Friday, September 22, 2006

The first twenty-four hours

home is just across the bamboo bridge

the rivers of bangladesh

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The first twenty-four hours

Asalamu Alaikum and Namaste from Bangladesh! We arrived just twenty-four hours ago in this amazing land of lush green and swollen waters. It is the end of the cyclone season, the final days of the searing heat of summer, and the beginning of the rainy monsoon season. What more to ask for?!?!? After two days of orientation in Washington DC, which included a trip to the State Department to meet with an Assistant Secretary of State (one of the sponsors of the program), our group of fifteen has traversed the twenty plus hours of plane travel to the other side of the world.

This group has amassed from all sorts of backgrounds and interests, and I believe I am the only one who knows a bit of the local language and culture, and whose research area is specifically this region of greater Bengal. I am instantly humbled by the living situation of the people here, as life in the West is truly privileged. We should give thanks.

The purpose of us being here is to become proficient in Bangla (Bengali language) in just eight weeks. We have been set up in very comfortable housing and study situations in order to manage the six hours of class each day. Missing two days of classes is the equivalent of missing three to four weeks of regular-paced class at a university, so this is really no joke! A lot of time and energy has gone into these preparations, and in a sense were are guinea pigs for a new Bangla learning material being developed. We have a force of six teachers and drill masters, cook and cleaners and an awesome guardsman to keep us safe night and day. Well, so long he doesnt run at the sight of danger.

I am one of the oldest students here. Just a mere twenty-eight, and because of my prior knowledge of the culture and language I have taken a bit of a big sister role with the group. Our housing was chosen by lottery, and nine ladies have ended up in one house, myself included and six students divided between another two houses. We are taking our classes at the Independent University Bangladesh's (IUB) campus, which is all situated in the diplomatic district of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. The enormous red-bricked fortress of the American embassy is just three blocks away

Yes, this may be the diplomatic district with some of Dhakas nicest homes, but on a walk yesterday the truer nature of Dhaka was revealed. Past the high fencing and guardsman at gates, was the smell of cow dung and chicken poking around the sidewalk. Just behind a half built wall and an abandoned construction was a large family living village style in bamboo structures and hay stacked in the front yard. Brown-Green water surrounded their dwelling and children ran around naked and barefoot. Ahhh, the real thing just behind the walls. That has been my experience of life on the Indian sub-continent in the past, and I expected the same for life in Bangladesh.

Classes have started for us. Hello/goodbye, may name is, and how are you. All important things to know. Our teachers are mainly Muslim, and it is very evident that we are being introduced to Muslim Bangladesh. But there is more that that. In pluralism of India, the lines are slightly more blurred. Here we are already being taught how to specifically greet a Muslim, or if we happen to meet a Hindu in Bangladesh. I was already corrected by the staff of our house, who happen to be Buddhist tribals of the Chittagong region of southern Bangladesh. In calling them by a respectful title older brother I was asked not to refer to them in the Muslim way, but in the way that they say it. I was trying to use what we had learned in class. What a trouble! How to know who is what religion? It is nearly offending to ask someones religion!

Bangladesh too is a land of extremes: extreme population, extreme poverty, extreme taste and color, extreme raw beauty of green landscape and water ways everywhere..and us here to, in a rather extreme manner, to learn the language, culture, and customs of this ever-changing land in order to well, I havent exactly figured that out yet. More soon

Four winds



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