Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Strange Afternoon

A strange day yesterday.

Around 4pm I went to the National Heart Foundation Hospital in Mirpur to visit a relative who had checked in for a triple-bypass surgery. At the registration desk I asked for his cabin number, but they could not find him. Making a long story short, although he went in early that morning, they had made him wait all day because the cabin was not ready. I found him at the Uttara bank counter, paying in advance. The receipt was needed to get his cabin.

I hung around for a while. NHF is popular because they have good surgeons doing heart surgery at reasonable prices. For example, a bypass costs around Tk 1.5 lac (USD 2000). But because of the popularity they are completely overwhelmed and just cannot manage the crowds. I met one patient who had checked in three days ago (coming from Sylhet) but was yet to see the doctor. "I see in the newspaper that the doctor is making speeches but how come he won't see me?" he asked, exasperated.

Anyways... after a few words with my relative, I left. Downstairs I returned to the window to return the visitor's badge and collect my Tk 20 deposit which I had to pay for the badge. The desk guy was not there. He arrived soon, looking flush, fist shaking but clenched. Opening his fist he set down a piece of ice the size of a golfball on his desk.

What was this all about? Then I heard the first thunder, and turned to look out the front door over the crowd's head. It was raining - no, it was hailing. Crack, boom. Big pieces of hail. And lots and lots of rain.

My driver had parked the car a block away on the street. I did not want to expose my head to the hail, so I waited inside and watched with the waiting crowd. People would run out from the building, grab a hail, and run back. Some put it on their eyes to soothe them, but none put it in their mouth. A occasional blue/green lightning caused great excitement. At times, the wind changed direction, blowing into the door and bringing a dense sideways shower with it. At this, the crowd moved like a wave away from the door. In typical Bangladeshi fashion, one person tried to bring in their car into a restricted space and got into a big fight with the security guard.

This is nice, I thought, but I have to get going. I called my driver on the mobile to come and get me, since I had no umbrella and had no wish to be soaked. No answer. I called three more times. Still no answer.

So I waited till the hail subsided, fifteen more minutes, and ran to the car in the pouring rain. The driver was not in the car. I yelled his name, and he finally came out of one of the streetside shops. "Where have you been?" I yelled over the rain. "Bhaiya I have news - a hail cracked my head." Oh no. I stopped him and looked for blood flowing from his head. There was none. What gives? "How bad is it? Do you want to go to a doctor now? Or drive me home and then I can send you to the doctor?" Turned out it was a fairly minor injury requiring no stitches. The doctor shaved off that area, cleaned it out and put in several band aids.

What had happened was this. He was waiting inside the parked car when the hail started. The noise was deafening and at one point he could was so frightened that he decided to get out of the car and made a dash for the nearby shop. That's when it hit him.

I don't like hail. It is nasty for trees and crops. And if you think about it, falling from 500feet or more, it can reach a very high speed (v^2=2fs, remember?) - so one landing on your head is not pleasant. But the rain was welcome. I imagine this morning I will see a lot of dented vehicle roofs on the road. But the stinging dust on Dhaka's streets will be gone. I really hope the Boro crop was not affected too badly. In the meantime my relative is waiting in the queue for his surgery. I hope it goes well.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Birisiri Trip

Last weekend I visited Birisiri with some friends. It is about 170 km north of Dhaka, in Netrakona district. We left on Friday morning and returned Saturday night. The drive is approximately 4.5-5 hours each way, if there are no nasty jams. The last 30kms (1.5 hours) are difficult - a broken road full of potholes. Birisiri is a remote and tranquil place near the Shomeshwari river.

Just like other places, kids go to school in Birisiri...

...then there is the morning commute!

You can run into traffic in Birisiri...

... and there are the inevitable traffic jams.

In winter, Shomeshwari can be crossed easily...

...but you have to hold on to your belongings.

Shomeshwari provides livelihood for a lot of people, eg, boatmen...

...and coal-diggers...

...but for others it is a place for fun...

...or basking in the sun...

While some are playful...

...others are just plain shy.

This area has history. There were several rebellions by the Hajong people against unjust taxes, first against the British then against the Pakistanis. Some were led by Mr. Moni Singh, a revered socialist leader, who hailed from here. He was actually the son of the richest landowner of the area. Here is a monument to the Hajong rebellions.

Today, a different kind of change: solar panel on a store.

Nearby are some clay mines among hillocks. The water turns blue due to minerals.

Another view of this blue water.

Practical details:

We stayed and ate at the YWCA. They were friendly and efficient. Rooms came with attached bath (commodes), cold water only, and they supplied mosquito nets. Room with two beds cost Tk 600 and four meals came to about Tk 260 per person. We rented an engine boat on the river at Tk550/4 hours, plus lunch money for the boatmen. When we wanted to hire rickshaws to travel 2kms to the hills, three of them wanted Tk 500! So we walked. Next time I will bring my bicycle - it is a great place for cycling.

