Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Single at Christmas

I've got Christmas spirit coming out my ears right now, friends.  The tree is up, the house is decorated, presents are being wrapped, I've made my shopping list for cookie ingreedients, christmas music is playing, and I have drunk an inordinate amount of Candy Cane Lane tea (that stuff is good - now, could someone get me a bottle glass of red wine?).  I'm happy to be home for the holidays and to be getting ready to celebrate and say goodbye to the last crazy (but usually great!) year. 

(Yes, the bottom 1/3 of our tree is nearly bare.  This is because someone can't be trusted with low-hanging lights and ornaments...)
However, it seems like everyone and their brother is getting engaged/married/pregnant right now and, I'm not going to lie, as a single lady ("all the single ladies...") at the holidays, it's not always easy to watch friends run off with the person of their dreams, while I'm still waiting for mine to come sweep me off my feet.  You might guess that I've been down in the dumps, wishing the holidays away, becoming bitter, drinking myself to sleep and eating myself into a food coma - ok, maybe that's a little extreme...  But, I'm not!  I'm perfectly fine.  In fact, I'm better than fine.  I'm actually sort of HAPPY to be single right now. 

Let's get real for a moment, folks.  For the last 5 years (except for that one year where I broke up with a certain someone 2 weeks before Christmas - that sucked), while Christmas time has been wonderful, it's also been filled with the stresses that come with being in a serious-but-not-super-serious relationship.  First of all, I'm the kind of person who racks her brain for WEEKS, trying to come up with the PERFECT present for the person I'm dating.  It should be just the right amount of expensive, thoughtful, meaningful to him, and should make me appear to be the best girlfriend in the entire world.  Then, once said gift is found, I scour the aisles of Target to pick out the exactly perfect wrapping paper and bow.  (Raise your hand if you think I need to get a grip.)  Wow.  Second, when you're in a serious-but-not-super-serious relationship, your significant other is bound to want to see you on Christmas Day.  This is, of course, lovely, but also requires a whole heck of a lot of planning and coordinating.  It also means that both parties inevitably have to split time with their families.  Finally, holiday time usually makes everyone who is in a serious-but-not-super-serious relationship wish and hope that very soon the "-but-not-super-serious" gets dropped from the relationship status.  That's not stressful, is it?

This year, with all of those stressors gone, I'm focusing my energy on enjoying my close friends and family.  I have extra money to spend on my chubby little nephew and other family members' gifts.  I have the entire day of Christmas to spend lazing around with said family, being as informal as I want (hold onto your hats, family!), maybe going to a movie with my mom and sister, and just generally soaking up as much family Christmas love as possible.  I figure that, as the years pass, the chance that I'll be snatched up by a wonderful fellow, who is willing to put up with my crazy and follow me to obscure locations around the world, increases exponentially (duh).  So, I should enjoy this holiday, when I have no commitments to anyone but myself, my family and my close friends.  And that's exactly what I'm doing!  I'm enjoying the crap out of it.

I hope very much that you are all having a wonderful holiday season as well and that Christmas cheer has taken you over and subsequently shoved plenty of butter- and sugar-laden cookies down your throats.

Oh, and please spread the word:  I am currently taking applications for New Years Eve dates.  The pile of applicants is getting pretty tall, but I'm still willing to consider more.  (I mean, let's not go crazy with all of this "I love being single around the holidays" stuff.)

Now, someone turn up the Christmas music and bring me that wine!

Merry Christmas to all...

Love, Katie

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflecting on 2011: My Favorite Books

Hello, all.  Well, it's a Monday night.  I worked and ran errands all day, went to a killer (but so fun) Ashtanga yoga class tonight, and am now watching White Christmas with a glass of red wine while I cuddle up to a bowl of this soup. (This is some of the best soup I've had in a while and, bonus, it sort of doubles as a comfort food that is also healthy.)  I don't have a whole lot of interesting stuff to tell you tonight.  I have been very un-exciting lately.  I've been working a whole lot, seeing friends in Columbia, trying to brainstorm an amazing, earth-shattering idea for a dissertation topic, getting back into the swing of exercise things, and just generally readjusting to life in Columbia (right before I leave for the holidays...). 

