Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hong Kong vs. Bangladesh

After that hectic finish I was whisked away to Hong Kong with little time to spare. A heated internal debate ended with a China Eastern ticket in my hand and thoughts of India that would have to be put off until after Zhongguo. Over the next month and half I am interning with Ventures in Development (ViD) to help pump up the sales volume and increase marketing (among many other things) for Mei Xiang Yak Cheese, a social business that ViD is incubating. The trip to HK was to meet Marie So, the director, and apply for my China visa – the actual internship takes place in mainland China. More on Mei Xiang later.

Arriving in HK, I had no Lonely Planet guidebook, no idea of where to stay, and no contacts other than Marie. We planned to meet that afternoon for orientation, but otherwise I was on my own. I finally found a cubicle-esque place to stay, with only a bed that my feet hung off and a "cozy" bathroom. I paid 20 USD a night! And this was just before having lunch for 5 USD! I was beginning to see an expensive pattern.

My weekend stay in HK made me realize two things. First, I realized that although people like to be romantic about “winging it” during international travel (myself included), in default everyone likes to have a schedule, likes to have a plan. It’s human nature. I’d wake up in the morning in HK and by the time I’d figured out what I wanted to do, it would be too late. By coincidence I met a nice guy named John from Austin, Texas at the China embassy. He invited me over to his apartment where he, his girlfriend, and I shared travel stories over pasta and amazing oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. They told me about their time in Vietnam when they tried to wing it, and ended up getting screwed by hotels and trudging around the city carrying their luggage in the pouring rain.

The second thing I realized is that HK is everything that Bangladesh isn’t, and I didn’t like it. Obsessed with wealth, this city runs on java and is on the go 24/7. Maserati and Louis Vuitton billboards line the freeways. People here walk faster, talk faster, and always seem too busy to chat or give directions (although to be fair, there were several people who were very willing to help). In Bangladesh, if I looked lost for half a second, there would undoubtedly be someone asking me if they could help in no time.

In fact, HK is a lot like the US (no visa needed for Americans to visit HK, making it almost like another state) – except more sterile. Leaves on the road are an eye sore, and the buildings shine like diamonds. They are paranoid about Swine Flu here. A large population wears surgeon-like masks, elevator buttons in many buildings have signs that read “These buttons disinfected every 2 hours”, and city staff are employed to wipe down the hand rails (have a pic, but won't upload).
And not only that, everything here seems to go as planned. Prices are fixed, people drive between the lines, and everyone speaks English and is accustomed to foreigners (most of them are foreigners in the first place). It takes the adventure out of it. There are no rickshaws or small-scale transportation to just jump on that will take you careening down the wrong way of a one-way street, dodging cars, roaming children, and other rickshaws.

One of the biggest things you’d notice in HK is that there are no poor people – at least not many from what I could tell. During my two days I never saw a single beggar or homeless person. Why is this? To be honest I haven’t had time to research, but I would bet it has something to do with the cosmopolitan appearance the city is trying to preserve. If you’re not a rich foreigner, it’s very hard to get a visa (mainland Chinese have a lot of trouble), and even if you do get in, the cost of living is so high. While I do feel that a society in which no one is in poverty and has to see poverty, like HK, is one we should strive for, for my international experience (and my wallet), I knew I had to get out of HK. I took the next train to Guangzhou, saying goodbye to HK and feeling a little homesick for Bangladesh.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

2000 and Run, the FINAL Part

So we arrive at CRP, finally. As we are late, we have to wait to see Dr. Razzack. I could tell the family wasn't happy, and I actually almost told them I was sorry, but then I thought about how ludicrous this would be. Once we did see the doctor, he only had a few minutes, and of course, Rafikul had failed to bring the old X-ray this time - the doctor could only give a guess based on memory from yesterday, and thus the cost for operations, at $750, was also a guess. I went to meet with different departments to explore my options. After sitting in meetings for close to an hour, we knew the family was getting antsy, so I went to tell them what was up. The cab driver was now getting mad, because we had told him only an hour at CRP (he was paid for round trip), and now the day was becoming a complete loss. So now Omi and I are sitting in the meetings with Rafikul and the cab driver stalking outside like sharks for blood.

