Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Brick Wall At The End Of The Tunnel

The extended vacation -- see previous blogentries for context if you're just joining in -- allowed me to miss much of the slow build that is the typical beginning of the prep school year. By the time I arrived here Saturday afternoon, just in time to meet a few new and nervous advisee's parents and scarf a few chewy oatmeal cookies in the dorm lounge with my dorm faculty peers, the first faculty meeting had long passed, my dorm's staff had planned out several orientation events in anticipation of the days ahead, and my department had met twice without me.

Students, too, our charges and vocation, had begun to arrive, buzzing and eager, in the days before my own arrival. Student Leaders, Peer Educators, and International Student Ambassadors were the first to come, that they might be trained in their respective peer-duties; then, with their guidance, new students, including an entire new class of freshman, began to settle into their dorms and social groups. By Saturday, too, early sports camp students had already spent days out on the field recovering their old skills and, for many of them, testing new summer-matured bodies. By the time I arrived, the vast majority of students were already here.

Missing the slow build means that, subjectively speaking, this year's fall semester here at Northfield Mount Hermon School has begun with the shock of jumping into frigid water. Though classes don't start until Wednesday, today returning students, the last to arrive every year, registered and began to settle in. Now the gang's all here; now the fun really begins. Suddenly the place is raucous, the plans others have made for me vague and hard to find, and I am needed everywhere.

Where less than 48 hours ago I was in summer mode full-tilt, listing the things I did for work since I awoke this morning to an early alarm would take an entire page and bore the heck out of my entire readership; I didn't get home until a few moment until eleven, after a long, dull discussion in the dorm about rules and expectations for the year.

The whole darn juggling act should settle down soon, I suppose, but, man, right now I really need a vacation.

To top it all off, the baby got badly cat-scratched at a friend's apartment today, and screamed for hours tonight when we tried retraining her to sleep in the crib after two weeks in bed with us aboard ship.

On the bright side...it's raining outside, and the road below is cool and shiny in the quiet light of the single streetlamp. It's so nice to be out of the dorm, far away from the students, to come home from work and leave work so far behind; I think I could get used to this.

posted by boyhowdy | 1:29 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, August 31, 2003

Home

Storybook fingernail moon, larger than life over an orange horizon at dusk. Blackened hills; the electric hum of a thousand crickets and tinyfrogs; the smell of mown hay in otherwise-clean air. Murmurs in the darkness. Fluttering wings on porchlights.

Silent stairs. Darkened hallways, familiar slanted eaves-walls. Tinydog hiding in the crook at the back of her bent knees on the futon couch. Bare feet against rough carpet. Softlit corners.

The past receding, fading into that same horizon like the setting sun. The future shelved, hidden from the self. The present soft and gentle, yet heavy, a thick down comforter. It no longer matters how I got here -- this blog is no travelogue, and shouldn't be. What matters is that I'm here.


God – if you’re here, too, despite the skepticism of those (like me) who grasp desperately at logic all their lives – I know I don’t thank you enough, or think of you much when I am not in need; don’t keep your commandments; don’t praise your name:

I cursed you this morning when the car battery was dead after three weeks in my parent’s driveway;

I called for you too late when my daughter fell off the top of the luggage cart;

I cried for you in despair driving away from the dorm, looking ahead into the days before me, trying to figure out how to be in three places at once for the next nine months, and none of them in my own apartment, on the carpet with my daughter, at the table with my wife.

But here, in the peace of this home, my daughter and wife, my dog and cat, my silence, I remember you, perhaps not quite too late: Thanks, God, for this fleeting moment, and for those other moments; thank you for those moments you will bring. It is more than I deserve; It will have to be enough; It is enough: Thank you, O God, for these blessings before me; it is the home, the peace, I have always wanted…but did not know how to build on my own.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:11 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, August 30, 2003

If I'm Not Back In Five More Minutes...

Darcie will be increasingly annoyed. Sorry to skimp on the blogging, but the work-related email's piling up, and we have to pack tonight for a 9 a.m. flight tomorrow morning to Dallas, because the original plan -- Vancouver to Boston via Chicago -- was cancelled due to too light seat sales. Flying through Dalls will take forever, but hey, we already knew that most american airlines suck, right?

So, in the next few days, expect more stress, more substance, and more about:

Dinner last night at Vij's, the best indian restairant in the entire non-asian world according to the New York Times,

The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia this morning, especially the fine open research collection, which was dense and rich with native peoples' artifacts from all over the world,

Bussing it to Granville (?) Island with Darcie and Willow afterwards, meeting up with Jesse in the market, and having some excellent Pale Ale at the local brewery on-island,

Dinner at a nice Italian place, mostly good for prawns and Veal Scalloppini, and

Frantic packing surely to follow. Until then, stay cool -- the weather's fine but the work's about to begin.

posted by boyhowdy | 12:25 AM | 0 comments

Thursday, August 28, 2003

The End Is Near: Last Days in Alaska

Mars is closer to the Earth tonight than it will ever be in my lifetime. Yellow and bright, a tiny moon, it looms over the horizon like a lighthouse. The waves below are choppy as we return to the open seas for a quick getaway over the Canadian border; the ship sways drunkenly beneath our feet and seats. If Darcie’s case is prototypical, the seasick-prone have all gone back to their cabins, where they lie in bed moaning and cursing the water below.

Although queasy myself, it seems important to jot down the day’s events before they fall through the sieve of my mind, for you, for me, and for posterity. The desire to preserve and share without my hard four-fingered typing rattling away at my wife’s now-tender ears has brought me to the ship’s library, a quick trip downship through the bustling and bright-lit casino. In the background, a string trio plays a merrily uptempo waltz in the nearby bar; behind me older postprandial rumblers flip the pages of out-of-date newspapers in their easy chairs. Regathering the day in the mind isn’t easy when the stomach rebels at the deck’s every lurch and heave, but here goes the old collegiate try.

We disembarked this morning into a cloudless warm Ketchikan, splitting up after a quick group answering-machine message to Aunt Lil, 80 years young today. Having learned a thing or two in our previous excursions, Darcie and I had decided to play things by ear today rather than sign up long in advance for the cruise-run excursions. Thus, while Dad and Jesse went off on a bus tour of the greater city, and Mom and Sarah hopped a boat for a two-mile sea kayaking adventure, Darcie, Willow and I set off to find the town behind the town.

And quite successfully, too, I think. Town was, as promised, more diverse and substantive than our two previous stops: where Juneau boasts little more than the state government, and tiny Skagway little more than post-gold-rush ghost-town history, until very recently Ketchikan boasted a pulp mill and a major fishing industry, and even though the mill closed a few years ago, dropping the local population from 24 thousand to just over 14K, tourism and a continued fishing boom in the midst of otherwise-global fished-outedness seem to be sustaining a much richer local economy and culture. Sure, there were the by-now-expected cruise-ship owned diamond stores and “craft” shops, but around the edges this place is still a real place, run year-round; around the edges and in the cracks Darcie and I managed to find a funky bookstore, several fun artist’s shops and galleries, and plenty of locally blended coffees and beers.

After several minutes snapping shots of rivers thick with salmon spawning and dying under the town boardwalks, and a Chinese lunch at the end of a long wooden pier called Creek Street – complete with cinnamon-tinged egg rolls, which I’m assuming was either a regional stylistic choice or a total and quite odd-tasting local anomaly – we joined Jesse and Dad fresh off their bus tour for the lumberjack show. It’s hard to imagine how best to describe the ten well-narrated events pitting world-class athletes against each other in contests of will, speed, strength, and balance which followed; it will have to be enough to say that if you’ve never seen a lumberjack competition, it’s exactly what you think – so be prepared for flying woodchips, souped-up chainsaw roars, and huge men wielding fifty pound axes. I know I’ve seen this stuff late at night on ESPN, so maybe some day you’ll get a sense of what this looks like if you’re a lumberjack show virgin.

Back on the boat just before sailing hour after a solo wander through town, one wherein I finally found an Alaskan Amber Ale tee shirt with the logo on the front (backside logos being totally useless when your hair is long enough to cover the design), revisited the funky bookstore for a native-design stuffed shark, shopped unsuccessfully for a nice gift for Darcie, hit the internet café to post yesterday’s blog, and, at the last, joyfully overtipped for a latte in a nice comfy coffee café because Alison Krauss’ Oh Atlanta was playing over the speakers. A swim and a hot tub with Jesse and Willow and Darcie in the setting sun, a beer on the deck with same, and back to the cabin to dress in tie and jacket for dinner – rack of lamb and tiramisu, both excellent – brings us right back where we started, with Darcie getting vertigo during dinner and having to have her dinner brought down to her while Willow slept in the ship-owned crib at the foot of the bed, and me retiring to the library, now nauseous from screenwriting in the heaving waves. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s Sea Day won’t be as nauseating, even with the time change back again cutting an hour from all our sleep as we pass silently over the Canadian border under Mars’ watchful eye.

***

Final day at sea. Up late last night – cigars and gin on the observation deck with Sarah – and a slight hangover this morning. Breakfast line, the longest I’d seen, left us scant moments for a small-scale family meal before a slightly ill Darcie went off for her final massage, leaving me with Jesse and a wandering Willow longing for Mama, comfort, home. The fog was thick until just a few moments ago; the abrupt foghorn scared the crap out of the baby, sent her running to my arms, calling “mamai, mamai,” and I felt helpless before her, and hid my tears.

Passing into Canada moves us back a time zone; this is now the seventh time zone change I’ve experienced in just three weeks, with two more due over the next 48 hours and then work early the next morning. I no longer know what time it is back home. My watches and clocks do not coincide. I’m expecting a difficult adjustment.