I've also started to reflect a little on the last year.  I love Christmas time and all that comes along with it, but one of my favorite things about December is that, as it brings the year to an end, it allows me an opportunity to think about all that has happened over the year.  I like to spend time thinking about the good and the bad, what I've done well and what I might have done differently, things I'd like to leave behind in the upcoming year and lessons I've learned that I'd like to carry with me into the new year.  As I was thinking a little about 2011 the other day, I realized that one thing I did very consistently throughout the year was read.  I love to read and always have.  But it is something that one can let slip very easily as a graduate student.  I mean, so much of my homework involves reading academic articles and it's not hard to convince myself that the last thing I want to do in my leisure time (i.e. the 10 minutes before bed) is more reading.  But, back in January, I stocked my bookshelves and made an effort to read for fun every night before bed.  I'm happy I made the effort.  I ended up reading a lot of great books this year (and a few that were just so-so), so tonight, I thought I'd share some of my favorites with you.

1.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This was the first book I read in 2011.  I am a total sucker for stories set duing WWII.  This is the story of a group of neighbors on the German-occupied island of Guernsey and a London-based author who begins corresponding with one of the members of the Guernsey literary society.  The entire book is written as a series of letters exchanged among friends and complete strangers alike.  When I finished this book, I had a burning desire to start writing letters to friends.  I also felt that familiar sadness creep in towards the end, thinking, "I'll NEVER find another book as good as this one!"  That's how you know you really liked a book.

2.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

So, I actually read this book in 2010 and read its sequel (The Weed that Srings the Hangman's Bag) in 2011.  They're both great, but I recommend starting with Sweetness.  The series features 10 year-old heroine, Flavia de Luce, who has a passion for poisons of all kinds and for solving mysteries.  These books are wonderfully descriptive, fun, funny, and suspenseful.  They are a great way to escape.  I have already purchased the next book in the series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, and I can't wait to dig in!

3.  Love Walked In and Belong to Me

Another pair.  These books were wonderful and unique.  Cornelia Brown is the main character in each and de los Santos does a fabulous job of weaving all of the characters' lives together, while always keeping Cornelia's story at the forefront.  I read Love Walked In immediately after returning from Florida last January and bought Belong to Me as soon as I was finished.  These are the kinds of books that made me start to slow down as the end neared.  I wanted to savour every last word and make the book last as long as possible because I was just dying to see where Cornelia's life would go next. 

4.  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Another World War II story.  Although, this one is a combination of past and present.  It is about a forbidden love between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl in Seattle just before thousands of Japanese were taken away to internment camps (of sorts) in the US.  As an old man who has just lost his wife, the Chinese man remembers and reflects on his childhood love.  I smiled, I cried, I couldn't put it down. 

5.  The Help

Do I really even need to introduce this book to you?  By now, many of you will have read the book and probably more have seen the movie.  But, if you haven't read the book yet, do it.  Do it, like, yesterday.  In fact, stop reading this blog right now and go out and buy it.  I promise I won't be offended.  This was one of my favorite books of all time.  I literally cannot wait until Kathryn Stockett writes her next book.  This story was so engaging and vivid, I felt like I knew Skeeter (and like I wanted to punch Hilly in the face).  I think it took me 4 nights to read the entire book - and the last night I stayed up until 3 in the morning to finish.  This is a story of friendship, dreams, and bravery. 

Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?  What were your favorite books in 2011?  I've got to start building up my library for 2012...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Home At Last...

You know what's a really bad idea when you're really tired?  Go out to a coffee shop (in public) under the guise of "working," order a big cup of caffine, then listen to Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger."  Trust me.  You will embarrass yourself.  In public. 

