Archive for January, 2009

Dhaka so far…

Sorry for not having written in a week but I am still at the stage where I would feel bad for blogging at work. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Having arrived in Dhaka on Thursday, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the work-week here is shifted one day up, so the weekend starts on Friday, for religious reasons. This gave me a chance to get acclimated to the city that is to be my home for the next three months.

The part of town that I’m currently living and where the GTZ office is located is called Gulshan and is home to the international population, thanks to the abundance of embassies and international corporations having taken up residence in Dhaka’s upscale district. Gulshan also houses the ruling class of Bangladesh; for example, I pass the house of Khaleda Zia, the opposition party leader, every day.

Here I have to segway into a slight tangent about how I experienced the first few days. Seeing that it was Friday and therefore rest-day, I was free to walk around Gulshan. I have to say that I’ve never felt more out of place, not necessarily in a bad way but just acknowledging that I was in a completely different world left me shell-shocked. Beginning the journey and in the weeks leading up to it, I had done my research on the country, read traveler’s accounts of their time in Bangladesh and thus felt prepared for the experience. I had told myself that culture shock is something that happens to other people, but not to the wise and clever Lorenz. no surely not. However, in those first two days, I came to the uncomfortable realization that this place was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

What do I mean by this? First of all, Gulshan’s designation as the upscale, international district of Dhaka had led me to foolishly assume that  this place would look a lot like Western towns, neat, clean and peaceful, if a bit sterile. However, as a first-time visitor to Dhaka, I would not have called Gulshan up-scale. In fact, to my sensibilities, it looked like a run-down suburbia. The town is littered with 5-story residential high-rises, neatly walled and fenced off, with most of them falling into disrepair and blocking any sort of view that one might have of the rest of the city. The streets themselves are absolutely chaotic and in disrepair as well. They consist of a broad stretch of pavement which is enough to accomodate 2-3 cars side by side. There are no side-walks so you walk along the kind of paved, not paved side of the road, dodging the cars and rickshaws that constantly honk and ring at you. The streets sweepers and cleaners heap up their trash along the road and burn it right then and there, leaving the air in the streets smelling of burning leaves and trash, producing an aroma that pervades everything in this city.

Close to the office is a large intersection called Gulshan circle, which is, for lack of a better comparison, the Times Square of Dhaka. In the reports I had read it was advertised as the shopping center of Gulshan. This is true but in my unjustified complaceny with what I had assumed a shopping center should look like, I was promptly put into my place. The circle itself is a huge four-way intersection which is absolute chaos during work-days. Jay-walking is a national sport here, which I have become quite good at myself. and the cars themselves also disobey the traffic more times than not. During rush hour, which lasts all day, going on foot or avoiding the area altogether is the best way to get around. The circle is lined by high-rises with billboards on them, advertising everything from Hindi movies to aftershave. The shopping itself is done in ‘shopping plazas’ which are narrow walkways into the buildings. Each store is less than 10 feet of storefront and the atmosphere inside is noisy and crowded. It’ s even more impressive in the food section of the place where all the wares are open and massive fish lie right in front of you as you walk past the stands crowded by all manners of foodstuffs that I have never seen or smelled before. I have never seen so much food and so much color thrust itself upon my eyes as in these narrow sidestreets.

Another cause of my disillusionment with my pre-conceived notions of what an up-scale district should look like is the rampant, inescapable urban poverty. Of course I’d known that Bangladesh is  one of the world’s poorest countries but I had no idea what that meant until I walked through the streets here. Mind you this is the fanciest part of Dhaka. The sides of the streets are littered with beggars, many of the women with babies in their arms. One of the most profound images that has stuck with me so far is of a street, walking home from work, where there was a group of people, mainly made up of children, one of the boys wheeling his mother, who had no legs, around in a make-shift wheelbarrow while a few feet further down the road, a beggar hudled in scraps of textile was trainspotting on his arm. Being white here makes you an instant target and I have often had beggars follow me for several blocks, unrelenting. I’ve kind of gotten used to ignoring beggars on the street in Berkeley but it is hard to ignore them if children not older than 8 follow you for several blocks exposing their bellies to you, asking you for khavar, food, or money. To the children I mostly give some amount of money, but of course the cynic in me says that they’ll just give it to their parents who’ll waste it away. This is why most Westerners use rickshaws ands cars to get around, if only to avoid having to stop and deal with the poor. The sheer number of homeless is so immense that your heart quickly ceases to feel sorry for every one of them, if only to keep yourself from completely falling apart. It is thus always an emotional investment to walk the streets here.

