot like cricket bats) to hit the mud repeatedly as squarely as possible in order to compress the mud into flatness. You don't want any holes in the mud foundation. The hitting at the mud task requires you to be in the Asian squat, waddling across the 12 by 20 surface making sure that it's all flat.

Department of Defense in Reyenda!?

When we heard that we'd be working with the US department of defense we were all surprised. What was the US department of defense doing in Rayenda, Bangladesh? As things turned out the DOD had sent their "hearts and minds" branch out to assess the cyclone hit area to see what they could do to help. Now our DOD friends were quite a motley crew. Somehow working for the US DOD we had a Filippino, a Colombian, a Czech and a number of overweight born and raised Americans. While they were doing their initial assessment, their helicopter had taken off a school's roof simultaneously hurting a number of children. This school and a neighboring Mosque, in Moragange, became their project's priorities. So for the next few weeks, the DOD provided the funding and materials while Hands On volunteers provided the labor. Occasionally the DOD men would ask how we were liking the food or whether we were getting sick. As well traveled individuals, most volunteers loved the food and are happy to eat just about anything sold on the street. We were then surprised to learn that our "professional" and "trained" colleagues coming from the marines and navy wouldn't eat any of the Bangladeshi food. They stuck to their rations of MRE (meals ready to eat)meals and showered exclusively with bottled water. One of the funniest cases was the DOD representative responsible for sanitation issues. More than anyone else, he was terrified of local germs and unhygienic situations. Ironically, while he only ate packaged foods and only bathed with bottled water, he was the only DOD member to get sick.

One night the DOD crew kindly invited the whole Hands On team for dinner. The menu plans sounded wonderful and we were excited for a non-typical Bangladeshi meal when suddenly the tables turned. The DOD, apparently had no where to host us, weren't prepared to do the shopping for the meal, and wanted our cook, Lovely, to do most of the cooking. Suddenly Hands On assumed the role of the hosts and the DOD men became the guests. The DOD did have a cook who they generously offered would help with the meal preparation. He strutted into our, the Hands On kitchen, telling Lovely, the Hands On cook, that he was cook and that she was assistant. This didn't fly very well. Stefanie, the project's second in command, quickly stepped forward to tell the DOD's male cook that in the house both cooks would be equal. Equal clearly doesn't have the same meaning in Bangladesh since Mr. male cook promptly said that he would be more equal. Lovely ended up preparing a particularly delicious meal that everyone enjoyed, including the insolent male DOD cook. When I returned from work that day I was surprised to find a male Bangladeshi in my sleeping area. As politely as I could I said hello, in Bangla, and awaited his reply. In English, he said that he didn't like me. Fine, I didn't like him either. I liked him even less when I saw him eating my tangerines which I had carried from Orinda, California.

Comedy of a shared meal

First, shared meal is an innapropriate term. None of our meals were actually shared with our Bangladeshi hosts. The local elite, the tin man, or the wood man to prove their prestigious positions in the community would invite the Hands On cast for a meal. Although delicious, the meal was always exactly the same no matter which home we frequented. If it was a Muslim house where they greeted us with an "Assalam Alaikum" we would have rice, fried boiled eggs, curried red kale, and a variety of bony meats concluded with rice pudding. If it was a Hindu house where they greeted us with foreheads and part-lines decorated with red powder and a "Namastar" the menu would also be rice, fried boiled egges, curried red kale, and a variety of bony meats washed down with rice pudding. The comedy of these meals arose from how much food our hosts would try to force down our throats. Generosity, in Bangladesh, is to give big portions and lots of portions. You'd start the meal with a heaping plate of rice. The curries and meats would then be added. A serving of each would have made for a delightful meal. The host, however, continuously makes his way around the room dishing our the various dishes until everything has been served. It doesn't matter if you've finished or if you haven't touched your food, you'll still be served another heaping spoonful of something. Often the hosts laugh uncontrollably while you try to cover your plate and they try to get the curry atop your rice. They somehow always win.