Anyway...  After the whirlwind that was the last 3 months, I am finally in one place for more than 2 days.  That's right.  The international travel portion of this year's programming has come to an end.  It ended last week with a quick trip to Montreal for an anthropology conference.  In case anyone is counting, that was my 4th time zone in less than 3 weeks.  Luckily, the conference went well.  I managed to remember enough proper English to deliver a mostly unflawed presentation and also managed to stay awake enough to spend time with some really freaking cool people and not come across as the brain dead person that I felt like.  And as tired as I was (and am now), it was definitely worth it. 

Pictures from Montreal.

 I wish I had something terribly profound to say to you all about all of the experiences that I've had over the last few months.  But, honestly, the one thing that stands out for me the most is how important other people are.  The places I've been are wonderful, but the people I've met and the relationships I've built have made the biggest difference in my life.  And being away always, always gives me an even greater appreciation for the people I love (and who love me) at home.  It's no secret that I was having a hard time with the idea of my trip ending, but the hugs on the other end of the 24 hour travel adventure helped ease me back in to home.  In the spirit of Thanksgiving (I'm a little late to the game here...), let me just say how very thankful I am for my family and close friends.  I would never, ever be the person I am without their (your!) love and support.  I am also thankful for all of the opportunities I've had over the last year and the experiences that have come out of them. 

I hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving (if you celebrate it) and are ready for the upcoming holiday season.  I am certainly happy that I'll be spending my holidays with my wonderful family.  Including this guy...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

From Bangladesh to Taiwan

Last Thursday night at 10:30, a van picked me up from the student apartment in Dhaka and 22 hours later, I arrived in Taiwan.  The trip was rough.  When I reached Taipei, I was running on less than 2 hours of sleep, had been through 4 airports, and had spent WAY too much time with my overstuffed luggage.  Nick met me at the train station and when he rounded the corner at Starbucks, I have never been more happy to see any one person in my life.  I was so relieved, I actually started crying!

I had just gone from a country where I was finally starting to get my bearings and feel comfortable to one where I hadn't been in 3 years.  I was just starting to get used to wearing a salwar kameez and starting to get comfortable using Bangla, then entered a country where less is often more in terms of clothing and I had forgotten nearly every word of the language.  Roslyn and I joke that in our brains, there are two boxes for language.  The boxes are titled "English" and "Other."  Well, before Bangladesh, my "Other" box was mostly filled with Chinese, with a few Spanish words thrown in.  Upon arrival in Taiwan, I discovered that, save for a few desperate hangers-on, all of the Chinese words had been pushed out to make room for the Bangla.  Shit.

So, basically, I went from this:

And this:

To this: 

And this:

Sheesh.  Talk about culture shock!  I'm just thankful I didn't go directly back to the US...  My head might have exploded.

Anyway, I've been in Taiwan for 6 days now and I leave tomorrow (Thursday) to go home to the US.  I've been spending my time visiting old friends, visiting some of my favorite places, and eating some amazingly good food.  I visited the school I used to teach at and saw some of my old students (who are now in 6th grade and SO TALL!).  I am going to have a hard time leaving tomorrow.  The last couple of weeks I have been riding an emotional rollercoaster, and there are a few more ups and downs to face in the next 36 hours.  I was so sad to leave Matlab and Bangladesh.  So sad to leave Roslyn and all of the new friends I made there.  But I was excited to come back to Taiwan and have been so happy to see all of my friends here.  Tomorrow, I will be so sad to leave, but will be really looking forward to seeing all of the people I love at home and getting some rest.  When I fly into Kansas City tomorrow night, I will have literally gone around the world!  From Kansas City to Chicago to Dubai to Dhaka to China to Taipei to Japan to Dallas to Kansas City.  Phew.

Ok.  I've got some green tea to drink.  See you all on the flip side...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Winding Down

As of today, I have one week left in Bangladesh.  I honestly can't believe how fast these 9 (almost 10) weeks have gone by.  At the beginning, 10 weeks felt like an eternity.  Then, a month in, when we were getting ready to leave for Matlab, 5 weeks seemed a little scary.  And now, as I'm starting to say goodbye to friends and make final visits to places in Matlab that I have loved for the last 5 weeks, I am having a hard time figuring out where all of the time went.  And I have had to fight back the tears more than once when I've thought of how few days are left now.