Omi and I were increasingly considering the option that occupies the title of these posts, "2000 and Run". As the situation got increasingly more complicated, with my time and money constraints, as well as the family's wishes and the son's uncertain situation, it seemed like just throwing the 2,000 Taka to the family and running was our best option. CRP was trying - they talked about setting up a fund for Faruk to which I could donate, which could be used IF the boy's condition was X and IF it healed by X date, and IF the family did come to CRP and talked with X person. There were just too many possibilities, and ultimately I realized that I'd gotten myself in way over my head trying to do something long-term when ultimately I just didn't have the time or resources.

I went outside to face the family and tell them th
at all we had to offer was 1,500 Taka in medication and 1,500 Taka in cash. Hearing the offer, Rafikul said, "Uncle, can't you see the situation my son is in?" Omi, without even waiting for me, burst out in my/our defense, "Do you think we are blind? Don't you think we know what condition he's in? And it's a big thing that he extended his flight to help him...What do you think we have been doing, ripping off our [edit] hair? Don't you think that it has been costing us money getting you here and there, getting the X-rays? We are both students...We've been trying to help you through this, but all you're doing is asking for more money."

On our way back to Dhaka on the bus (we didn't go in the cab, partly out of comfort, partly because we didn't want any more of Rafikul), Omi was amazed by how I was so calm. I can definitely see it from Rafikul's point of view. As a Westerner, I am probably the best shot that he'll ever have at getting his son healed, and he wanted to cling to me for everything I was worth. If I was that desperate, I'd probably do the same. And ultimately yes, I'd spent a lot of money and time, but this is exactly what my fellowship is about.

My work wasn't over - the next day we met Anis to sign the papers at Dhaba, my favorite restaurant. He walked up wearing pants, not a lungee. I hoped this would foreshadow his move into the middle class. I invited both him and his wife to lunch. I wanted to make sure she bought into this loan. The server was extremely rude - when he finally did come to our table, he was about to leave with only my order before I caught him and told to take everyone else's. Bangladeshis are like 3rd class citizens in their own country, and the poor are probably below farm animals. We signed the papers over kebab and egg rolls. It was an exciting day for everyone involved. After that Anis said he wanted to take me to the airport on his rickshaw (my flight was at 3am), but I deferred and he settled to give me one final rickshaw ride in his new rickshaw. He pedaled faster than I'd ever gone before, and I had him head to Gulshan, as I needed to buy some last minute things.

We stopped, and immediately I hear "Rob!" I couldn't believe my eyes. It was Ronnie. He was skinner than before with veins outlining his eyes like glasses. His foot had only marginally improved. He said, "Medicine, lugbe (need)". Anis looked at Ronnie, and then looked at me. He knew who it was, as I had told him the story. The experience was extremely surreal - two people side by side interacting together, who bookended my time in Bangladesh, and who I believed exemplified two completely opposite sides of poverty, yet so similar in so many ways. The effectiveness of my assistance to Ronnie was clear - he was back on the street in a worse position than before. I could only wonder if Anis would go the same way.

I told Anis to pedal. I'd find another place to get off. Ronnie climbed on the rickshaw and gave me a hug. I didn't give him anything. Eventually he stopped running after. I knew nothing I gave would ever solve his problems. Around the corner I hopped off and handed Anis 100 Taka. He said, "No, not this time." I was happily shocked. That was exactly what I wanted to hear. Ther was a handshake, and then a hug. I only realized afterward how symbolic these were of both the business partnership and friendship we had formed. I wonder if I'll ever see him again.

Friday, August 21, 2009

2000 and Run, Part 3

Sorry I've been away - I've been behind the Great Chinese Firewall and am have just found some software to get around it. More on that later. Now I'm playing catchup on these posts.

