Monday, November 29, 2010

The Night Launch From Barisal

After two more days visiting shelters in the delta region we planned our return to Dhaka. Rather than a 7 hour bumpy Land Cruiser ride on over-crowded roads we opted to take a night launch. The launches are large passenger boats that offer a limited number of air-conditioned cabins. Bangladesh is riddled with large waterways so river travel is an excellent way to get around.

We were lucky to secure three A/C cabins or we would probably have opted for the Land Cruiser.The main deck of the boat and every conceivable nook and cranny on the cabin decks become full of people who need to make the journey but cannot afford, or don't want to pay, the fare for a cabin. I'm guessing 200 people in cabins and 1,000+ sleeping wherever they can. The photo was taken in the morning after half of the passengers had already arisen and left. Some people continued to sleep on board to wait for a more decent hour of the day to depart!

The boat leaves Barisal at 8:30pm and arrives at 5:30am in Dhaka so the journey is entirely at night with nothing to see on shore except the occasional light. We boarded at 7:30 and were led to our cabins which were on an narrow interior hallway half of which was occupied with people sleeping along the wall across from the doors. The cabins were literally just big enough for a single bed. Our host in Barisal, Rashid, was disappointed in the accommodation for us, especially since we had to use communal toilets and disappeared. I assured Sajit the room was fine as I planned to sleep all the way.

Rashid came back a little bit later to announce that he had managed to acquire a two bed cabin that became available when the person who had reserved it failed to show up. What a difference! We went from overcrowding in interior rooms to a suite of two rooms with a small balcony and a private toilet. All for the price of $20 per person.

I went to bed expecting a wake-up call near 5:00am when we neared Dhaka. Lo and behold a bump on the boat, a change in engine noise and lights being turned on, and I woke up at 3:15am to discover we were over two hours ahead of schedule and we'd arrived in Dhaka.

While we standing on the dock the cabin boy who had been looking after us at came running up with my Red Cross ID badge which had fallen on the floor. I was totally surprised as it would have been so easy for him to throw it away, but instead he had tracked us down on the pier so he could return it. An IFRC driver met us and dropped me off at the hotel and the journey was over.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Busy Two Days

On Wednesday we took a coastal passenger ship to an island in the delta to visit three radio sites at cyclone shelters. When we arrived at the dock we used motorcycles to get around the island since there are no roads, only dirt tracks on top of levees that keep the salt water from the ocean out of the fields. Not only are there no roads there is no electricity as we know it, and no running water. Solar panels provide DC electricity, if you're lucky enough to own one, and the water comes from the community well. The people live a simple existence very close to nature. The land is totally flat and probably no more that one or two feet above sea level. The levees are critical. It's easy to appreciate the devastation of a tropical cyclone and the flooding that occurs each monsoon season.

In true Bangladesh fashion we had three people on each motorcycle and I became the meat in the proverbial sandwich between the driver and my colleague Hasan. Not the most comfortable way to ride but it got us where we needed to go.

Just after we left the third site the motorcycle's rear tire went flat … one American + two Bangladeshi's was probably too much. As we waited for a replacement bike a crowd gathered as it always does around westerners on these islands. It was mostly young high school boys on a break. They stood and stared, so I said “Hello”. Hasan explained who I was and why I was near their village. I asked if they had any questions about America and they got shy when put on the spot. At that moment a young man, probably late twenties or thirties, wearing nothing but a sarong, probably a farmer, asked a long question which boiled down to, “Why does America keep forcing itself on other countries and is so heavily involved in Iraq and Afghanistan?”. Not what I was expecting - and not an easy question to answer. Hasan explained to me that even though these people live a simple life, disconnected from the world as we know it, they definitely know what's going on ... and have an opinion.

Yesterday I had a day on the “SS Unreliable”. We chartered a wooden boat to take us down river to two islands to visit three more radio sites at cyclone shelters. Half way down river the engine quit. It took about 15 minutes but the captain got it running and we headed for the first island. As we approached shore I could see no dock or pier of any kind so the captain headed the boat in towards the river bank. Unfortunately the tide was low so he couldn't get close. Some fishermen pointed out a small inlet and we headed in and managed to get within two feet of a log that we used to get ashore. From there we walked about ½ mile into a village and found the cyclone shelter. After checking out the radio (the coax cable was perfectly cut in two when they moved to this building a month ago) we attended a meeting of all the village men so my compatriots could explain why we were there and to listen to requests for additional equipment.

