Monthly Archives: October 2010

…a Thai escape

One of the things that expats do to have fun in Dhaka is go on vacations to nearby countries. There are, of course, two reasons for this: 1. You might never be back on this side of the globe. 2. You need to take a break from Dhaka itself, especially its traffic.

One of the places to go is Thailand, where you can go shopping for things other than Salwar Kameez (the local clothes), where you can eat tasty Thai food, and where you can get a great massage. There’s a direct flight there, so it’s a weekend trip. Yesterday we didn’t go to Thailand, but we had a Thai holiday just in our neighborhood.

I started the day by shopping at a charity clothing sale in support of the School of Hope, a school in a poor community that charges only 4 taka (less than 2 cents) per month in tuition.* The clothing was all donated seconds from local garment factories and everything was between 1 and 2 dollars.

After coming home, we had appointments at a Thai Day Spa for aromatherapy massages… wow. What a nice place. It’s called Samran Day Spa and has a variety of body treatments for men and women. When we were there we saw diplomats, businessmen, volunteers… They greeted us with tea when we arrived and brought us back to our rooms. The last time I had Thai massage, I was on a kind of futon on the ground, this spa used tables. Under the face hole in the massage table, they had placed a bowl of floating flowers. The masseuse has to be pretty limber, as they kneel on the table to so the pressure point therapy. My room had its own private bath and changing area. I highly recommend the place. We only had a 60 minute massage, but it felt like one of the longest I’d ever had, and they do up to 2 hours, as well as waxing, mani-pedi, scrubs and facials.

After the massage, we decided to go out for Thai food, down in Gulshan-1, at @Corner Thai. It’s located on the top floor of the Navana tower shopping center (use the elevator in the shopping arcade). It was the most expensive meal we’ve had here so far, but wouldn’t break the bank back in the states (about $35 for 2 people). It was also the spiciest. I have finally found a country where the chili pepper designations on the menu will feel spicy even to me. Yeah!!

It was a fun Thai escape. Today I have my first day of substitute teaching, wish me luck!

*The reason they charge anything is that most NGOs have found that a minimal charge has made the recipients value their education (or other charitable donation) more. They’ve paid for it, and they’ll work hard to see it succeed.

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…Folk International

Several days ago, the CLO (Community Liason Office) at the embassy held a handicrafts and bakery fair, mostly in anticipation of the holidays. We went, but didn’t find anything we had to have right then, perhaps we’re a bit phlegmatic about decision-making.

Today, however, we realized that our attempts to live with an undressed dining room table were failing, as we were noticing scratches already. So, off to “Folk International” we went.

“Folk International” is on Road 108 at House 19 in Gulshan, behind the Wonderland Park. While we were there, a cricket game was going on across the street, and small children were playing on some swings and slides while the spectators watched the game.

The shop carries a wide variety of things made in Bangladesh, especially things made with local fabrics and dyes. They had some really lovely kurtas and saris, handspun and handloomed, and with a price to match, as well as things for every day use. I’ve been reading about local textiles recently, and how important to the activist community in Bangladesh they are. Apparently, you can tell a lot about political affiliation by the clothes people choose to wear, handwoven things (as they were in Gandhi’s movement) signify a pride in national heritage, and an activist patriotism. Fashions that are made with foreign fabrics are either a sign of cosmopolitanism or a cultural import from India, via Bollywood. There are religious symbolisms and socio-economic issues illustrated in both the cut and style of the local clothes. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a clue what they are, so when I finally find something that fits me right, I’ll probably be proclaiming an affiliation that I am unaware of. However, until I find a Kameez (long tunic) with a zipper in it, I don’t think I’ll be able to fit into it unless I dislocate my shoulders. They have absolutely no stretch, and are relatively form fitting, when fashionably made.

