07 November 2008

Week 53: Fasting for Ramadan, heading to India, wrapping up in Bangladesh

53rd-1st in Dhaka 9/3

Went by BUET today to drop off the bumper stickers to Dr. Ali, Shegufta, and Dr. Rahman. I had a final chat with Dr. Ali and thanked him profusely for helping me get here in the first place. Shegufta was ecstatic to get the bumper stickers, and I gave her enough to give to all her friends, including the three guys who helped me on the project. I showed Dr. Rahman my presentation and he gave comments on how to improve it for the conference. He had tips for me to prepare for the panel I might be on.After going to BUET I went to New Market to pick up some ties, some books for my upcoming trips (Angels & Demons and A Brief History of Time…two books I would realize later are slightly on the same topic), and to pick up my friend Amit’s tailored shirt which I had ordered, but it was not ready. I also bought some tuxedo shirt buttons, and overpaid for one set.

This evening I headed to Farhan’s for Iftar. It was great that a lot of our friends showed up, even Ishita, who had come to see me for the last time. We had a good time, played guitar and sang songs, and they laughed about their many fond school memories. I wore my new beach shirt tonight. However, here, no one would associate it with a beach shirt, but rather with going to mosque, as it’s made of material usually seen in panjabis that men wear to pray. During my time there, I talked to Ayon about my upcoming trip some more, and what thoughts I had about whether to stay in India longer, or Bangladesh, and how to move around. I think we’ve worked out what I’ll do. (pics: Nipu/Faisal at Farhan's Iftar, Iftar fare at Farhan's, Ayon/Saquib/Farhan, myself/Ishita)

After dinner, I left, and Nipu came with me. I headed toward Malibag, in an effort to take a picture of an “_FC” sign. Well after finding it, he took me by rickshaw to his home, insisting I stay for a bit. I was tired, but obliged, as his home is one of the few I have yet to visit, plus I made him go find the “_FC” sign with me. At his home he gave me some fruit and I talked to his uncle for a bit, and later his mother, before he took me home by his own car.

53rd-2nd in Dhaka 9/4

Today, packing commenced full steam. I had only gotten some done, but it was time to get all my bags, especially those that I won’t need for India and Southeast Asia packed up. This also included packing up a box to ship home via FedEx. My room is an utter mess. (pics: my house is a mess as I empty out the almirah, boxes with stuff to bring to FedEx to ship and a scale to weight them first)

Today I returned the almirah that I borrowed from Ashrafi. I had to arrange a van and a rickshaw to get it there. Was a bit tough as one guy said he would go, and then changed his mind just as I was ready to take down the almirah with him, saying he didn’t have enough time and things to do later in the day. So I found another rickshaw van driver, and he helped me out. I also found two other random rickshaw wallahs to help me out as well, as we needed four sets of hands to bring it down the two flights of stairs. They took over, and I just assisted as directions were spouted in Bengali. We finally got it down, and strapped it to the rickshaw van. The rickshaw wallahs said I could just sit on top, and there was no need for them. So I paid them, more than I’d liked to, and I was on my way with just the van driver and myself. Arriving at Ashrafi’s brother’s place of business, where the almirah would stay, I’d realized I’d left one of the keys for it at home, would have to come back again. But we unloaded quickly, and the van driver took me back home.

I had a fight with my landlord today over the rent. I had told her a month back that another Fulbright would take my spot in October, and thus the landlord didn’t arrange for anyone else to live there. Well recently that Fulbrighter told me she wouldn’t stay here, and when I told the landlord this, they told me I’d have to cover the month of rent they would not be able to get from her now. I was angered and refused, saying they still had one month to arrange a new tenant.

I set out to FedEx to ship my box. I got a rickshaw to bring me there, and watched as the FedEx employees repacked everything I had into an amount of space I didn’t think was possible. I used their special 25kg box which is a set price, and the best value for that weight.

