Dhaka is a very overwhelming city. More than 15 million people live here so the streets are perpetually crowded: CNGs, rickshaws, cars, and buses vie for space on the roads, rushing their passengers crazily to various destinations. One of my friends legitimately wondered if red meant 'go' here because none of the CNGs stop at red lights... pretty much traffic lights are just for looks, because NO ONE pays attention to them. It is quite scary. Everyone just drives where they want and hope no one else is coming. I've been hit (not seriously) in both rickshaws and CNGs, and apparently traffic accidents are very common, though I've been blessed not to see any with injuries yet. Traffic can also be beyond ridiculous. On Friday, I was 20 minutes outside of Dhaka when we hit traffic and we were literally stopped for 2 hours. People start to get out of their cars and talk, it's that bad.
When I landed two weeks ago, it was beyond overwhelming, especially because it is a Muslim country and my only outfit (lost luggage at that point) was not cutting it. I slept for about 17 hours and then was up eating breakfast when I met another intern. We went out shopping so I could buy some shalwar kamiz, the local outfits of flowy pants (shalwar), a tunic top (kamiz), and a scarf (ulna). I also got some peanut butter and jelly so I could have some familiar food in the hotel sometimes -- ALL of the food is so spicy here, it is hard to get used to. So I'm happy to have some Western things every now and then;)
Grameen Bank / Social Business Workshop
My first day at Grameen Bank, I was very impressed to see the operations and how many businesses they have going on. They have projects in communications, water distribution, healthcare, energy, and almost anything else you can think of. It is very helpful to have my Nicaragua experience, so I know some of the challenges and realities of microcredit programs, and have something to compare my learning here to. I met the other interns in my cohort (the ones starting the same week as me): Homero (Mexico), Dimitre (Italy), and Shinji (Japan). We are a relatively small group, because the group two weeks before us had over 25 people in it.
I am making a lot of people's days by wearing traditional dress;) In the morning I went down to the grocery (bottom floor of the hotel) to buy a notebook, and the hotel security guard found me with a smile and told me that I was looking like a lovely Bangladeshi lady;) It was about the highest complement you could give me at the moment since I know I don't fit in. I was feeling a little out of place later at the bank when I met some Week 3 interns who were wearing their own (Western) clothes, but when I came back from lunch, my coordinator and another man at the bank were talking about how impressed they were that I was wearing a shalwar kamiz on day one. And then another man came over with a big smile on his face to ask, in choppy English, if I liked wearing Bangladeshi clothing and where I got it, saying it was just so beautiful. It made me realize that dressing to fit in with the culture opened up people to come talk to me and I think it shows respect and honor for them. I am glad I went that route, even though I pretty much had no other options;)
One of my other lessons learned is that you can speak the same language as someone and really not understand each other at all. English is spoken here by the mid-upper classes, but sometimes accents are so thick and sentence construction so different, that it is hard to comprehend what is coming out of their mouths. Especially on the phone -- when I was trying to get my bag back from the airlines, I would repeat myself over and over but wasn't sure my questions ever made it across.
The international experience has been eye-opening as well, as all the interns here have to speak English. Everyone here except me speaks two languages, and I feel both blessed that I get to speak my native language, but also entitled because the rest of the world has to learn English. When talking to the other interns, they said that it's not even a question in their countries over learning English -- they all do, they must if they want to communicate with the rest of the world.
As I've been writing, sitting on my thin mattress and off-white sheets, the fan is blowing overhead but the room is still muggy. The power has gone off twice now, and my wall light goes off each time and the fan spins to a stop. And then it returns. Earlier this evening I heard the reverberating sound of the Muslim call to prayer. The call echoes over the city five times a day, the first one being at 4:30 in the morning. After waking up the first few mornings, I now no longer hear that one;) Such is life in this place.
Grand Prince Hotel
The hotel staff are fun and friendly as always. The Grand Prince employs a crazy number of people, most all of them young men in their 20s-30s. I talked to one of them about his plans, and he is working here while attending university in Dhaka, so I wonder if that is true for many of them. Anyway, you can't be in the hall or elevator for more than a minute before you see one of them in their tan uniforms. This is also a decent sized operation: the ground floor is a grocery store, the first floor a clothing store, second floor a restaurant, third floor lobby, fourth - sixth floors hotel rooms, seventh floor a restaurant, and eighth floor (roof) a pool and "gym" (a tiny room full of weights and a treadmill that looks like it might fall apart at any moment). They have done well in making sure you can buy anything you need from them without leaving the building!