Not much else to say about a Sea Day. Islands creep ever closer and the waters are dark with driftwood and scum. Tiny birds dodge shipwaves as we pass, ducking underwater like aquarium penguins at the last minute, flying under the waves. The ship is filled with last-minute on-board shoppers, scarfing up their duty-free liquor and diamonds; the casinos are filled with squinting old men and women, money left to burn, cashing in that last hundred, hoping for a jackpot, or at least a good story for the folks back home. The lecture about how and when to tip, missed due to those long lines at breakfast, plays over and over on the on-board television. The naturalist says dolphins and whales among the islands until six, and in the distant waters darker spots bob in the waves, but my eyes don’t follow them; I’m all whaled out.

Behind me in the cabin Darcie and Willow draw pictures for the waitstaff, a token to hold them over until they can see their own children again, or for the first time, late in November. On the laptop as I type Patty Griffin sings “On Top Of The World” and I feel overwhelmed by the universe; I play my favorite sad songs – Phish’s If I Could, Deb Talan, Alison Krauss – and wish for those I could not bring. We’ll pack tonight, leave our bags outside the door before sleep, disembark by nine tomorrow morning: Vancouver, Dallas, Boston, Home. But it isn’t coming soon enough; I’m more than ready to stop moving; it’s long past time to come home in the evening, sit in my chair, sing in the morning to the mountains I know, take my family home.

***

Midnight; outside the stars are bright and the little dipper looms over us like a blessing, but the glow on the horizon says Vancouver all over it – all 65 Starbucks of it. As predicted, a slow and somewhat relaxing day. Orcas close by off the port and starboard sides today, their whiteness flashing into black at the top of their assumed underwater loops. Packing much of the morning, at least after Willow cranked her way through breakfast and fell head-first into the deck. Much filling out of forms, from disembarkation manifests to shipboard quality surveys.

Lunch late at the pool grill; dinner in “dress casual” with the family; a crowd watched Willow dance one last time to the now-traditional post-supper trio of strings – piano, bass, and violin – curiously listed as the “Anton Quartet” in the ship’s daily literature. Close-out sales in on-ship stores in which no prices were changed and which, thus, weren’t really sales at all. Tipping, which, thankfully, Dad handled for all of us. Beer on deck with Jesse; blog, (presumably) bed: we have to be out of our cabins at 8:30, for they need to clean the ship; the next shift of tourists arrives later that day for a trip down the West Coast, around Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and up into the Caribbean.

In the midst of all this excitement, about six thirty, a random meeting of the entire “original” nuclear family unit of my childhood – all siblings and both parents accounted for – wherein Dad revealed that he’s been checking in on the in-hospital progress of Uncle David daily from aboardship via rented satellite-phone, and the prognosis isn’t good. I hardly know David; we met once when I was young, a day trip to New York City; somewhere in my parent’s photograph collection there’s a shot of us all, Mom, Dad, Sarah and Jesse and Me, standing with this wizened, already-frail, well-dressed man at some famous New York two-floor deli. But I know of him: David is my father’s favorite uncle, a man who essentially raised my father, and who has no one else by choice – a retired army psychiatrist, solitary by nature, he lived alone after years living with his own mother, a master of the self-dependent life. Or, rather, self-dependent until recently, like when my father found him last week in his long-time apartment, dehydrated and incoherent at 92, having not left his bed in four days even to answer my father’s weekly call.

Now David’s in an ICU in a New York hospital, a quarter of a world away, and Dad had to call today to refuse surgery on his behalf just-in-time (hoorah for the wacky world of modern medicine, where even if surgery is contra-indicted and would probably kill an elderly and frail patient, a surgeon must operate unless he can get express and legitimate permission to refrain from doing so). David really never wanted to see anyone but my father, so I don’t think the sorrow I feel is that of the impending loss of David-the-person. But Dad’s clearly saddened at the prospect of losing a surrogate and partially-absent father, although he doesn’t let it show much – I’ve never seen Dad mourn, really; we’re all such private and reserved people at heart in the family, and a part of me is mourning for him, in a skewed empathic instinct.

But another part of me feels…well, it’s not pride that I experience when I watch my father prepare himself and support David simultaneously, in the ways that work best for and values both of their needs and limits, peculiar though they may be; not pride, exactly, but something close to it, an admiration and a resolve tied up together. May God grant me the strength and centered-ness to make the same hard decisions with the same confidence and knowledge, in the same calm and committed way, when and if I’m ever in his place – for I know I will want to; for I know here, too, is love.

***

Vancouver, B.C. Finally on land after an early wake-up and a very confusing off-loading process. Tried to check into the Westin Grand Hotel, which is – no foolin’ – shaped like a baby grand piano – but it was far too early for the room to be ready, so off we went, the entire family, past the circular public library to Gastown for a quick tour and some local artist small-size art for the walls at home, as it’s hard to figure out how to tote totem poles home when the car’s already going to be overfull with luggage from two consecutive trips, Dhaka and Alaska/Vancouver.

Gastown was nice the second time around but we’re all a but tourist-ed out; within an hour we were into the bad part of town, through it, and just as suddenly in Chinatown for a surprisingly nice Dim Sum lunch, and why is Chinatown always near the “bad” part of town? Willow woke up in Darcie’s arms as we finished the last of the wor mein and shrimp dumplings, and deep fried duck feet didn’t seem like useful baby food, so I bought pork buns to share on the way home and back we went to our big old piano-room. There’s a dishwasher and toaster in a cabinet here, and the windows look out on a big old crane lugging steel cable across the street; very nice digs inside, though, and comfy beds.

After hitting a sneaky-charge snag with the hotel ethernet connection – the directory says $1.25 connection fee plus ten cents per minute after the first 60 minutes, but then you need to agree to a $12.95 login fee to use the network for the day – I left Darcie and Willow there for a walkabout. No stores gone inside but lots of window shopping; it’s such a nice day the people-watching was especially fine, the sun warm and inviting on my face. Am now in an internet café, and from now on hope to be blogging one day at a time like a blog should be blogged.

posted by boyhowdy | 5:58 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

More Blogfodder From Alaska

Days 4b-6, I think. We'll start with Skagway day.

Skagway is the first incorporated town in Alaska, over 100 years old, a remote and still-tiny place where once thousands swarmed to a gold rush that made many more dead than rich. Now for five months a year the town’s 870 permanent residents and a transient summer worker crowd of over two-thousand host thousands a day off the cruise ship; lines. Today there were three ships in town, a light day for the locals, but it’s the end of the season and a Sunday; the stores – mostly the same as in Juneau, plus a few museums and shops reflecting the gold-rush heritage.

Darcie, Willow and I got a late start, and had to make a 12:30 scenic train ride to the Canadian border high in the mountains along the old goldrush routes, and it was raining, and it was cold. But we managed the morning okay, I think, buying little, seeing much. Wary of cruise-ship ubiquity, we’ve begun to shop only in those stores which have “locally owned business” in the window; today, this meant a funky espresso bar filled with long-haired locals and small runny-nosed children and the biggest oatmeal cookies ever, and a quilting store for Darcie, but otherwise treating the shinier stores as museums, not purchase-places. Much more satisfying, and it was getting too weird to keep bumping into the rest of the extended family in town, anyway.

The scenic railway was scenic and a bit longwinded, with a well-meaning tourguide (local) on the loudspeaker who seemed to know her stuff but with little rhythm for the job. The train was packed with the same faces we’ve been seeing on our boat all week, reinforcing the false but ever-strong impression that Alaska is really just one big Disneyland ride for this finite group of folks. Lots of pictures of bridges and gold-rush scenes and glacier-runs will surely follow when I’m home and the network access is cheaper.

After our return down the mountain, sick of tourist glitter, we spent as much time trying to find the real Skagway as we did the Juneau-clone shops. The small roads off the main strip were quiet and mostly residential; we bought Darcie, who had forgotten to pack a swimsuit, an almost-bathing-set of shorts and a sports bra at the local Patagonia store, and spotted the real Skagway: pizza places, Laundromats, supermarket, diner. Watched salmon die slowly upstream in the small clear waters on the edge of this tiny town; watched a small boy catch one with his bare hands out of a roiling glacier-runoff river, too, just for show. Walked home in the rain, past the seals under the gangway, through the security system at the ship’s entrance, and back to the lap of luxury, where AG and Al told us of their unseen children back home while making toys of napkins and paper scraps for the baby, their new surrogate.

***

Morning; Day 5. Glacier Bay. The water is a deep turquoise and still, its surface the texture of slightly grained glass. To either side of us islands float below landslide-scarred mountains topped with ice and snow. Two pointy-nose creatures – probably sea lions, possibly dolphins – when I went out for my first morning look; a whale off the starboard window at breakfast with Willow while Darcie read and relaxed in the cabin bed. And over everything: glaciers.

The glaciers come over the valleys between mountains like frozen waves the same green-blue color as the water they’ve created. Before them like landslides a grey grit forms, the residue of mountains pushed and scraped over eons towards the sea – imagine sliding into home at a glacial pace, so slow that no dust rises, and you’ve got the basic concept. On the scenic railway ride yesterday our inept guide mentioned that, like a finger pushed into a sponge, glaciers tamp down the land – thus, land where glaciers have melted away or passed rises up slowly like bread dough, or that same sponge taking back its shape: you can see the faint evidence of the process along the shore, where rocks have cracked apart in tulip shapes, spreading out as if from pressure far below.