I went to Annita’s for Iftar, and Ayon and Auvi were there too (this is now the 3rd Iftar in a row I’m having with Ayon.) The Iftar food was amazing, I really gulfed it down and would’ve taken more but we had a delicious dinner on the way. We spent the time before and after Iftar looking at photo albums of Annita's family, from her youngest days to the present.
Her grandfather was a great man to meet. I really enjoyed the short conversation we had before he went to mosque. He made me laugh and I enjoyed his insight. (pics: Annita/Ayon at Annita's for Iftar, Auvi/Annita during Iftar, myself/Hridoy/Auvi/Annita looking at pictures from Annita's childhood)

When I got home tonight, I dropped in to the flat of the guys’ downstairs. They offhandedly invited me to Sehri tomorrow morning, so I told them I’d come. Would give me a chance to finally to do a real fast for Ramadan. What had been holding me back up until now was that I didn’t have anywhere to eat for Sehri.

53rd-3rd in Dhaka 9/5

Today is one year in Bangladesh.

When I showed up downstairs this morning at 4 AM for Sehri, it was pretty clear the guys had not expected me to show up. They were surprised to say the least, and rushed to ready me a plate of rice, mashed potatoes, and fried potatoes. It was neat to see what they ate, on their limited student budgets, in order to last the day. No one seemed tired, and we talked even after we were done eating.

I finally decided how I was going to handle the end of my India trip, and I booked a plane ticket on Indigo from Delhi to Kolkata, early enough that I could still catch a bus back from Kolkata to Dhaka. It had gotten more expensive since last night when I had last looked at it, and figured I needed to commit.
I also figured out the final trains I will take in India, and made notes on their seating offers and costs, so I could book it all when I got to Kolkata.

I met up with Toma, and we headed out to get two photos of the “_FC” places I needed to capture, as well as drop off the keys to Ashrafi’s brothers. We had a good time on the buses we took, and chatted a lot. (pics: when your rickshaw is broken this is how you get it to the repair shop, one of the many _FC signs I've colleced and will post a mural later)

This afternoon I had a quick freakout. I thought that I had lost my passport. All day people have been coming in and out off my house to look at it, now that the landlord has put it on the market, and usually in groups of two and three. They’re always accompanied by the landlady or their son-in-law. Well one time I was discussing something with the son-in-law and didn’t watch the visitors. They left, and about an hour later I realized I couldn’t find my passport. Or my credit card! Freaked out. I thought it was gone, stolen by the visitors. Ran downstairs to my landlord and told them what I thought had happened. Ran back up, and soon my landlady arrived telling me to calm down, assuring me it’d be okay. We looked more, but couldn’t find it. I was upset, hysterical, knowing I had to leave the country in a few days…and both items were critical to that. I was shaking. She tried to comfort me. Meanwhile her whole family came in, and her grandson was playing with everything. I asked if they could leave, as it was just stressing me more. They left, and it was just her and I again. While I was frantic, she slowly looked around. She found it, all of a sudden, she found it. In my thrice over search of my room I had missed a pocket in my luggage, and she had found it and inside was both my credit card and my passport. I had hidden them earlier because of the visitors. I was just on the phone with the US embassy to report it stolen, and hung up. They called back later to ensure that I had actually found it. This evening, I bought my landlady and her family sweets to thank them for dealing with me.

After freaking out over the passport, I rushed to Pizza Hut for what was to be my goodbye dinner and Iftar. I had called Ayon and Farhan freaking out already, and they were relieved when I told them all was okay, and they could proceed to Pizza Hut worry free.
I got there early to reserve a table as the Iftar special days at Pizza Hut get packed. While I waited I filled out postcards to send back home.
Pizza hut was a blast. The all you can eat pizza was amazing, I had 8 slices, and some guys hit 9 and 10. Some people at other tables looked to top 20, but they usually leave the crusts behind. A nauseating, but fun, way to end my fast. I had kept the fast of Ramadan all day long, not eating or drinking a thing. It wasn’t so bad. But pizza is a hard way to fill your stomach after fasting. I will do it again tomorrow, same thing.
I gave gifts to all my friends, a small thing for each of them. Bangladeshi flag patches, BUET bumper stickers, books, and baseball and football cards. It was tough to say goodbye tonight, as I knew for some it’d be the literal last time I was seeing them. (pics: Saquib taking pictures of all the postcards I was writing, Nipu/myself upset at the amount of water we are served to break our fast, Faisal/Ayon and others eating the unlimited pizza at Pizza Hut's Iftar special, Auvi/Ayon/myself/Farhan/Hridoy/Saquib/Opu/Faisal/Nipu at Pizza Hut)

