Im in Thailand now, and I havent posted in a few days because Ive been taking the time to write out all the events of my week in Bangladesh. Its taken a lot longer than I expect. I wanted to recount the three-day adventure to the villages in northern Bangladesh in as much detail as I could. The following post contains those details, but its rather lengthy. I am posting this without imbedded photos, but I will add those into the post and correct my grammar as my time allows.
Throughout this week, my life felt like a movielike I was watching myself on some giant screen and everything around me was a Hollywood sound stage. In short, it was an incredible adventure. There was no real action or danger to speak of, just life as it really is, not veiled in the hyperreality often found in U.S. Bangladesh is so isolated and out of the way, that we were privileged to experience a world that few other foreigners have been able to see. If you ask me, this is the best way to travel!
On Tuesday morning, we set out on a three-day stay at a Grameen field office. Around 7 a.m., we caught a tuk tuk to the bus station. Tuk tuks are these little vehicles, almost like a motorcycle enclosed by a metal box. The bus we boarded was fairly nice, obviously an upper class bus. The ride lasted about two hours and we saw a very diverse Bangladesh from the Dhaka we had grown accustomed to. The countryside is very lush and green. Almost everywhere you look, rice fields occupy the land. We crossed the 13th longest bridge in the world (7th longest in Asia). It crossed a very large river that is water direct from the Himalayas. The bus ride lasted a little longer than two hours, dropping us off at the roundabout where we found ourselves surrounded by 50 Bangladeshi peoplethe scene I described above.
Our translator hailed two rickshaw pans to take us to Salanga, our village for the next few days. A rickshaw pan is a three-wheeled bicycle with a back sitting area that consists of two wooden planks to sit on. They can seat up to four people (crowded and hard to pedal) with two people racing each other on both sides. The ride to Salanga is maybe 5 miles. The path runs along a thin asphalt path that parallels the highway one side and rice fields on the otherit was obviously built to keep the rickshaws and villagers off the highway. Villagers also used the path to spread out rice and stalks for harvesting.
Villagers certainly noticed the new foreigners rolling into town. As we drove, all eyes glanced up from their previous interests to watch us ride by. The pathway twists and turns through the village and its lined with various shops and businesses. Many grocery stores, barber shops, rickshaw repair, welding etc. About everything you could think of to make the village relatively self-sufficient. After driving through most of the town, we came to a two-story red brick buildingmuch different than the metal shed look of every other building. This was the Grameen office. This Grameen office looked much like a movie set as well. The walls were white and looked like they had not seen a fresh coat of paint in years. The walls were plain except for a bulletin board with Grameen propaganda and pictures of Dr. Yunus. The only furniture in the room was three large tables and accompanying chairs for meeting with bank members.
We sat at one of the tables and were served fresh mango, which was excellent. Then we met the Grameen branch manager. He was a larger fellowthe only large Bangladeshi we sawand he had a gruff personality. We couldnt decide if this was his real personality or if he was putting the face on for his position. In either case, it was a stark contrast to the enthusiasm of Mr. Atachim and our guide for today, Chamin.
After finishing the mango, we left for our first center meeting in this village. This meeting was different, as it was primarily composed of Hindu women. Their Hindu background was readily apparent from their colorful facial paintings. Some women had the red dot, some had gold lines down their foreheads, and some had red streaks in their hair, or a combination of the three. We asked the typical questions and observed their loan meetings and loan requests. They had no questions for us, however.
After the meeting, we had a late lunch back at the office. The meal was really good, and typical Bengal food. This is always white rice with a lentil soup poured over the rice. Then a sort of curry chicken or beef and chackti, a really sweet tasting vegetable mix that consisted of pumpkin, sweet potato, and other undisclosed flavors. The upstairs of the building was where we stayed and the center manager lived. It was pretty nice by Bengali standards, but wouldnt be very accommodating in the U.S. The place looked like it had not been cleaned in many years.