At breakfast last week, one of them, when he found out where I was from, called me "Miss America" and said I was cute. Now I get called that a lot;) They are always so eager to help and usually ask "Your country?" in the first twenty seconds of meeting you, in their Indian-accented English. Their eyes invariably light up when the answer is "the United States". But I do feel a little odd, being from such a well-known, respected, honored, and idolized place. I did nothing to be born there, yet now traveling I get such tremendous treatment and attention. Again, I am learning the world is not fair, and I have gotten the better end of the stick.
Culture/language differences make interactions with the hotel staff pretty funny sometimes. I've made microwave oatmeal in the breakfast room several times and I always get questions about what I'm doing. Last time, one of them grabbed the package and started asking what was in it and if that was a typical meal in the states. As I left, I heard him reading the ingredient list to the other guys at the desk and explaining what it was. ;)
And this was my experience at breakfast yesterday:
Jenna walks into the 7th floor breakfast room.
Man at reception: Miss America! Good morning! How are you?
Jenna: Good morning! I'm good. How are you?
Man at reception: You look like a beautiful doll.
Me: I look like what??
Man at reception: A doll! If you wouldn't move your face you would look like a statue!
Me: (awkwardly laughing) Thanks. ;)
(Goes to get breakfast).
All the attention does get to be a bit much sometimes. I can't go anywhere without getting stared at or talked to ("Hello, miss!" "Your country?"), and there are just so many people, ALL THE TIME, that it gets kind of overwhelming. I realize how much I appreciate solitude. And greenspace -- I would love to see a park about now ;) An evening walk (without seeing masses of people) sounds nice too.
Ah well, two and half weeks and I'll be home! But I don't want to wish it away since this is still an amazing experience and I'm loving it.
Wonderful, fun, vibrant, sweltering, rich day in Dhaka City. I met two more interns today, Homero from Mexico and Samuel from Spain, and together with Lynette (Singapore), Owen (China), Shafaet (Bangladesh), and Jolie (Bangladesh), the group of us headed out to enjoy our Saturday. I was glad for Shafaet, who acted as our informal ‘tour guide’—taking us places, speaking Bangla to hire the CNGs, negotiating local prices. It made for a stress-free day so I could just relax and enjoy seeing new things and getting to know interesting people from around the world (this was especially nice after my previous days of traveling and having to figure everything out myself).
We made a day of it, going to the zoo, the botanical gardens, Dhaka University. We drank sweet tea made in front of us by a barefoot young man in a tin hut next to a palm-surrounded lake, the typical tropical Asian setting. (Milk tea is an afternoon tradition in Bangladesh, and there are always groups of men hanging out at these little outdoor huts drinking tea and talking.) Then we walked through a street bazaar and saw intricately painted vases and beautiful booths of flowers. We met a well-traveled law professor at the University for fried chicken and leche, a local yogurt drink, while conversing about the pitfalls of microcredit in this country. We took rickshaws and CNGs all day. And we are such a sight. We garner more attention than the zoo animals: people stare, talk, ask to take pictures with us or just take them of us, someone even Skyped his friend and then turned the video on me so his friend could see! It is quite humorous;) (Side note: we were at the hippo exhibit at the zoo and some boys came up to us and instead of looking at the hippos, asked to take pictures with us. We outrank even the animals;).
In the late afternoon, we walked past a typical Dhaka traffic jam—tens to hundreds of rickshaws packed on the street and completely stopped. Since we were walking the oncoming direction, we were the perfect entertainment and there were hundreds of eyes on us, as every rickshaw passenger stared. I had a blast taking photos today, and I am just in awe of how beautiful this country is. So colorful, so lush, so vibrant, so alive.
(It is also TERRIBLY humid and I have some quite unattractive photos that I won’t post. Literally dripping sweat at all times. It is so muggy that if the AC goes off in my room, the mirror fogs up with condensation, and when I step out of my room in the morning for breakfast, my glasses fog up—even just in the hotel hall! For an Oregon girl, it’s pretty crazy. Also, don’t think the word hotel really means hotel… though the staff are awesome and helpful, there are definitely cockroaches in the rooms sometimes and last week I saw a mouse in the hall. It’s an adventure. As always. But I don’t even freak out about this stuff anymore. I am really growing up, apparently.)
From my journal, 8/17
As I sit here and think, it comes to me that exactly a year ago my refrain was 'this life is beautiful'. I wonder what could happen in a year to change me so much that it is no longer so easy to say those words. The girl that I am now is less naive, less innocent, more tolerant, more accepting, less picky, less sheltered. But my heart has grown a protective barrier, and I no longer feel things so deeply. It hurts to see pain and suffering and dirt and disease and starvation and begging and you can only handle so much before the questions of "what can I do?" and "how can I help?" become overwhelming. So perhaps I have grown more self-centered?, wanting to protect myself and my heart and my mind from being sucked dry and going crazy. Is this acceptable in Your eyes to work for good but not give up all? Even as I write this it sounds wrong, but I really don't know know if I can do it.
