Friday, October 28, 2011

Cricket - a National Obsession

As Tom and I have driven through rural Bangladesh we’ve noticed cows and goats everywhere. A lot of the time they’re standing in the middle of the road and we have to slow down and treat them as roundabouts. As we got closer to the end of the first week in November the number of animals increased dramatically. Many were in small markets like the one shown. It turns out there was a reason we saw so many.

Word of warning: All vegans, vegetarians, animal activists, and animal lovers in general may want to quit reading now …

On November 6 and 7 Muslims celebrated one of their most sacred holidays called Eid al-Adha or Festival of Sacrifice. One of the main customs on the morning of the second day (the 7th) is for each family to slaughter a cow or goat or both. This is usually done on the street or road in front of their home and as one person told me “blood is everywhere!” The slain animals are then butchered with one third going to the family that owned the animal, one third going to relatives and friends, and one third going to the needy.

This is a three to five day holiday here in Bangladesh so Tom and I are not working. On Sajit’s advice we are in a resort town called Cox’s Bazar and have escaped all of the slaughter. I’ll report on how much of a resort Cox’s Bazar is in another blog entry.

Now I know I’m hypocritical as I’m a meat eater and I know that animals are slaughtered back home in terrible conditions but I don’t want to see the actual death of the animal. As we travelled over the last week or so the worst thing was to see all these animals enjoying their life and us knowing they only had days to live. I’m sure the last few days of these animals lives was far better than what their cousins face in the feed lots and slaughter houses in North America.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cyclone Sidr Man

In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr, the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane, slammed into Bangladesh and left in it's path as many as 10,000 dead. In the Amtoli district one man tirelessly made his way through the area on a bicycle equipped with loud speakers warning the villagers on the incoming storm. Most people in these areas do not have the benefit of radios and televisions to give them advance warning. The Cyclone Prepardness Programme (CPP) relies on 50,000 volunteers to get the word out. As a result of his incredible effort no one in the immediate area was drowned.

As a reward the local government presented him with a new motorcycle which he proudly rides every day wearing his Red Crescent vest. He goes by the name of 'Cyclone Sidr Man'. We were told that the BBC did a 30 minute documentary of the remarkable job he did to save so many lives.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Good Days in Amtoli...

(Photos promised but will have to wait for bandwidth to upload)

After arriving at the Amtoli upazila (district) office late Saturday morning we began work on the radios. Saturday we tore down the existing antennas, replaced one of the coax cables, installed the new VHF and HF antennas on the mast, got the VHF radio up and running, and assembled the HF radio. The first test of the new VHF radio had us scratching our heads for a bit until we discovered an error in the software. A quick fix later we were communicating with other CPP VHF stations in the vicinity. General consensus was that the quality had improved.. that’s good.

Sunday we trained 15 radio operators and finished the installation of the HF antenna. This was not without a challenge. Tom asked for a ladder to get up on the roof of a building to anchor one of the ends of the antenna. Three long pieces of bamboo were delivered along with a length of rope. Apparently the best they could do for a ladder was to lash the three lengths of bamboo together. Ladders as we know them are not available. After completing the preliminary install we tuned the new antenna to optimize the operation, connected the HF radio to the new antenna and tested it. The test back to Dhaka was excellent and another test to a remote HF station was also excellent. Both stations said the quality of the communication was much better than before.. let’s hope it was our work and not a sunspot cycle!

Some final work on grounding and we'd completed the work at Amtoli on schedule. Now we've moved on to Barguna where work starts on Monday.

Dhaka to Barisal...

(Photos promised but will have to wait for bandwidth for uploads)

A long day's drive over rough roads took us from Dhaka to Barisal, one of the district capitals in the delta region and home of one of the zone offices for CPP. We left Dhaka shortly after 7:00am and arrived at the hotel at 5:00pm – a long day in the back of a Toyota Hilux. Mid-morning we stopped at a 'rest area' for a cup of tea and the equivalent of a muffin.
Tom and our driver Osman are standing beside our trusty Toyota. There really is nothing to compare to the rest areas we have back home but what more do you need: food, drink, and a toilet.