Anyway, I arrived at 8:01 the next morning and Omi was there a few minutes later. Forty-five minutes later we had searched up and down the street and found Rafikul nowhere. Anis had volunteered to drop Rafikul off, so headed to Anis's house to see what was up. His mother warmly greeted us and said that yes, Anis was home but he was taking the day off from work - he was sick. Great. They day after he gets the rickshaws he's taking off work. I wasn't pleased, and I wanted answers. Anis said he didn't know he was supposed to pick up Rafikul. He said he'd run over to Rafikul's house and get him.

Ten minutes later we get a call. Rafikul didn't want to go, and of course he didn't have the courtesy to let us know. He said the night before his neighbors told him that foreigners would take his kid and cut off his leg (Even though we told him to come with us without the kid!). I asked, "What incentive would I have to spend my own time and money to cut off someone's leg who I don't even know and who came to me in the first place?" He was finally convinced.

During the ride, I asked more questions about him and his son. He would turn away after each question, like he was really shy or just didn't want to be there. An hour later we arrived at CRP, and we were conveniently skipped ahead of everyone, just because of who I was/knew/wrote about the organization. I wasn't happy with this - quite embarrassed. We found out that of course, Rafikul had left the doctor's report and brought an X-ray that was 3 months old. Perfect. We were sent home, and Dr. Razzack said that he could make time for us tomorrow morning at 8:30 even though he doesn't usually see outpatients. We took the bus back and Rafikul was even more off-putting than before, not saying much of anything, except that he was hungry, implying that we should get him something. I also saw him buy pon - basically chewing tobacco. Probably not something I'd be doing when my son desperately needed medications. I took him and his son that evening to get new X-rays. The son wanted fruit so I gave the father 20 Taka to buy it. He came back with one orange. I buy bananas every day for 3 or 4 Taka. I know he pocketed the rest. I was beginning to see a pattern.

That finished around 6:00pm, but we still had work with Anis to discuss his payment plan. Over two hours I listened and sketched out a personalized payment plan, including a complimentary saving plan. It wasn't until the previous day when I was driving him around Dhaka to introduce him to all my contacts (they almost didn't let him into the restaurant and shopping mall, just because of who he was and his dress) that he finally understood the purpose of the loan and what I was getting at. I told him that I wanted us to be equals - business partners in a sense. I didn't want it to be a gift. He said that he really liked the idea because when he is successful it will be because of his hard work and not from charity. I think this is what is really attractive about social business.

The next day we met at 7:15 am. The taxi we arranged the night before never came. We searched desperately for any others - the longer we waited the thicker the traffic got
and the closer we got to 8:30. We finally found a taxi that had its hood open and panels missing on the door. The driver was willing to go. Once we finally went to pick up the family, Rafikul was nowhere in sight. He was having breakfast - breakfast that Omi and I had skipped to get there on time. Not only that, when Anis said that when he arrived to pick up the family in his rickshaw at 7:00, they were all still asleep. At any rate we packed in the car - the family in the back and Omi and I scrunched in the front - Omi sitting between my legs. Every time the driver shifted I had to lift my leg up. The car was struggling. Halfway through the trip a passing car yelled to us - our back left wheel was wobbling. The driver tried to fix it but I looked in the mirror to find it just as before. To make matters worse Rafikul was criticizing the driver and even me and Omi. When we pulled over to ask for directions, he said sarcastically "Uncle, you just went there yesterday, but you already forgot?" I just wanted that ride to be over and to hear what CRP had to say.

2000 and Run, Part 2

The next day I was scheduled to visit Old Dhaka for cultural sightseeing with Sraven, who you might remember from my beach trip. After the previous day's events I wasn't really in the mood, but I didn't want to break my promise. We went and saw old fortresses, churches, and the like. It was somewhat interesting, but I had way too much on my mind. As my cousin recently told me about his trip to Ireland, reading placards about which king of a dynasty from 500 years ago lived in a certain room or learning why Armenians no longer use their church in Bangladesh seem to become pointless, especially when I'll ride home and on the way be begged by 10 people who can't even eat three times a day.