In regards to the beautiful life, my conclusion is this: pain and wisdom make the beauty less surfacely apparent; it takes effort and purpose to see the good in this world God created. And it is this we should strive for: Beauty in the visibly beautiful, in the comforts and luxury and cool breezes and rushing water, don't require work to appreciate. But beauty in the sorrow, in the richness of colors in the fruit market, in the cacophony of sounds in the evening street, in the wrinkled lines on the village elder's face, sitting on his front porch, in the animated though calloused hands of the man in the hammock shop, in the shy smile of the deaf woman serving coffee, in the eager curiosity of foreigners first meeting. Even the damp, stringy hair of the woman begging on the street, the old bearded man sitting cross-legged and forlorn in a doorway, the shirtless boys roaming the streets with every rib showing. This beauty is harder to see. But God wants His children to see His world, and to feel something. To appreciate His creation, and to do something. And this means that through the dirt, I will find beauty. Though the sorrow, I can still sing.
The Dubai Fountains, above and below, at sunset.
A few shots of the Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall based on total area.
It has an aquarium (with reef sharks in it... look below!!), an ice rink, movie theater, restaurants, a hotel, and a crazy number of shops. It is a Muslim country, so the women on the right are a completely normal sight to see. Same with the robed man below.
This was a quick trip, and to be honest, a crazy jaunt now that I think about it. I landed in Dubai around 3 PM on Thursday, and didn't leave for Dhaka until 3 AM. Jet-lagged and stiff from 13 hours in an airplane, I left the plane still feeling tentatively confident enough to try exploring Dubai for these many hours I had on layover.
The Dubai airport was surprisingly confusingly, and it wasn't apparent that people with transferring flights had to go through customs. However, since I wanted to leave the airport, I headed downstairs with most of my flight passengers to passport check. US citizens don't need a visa to visit the UAE, so I was hoping for a smooth trip through the passport area, but the 15+ queue lanes were HORRIBLY slow and I stood in line for over an hour just waiting. It gave me loads of time to appreciate how I stood out and for the hundreds of people in the room to stare at me. First, I was a Westerner, one of maybe 5 in the whole room. Second, I was a Western WOMAN, which is even more rare. A woman traveling was somewhat rare anyway, since there were probably only 20 women in the room full of hundreds anyway. And third, I was wearing a below-knee length skirt, but still had some calf showing, and it is a Muslim country so these people are not used to seeing any female leg. All in all, quite a spectacle! It was a sight for me as well since most of the men in the room were wearing either full robes (on their heads too), or the loose pants and tunic top. I felt like I was in Bible times;)
I finally got through passport check and tried to pick up my luggage to recheck it to Dhaka, but was told it was already routed through. I had a bad feeling about that, but I asked multiple people and got the same answer so I decided to trust it. (More about this later...;).
On the flight from DC to Dubai, one of my seatmates was from Dubai and she told me that I should take the metro downtown and that it was pretty simple to do. After exchanging some money to dirhams, I headed outside into the sweltering heat (literally over 100 degrees and it was by now 4:30 PM; also 95% humidity, which is such a blast), and after wandering around the airport exit looking at the bus stops (and trying to figure out the Arabic writing), I decided to ask some of the hordes of people milling about where the metro station was. I was directed to go back inside and take the stairs up one level, where I figured out how to buy a 2-zone metro pass at a wall machine and pay for it in AED. I was pretty proud of myself for that one;) I then got on the metro-rail and rode downtown to the Dubai city center that had a few attractions clustered together: the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Mall, and the Dubai Fountains. It was getting towards sunset so I had a beautiful first view of the Dubai skyline as the sky was turning gold and the palm trees were moving slightly in the stagnant, humid air. I explored the mall for a while (my only description of it is opulent -- I have never seen so much opulence in my life), bought an orange juice from Starbucks, and then headed outside to see the fountain. I was overwhelmed the minute I left the air conditioned doors of the mall: first by the steamy heat, and second by the masses of people (yes, many of them in full robes and headcoverings) crowded around the fountain. It happened to be the middle of a light show, which happens every 15 minutes and is an impressive display of the fountain, lights, and music. It was perfect timing, too, since the sun was just going behind the buildings.