On Tuesday, Sabrina and I took our final interviews.  Today, we took our last boat trip.  The two of us, along with Roslyn, went to our boatman's home for lunch and to visit with his family.  We were there for several hours - we were force-fed really good food (force-feeding is a sign that you are cared for), had some mehindi done on our hands, sang a few songs, and took a bunch of pictures.  Our boatman had told Sabrina and I before, and his wife told us today, that they think of us as daughters.  When it was time to go, a group of 10 women walked us back to the boat and waited, waving, until we were out of sight.  As we said goodbye to our cha-chi (auntie - the boatman's wife), there were tears in her eyes, and when our boatman, cha-cha (uncle), dropped us off and we told him "many, many thanks" he was getting a bit emotional. 

The boatman and his family:  daughter and grandson, 10 year old son (in the back), and wife

The beauty of Matlab is breathtaking.  Coming home from interviews on the boat while the sun sets over the river is one of the awesomest experiences in my life so far.  But the people are what make this place.  For me, there is something special about riding down the street on a rickshaw and getting waves from the laundry guy and "bhalo asen?" (are you good?) from the ICDDR,B office guy.  Or heading out for interviews on the boat and having Shodhagor women smile, wave, and ask where we're going that day.  Or walking into the staff canteen at ICDDR,B for lunch and seeing friendly faces all around.  The people are kind, welcoming, and always so happy to see Roslyn and I (it's also true that we're pretty easy to pick out of a crowd...). 

Shodhagor woman cooking on her boat

Maybe it's the city girl in me embracing this sense of community.  Or, maybe feeling such warmth so far from home makes it seem all the more special.  Sometimes, it can be hard for me to believe that after only 5 weeks, I could mean so much to an old man that he would be so sad to say goodbye to me.  But, then again, he meant that much to me.  So many of the people here have.

The women of the boatman's family waving goodbye

I came across this quote today that seems to perfectly sum up my feelings about leaving Matlab:

"Nothing is so dear as what you're about to leave."


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Doing My Job

I think it's safe to say that, right now, I have one of the best jobs in the world.  (Or at least it feels that way to me...)  I feel bad that I haven't written more about what I'm doing here, but there is so much to write that I never know where to start.  Today, I thought I'd just tell you about what I do (and where I go) most days of the week.

First of all, if I haven't explained this before, the area of Bangladesh where I'm doing all of my research is called Matlab (that's an "ahhhh" sound for both a's).  It is a rural area just 40+ kilometers southeast of Dhaka, the capitol city.  I'm working in Matlab because ICDDR,B, the research hospital that is hosting me and overseeing my project, has been collecting demographic information and conducting amazing health-related research projects in the area for over 40 years.  This means that there are many, many resources available to me here, including super helpful people (who go out of their way day in and day out to help me) who tell me where the Shodhagor (river gypsy) groups are located, how I can get there, and who help Sabrina and me hire boats to take us out for our interviews. ICDDR,B also has a wonderful system to help students - they arrange housing and transport for us and give free transport to and from the airport.  So, in short, they make my life and my research easier and I am ever so grateful for it.

Roslyn and I (and our two assistants, Fayeza and Sabrina) have been in Matlab for over 3 weeks now and have less than 2 weeks left.

Most days, Sabrina and I go out for interviews with the Shodhagor people.  Like I said previously, these people live on their boats in groups of boats that are located in several different places in Matlab and numerous places throughout the rest of Bangladesh.  We are focusing our interview efforts on 4 places for which we had pretty solid information from ICDDR,B employees that a number of boats would be present:  Charmukundi, which is located very close to the place I'm staying; Kazir Bazar, which is an hour's boat ride away; Nayerga, which is a little farther out and requires a motorized vehicle of some sort to access; and Kawadi, which is the farthest of all and requires a vehicle to Nayerga plus an hour-long boat ride. 