We won’t disembark today; Glacier Bay is a protected area, a state park from water to mountaintop. Instead, there are special “events” on board – mostly sales of merchandise, where old ladies swarm upon overpriced stuffed moose and wolves like a K-Mart blue-light special, but also pea soup served on the Lido Deck at 10. Several rangers boarded earlier this morning and will narrate as we travel through the idyllic scene. Sports will not be held on the top-most deck as usual, for fear that balls of any type might fly overboard and disrupt the natural beauty, not to mention confuse the heck out of the food chain. Dinner is supposed to be a special sea-going formal event, with lobster and other oceanographic delights.

The Official Map and Guide passed under our cabin door overnight shows sight-possible flora and fauna: wolf, moose, bear, mountain goats, Horned Grebe, Guillemots, three types of whales. We might watch for them, Darcie and I, at the cabin window, or fighting the crowds on the observation decks with their blankets and their binoculars. But Mom has agreed to take the baby for a while later this morning so that Darcie and I can have some time together, just the two of us: odds are good my eyes will be elsewhere, and the blog that follows, perhaps, thinner than usual, for you can’t blog everything – sometimes, you have to just live your life, and enjoy it, keeping the best most private moments safe inside yourself.

***

Noon, I think: I now carry four timepieces, counting the laptop and palm pilot, and each reports a different time. Up Glacier Bay to an inlet where a glacier ends sharply at the water, a wall of striation topped by spiky points. The ice booms and cracks the air; pieces fall into the water, in slices and in frozen boulders both, roiling green water, sending up spray, making ice caves where before there were none. Many pictures taken as the ship turned around; from here, everywhere we go is part of the long way home.

The deck-side pea soup was spicy and hot; the air was, is cold. Willow returned just moments ago; we could hear her wailing for her Mama all the way down the hall; now she sleeps and Darcie stands at the rail outside, watching the glacial ice floes pass alongside us. It’s quiet, save for thousands of seagulls on the rocks above; they fly close past our balcony when we are inside but stay away when we watch for them, as nature tends to do.

A peaceful morning, then, the beginning of a homecoming too long coming. Turning around means thinking ahead, perhaps too far, but there you go, it can’t be helped. Still to come before we return to school as the students arrive: Ketchican tomorrow, a Sea Day to follow, then a day and a half in Vancouver again; finally, a day of flight – Vancouver to Boston via Dallas, oddly enough – and an evening in Boston repacking, combining Bangladesh and Alaska and Vancouver into one set of luggage and one single car trunk (and boy, I really hope I remember how to drive a car); a long drive home on Sunday morning; home at last and two flights up a hundred times to get all the luggage into the house.

And then work, looming on the horizon like a glacier, and just as heavy. The school year begins Monday, just far enough away for the creep of nervousness and stress to have begun its itch in the back of my head last night as I lay in bed with my family, trying to sleep. If it weren’t for the frenetic pace, the lack of privacy, the Disney culture, the thousand time zones, I’d rather be on vacation forever, but what is a vacation but the act of vacating one’s place in the world; how can one vacate something that never exists? It is this time that makes the other valuable, and vice versa; this life is good and strange and powerful, but it will be good, I think, to come home again.

***

Notes from aboard ship, too short for their own entry:

Other than the 8:00 dinner seating – far too late for any self-respecting thirteen-month-old – Willow is in her element. She wanders the ship with each of us in turn, calling out her favorite word (Hi!) to everyone she sees, pouting if they don’t respond or turn their heads. But most do. The average traveler here’s a senior citizen, her grandchildren already past this precocious age; surely most realize that they’ll not likely live to see another generation back home, and even those whose grandchildren are still in their own infancy haven’t seen them for ages. Hundreds of people know Willow’s name, and ask about her if one of us appears without her. No one knows my name, and that’s just fine.

People who live in harbors or otherwise inland don’t realize that the ocean isn’t the same from horizon to horizon. As we travel past glacier-fed fjords and inlets we pass over clear lines in the water, each marking a change in color, texture and chemistry. At first I thought these were the remnants of ships long passed; now I know better. The spectrum here would fit on a single Aquamarine crayon, but once you’re in it, the palette is vast and broad. The unseasonable sunshine in this temperate rainforest zone makes it easier to see, too.

I’ve had nosebleeds every day since leaving Bangladesh, most recently in the hot tub last night with the baby. Mom thinks they’re allergy-related, but if they are, why not in Dhaka, where the air was dirtier than I’m used to, and filled with unfamiliar microscopic things? I suspect the dry air has something to do with it; also, surely, the drastic changes in temperature I’m experiencing on a daily basis. Whatever the reason, if this goes on I may have to get my nostrils cauterized upon my return. In other health news – salmon tastes great but seems to give me the perma-runs, and I think I’m getting a cold. I know, thanks for sharing.

Best store so far, although I haven’t even been in it, as it was closed when we got back from dinner in Juneau: Wm Spear Design, home of The World’s Most Wonderful Enamels. As the website hopefully shows, local Alaskan artists Bill, Susan and Deanne makes and sells pins and zipper-pulls of the most glorious detail and type; check out, especially, the one called The Night My God-Dammed Drink Caught Fire, and the medical science selection, which includes full-color realistic-slash-anatomical-textbook-like lungs, hearts, livers, synapses, and spinal columns. I’m thinking one of the cross-sections, either an epidermal pin or a tooth; feel free to buy me one if you feel especially generous today.

Speaking of which and before I forget, you can learn much about the way the local economies work here along the cruiseline routes by asking shopkeepers what time their stores close – generally, instead of having regular hours, they’ll tell you closing time depends on how many ships are in port on a given day, how large they are, and how good business is in the mid afternoon. The reason Wm Spear Designs was closed the other night was that there were only three ships in port, a low number – it’s late in the season here, only a few weeks away from the end of it all. At the proprietor’s suggestion, I tried to keep the internet café open late enough to revisit the other day in Skagway by asking crewmembers to go there in the later afternoon, but they were all out playing soccer on the gangway instead, so there was not time to re-blog from town before leaving.

The oceanic wildlife here is incredible and, if you look for a while, vastly populous. In rapid succession just now on the balcony I saw: a larger-than-I-thought-they’d-be sea otter, happily paddling along on its back; a whole sequence of twice-leaping straight-in-the-air blacksilvery fish, large enough to be salmon or perhaps a halibut; a long, deep shadow under the waves, most probably a whale of some sort. All came within thirty feet of the cabin as we sped along out of Glacier Bay towards tomorrow’s Ketchican stop; the waves are growing choppy as we push on out of the bay into the open water along the Alaskan coastline.

***

Day 6; Morning in Ketchikan, which I’ve been spelling wrong all along. The water’s gone back to a typical deep sea black-and-blue; the only things I saw on my morning deck-sit were the more remote local houses along the water, small fishing boats, a few gulls in the distance, and a splash in the water which could have been something interesting but was equally likely a wave. It’s very dark in here, as Darcie pilled all the curtains before sleep, but bright outside – today marks the first morning of a sail home, so the sun will be in our faces for the next two mornings as well. The sky is blue and clear, not a cloud visible.

An hour later we’re nestling into port slowly, a be-tie-d man on radio assisting from shore (“okay, just a meter or two…if we can hold it here we should be drifting in in just a moment”); I write from the cabin balcony as Darcie and Willow dress behind me. Port smells like fish and fishing boats and looks bright and welcoming; some stores are familiar, but they’re not all along one big strip as they were in Juneau and Skagway, and the homes here run up along the hills in back in a manner most welcoming after a full day at sea. There’s also a much larger fishing industry happening here, as evidenced by the several long docks of sun-white boats across the gangway below us. And by the fish, of course: now dressed, Darcie spots and shows to Willow a school of big old fish swarming below; salmon, I think, so perhaps there’s also a fish ladder around here somewhere.

We meet the rest of the extended family in a half hour outside the cabins to wander together into what looks like a fairly dense and interesting town, then a day of wandering with Darcie and Willow, and possibly joining Dad and Jesse for The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, which we can see from the cabin balcony, after lunch. The sign across the way here says Internet, so it seems a good chance that this will be the last blogentry ‘till Vancouver; think of me as we pass back into Canada, and I’ll try to blog again on Thursday.

posted by boyhowdy | 7:40 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Blogfodder: Days 1 through part of 4 on the ms Maasdam

a.k.a. Blogging By Boat

Day 1. First impressions, recorded after-the-fact:

Customs flanked by what will soon be ubiquitous kiosks: watches, binoculars, coffee, tees with cartoon moose. Pick up on-board credit cards (charged to your own credit card all-at-one-go, or in this case, to Dad’s credit card); all is part of the flat (but steep) cruise cost on board save drinks and spa services, which we will use, shops, which we will try not to use but will quite likely end up visiting once or twice, and casinos and art auctions, which we will avoid, as I have a gambling addiction detected early in life when I lost $180 in one go at a street fair and vowed never to gamble again.

The ship from up close is no longer, as Robert Cormier once proudly described a luxury home on the good side of the tracks, a great big birthday cake of a boat, but a mountain, a wall, a backdrop. In we go, and the mountain becomes a movable neighborhood, apartment tract and shopping mall all in one.

The two 2400 HP motors, one astern, two aft, are already buzzing the floorboards; by the time we leave Vancouver port the entire ship will become a single vibrating chair, no quarters required.

The cabin is much like the hotel room we just left, albeit much, much smaller, and closer to the water. If you’ve got a window here, you’ve got an oceanfront view. On the cabin desk, stationary with our own names printed on it, Mr. And Mrs. J. Farber, and an outline of our Holland-registered ship, the m.s. Maasdam. Must find out what m.s. stands for, and why it’s always lower case.

Casual dinner too late for Willow – we’re stuck with the 8:00 seating, table 61, all week. Steak like pot roast, but all-Filipino, all-male waitstaff friendly.