Folk International also carried tablecloths and napkins, so we will finally be eating in a semi-civilized manner. They also had gift items, jewelry, men’s items, and a variety of Christmas ornaments and decor (annually between October and December), including fun reusable gift bags made of the local jute fibers. We got a couple of these bags to wrap potential gifts in. It’s a really nice shop, and reasonably priced. They have fixed prices, which is nice for foreign types like us who aren’t very good at bargaining in the street market, much less the brick-and-mortar shops. We might go back later for some Christmas ornaments or party supplies, if our boat shipment (HHE) doesn’t arrive in time for the holidays. It seems like one of _the_ places for expats to shop, as there were French and English speakers while we were there, but apparently local people also frequent it, probably just not right in the middle of the Friday high-prayer time, when we were shopping.

After we left that store, we went on a futile salwar kameez hunting trip (I highly recommend the collection at Saporo cotton, if you haven’t been though, SO CUTE, but soooo not for people with chubby arms), visited the local Movenpick for some incredibly refreshing Swiss sorbet and ice cream, and stopped to look at a Thai Day Spa which was recommended.

In other news, our UAB (air shipment) came yesterday, so we now have a _few_ things we thought we couldn’t live without. Unfortunately, some of them were unexpectedly provided to us in our welcome kit, though not on the list. So, in retrospect, we wish we’d brought some more home decor and entertainment. However, we did get the Wii and some great board games, so, should you ever want a place to play, our’s is the house.

…Wild Tile

Since the furniture post sparked such a strong response, I thought you might want to delve a little bit deeper into the dark underbelly of the furnishings of this house…. er… well, it’s not really that exciting, but I thought I’d show you the nifty but wild tile choices made by our builders. (This house is BRAND new, they’re still working on it even).

First, the master bath, just to make you think everything is calm here. It’s beige on beige, but with a vaguely neo-classical bent.

Second, the guest bathroom. I call it the under-the-sea bathroom, and not just because it is BLUE, but because of the bubble tile. All three kinds of tile in this bathroom are bubbles, square bubbles. It’s like SCUBA diving in Flatland.

Third, our other bathroom. I’m not sure you’re ready for this, but here it is nonetheless… Already in costume for Halloween… It’s the bordello bathroom.

Yikes! I actually love the color, in moderation, and have previously painted a bathroom exactly that shade, but with a matching toilet and sink? Who knew you could buy burgundy toilets in the 21st century.

Last, the kitchen tile, lest you forget what a kitchen is for, this tile kindly reminds you that it is for coffee and blue oranges.

My lament is that the colorfulness is limited to the bathrooms. Someone else I know in the neighborhood is getting a mural painted in her house, and I am feeling inspired to mix things up in our dining room. A trompe-l’oeil scene, perhaps? Any ideas?

…FSO Furniture

One of the things I always loved to read about when we were in the pre-FSI and before we arrived here was what other people’s FS apartments were like, and what kind of furniture they had. So, here’s my post on that subject… I apologize for some of these shots as they got a little glary.

The TV room

In the TV room, we have some damask-ish couches, a couple of traditional pseudo-18th century tables, and a buffet we moved in to the room to be our TV cabinet. There’s an A/C, dehumidifier, ceiling fan and air purifier too, as there are in most rooms. There’s ample lighting in this house. This room has 4 high sconces and three task lamps, which is overkill for a TV room, so they might move elsewhere.

Dining Set

In this room, the dining set originally stood, but…. it was the biggest room in the house, and the one you walked into from the front door. So we’ve moved the dining set up onto that adjoining elevated dais (in the back of the photo, leading to an open balcony) and turned this part into our large Sitting Room/Entertaining Spot. There’s a big sliding door which leads out onto a screened in balcony. We’ll put our patio set there when it comes. We took the leaf out of the dining set, because we’re not typically formal eaters, so 6 spots is fine. We have enough leaves and chairs to seat 10 though, should you want to partake of our hospitality.

On the right, you’ll see the buffet and china cabinet that have also moved (TV room and new dining room respectively). You’ll also see the fridge, which is in the living room, not the kitchen. Great for getting a soda, I guess? The furniture which now sits in here is similar to the TV room stuff, greenish. Also very formal.