And if anyone is keeping count, this is the fourth night in a row that I’ve had Iftar with Ayon! I sure must like that guy.

53rd-4th in Dhaka 9/6

I got up early again for Sehri today. As the guys knew I was coming, they had made a slightly better meal, including some chicken. We had a great time laughing and joking around, taking photos of each other, and telling funny stories, before heading back to our respective beds. (pics: one of the guys living downstairs eating Sehri (he's the cook too), 4AM Sehri myself/Mehedi/Rabi, the guys who live downstairs during Sehri)

Today I fasted again for Ramadan, it was no harder than yesterday.

I finished my packing today, and everything is set for India and heading home a month later. I sent a second box via FedEx. Had to pay a bit more for the standard box as my stuff was too big for the special rate box. Then they made an error in calculating the price, and I will have to come back later for my refund. I tried to pay by credit card in the first place, and I should’ve known I was in for some trouble when they pulled the credit card machine out from some drawer, actually had to dust it off. Three of them then fumbled around with it, a bit confused on how to work it.

I went over to Farhanaz’s and Diya’s for Iftar. I dropped off the weight scale and my laptop for them to hold on to while I was in India. Don’t want to take any risks with it while I’m gone for so long. Oyon came by, and it was really cool to see him after such a long time. Took some photographs of Farhanaz and her daughter Zara. (pics: Farhanaz/Zara, myself/Farhanaz/Zara)

Sometime in the middle of the night, Mehedi came by and picked up my floor fan, It was really late at night, and I almost thought it was dream.

53rd-5th on train to India 9/7

This morning I set off for India, excited and full of anticipation. All of my planning was about to unfold. Even with a small stomach problem, the ride was fun, and I enjoyed watching the Bangladeshi scenery go by on a very nice train (Indian train in fact.) Because the trains travel twice a week, the Bangladeshi train would be returning today from India, while my train, the Indian one, which spent the night in Bangladesh, was heading back.

What was a highlight for the trip was crossing the Jamuna Bridge, my final time, and this time by train. It felt like we were hanging over the edge, as I could see straight down to the water. (pics: signboard on the Dhaka-Kolkata train, heading over the Jamuna Bridge, looking out over the Jamuna River from the open train door, the drop down to the water from the train door)

The train was pretty much empty, perhaps only 40% filled. I was surprised, and guessed maybe it was because of Ramadan. Talking to some of my fellow passengers, I was told that the train is usually this empty. As explained to me, it is because of the way Bangladeshis get visas for India. In order to travel to India, I was told that they have to enter and leave through the same border post, specified on the visa. So in order to take the train, which runs only Saturday and Sunday, one has to stay all week in India in order to comply with visa regulations. It makes it difficult to take the train, and for this reason ridership is low. But the rumor amongst the passengers is that they might add two more trains a week, making it easier to do this trip on a visa.

The border was kind of neat. The train stopped in these gated off stations, in which we disembarked, processed our visas, and boarded again. There were giant gates across the train tracks, that swung open when the train came up. We had to sit at these stations for a short time even after we finished, as the train is allotted enough time in the train schedule for a full load of passengers, but as we finish quickly, we had to sit and wait and leave on schedule.