Crash at 10:00.

***

Day two, I suppose. Crossing from Canadian to American waters. One whale early this morning, a tail and a single spout off the water from the almost deserted deck. Too much food and luxury; I can feel my beltline tightening despite my best intentions. A cruise ship is no place to diet.

Afternoon passes into early evening. There are 1400 people on this ship, yet I can sit in the hot tub on the Lido deck under the half-closed dome and have the place to myself for an hour. My beard is trim from an afternoon stylist visit; my stomach has adjusted to the pitch and yaw of this afternoon’s rainstorm. Somewhere in the decks below my wife and daughter sleep, my brother draws, my sister wanders; somewhere below my parents may or may not be together, talking, reading, laughing. Somewhere all our fellow travelers do what they are doing, whatever it might be.

There are 1400 people here, on twelve decks, five of which are primarily residential. The richest among us live in the suites one deck up, some of which may be as large as our largest room back home; the vast majority primarily reside farther below, in balcony-less, even windowless cabins little more than a bed, a nightstand, and a bathroom. Between them is Verandah deck, our own, where each room has a small living room complete with couch, table, desk and television between the bedroom and the private balcony. Thanks to the generosity of my father, for this week-long journey, Darcie, Willow and I in live one room, Sarah and Jesse sharing a room beside us, and then my parents’ room.

Although there is surely a deck or two unnamed by our passenger maps for the crew to sleep and live upon, from our tourist-given perspective the “other” decks contain our fun and function here: two floors of shops, a library, an Internet café, and a two-story nightclub-slash-presentation hall. There’s even a large movie theatre, where last night the rest of the family saw Finding Nemo while Darcie, Willow and I went to bed too early.

There are 1400 people on this ship, and through a few will eventually visit sauna and/or fitness center, their weight will increase by an average of three pounds each over the course of the journey. Buffets run all day in the Lido lounge, first breakfast, then pasta, salad, deli, ice cream, supper, and late night snack. Near the pools taco bars and burger grills serve out midday meals to the not yet full. In the main restaurant, breakfast and lunch are semi-casual affairs, where waiters seat you at community tables for a menu-ed meal, but dinner is served at assigned tables in two shifts, 5:45 and 8:00, each evening; two dinners, tonight’s and one other, are formal, meaning tuxedos or full suits for men, ball or evening gowns for women, and the rest are informal, meaning slacks and button-downs – jeans are not allowed.

There are 1400 people on this ship, not counting crew – another 600 or so, waiters and stewards and busboys, roomcleaners and deck-swabbers, entertainers, hair stylists, masseuses. Surely captain and ship’s crew abound, although we see only glimpses of them in their sharp blue uniforms as they pass through like infrastructural fish in a sea of paid-for excess.

After a soak I sit with my Tanqueray and tonic and a Garrison Keillor book on the deserted deck and watch the water in the nearby pool flow front-to-back and back again with the movement of the ship, rising three, maybe four feet at a time before it ebbs away again to swamp the shallow end. Somewhere, 1400 people eat, dress, gamble, and otherwise live their week out, invisible on the rolling eternal sea.

***

The sea is growing rough, as it was this morning: the endless whitecapped sea stretches out infinite towards the horizon; I head downstairs. Darcie, whose head and stomach never really managed to adapt to the slight motion of the engines and the ever-forward movement, is lying down, feeling and looking green. The baby’s in her element, happy to meet-and-greet this near-infinite group of cruising mostly-retirees all afternoon, and after spending much of the afternoon happily meandering around the decks while Jesse and I chased her laughing, has finally gone down for a nap just in time for us to dress for dinner. In a few minutes, we’ll make our way two decks down and congregate at table 61, our assigned spot, where Al and AG, our otherwise-Filipino-named table servers, will try to convince the seven of us – Mom, Dad, my two siblings, Willow, Darcie and me -- that nothing is moving, and that we should eat well of this evening’s menu.

But we don’t. The seas get worse and worse, and Darcie in her lavender prom dress gets greener and greener; the baby remains asleep. In my tie and a dark blue suit that once belonged to my father I scoot out to find my brother, wearing an identical suit of similar origin, and we wonder together why Dad would buy two identical suits before I pass on the message that we’ll not make it to supper tonight, sorry. We have to rouse the ship’s nurse to get more Dramamine, and eat boiled chicken and toast with the baby until, after a short run through the halls looking for balloons with a well-fed Uncle Jesse, bed for the three of us at 11:00.

***

Day three, if you count the first evening boarding as a day on board. Morning; this afternoon we land in Juneau, and helicopter off to stand on frozen-ice glaciers for twenty minutes at a time. The water is turquoise and deep; on either side of us, the land begins to close in, rising high enough to top the clouds. Whales off portside before breakfast. A time shift for daylight savings – all day I’ll think it’s an hour ago.

Something’s wrong, and I think it’s me.

The women doing our hair in the salon yesterday are white South African. Their contract extends eight months with no vacation. One told Darcie: I miss my boyfriend, and we’ve got all that you see here at home – mountains, ocean, whales and glaciers. What we don’t have is work, because we’re whites. I realize it’s the first time I’ve been confronted with the way racism works in South Africa. Somewhere, intellectually, I knew that whites were a race-downtrodden class, but never had to think about this woman, whose best choice for work is to ride the waves half a world away from family and homeland with her hands in my beard.

The men – boys, really – who clean the rooms are mostly Filipino, like the waitstaff. Darcie reports a conversation with a roomcleaner yesterday who mentions a son at home, three months, he has not seen, and will not for a few months more. At breakfast before my massage appointment, while Darcie and Willow were off to the bathroom, a short conversation with the young Filipino waiter behind the waitstation adjacent to our table, who had been eyeing our blond and beautiful daughter. How old? he says. Thirteen months I say, do you have children? Four months, he says, a boy. I’ve never seen him.

And how long have you been on the ship? I ask.

Eleven months.

How long do you have left?

Thirty two days.

I assure him that he’s only missing the parts where a child is an object, and cannot love back, or play, and he smiles. I’m lying, of course, out of kindness, and I think we both know it. But the charade is all we have.

I’m reminded of how I felt in Dhaka, watching poverty from the back of rickshaws, through the glass windows of the backs of cars. Like George before me, I begin tipping heavily for services, too heavily, twenty dollars where two would do, even though stated ship’s policy is to frown upon tips.

But what I want to do is give everything I own to these people, and to the families and friends I know back in Dhaka. Three things that keep me from doing so: first, a sense of the ridiculous – what would other people say? Second, a sense of the futility of giving away one’s worldly possessions when one makes little and has no savings – what would I give? And third, a sense of the vastness of need in the universe – I could give away a penny to everyone I saw in need, but it wouldn’t make a dent in the weight of the world upon our collective shoulders, would it.

Something’s wrong, and I think I like it – the person I wish I could be is the person who frowns at these experiences, and struggles to stay distant from the luxury on board. But this is fast becoming the wrong place to be wrong like that. It’s hard to stay separate, and inappropriate to identify with the crew and staff if one is to truly take advantage of their services – and how can one avoid it, other than to stay in one’s room, the door barred against food and well-dressed cleaning boys? The ship is alternately luxurious and confining, a treat for the body but a split to the soul. I am becoming torn, and Darcie feels it too – we are becoming torn together.

***

Juneau out the cabin window as we pull into port around 1:30; we’ll stop here until 11, and move on through the silent waves to Skagway, and then Ketchican, a day stop at each, before another “sea day” on the way back South to Canada and Vancouver, BC.

The town looks bright and colorful from the deck, a slight line of small buildings and streets snug between the clean water and a green mountain looming steep and high into the clouds just a few streets in. It’s the narrowest city I’ve ever seen. Other cruise ships overwhelm the harbor, swallow the town, block the view. Juneau is only accessible by water or plane to the rest of the state – no roads have been build to connect the seaside cities along the Alaskan coast, as there’s no need, and the mountains are too high to be worth the bother. I’m reminded that, in less than a week, I’ve traveled from one of the most congested and dense countries in the world to one of the most sparsely populated areas outside of the poles and the deserts. Reminded, too, that much of Alaska is technically rainforest, or practically so – the “nice day” the captain promised is cloudy and cool.

Also struck by how cold it is in summer here. In a few hours we’ll be wearing gloves, hats, long underwear and winter coats, standing on an actual glacier, via helicopter, when a week ago it was 92 degrees Farenheit and too humid for my thick long hair and New England skin to acclimatize to. Of course, that was near the equator; here the days are 50% longer in summer, as well.

And Juneau seems a bit French for an American state. Jesse agrees; when we were kids we learned it as Juno, and when did everything become spelled in French? Jokes about Bosteau, Massachussemont follow in the typical family humor pattern of one-upmanship.

***

Dinner outside of town; who knew you needed to make a reservation immediately upon leaving ship? The originally-from-Arizona cab driver on the way to dinner informs us that many of the shops in Juneau – a typical tourist town, like Provincetown almost, but with even less local shopping – are actually owned by the cruise lines. This explains the on-board tv channel devoted to promoting some stores by telling horror stories about shopping gone awry (products broken, shipped glass never arriving) at the “wrong” stores.

***

Day four, or, as they call it on ship, “Skagway” – as opposed to Sea Day or Juneau or Ketchican. Morning – just about 9.

Waking up later and later each day; this morning at 8:30, even with the daylight savings time change just a night ago. Right outside a dock and a landing helicopter; when I opened the curtains and stepped onto the cabin balcony, a greyblack speckled harbor seal head was turning this way and that, like an owl’s, in the water directly below. Odd, when last night I fell asleep with the garish lights of Juneau’s touristy shirt shops and jewelry stores and artisan galleries.