Late morning we boarded a ferry crossing one of the big rivers. The ferry in this photo is the same as the one we were on. The roadway for most of the trip is a levee sitting 6 to 12 feet above the surrounding land and water. Even so they told us that the road floods regularly in the monsoon season.. glad that’s over. Road conditions range from silky smooth (very little) to total pothole hell (much). Traffic is steady but you have to share the road with everything from rickshaws to passenger busses, and when those busses lean on their horn and pull out to overtake it’s everyone for themselves. Osman’s a good driver so not worried!

The land is very flat and water is everywhere. We saw mostly rice fields but there were a few patches of other crops; bamboo, sugar cane, etc. The trip through agricultural land is broken up by small towns and villages where the traffic gets real crazy for a while.

Lunch came at Fahridpur at a Chinese restaurant. Since it was Friday we had an extended lunch stop as our driver Osman needed to attend the Friday afternoon prayer meeting at the local mosque. Friday is the most holy day of the Muslim week and Friday afternoon prayer is not to be missed.

After checking in at the hotel in Barisal and meeting up with the rest of the team we went down to the CPP zone office and identified the equipment and supplies needed for shipping to Amtoli in the morning to begin our radio rehabilitation work. Then back to the hotel for a short rest and dinner. Two of the Bangladeshi team accompanied us to dinner and after we were settled they asked if we would mind if they ate later. Apparently the normal time for the evening meal is 9:00pm or later … not sure if I’ll be able to adjust to this. I’m an early eater … and so is Tom.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The DBB...

When all the equipment and supplies purchased in the US by the American Red Cross National HQ team were assembled in Washington, they were all packed and shipped to Bangladesh in 11 separate boxes. Ten of the boxes were large black plastic Pelican cases and the eleventh was a large wooden crate.

When we arrived at the offices in Dhaka Maliha, one of the CPP Project team said to me, 'We know what kinds of things are in the black cases but what is in the dead body box?' After the confusion we guessed what it was. Much laughter followed. Here it is.

The case was built by the manufacturer of the VHF antennas we are installing, B-Square Engineering. We had ordered 120 J-pole antennas built to match the frequencies used in the CPP and B-Square offered to build a shipping crate.

I now refer to it as the DBB. If anyone needs a cheap burial solution please contact the CPP Project team. After all of the antennas are installed it will be available to the highest bidder!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What a Difference a Day Makes...

Anyone who’s ever worked in a project environment knows there are ebbs and flows that can leave you thinking you’ve either taken on an impossible task - or, raised you to new levels of optimism. Leaving work yesterday I was more of the former state of mind, tonight I’m much more of the second! Yesterday was one of those days where nothing seemed to be falling into place: rain kept us off the roof for most of the day, unable to make the progress we would have liked on the radio system...

This pile of boxes is a shipment of radios from Geneva. Unfortunately, they came without packing lists so finding components to build one HF radio was a box search. One time I was convinced we were missing control boxes and connector cables but found them buried under totally non-related equipment. Then the project officer we'd sent to the market to purchase supplies came back with only 50% of what we needed. And, the pièce de résistance - we'd brought a beautiful Makita hammer drill from the US that we assumed was dual voltage. I checked the bottom of the battery charger and saw 120 – 220, plugged it in and heard a loud pop followed by an acrid smoky smell.. not good. On closer inspection the label read 120v 240w.. Oops.

The task of sorting all of the shipment from Geneva along with 11 boxes of equipment and supplies shipped from the US plus the locally purchased supplies got quickly overwhelming. Office and table space are in short supply, we had no idea how we were going to pull this off.

Fast forward 24 hours: Although we had more rain today we made good progress stringing a guy wire and coax for the new antenna.

