Saturday, April 27, 2019

Mode a la Mode

What I have discovered about Dhaka, is I enjoy discovering Dhaka. Sure, there is the sheer madness of the traffic, the bad air, the constant honking of horns and the foul smells. However there is much to discover here. It is the mode of transportation you choose to get around this madhouse that adds to the absurdity that surrounds you. Some of your choices will find yourself questioning said choices and suddenly wondering if you had your Last Will and Testament up to date let alone your health insurance. In no particular order here we go.

Uber is an excellent option. I use it often and normally without issue. Now that being said, be prepared for some cars that have seen better days and drivers who know zero English. The only constant  issue is that too many drivers do not have a GPS map on their phone. Weird since they are registered Uber drivers. How difficult would it be to download Google Maps as a requirement to be an Uber driver? More than once I have had to hand over my phone  to the driver so they know where they are going. Issue number 2, they usually do not know where they are going. I get that this is a huge city but at least know the neighborhoods. Come on man!  I am speaking in generalities because I have had some flawless rides, but they are more rare then normal.  Issue number 3. Is having the driver actually find you. This is a global Uber issue and I do not speak Bengali. When they call we do our best. However, and without fail there is always someone around to help (because they will be standing and staring at you anyways). Someone will speak enough English to offer to take the phone and guide the driver. It has never failed me.

Uber Scooter and Pathao
If you are looking for a bit of madness and adventure, choose the scooter option with Uber. All the same challenges apply in finding your ride. When they arrive, you are given a helmet, you jump on the back and be prepared for the ride of your life. The driver will take care to not "kill you". After all, he has a reputation to uphold. You will weave in and out of traffic, way to close too buses, cars and other scooters, never mind the myriad of rickshaws. The good thing is traffic is so congested you are never going over 15 or 20 km an hour. That is until you hit an open part of the road and off you go like the proverbial bat out of hell. Oddly, I feel comfortable on the back of these scooters. I think I like the air and openness around me.

*** I was quickly reminded of how dangerous these modes of transport can be. A young girl was riding on the back of an Uber Scooter in Dhaka the other day. It was hit from behind by a truck. She fell off and was run over by the truck. Read the story here.  A quick reminder that madness of the traffic and the recklessness of the drivers are very real.

10 seat microbus
A battered city bus
In the back of a CNG. Naturally a friendly driver
City corner madness
A napping Uber Scooter driver
CNGs  Compressed Natural Gas - My personal choice most days

CNG - Compressed Natural Gas
My new personal favorite is the CNG, compressed natural gas. Yup, a small explosive device raging through traffic without a care in the world. CNG drivers are by far the most aggressive on the streets of Dhaka. You can find them everywhere, they usually know where you are going if you show them the location on the phone and they are cheaper than Uber. They are enclosed with a cage so you get the fresh, well Dhaka fresh air as you find your way. I have yet to find a CNG driver who was not friendly and courteous. They do have a meter inside the cab but I like to negotiate a fare beforehand. Usually it is more than what the meter would be but it works for me. No surprises like "boss, I cannot find the place" and they drive around raising the fare. CNG will go anywhere in the city.
* These are popular all through India. They have just been introduced in London England and are taking the city by storm. Look for them at a city near you.

Dhaka, the rickshaw capital of the world has approximately. 500,000 rickshaws operating every day. Some days you would think that all 500,000 are on the same stretch of road you are on.
Rickshaws are great for short trips around your neighborhood, heading back from the market, home from having a few drinks or you just want to take a spin. They are incredibly inexpensive. I never negotiate a price beforehand. I just jump in and pay something at the end. If it is not enough the rider will speak up. I am talking 50 Taka, or C$0,80 for a ride of about 20 minutes or so. If he wants another 50 then I am more than happy to oblige. Sometimes a short trip from the market home, about 5 minutes will cost you 20 Taka, and the rider is happy for it. They guys work  hard for very little money and they are all obviously lean.

As an aside, it would be easy to toss 200 Taka to a rickshaw rider because it is not a lot of money. However, you must learn to live within the rules of Dhaka when it comes to paying and not overpay. You cannot create an isolated price and market for foreigners because we will pay more. Oddly you need to argue for every Taka. I know it seems trivial but it is important

City Bus.
When you are not taking a bus you can look at the mess that they are and wonder why you would climb aboard. Scratched, dented, dirty and overcrowed. I have taken a bus a few times now. A short trip from Banani, across Gulshan to Baridhara which took about 15 minutes. The bus was  not crowed at all this being Banani and the ride cost 15 Taka, $0.24 Canadian. You buy a ticket from a vendor on the side of the road and off you go. I had a good lesson on taking this bus so it was flawless. There are so many lumbering, smoke belching and nasty buses outside of Banani and Gulshan that even students at the school shriek in horror when I ask if I should take one. Reason enough to give it try one day I guess