Surprised, in some ways, to see no town in Skagway. Originally I figured it was because we were on the other side of the boat from the dock this time around, but then I read the daily “on board” greensheet slipped under our door last night: where Juneau town was right up against the boat docks, Skagway – a town of 600 residents and, when the ships are in, as much as six thousand tourists – is a quarter mile walk. Just docks down here up against the mountains. Not a bad change, actually.

Today the family separates – Jesse and Mom and Dad off on a wilderness adventure; Sarah rockclimbing the local hills and cliffs. Willow, Darcie and I have a short scenic railway journey planned at 12:45, and, now that they’re waking in the background behind me, will probably eat breakfast together and wander through town beforehand. A nice family day, just us. Maybe I’ll even have a chance to post this stuff before it grows stale.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:27 PM | 0 comments


Juneau Minipost

In a net cafe in Juneau, though I plan to buy a package for the laptop on-board ($55 for 100 minutes PLUS use of the wireless net card for the duration of the journey, still expensive but a far cry from the 4$ a minute I expected). Much to say but not to bother about now, mostly about the cruise itself, as I've been "blogging" by word processor during the journey and plan to post tomorrow morning when I finally get things set up there. We're docked for another hour or two, and I don't want to waste the time indoors, but since the cafe offers a great deal for me -- $5 buys a full hour to be used here OR in Skagway or Ketchican, the other two port-stops we make on the cruise, I thought it might be nice to save the big bucks for later and serve my adoring public by hitting a few of today's high points.

And high points there were. Spent this afternoon seeing glaciers by helicopter, a private hire for the entire family (Mom, Dad, sis, bro, wife and child). The helicopter ride was stellar, the view incredible and indescribable. Lots of video and pix will surely follow.

Better still, we landed on two of the glaciers; I can now report that glaciers are a deep blue, often gritty and dirty up close, and full of crevices that drop down forever and could swallow us all whole with nary a thought. Imagine some future alien culture half a million years from now digging us up? Weirdness.

Willow ate some ice off the glacier, lthough I couldn't bring myself to do the same. But the rocks in my pocket are still cold from the surrounding ice where I dug 'em out, and -- get this -- have never been touched by another human hand. Ever. Coolness, literally.

Fish for supper -- fresh Halibut Oscar, with local crab and store-bought artichokes -- at a restaurant a bit scummy-looking but ultimately full of locals with ties out for a fine night out, which is always the best sign of real food in a toursit town. Now the 'rents and the baby have gone back to the boat with Darcie, and the three siblings wander the streets alone. This town is just 60k people, a tenth the total population of this country the sixe of the entire Louisiana Purchase.

More later, already written, about whales, Filipinos, seasickness, cruise ships, etc. Until then, stay warm -- it's about 50 outside and getting colder, and the snow's been falling in the glacier fields above our heads already this summer, so think of me if it's hot where you are, and expect a full retro-blog -- about three days worth -- tomorrow. 'ta...

posted by boyhowdy | 12:47 AM | 0 comments

Thursday, August 21, 2003

All Aboard

Five minutes before I must leave this cafe-in-the-back-of-a-korean-sub-shop to catch a cruise ship to Alaska. In short, then:

Dinner last night with mom's cousins at a wonderful sushi restaurant -- Vancouver has the freshest and best salmon I've ever eaten raw.

Walking trip to Gastown neighborhood with Darcie and Willow this morning. Coffee, typical touristy moose-sign t-shirts, and lots of nice native American art shops which we'll revisit upon our return, as we've got another day-and-a-half when we disembark before heading back to Boston and, from there, home and work.

Boat impending. I'll be back in a week, but watch the comments below for new installments in Shaw's tinyblog during that time...including a Monday Mosh while I'm afloat, as I'm sure as heck not paying 4$ a minute for it. This is boyhowdy, your host, signing off from BC...

posted by boyhowdy | 4:11 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

In The Lapdog Of Luxury

Just a quick in-transit blog while Darcie and Willow nap upstairs in the Four Seasons Vancouver; it's about 6:20 here, a good 14 hours off Dhaka time, and we've got dinner at 7 with mom's cousin Kathy and her family, so I can't type for long.

The nuts and bolts:

Henry and I managed the flight from Dhaka-London and London-Boston with little problem. I was so exhausted after two hours sleep the night beofre that I slept the first four hours of the first flight. Spent most of the second flight comparing travel and culture-shock notes with a nice young lady in the next seat over who had just returned from a two-month retreat in Armenia.

Arrived at Logan a few minutes early but got stopped by too many customs agents trying to get through baggage claim -- perhaps it's the long hair, or the fact that both my bags landed on the carousel right on top of each other; grabbing them all-at-once and then taking off must have looked suspicious. Tearful reunion with family just outside the security gates was well worth the customs trouble, and Willow's leap into my arms was worth the whole flight.

Back to my parent's home for a two hour sleep shift and then up again at 4 a.m. for another airport, another flight. We met up with Jesse in Chigago and went on to Vancouver; everyone slept in the plane but me.

Checked into the Four Seasons by noon and went out for a trolley tour, about two hours round the city. I kept falling asleep against the window -- being up for 70 hours with only two 2-hour naps in there can do that to you -- but managed to stay awake through the all-imported chinese garden at the penultimate stop, and then through dinner at a verynice restaurant afterwards (oxtail tarts and duck with figs) before cabbing it back with Darcie and Willow to crash for about nine hours.

Talk about culture shock: Vancouver's nothing like Dhaka. Instead, it's an ocean-side valley city of narrow glass skyscrapers surrounded by the highest mountains I've ever seen; seaplanes fly overhead near the wharf, and we've seen only a dozen or so beggars, all hippies. There are over fifty Starbucks in a province of less than 3 million, a tenth the total population of this vast but sparsely populated country. The main shopping street looks like Rodeo Drive, and gets almost as many visitors every day.

I think I preferred Dhaka for what it offered, and miss home too much to appreciate this town for what it's got.

But we're managing, mostly by toursiting around town while we wait for the boat trip to begin. Went to the aquarium and petting zoo at Stanley Park this morning, and for another fine meal afterwards at the park pavilion, before the rest of the family -- siblings and parents -- headed off for city wandering while Darcie and Willow and I came back for the baby's naptime. The hotel lies over an underground mall, so I've been shopping and people-watching for an hour or so: bought a new caribiner watch, a wonderful and hard-to-find fave of mine (the batteries can't be bought, so you have to buy a new ten-dollar watch every four months, but hardly anyone carries them), and diapers for the baby but no sunglasses; right now I'm in an Internet cafe inside a drugstore, signing off.

We're here 'til tomorrow noon and then on the cruise ship up the lower Alaskan coast for a week -- rumor has it 'net access is 4$ a minute on ship, so probably not much blogging (if any) from there. Remember I love you all, especially some of you (and you know who you are), even if there's no time to email...and after a hoped-for blog tonight, I'll be back in a week.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:45 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Leaving Dhaka

This will have to be a short one – Henry and I leave for the airport in a few hours and I’ve just now managed to get the packing under control. I did want to jot some things down here from the last few days before the long journey back to the other side of the world, though. The concern is less that I will forget the people, or that I will unlearn what I have become over this incredibly intense ten days (and has it really been that short a time?) – rather, I worry that I will lose the trees for the forest. If the truth really is in the details then there is no truth to be had in blogging, or indeed in any but the most tedious minutia, but if this trip is to be even slightly understood, it is important, I think, that we catch what we can where we can, and hope against hope that it will somehow be enough.

Two days ago, then, was the dawn-to-dusk hartal, perhaps the most orderly of opposition tactics, a day when a riot is called and no one comes, though the streets are empty of cars and stores stay open behind almost-closed gates with their window lights dim. Breakfast late ran into a short planning session for our last workshop day, followed by time enough for walking in the late morning through the silent suburban streets sans camera to marvel at the stillness.

George showed at 1:00 as promised with Tahira, his Bangla-American ladyfriend, and a triad of rickshaws The rusty ride felt precarious at first, but seemed safe enough without the motorized competition which usually smashes around the roads here. Azra and I, paired snugly between a solo Henry and our fearless almost-local leaders, acclimatized quickly, learning to lean into the rickety floor as we sped across the crumbled streets; Henry, a bicyclist at heart, even tried a tourist trick, taking a marvelous go at driving the thing while the driver grinned and laughed in his fare’s usual seat.

We soon arrived at the American club, the first and last Bagladeshi sign of what by now is surely a universal American paranoia: where George’s Canadian Club had a simple gate and sign-in entry, Tahira’s membership got us through the metal detector into a tiny entry room, where bags were searched, licenses checked, and nametags given. From there the world opened into a space quite large and typically ostentatious, where outdoor barbers, bars and creamie corners flanked basketball courts and playspaces. Tahira showed us the fully Western multimedia room, quite possibly the only one in the entire country, before sitting us down poolside at the cabana for buffalo wings, onion rings, potato skins, and other bar food typical of, say, my local pub at home. Had an Anchor Steam and then a new-try extra-light brown microbrew from Colorado called Flat Tire, and thought it a nice taste of home.

Back at the hotel, emboldened by the absence of violence or even crowds, Azra and I went off to support the economy some more in a rickshaw of our own, this time halfway across the Gulshan area. As before, shopping finds will remain unblogged until gifts back home are given. Hint for the traveler, though: rickshaws may have foldable headcovers much like a convertible top, but if you want your pants legs to stay dry, it’s better to do what the locals seemed to already know and carry a plastic sheet for the legs when the monsoon downpours begin.