The curtains and area rugs are beige, the walls are white and the furniture is cherry-stained. We have two bedrooms (master, guest/sewing/ironing/storage) and one bedroom that we turned into an office/freezer room. Yes, that’s right, we’re in a place where food access is inconsistent, and so they give us a full size freezer to put those awesome grocery finds. If there are pork chops in the market in an otherwise pork-abstaining country, you can buy all of them, and keep them in the freezer. (thus contributing to the inconsistency of product availability?)

Bedroom furniture

In the bedrooms we have the same pseudo-18th century furniture, direct from the furniture factories of North Carolina. We also have mosquito nets and WAY too many dressers. I’m trading in one of the dressers for a closet armoire, since this house mysteriously has nothing to hang dresses in. Our closet rods are all set for shirts. They are also hung VERY high, with shelves underneath. I am not sure if the builder thought that Americans are all so tall they can reach these lofty heights, or whether all Bangladeshi houses have really high closet rods.

The Kitchen

The kitchen apparently had the height problem originally too. You can see that the cupboards are still pretty high up there, especially considering my cook/bearer (i.e. maid) is only about 4’8″. However, there is a second line of covered drill holes that show the cupboards originally hung about 6″ higher, which would make it impossible for me to reach the handles, and I think she could only have done so with a ladder. In that pic you can see our tippy microwave and not yet useful water dispenser, both of which are in the fix-it queue at housing office.

All together, our house is something like 1500 sq ft. We’re several flights up stairs and have a view of the two neighboring houses as well as the local mosque and shopping street. The place is pretty quiet at night, but noisy with construction in the neighborhood during the day. There’s a pizza place and a weird clothing store a short walk away (weird for it’s inflated prices, not it’s stuff), and two avenues packed with small shops and restaurants, including a fish and bird pet shop, a place for snack foods, tailors, decorators, beauty parlors, doctors…..  It’s not largely considered a walking place, mostly because of the lack of sidewalks, but if you’re paying attention, it’s not impossible to walk around.

And that’s where we live.

…Durga Puja

(You get a bonus post today, since I was blogging off-line until we got the internet at home.)

We arrived last Wednesday and Mr A had to go to work the next morning at 8 am. Thankfully, the jet lag wasn’t too considerable for us, merely coming from Egypt, I would hate to do that after the complete 12 hour switch from US time.

You can see the many armed "Durga" in the center.

Over the weekend, we attended one of the CLO’s (Community Liaison Office) social/cultural events. We happened to arrive just in time for one of the big Hindi festivals, Durga Puja. While Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim society (90 percent or more), there is a local Hindu minority and a bit of synchretism about the local worship.

The particular village we intended to visit was about 45 km away. While in some places, such a trip might take an hour on the long side and half and hour on the average side, here in Dhaka it took us 3 hours to get there. The traffic is impressive. I’ll talk more about the traffic in another post, since it really deserves it.

Essentially Durga Puja is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. After building family temples and clay statues (huge and abundantly decorated) of the main characters in the story, there are several days of festival followed by the “immersion.” We unfortunately did not get a chance to go to the actual immersion (security issues, timing issues), but I’ve seen some movies of the event. The goddess Durga, who was created of parts and weapons loaned by many good gods is returned to the river so that she can be born again to fight evil next year. The statues are paraded to the river and thrown in with tons of flowers and singing.

While in the Hindu village, we got a chance to eat some local vegetarian curries, and some really tasty cinnamon biryani, all of which reminded me of my curry-eating days in the Berkeley coops. There are several things here in Dhaka that remind me of the Berkeley coops… and not just the food. There aren’t too many indulged undergrads here though, nor is the “Happy Happy” man. Dhaka probably has enough real life fire and brimstone without his sermons.

The trip back from the event was much quicker, and I got a chance to see a significant portion of the city of Dhaka as we drove along some of the major thoroughfares. Everything is actually pretty close together, Dhaka’s land mass is only the size of an average US town, but it takes forever to get around because of traffic and the zany method of routing they employ to keep neighborhoods separated.

…Water Distillers

While we arrived in Dhaka late last week, we hadn’t got strong access to the internet yet, so I couldn’t post anything.

