Monthly Archives: January 2011

…Cultural Forays

I was deliberately “exciting” this weekend, and attended all sorts of things that were going to be fodder for this narrative. But, sadly, they were mostly a bust. I did get a little bit of cultural immersion, but it wasn’t the stuff great travel narratives are made of.

Friday night we attended the district’s annual Pitha Utshab party, a celebration of sweet foods that are only traditionally available in the “winter” time. I thought I’d bring you back a review. While there were lots on display in cute saran-wrapped baskets, they weren’t for eating. There was only one kind of Pitha, a gummy rice cake that looked a bit like a pancake, but twice as thick, and half as tasty. It was kinda depressing. They served it with lots of other foods, but the line was CRAZY long, and people were cutting, shoving and generally chaotic in their efforts to get some. What made that especially odd was that they were all dressed in exquisite formal wear, and the event was held under a grand wedding tent in a flower garden, complete with fairy lights and linen table dressings. It was one of the loveliest things I’d been to in Dhaka, and yet there was still a food stampede.

On Saturday, I attended a CLO event that would take us to a part of town famous for it’s factory-seconds. Bangladesh is a major producer of clothes for international export, and the overruns and seconds get sold on the local market. Some of them get donated and sold in charity sales. (I’ve been to a few, full of H&M, Tesco, and Jones New York items.) The rest get sent to places like Bongo Bazaar, a large rambling market full of clothes. It seemed like the potential for shopping paradise, and I deliberately brought a relatively small amount of cash, to rein myself in. (When you buy in taka, the local currency, it feels like you’re shopping with Monopoly money.) The travel guides to Bangladesh highly recommend Bongo, as do blogs and local newspaper clippings. Perhaps we went on a bad day, but it seemed like a total scam. Most of the clothes were for small men, understandable, given the people who would typically shop there. Women around here wear saris or shalwar kameez, so there isn’t a demand for western women’s clothing. There were also several sections of children’s clothes, but not the glitzy stuff I was looking for. Many of the items were tagged falsely, with a Gap label, a M&S pricetag, but a DollarTree quality. There were a few stalls selling authentic stuff, but at High Street prices (to use a Britishism). The charity sales are flat price, all items are the same, whether they are 1st rate suiting, or cheap t-shirts that have holes and marker all over them. At Bongo, bargaining was required, and the resulting prices ended up about twice the charity sale price. Since the charities deliberately mark-up their rates to raise money, I can only imagine that the bargaining we were attempting at Bongo was pathetic, and completely related to our foreignness.

Oh well, I bought nothing. Several others got stuff they were looking for, but I was really only on the market for two things, and they had neither. Well, they had one thing, but were started the negotiations at 650t (a little under $10), and said final offer at 600t. Since the going rate at the charity sales is 150t, I refused.

I’m putting together a post on “crazy things foreigners do” (i.e. we Americans in Dhaka), so if you’ve ever done something that has elicited stares, “wows” or other general surprise from locals, send me a hint and I’ll include it on my list.

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…Pen Pals

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the 2011 FS Swap, an opportunity for FS bloggers to get to know each other and get mail (the highlight of my week here, and a very sad week when nothing comes).

I was paired up with Becky, who is stationed waaaaaaayyyyyy over on the other side of the world, meaning she’s much closer to home than I am, but her experiences of life in the Western Hemisphere can be just as full of craziness (if not more) than mine here in Dhaka.

Her blog, SmallBits is at: http://smallbitsfs.blogspot.com/ and I am adding her to my blogroll. She set herself a resolution to post every day, and there are some great pics and anecdotes that she’s used to fulfill that goal. She’s also been a host of the RoundUp (including the massive round-up which was featured a couple of weeks ago), and does a lot to make the circle of FS bloggers feel like a community, by making comments and sending helpful notes.

I packed up a special box for her, and am sending it out in the mail. I can’t tell you what’s in it yet, because it’s a surprise, but it’s a little bit o’ Dhaka, without the traffic or the spitting (In case she was worried).

…The Wrong Side of the Road

So, in Dhaka, we do drive on the left, as they do in England. You’d think that’s what my post title refers to, but then, you’ve not been in Dhaka traffic.

A couple of days ago, I drove the 15 blocks to the little American store to stock up on heavy groceries. I could go more often and walk there to save the resources, yes, but ferrying a whole frozen chicken and a 12 pack of soda while walking through Dhaka isn’t very fun. Anyway, the drive there took about 30 minutes. 15 blocks. 30 minutes.