After lunch, we went into the village to visit businesses that were funded through Grameen loans. The first stop was a mustard seed processing shop. They had a large machine that they poured mustard seeds into. Out of it came a mustard paste or kind of oil. Im not really sure what they used it for. We attracted a fairly large crowd at this shop. After observing the operation, we sat down with the shop owner and discussed his operation and loans. Next, we loaded up on the rickshaws again and visited the home a student loan recipient. This family had a carpentry shop, making furniture from local bamboo. The mother, who was a Grameen member, received a student loan for her son, who was studying accounting at the local college. He wanted to move to Dhaka to live the luxurious life. Surprisingly, college tuition only costs approximately $200 per year.
When we returned the bank, the local kids started congregating and asking us to play soccer with them. We started walking back into town. It was a long walk all the way through town to the school area where the soccer field was. We just kicked the ball around in a circle for a few minutes, kind of like a hackysack. It was so hot that we were drenched with sweat very quickly. The foreigners playing soccer drew quite a crowd to the field. I asked if other Grameen visitors played soccer with kids, and I guess we were the first.
When we returned, we sat up on the roof to cool off in the cool breeze. A storm was starting to form on the horizon, as lighting was getting more frequent. At one point, the power went out, which is a regular occurrence. In the summer, the power grid has electrical requirements that are higher than electricity can be produced, so they just shut the power off in various places. We sat on the roof and talked with Tanveer, our translator about his religion and life as a devout Muslim. He sang a verse to us from the Koran and told us about how his parents would arrange his marriage. Its very interesting because his parents will probably find a wife for him this year, he will meet her and decide that day if he loves her and wants to marry her. Its strange, but our system seemed equally strange to him as well.
We had the same food for dinner as we had for lunch. At every meal, I was mesmerized by Tanveers practice of eating with his hands. He puts everything on the plate, mixes it up with his finger and just starts going to town. At the end, scoops any sauce off the bottom, cleans the bowl almost spotless, and licks his fingers clean. It was very odd to watch. After dinner, we settled down for bed. When I climbed into bed, a cockroach crawled out from under my pillow. I found another one a few minutes later. After I cleared the bed for additional cockroaches, we put the bug net up to keep the mosquitoes and cockroaches out. I was so tired that I was gone when I put my head down.
Next morning, we attended a mens member meeting. This was fairly unique, since Grameen is 90% female members. We were running late and the men waited about two hours for us to come. One thing that surprised us was how many of them own cell phones. Maybe 1/3 to half of them. Cell phones are really cheap and heavily advertised in rural Bangladesh. Its surprising because they have nothing, yet own a cell phone. But, there are no landlines, and cell phone minutes are cheaper than traveling if you need to communicate with someone in another city. Grameen Telecom owns all the towers in a partnership with a Norwegian phone company. They must be absolutely raking it in through the cell phone business. The men also had questions for us, but they were very different than the womens questions. They wanted to know how much things cost in the U.S. and what kind of salaries we could make.
After the mens meeting, we visited a womens meeting. By this point, we had really run out of questions, so we asked general questions about what kind of businesses they had. In the general vicinity of this area, we visited a couple businesses. First, we visited pottery shop that was making large pots for holding rice or water. These pots were nearly three-foot in diameter. We walked across the street to another pottery shop. Here, they were smaller pots, possibly for cooking and eating, rather than storage. The owner cut some clay and took us into his shop to spin the clay on a pottery wheel. He made four pots out of one block of clay. We also watch a couple women make pots by hand, forming them without a wheel.
We jumped back on a rickshaw and took it to the highway. We caught another rickshaw there and headed for the bus interchange. At the interchange, a crowd gathered around us again to stare at the foreigners. The interchange isnt a city, just a large bus stop, so a variety of food and beverage businesses have been established there overtime. Will bought a piece of sugarcane from a small stand. The stand operator was pressing the sugarcane into juice and selling it to locals. However, the operator only had one glass, which served as the community drinking glass. Will drank from it, but Amadea and I refused.