Tonight that changed!!

Our adventure of the week has pretty much been dealing with the new life, but there’s not much more to that than dealing with the slow pace at which tasks are accomplished, the chaos of speaking pidgin Bangla with someone else who speaks pidgin English, and the general confusion of learning a new city’s streets, shops and traffic patterns.

Last night we learned that 7 pm is not the time to drive from our neighborhood to the American club, for example. We also learned that the internet to wifi there has been very patchy in the last few weeks… and it takes about an hour to send a quick email.

One of the exciting new things in our life is this cool water distiller. In the Foreign Service, if you’re posted to a country with poor civil water quality, you might get issued a water distiller that will purify all the water you care to drink, or brush your teeth with, or rinse your contacts in, etc. And who _wants_ to get Cholera, right?

The "Still"
The "Still"

Our water distiller happens to be bran’ spankin’ new. We’re the first to use it. It’s a relatively big responsibility, as it requires monthly descaling, and a few other maintenance tasks. It comes with two white chemicals that are used for cleaning it, both of which are also used to clean home brewers and wine kits. Maybe we’ll have to branch out in our still-ery. I doubt it.

The department also provides many homes with a handy water dispenser to make the distiller easier to use. (If you use the distiller without the dispenser, it’s a bit like using a hose for your daily tasks). Our dispenser has a hot and cold tap, but it’s not running yet, because the plug outlet and the counter space are not aligned. We put in a request for a dispenser stand, and it should be here, like the internet, sometime this week.

The water it produces is the best water I’ve tasted, significantly better than most city water or bottled water. It’s close to the sweet mountain spring stuff. The main drawback for families with children is that the distiller provides water free of _all_ impurities, even those, like fluoride which we in the US add to our water to strengthen our teeth. Thus, children have to use fluoride toothpastes even though they are usually not recommended for the very young due to issues of ingestion poisoning. Yet, a little fluoride toothpaste is better than a lot of arsenic, the other exciting water surprise in Bangladesh.

Did you know that the leading cause of death in this country is arsenic poisoning from ground water contamination? Yikes. Considering the diet, disease and accident rates, there must be a considerable number of people with white fingernails (a symptom of arsenic poisoning) out there.

In other words, I am grateful for my distiller, even if it makes brushing my teeth a strangely long process every day. Once we get a few pitchers to put in the bathrooms, that should be a lot easier.

…Pyramids

It was 40 degrees yesterday in Cairo, and it will be 40 again today. For those of you who don’t read centigrade, that’s over 100 F. And, what does one decide to do when it is that hot out? One decides to go hiking around the pyramids!

In the last two days we’ve seen the Egyptian Museum, toured the churches and synagogues of Old Cairo, seen a mosque built in imitation of the Hagia Sophia, shopped in a crazy big market (our guide says, it’ll take about 15-20 minutes to see it… hmm, I am not sure which market she was talking about), visited a jewelry shop, a papyrus shop and a perfumer, and walked around at the pyramids for several hours.

I was dressed for mosques yesterday, so the time at the pyramids was especially hot. Today we’re headed out into the Sahara itself, to see the oasis at Bahariya and the Crystal, Black and White deserts, and I am definitely going to dress more appropriately. Today will be the hottest day of our week and of course, we’re going to spend it in one of the hottest places on earth. Silly Adventures!

Our guide here in Cairo, Rahab, was very friendly, though Mr. A had a hard time keeping up with the speed of her accented English. It seems like it is pretty popular for the tour guides to have PhD’s in Egyptology, and Rahab was finishing hers with a dream to do further study in the USA. When I told her I was going to do my defense online, she wondered if she could do a whole degree that way. I said she could, but I’d never heard of any in her field… she gave me her card though, so if any one knows of any online schools in fields related to Egyptology (long shot), I suppose I could email her.

Mr. A’s luggage was supposed to be delivered to our hotel yesterday, but was delayed along the way. Poor guy, he’ll probably be wearing his same two outfits for a few more days, as our Oasis trip is an overnighter.

Thank goodness for the hotel laundry service!