Posts Tagged 'Bangladesh'

Homebound

I poured over all the typed up post it notes all day Friday, looking for patterns, duplications and common understandings that would produce, as if by magic, a framework – the rationale for the alignment meeting. There is something like trusting that the process would produce the desired products, even if the shape and form of the product wasn’t clear at the beginning, not in my mind and not really in the mind of the people who had hired me. All of us were engaged in a leap of faith, though their leap may have been bigger than mine – we were all trusting that something good would come out of a vision of someone long since gone from the scene, 8 months of preparations, countless hours, headaches and even more dollars.

I interrupted my writing and thinking for a massage up the street, organized by one of my local counterparts. The three of us had a massage room to ourselves and three Thai ladies working on us. It was just what my body, having been hunched over a tiny netbook, needed.  All oily and massage-brained I returned to my hotel desk and finished the thoughts that had floated through my head while being kneaded and slapped. Creative thoughts happen when you least expect them. This I learned from reading the book Imagine by Lehrer, opening me up to suggestions to interrupt work for a massage any time.

In the evening another, and last social event was planned, making this the 7th dinner engagement in 8 days. We met at a Chinese restaurant around a large lazy Susan, my local and Baltimore colleagues and the founder of a Bangladeshi firm involved in research and communication – I have now entered this new world of communication organizations – a creative bunch, more so than the management and leadership folks I am usually hanging out with – design versus control. I do like this new universe and the people who inhabit it.

Back at the hotel I packed my few possessions in my small carry-on luggage while watching a documentary on the BBC of 50 years James Bond cars, car chases, car stunts, all illustrated with car related snippets from all the Bond films. It made me want to see all the old ones again, as well as the new one which also had car chases in Istanbul. We have a family visit to Istanbul on our wish list so this will be like a hors d’oeuvre.

Saturday morning was reserved for breakfast at the American club (a bagel with lox and real coffee), next to the pool where an aquatics class was underway and a grassy field with small boy scouts building something out of bamboo poles.

With a colleague from Baltimore, new to Bangladesh and looking for giftsfor the women in her life, a visit to a pearl vendor was called for. Bangladesh appears the place to buy real pearls for very little money (something like 8 dollars for a string). But I already have two sets of pearls, one from my grandmother and the other a gift for my 18th birthday.  I never wore or wear them much; people always seem to be surprised when I wear them, as if they are out of place around my neck.   May be it is because I don’t wear a twin set over a tweed skirt – the pearl necklace uniform in my mind.

After our pearl purchases we had fifteen minutes left for a quick swing through BRAC’s Aarong store, a required visit for anyone new or old to Bangladesh. My luggage limitation allowed only a very small purchase, two soft toys for Faro – I now no longer skip the baby/small children’s section – that could be stuffed into a side pocket.

We completed our stay in Bangladesh with a visit to the local organization that emerged out of a completed USAID project ten years ago. It has since flourished and diversified its funding in a way my own organization could learn from.  We toured their brand new building, all 6 stories, including lodging for 8 people, a roof restaurant and a training room with moveable furniture and plenty of wall space. Maybe I will be back there one day. After the tour we sat around a table and learned about what everyone in the room was working on while nibbling our fried chicken sandwich from an unofficial KFC outlet, and drinking our cokes.

And now I am in Dubai waiting for leg number two (Dubai-Amsterdam) of the three leg trip home. I was able to retrieve my good seat that the Emirates airline man in Dhaka had ignored and exchanged for a lousy seat way in the back on night flight to Amsterdam.  A nice Air France lady got it back.

Polish and loose ends

Everyone cheered for our re-elected president here. During a SWOT analysis the American elections were placed below the heading of Threats (the threat was Mitt – especially to family planning programs) but just at that moment, one of our colleagues who was monitoring the Huffington Post website yelled out ‘he won’ and we knew exactly what she meant. The Bangladeshis moved the entry to another board that was labeled ‘Opportunities.’

We all exhaled deeply – it had been nerve wrecking, this not knowing. I watched as the world commented on the outcome of the elections – most were positive except Indian business leaders who kept harping on the economy. A new mother of twins in Kenya called her babies Barack and Mitt. They are joining the much older Kennedys and Reagans in Kenya.

