Archive for May, 2009

Nepal and last post

After my internship had ended the Sunday before last, I took a trip for one week to Nepal, just “next-door” to Bangladesh. I went with my flatmate Tara to Kathmandu on Monday and Tuesday. During the days, she showed me around Kathmandu’s impressive cultural landscape and at night, she showed me around the notorious party district of Kathmandu; Thamel. Not to be confused in pronounciation with the Tamil Tigers, a mix-up that I was often the victim of. Kathmandu’s vast array of Hindu temples and old, traditional Newari architecture was stunning. It was here that I noticed how effortlessly Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed and even complemented each other here. Nepal is 80% Hindu, 15% Buddhist, with the extraneous percentage being made up of shamanistic and other local beliefs. Everywhere I looked, the two faiths existed peacefully and harmoniously, often literally alongside each other as a Buddhist stupa would often be paired with a Hindu temple. and while I might be admiring the colorfulness of a Hindu temple or holy site, I was at the same time taking in the splendor of the Buddhist prayer flags that hung from every religious structure.

Thamel is tourist destination number one and I actually found myself shocked and somwhat offended by the amount of white people surrounding me. I was no longer the only one in a developing country. As for the atmosphere and things to do, you can shop til you drop (your account balance that is), you can drink and smoke just about anything. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been offered hash. As for myself, as much as I honestly love Dhaka, it was nice and unbelievably relaxing to sit in a bar and have a beer in public. Thus passed a very relxing and pleasant two days, the routine of which I repeated on my return to Kathmandu.

As I read a bit more about Nepal, a very interesting observation struck me. Although Nepal is a comparatively major hub of tourism, its overall economy is in dire straits, and has been for decades, with little improvement being seen. The per capita income in Nepal is actually less than in bangladesh, and its child malnourishment rate is even worse than Bangladesh’s. But why didn’t I feel that. My thoughts were that a) there are tourist hubs where you are insulated somewhat from the overall state of the country, a luxury that does not exist in Bangladesh. b) Because of those hubs, you are afforded creature comforts like drinking and smoking in public, a reality that does not exist in Bangladesh. c) the society as a whole is more liberal, at least on the surface. You see as many girls and women on the streets as men, have women driving around Motor-scooters and holding higher positions more frequently. Because of all these three things, I believe, visitors cannot help but like Nepal, I know I do. I think it says something about the mindset that one invariably has when one visits a foreign country. We judge the “niceness” of a place based on our own comfort-sphere and feel all the better when not too much intrudes on that sphere. What I’m basically doing is congratulating the Tourist office of Nepal on a job well done.

On Wednesday I left very early in the morning for a bus-ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a small town that is nevertheless one of Nepal’s biggest outdoor draws. The bus ride took about 7 hours, providing lots of time to marvel at the changing landscape as we left the Kathmandu valley behind and wove our way through steep ravines and terraced hill-tops. Pokhara itself is a tourist area nestled along a steel-blue lake, watched over at one side by a hill range that is crowned with a gorgeous World Peace Pagoda and on the other side by the giant peaks that make up the Annapurna mountain range. It’s  quite bizarre actually. In spite of the fact that it is one of the world’s biggest trecking and climbing destinations, Pokhara lies at only 800m above sea level, yet with the geography being what it is, on clear days and and with some luck, one is afforded views of the 8000m behemoths that lurk in the distance.

Thus, always with an eye towards the mountains, I plunged headfirst into making the best out of my all-too-short stay in this real-life Shangri-La. The day I arrived, I rented a boat and was ferried around the lake, getting my bearings, and being able to quietly read a book and drink a beer in gorgeous weather. The next day, I arranged a motorcycle trip with the same guy, taking me  away from the tourist and more into the country-side, where I got to visit several caves and the quite traditional suburbs of Pokhara. In the afternoon, I hiked up to the World Peace Pagoda, a beautiful 2 hours hike that gave excellent views of the valley and Pokhara, although the relatively bad weather conditions rendered photography unsatisfactory. On Friday, I fulfilled one of my long-time dreams and went tandem-paragliding through the valley and over the lake. I was so in awe of the views that it took me 20 minutes to realize that if I didn’t also start focusing on how the glider moved, I would throw up. In the afternoon, a guy at the guesthouse I was staying at offered to take me to his ancestral village way off the beaten path away from Pokhara. The hike was long, at times even dangerous considering I was wearing tennis shoes, but absolutely fulfilling. The memory of standing in his home village being served tea by his uncle and looking over the vast moutains across the valley from us will always remain with me. The pictures do not even begin to do it justice.

Thus, after two and half days in which I did absolutely everything that could be done in that time, I traveled by bus to Kthamandu. Nepal is probably the most beautiful country I know of and I will seek to return to it, like Bangladesh, as soon as possible.

As for the blog, this shall be the last entry, at least under the blog’s current function as a chronicle of my travels in Bangladesh and Nepal. I want to thank you all for reading it, commenting on it and look forward to seeing you all again soon.