Back on the boat we attempted to leave but got stuck in the mud twice before finally escaping back into the river. At times we had two people on a long pole and the captain in the water pushing. This whole episode gave great delight to a group of small boys watching from the bank. Once underway we crossed the river without incident and pulled up along shore so we could hop off and visit two more shelters. This time I had a motorcycle to myself!! After tea and a very late lunch at the second village we headed back to the boat. As is typical, a huge crowd gathered in the village as we settled up for the motorcycles and had another cup of tea. Most of the crowd accompanied us down to the boat to see us off. The tide had fallen by now so we now had to walk about 10 yards across a very muddy and slippery river bank to get aboard.

We headed back to home port and got about a quarter mile from the dock when the engine died yet again. This time it appeared to be a bit more serious as the captain had his mate lower an anchor. So there we sat as the dusk came and went. We had called ashore for a boat to come and get us and while we waited the captain finally cleared a blockage in the fuel line and we made it in without further incident. As part of the routine we had a cup of tea and a crowd formed as we settled up for the boat. A short ride back in to Golachipa in the Land Cruiser and our day was done!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Multi-mode Transport Day

Today I traveled down from Barisal to Olachipa and began the radio assessments in this area by visiting a couple of cyclone shelters on one of the myriad of islands that make up the coastal area of Bangladesh.

The day started off in the trusty Toyota Land Cruiser and the main part of the drive was broken up with three major river crossings on small vehicle ferries. When we arrived in the Olachipa area we chartered an old wooden coastal cruiser (do not develop any visions of grandeur here – it was basically a flat topped boat with a one-lunger and a large tiller) to make a 60 minute crossing of a major river delta. At the dock we rented a "tom tom" which is basically a moped with a flat wooden bed on the back that the four of us sat on, legs dangling, and made a 15 mile circuit of the island to visit two shelters that are equipped with VHF radios. Both radios would turn on but they've been unable to reach anyone. I suspect a cable problem. It should be easy to fix in the Spring.

We got back to the dock right at dusk and the boat took us back to where we started but in a very circuitous route since it was now low tide. One of the dangers of having a GPS is the "limited knowledge" problem. I could see the route we had taken to get to the island but couldn't understand why we were heading up the river way beyond our outbound track. When I later spied some mud banks all was revealed.

When we got back to the shore the boat owner insisted we take tea in a local cafe which generated a large crowd as this lone westerner shared tea. We then returned to the Land Cruiser to head into Olachipa for dinner and our hotel.

(I promise to add photos later. Just don't have the time right now.)

Go Take a Cold Shower

There are various times and situations in a person's life when they've been told “Oh go take a cold shower!”. Well here it's not suggested, it's the way of life once you leave Dhaka and head into the smaller towns. A couple of nights ago I was staying in a hotel that had two taps at the sink and two near the shower head. In addition, it had a large tank mounted on the wall that said “Hot Water Heater”. This all sounded promising until I tried to find some hot water to shave and then subsequently to shower. No go … I finally relented and went ahead and quickly showered in cold water. I talked with Sajit when we met for breakfast and he had the same problem.

Last night I stayed at a hotel that saved the frustration in the morning by simply having one tap at the sink and one near the shower head and it wasn't a Delta Scaldguard. At least I was mentally prepared for the initial shock. I'm now in another hotel that also embraces the one knob philosophy. Since I'm here for at least 4 nights I'll have to get used to trying to wash my hair without splashing too much cold water on my body. It's not easy! But at least when you finally get used to the temperature you know you'll be awake for a while.