There are over 1 million rickshaws in Bangladesh
I can not describe the noise
Flatbed delivery bikes
Cold food delivery bike
A little bike maintenance on the side of a very busy street
Recycling bicycle

A Micro Bus or Micro Taxi is built for 10. Naturally, it is normally crammed with 12 or 14. Anise explained them to me but I can not see me ever using them. They are the short route buses, much like rickshaws. I was told you tell the driver where you are going and he will get  you there, if it is within his driving zone. The cost is 10 Taka and they are popular with uniformed school kids and their parents.

Once you choose your mode of madness you can get anywhere in this town. Last year according to the Daily Star, Dhaka was rated as the second worst city in the world to live in, behind Damascus Syria which has been in a civil war for 5 years!! This year we held strong at number 2 according to the Economist. These facts are all true, but Dhaka is also interesting and historical. It has a myriad of neighborhoods and slums, yes slums to explore. There are ancient sites to walk around such as Lalibagh Fort, which was erected in 1678. There are also plenty of museums, parks, and historical monuments to find. That my friend is what this is all about. Choosing a place to visit is great. Finding it in the cauldron of madness that is Dhaka, now that is where the real fun is.

The Revolutionary Museum opened my eyes to a part of world history, the Bangladesh War of Independence from Pakistan. Growing up I remember there being an East and West Pakistan, formed after the independence of India from the United Kingdom on 15 August 1947. After years of repression from Pakistan, Bangladesh launched a final campaign for Independence. It was bloody, brutal and hard fought. With so many independence fights in Africa, SE Asia and Central America this war was largely ignored in the West. I am a result of that ignorance.

The Concert for Bangladesh Poster from 1971
George Harrison hand written lyrics
Nicely painted entrance
The entrance to the Liberation Museum
The museum entrance memorial
Poignant words from a revolutionary

Take the time to listen to the full concert HERE on YouTube. Live Aid in the 80s was massive thanks to the drive of Bob Geldof. Steven Van Zandt left the E-Street Band and rose up with Artists against Apartheid in the mid 80's with Sun City. Artists from Canada, The USA and the UK brought attention to the famine in Ethiopia and Farm Aid helped American Farmers, also in the 80's. These concerts all had roots from George Harrison. He was much more than the Beatles. He was a humanitarian and well ahead of his time. Bangladesh remembers George and we need to as well.

Lalibagh Fort goes back to 1678. That is over 400 years for those keeping score at home. I have never been asked to take so many selfies in a 2 hour period.  It was not a real busy day so I stood out as the only guy wearing short, "jorts" naturally, on a sunny day where the temperature hovered about 40 degrees Celsius. I also noticed from the photos that I am wearing my blue checked Colombia shirt. A shirt that I bought almost 10 years ago and has been with me every step of the way. There are no holes, frays and blemishes considering where it has been and what I have put it through. I should send a message to Colombia and let them know I am a fan.

Nice view of the Tomb and Lalibagh Fort
Another view of the interior of the Fort Complex
Selfies selfies and more selfies
A water drainage ditch..that worked 400 years ago. They need it now
Part of a photo shoot that took at least 15 minutes
My photo shoot crew

The fort is easy enough to get to as a major attraction for both tourists and locals. There were also quite a few school groups here. None of them gave a shit where they were, they just wanted to take photos, which brings me back to the selfies. With every few steps and an opening I was greeted with a "what country" and followed by a shy "selfie?" So it went. Families, young couples, kids which are cool. When they realized I was approachable, the hoards of students descended like a pack of lions on unsuspecting prey. There were selfies with groups, selfies one on one, selfies with pairs and selfies with selfies. Each time a friendly hand was extended followed by "thank you sir". It was fun and they were more than willing to take photos of me. That being said one quick touristy photo for this blog became an extended photo shoot that included different poses, standing, sitting, horizontal, vertical angular. All I needed was a swimsuit and pouty duck lips....Now you are picturing me in a swimsuit aren't you. How is that working out for you?😂😂😂

Monday, April 8, 2019

Check That Clothing Label

Clothing for sale. You see it everywhere here in Dhaka. Clothes are in brightly lit western style shops. There are vendors with tables on most streets and on flat back rickshaws. There are popup stalls on dirt paths and along walking trails and in massive packs being shouldered around town by smiling and sweating local. Clothes, clothes and more clothes everywhere. Now,  I am not talking crap clothing stitched together with low end material. This is top end, certified brand name clothing made with quality material. Go through your wardrobe and check the "made in" tags. I am guessing you will find China, maybe Vietnam and Mexico. What you might be shocked to find is how much of your clothing is made in Bangladesh.