Back for showers and fancy dress – in my case, a short punjabi over from-home trousers, notable primarily because formal occasions tend to bring out the western clothes for the locals but the long cottons for the foreigner as a default – and off to Topkapi, a local Thai/Indian restaurant, where the Aga Khan teachers and schoolboard had prepared a nice old-fashioned going-away party complete with endless photography and mad-dash-for-free-food buffet. Afterwards, Suni brought me home with her for a crown-fitting in her parent’s home-slash-surgery, because the crown had already arrived and, as Sumi said, better to put it in now in case problems come up tomorrow than wait and find out that something went wrong with no time to fix it. It was a late one, mostly because the crown, as crowns seem wont to be, was just off enough to warrant a tiny bit of other-tooth drilling to compensate, but things feel wonderful now, so hoorah for Sumi and Asif, the best dentists in the East!

And then to this morning, our last unless tomorrow’s mad dash to the airport under a still-rising sun warrants mention afterwards: the workshop conclusion, mostly evaluation forms and closing discussion and a ceremony of certificate-giving presided over by George and his VP Fatima, though Azra and I snuck away with Sumi during tea for a madcap rickshaw dash for cheese (sorry, dad, too soggy to get home) and some of those little dots that Hindi women wear between the eyes and forehead. From 1:00 – 2:00 saw the other two schools (primary and junior high) just down the street once the locals had cleared off amidst much handshaking and photography, where Henry and I, complete with silly western looks and, in Henry’s case, a lower-class-style skirt-like leg-covering he’d bought days earlier but not figured out how to tie until that morning, entertained kids by making fun of ourselves as we interrupted classroom after classroom. Lots of blurry pictures to follow – seems my camera doesn’t like the heat and humidity that much. Lunch at the hotel; chat with Azra and a short excursion for some last-minute mutual gifts before she got into the hotel car and left me behind.

And thus the end begins. Going out to the Canadian Club for a few whiskeys and a business-chat with George over a fairly even-match pool game was a wonderful opportunity, but in many ways it, too, marked the end of something only just begin: we mostly talked shop, thinking about the workshop and it’s follow-up potential, and although it was nice to have some time just he and I, with no teachers to look forward to on the morrow the exhaustion and post-trip drain has begun to kick in. A last supper with the rest of the international hotel crowd, with added tables as the group arrived unplanned, was a nice and quiet denoument, but knowing that Azra’s already left makes this place already a little emptier, and I think it’s time to go home, so it’s back to packing for me.

Fair warning, by the way: timing’s tight when I return, and I may not have time to blog before re-plane-ing less than ten hours after I arrive in Boston tomorrow, this time for that family Alaskan cruise by way of Vancouver. My hope is to stay in touch with the universe and, as happened here, it might turn out that access is a non-issue…but it might not. If I’m unbloggable there, hope your week-or-so goes well; I’ll be back on August 28th just in time for the first day of school. Hope you're getting more sleep than I am out there...

Oh, yeah -- and since it's Monday already here:


Monday Mosh

Song: Reasons Why -- Nickel Creek. Also the rest of the "sad" mp3 playlist I keep on my laptop: some Dar, a bit of John Cale's version of "haleluiah," etc.

Things Stepped on/Bumped into: Nothing, really. But my heart feels broken, I think.

Reason stopped: Packing with three hours to go before we leave for the airport.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:27 PM | 0 comments

Friday, August 15, 2003

Dhaka Days: Another Two-fer

As my visit to Bangladesh nears its end I’ve been trying to cram as much culture and community into my life as possible. Sleep is sacrificed for sharing, shopping, and self-exploration in the context of a cultural experience so alien it can hardly be put into words. A kind of desperation sets in as time runs out, and I fear that blogging has suffered in return. Tonight like all previous nights I am wholly exhausted; tonight like most before it I’ll choose documentation over body-maintenance even though I am reminded of the limits of language and memory in tandem: that no blog, no matter how long or thorough, can really capture as much as a tenth of what is happening to me, to us, to the universe.

In the interest of keeping blog-as-medium a reverse linear activity – to wit, a communicative infrastructure in which more recent information rises to the top of the blog like cream – I’ll try to put this one in temporally backwards. So:

Finally figured out why people in this country keep asking if I want to wash my face; I just scrubbed up a bit to keep alert during the blogentry and turned the washcloth grey.

We’d just got back from Asparagus, a W.S. Maugham-story-themed Thai, Chinese, and Indian restaurant choice recommended by the concierge, who I must remember to thank – we were getting sick of eating in the hotel every night, and Azra’s not a big fan of the spices in the weekly Friday night Sri Lankan hotel buffet. The mango milkshake starter was creamy and sweet, Henry finally got enough to eat, although via a strange combination of curries and garlic nan, fried rice, wonton soup, and a cucumber-heavy garden salad. Azra and I also shared a sharply spicy beef in garlic sauce and a cabbage dish in something dark and oyster-sauce-y. It was wonderful to get out for a new ritual just the three of us.

Shopping in a finally-found local crafts shop beforehand with Azra. As before, gift-recipients may be reading, so no details herein. Beautiful and finally ethic stuff, though – it’s been otherwise frustratingly difficult to find anything other than western clothes and eastern cloths, cheap in terms of both in price and quality, on our now-daily shopping excursions both guided and self-finagled.

We were dropped off there by George and driver Ibrahim fresh back from a lengthy tour of the Dhaka we’d not yet really seen, having been suburban-locked most of the trip so far – even the airport is just around the corner here. Many pictures to share when I return, some taken successfully from the speeding car window as we passed busses driving two abreast on potholed one-laners, others taken at the stops George had chosen as most sightsee-worthy: underwater brick factories run only in the drier summer months when the waters have receded; a high cement monument of pointy and immense proportions outside a teeming local market we were rushed past without even a thought for local roadside handicrafts, rough-cut fresh coconuts with straws, and sugar cane juice grinders of tin cans and simple gears; a new amusement park typically both familiar and yet essentially and uniquely South Asian; a bank of ferries and medium-sized picnic boats bullhorn-blaring the loudest music imaginable into the ether (George says that the louder the music is, the better the party is seen to be).

I had joined the tour late and lunchless, met at Westecs, a local chainstore much like a slightly larger and more densely-packed Van Heusen but with far better prices even by the value-standard of the coke translation (see below entries); I got there via Sumi and Asif, who had been drilling away at my root-canaled tooth in their home-based but highly professional dental surgery for over an hour previous while their young daughter drew in pen on the high dentist’s stools and the rest of our international party relaxed and lunched at the hotel after a prayer-shortened penultimate day of PowerPoint teaching all Henry’s aegis. Yes, that’s right, I went for the crown-work here after all – Sumi’s by now a trusted friend and student, and when I found out that she had a husband whose specialty was not only root canals and capping but lecturing on same subject in the local dental college, I couldn’t resist taking the Lonely Planet guidebook up on their suggestion that, and I quote, “Dhaka has excellent dentists, and if you have a lot of work to do (eg, root canal) you can probably pay for your trip by using them instead of a more expensive dentist in the west.” As the price paid was less than a tenth of what it would cost in the west and my dental insurance is all used up until next Januray, long after the temporary filling was expected to crack, I think – I hope – that both they and I got a good deal financially out of the work, although I feel a little badly about realizing and acting on the possibility so late in the game, as it seems to have cost the family their weekend afternoon off.

Work had ended at 11:00 this morning, of course, as this is a Muslim country, and Friday afternoon is prayer throughout the city, even if not much was closed as we had expected. Surely there were many at prayer, as Ibrahim said that the roads were much less busy than usual (though they still seemed madly congested and dangerously scary to me), but it seems to only come up in the internationally-typically-secular middle class when things break on Fridays: Sumi said that the reason was that the thingee they use to suction spit out of mouths during surgery was breaking down was that “nothing works on Fridays;” George had said the same when we saw a bus half off the road during our later fast-paced tourism jaunt.

Last night was an eye-opener, too: the entire international group of fourteen (including George) had been invited to the extraordinarily upper-class home of a borad member and her Pharmeceutical-company-owning husband, but the nominal reason for the event was that the High Commissioner (Ambassador) of Nigeria to Bangladesh was being bid farewell after a stint of several years. As guest-of-honor, the in-passing Ambassador was too busy to do more than shake hands, but I managed to have some wonderful conversations with a holy-God-host of other Ambassoadorial types from all sorts of amazing and fascinating countries while the rest of the Aga Khan visitors, apparently not as naturally socialite-ist as I am, mostly talked among themselves on a couple of couches. Collected business cards from the world’s powerful people and spent most of the evening chatting with the Ambassador from the Philippines, a man of encyclopedic knowledge and a surprising interest in issues of language, symbology, media and communications. The food was exquisite, and other than green watermelon and the world’s largest in-shell giant prawns, indescribable.

Yesterday afternoon had been for local shopping. Sumi took us to a too-hot and too-crowded building crammed with tiny shoppes selling saris and silk, once we all sweat through our clothes in a matter of seconds we waited in the van while the two members of our party from India worked bargain-basement miracles for saris not to the taste of the rest of us. After balloons for Patricia in honor of her birthday, we went back to the shopping plaza of the day before, where Azra and I never made it off the almost-all-silk third floor despite men’s clothes just one floor down which both of us wanted to ultimately browse but had no time for. To my immense disappointment the silk available to travelers here in this country is so incredibly thin, and of such poor quality, that it would have no practical use in a country not characterized by sari-wearing and daily summer heat in the mid to high nineties. I ended up buying only a few cotton cloth strips intended as saris but surely most likely to end up table runners or even wall hangings back home.