It's another case of realizing what we take for granted in our way of life.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who Needs Utensils

I'm learning how to eat with my right hand, and I do mean my right hand. The standard method of eating here is to do everything with the fingers of your right hand. I'll spare you the photos … As you may be aware the left hand, especially in muslim countries, is considered unclean. Also, by tradition, implements are seldom used to eat. They say that the finger tips of the right hand are the first receptor in tasting and enjoying your food. Given a plate of rice, vegetables, and a curried meat or fish dish along with dal (lentil stew) and some chutney you mix a small ball of rice with whatever else you want with it and deliver it to the mouth. This requires two very necessary things to take place. First you need to wash your hands before you eat and second you definitely need to wash your right hand after you eat! It's actually very enjoyable and I'm getting the hang of it. Tearing of a piece of paratha (bread similar to a tortilla) using only one hand is still a trick but I'll keep practicing.

Here's a few pictures:

The first is a cart loaded with long bamboo poles in the town of Faridpur. I'm not sure where they're going but probably to a construction site.

Here are parathas being made at the cafe where we had our breakfast of parathas, vegetables, and a fried egg.

This picture is four of us in front of a ferry that take passengers and vehicles across the Tetulia River from Barisal to a large island in the delta. Two of the team are heading to Bhola.

This final picture is of a pedal rickshaw repair service across the road from the Red Crecent office in Barisal. Note the brightly colored paint jobs on the rickshaws. These are some of the more understated ones.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Road

We kicked off the assessment project at the Red Cross compound with some orientation meetings and then it was time to hit the road. We had planned to be on our way by 1:00pm but finally headed out of Dhaka at 3:00 – Sajit had warned me earlier that things don't always happen as planned so I was well prepared for some delays - this forced a change in plans for our overnight stop which will now be the town of Faridpur instead of Barisal.

As we left Dhaka we saw a lot of brick works – it's hard to imagine where they can use so many bricks but they sure have a pile. I had seen the chimneys as I approached Dhaka on Sunday morning, though they looked like brick works, but dismissed the idea because there were so many.

The roads were completely jammed. The most common vehicles were buses of all descriptions followed by an assortment of trucks. Motorized rickshaws were next with motorcycles and cars bringing up the rear. The roads are narrow and everyone fights to make two or three lanes on each side of a two lane road. Horn honking is constant. Almost every bus and truck I saw had scrapes down the side. The drivers are amazing as they fit 6 foot wide vehicles through 6.1 foot gaps and never miss a beat. This is a small country about the size of Iowa or England+Scotland but with 165,000,000 people so you can picture how crowded it is in places. Given the busy nature of the roads and the constant struggle to get past slower vehicles you might expect carnage but I didn't see one accident.

We made fairly good time and arrived at our first major ferry ride of the trip across the Pradma River (aka the Ganges) just below where the Pradma and Brahmaputra Rivers meet. Our timing was good as we only had a short wait before boarding. We were on a small ferry with just a few cars and some buses but there were also a large number of bigger ferries and a myriad of small passenger boats carrying vehicles and peoples – boats were everywhere. I always enjoy being around water and boats so this was a treat. Unfortunately it was too dark to get any photos that would do the experience justice. The backlog of traffic on the south side of the river went on for miles, again mostly buses, as people were returning home after the Eid religious holiday.

We travelled on to Faridpur where we spent the night at Raffles-Inn – definitely not to be confused with it's namesake in Singapore but clean and friendly and a bed! Apparently Jaridpur is famous for jute so maybe I'll see some as we head on to Barisal.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Great Time to Arrive ... Or Not

I finally arrived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, after a LONG journey from home. In Bangladesh time I got up at 4:00pm Thursday and arrived Saturday morning at 8:30am. I'm exactly 12 hours different from home so my brain is definitely 180 degrees out of whack and my butt has been reformed into the shape of an over-used airline seat.

As I sat in the airport in Dubai waiting for my flight to Dhaka I quickly concluded that a lot of men from Bangladesh work in Dubai. It was a Friday night/early Saturday morning flight and most of the people waiting at the gate had at least one huge duty free bag, and many had two – this on top of their regular carry-on. I made sure to get on the plane as soon as I could to make sure I had a place for my backpack. I then sat back and watched how the other passengers and the flight attendants crammed everything somewhere. At times it resembled a commercial on American TV where a flight attendant repeatedly slams the overhead locker door to squeeze everything in.