Wednesday was tense and intense – with always the question whether we would be able to pull it off, these two days squeezed into one without rushing and thus compromising the quality of the interactions and deliberations. Maybe there was some quality loss but we managed to maintain high energy as people began to work as a network rather than a bunch of competing organizations.

Today we had to wait outside the conference center gates for the Prime Minister to leave the formal opening of the Exhibition on farm animals, fish and pets.

She left exactly on time and we streamed in to have our lunch and wrap up the conference. There was stuff to be prepared, presenters to coach and evaluations to be completed. Everything fell into place except the tea which came too late. Those who hung around got to have three cups of tea instead of one.

In the evening we had a celebratory dinner, hosted by the founder of a local health communication organization. We sample fine Bangla cuisine in the company of the organization’s staff and my local counterparts.

One of the drivers who has just started his bakery classes took me back to the hotel. He is a Christian from the north, educated by Scottish missionaries. he looks like he is from Tibet or Sikkim, which is actually not all that far from Northern Bangladesh. He promised to bring me some samples of his baking whenever I come back. He should surely have graduated by then.

Back at the hotel I completed typing up the evaluation responses (65% return rate, not bad) and assemble the documents to use for the challenge of tomorrow: assembling the framework that this workshop would construct – the participants produced the raw pieces – tomorrow is polishing time with a little interruption in the afternoon for a massage at the whopping high rate of 8 dollars an hour.

Squeeze

While Sandy has passing through the Eastern seaboard, cyclone Nimal was blasting South East India and whipping up the Bay of Bengal . Cyclones are named after women only. No one, according to one of my Bangla colleagues, has questioned the logic of associating the devastating power of cyclones with women. I learned that cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes are all the same phenomena, distinguished only by their location. As a result of Nimal it is still raining here and clogging up the drains and streets.

The official opening of our event unfolded without a hitch – everything and everyone was where it/he was supposed to be and we completed the opening ceremony 10 minutes before the break. The rest of the day followed suit. Here, when you invite 100 people you get 50, more or less. This is what my local colleagues predicted and it was exactly what happened.

The afternoon session was in Bangla, conducted by one of our local consultants, who learned towards the end of her turn that a relative had died – we sent her home and others took over. We have an amazing team, aligned and ready. It was very exciting to see people take my design and run with it in a language I don’t understand. From the energy in the room I could tell that we were getting the intended result.

The visit of the Prime Minister to another meeting in the giant conference center put her security forces in charge, overriding the authority of the conference center management. After we had refused to change our 3rd day to Friday we were told that everyone had to be inside the center at 8 AM. Whoever would not be there would have to wait till 12:30.  We had no choice other than cancelling the entire third morning and squeezing everything into tomorrow afternoon; another leap of faith.

I met up with my friend T from a competing organization, who happened to be in Dhaka but since she doesn’t do facebook we only just found out that we were in the same place. We managed to squeeze in a dinner, catching up from a last visit, years ago.

And now I am sitting in front of the TV biting my nails. It is late and I have to go to bed and hope that when I wake up Obama will still be in the saddle. The American community here is meeting very early in the morning at a hotel to watch the final results.

Nearly there

More pouring rain today which means the traffic crawls at an even slower pace. We made our way to two more of the three communication units that are key to the planning and implementation of health, population and nutrition communication strategies in this country.  It was a day of courtesy visits and final preparations, logistical and other pre-occupations with protocol.

Protocol here is a very serious affair with lots of prescriptions of what is requirement and acceptable. We foreigners are leaving it entirely to our Bangladeshi colleagues.

Just when we thought we had dotted all the I’s and crossed all t’s the conference manager asked us to move our last day to Friday (a holiday here) to accommodate the arrival of the prime minister at another hall in the conference complex on Thursday. A very assertive local colleague made it clear that the dates were not negotiable anymore, too late. And so the crisis was averted, and we wiped the sweat off our brows. We do have restricted movement that morning, no loitering in the enormous hallways, and arriving early. I think it will cramp our style a little bit but it is too late to worry now.