And before that, work, including some great conversations about cultural change and east-west cultural outlooks with visiting-from-Canada teacher Hugh, and of courts the usual morning breakfast buffet, where I was brave enough to try the cheap mutton sausages but never got past their shiny hot-dog looks, and before that the documentation’s already occurred; see previous entry for more if you’re just back from hiatus or new to the blog herein.

Haven’t tried emailing Darcie in a few days because I’ve been unable to get to my school-based email account server; I’m assuming the US East Coast blackout which makes the newspaper front-pages here is affecting home as well. I hope she’s reading the blog nonetheless. Baby, are you out there? I miss you terribly (haven’t had much practice at it, I suppose, which is a wonderful thing), and hope things are well; let me know any way you can what’s going on at home.

By the way – in case anyone hasn’t noticed, the timestamp which accompanies each blogentry is still set to the stateside clock. For those keeping score, it’s just about three a.m. again, and I have to call George tomorrow morning at 8:30 to make hartal-safe arrangements to visit the American Club before the entirety of our teaching-and-learning group, both international travelers and local Aga Khan-ites, are taken out to dinner by the school board. Here’s hoping I can stay awake that long. Maybe the expected riots, low-key though they may turn out to be, will help.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:29 PM | 0 comments

Thursday, August 14, 2003

I am writing this here in class!

Please don't worry, this is just a teaching example.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:56 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Yesterday: Downpour in Dhaka

Note to regular readers -- this entry has been temporarily modified for teaching purposes. Please don't be confused; yes, this entry has changed since you last visited.

Finally, monsoon season lives up to its name, waking me this morning with rooftop drums at six with the alarm impending; the patio across the way buried under the three inches it could contain before spilling over down the narrow back steps., the resident dog usually sleeping on selfsame patio nowhere to be seen. The rain continued through the drive and the workday morning; though the three-inch-an-hour neverending did let up a bit during our drive over to the school, the roadside canal overflowed onto the main road all the same, and passersby rode their bicycles through ankle-deep flood conditions one-handed, umbrellas ineffective before them.

The lab was thick with humid air when we arrived, but the NetMeeting activity seemed well-received and the network slightly more accepting and forgiving with NetMeeting than yesterday’s email disaster. Work is surely boring to my readers, so although it is much of what we now do all day, and although not including it in the blogentries will surely shorten them, I will no longer be including more than the thinnest content-mentioning details unless there is high demand for it, and, well, I’d be surprised.

The skies finally cleared by four as we international travelers arrived in van and car at the Canadian Club for shmoozing with George and Peggy, the Canadian spouse of Aga Khan School exchange teacher Hugh. Most significant discussion at the club involved the universal value translation potential of Coca Cola, something which I think I discovered on my own but which George believes he has read about somewhere. If you’ve never tried this method, I highly recommend it; it’s a much more useful way to compare value (as opposed to raw cost) than dollars-to-taka: the basic idea is that if you want to figure out whether you’re paying too much for a given service or good in a foreign country, figure out how much a coke costs in each country and compare accordingly. For example, what at home would be a nice cotton button-down costs $30, and a can of coke costs maybe 75 cents; here, a can of coke costs 12 taka, or about a quarter, so a nice button-down shirt should cost about 40 cokes, or 480 taka. As good shirts DO cost about 480 taka here, and that’s about 8 bucks, what this teaches you, it seems, is that the dollar here has about a three-or-four-to-one buying power, so you should buy as many shirts as you can, except not at the local Van Heusen store, where the mark-up averages out at about a thousand taka, clearly a price for westerners.

No longer sure what day it is…


Today: Dollars in Dhaka/Buying Up Bangladesh

…fell asleep last night mid-blog at about 7:00 p.m; woke briefly at 8:30 to hit the hotel restaurant but realized immediately upon entry that I was essentially sleepwalking and went equally rapidly back to bed for the first full night’s sleep I’ve had since leaving Logan. Sorry to keep y’all waiting; if it helps, know that I dreamt about blogging all night.

Anyway.

Up, refreshed, by 5:00 to drop ultimately unuseful and unused random pix from hard drive to disks in anticipation camera-to-computer glitches in today’s morning workshop module on photomanipulation, mostly discussing Microsoft Photo Editor, as software here is either MSOffice or nothing. Took some pix of uniformed kids from the nearby junior high school playing football (what we Americans call “soccer”) during tea. At lunch Azra and I holed up in a small classroom to redesign yet again the afternoon curriculum on assignment and assessment over the by-now usual take-out, today a spice mutton curry which I enjoyed immensely even after finally realizing that, in this part of the world, “mutton” means goat. In anticipation of tomorrow’s curriculum on both advanced and teaching-specific uses of MSWord and, more usefully, how writing changes in a digital age, showed Kamel, the school’s Professional Development Coordinator and a teacher of English, Eric J’s webraw-based invaluable, accessible, and highly recommended page on Writing and the Web, to which I would link here if I was not paying 4$ an hour for an Internet connection.

Worth noting, though, just for consistency’s sake, that the above paragraph breaks pretty much every rule Eric and I agree upon in his now-international curriculum component. Sigh.

After school a couple of the female teachers here took the international crowd to a local shopping plaza for what George calls “supporting the local economy.” As many of the people for whom I bought gifts read this blog, I can’t say much about that experience without spoiling everyone’s fun, but I will point out that what Bangladesh is best known for worldwide in terms of quality goods is Van Heusen and other American-brand shirts, so it’s beginning to look like the gift-giving will be a bit sparse this trip unless folks at home are interested in the same thing they can get at home, except cheaper.

Azra and I wrangled an invitation to the middle-class suburban home of one of our tour-guide teachers post-shopping, which was a wonderful cultural and interpersonal experience in and of itself. Urban planning is apparently not at all a familiar concept here, as road-blocking construction was taking place on both ends of her suburban street when we arrived, and Ibrahim, George’s driver, had to drive over steel core to get into the gated driveway. Nevertheless, although some cultural differences are endemic to all groups here in Bangladesh, the contrast between classes here is incredible; while our host prepared a wonderful tea of pound cake and kebab, and I stroked her young son’s pet quail Errol (not a euphemism, thank you very much, and note the Harry Potter reference, itself a kind of universal language), a young impoverished houseboy of just a year or two younger than Errol’s owner tried to impress us by scrubbing the glass-topped table at my elbow. [note to non-Easterners: lest you think it odd that a young boy would be employed as such, although this is no place for a treatise on the machiavellian choices necessary to kee everyone fed and alive in a young developing nation, it’s worth pointing out that such employment really does turn out to be the best option for such a young boy from the his particular economic class and background]

Speaking of the underclass, if you’ve ever seen huddled crowds traveling on the shiny curved roof of a train as it crosses in front of your car at a railroad crossing where the electronic red-and-white traffic bar doesn’t work, and a second barrier needs to be lowered by hand to keep drivers from getting smashed to pieces by a train, as we did on the way back to the hotel, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. One man was even walking backwards on the train roof, precariously hovering over the same ground as the train moved slowly forward under his feet.

The evening was uneventful save for a happy unplanned chat with Darcie, followed by a heartbreaking phonecall with Willow, who said “hi daddy hi daddy hi!” before clearly feeling a bit unsettled by my voice and demanding to nurse, followed by supper and, as usual, more curricular planning. And now…oh dear, is it really 2:30 in the morning? Goodnight, folks; stay cool…tomorrow this blog becomes a curricular example, so I better not break any further rules of digital discourse.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:29 PM | 0 comments

Monday, August 11, 2003

Dhaka Disasters

Day five at the Aga Khan School began badly, got worse rapidly. The email addresses we needed set up on the Intranet were unsurprisingly not when we arrived at 8:30, the Microsoft Outlook walkthrough necessary to use that email went too slow for words and didn’t work anyway, and then, when we finally got driv ers hand-loaded on the eight Eudora-based computers ready to add to the bunch, Outlook became buggy as Dhaka in the winter months.

But the biggest problem was the monsoon rain falling by nine thirty, which in turn caused the server to crash, which in turn made the above moot. No email sent was received after the first few minutes, and our attempt at a hands-on activity, developed late last night in response to high demand via our daily evaluation forms, finally went bust about 11:30.

To be fair, the real problem here was a temporary and rash error of judgment on our part, to wit, our willingness to change things so drastically based on feedback; as I later explained to both Henry and Azra, the whole reason we’re here is to broaden the minds and possibility-spectra of our foreign compatriot teachers, and that assumes that we know what’s best for the workshop form and function. It shouldn’t matter if teachers think they want more skills training; we know, as professionals, that awareness and curricular consideration need to come before skills. I think we just got carried away in our earnest desire to make everyone happy, and forgot that our jobs assume that we, not our workshop participants, khow best to build a platform from which one can integrate technology into one’s teaching with aplomb and application. Now we know better. Chose not to read today’s evaluation forms in fear of further stupidity, although my co-leaders seemed relatively happy with what they read themselves.

On the bright side, this afternoon’s demonstration on forums and message boards was extraordinarily well-received, even if I managed to half-electrocute myself on a 220 current unplugging the laptop at the end of the workday. I feel badly for Azra, though – the morning’s activity set was her first leadership role so far, and not much went right.

We stopped on the drive back from AKS so George could show us the new site for the K-12 school they’ll be moving to once building begins and then is completed. Like much of Dhaka, the land is what George calls “reclaimed” – several months ago, it was all underwater riverbank, and the “beach” flanks the site, at least for now. A bit farther down the new crushed-brick path (there is no gravel in this delta country) we got to watch further reclamation in progress, an ingenious phenomenon in which barges are loaded with silt and sand from upriver within millimeters of the boatrim, trucked upstream; the sludge is then forced through hand-wrenched iron pipes constantly being rebuilt by poverty-stricken locals, and the water rushes away, leaving the silt behind as a solid foundation for the terraformed.