Solo return trip from Moragange

Moragange, a town an hour North of Reyenda, is home to two Hands On commuter projects. In cahoots with the U.S. Department of Defense, Hands On is working to repair a kindergarten and a Hindu temple. At the end of a day of work on a hot tin roof, somehow I found myself needing to return to Reyenda, via bus, by myself. I felt fairly comfortable making the journey on my own (Bangladeshi stares and excessive attention are uncomfortable but not dangerous) and since I'd wanted to stop in the Moragange market to have a Salwar Kameez made, I was happy to attempt a solo return. During the walk between the kindergarten and the stretch of market selling fabrics, I was stopped by an innumerable number of men and children asking "what your country?". Normally while walking in a group of westerners, the questions and stares end up being diffused between the three or four of us, but walking solo there was no buffer and all attention was directed at me. Meanwhile, I was concentrating on which fabric shop was best. Really they're probably all equal and after making a lap I settled on the largest one on the main corner. As soon as I entered I was told to sit (on the only chair) and brought out a cup of cha (local highly sugared tea). Two men who spoke minimal English started pulling out packaged salwar kameezes all in eighties highlighter colors, which was not what I had in mind. This store was full of hundreds of bolts of fabrics and I didn't want to settle on just any design for my very first salwar Kameez. I would try to stand up and browse the selection but was repeatedly told to sit down. Thus began the game of me pointing to certain bolts which I thought I might like, them trying to discern which bolt I was pointing at, and then deciding if I really liked it. Finally we agreed on a navy and green paisley design which was cotton- they insisted that the fabric must be cotton. Next I tried in vain to explain that I wanted the salwar (the pants) to be made out of a different material than the kameez (the top). Impossible. Fine, I wouldn't mind too much if the outfit looked like a pajama set. All the while, a group of at least 25 onlookers had huddled around the store enjoying the spectacle. Eventually after we'd decided on a price for the material, a scarf, and the sewing cost (total of 440 taka, approximately 7 dollars), we were shaking hands and I was getting ready to find my bus, the shopkeeper asked "what is your religion?" Was it better to be a Christian or to not have any religion at all? Not knowing then that it's better to say you're a Christian, I told them the truth that I observe no religion. They responded "bugi na" which means I don't understand.
The rest of the 90 minute trip home wasn't terribly eventful. I arrived at the bus in advance to assure myself a seat, had a beggar woman confront me in a staring match for a good 5 minutes, sat next to a woman wearing a black Versace burka and was surprised to see large shiny gold earrings when her veil slipped aside, and made a number of friends who I couldn't understand.
There's something very satisfying about being able to travel through Bangladesh on my own without feeling too uncomfortable.

Two male Bangladeshis and a western girl

Today I practiced the asian squat on an incredibly rickety and poorly built roof. Back in Moragange finishing the school roof project, I was the tool monkey for 2 small Bangladeshi men- both of whom are smaller than your average western anorexic girl. Putting thin sheets of tin, also known as GI, on the roof is an interesting and fairly uncomfortable task. The wooden roof structure considered adequate in Bangladesh wouldn't meet any western standards. Much of the wood is splitting or only half of its intended size. I'm pretty uncomfortable trying to distribute my weight evenly 30 feet above the ground. Luckily the laborers make my job pretty easy- all I have to do is hand them tools. I've got the system down handing one a screw driver and the other the vampire stake (used to make holes in the GI)at the same time. Once they try to get me involved and are ready to give me the task of sawing off an end piece overhanging the edge of the class room. I shimmy out over the edge and am about to start sawing when there's a CRACK. Back I scuttle to the sturdier beams and allow my small friends to sit on the ledge. Even though we can't communicate, the two laborers are surprisingly friendly and our exchanged smiles and other non-verbal communication almost feels like a pleasant conversation.
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