The people we're interviewing are almost always on their boats (cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, etc.), so, they are only accessible to us by country boat.  If Sabrina and I are going to take interviews at either Charmukundi or Kazir Bazar (our favorite place), our boatman picks us up on the canal that runs just outside of the ICDDR,B grounds.  He takes us out to the group of boats, and then he helps us find people to interview.  We go from boat to boat, conducting both open-ended interviews, in which we ask about the general lifestyles of the Shodhagor living in the respective group, and close-ended interviews, in which we ask for information specific to the respondent (i.e. how many children they have, how many times per year they move their boats, what they do for work, etc.).  An open-ended interview can take around 45 minutes and a close-ended interview can take up to 30 minutes.  We try to conduct as many as we can within two or three hours (or for as long as we can manage to sit on the boat), then we head home.  Usually, Sabrina spends the rest of the day transcribing the open-ended interviews we've conducted while I check the answers to the close-ended surveys, make notes from the day, and prepare for the next day.

I by no means know enough about these groups of people to make any generalizations.  They seem to be quite a bit poorer than the people in the villages, as many of them have reported continuing to live on their boats only because they can't afford to buy land or to build a house.  They also have some interesting cultural practices; for example, they often move their house boats once or twice per year, according to the weather because their primary source of income is often men's fishing, and availability of fish in an area changes with the season (rainy vs. dry).

I can say a few things for sure, though...  We have met some extremely kind, open, welcoming, and fun-loving people.  Every time we pass a boat where we've previously conducted an interview, they smile, wave, and yell "hello" to us.  They also like to tease us (politely, of course) and each other, sing, laugh, and have fun.  It has been a pleasure and I will be excited to come back for a bigger research project soon. 

I can also tell you that the scenery is like nothing I have ever seen before.  The rainy season has just ended and everything is lush and green.  When we arrived in Matlab a few weeks ago, all of the fields were under water.  Now, as the dry season sneaks up on everyone here, the water is receding and the landscape is changing.  Luckily, we will be finishing up our interviews just before some of what used to be canals dry up. 

And finally, I can tell you with no reservation that some days I fall completely, boundlessly, head-over-heels in love with this place.  Wednesday was one of those days.  The boat ride was peaceful and beautiful.  We had some great interviews and caught a show (haha - video to come later).  And for just a little while, on our way home, I laid back (5 hours sitting cross-legged in a wooden boat can do a number on my back), closed my eyes, and felt the breeze all around me.  And that was all it took.  I was done for.  L-O-V-E

This work is never without struggles, but I sincerely hope this is the job I get to do forever.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Defining Myself

There's something I've been thinking about a lot over the last several months. It has rolled over in my mind about a million times and I've finally decided to write about it...

This summer, in the wake of a particularly difficult breakup, I felt wrecked. I was sad, angry, hopeless, and struggling to rub two ounces of self-esteem together. I was in a downward spiral of self-doubt and having trouble understanding why. In the beginning, I had been so sure that this relationship was the one that was going to go the distance - only to find out two years into it that I was wrong. But, there was more to it than that. What lingered in the background during the second year, while the relationship was failing, and after it ended was the feeling that somehow, I was failing. I wasn't good enough to make it work. Maybe I wasn't caring enough? Or thoughtful enough? Maybe I wasn't compromising as much as I should? Maybe I wasn't pretty enough? Maybe I was too ambitious? Too career oriented? And so on...

After a lot of thought, some help, and a lot of talking to my family and good friends (who, thankfully, never told me to shut my pie hole), I had a bit of a breakthrough. First, I realized that I had felt self-doubt like this before. I won't bore you with all of the details here, but let's just say that an experience with an old coach really did a number on me (it is so not ok for a coach to tell your teammates behind your back that he thinks you're fat/a bad teammate/a bad leader/a bad athlete). Then, I realized that, for a long time, I had been letting other people define who I was. I had taken my coach's words and believed them about myself. All of the nice things that the person I dated didn't say about me became untrue in my mind and all of my fears that went uncomforted became my reality.