I arrived in Kolkata at its new train station, the third largest in the city. A taxi brought me through the new streets by meter to get me to the backpackers area of Sudder Street. At dinner I got to reencounter how much more expensive India is to Bangladesh. I had a simple Bengali meal and it was 50% more than it would cost in Dhaka.

53rd-6th in Kolkata 9/8

The first goal of today was to buy my bus ticket back to Dhaka in 2.5 weeks, and buy all my train tickets for my international travels around the country. First up though was to get a SIM card. I dropped into a hole in the wall mobile store to get the SIM. While there, two guys dropped in and I recognized them from my train ride yesterday. They were Bangladeshi and we all started chatting how we like Dhaka better than Kolkata from what we’ve already seen/experienced (not much.) It was a great time, and since the mobile phone guy was so slow, we had a half hour of conversation. One of the guys was even coming to the US next year to visit his sister in Philadelphia. They had come to India to purchase some machinery for their textile business. (pics: handpulled rickshaws in Kolkata, yellow taxis of Kolkata)

I bought the bus ticket after shopping around three different operators running to Dhaka, all Bangladeshi owned companies. I bought a mid-morning bus at 10am on the 24th, so I could get back to Dhaka that night, and have three full days in Bangladesh. My flight from Delhi gets in at 8am, so I would have no problem making the bus.

I tried to buy my train tickets from an agent, but all the trains, except for the foreigner tickets, were filled. So I’d have to go to the train office to book them directly. I was nervous that the trains were entirely sold out, and I’d be stuck in places longer or shorter than I wanted, and causing havoc on my schedule
At the train ticket booking office, there was to be a counter only for foreigners, and sure enough, there were crowded lines for all other windows except the foreigner line. I was able to get all six of my train tickets, at that one counter, for all over the country at different times in the next 2.5 weeks. The only train ticket I had to get that I would not have preferred was for my first train trip, where I had to buy the lowest class sleeping cabin as that was all that was left. While there, a little girl and her father and mother were also getting tickets. They were Bangladeshi and the girl had a conversation with me while I bought my tickets.

I got some lunch streetside, and walked through several markets, one which apparently was the toy gun market. I circled through the governmental area. Absorbed being in Kolkata. (pics from my walk around Kolkata: the famous Eden Gardens cricket stadium, tea served in disposable clay cups, the toy gun portion of the market, looking south on BT Sarani, Kolkata buses all have matching color schemes, a man sleeps at the side of BBD Bagh)

I ended up walking along the riverfront park, which was broken up into three connected sections. Sat at spots, took photos of the Hooghly Bridge, and relaxed after a day spent running around.
I took my first Indian local bus. The buses are all running under a consistent coloring scheme, and have printed fares inside the bus. It is much more structured and cleaner than what can be found in Dhaka. I was able to find a bus by reading the outside, and knew how much to pay once inside. (pics: Hooghly Bridge, myself in front of the Hooghly River and bridge, commuters waiting to catch the ferry to Howrah Station, rush hour in Kolkata along Strand Road)

After dinner, I decided it was time to fix up an issue that’s been bugging me for over a year: a whole in my pocket! I’ve lost countless amounts of coins, and I decided I was done with that. I went to a tailor shop, and asked if I could repair it. They handed me some thread and threaded a needle for me, and I quickly laced up the hole with my shorts still on. Complete, I thanked them, offered a tip, they refused, and I went on my way.

I had to post this picture as well. It is an advertisement for GMG Airlines, the first private airline in Bangladesh, which provides excellent service. The sign clearly states that the airline travels to Dhaka, Chittagong, Kolkata, Delhi, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai. However the airplane is clearly pictured flying over New York City, which the airline does NOT fly to. So an educated passerby can certainly infer that GMG pilots get very lost on their routes...or the company has a sketchy marketing department (pic: read above paragraph)

53rd-7th in Kolkata 9/9

There was a long list of sites I had wanted to see in Kolkata before I even cracked open a tour book. This is because many of my friends had already spent time here, and I had learned a lot about the city from them.