Tonight’s shopping expedition with Azra netted a few high-quality-but-cheap button-downs, flowers for an Azra surely in need of some good cheering up, some crazy-named snackfood from a tiny supermarket. We even bought some crazy socks for Henry, although the bright spotted shirt we had hoped could go with it was far too small for his deceptively muscular frame. After a quick and by-now process-knowledgeable curriculum brainstorm/planning session, I ordered the same lambchop and prawn supper as the night before, and then feel off to blog and sleep, once again exhausted. Tomorrow is another day, but does it have to come so soon?

posted by boyhowdy | 2:07 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Deconstructing Dhaka: Day 4

An early start this morning, the first of the Teaching with Information and Communication Technologies Workshop. George arrived at the hotel by 7:30 with vehicles and drivers. A coffee and a hurry-up later the group of by-now eight international workshop participants – two Indians, two Tajikistans, two Kurdistans, a Kenyan and a Pakistani, all Aga Khan school teachers in their own countries – drove off in the van. Henry, Azra, George and myself followed in George’s car with driver Ibrahim behind the wheel as always. After a relatively uneventful drive down the main airport road, by which I mean we hit no one but came within a hairs breadth of both mad-dash pedestrians and pre-scraped-up busses carrying the usual overload of morning commuters, we arrived at the school to earn our paychecks.

Henry led the morning session , a period of introduction and brainstorm about the benefits of and obstacles to technology integration, so well we ended an hour early, leaving me happy but ultimately exhausted and hoarse in filling the next several hours with mostly-lecture on the subject of terminology, most specifically the way in which the language and mental constructs we use to discuss and teach technology affect the ways in which students and selves develop habits of use.

Although far fewer international travelers ultimately came to Dhaka for the program, even with the late arrival of two recently-deplaned Tanzanians during a seriously spicy take-out lunch of Chinese food in an upstairs classroom, George had padded the workshop back up past the original cap of fifty with what must have been his entire teaching staff – the library was filled, the acoustics terrible, the air conditioning barely helpful. Post-workshop feedback seemed generally positive but suggested less lecture, and language barriers seem to be a subtle but insidious difficulty; Azra and I were already talking about how to make tomorrow more hands-on by the time we arrived back at the hotel by 4:00.

Azra and I joined this afternoon by Noureddine and Patricia for our afternoon constitutional. The four of us got very lost but remained confident, and once we recaptured our bearings, spent about a half an hour in the cybercafe of yesterday’s search. Left Patricia behind and Nourreddine went back alone; I found a nice men’s clothing store for later purchases and then, still on our feet, Azra bought me a cappuccino and fries in the half-American New Yorker Café, a surprisingly diner-like place with a Bangladeshi twist.

Emerged into an unexpected rain too heavy to walk back in, the water washing the gritty skies clean onto our heads and shirts and hands. We huddled under a shopping plaza outpost and discussed colonialism while we watched college students smoke across the street, and went back for much-needed showers. You know you’re in a foreign land where you need to take a shower to wash the rain off.

A hair-dryer and a frantic hour redesigning tomorrow’s communications technology curriculum and it was time for dinner again. Tonight’s meal was nothing special, but the lamb chops and prawn salad were solid and just unfamiliar enough to be interesting. Couldn’t keep my eyes open after three cups of served-with-hot-milk coffee, though, so Henry and Azra generously gave me the night off to sleep and blog while they went off to divide our band of merry teachers, now fifty strong, into subject-specific pairs and quadrates. I think dehydration’s the biggest culprit – I drink as much as I can, but the sweat just pours out of me here. Funny how most of the others seem fine with it – must be a cultural thing, or an unfortunate symptom of the long thick hair I ultimately decided not to chop off before arriving.

More tomorrow, assuming sleep tonight. ‘till then…

posted by boyhowdy | 1:45 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Day Three In Dhaka: A Retroactive Itinerary.

8:30: Breakfast. Three tiny cups of coffee with hot milk (about half of my usual 20 ounce morning ritual), roasted potatoes, runny scrambled eggs. Once again I avoid the strange sausages and curries on the buffet line. Once again Henry is the last to arrive, although he looks the most conscious and coherent for it.

9:30: Travel to the Aga Khan school. George arrives in the school van to bring us to the school for a morning of lab-checking and furniture moving. He advises seatbelts, but the van has none.

10:00 – 12:00: Prep work at the school. The computer teacher slash school IT tech helps us set our laptops up on the Internet and the LAN, each of which has its own IP address and Ethernet cable – which means we cannot be on both at once, a situation none of us anticipated. Also unanticipated: there will be fifty teachers attending our workshop rather than the expected 35; at least two of the teachers will not arrive until midway through our first day; only two lab computers can be connected to the Internet. Luckily, all computers can communicate through the local network at once. Azra and I decide to use NetMeeting rather than AIM to teach chat, although without the ability to connect our students to the ‘net in groups, it looks like teaching email and forum use will have to be lecture-oriented and theory-heavy.

12:00: Travel with George back to the Hotel to pick up Patricia, who has just arrived from Kenya sans luggage.

12:30 – 5:30: Adventures with George:
  • Lunch at the Canadian Club, a walled-in-the-midst-of-chaos country-club haven for the 75 Canadian ex-pats who live in and around Dhaka. Burgers, fries, and perhaps the only beers in all of Dhaka in a beautiful courtyard overlooking the pool, tennis courts, and children’s play area. The two-acre oasis is essentially empty save for “Bernie,” a television-watching fellow who turns out to be the director of one of the largest shoe companies in all of Asia and Africa.
  • Pants shopping for Henry, who packed only shorts despite clear indication in every guidebook that shorts just “aren’t worn” in this conservative country, at an upscale and heavily-guarded men’s store not far from the hotel. Henry decides on two pairs of linen pants which we then rush to a tailor for emergency hemming. I proudly restrain myself from buying everything in the store despite the fact that these beautiful high-end clothes are just my kind of duds, and really do cost less than a quarter of what they’d cost at home.
  • High-end women’s clothing stores for local garb for Patricia, although Azra and I decide to do our shopping later, possibly at somewhere less artsy. George and I make fun of the clothing styles and colors while the women shop and Henry meanders – I think his ADD may be even worse than mine.
  • A supermarket, as hotel mini-bar water is getting pricey and fast. George buys 5 kilos of green lemons for about half a dollar; his house boy, he says, makes the best lemonade. Henry, a bottomless pit when it comes to eating, buys coke and a huge bag of roasted chick peas he later describes, after eating the entire bag over the course of an afternoon, as bland and hardly worth it. Azra buys cookies and a bag of Lays potato chips, made in America but costing about three times more than the local Stop and Shop at home. Patricia, new to the group, buys water and a few light snacks. I take pictures of weird fruit: custard apples, lumpy mangoes, sugar cane bundles and other unknowns and unfamiliars. Then I get scolded for taking pictures, which are not allowed. George, smiling, happily scolds back – if you can’t take photos, where’s the sign? – ultimately cowing the meek store employees into a vague and impotent frustration. I’m liking George more and more.
  • One of Bernie’s shoe stores – Patricia needs sandals, too. Shoes as cheap as clothes, relatively speaking, and much better made. Thanks, Bernie.
  • A mixed high-end mall of identical pearl necklace shops, art galleries, bakeries, and 80-year-old brass ship’s artifacts rescued from decommissioned British sailing vessels, now sporting a bright polished sheen. Nothing purchased; this leg of the trip being mostly a way of killing time while Henry is driven to the tailors to pick up his already-hemmed linen pants.


5:30 – 7:00 Wandering with Azra. Still unclear how, but it seems every time we walk from the hotel to the main street nearby we come out on a different block of the same main street. This time, we manage to find a mall whose second floor was teeming with tiny one-room internet cafes, all blessedly air-conditioned. The difference in speed between them is astounding – the first place we try, a brand new place with a grand opening offer too good to pass up is clean and cool, but our free 30 minute “trial” nets us barely an email message apiece; the next place down the line, however, offers a broadband connection strong enough for me to show Azra the blog, whereupon we immediately decide to incorporate them back into the workshop somehow after dropping them weeks ago out of time concerns. More sari shopping afterwards – the wedding saris are especially beautiful, although 10 thousand taka seems a bit steep for a spousal birthday present, no matter how nice Darcie might look in that deep red color.

7:00: Phone home – eventually. The phone system here is a bit inconsistent, as the lines overseas are always busy; it takes over half an hour to get Darcie on the other line for a happy birthday call. Call eminently worth it, even at 230 taka – about 4 dollars – a minute. Willow says “hi” and “bye bye!” Darcie says “I love you.” All is well with the world, if a bit teary-eyed when I hang up the phone.

8:00: Italian buffet with Azra and Henry. Finally, something familiar! Well, almost familiar: the mutton lasagna is excellent nonetheless.

9:00 – 10:30: Last-minute curriculum review with Henry and Azra. Tiredness abounds. We joke about sending Henry out for pizza while Azra and I work tomorrow night on our next-day curriculum. After three days of intense work together, pizza is funny.

11:00: Blog, looking forward to exhausted sleep.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:04 PM | 0 comments


Interlude 2: In The Cybercafe

Much happened so far today but we're in a cybercafe and don't want to spend too much time here with Azra waiting.

DID want to say Happy Birthday to Darcie because I love her very much and there's a distinct possibility that I will never figure out how the darn phones work in this country. I'll say it again and again, surely, but early and often is always the best policy, eh?

More later. Hoorah for air conditioned cybercafes!

posted by boyhowdy | 8:37 AM | 0 comments

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 | 0 comments
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