This industry and the products that are produced are a massive source of pride. Any Bangladeshi will comment, if asked, about the quality of the clothing that you have just purchased. On any subject most are polite and reserved, almost lacking a gene to say anything disparaging. However, broach the subject of clothing and material and all bets are off. "That material, I would not have bought that shirt". "Next time you ask me and I will take you to a good place". Everyone seems to know someone or someplace that has the best clothing at the cheapest prices.

The clothing manufacturing sector is massive. I can usually by excellent quality, top brand name clothing for about 25% of the price in the west. The Bangladeshi take this seriously. When I take my shirts to be ironed the guy will tell me weather the material is good or bad quality and always suggests I he will take me shopping.

Conditions in these factories are less than stellar regardless of what Tommy Hilfiger, GAP, George, Lee, Zara or American Eagle press release about. Sure they set standards and then they outsource the management of these factories to local companies who absolutely ignore what they are told. The Western companies feel exonerated because "we did everything we could", but they know what's going on. We in the west do not pay attention or care when we pick up that new shirt or pair of pants. Be sure, the issues are real, the people are poorly paid and treated worse than dogs and western labels keep growing profits.

My two friends from the Ironing shop
I have bought from the cart a few times.
Sir, Do you need a saree?
Shawn catching some nap time before our ride home
Raw Nation Clothing ShopArtisan, my personal favorite

Nothing exemplifies this more than the 2013 Savar Building collapse that killed over 1,100 workers. The building contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several shops. "The shops and the bank on the lower floors were immediately closed after cracks were discovered in the building. The building's owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour". -- Wikipedia

There are nice clothing stores, my personal favorite being Artisan. You can find clothing at every market, upscale and back alley. There are clothing stalls on street corners and along river paths and finally pop up stalls randomly appearing everywhere. The options are limitless here.

The thing is, when you look at a real nice "upscale shop" logic dictates not to shop there. It will be too expensive when I have other options. Well sir,\ that is not the case. The clothing is a bit more expensive but it is minimal. The shop is usually bright, the staff helpful and alterations are free. Yes, there are change rooms. As an example, I purchased a real nice shirt at Artisan for 700 Taka (C$11). I tried it on and I love it. One night I bought a shirt from a random street vendor for 400 Taka (C$6.50). It was a Tommy Hilfiger XL. I am not a fan of the brand but the material was great and size was good. That is until I tried it on at home. It was XL for a 10 year old. Obviously a flawed shirt from the factory. It is not always the case because I have purchased a few good shirts off the street. My point is, for the extra 2 or 3 dollars it's nice to go into a shop. Seriously, good quality real (no knock off) brand name shirts are $11.

A clothing vendor. Not very busy on a Friday
A nice clothing shop in the Korail Basti slum
Street shops in the Korail Basti slum
A clothing vendor and street tailor outside the Wari School
A mom and daughter just hanging out
A nice shop where I bought a Pierre Cardin Shirt. I feel dirty

For the girls out there, there are shoes and purses (yes that was a sexist comment, get over it). Do you buy knock off handbags? Well you can get the real deal here with authentication certificates...which may or may not be forged. 😳😳😳😳. Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes, Chanel are all alive and stocked in every nice shop...for about $40. Yes, I am thinking of buying 10 of them the next time I return to Canada. I will sell them on eBay and pay for my trip. I guess the only thing is to have an answer ready for Canadian Immigration as to why I have 10 high end purses. I will need a list of woman in my life with phone numbers as these will be gifts for all of you. Remember this is Bangladesh and not Rodeo Drive. For every nice shop on one corner there are kids picking through garbage on the next corner.

There are quite a few spin off industries with all this clothing around. On-site, or should I say "on-street tailoring, laundry and ironing services are everywhere. I wash my own shirts but  then take them to a shop a few blocks away. They iron my shirts and pants for 10 Taka each (C$0.15). I never ask for rush service and they are usually ready in 24 hours. Pressed, folded and safely bagged. The two guys at the shop love to try and talk English and I am always greeted with a loud "It's Canada".

I have lost a bit of weigh and needed my jorts taken in. Across the street from the Ironing shop, on the street corner is a guy with a sewing machine. Using broken English, hand signs and pinching the pants about an inch he figured out what I wanted. The shorts were taken in by the time I walked across the street, picked up my ironing, chatted with the lads and returned. 25 Taka.