That night I put together an email about the rickshaw idea, and sent it to several contacts in Dhaka who knew the systems in place. I wanted to get the proposal right before I approached Anis. The next day I met Anis for more research in the slums, including lunch. Only after three requests did he join me in the restaurant. He was humble and content to just wait outside while I ate. He said he would have "whatever [I was] having." Later that evening we met with Omi at a quiet coffee shop to make the proposal. There is no caste system in Bangladesh, but there are strict class divisions. All rickshaw drivers wear dress-like lungees, and when he walked into Co
ffee World, it was the first time during my stay in Bangladesh that all eyes weren't on me. I could tell he was unconfortable.

Anis didn't really know why we were there. I opened the coversation, "Anis, I have been very impressed with you and I think you have a lot potential. I want to help you, but it can't be a handout." I told him that there were many people worse off than him, and for me to help as many people as possible, it has to be done in a sustainable manner. I could see him get much more serious, and he was really thinking about what this meant for him and his family. Only later did Omi admit that Anis had asked him why it had to be a loan and whether there could at least be a 1,000 - 2,000 Taka donation cushion. This somewhat disturbed me - would he be the type of guy to just take the rickshaws and run? We never closed the idea of the cushion, but he was in for the loan.

After deliberations about where to get the rickshaws, he talked with Liton, a self-made man and friend of Anis who I had interviewed just a few days earlier. He was one of the few people to escape the slums (through owning rickshaws), and I wanted to hear his story. We went the next day to pick out the rickshaws and exchange money. Anis wanted me to pick out the rickshaws (everything we did together was always "at my wish"), but I told him that no, it was his money he was spending and he knew rickshaws better anyway. Anis brought tea with real milk (usually powdered) for me an Omi to celebrat the occassion, saying to me, I got this special thing for you because I want you to taste something which you haven't tasted before."

We had also informed Rafikul to meet us at the rickshaw yard so that we could talk with him. We learned more about the situation, which doctors he had gone to. It was a tough bind - he said that the surgery would cost 100,000 Taka ($1,500). I didn't have that kind of money, and I was way out of my element here. I didn't know any hospitals. I called up the only place I knew, the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed. The director of CRP knew about the article I wrote on my blog (see July 26) and personally sent me an email. I was transferred directly to her, and she said that yes, I could come in with the father and the X-rays and CRP could see what they could do. It seemed like there was a chance. Throughout our entire discussion with Rafikul, he was very quiet, and getting answers from him was difficult. Later Omi pointed out that he was probably just confused as to what we were doing. We explained everything very clearly, and agreed to meet to head for CRP at 8 am the next day - he just had to bring the X-rays and official doctor report.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

2000 and Run, Part 1

Sorry for the long delay on the posts. Things have been moving at a whirlwind pace lately, and the difference between 6:30 am and 6:35 am on the alarm clock has never seemed so profound. Numerous things have happened recently that have brought several characters together in an interesting way to show me the many sides of poverty. You'll get to learn more about your investment and my friend Anis. I'm trying to figure out the best way to tell you this story, so bear with me.

What I didn't tell you about the first day with Anis is that we were begged/harassed by a thin and sketchy looking guy with pictures two injured children, which he said were his. His eyes looked yellowish and perhaps slightly bloodshot. I generally don't give to beggars, because it only tends to embolden them (I could write a whole post on ethics of giving to beggars, which I might eventually do), and this looked like it could be a scam anyway. This guy would not give up, and he was starting to become a nuisance. Omi (my translator) and I finally gave in so that we could get on with our day.

Two days later, we met up with Anis again for about a half day. The guy was back, and he wouldn't go away. He said, "If you don't believe me, come to my home and see my children." We decided to go. What I saw there was astonishing. The left leg that belonged to this 16 year-old-boy name Faruk was missing a chunk of flesh half the size of my fist. I could see all the way down to the bone. The leg was being held straight by a strand of material that was stretched behind him. Faruk's mouth hung open, possibly out of pain but probably more likely because he has had all the life sucked out of him. The accident happened three months ago. Three months he'd been sitting on this bed. Insane. Apparently he and his 13-year-old sister (you can see a smaller wound on her leg) were collecting trash on the side of the road. A speeding bus was trying to overtake another vehicle when it hit their trash cart, which ricocehted into the boy.

