Easy Escape-Going Numb

June 17, 2009 at 9:42 am (Uncategorized)

May 9 – July 17 (yes, I’ve been busy and/or lazy :p)

After experiencing Sri Lanka (where I lived in a modest office guest house and was frequently travelling to villages), and Nepal (where I actually got to live a rural life in Sankhwasabha—washing my own dishes and clothes, taking cold showers flowing right from the mountains in December, and cooking on fire stoves), living in a Diplomatic zone of Dhaka seemed very conflicting to what I was hoping to do as a ‘development worker’. At the same time, I could not deny that I was enjoying my space, the facilities, and a convenient break from the 14-hr power outage in Kathmandu-which is now a common reality in Dhaka as well, but of course, escapes the ‘diplomatic zone’. Few weeks back, the local newspaper read that the people who were suffering the most from power outage were the High School students facing board exams. The heat, the lack of water, the power outage, and exams! I would’ve given up. Once again, makes you think of the harsh conditions in which common people have to live in Dhaka. The heat is just merciless (reached up to 38 degree Celsius in April); rain is a blessing now (although, it’s still dryer than needed), but as we all know, it gets wrathful a bit too often; and the drainage system is, all in all, kaput (so sometimes you basically walk in ‘it’).

All sorts of heat related problems come up: diarrhea is something we all get used to; sweating like a pig (literally, especially for guys who must not only change shirts sometimes more than twice a day, but also put up with embarrassing lunch meetings with superhot food and power outage which gets them sweat glands working!); skin problems—topping the list of all the things I’m allergic to, the newest one is the sun (!)—so I’m constantly caught on streets under a green umbrella, and have landed a nice little title from my former flat mate, Lorenz, ‘the lady in a green parasol.’ And on days when I don’t have an umbrella, you will catch me under a piece of paper, or awkwardly covered up in a shawl, looking more traditionally Bangladeshi than the Bangladeshis themselves-what pretense! they must think. The best of all heat related outcomes, however, has to be the sight of human feces literally boiling up the drain lid (yes, I did have to rush home with shitty shoes!)

Of course, while I’m complaining about all these things, I should really shoot myself because when you start thinking of the street dwellers (and there are plenty, see pictures); little kids with heat rashes all over, begging, big smiles on their faces, debating whether I am Bangladeshi or an “English” madam, while I go “ajke Taka ney,” meaning “no money today,” to which some of them innocently take me for a trustworthy adult and go “Kalke asben?,” meaning ‘will you come tomorrow?’ while the more experienced ones ask me to re-check my pockets; the disabled guy with limp limbs spread out carelessly on a plastic sheet on the pavement, with a bowl somewhere around for money; and the old lady with a tattered sari wrapped around her withering body with no blouse underneath, living on a roofless cart that is dragged around during the day by little boys who look like her grandson, but could very well be her own sons since the poor here look much older than their real age, with red stains of tobacco on her teeth and around her mouth to make things look more unflattering. So yea, some days I feel like an ungrateful, spoilt brat of an intern, other days I feel like I should spend all my money on rickshaw pullers, and then there are many others when I just feel numb and simply put on a glassy look. Just when you’d think I’m living close to reality, things can get pretty far off!

When I first came to Dhaka, I was perhaps a little too sensitive to everything that was around me; I felt like a sponge, eager to soak in everything and easily affected by my surroundings. But, as I start to get more settled into my role as a “foreign intern,” I realize that I may be getting desensitized little by little. With more than 160 million people fighting for a place in the country which is a victim of constant natural disasters as well as massive socio-economic disparities caused by the same old bi-polarity of a “developing” society–clashes between villages and cities, high rises and slums, traditions and modernization, stereotypical men and educated women, capitalists and small farmers, utopians and reformists, and the list goes on–the intensity of every single socio-economic problem you see visually here is so great that it just becomes too easy to ignore and numb yourself to the things you feel you have no power to change. There are just too many poor people you see at once- it’s overwhelming! Too many street dwellers, too many rickshaw pullers, too many disabled and abandoned beggars, slum dwellers, drug addicts. I wonder what happens to “development workers” over time…


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Rickshaw Stories

May 4, 2009 at 4:01 am (Uncategorized)

Rickshaw stories
 May 3, 2009



Alom and Tabaro are the two prominent rickshaw pullers in my life  in Dhaka city. I have been here for 3 months now doing an internship at GTZ, PROGRESS, working in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector. After opening and re-opening, editing and deleting, procrastinating and forgetting, I have finally decided to get past my ineffective blog history and begin a brand new fresh one called Rickshaw Stories. This is my fourth and final attempt towards writing a blog, and his time, I have a purpose! I have decided to call my blog Rickshaw Stories not only because some of my most meaningful local contacts have been with rickshaw pullers, but also because a rickshaw to me is the perfect symbol of Bangladesh, a country caught between the forces of rapid urbanization and the silent struggle of the rural hopefuls. Going back to Tabaro and Alom, Tabaro is my flatmate Lorenz’s most loyal rickshaw puller—very mutual and voluntarily binding fidelity they share—who also drives me to and from the office most of the weekdays. He is about 5 feet 5 inches tall, probably weighs less than 60kgs, and like every rickshaw puller in Dhaka city, he practically has no hips—a poignant reality the GTZ interns like to call “their hips don’t lie.” Unlike many rickshaw pullers, Tabaro can speak enough English to understand and be understood to his passengers and this I think has benefited him in more ways than one as far as his dealings go with my flatmate. Lorenz has bought Tabaro a cell phone and Tabaro has promised that when we call, he will take 10 minutes to reach any corner of Dhaka city.