Clearing immigration was a slow process that speeded up a little when the 8 policemen clearing Bangladeshi's back into their country began helping the 2 policemen taking care of all of the visitors. I don't have any problem with a little national favoritism but this may have been a bit too one-sided. I'm sure that never happens in the USA … grins!! After clearing immigration I went to claim my checked bag at carousel #2 as instructed only to find they were also putting some of our bags on #3 as well. After a lengthy wait and no sign of my bag I took a walk around and found it laying on the ground at the end of carousel #3 where it had obviously tumbled off but no one had bothered to lift it back on! Oh well, at least it was there.

Sajit, my lead in Bangladesh, met me at the airport with a driver and took me to the hotel. I had met Sajit previously on some training I took in Malaysia so we had quite a bit to catch up on. He is an Indian gentleman who is employed by the American Red Cross as a delegate to the International Federation of the Red Cross to head up the Cyclone Preparedness Project in Bangladesh. Got that!!

The reason for my title is that I had been reading about the horrendous traffic jams they have in Dhaka. My trip to the hotel and then a subsequent trip to Sajit's for lunch were easy – no holdups anywhere to be seen. Then I talked to the driver who explained that 1) it was Saturday and 2) this was the end of a major holiday and that many people were still away. “Wait for tomorrow” I heard more than once. A trip that took 5 minutes today will easily take 45 minutes tomorrow. Their work week here is Sunday through Thursday, Friday being a holy day for muslims is the first day of their weekend. I'll have to remember this in two weeks when I need to get back to the airport on Sunday and the trip that took 30 minutes this morning will probably take 2 hours. I think I think I've been spoiled ... :-)

My first impression of Dhaka is of a hustling, bustling city that obviously needs repair. Like many cities in poorer parts of the world almost everything is covered in a layer of dust and many of the buildings could use some exterior repair. Traffic seems to be chaotic but it works … at least on weekends. Rickshaws, both pedal powered and engine powered are everywhere. I'm sure I'll see many, many more tomorrow. Whenever you get stopped in traffic there's almost always at least one person either begging for money or trying to sell you something. You have to learn to turn the proverbial 'blind eye' or you'll be beseiged. The few people I've met so far are friendly as can be and I'm told this holds true for the entire country. The food, albeit based on a small sample, is delicious. In fact I had my second best ever airline meal this morning flying from Dubai which was a heavily seasoned vegetarian meal … I almost asked for seconds – and it was a coach-class meal as well. In case you're wondering my best ever airline meal was a dinner of chicken kababs as an appetizer followed by chicken tikka masala served on an Air Malaysia flight many moons ago in my former life. Business Class definitely offered some perks.

I'm staying for one night at the Washington Hotel, how fitting. It's an older hotel but seems to be well kept and has good wifi in the rooms … what more could you ask for. It's located in the diplomatic area of Dhaka called Gulshan and I'm told is a safe area to walk around.

Tomorrow I start my field trip. I'll be based in Barisal for 10 days or so to conduct radio assessments in that zone. We'll have 5 other teams doing the same in the other five zones. Much more to report on life in the Bangladeshi countryside later. And I'll try to include some photos ...

For now it's time to go to bed and try to convince my brain it's 10:00pm at night and not 10:00am in the morning. Maybe I can find an American football game on TV – Ann's convinced that can send me to sleep quicker than anything even though I claim I never nap.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A New Challenge Awaits

I've been asked to go to Bangladesh and evaluate their radio network that is part of a Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP). The flights are booked - I leave next Thursday (18th) - and I'm waiting to receive my visa. It will prove to be a very busy two weeks assessing the current status of the radios. This project is very similar to the work we did in Indonesia and their Tsunami Early Warning System.

One of the deliverables from this trip will be a list of equipment and supplies that I estimate will be necessary to bring all 125+ radios back into operational status. If all goes according to plan I'll return in 2011 with another volunteer to train the local staff and begin the repairs.

I'll hopefully be able to make posts to this blog as the trip progresses.