The father, whose name we found out was Rafikul (see pic 2, with some neighbors), was in another part of the city cleaning toilets. The bus company gave Rafikul 10,000 Taka and had him sign a blank sheet of paper, telling him that they would use this signature for medication and treatment whenever the boy needed it. Unfortunately, Rafikul soon found out that the company had superimposed the signature onto a document showing that Rafikul was at fault for the accident. Every government hospital has denied his son treatment.

This whole investigation at Rafikul's house wasn't made any easier by the fact that there was this guy who had a possessed look in his eyes chanting things at me and asking for money. He wouldn't go away. The deeper I went into the slums, the more hands that reached at my pockets. I told Rafikul that I would print out the pictures he had asked for, and we'd get them to him soon. At that point I hadn't promised anything, but seeing the boy, I knew it would be hard to turn away. I asked Anis to do some investigative work to make sure this really was his son. Either way though, the injury was real.

After that I headed to meet Sohan in Mirpur to survey another slum, and it was the first time where I just felt powerless. Between Korail, this slum, and the others, the horrible situations were just endless. You could knock on someone's door and find a situation just as bad as the last. I was worn out on poverty - I'd seen enough for the day. I took a CNG home and did a lot of thinking - thinking about the boy and sketching out ideas for Anis. That's when Omi called and told me about this evening when Anis dropped him off at his house. Anis had hinted that it would be good if I bought him a rickshaw. Was this just a clever poor person seeing what he get out of me or someone thinking about a long-term solution to his problem? I really wasn't sure, but I hoped it wasn't the former.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Challenge: Investors Needed

Hey folks,

I have a request.
I have found an individual in need who I believe is worthy of some support - an investment, not a donation. I know you're not bleeding money and I don't exactly have an income right now. So I think I have figured out a way to help this individual without either of us breaking the bank. If you're intrigued, read on.

As I told you before, my research has taken me into the slums of
Dhaka, specifically the Korail slum (remember the video I showed you earlier of my commute to BRAC?). I have spent five days over the past week with Anis (on the right in the pic), who I told you briefly about in the last post about the slums. I first met Anis on a short walk down my road to dinner. Initially I ignored him, as I do most rickshaw pullers who are usually overly attracted to my white skin and perceived deep pockets. His happy nature and relatively good English, which is a rarity for the typical uneducated rickshaw puller, got the better of me and I gave in to a short ride. He waited for me while I ate, and seeing the opportunity, I asked if he might be my guide into the slum the next day. My investigation went as planned at first, as I learned all about the background of the slums.

But the conversation gradually shifted to Anis as I learned more about him and his family. He is earning roughly 220 Taka ($3) a day riding his rickshaw, and uses this money to support himself and his wife, and weekly support to his mother, brother, and sister. He will graduate Class 12 (he studies for an hour or so at midnight after a 12 hour day of rickshaw riding), which is more education than most people have in the slum, with decent English to boot. From everything that my Bengali translator and I can tell, he is an extremely humble and courteous person with enormous potential. He doesn't seem to be type of slum dweller I often see clamoring for a handout.

I say he has
potential because he still doesn't have an opportunity.
His dream is to move back to his village and open up a print/copy/scan computer business. He says there isn't one within 2 km of the village. However, currently he is living "hand to mouth" as he explains it and has no savings. BRAC is not willing to give his wife a loan because they think she is too young. So in the meantime, he is stuck riding a rickshaw, which he rents at a cost of 80 Taka out of the 300 Taka he earns per day. With a baby on the way, I can easily see him slipping into the same poverty trap that I've seen so often.

So here's the plan:

1) We provide a
non-interest loan for Anis to purchase two rickshaws. He rides one and rents the other one out, increasing his income.

2) I have drawn out a payment plan that Anis and I have decided on. It is personalized to fit him, with installment amounts adjusted for his upcoming baby, increased studying time for his final exams, etc. It also includes some wiggle room for unexpected difficulties.

3) The money is collected weekly by a friend I have in
Dhaka. Twice every year he transfers it to another friend in Dhaka who makes regular trips between the US and Bangladesh (currently you can't send money out of Bangladesh). Once the money comes to me in the US, it is disbursed to investors.