-Lorenz

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Leaving

At the beginning of my stay in Bangladesh, a Bangladeshi who had lived a long time in the US told me “You cry twice in Bangladesh; once when you arrive and once when you leave.” Still reeling from the shock of experiencing a different culture, I was definitely able to believe the first part of that statement, yet I could never imagine shedding a single tear over leaving this country.

However, all this has changed. Upon arriving back in the States you might ask me, “How was Bangladesh?”, “why did you like it so much?” and perhaps best of all, “isn’t the country depressing?”. I will have to come up with answers to these questions, ones that hopefully are satisfactory to both of us.

Why do I like it so much? How can I enjoy work when everyday on my way to work I see people in various stages of dying? Frankly, I have no idea. The best answer I can come up with is that I am absolutely enamoured with life, raw and violent here. Whenever I think of Bangladesh, and especially Dhaka, I think of a heart violently having a heart attack. Its survival is unsure yet the ferocity with which it struggles to survive is at once inspiring and horrible to behold. In no other country I know of does the future look  so bleak yet hope is in more supply than anywhere else. If hope is the sustaining value of mankind, no other nation can boast to have so much humanity.

I’m sorry if I appear to be romanticising a serious situation but I cannot help feeling this way. I honestly have no idea where I’m going with this post except maybe to give you a view into my very confused self over these last few days. Is four months long enough to fall in love with a country, with a people, a culture? Is it enough to feel as if the people you’re surrounded by every day will be with you for the rest of your life?

Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to coming home. I look forward to seeing my family, my friends again and to even go back to school. I just know that at least at the beginning, the possibility to get out of the US again will be a driving motivation behind my studies.

I have nothing to report that is new, except that I have concluded my internship as of today and will hand in my report to GTZ soon. Seeing that I have basically prepared an overview of the US-Bangladesh trade relationship, I hope that my report can be of some help to new interns, for example, who work with this project and who are, like I was, completely clueless about this country. The internship experience has been a positive one, next time perhaps I’ll be more pro-active, as I definitely had more capacities during the course of the internship. However, this relaxing situation allowed me to be very flexible and I thoroughly enjoyed accompanying other staff members on their assignments, seeing much more and meeting more people than I ever would have by myself.

As I said before, I can’t wait to get out there again!

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Bengali New Year

Shortly after our trip to Bandarbans, the entire country was preparing to celebrate Bengali New Year.

To mark the occasion, a national holiday is decreed which meant no work for us. Being the festive type of people that we are, we decided to join in the festivities, waking up early to get into the area surrounding Dhaka University where the main events were to be held. We met with a Bengali we’d come to know through an ex-intern of GTZ and he was of much help to us when it came to navigating the madness that we would soon enter.

Living in Dhaka, you get used to crowds. However, nothing compares to the sheer immensity of people that we encountered in the vicinity of the university. Everywhere you looked, there were throngs of people, going here, there and everywhere. Streets had been blocked off and street vendores were hawking their New Year’s themed wares, mostly consisting of fans and face-painting, which we indulged in ourselves.

As I said, crowds are nothing unusual here but these were different. It seemed that all Bangladeshis had just one day to look their absolute best and this was it. All the women were dressed in the most beautiful red and white, the celebratory colors, saris while the men wore elegant and colorful punjabis. This probably also owes to the fact that I live quite far away from the university but there seemed to be an undeniably youthful vigor about the entire affair. A constant air of positiveness and joy permeated the streets, with people shouting “Shubo Nubho Borsho”, Happy New Year, whenever they passed by us. The usual beggars lined the streets but their presence was drowned by the sheer immensity of the joyous crowds, music and dancing that seemed to come from everywhere.

Though there were clearly many other attractions, the appearance of the four of us in the midst still generated immense attention. We were constantly asked for photographs and while relenting at first to our unwilled stardom, eventually we grew exasperated and just wanted to walk along. One interesting event is that I was grabbed by a reporter and promptly interviewed for the English news of a Bengali TV station. The interview was fun if uncomfortable since I was immediately crushed by 40 people who came to see the bideshi (foreigner) try to articulate himself about the events of that day. Besides crowds, there were some trade fairs, showcasing Bengali crafts as well as musical offerings celebrating the passage of yet another year and the promise of the coming one.

At the end, decked out in all kinds of Bangladesh paraphenalia, we came away feeling blessed to have been able to experience this day of pure joy for this country. It truly felt that, if only for one day, the usual reservedness and oppressiveness that permeates society here so often was lifted and the young men and women could mix freely and without fear of appearing lewd.

As for myself, I am down to not even two weeks of work, in which I have to finish my trade analysis, a fact that has not been made easier by the absence of my boss during those two weeks. However, it is much less the work that I find daunting but rather the inevitability of saying goodbye to the many great people that I’ve been surrounded by.

On the bright side, after my internship is over, I will spend a week in Nepal. My Nepali flatmate is going with me so I’ll already have someone to show me around Kathmandu. Besides the capital, I hope to see Pokhara, a city that serves as the base for all outdoor activities in the Himalayas. Thus, these last few days here will be most bittersweet.

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