For dinner I was joined by my friend Fatima who is a student here. She brought along a friend of hers and an advocate of midwives, especially in this part of the world – we are connected through our inspiration by the Afghan midwives who hold the key to women’s empowerment and health in this unfortunate country. We had met at the annual Afghan midwives congress two years ago in Kabul and now we had a chance for a more leisurely introduction.

I watched the final frenzied campaigning from a distance while Axel watched it up close, seeing both Obama and Clinton in New Hampshire.  Everyone here is clear about who should win. But some of my American colleagues didn’t get their absentee ballot organized which is serious, especially because a few are from swing states.

Pulses and potatoes

Like Holland Dhaka is a very wet place, even now when it is not the rainy season – it is what ties the two countries together: a never ending struggle to control the water.

This morning, after a wonderful Bangla breakfast of pulses and potatoes I realized the sound of water did not come from the 6 floor deep waterfall but from rain.

I waited outside for a driver to pick me up, mesmerized by the water dramas playing themselves out in front of the hotel. The rickshaw drivers looked even more like skeletons with their wet clothes plastered to their emaciated bodies. Most of them had plastic bags tied around their heads, or the thin foamy packing materials our electronics are wrapped in – why the obsessions with dry hair when everything else is soaked?

I was transported in a luxuriously dry car to another part of town that wasn’t very far away as the crow flies; but as the traffic inched forward, one kilometer seemed like a hundred. Despite plenty of extra time we arrived at a meeting already in full swing one hour and a half later.

A large team had assembled in the conference room of a local organization that split off from a USAID project and appears to be doing well on its own, given the nice quarters and the impressive staff. We reviewed last minute logistics, divided tasks and reviewed the ‘technical’ part of the program – that part that is following the protocol. It is strange to have facilitated conversations referred to as technical but that is the lingo here.

I was dreading any further ventures across Dhaka but there were the courtesy visits to be made– we could only do one today.

At the family planning directorate I was warmly welcomed by the line director of the communication unit in his colorful office with slogans, pictures and colorful models gracing the walls. The warm welcome included an ice cream treat, followed by thin vanilla cookies, followed by sweet tea. It is the first time in my life I have received ice-cream during a courtesy visit to a government agency. It has bumped the macchiato served with the compliments of the Ethiopian government to second place.

After our courtesy visit we checked out the venue that is located in a behemoth of a conference center, designed for heads of state and very senior government officials and the kind of meetings such people attend. In the absence of any high officials the fountains were dead and the countless flagpoles stood silently and bare in military rows.

The conference rooms are enormous and smell like conference rooms in warm and wet places – a musty smell that can hopefully be masked by the powerful aircos. We discussed the room set up – protocol first and then a more relaxed layout. It was then I found out that we couldn’t use the walls – this is of course a problem for a design that is based on flip charts  We were able to mobilize 9 rolling boards, white board on one side, pin cushion on the other. It will have to make do.

Another dinner engagement, further uptown, required that I take a rickshaw with one of the wet and wily rickshaw men. When it rains you get to sit under a plastic sheet to put on your lap to cover your legs and my umbrella covered the rest of my body. Rickshaw seats are slanted forward and so it takes some practice to keep from sliding down. I clamped my fingers around the dusty slatts of the awning and hoped for the best. Those three actions (plastic sheet on lap, umbrella in hand and holding on required three arms rather than the two I had available.

I had been a bit sleepy before the rickshaw ride but it perked me right up. I had to hold on for dear life as my man cruised through narrow openings in the congested traffic lanes at breakneck speed.  Occasionally we would hit a bump or pothole with always the risk I would fall out and be ran over by the rickshaws in back of us (a best case scenario as there were also cars all around us).

The friendly hotel staff had assured me that the rickshaw driver knew where we were going. As it turned out he didn’t. He also didn’t speak a word of English. I tried Dari to indicate that we should head to Road 55 but instead he dropped me off at the Westin, in the opposite direction. I could just see how his mind worked: rich white lady goes to rich white hotel.

Eventually I made it to the right place – thank God for cellphones – quite dry thanks to the umbrella and plastic sheet and without falling off the bench. My newfound friends and colleagues were already seated in a stylish Indian restaurant and a waiter was ready to pour me a glass of red or white wine despite the large sign outside that said ‘no alcohol allowed.’  The Moghul cuisine menu made me a little homesick, if one can call it that, for Afghanistan, with the Persian names of various dishes (sabz bahar, paneer palak, murgh, ghost) streaming back into my consciousness – accompanied by a few deep sighs for remembering the good times of our short life there.

