Friday, August 08, 2003

Dhaka Details: Day 2

After an excellent breakfast of French toast and hash browns in the hotel restaurant, the three of us – Henry, Azra, and myself -- went off for a morning constitutional, nominally to find a Cybercafe for our students’ use on the fast-moving main street a couple of blocks over from the hotel, mostly just to get out of the hotel and into the sweltering air.

The neighborhood immediately surrounding the Royal Park Residence is what passes for suburbs in Dhaka: apartment buildings on each corner and the equally gated-and-guarded balconied residences along each block provide a stark contrast to the poverty on the streets themselves. Brightly colored rickshaws and drab-skirted beggars abound; each block we traveled, a single rickshaw trailed us silently, hoping for a quick twenty-taka fare from Americans too foreign, surely, to know better how little to pay.

Just past the Swiss embassy this relatively quiet suburban neighborhood ends abruptly at Kamal Ataturk Avenue, a bright and teeming strip of life dividing one suburb from another just like it. Dodging baby taxis, we crossed the avenue at an entirely functionless crosswalk in our initially fruitless search. Finally, a security guard at a local shopping center eagerly left his post to show us to the other side of the block, where two cybercafe signs faced each other across the otherwise quiet packed-dirt street.

The first café we tried, a dark wooden door marked only by a tiny paper sign, was closed, probably because Friday is traditionally a day of no work in this predominantly Muslim country. But if this morning’s experience is any indication, what passes for cybercafes in Dhaka is as much unlike an American Internet café as Henry, a bald 6-foot-tall white American with a North Carolinan accent, is unlike the average local Bangladeshi. The small room at the end of a residential apartment corridor was dark and partitioned into six or eight tiny cubicles, each surely containing a computer; we didn’t see the cubicles, but once the two men who seemed to run the place managed to find an interpreter nearby, learned that the connection speed there was 32 kb/sec, that they were open from ten to ten every day, and that internet use costs one tenth there what it does here at the hotel – about 80 cents an hour, as compared to the eight dollars-an-hour I’m working off here and now.

Henry banged his head on the low iron hole-in-the-gate on the way out of the courtyard, although he ducked in time. In his defense, the bar marking the top of such gates are only about five feet off the ground. In my own defense, I didn’t laugh as hard as I could have.

Back at the hotel, after Henry and I changed out of our drenched-through shirts we spent most of the afternoon in a small glass-walled conference room just outside Azra’s hotel room, revamping the curriculum in anticipation of the hartal the opposition party has called for next Saturday. I won’t bore you with the details; if folks are interested in the curriculum once we’re finished, I’ll post a link to it -- but working collaboratively is surprisingly enjoyable work, and Azra and I think much alike about teaching with technology.

After a nice walk in the slightly-cooler night air with Azra while Henry went off to find the hotel’s rooftop fitness room, she and I supped at the Sri Lankan buffet in the hotel restaurant, supposedly a specialty of the house. I’d say we enjoyed it, but it was a bit spicy for my tastes. The soup was good, though – a nice basic cream of tomato with a hint of garlic – and the desserts were excellent, sweet and nutty: I’d mention their names for future reference but have no idea what any of them were called or made out of. Henry joined us near the end of the meal for an interesting conversation about the history, function, and potential value and drawbacks of diversity/ethics curricula in America, a concept entirely foreign to Azra and, apparently, the entire non-western world. It’s funny what you find yourself chatting about when talking with teachers.

On my way upstairs just now we found Malik, an official at the Aga Khan office in Town only too eager to introduce us to four teachers recently arrived from Tajikistan, the first of our small band of international learners to arrive at the hotel. After the usual round of friendly handshakes and hellos the ensuing conversation, which I repeat in it’s entirety as best as I can remember, says all it needs to about the world I am only now coming to understand:

Me: Welcome! How long did it take to get here?
Them: One week.
Me (unsure I’ve understood correctly, as I have a poor ear for accents): A week?
Them: Well, there’s only one flight out of Tajikistan each week. We’ve had to go to Islamabad, and then wait in Karachi…

And I thought I was tired.

More surprises to follow tomorrow, surely; we’re back at the school to go over some technical details in the morning, and will start the workshop itself on Sunday. For now, pictures, as requested by my mother-in-law, followed by a glossary:

Today’s Glossary:

Taka: Bangladeshi dollars. At today’s exchange rate, 56 taka equal one dollar. Twenty taka is about four times what it should cost to travel the city equivalent of four blocks.

Kamal Ataturk: According to Azra, a native Pakistani, Ataturk is renowned throughout the Muslim world for having brought Turkey, where he once ruled, into modernity.

Baby Taxi: A small dark-green three-wheeled motorized vehicle for carrying passengers assumed to be the dominant source of Dhaka’s smog. Seats two and a driver.

Hartal: A general dawn-to-dusk strike, often accompanied by violent riots throughout the country, called by the opposition party on the yearly anniversary of the death of their leader’s son almost thirty years ago. Travelers are advised to stay in their hotels for the duration.

posted by boyhowdy | 1:57 PM |

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