It is in this light that the environment of Gulshan makes sense. Those with the money build aparment blocks, cordoned off from the streets where life, raw and unforgiving, runs its course. Seeing that many foreigners feel this way, the city has established clubs which are designated by nationality which serve to give them a chance to escape. A membership in one club, in my case the German club, gives you access to the clubs of other European nations as well, quickly getting you in touch with the expatriate community. The first time I entered the club, with its swimming pool and tennis court, it felt hypocritical to withdraw from the life I had come here to experience and alienate myself from the real city that lay beyond the walls. However, I have come to accept that, at least for now, I can’t spend the entire day in the real city because it is too intense and straining, bothn physically and psychologically. Call me a hypocrite, but it is amazing how good it feels to sit down, have a chat and a beer, which is a rarity anyway, and be with people who speak your language and not be constantly harrassed by others.

With regards to work, I think it was Gertrude Stein who said work is work is work. My long-term project is to examine the garment-sector trade between the USA and Bangladesh, which is right up my alley. My other tasks will probably materialize within the next few weeks as I become more incorporated into the structure of the organization. However, I have already made some good acquaintances in the other interns with whom I can talk about their experiences here so far and get some tips to figure out this very confusing city…

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The Journey

I had the daunting but exciting itinerary of flying from San Diego to San Francisco, to London to Dubai to Dhaka. Everything went well and not noteworthy from the States to London, except for the fact that Sardines probably live more comfortably than passengers on a transatlantic flight in Coach. 10 hour-flights become much longer if you spend the majority of the time awkwardly reclined and with armrests jabbing into your sides. Luckily ööööööearplugs helped with the noise.
Thus having arrived in London, with no sleep and in God knows what time zone, I called back home via Skype which I am just beginning to fully appreciate. A lay-over for 6 hours in Heathrow meant lots of walking around and trying not to fall asleep. The International Terminal is great for people-watching and I spent the majority of my time doing just that. I wanted to entertain the romantic notion that this would be my last stop before I headed off into the unknown and non-western world before my politically correct and historically savy side reminded me that I would not exactly abandon all vestiges of what I have come to experience as Western civilization just by flying from London to Dubai.
This sentiment soon turned out to be true as I touched down in Dubai after a 6 and half hour flight. I have subsequently adopted Emirates as my favorite airline next to Swiss Air. The service and facilities with Emirates were top notch. Dubai as an airpost fits very well into the image one has of Dubai as a city of grand buildings and temples to consumerism. The Terminal was basically a 1 mile stretch of duty-free shops with very willing customers ringed on the outside by the gates of departure. Though put off by the sheer size of the shopiping district, I nevertheless wished that I could have stayed for a few days and explored Dubai’s other sights, not all of them modern and fueled by oil.

Arriving at the gate for my next and last leg of the trip gave me a preview of what was to come. In on a packed flight with probably a goood 200-250 people, I was the only white person, a circumstance which I had never been in before. The flight itself was great again and we landed in Dhaka on time at about 7:30pm. I cleared security without much of a problem, greatly alleviating my fears that my journey would be hamstrung by bureaucratic means.

However, it seemed as if the airport had little system for properly unloading the baggage and I had to run between the two belts to check for my bag. It took forever but after 2 hours of waiting I finally got it. Now my fear was that the driver hired by the GTZ to drive me to my uncle’s house had left already and those fears were amplified when I didn’t see him standing in the reception area. Unsure of what to do I went outside were the street was filled with taxis and buses collecting people and dropping them off. The street was tighlty monitored by security guards and it was ringed on all sides by a metal fence with an entry on one side and an exit on the other. Alongside the fence was a huge crowd of people looking for relatives or potential taxi-clients. I helplessly looked out into the massive throng of people and was about to turn back inside when I saw a white piece of paper appear in the crowd. On it, it had written large ‘Lorenz’ and ‘GTZ’. I pointed to the guy holding the sign and after wrestling out of the crowd, he got his car and picked me up.

Merging onto the freeway, I quickly realized just how different the world that I had just entered would be. Although there were three lanes, it was a complete free-for all and creaky old buses were mixed with motorcyle taxis and large transporters. The horn was used not so much to express annoyance but rather to signal and let others know of your existence, producing a cacophony of sights and sounds. Along the street were transients and vendors, packing up after their work day. Thus fascinated by the journey, we arrived at my uncle’s house in what seemd like a flash but had actually taken almost an hour. He stays in a nice apartment complex with his wife and, having said hello to them, I quickly fell into my bed.

I hope to somewhat amend this post with pictures of Dubai so we’ll see.

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