First up, I had heard about a famous Chinese streetside breakfast served up at a morning market in Kolkata, first come first serve until its gone, every morning. I asked a taxi driver if he knew about it, and we both decided to head to Chinatown to find it, but it wasn’t there. Chinatown was just five Chinese restaurants in a row, all closed up as it was morning. His next guess was the Chinese Market, and as we arrived I spotted a few “stands” of Chinese dumplings and soups. I got some dumplings, ate them on the street, and they were good. But I had had a stomach ache since waking up, so soon I was feeling nausea. That was a bummer to the day a bit. (pic: Chinese breakfasts being served at the Chinese Market where I ate this morning)

I headed over to the next place I had wanted to check out. The Indian Coffee House, which was famous to me because of a popular song that we had listened to for homework in my Bengali classes. Megan had taken photos of it when she visited last year, so I knew that it was an unimposing place, with a tiny sign, hidden on a streetscape. Took me about fifteen minutes to find it, and was very impressed when I walked inside. Despite the misleading exterior sign, the inside looks as big as a movie theater with high ceilings and the floor dotted with tables. I ordered a cold coffee drink and enjoyed it while I watched the place slowly fill up, I had arrived just 10 minutes after opening. Soon it was filled with young students talking. It earned its fame, and the song, as it was the meeting place for the greats of Kolkata’s cultural elite, intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries. It was neat be within its walls. I hummed the song to myself. (pics: Indian Coffee House's tame exterior, Indian Coffee House's glamorous interior)

Next, I headed over to Rabindranath Tagore’s birthplace, a house just north of the center of the city. It’s more of a mansion, sprawling over a large area, and has been turned into a museum about the famous Bengali poet and writer, and his family who also had an incredible array of accomplishments in many fields. I wasn’t allowed to take my camera inside, but that’s okay, as the place is gorgeous from the outside and not really photogenic inside. The exhibits weren’t laid out in any way that made sense to me, and I roamed about, slightly confused. I had been looking forward to seeing this a lot, however, and I did feel I understood the famous Nobel Prize winner much better after the visit. (pics: exterior of Rabindranath Tagore's home with the inset showing a closeup of the statue of him in front, myself in front of the Tagore house)

One of the highlights of my day was getting to ride the Kolkata subway. I’d read about it, as its construction, in a place where the water table is very high, is a bit of a marvel. Plus it was dug out entirely by human labor! It only has one line north to south, but I saw signs for a new east-west line advertised around town! The subway’s fares were easily understood and purchased, and I boarded the fairly crowded subway. Upon getting off, I took some photographs of the subway pulling away, and some of the signage. Well I was caught. A security guard came over to me while I was standing waiting to take some pictures of the next train, and told me to come with him. He brashly escorted me out through the turnstile, and asked me to read to him what a sign said. I read aloud “No Photography.” He stood by my side and watched me to delete all the photos I had just taken, one by one. Then he told me to leave the station. I obliged. I was afraid I was going to get arrested.

I found this neat, first world looking, café for lunch, and was excited to see items such as avocado and turkey on the menu. I was excited to give in my order. Well about 5 minutes later a server came out to me and told me that avocado and turkey were not available. So, just like in Bangladesh, I was eating a chicken sandwich with the same old toppings.

I went back and took a nap. I was feeling a bit sick still, and exhausted from all my walking around. I headed over later by bus, which ended up being harder than I thought, to see the light show at the Victoria Memorial. I arrived finally, and tried to find where the show would be. The guards I asked however told me that tonight it won’t be playing because it rained today. Well I roamed the garden anyway, and found the musical fountains, and sat and watched two performances of that, which was free and really relaxing, despite my stomach problems. I walked home afterwards, through the posh part of Kolkata’s urban shopping areas. (pics: musical light fountains at the Victoria Memorial, Victoria Memorial at night)

I had a small, lighter dinner, as best as I could. I really felt nausea, and didn’t want to make it worse.

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