Slow traffic and lost sleep

I am happily ensconced in my Platinum Suites (or Suits as my colleague called it) hotel on busy road 11 in the Banani section of Dhaka. It is the same street where I had a nice lunch with my friend Sayeed last time I was here and a pedicure before going home, then a reward for a trip in vain, this time hopefully for mission accomplished, at the end of next week.

The Suites (suits) hotel looks a little tacky on the outside, squeezed between lots of dangling wires, a large hole in the ground for a new neighbor and thousands of advertising signs. Inside it is quite comfy with lots of bowing staff attending asking me whether there is anything I wish (sleep).

To get here was a little less comfy. All the flights were full to capacity, crammed together with several hundred other people I tried to ignore the unpleasantness of the 14 plus hour flight to Dubai, jealous of the people stretched out on their flatbed seats in business class. I have been there in the past so I know what I was missing. Sometimes it is better to not know.

Something about the feeling of comfort in the very first few minutes after I settle into my plane seat tells me whether it is going to be a sleepful or sleepless flight. So at 9:30 PM on Thursday night, leaving Atlanta, I knew it was going to be a no-sleep flight. In spite of a triple dose of the Ayurveda sleeping pills, sleep never came. I read, I watched movies, I listened to music and watched the excruciatingly slow countdown to arrival time.

I arrived in Dubai at 7:30 PM, emerging from the transit desk and security check at the Pink Berry shop but I had no appetite for its creations. All I wanted was to catch up on a missed night and a missed day. Thursday had imperceptibly turned into Saturday.

I purchased sleep for a steep price (50 dollars an hour) at the Dubai International Airport hotel – it was nice to get away from the shopping frenzy that is continuous at Dubai airport where there is no sense of day and night.

The place is like a post-Thanksgiving shopping mall all year round. Foot traffic from all corners of the world (except Latin America) is clogging the major central walkway from Terminal 1 to 3. People carry large quantities of the Shop Dubai plastic bags with stuff to take home.

My fellow travelers to Bangladesh carried, or rather dragged, an average of three giant plastic bags per person. I was wondering what was in those bags. Goods purchased here are not cheap and Bangladeshis here are not part of the middle class. I suspect many are deep in debt for having had the privilege to work in the Emirates, having a paying job at all.

Because of all that hand luggage, boarding the Dhaka plane as an economy passenger requires much patience and forbearance as it is a most chaotic and pushy experience. The crowd is unruly, anxious and impatient, and not very experienced in airplane travel.

The latter is clear from the state of the toilets just half an hour into a five hour flight – dirty footprints on the seat, un-flushed and a wash basin full of brown water, the floor soaking wet. I decided to refrain from drinking any more water to avoid the toilet 3 or 4 hours into the flight, a sight i couldn’t even begin to imagine.

After a four hour nap in Dhaka I ventured out into the street to get some sunlight and reset my body clock and stock up on bottled water. For dinner I joined two of my counterparts at a Thai restaurant in another part of town. The hotel tried to talk me into using their house taxi for an outrageous amount of money but I declined and opted for a CNG (compressed natural gas) tuk-tuk – according to the receptionist unavailable at this time of the evening and expensive too, which turned out not to be true, both ways. And now it is bedtime and of course I am wide awake.

Transit

The strike was over and with that the streets clogged again. Fatima had promised to take me out for a farewell lunch. It took an hour longer to get to my hotel.

We decided to find a place within walking distance despite the heat. We found a Japanese/Chinese/Korean restaurant. I suggested we try bi-bim-bap so that Fatima could sample the food of the country she will be visiting soon for a consultancy. But first she has to pass her bio statistics exam.

And now I am in Dubai again where I ran into some Afghan friends; now a couple, he a former colleague she one of the leadership facilitators I trained. Small world.

Eight hours later Amsterdam, with a searing pain in my shoulder and an achy left ankle. I am not in great shape to travel another eight hours.


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