Alom is one of my loyal rickshaw pullers. Alom’s English is very limited, but he has an unlimited supply of smiles which can tear down any language barriers. The first day I met Alom, I had made plans to go on an exploration of Corail Bosti—the largest slum in Dhaka. This is also where I met Kulsum, an eight- year- old girl who has me captivated and I have been trying to find her, unsuccessfully, ever since my first Corail visit. Kulsum was one of the kids who showed us around the place when we were trying to find an Italian lady, a friend of my colleague, Shatil, who has been residing in the slum for a year; she works as a professor in Dhaka University. As we were wandering through the small alleyways (relatively clean compared to other slums that I’ve been to and dry since it was still late march, but infested with flies nonetheless) trying to find the Italian professor, I decided to talk to some of the kids who had now taken upon themselves to be our entourage. Kulsum happened to understand some of the Bangla that I had been learning and utilize some of the English that she knew to lead us into quite an interesting conversation. She offered me some fruits, told me about what she studied in school that day, and then asked the most bizarre question which left me dumbfounded for a few seconds. Her question was in Bangla which had to be translated into English by my colleague because she used words that were not part of my Bangla vocabulary back then. Her question was “are you angry that I touched you?” My hand was sweating from holding hers by the end of our journey around Corail. Casually I said “Abar Dekha Hobe,” meaning ‘see you again,” to which her reply once again left me feeling strangely compelled to return. Her reply was a question that she asked very seriously and expectantly: “when?” Since then, I have not been able to get her off my mind and this is what took me to Corail two weeks later with Alom.

That was a long digression. Now back to Alom-my favorite Rickshaw puller. I found him outside my house in Baridhara diplomatic zone—yes, we live in an area where some houses read “only for foreigners,” the logic behind which has been explained to me again and again but still manages to escape me anyway—but there he was, with a big smile and a “ madam rickshaw?” on his lips. Even though he did not know where Corail was, and to my loss, there are actually two other places which sound very similar to Corail, I decided to take a chance with him. Given my sense of direction—which is bad to begin with and has gotten worse in Dhaka city–I was neither much help in finding the place, nor after being lost for twenty minutes, being able to find the entrance that we used during our first visit (and Corail Bosti is huge!). So we were lost and re-lost inside Corail for just enough time to collect a gang of kids behind the moving rickshaw, throwing random English words at me very excitedly while I got to practice more of my Bangla. Finally we found the entrance and I had Alom wait for me outside. He already had a cell phone, so that worked well for me. I could call him once I was out (or in case I was in some kind of trouble, I guess). It was a Friday; the place was filled with men in white caps just out of the mosque. There were hardly any women in sight. This realization suddenly followed another one, and I felt uncovered, even with my full sleeves and round hi-neck shirt. I did not have a shawl on (and I had been reading A Thousand Splendid Suns). So, it took me a lot of thinking and courage to even attempt to pass all those obviously religious looking men without looking “proper”. I did not manage far enough, but I managed to come across some women a few steps inside the entry and ask them if they knew Kulsum. Well, they did not.

Given that my only purpose was to meet Kulsum at this point, my Corail visit on a Friday afternoon was not exactly a successful trip. However, on the way, I got quite comfortable talking to Alom. Physically, Alom is quite similar to Tabaro–about the same height, same weight, but older. He told me about his children, his house, his job.  He told me that his daughter goes to school and he will educate her as long as she wants to, but he did not sound too convincing when he said it—it sounded more like he thinks it’s her fate which will determine her future. I asked him if he saves any money at all to which he answered that rickshaw drivers don’t make enough to save. Their money is all spent on rent, food and children. Like most rickshaw pullers, he did not own his rickshaw. Like most of them, he was from a village and moved to Dhaka for a better life.

Before the end of my Friday adventure, I went to Lavender, the popular grocery store in Gulshan Circle. I decided to get some biscuits for Alom’s children-of the many people in whose lives I have introduced biscuits. When I reached home and gave him money and biscuits, I think I saw tears I his eyes, but I couldn’t stand long enough to look closely. Even in that look, he did manage to flash a smile, giving a nice closure to my eventful, yet incomplete day. Alom has called me several times since and driven me to places in Dhaka. When I was sick, he called me several times to see if I was doing okay, which I thought was very sweet of him. Kulsum has been on my mind and I have since tried one more time, unsuccessfully again, to find her.

I met Alom again the following Friday- that’s when I discovered the value of having a rickshaw driver’s phone number. When you want to meet friends at 8 in the evening and you have no male escorts/ you do not want to feel dependent, you can call upon a trustworthy rickshaw puller who, on the way, will tell you about how he spent his new year’s day working while the whole country was celebrating, because he is a poor man and poor people do not take a day off from work. As usual, we got lost again and I panicked just a little while Alom was trying to calm me down and finding it very funny at the same time. Anyways, after about 10 minutes of insecurity, I reached my destination and departed with Alom leaving him with belated New Year’s wishes and a Tk 100.

Kulsum, in Corail Bosti

Kulsum, in Corail Bosti




After dropping us off in GTZ office

Tabaro-After dropping us off in GTZ office


Some days we smile; the others, we pray the we pray for our lives!

Rickshaw ride in Baridhara- Me and lorenz, on our way to the office.





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