We caught a public bus to take us to the Grameen fisheries. Public buses in Bangladesh are everything you imagine them to be. They are crowded, hot, and blaring strange Indian music. The bus ride lasted about an hour, and Amadea thought she was going to pass out. The Grameen center we arrived at was very nice, probably slightly nicer than our center in Salanga. Not only did it serve the local community with loans, it also serviced the fisheries program, livestock program, and the computer center where all the regional information is brought to for digitizing. In the same set of buildings, we first observed the dairy processing room, where they pasteurize milk and place it in small, plastics bags for resale. The dairy program is one of Grameens microenterprise programs where a member can use a loan to purchase a cow, then sell the milk to Grameens pasteurizing plant, which employs locals, and sells the milk to grocery stores started by Grameen members. Its a very cyclical program.
The manger at this center was a very devout Muslim. He wore the full attire, consisting of a white shirt, white pajama-like pants, and white cap. He was extremely kind and gentle to us. When Amadea tried to shake his hand at the end, he had to excuse himself for religious purposes.
The fisheries were a few kilometers away from the office. I was very excited because we got to ride in a UNDP jeep out to the site. The fisheries were built decades ago by some sort of feudal lord. There are an unbelievable 808 ponds at this fishery. The largest pond being 26 acres! Every morning, Grameen fishes at least one of the ponds with a giant net, which they scoop from one side to the other. We visited the fish raising building, which was a large metal shed that enclosed several circular baths and several small pools. The pools were used for applying a hormone to release the eggs from the female fish. The eggs are then placed in the circular bath to rotate with a slow current, which helps with the fish growth. When the fish are large enough, they are moved to the ponds outside. What I found interesting was that the type of fish harvest was primarily carp and versions thereof. In Bangladesh, carp is a good fish for eating!
The ride back to the Salanga was fairly uneventful. Again, we took to the public bus to the interchange, then a rickshaw back into Salanga. Back at the Grameen office, we rested a few minutes, but Will and I were enticed back outside by the activities of the village In particular, we were intrigued with the rice harvesting process. The villagers across the street from the office were threshing the days harvest. We went out to observe. They had a spinning gas powered machine that would separate the rice from the stalk. One man would stand and stick the rice on the machine, while a woman would sit below and sweep the rice into a pile. The rice stalks were blown up in the area and eventual created giant piles of stalks that would stand 10-12 feet high. I wanted to see more, so will and I walked out into a field accompanied by a entourage of local kids. We walked out into a rice paddy where 6-10 men were harvesting. Despite the language barrier, they invited us to come up and try cutting some rice ourselves. It was more difficult than they made it look. The blade was very sharp and with my first swing, I just about took my instructors leg off. After cutting a few clumps, I handed it back and watched them cut at lightening speed.
After the previous nights soccer game, we promised the village kids we would play again. So, we jumped on a rickshaw and headed back to the soccer field. This time, it was a group of locals, probably high school age, with a very serious game going on. Despite that, they invited us to jump right in. For the first few minutes, I had no idea who was on my team or which way I was supposed to be going, as they were giving me instructions in Bengla. Eventually someone scored and Will and I figured it out. I played for 15-20 minutes, maybe. Then I had to stop because it was incredibly hot and I just couldnt cool down. I was soaked with sweat and I think the locals thought it was funny. When we got back to the office, I went straight to the roof, filled up a bucket with water and just started dumping water on myself. I sat in a chair on the roof for the next couple hours.
After sitting on the roof for awhile, our translator came to get us. Some center managers had assembled downstairs and wanted to meet with us before we left. We regrouped downstairs at a table with eight of the region center managers. We started by asking them questions regarding their positions and their work with Grameen. Eventually, the conversation shifted to international politics and American policy. They were all surprisingly abreast of the events in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their questions commonly were fixed on our opinions of President Bush and U.S. policy. At one point, while Tanveer was translating our statement, I turned to Will and said, You know, were really the ambassadors for America here. Were maybe the first Americans theyve ever met, and maybe the only they will ever meet. Its a very strange feeling to know that youre setting the precedent for someone elses opinion of your country. I think the same goes for our actions in the villages. Hopefully things like playing soccer with the kids and visiting the farmers out in the rice patty made a good impression of our country and the Grameen Bank. Everyone in town knew that three Americans had arrived. I would be surprised if more than a handful of Americans have ever, or will ever, visit that village.
The following day, we visited the Grameen Danon factory in Bogra. As the day involved a lot of traveling, I will spare the details and end the post here. My next post will pickup with events in Thailand.