As time went on, I started to understand that someone else's definition of me doesn't have to be my definition of myself. That what others think (or don't think) about me may say more about them than it does about me. I understood that a failed relationship didn't mean that I was a bad girlfriend or that I'm irreversibly screwed up. I realized that what really matters is what I think of myself and how I define myself.

So, as I've said, this is something I've been sitting with for a while. And it's something I've waited to put into words because I wasn't quite sure how to say it and, frankly, I was uncomfortable with it. For one thing, the pain is still there.  But mostly, this whole "letting other people's opinions become my own" thing really doesn't fit well with the person I had always been. For the first 23+ years of my life, I made a habit of making up my own mind about myself. I never quit something because someone told me I wasn't any good. In fact, rejection was almost an invitation to me; if someone told me I couldn't, I set out to prove them wrong (and almost always did).  And it’s true that, when a certain coach suggested that I quit the team, I refused and became ever the more determined to stick it out.  But, since then, I have struggled to find joy in a sport that I was once insanely passionate about.

I feel that I know myself pretty well. I know what I want to do with my life, what I like and don't like, and am constantly learning new lessons about myself (foreign countries are great places to do that - like a crash course). But, knowing information about yourself is different from your beliefs about yourself, I think. And I have spent the last 6 years believing certain things about myself because someone I thought I could trust said them about me.

I have thought about writing this blog post for, um, approximately 3 months now. It is rather personal and revealing. But maybe it's something a lot of people struggle with. How often do we let others determine how we feel or think about ourselves? How often do we give up on something because someone else told us we weren't any good? Or, we don't buy a particular outfit because we're worried about what people will think?

For me, it is time for a change.  It is time to figure out what, exactly, it is that I believe about myself.  And it’s time to let go of these other people’s opinions that I’ve held onto for far too long...

Friday, October 7, 2011

On The River

As most of you know, a significant portion of my time here in Matlab is spent on a boat, interviewing people who live on their boats.  While I originally thought the group should be called "Beday," I found out that Beday is a bit of a derrogatory term and the people prefer to be called Shodhagor, which means "merchant." 
As I am currently exhausted from spending almost 5 hours on said boat today, I thought I'd at least share a few more pictures with you.  It is so incredibly beautiful here and I have taken SO many pictures already that I had a really hard time finding pictures to share.  But, I figured pictures with people are usually best.  Enjoy!

Our boat man, who we call "cha cha" (meaning uncle).

This is the boat we ride in every day.  It is not super comfortable, but I love it all the same.

Me with a water lilly that our boat man picked for us on his way to pick us up that morning.

Holding an 8 month old Shodhagor baby.  He was as sweet as he was adorable.

That's all for tonight...  I really hope to be back soon with something more to say.

Until then, take care!  Goodnight from Matlab!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

First Day in Matlab

Hello!  Now that we're in Matlab, using phone modems for internet access, blog posts take quite a bit of time.  So, for now, I thought I'd show you some pictures of our first day here!  More pictures to come soon...
Roslyn with Fayeza (her research assistant) and Sabrina (my research assistant) on the bus, heading out of Dhaka

Me and Roslyn on the micro-bus

One view from our daily walk from the guest house to the ICDDR,B offices and canteen where we eat lunch

Another view of the walk - this is a type of fishing hut

My room

The view from the balcony off my room

Thursday, September 29, 2011

We Made It!

Hi all!  Just checking in very briefly to let you know that Roslyn and I, and our two research assistants, Fayeza (Roslyn's assistant) and Sabrina (my assistant), have made it to Matlab safe and sound.  It is beautiful and quiet here and all of the people I have met so far are so very nice.  We had a busy and successful first full day today and tomorrow Sabrina and I will get to go by boat to meet some river gypsies (who are referred to as Shoudhagor, which means 'merchant') and start pre-testing my interview questions.  Hopefully, I'll be back soon with a more exciting and in-depth update of the first few days in Matlab.  For now, let me just say that I am nervous and really excited - I feel like I'm finally starting the work that I came here to do!
A view of the ICDDR,B campus from our guesthouse - isn't it amazing?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rolling With the Punches