4) You get your money back, and once his rickshaws are paid off, he is free to take another loan from me (and you, perhaps) to pay for his computer lessons, or further down the road, to start his business.

5) In the meantime, I have introduced him to several of my friends and adults in the BRAC community and others who can help him identify support for computer classes or any other education or guidance in which he is interested.

You probably have some questions:

How can I invest? Go to my website and mail a check to my home address (no fees) or pay via PayPal at the Donate button. No PayPal account is needed. Please donate at least $10. Otherwise, mailing a bunch of small checks of $1 or $5 would get to be expensive with postage.

What is the investment needed?

$333 (23,000 Taka). I will put up a counter on the site.

Is this microcredit?

Sort of.

What is different?

It's a non-interest loan, and we are flexible.

Have you already bought him the rickshaws?

Yes, because I am leaving the country any day now, and don't have the time to wait for all the funding. Things are moving very fast. I have faith you will come through, and if not, then the loan is on me.

Why are we able to give a non-interest loan?

Because we know him well enough (I think, at least), know his intentions, and know that by owning instead of renting, he can earn more money. The high interest on even BRAC or Grameen loans is usually the most common reason poor people are afraid to take loans from them.

When is he scheduled to pay off the loan and what if he misses a payment?

He is scheduled to pay it off in 23 months - July 2011. If he misses a payment, we simply won’t decrease the principle that he owes on the loan, and his expected pay off date will be moved back. We are currently working on the details, and trying to determine how long he can postpone paying off his loan before it is considered null and void and all support is cut off.

What if he just doesn't pay, and it turns out he tricked us?

When we proposed this deal with him, we told him that if he pays back, we will continue to be his contacts and his support - for the computer classes, for his future business. If he doesn't pay back, then we cut off all support. Remember, he did say that the reason he didn't own his rickshaw is because BRAC didn't believe his wife's age and wouldn't give them a loan. All he's missing is a loan, and we're giving him one interest free!! How short-sighted would he be to just take the rickshaw and run if he knew that there was more support waiting?

What happens to my money if he doesn’t pay back?

Well then, we consider the rickshaw a donation. You’re out the $10 or $20 you donated, and we all gain a little better understanding of the poor and their motives.

When will I get my money back (if he does pay back)?

There will be two pay out dates, once when he reaches 50% paid off, and the other when all is paid off.

Get the comments going. I'd love to hear your comments, critiques, or questions.



Thursday, August 13, 2009

Back to School?

After many hours in the slums, I've decided to take a break from poverty related posts so I can fully process the information. Recently I've found myself getting cheaper and cheaper, maybe since I've realized how much I can help people with just a few dollars or, more selfishly, how long I can stretch this thing. I've gone from riding in baby taxis to taking public buses and from nice air-conditioned restaurants (safe for the stomach) to questionable roadside shacks (hygeine, doubtful).

This morning I was washing my clothes in a bucket in the bathroom before draping them around the room under the fan like oranaments on Christmas trees. It instantly made me think of Vandy. With "first-years", as the politically correct are demanding they be called, moving into their new homes in less than 10 days, I can still remember my first laundry day four years ago, and watching in relative amusement as other 18-year-olds consulted each other on how to operate a washer and dryer (sorry for those readers who might fall into this group). It feels quite odd, and quite good, to not be doing the August gear-up for the first time in my memory. I'll let you know if it gets rough being away from the classroom. For any eager students who might be reading, good luck with reading and writing and all that stuff you do.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"We are going to hell, so what can you do?"

As I was walking down the Nakhalpara railroad tracks that were bordered by tents and pieced-together houses, a weathered old man with a slightly arched back and white beard had apparently had enough of my "tourism", and let me know it in broken English. I didn't quite understand what he said at first, and my confusion left him despondently muttering something about his English being so bad that I couldn't even understand it.