We were given permission to use the BDRCS training room for the next 4 days, perfect – a large space with empty tables. We had some of the staff haul all of the equipment over and we assembled all of the parts for 41 HF radios. We now have a perfect room to assemble kits based on each location’s needs that we can send out ahead of our travel.

In the middle of the afternoon I had to run back to the main office and asked that the VHF radios (only three components per radio) were put in three boxes: one for the radios, one for the power
cables, and one for the microphones.

When I returned I found my instructions had not been very clear - the photograph shows what I found. It wasn't what I wanted but it turned out to be a beneficial step!

Returning to the main office to wind up the day, I found the project officer was back from another day's shopping with everything we needed.. and, to really make my day, he had a new 220v battery charger for the Makita!

Roll on tomorrow!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Work Begins...

After a few delays getting the right equipment and supplies, a National holiday on Thursday, and the Muslim holy day on Friday (the first day of their weekend), we finally got stuck into the rebuilding of the radios in Dhaka. It’s going to be a challenge to source some of the parts primarily because the people doing the shopping have never seen the items we want.

Tom is showing one of the radio operators and the telecom technician what can be learned from their new antenna tuner for the HF radio.

As a teaching exercise we assembled a VHF antenna and mounted it to the top of the mast on the roof of the IFRC building. The local staff were only too willing to let Tom go up!

They do have dedicated mast climbers but apparently they were not available. We were assured that once we leave Dhaka for the delta region we will have a mast climber along with us. Truth is, Tom really enjoyed the climb. 

As a footnote: One of the staff said, 'You should see one of the mast climbers. He’s really old. He must be at least fifty five.'

It’s great having someone along to share the experience. We’ve ventured up the road from the hotel, dodging potholes, massive traffic, motorcyclists driving on the sidewalk, various rickshaw and tuk-tuk type vehicles. Yesterday we found a Chinese restaurant that had the closest thing I’ve had to Chinese food since Ann and I left Beijing. Tonight was Italian – pizza 'quattro formaggi' that was very good!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

All's Well That Ends Well...

As some of you already know I'm on a two month assignment in Bangladesh to continue the rehabilitation of the Cyclone Preparedness Program (CPP) radio network. This time I'm traveling with Tom Worthington who has left his island paradise of Maui to work on this project. It's good having someone to share the experience with. His vast knowledge of HF and VHF radio communication will be invaluable.

Cute story - I'd hoped Tom and I'd be able to fly out together or, meet at an asian hub and enter Bangladesh together. Instead, our flights had me fly through Hong Kong and Tom through Japan. I was scheduled to arrive in Dhaka at 12:00pm and Tom at 2:00am. United Airlines to the rescue! After boarding the flight from Chicago to Hong Kong (15 hours) they announce a ground delay due to a cockpit panel that needed replacing (it took 2 hours). In Hong Kong my flight was rescheduled through Bangkok - right onto the same flight from Bangkok to Dhaka that Tom was on! Exhausted, we arrived in Dhaka right on schedule and, with all our luggage. Thanks United!

In Dhaka they x-ray the luggage before you clear customs. Tom had two cases of radio equipment, tools, etc., and I had a supply case, along with two other cases of personal equipment and gear. One of the customs agents asked, “Are you Engineers?” I explained we were with the Red Cross, he nodded, spoke to his compatriots and said no more. We were in. Next we found the hotel shuttle bus and by 3:30am we were finally in our rooms.

That afternoon after catching up on some badly needed sleep, we went to the Red Cross/Red Crescent compound. After preliminary introductions Tom was given a tour of the radio setup. Then that evening Sajit Menon invited us to his home for a wonderful dinner (Sajit is our project leader and project coordinator for all of the American Red Cross efforts on CPP) and so ended a good first day.

We’ll probably be in Dhaka this week then we'll head down into the delta region to visit all six CPP zones. We’ll begin radio rehabilitation and training of CPP technical staff to continue the work after we're gone. We will also be training CPP radio operators how to use and maintain their equipment.

Stay tuned for more...