Hey friends!
Hard at work at Dhaka University -
working my way through a 700+ page thesis
I know it's been a little while since the last time I posted...  Not to worry, everything is perfectly fine.  I haven't posted for a couple of reasons.  One was that my camera is broken, so I didn't have any pictures to put up.  The other is that I had a few rough days, emotionally-speaking, and decided that rather than subject you all to my negative thoughts and feelings, it would be best to just keep quiet for a little while.  I know I mentioned this in my last post, but it is really true that every day, we are faced with frustrations and stressors.  Some of these are fairly small and inconsequential, while others are bigger and can make me want to run to my room and bury my face in my pillow and pretend the outside world doesn't exist.  I'm doing better now, though, AND I bought a new camera yesterday!  So, prepare to be visually assaulted with a plethora of pictures between now and November.

Tomorrow, Roslyn and I are supposed to be leaving our apartment in Dhaka at an absurdly early hour to head to ICDDR,B headquarters where we'll meet our two research assistants and make the 5 hour trip to Matlab.  However, our trip to Matlab looks a little iffy at the moment.  We were told earlier this week that a hartal is possible for Wednesday and maybe Thursday.  A hartal is essentially a labor strike, called by the political party not currently in power, which stops a lot of people in the city from working.  This especially includes transportation workers of all kinds, which means that if there is a hartal tomorrow, we will have no way to get to Matlab until the hartal is over.  During a hartal, some people go to the government offices or Dhaka University to protest and many stay home or walk to work.  We had a 24 hour hartal last week - Roslyn and I stayed in all morning then took a very short rickshaw ride over to the American Club where we swam and ate club sandwiches.  Very protest-y, don't you think?  Keep your fingers crossed for us that we'll be able to make it out of town tomorrow morning.  We're going to pack our bags tonight and hope that everything goes as planned.  In the mean time, I plan to roll with the punches.

Tomorrow is also my 30th birthday!  I've already celebrated in style twice - my roommates and friends here threw me a birthday party last weekend and last night I ate carrot cake at the American Club.  I have also received packages and letters from family and friends. 

My roommates in Dhaka threw me a bday party!
(Dave, me, Roslyn, Poonum the party planner)
I'm not totally sure how I feel about 30 yet, though...  I'll be entering a whole new decade, which feels really crazy, because my 20th birthday doesn't seem like it happened all that long ago.  But, I'm also amazed at the ways my life has changed in the last 10 years and all of the lessons I've learned.  If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I would be celebrating my 30th birthday in Bangladesh, I think I would have been shocked and excited.  I have been a very lucky person in these 30 years, always having been surrounded by a family and friends who love me and who have supported me.  So, here's to a great year ahead, full of as much awesomeness as my last 30 years were!

See you from Matlab!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Daily Frustrations and A Little Escape

Something about international experiences is that they often bring with them plenty of small, daily frustrations.  Most days are good, some days are frustrating.  Last Thursday, for example, was mostly good, with some meetings, an orientation, and a movie night with new friends.  But, I've been battling daily headaches and dehydration, and we found out on Thursday that a) there was still no list of potential research assistants for hire and b) we would have to leave for Matlab (the village where we'll do our research) 3 days later than planned. 
Me, Roslyn, and our new roommate, Poonum at the American Club
Friday, on the other hand, was awesome.  Shopping and lunch with friends, some R&R at home, and a par-tay at the American Club.  The American Club is a bit of a sanctuary for those who are members.  There is a swimming pool, tennis courts, a restaurant and a couple of bars, a workout room, and a small library and video rental room.  We were there to drop off Roslyn's membership application on Friday when we found out they were hosting a party that night.  Admission was $25, which is pretty freaking steep on a student budget, but my, oh my was it ever worth it.  We wore our American clothes, listened to music, watched people dance, and sipped on gin and tonics (women aren't allowed to drink out in public in Bangladesh).  It was so nice to feel a bit of home again and feel a temporary escape from daily life.