You can't fault him for his angst. He had less wealth and income to his name than the value of what I was carrying in my two front pockets (iPod, cellphone, voice recorder, and wallet, in case you were wondering). And here I was, coming in with all my wealth just looking around, asking questions. Admittedly, it was condescending. But, I argued, with the help of my translator, that if no one knows about it, no one can do anything. It's a tough line to walk - you want to learn, but you don't want to patronize.

Hot, cramped, and ignored, the slum population in Dhaka has grown enormously since the country's liberation in 1971 from West Pakistan, especially in more recent years as the rural population moves to the city to find work (and Dhaka is THE city in Bangladesh). Their standard of living, on the other hand, has not increased. Over the past month I've gone into the slums on numerous occasions to try to figure out how everything works. I've seen so much it's hard to choose what to tell you without making this a novel, so I'll try to first give you a little background, from what I've found so far.

Korail slum, which most say is the biggest in Dhaka, has an estimated population of 120,000 in about a 3 square km area. This is even more amazing when you considerthat all dwellings are one-story shacks. People are everywhere. Think of trying to cram 400-500 people, in homes, on an area smaller than the size of a football field. And I thought Vandy dorms were bad. The slum itself is almost like a miniture town inside the city. They have their own barber shops, tea stalls, snack marts, and restaurants.

Mr. Anish (2nd pic), a rickshaw puller and our guide, showed us one of the restaurants. The food, which had already been cooked, looked like it had been sitting there for a while. He said that a plate of rice costs 4 Taka (one Taka is about 1.5 cents), fish was 20 Taka, egg was 15 Taka, chicken curry was 30 Taka, and smashed potato was 3 Taka. The food was just sitting on this shelf that looked more like a book case than anything you’d see in a restaurant (see pic). To wash the plates there was a jug on the floor containing murky yellow water that was splashed over the plates before they were dried and set back on the stack for the next customer. He said it was “good food" but he didn't eat here because it was too expensive. He explained, “All this, low classes food. But the mineral water, clean.” He poured some over my hand to show me it was cold.

Drinking water here is available for purchase at cheap prices from a water line that the city has provided. I haven't figured out the arsenic levels in it yet (which is a problem in Bangladesh), but the residents seem to think it is pretty clean (even though they said they generally get sick every two weeks to a month).

Bathing and cooking water is free, but at a price. It comes from the highly polluted Banani Lake. They brought up a bucket of water from the reserve, and while it didn't have any weird color shades or large chunks, you could see particles floating to the top and the random bug here or there. They said they had mostly gotten used to the water, but many people did still get skin rashes about once a week. Seeing babies or young children with speckled rashes on their heads or bodies, either from water or heat, is not uncommon. In the next post I'll try to cover some of the other stuff I've seen. Hopefully I'll get to it sooner than later.

Beach Life, Bangladeshi Style

Alright, so it's not Maui. Or even California (I'm going to leave Amelia Island out of this). But Cox's Bazar is a beach, and it's in Bangladesh. So that makes it special. Actually, it's the longest beach in the world at nearly 80 miles of unbroken sand. And Bangladeshis aren't afraid to tell you it's special. Below I go through how a typical first-time meeting goes with a Bangladeshi.

1. "What is your country?"/"Where is your motherland?"/other derivations of the same
2. "Why have you come here?"
3. "How long will you stay here?"
4. "Have you been to Cox's Bazar?"

They don't take long to cut to the chase. Your name may or may not be asked. So, after all this pestering, Sraven (who is Indian, but often passed for a Bangladeshi and got to pay local prices, that jerk) and I took an overnight bus to this highly acclaimed place. It was so built up from the beginning, it was doomed to disappoint. I braced myself.
In truth, it was a really nice and surprisingly clean beach, which was great when you're so tired of pollution everywhere, everyday (although the areas around the beach were still
pretty rough). And, away from all the traffic and noise, it was about the most at peace I've been since arriving in Bangladesh. We stayed at hotel Kolol, which was frighteningly empty. In fact, we ate pretty much all of our meals alone in empty restaurants. At least it was romantic.