There are shoe repair guys squatting on the sidewalks in various locations. I have to tell you that they do a great job. I bought a new pair of shoes from the outlet in Niagara Falls and they were not cheap. As you may or may not know I buy most of my clothing second hand, or vintage if it needs a label. However, shoes are where I do not cheap out. Well these "quality" shoes started losing their sole about 3 weeks after I purchased them. The sole completed removed itself from my right shoe on my third day here. I had my Havianas to get me through as I had not started work yet. Shawn, one of our drivers took my shoe to a local street guy and it came back better quality than when I bought it. A new slim layer was added to my shoe and the sole reattached, glued and stitched. It was so good I gave him my good shoe and had it "redesigned" like the new repaired shoe.

I laughed with my sister Kelly when I told her that I had to move to Bangladesh to start buying good new clothes. I think she stopped listening and started drooling when I told her about the high end bags and purses. I cannot believe I am actually going to walk into a shop and buy a Prada or Luis Vuitton bag. With all due respect to Neil Young. My life changing in so many ways.  

Monday, April 1, 2019

One Month In

March 25th marks my first month in Dhaka and the expiry of my one month "visa on arrival". As expected, my extended visa is not ready which technically makes me an illegal alien in Bangladesh. In a country that craves foreign investment and tourism would my penalty be? I am sorry sir, you have over stayed your visa. Now you have to stay...wait what? Hold on sir, I will be right with you.

It has been hectic, nerve wracking, frustrating, fun, entertaining, eye opening, interesting and exciting. I have had more than one day of  "What the fu** and I doing here" that's for damn sure. Some days the constant honking of horns goes right through to my inner core and I turn around and go home. I believe that my experience helps me hide my frustration and allows me to push forward. "Just keep smiling and be nice, it confuses the shit out of people".

Aside from what I have already shared, there have been a few moments that are worth the effort to chat about. It all starts with why I came here. Teaching kids can be excruciating at times but they are globally awesome and these kids are no different.  My day consists of Grade 3 English, Grade 4 English, Grades 8 Social Studies and Grade 10 Health Sciences. Grade 10 is my biggest challenge. They are 16 and 17 years old and act like they are 16 and 17 years old. When you cut through the attitudes, the excuses, the fact they think they know everything and you are an idiot (this one may be true) and the general apathy towards school, they are interesting kids and quite funny.  Thankfully, I was never a 17 year old with an attitude. 😎. Teaching something other than English presents new challenges for me. It is just a matter of learning the content and prepping and planning properly.

In the morning I go to the Wari branch of the school to teach grades 3 and 4. I am actually in charge of a homeroom, what is that all about?. We start the day by singing the Bangladesh and Canadian national anthems and they rock the Canadian. When it ends I have taught them to say "Now keep your sticks on the ice". They have no idea what it means but they get a kick out of it. We sing Canadian because as the Canadian Trillium School, our curriculum is based on the province of New Brunswick  and their public school curriculum. I have no idea why they chose this relationship but that's how we roll, so roll we shall.

In the afternoon it's off to Malibagh branch for grades 8 and 10. This transfer allows me the joyous opportunity to spend an extra 40 minutes in the cacophony that is Dhaka traffic. It's always more fun than television to watch the streets unfold around me punctuated by "too much traffic, no discipline" coming from the drivers' seat.

I tried to sneak my birthday through without getting noticed, that failed. I knew something was up when one of the grade 3's came up to me and whispered that he had a secret and he wanted to tell me. "Tomorrow is your birthday and we all know", and with that he skipped knowingly out of class. Low and behold, the next day the same boy, Araf, came up to me as the morning break started with a massive smile. "Mr. Ken, you must come with me now". There they were, all the students and teachers gathered in a classroom with a nice chocolate cake. They sang Happy Birthday and we devoured the cake in record time. It was really a nice "surprise".  I did manage to pull the "Can you smell this, it smells bad" with a piece of cake on Ms. Nabiha. Unsuspecting she leaned in to sniff the cake and I pushed it into her nose. She was mortified but laughing "Mr Ken, how could you. How can I teach the rest of the day?". 

There were a few other birthdays in the last month, including Araf's. These kids love the attention. One birthday was a child in kindergarten. His father is an MP so when the cake arrived it was a massive Mickey Mouse and it was spectacular. There were also bags of lunch for everyone in the school. These parties were organized by Ms. Nabiha, Ms.Jafrin and Ms.Sonia. Nabiha and Jafrin are teachers and Sonia works reception, having to deal with the absurdity of parental requests. They are all fun to work but it took a bit of time. The cultural divide is there and we just needed to be sure of each other. Now I torture them like I would anyone else. As an example, today we were sitting in the office lining up to print our worksheets. Sonia had her sandal off, for what ever reason, and was looking away. I one smooth move I kicked it, picked it up and hid it. Nabiha could not hide her delight when Sonia turned to put her sandal on and it was not where she left it. We tortured her for about 30 seconds until she figured it out. As with my little cake incident with Nabiha, we need to always remind ourselves that certain beliefs do not take away the fact that we are all same. Keep the respect and the joy will arrive.