And, these blocks are only 2 houses deep, not big city blocks, tiny little blocks.

When the traffic gets like this, probably about every other day or so, people try to get creative with their solutions. The most common solution is to honk. But, of course, honking doesn’t really resolve gridlock, it just adds to the chaos.

The solution that a few clever souls come up with is one that you can’t fully appreciate without actually being in the car, but I’ll share it with you anyway: Drive the wrong way down the street, preferably in the same area as pedestrians are walking, but occasionally right in the middle. Let oncoming traffic flow around you as you fight your way, salmon-like, in the other direction.

This technique is also useful when traffic is at Dhaka-normal level:

i.e. if you’re a moto-scooter, then anywhere is fine to drive, even backwards…
or a delivery vehicle, or a rickshaw, or a bicycle-truck carrying 20 meter long bamboo poles, or a bus. That’s what amuses me the most, seeing a big ol’ city bus doing the salmon-swim up through traffic, the frantic would-be passengers dashing across the mess of traffic on the other side, and over the 4 foot tall median covered in barbed wire to make it to the wrong-way bus.

Luckily, since there is SOOO much traffic, the average speed of anyone is about 4mph, so even a head-on collision isn’t going to do much more than aesthetic damage.

…Taco Salad

We made sure to pack sufficient Mexican spices to last our two years here, as many of the flavours are not available in Asia, unless you’re willing to grow and grind them yourself. (WAY too much effort, even for Mexican food.) So, for instance, we have a Costco-sized jar of taco spices.

Mr. A suggested about 10 days ago that he would like some taco salad. Sounds doable, right? We found lettuce at the local grocery store, brought it home and had our housekeeper bleach it the next day. I found beans and salsa at the American store. Then, there was a hunt for sufficiently good tomatoes, and possibly limes. Unfortunately, by the time we had tomatoes, the lettuce was rotten. So, I used the tomatoes for something else, thinking the salad was a no go.

Then, it was requested again! Oh no… the hunt for lettuce begins anew. I found some today at an organic market (picture a garage with a table in it: On the table are the nicest vegetables I’ve seen in Dhaka, but there are only 2 or 3 of each vegetable, and only about 10 different veggies total). I bought the lettuce, some green onions and carrots. Now, the hunt for the tomatoes begins again, I hope the housekeeper can find some tomorrow! In the meantime, I’ll be hunting for some appropriate meat to go with it.

I really liked the organic market, by the way, they also had fresh and frozen fish from Khulna, organic chicken, goose, guinea fowl and some other meat. Supposedly, if you go in the morning, they have french breads, including croissants, baguettes and the like…. It’s on Road 99 in Gulshan-2.

…DITF

The Dhaka International Trade Fair (DITF) is going on right now and we went on a CLO (i.e. Embassy-sponsored social) trip to it last week. It was a combination between a giant swap meet and a technology expo. There were a lot of repetitive small booths selling kitchen appliances and tupperware, a few hawkers of innovative products (like a SLICER-DICER!), and exhibitions by countries and companies trying to solicit contracts here in Dhaka. So, a booth by Sharp, Nestle, etc., as well as booths by India, Japan and other supra-regional countries. There were a lot of refrigerators for sale. We went on a Friday in the relatively early morning to skip the crowds, but by the time we left, the open spaces in the pics below were teeming with the regular Dhaka crowds.

The fog, by the way, is because it was actually chilly that day, like in the 50s and misty.

The golden arches at the entrance. But, not sponsored by the Golden Arches, we don't have that in Dhaka.
A glimpse of some of the exhibitions, including a great-big greenhouse and a giant fountain tower.
Some of the structures were cutely themed. There were two palaces like this, the other a neon pink and purple combo sposored by Toyota that I forgot to photograph.
There were so many beautiful flowers at the fair, and the sun came out around lunch-time.

…Soi 71

Soi 71 is one of the most popular restaurants in Dhaka among the expat crowd that I am familiar with. It’s a 20 minute walk from our house, but we hadn’t been yet, so we decided to go last week, and were joined by four of our friends.

A table for 8 in the subterranean dining room
A more intimate booth

Apparently they are popular enough to hope you have a reservation with a group of 6, so if you’re planning to eat there (especially at the locally popular late dining hour), you might want to call ahead. The restaurant is big, though, so if you can’t get into the preferred downstairs room, you can still get tasty food in the upstairs room.

The stairs leading downstairs, looking up

Soi 71 also has a midday coffee and pastries cafe in addition to their two dining rooms. The downstairs room, where we ate, had a large play area for little kids to bounce around in, with decor from popular childrens’ movies.

