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.
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.