Our surprise side trip to Bangladesh

Trip Start Jan 13, 2009
Trip End Oct 12, 2010

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Where I stayed
Westin Hotel

Flag of Bangladesh  , Dhaka,
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Do you know the feeling when you are in a high-story hotel room with a big glass window? Standing close to the window and looking down almost gives you vertigo: a mere pane of glass separates your comfortable, climate-controlled room from a fall into the chaos of the outside world and a harsh meeting with the ground. In Dhaka, we had this feeling but amplified. There was the usual physical version, as just mentioned. But there was another, less tangible version too... We were staying on the 10th floor of the Westin Hotel, plush and modern five-star accommodations with anything you could want, right in the middle of one of the poorest countries in the world. The view down from our super clean, air-conditioned, hot-water, safe-food, internet-wired room looked over a crowded, chaotic mayhem of poverty, dirty air, ramshackle half-built (or half-decayed) buildings, clogged backstreets, and poor sanitation. The sense of detachment from the surroundings was palpable, uncomfortable; it made the scene below us seem unreal. Like watching a movie. It was just like the thought of actually falling to the ground-imaginable and potentially quite a real thing, but impossible to really wrap your mind around. And similarly, the thought that a mere pane of glass separated our immediate environment from that outside world lent a sense of emotional vertigo to match the physical one.

So yes, here we are in Bangladesh. Who knew? We certainly had no idea this trip would happen until a couple weeks beforehand. With short notice, the powers that be decided we should have a planning visit for some work we'll do there in the future, so we've piggybacked this visit onto our Indonesia trip. Just like the view from our hotel room, our entire experience in Bangladesh has been an exercise in bizarre contrasts:

First off, Bangladesh has over half the population of the U.S., but only has an area the size of Iowa. This combination makes it effectively the most densely populous country in the world. The poverty here is truly staggering.

Somehow, we've come to the heart of the third world to take a break from the third world. How is this possible? Well, we are doing work associated with the U.S. Embassy here, and they have us staying at the Westin Hotel in Bangladesh's largest city. After two months of living in Indonesia-often in fairly poor rural areas-and experiencing developing-world conditions, it is admittedly refreshing to have access to western food, TV news, bathrooms, and even an actually comfortable bed. In this insulated environment, you can almost forget where in the world you are as you enjoy your safe-to-eat salad, fresh fruit, pancake breakfasts, etc. etc. Very strange.

Of course, all one had to do was step out of the big glass doors and onto the teeming streets, to be reminded again of reality. Cars, buses, mini-taxis, pedestrians, loiterers, beggars, and bicycle rickshaws absolutely cram the roadways and sidewalks. There's a freakin' lot of people here. The head-rattling sounds of car horns fill the air. (They really lay on the horns here.) The buses are heavily scarred from many many traffic collisions (termed "mishaps" here). Bright colors fill the scene, from intricately decorated red and yellow rickshaws to the infinite colors of the beautiful salwar kameez (dress-like tunic) worn by local women. Beggars here are abundant, persistent, usually very young, and so sad to walk among. They knock on our car windows at stoplights, and, when we are walking, sometimes follow us for blocks. This is the hardest part of being here. And since we visited during the famous Himalayan monsoon, this whole scene was sometimes flooded several inches deep by pounding, driving rain. The people here take the drenching in stride, and because the monsoon is such an integral foundation of all life here, they are actually quite happy that the rains have come.

So why are we here? The answer: another strange contradiction. We are here to attend meetings, indeed lead them; however we usually have no idea what the meeting's objectives are. That's because this is other peoples' project, for which we are just lending technical expertise. Makes it a little tough! The discussions are always in a mix of Bengali and English, or sometimes what Dan calls 'Benglish', a mixture of Bengali and thickly accented English (which thankfully they speak English, but it does often require translating in your head to actually understand), with frequent switches between the two happening almost imperceptibly. For one of these meetings, we were told with 1.5 hours notice that we needed to give an important presentation to some 20 high-powered representatives from the United Nations, the World Bank, and the FAO. Fortunately, Dan had a talk prepared for such a contingency, and with a little on-the-fly modification (and some sharp question-fielding by both Melanie and Dan), it went off very well.

Anyway, that's a snapshot of our snapshot in Bangladesh. The people we've come into contact with have all been extraordinarily warm and welcoming to us. The work we'll be doing here, it is hoped, can make a real difference for sustainable forest management and economic livelihoods here. So we're excited at the prospect, if a little overwhelmed. Feels like a lot of weight on our shoulders.

Now we're back in Indonesia, getting ready to finish our data collection on the island of Sulawesi, one of the top coral reef destinations in the world. Should be fun!
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