We also had a celebration for Bangladesh Independence at both schools. Wari was more of a play day, whereas Malibagh was a bit more organized and formal. In the end I could not attend either. I have only told a few people this but all foreign nationals were recommended to head to their hotel rooms or apartments. There was high terror alert issued by the Japanese Embassy and the local police for Gulshan and Banani, the Embassy Zones. There was no incident, just a warning. As the morning stretched to noon, we found out that this was a common thing on Independence Day. With that information in my pocket, I, as well as most people, ignored the warning and headed out. The eerie part was the security presence around Gulshan and Banani was massive. They obliviously took the warning serious. In the gated park that I walk every day the 2 armed security guards were partnered with 4 full equipped soldiers. There were a few extra checkpoints heading into the embassy zone but I am used to these now. Anyway, it was a few extra days off work. I am not making light of the situation because things can get very real here in a hurry.

I had mentioned previously that there was a terrorist attack in a Gulshan coffee shop in July of 2016. There were 7 Japanese killed in that brutal attack and because of that they are extremely sensitive about any "heightened alerts" sent out by the local government, as well they should be.

The Dhaka New Market. If it is possible to imagine, think of how inexpensive good quality clothes are in Bangladesh. Now think of a massive market 30 minutes away from the Embassy Zone where they are cheaper. Not only clothing but anything you could possibly need. It was epic. Now that being said it is not for the faint of heart. It is busy and you cannot budge when you barter or you will be eaten alive.

Much like the La Purisima Market in Tehuacan, Mexico where nobody from our school would even think of going, all the locals were petrified that we were going there without a local person to help. Much like Mexico it sure seemed like a place I really wanted to see. Some of the teachers here have been so put off by the possible dangers and horror stories from the local teachers (there are none) that they have not even attempted a visit. As Carl Hoffman clearly stated in The Lunatic Express, "Just because they are poor does not mean they are thieves."

We were there for a couple of hours and just scratched the surface. The strange confused looks disappeared with a simple hello and head waggle. The head waggle is a huge thing to learn and get used to doing. It basically means OK, hello, everything is good, I am friendly etc. Smile and a waggle and your experience changes. Suddenly you are part of the crowd and the experience. Sure, there are probably assholes here that would rip you off as quickly as possible. Everyone I dealt with tried to charge me quite a bit but were quick to barter down to something realistic when I did not jump at their first offer. This happened with the dude I bought a fantastic leather belt from. He started at 1000, I offered 200, we settled on 300. He then took the belt, put it around my waist and punched the holes in it right there. "It must fit right" he said. He said something to his buddy and they both laughed. I figure they were trying to figure out where to put the belt, above or below my belly, so I laughed as well. Why not?

Finally there was the epic blowout and tire change in the middle of an incredibly busy road. We noticed the tire was going a bit flat when we jumped in but Anise said not to worry. It did not take me long realize he says that about everything. We were motoring along when "boom" the tire decided it did not want to be a tire any longer.

With the worst possible jack and tire iron I heard a positive,  "No Problem Mr. Ken" so we just went at it. We were off to the right as far as possible but that did not stop every car from honking as it screamed past. We we dirty and sweating in the midday Dhaka sun when a huge military truck pulled in behind us. The main guy, whatever rank, wandered over with a confident gait. I figured they were going to help (ha ha ha), control traffic or arrest us for whatever they wanted to arrest us for. It is Bangladesh after all.

So this guy walks over, smiles and hands me a newspaper to sit on. The white guy should not get his pants dirty. He seemed a bit put off when I opened it to share with Anise to which Anise said, "not now Mr. Ken. When they go". The caste system as I live and breathe. This is Bangladesh so crowd immediately gathered to watch. Just standing and staring at us. A few offered suggestions but never once offered assistance. With dirty hands and a bit of sweat we were on our way in about 20 minutes. Anise and I have been bonded over this little experience and are now the best of friends now. We share tea at a local cart every afternoon before he drives me to Malibagh. I promise you this. The warmth of the Bangladeshi people is real. If you embrace its honesty, your day always becomes brighter.

When you're watching a chicken get butchered across the street, while sipping tea on a dusty Dhaka back street, it is just a normal day. Just go with it.