Today, Roslyn and I had our first day of a two-week intensive Bangla language course.  The class was great, however, we were under the impression it would last until 1:00 or 1:30, but instead class is in session until 2 p.m. every afternoon.  After class, we had some administrative issues to deal with.  These things would normally not be a problem, but we didn't pack any food for lunch and had only shared the snack I packed, and we got stuck in traffic just a few blocks from our apartment because we hit one of the wealthy gradeschools just as the children were letting out for the day.  We came home starving, sweating, only to find out that the air conditioner in my bedroom is broken and won't be fixed until tomorrow.  These are very small, insignificant things under normal circumstances, but added altogether and added to the daily challenges of communication and getting from place-to-place, we were both feeling more or less stressed to the max. 

Luckily, our apartment also serves as a bit of a sanctuary.  It is quiet, cool, and the one place we're able to go to really decompress and relax.  In these first couple of weeks, it is a sanity saver, for sure!

I remember experiencing all of these feelings when I was first in Taiwan, as well.  Some days are great, other days are really difficult, and every day you're faced with some amount of frustrating or stressful situations.  The keys to getting through these days and situations, in my opinion, are to remain as calm as possible (a real test of patience) during the situation, and take some time alone with a book or a magazine or, my personal favorite, laying sprawled out across the bed doing nothing at all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Little Bit of Peace

Something I have found so interesting on this trip so far is the way in which I have been experiencing this brand new place.  As I've sort of suggested before, Dhaka is a crazy, crazy place.  It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world with over 20 million people living within its boundaries.  It is loud (horns honking ALL the time), some of the streets are dirty, traffic has no real rhyme or reason (and that is putting it very mildly), and there are just literally people everywhere.  (I will spare you pictures for my mother's sake...)  But - and I'm serious when I say this - even though it seems like the cultural differences are shoved in my face every second that I am outside of the apartment, it is rare that I have the "holy sh*t, I'm on the other side of the world" feeling.  Once we step out the front door, we are participants in the craziness and we immediately go about the business of getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.  There have been other moments, though, in which I totally and completely understand that I am in a very different part of the world. 

One of those moments happens several times a day - call to prayer.  Almost 90% of the people in Bangladesh are Muslim and 5 times a day, at prescribed times, the call to prayer is sung into a loud speaker at every mosque in the country.  The song is beautiful and, honestly, a bit unnerving (although, not really in a bad way).  It is a reminder to me that I am somewhere I've never been before, experiencing a brand new culture.  Another moment came last night, while Roslyn and I and our new friend Jon, who is another student researcher at ICDDR,B, were out on the river.

Jon, Roslyn, and I at the sari factory, with two of the sari weavers
If Dhaka is the equivalent of someone making you walk the plank into the middle of the ocean, the river cruise we took last night was laying on a sunny, sandy beach, letting waves of calm wash over you.  That sounds a little dramatic, doesn't it?  I don't say any of this to mean that I don't like it here, just to mean that in the day-to-day craziness, it's easy to focus so much on managing life and miss the culture that's going on all around.  Being on the boat, on the river, forced us to relax and allowed us to take in everything around us.

The cruise took us to the north of Dhaka, with smaller villages on either side.  We made a stop at a famous Bangladeshi sari factory (if you can call it a factory, I suppose...  all of the saris are weaved by hand and it can take up to 6 months to make one, depending on how intricate it is).  It was an amazing sight to see.  I actually bought a really beautiful blue sari, which I will be sure to post pictures of when I finally wear it.
Roslyn and I enjoying the sunset.

After that stop, we rode north for a couple of hours, enjoying the sunset, watching people cross the river in smaller rowboats, watching fishermen at their nets, and admiring the peace and quiet of it all.  When we got to the turn around point, the captaion put down the anchor and started a fire in the grill to barbeque some chicken for dinner.

It was a wonderful experience, and it made me feel even more excited to finish up here in Dhaka and get to Matlab, the village where we will do our research.  For now, though, it was so nice to escape the city for a night and see a different side of Bangladesh.