Thursday, August 07, 2003

Downloads From Dhaka

Day 1.

The flight from London to Dhaka compresses the night into a few hours of restless neck-straining sleep before the light begins to dawn a thin, shockingly bright orange strip between cloud layers. As we push down towards Zia International Airport the skies clear unexpectedly, revealing a delta not unlike the Mississippi. Only moments before we land does silt become land, only now beginning to glow with a few early risers. It is 5:30 in the morning, 7:30 the night before a half a world away back home, and Henry and I have slept perhaps three fitful hours each in the past forty.

There is but one small truck hauling suitcases back and forth from plane to baggage belt. After the first few loads bring in hard, black, mostly unclaimed suitcases (which later turn out to belong to the air hosts and hostesses), a man lifts the rubber strips hanging over the hole where the luggage emerges; he peers inside, yelling anxiously in a language I have never heard before.

It takes two hours to get out of the airport. As we leave behind the sparse, almost pre-perestroika rust and high-ceilinged halls, the heat hits us like an oven door opening. The small pick-up area is bordered by high gates, faces pressed against them six or seven deep, simply watching; inside the gates, a few privileged hotel runners pester us for dollars, of which I have none. At first impression, it’s a lot like Wonka’s factory: no one goes in the gates, and no one comes out. Except Wonka didn’t have the searing heat and dense humidity, nor the khaki-dressed men walking around with mismatched automatic rifles, that Dhaka’s airport brings us.

We find our driver, and eventually persuade him to drive us to the hotel now and come back later for Azra, our third workshop leader, who plans to arrive in another hour or three from Pakistan, her home. The ride through the streets is but a few miles, but the culture is evident and typically, shockingly third-world: lanes mean nothing, throngs teem by the roadsides and sprint among the traffic for no apparent reason. Women pass by with hundreds of pounds of roots on their heads. Shantytowns and shacks can be seen leading out on crosspaths to the pavement. A brightly decorated abandoned bus, it’s front caved in from a collision, blocks half the road.

The turn into the suburbs is a surprise, mostly because the first block in seems to be a single uncoordinated checkpoint; the driver does not stop and is not questioned by the automatic-toting men who sit casually along the street. Once in the neighborhood, the houses and apartment buildings seem empty but well-kept, shuttered behind high walls. Our hotel looms out of nowhere, and suddenly our bags are being carried inside, we’re checking in, a tray is offered with iced orange juice to sip while we hand over our passports.

The rooms – adjacent “superior singles” where our students will be staying in rooms half the size -- are large and western, air-conditioned, well-kept. The terrace outside overlooks an outdoor pool which seems too shallow for diving but long enough for laps. After locking our documents and cash in the room safes, Henry and I head downstairs for the room-inclusive breakfast buffet, an odd hybrid of the familiar (toast, scrambled eggs) and the clearly native (mutton curry, soy noodles,and chicken sausages). There is coffee, thank god, and the milk comes hot in a cream pitcher.

And now I write after unpacking and a shower while Henry sleeps and Azra surely moves towards us. We’ll meet at noon or so and begin replanning the nine day workshop now that we can see each other in person, and later this afternoon we’ll visit the school lab where we’ll be working– George, the principal, will send a driver when we call – which will surely prompt a whole new curricular redesign in the context of the space. I’m tired as all hell, but the laptop works and charges on the power supply here in the hotel; the staff seems friendly and eager to please; the hotel and all but phone calls and alcohol (if we could find any in this 90% muslim country; the mini-bar has only soda, and a non-alcoholic beer). Things look promising from here. And so the adventure begins.

posted by boyhowdy | 8:00 AM |

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