The food was awesome, at least to my thai-loving (dish-wash-hating), palatte. Some people don’t like it, but I think I could go there quite often and be happy each time. It’s a great standard-American quality restaurant, but with the added excitement of a cute decor and some aquaria.

One of several aquariums

…Factory Tours

In Egypt, your tour guides take you on a lot of what are called “factory tours” but are really just occasions for selling you tourist memorabilia. The “factory” part is often one lackey pretending to carve something, or pretending to paint. Nothing is actually made on site.

However, I enjoy a good factory tour, especially the opportunity to purchase “seconds” or even first-quality products, if they are really made there. Here in Bangladesh, I’ve gone on several factory tours. One was a tour of a pottery making village which produced pots for local sale. They are simple terra cotta pots, hundreds of thousands of them all the same size and shape. Various members of the village perform different aspects of the process. One person makes the base, another the rim, another stokes the open kiln, another deals with mixing clay, etc. Since each task is dependent on the schedule of the kiln, no one works 100% of the time, or at the same time as others. The morning is full of base-making, the midday of rim-making, the afternoon of setting the dried pots in the kiln, etc.

I also toured three factories that produced products for export to the US and Europe. One of these, a jute rug factory, made colonial-style braided rugs that you might have on your doorstep, or in front of the fire, or under your dog’s dish. They were cute, but the factory was a cloud of fibers, yarns and noises. It seemed a pretty messy business. They, unfortunately, didn’t have anything for sale to us tourists. We could have used a rug or two for our marble floors.

Last week, I visited the Beximco industrial park. We were there primarily for the ceramics (i.e. the bone china and porcelain dishware they produce under the label Shinepukur and also for major Western labels like Royal Doulton), but our touring focused on their textile and fashion factories. We saw the design process for international-quality Western and Eastern fashions, the looms which wove shirting-weight and denim fabrics, the dyeing and sizing processes, as well as a collection of samples offered to potential retail clients. It was a wonderful site.

Our tour of Beximco included a meeting with the CEO, who was planning a trip to NYC to take part in an awards ceremony. The company is part of a group of companies that support fashion scholarships and internships. In fact, we met several people at the factory who were from Italy and the US and were in Dhaka to learn the process of retail fashion from the fiber to the fashion. I think most of the internships were 3-6 months.

At the end of the tour, we were invited to dine with the same CEO and were treated to a spectacular banquet, including lobster, steak, goat, chicken, fish, veggies, rice, fruit, tempura, custard….. all in a lovely room overlooking a swan lake. This was possibly the loveliest place I’ve been to in Dhaka, even though I realized that that was in large part a part of their marketing process. If it wasn’t obsessively manicured, the factory and grounds would not have as much appeal to fashion-conscious buyers and designers who were thinking of hiring Beximco to do their manufacturing.

…Laziness

I have been terribly remiss in keeping up this blog in the last two weeks. I think a great big case of the lazies has swept over me. So, no, it’s not that I’m fantastically busy and leading such an exciting life that I have no time to report on it, its more that I’m more likely to be found (mentally) “on the sofa.”

However, I have also found my camera wire, so I can get some pics up that have been delayed for several weeks/months. I’ll put those in another post.

All week I have been substituting at the local American school. It’s a really pretty campus, and there are students as young as 3 in addition to the high schoolers I usually see. The 3 year olds are really cute, but it’s hard to talk philosophy with them. 🙂 It’s also the week before end of term exams, which means a new term will start soon… and so will the famous AISD adult/continuing education program. Most of the classes are sports related, but there are a few craft and language classes.

I am excited to get an opportunity to join the Master’s Swim team. Apparently the team asks that you be able to swim 50 meters without stopping in two different strokes. While I could swim much further than that with freestyle, I am afraid my skills at flip-turns for backstroke, breaststroke, and (heaven help me if I ever figure out the) butterfly are less then par. In fact, I am somewhat afraid of knocking my head against the wall if I try. Hopefully they’ll count a wall turn as “not stopping!” I figure that they can’t be too strict, as none of the other Master’s teams I’ve known has been OCD about letting moderate swimmers join.

They’ve also got a boot camp that looks promising, but it is at the same time as swimming and has a lower class limit, so it will probably be full before I am eligible to enroll. (Full time teachers, staff and parents get priority over us lowly “community members.” I can’t even use the pool during open swim time because I don’t qualify for the membership as a mere spouse of an embassy employee. LAME. I hope the Masters team doesn’t max out enrollment before I can sign up.