I watched another light show after the sun set and the city lights came on, and then finally admitted I was too tired to really do anything else. I just wanted to get back to the airport and not think anymore. I took the metro back to where I started and was informed that where I needed to go, Terminal 2, was far away and I would need to take a taxi to get there. So that's why, at 9:30 at night, I was outside Terminal 3 of the airport, in line to hail a cab, and then found myself in a "women and children's taxi", a mid-sized van complete with pink paint and driven by a Muslim woman in a pink headscarf. Such an experience! It was only a 10 minute drive to the other terminal, but I was informed at that airport that I could only go to my gate 3 hours before my flight. Which meant I had to wait the 3 hours until midnight in the lobby. After that, 3 hours of wait/sleep at the gate and at 2:50 AM I got to board my flight to Dhaka. Finally. Pretty exhausted at this point and ready to just be there.
That flight was another story, a 5 hour trip on the FlyDubai airline, which is actually a little sketch. All of Terminal 2 was operated by FlyDubai, which is why it was such a small section of airport, and they take you on a bus to board your airplane. Halfway through the flight, the stewardess comes on the PA system and asks if anyone is medically trained onboard, and soon a bunch of people are standing up and looking in the rear of the plane where the steward/stewardesses are huddled around a man. We couldn't tell what was going on (half of this is in Arabic, by the way), and soon they are carting miscellaneous things back there (including an oxygen tank). I never found out what happened, but before we landed they announced that they needed to sanitize the cabin and one of the stewardesses came down the aisle spraying 2 cans of disinfectant. It was very strange.
The Dhaka airport was a little less than I expected, very small and dirty and third world. The ceiling was leaking and outside looked just like the swampy pictures of Asia that I've always seen -- gray yellow sky, palm trees, muggy hot. I got a visa and exchanged money into taka, the local currency (1 taka = $.013, so the typical bill is Tk 100. The bills are written in Bengali, with small English numbers on the corner, so it is hard to tell exactly how much money you are dealing with). Then waited for over an hour for my luggage. I was going to be surprised if it actually made it, but it was a very sad day when -- after many local Bangladeshis and Bangladeshi airport workers tried to help -- it was confirmed that my luggage was lost. Two airport people took me over to the lost luggage area, where my spirits sunk even lower: a 30' x 8' space was filled with luggage in haphazard piles, all unclaimed and gathering dust. If this is what this system is like, there is no way I am getting my luggage back. I filled out the requisite information and tag numbers and was promised that they would call the Dubai airport right away to check for my bag.
When I left the main area of the airport into the outer area of greeters and hotelmen, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see a man from the Grand Prince Hotel among the crowd, holding a sign with my name on it, albeit spelled wrong (“Zenna Wiiegard” apparently?). He had a car waiting from the airport and I was so thankful for the chance to just ride in peace and quiet for a while, trying to pull myself together after the bag news. Hearing the news after so many hours of traveling, and being hit with so much “new” at once, was so hard to handle and all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep it all away. The ride into Dhaka City was a blur of dirt and rickshaws and crowded buildings and masses of people like I’ve never seen before, but also of colors and laundry and muddy streets after an afternoon rain. The Grand Prince Hotel is, yes, a hotel, but it is Bangladesh so don’t think it is all that. I have a room that is about 15’ x 7’ that has: a single bed (with a mattress that is about 4” thick.. are beds this hard common?!), a chair, nightstand, narrow wardrobe, mini-fridge, AC (so thankful!), TV (looks like it’s from the 80s), and bathroom. There is no separation in the bathroom between the shower and the toilet or sink, so everything just gets wet when I shower. I’ll post pictures later.
I have another day at the Grameen Bank tomorrow so I should probably get to bed, but I’ll post pictures of my room and more of Dhaka later. Also, WONDERFUL update on the luggage story: So the people at Grand Prince were not very hopeful that I would ever see my bag again, and after the weekend I got a call from FlyDubai saying that they couldn’t find it. I then Skyped United Airlines and they looked up my tag number but couldn’t find my bag in their system. I was told to check with them again but it looked like my bag was lost. It was a definite low point yesterday. Then today, I routinely asked at the front desk if they heard anything about my luggage and shock of shocks, they said yes! I was told it was on the next flight to Dhaka and someone would be bringing it tonight. I actually just got it back! Who knows where it was or how it was found, but I am BEYOND THANKFUL. It has a “Rush to Dhaka” luggage tag on it now, but I can’t tell where it came from. The reception people smiled at how happy I was to get it and I think we’re all glad for this happy ending. Prayers answered!
A quick catch-up of my life (in pictures) of the last few weeks...
I know I am very behind on updating my blog, but now that I have some beautiful pictures and fun stories of Southeast Asia I want to get this all caught up! ;)
Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.