The first day we stayed local at Cox's Bazar, hitting the beach for a few hours. The water was great, but relaxing on the beach was next to impossible. The entire time you are bugged by people trying to sell you stuff - 4-wheeler rides, horse rides, shells, snacks, unwanted children, etc. The second picture shows a kid (7 years old) who was relentless with his shells (bad karma from Burma). We then took rickshaw to nearby Himchari beach and climbed a nearby mountain (or hill, for readers not from Florida) for a great view of the water. On the way to Himchari we got t
o watch some boat building (see pic 3) and even took a side trip off the road to do some hiking to find waterfalls.

Our next day we took a boat to nearby Maheshkhali Island. We wanted to go to St. Martin's Island, which apparently has the types of beaches that screen savers are made of, but they closed the island due to rain. Meheshkhali was pretty cool - a lot of really relaxed people, some Hindu and Buddhist temples (rare for an Islamic country), and a really great rickshaw driver. There really wasn't much else to do (investing in something other than hotels and diners could really go far for this place), so we just head back to the mainland to read and chat on the beach while we waited for our bus. Without going into it too much, I'll just say that long distance bus rides in Bangladesh waver between mind-boggling insanity and surprising efficiency. Riding along while the bus dodges rickshaws, pedestrians, and on-coming traffic at 60 miles an hour, I've found that it's just best to go to sleep.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

This is Rural Bangladesh Pt. 2

Following my time in Netrokona, I met up with Richard and Sohan, who were traveling to the village in which they work, named Goichachia, to peform water analysis. Check out their organization, Basic Needs Program. I was tagging along to get some interviews.

To get to their village the three of us rode a packed, dusty bus an hour and a half from where I already was, then a CNG (check the picture, basically an auto rickshaw) over bumpy roads through the pitch-black night, before traveling via rickshaw over even rougher and darker roads. Tired and hungry, we had dinner served to us over lamplight while lounging around in our lungis...kinda like camping. The camera flash is deceptive - there's no electricity here.

They next day my morning run basically brought out every child in the village, running
after me like a Rocky montage, or Austin Powers opening scene, whatever your preference. However, they might have already been up because there was a kid crying from 6:15am on - there's not much privacy in a village where walls are thatch and windows are open air. We performed our research in tag-team fashion. Richard would test water, and Sohan would translate for my interviews. Most of the people in the village were even poorer than those I had already interviewed. They were living on less than $1 per day (although slightly above $1 when you account for cost of living) and most were farmers who only had work 6-7 months out of the year. They had two crop yields per year, but because they were only farming rice, they had nothing else to harvest during down seasons.

During the middle of the work day you'd see many people just sitting around (except Donnie carving our duck for lunch) - not because they are lazy but simply because there are no outlets for employment. The nearest reasonably sized town is a couple hours away, and farming, like I said, is seasonal. Many people consume much of their yield in the first place, and all it takes is a bad season to put them in the red. One farmer told us how after seed and fertilizer expenses of 60,000 Taka were covered, they were only able to sell it for 40,000 at the market, leaving them with a 20,000 loss for the season. Some farmers even turned to money lenders, mortgaging their land to procure farming supplies. The money lender doesn't take interest. Rather, he takes 1/2 the farmer's crop yield until the loan is paid back. Sohan called it a form of "sucking their blood".

I like Basic Needs' approach. They are bringing a doctor and plan to set up a clinic in the village, providing somewhat of a safety net from below. At the same time, they are looking into alternative crops to grow, such as strawberries, which command a high price and are said to be a feasible crop. While this is providing immediate income, they have built a school for the children so that they don't have to grow up illiterate like their parents - a way to get ahead and out of poverty. Basic Needs, with these three deveoloping components, seems to be heading in the right direction.

Well, with all my talk about microfinance and empowering women to
earn their living, why aren't I touting that option? Only one women out of four in the village (admittedly not a representative sample) I talked to who used microfinance was really positive about it. For the others they said the interest installments were just too tough for them to make with seasonal labor, and the loans really weren't big enough to start a business. Instead they might use the money just to get by or improve their husbands' businesses - not really empowering women like you often hear from the NGOs. One pitiful lady (really nothing was going right for her) we talked to had taken out a loan to buy a cow, which had died shortly after. Sad.