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.

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