GPS Coordinates:

Shyamgonj (turnoff where the broken road starts): 24-50-42.2N/90-34-27.9E
YWCA: 25-06-14.6N/90-40-30.5E
Kumarkhali (failed rickshaw negotiations):25-09-20.2N/90-39-44.1E
Hillocks: 25-09-31.1N/90-38-34.3E

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my travelling companions: Milu, Mickey, Ranjit and Badol. Thanks to Milu for providing transportation. Special thanks to Amita Sangma, Milton and the staff at YWCA, and to Mikey Leung.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More Occasions Than You Can Shake a Stick At

These are trying times for Bangladesh. Maybe it is time to look at the many different occasions, festive or otherwise, that take place here, to show the spirit and diversity of the people?

Serving up Haleem for Iftar During Ramadan

February 21, Language Day

Durga Puja of the Hindus

Bouddha Purnima of the Buddhists

Muharram of the Shi'a Muslims

St. Anthony's Festival of the Catholics

Bengali New Year

Rash Festival of the Manipuris

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bradt Guide on Bangladesh

New Bradt Guide on Bangladesh written by Mikey Leung and Belinda Meggitt is showing up on Amazon UK as a pre-order item. Expected to ship in Sept 2009.

YouTube Irony

There is a huge irony in Bangladesh govt blocking YouTube inside the country.

That's because one of the three founders of YouTube is of Bangladeshi-German origin.

That would be Jawed Karim.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Memories of 7 March

March 7, 1971 seems a long time ago. While I have no memory of what I did on March 6 or March 8 of that year, I have a clear memory of the afternoon of March 7.

At that time Bangladesh was called East Pakistan. It was a province of Pakistan.

A few months earlier, after years of military rule, elections had taken place all over Pakistan. Awami League - led by Sheikh Mujib (Father of the Nation of Bangladesh) - won convincingly. However, the military ruler of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, in collusion with the second place winner Z. A. Bhutto, refused to hand over power. On March 1, the handover was indefinitely postponed.

This move caused great dissatisfaction in East Pakistan. A civil disobedience movement was launched in protest.

It was with this background that the Awami League called the 7th March meeting at Paltan Maidan, a large open air park in central Dhaka. Sk. Mujib was going to speak.

I was in seventh grade, and hardly a political creature. My family had moved to Dhaka from Sylhet less than a year ago. The small-town boy was still trying to find his bearings in the big city.

But this day, I felt a tug to go to this meeting. I was afraid to go alone. So in the afternoon, I somehow made my way from our Mohammedpur home to my Aunt's house in Shegun Bagicha. I had many cousins in that house and hoped to tag along to the meeting with one of them. As I was entering the gates of the sprawling house, I ran into T-bhai. He was older than me but, unlike other older cousins, treated me as an equal, rather than a child.

"Oh, you want to go to that meeting? I was just heading there. Why don't you come with me?" he said. Just as we were out the gate, he stopped. "Wait, I have an idea. Let me get my transistor radio."

"What for, T-bhai?"

"It will be so crowded that we might end up being far from the speaker and have trouble hearing. They will broadcast it live on the radio, so we won't miss the speech."

I thought it was strange, going to a public meeting with a radio. But I kept quiet.

In a few minutes we were at the far end of Paltan, at least half a mile from the stage. We must have looked funny, in that ocean of humanity, straining to listen to the radio while watching the miniscule figures in the distance. I can't remember if anyone else spoke, but when Sk. Mujib came on, we could hear all the words clearly on the radio, while many in the crowd near us strained to hear the loudspeakers. What an orator he was, and what a speech!

Much has been written about this speech, a turning point in Bd history. I certainly cannot add to it. While it fell short of a formal declaration of independence, it was a very persuasive call to resist and fight until the rights of the people were won.

To this day, if I get a chance, I tease T-bhai about that transistor radio. But you gotta admit, it was a smart move on his part.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Time In Between

Summer's hot breath is on our back, yet mornings remain cool. Pleasant breezes blow in the afternoon, specially at the lakes and parks of the city. Winter fruits such as Boroi and Aamloki start winding down. Spring flowers - scarlet Mandar, flaming Polash and cool Shimul - light up the countryside. Mahogany trees grow new leaves - fragile, yellow, shiny. Morning fogs become rare, though there was a thick one today.

This is spring, an in-between time, sandwiched by the refreshing cool of winter and the merciless heat of summer. This year's spring is significant as we wait to find out:

- how many hours of loadshedding shall we endure daily in the summer?
- (more to the point) do those RahimAfrooz batteries in the backup power supplies really last as advertised?
- what will be the outcome of the BDR investigation committees?
- (more to the point) will the committees agree on their conclusions?
- will early rains make up for the really dry winter?
- will remittances go down as the world gets deeper into financial mess?
- will Madoff get to keep his penthouse while the poor nations still get lectured on corruption?
- will continued low oil prices destroy green energy initiatives?
- will Bd shipbuilding get govt help like other sectors (garments, food) but software will remain shunned, on its own?
- will the GrameenPhone IPO ever happen?
- will the price of rice make it down to Tk 20/kg (hope not, for the sake of the farmer)

So many questions, so few answers... 8-)