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.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Bangladeshi Lunch

Rockin' one of the new outfits
Well, the holiday is over here and today, people started to return to work (the work week here is Sunday - Thursday).  For Roslyn and I, that meant it was time to get the show on the road and get to work on our projects!  While we're in Dhaka, one of our main goals is to hire research assistants to take into the field with us.  These assistants will work primarily as translators and will help us conduct our interviews.  The first step to hiring, though, is to get a list of potential assistants from someone at ICDDR,B (the research institution we are affiliated with), and get copies of their resumes.  We were both feeling a little under the weather today, but dragged ourselves out of the apartment into the heat and craziness of the city and made our way to the office.  Unfortunately, once we got to the office, there were no list or resumes to be had.  The man who usually handles such things was still out of the office on holiday and we were told to come back sometime later (I'm told this sort of thing happens quite often and sometimes it can be difficult to get what you want).  While we were in the office, though, we managed to visit several other necessary people and ate lunch at the staff canteen.  Given our crappy states (pun intended), we ate some rice and protein and that was about it.  We will go back to the office (to show our faces and try to move things along) on Tuesday.

From the left, the sister-in-law, Shifat's husband, Shifat, me
Yesterday, we were invited to Roslyn's friend's house for lunch.  Shifat (the friend) worked with Roslyn and my advisor, Mary Shenk, as a research assistant when they were here in Bangladesh last year working on the big project.  Shifat was recently married, and so she wanted us to come to her and her husband's new home, and she promised to cook for us.  We were both very excited, as we still hadn't had a real Bangladeshi meal!  The food was absolutely outstanding!  We had some vegetables, potato pancakes (of sort, which were crispy on the outside and had mashed potatoes and meat on the inside - yum!), chicken with a spicy cream sauce, and a sweet rice pudding for dessert.  Holy moly.  I was stuffed and totally satisfied.  The company was also great.  Shifat is sweet and very smart and we talked with her for a couple of hours.  We (well, really Roslyn since I still know very little of the language) also talked with Shifat's young sister-in-law for a long time.  She is probably 12 years old and certainly had a mind of her own!  She told us that she wants to join the military when she is older because she wants to do something for the women of her country.  Roslyn decided she'd make an excellent professor of Women & Gender Studies.

Eating is an interesting experience here (as are so many other things).  Most people eat with their hands, although silverware is usually available, but eating with the left hand is culturally inappropriate.  This is tough when eating something like chicken, which we usually use both hands to eat.  I did my best to get as much chicken off the bone with my fork in one hand and spoon in the other.  Eating with the right hand is especially difficult for Roslyn, because she's a lefty! 

Eating Bangladeshi food is also interesting because, apparently, until your digestive system becomes used to it, you can have quite a lot of stomach discomfort.  That's the boat we're both in.  I was having stomach cramping and making several trips to the bathroom throughout the night (ick), but we've been drinking plenty of Gatorade and are taking it easy for the rest of the day (and probably eating toast for dinner!  haha).  Neither of us has a fever or any other symptoms of something more serious, so we just have to let this pass.  Literally.  (you're welcome!)

It looks like we'll be working from home tomorrow, since there is no work to be done in the office for another day or so.  It will be nice to have a leisurely day.  Then, tomorrow evening, we are going on a river cruise!  We will get to tour the rivers of Dhaka and see the sun setting on the river.  I am SO excited - it should be beautiful!  I will take lots of pictures and report back to you soon.

Until then, I hope all of you, my lovely readers, are doing well.  Take care of yourselves!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Two Things I Forgot

Hey all,

There are two things I meant to mention in the last post. The first is my mailing address here. I know my mom will be the most excited consumer of this information, if you want to send me anything while I'm in Bangladesh for the next 9+ weeks (you know - in case you want to shower me wih gifts for my 30th birthday...), you should mail it soon because it takes 3-5 weeks for mail to reach Bangladesh. Here's the address:

Katie Starkweather
c/o Nurul Alam
68 Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmed Sarani, Mohakhali
Dhaka - 1212

The second thing I wanted to tell you is that Roslyn (the friend I'm traveling with) also has a blog! You can check out more pictures and info about our trip at

That's all for now!

Eid Mubarak (Blessed Eid)

Well, the first few days in Bangladesh have gone by in a flash!  The first two days were spent running errands around town (buing food and clothes, putting minutes on Roslyn's mobile phone) and just generally getting our bearings.  Roslyn has spent quite a bit of time in Dhaka (the capitol city) before, so it didn't take long for her memory to be refreshed.  Dhaka is a very busy and interesting place - from what I can tell so far - but it seems we picked the perfect time to come.
Rickshaw + driver

Roslyn with her Diet Coke
We arrived at the end of Ramadan, which is the Islamic month of fasting that lasts for 29 or 30 days, depending on the moon and the lunar calander.  During this month, participating Muslims (those exempt are children, elderly, sick, or pregnant, to name a few, as well as travellers) refrain from eating or drinking anything while the sun is up (not even a drop of water is allowed).  We found that while some people were a little on edge (wouldn't you be, after 28 or so days of fasting???), mostly people were just not as active as usual.  This meant there weren't as many people on the roads or out at the stores (save for a couple of exceptions), and it was a good way to ease myself into the cultural experience.
Me on the first day

On Tuesday, however, Roslyn and I decided to venture out to Aarong, a department store of sorts, to look for some more clothes for me.  We walked in and were OVERWHELMED (well, probably me more than her).  It looked like the mall on Christmas Eve - TONS of people everywhere.  The reason for this was that the end of Ramadan is celebrated by Eid, a Muslim holiday when everyone spends time with their families, EATS, and gives gifts.  So, just like Christmas Eve, everyone was out on Eid eve, buying gifts and new Eid outfits.  It was quite the experience - at one point I actually turned to Roslyn and said, as calmly as possible, "Um...  I'm a little ... overwhelmed ... right now."  haha  But, I managed to find 2 new outfits (for a total of 3), so overall, the trip was a success.
My first outfit (salwar kameez)

At the park on Eid
Yesterday, then, was Eid.  All of the shops were closed, and most people in town were at home with their families.  Roslyn and I spent the day getting some work done at home, relaxing (jet lag has kicked us both in the butt), and enjoying the AC.  We also took a walk over to visit a new student that arrived in town the day before.  Luckily, he was up for company, so we sat and talked for a while.  He is a med student at Duke (maybe I can parlay this new friendship into some Duke basketball tickets in the future???  haha) and seems to be very nice.  It's great to have another student within walking distance of our apartment. 

My favorite new outfit!
My first impressions of Dhaka have been good.  Dhaka is much busier and more chaotic than anything I experienced in Taiwan, but I think living in Taiwan for a year has certainly helped cushion me from culture shock this time.  It will definitely take a while to get used to the clothes (long pants and a scarf are tough when the heat index is near 105 degrees) and the looks from men especially (although I got pretty used to being stared at in Taiwan, too) and it will take a while to catch on to the language, but I am really enjoying myself and looking forward to the next couple of months.
Some very excited girls made friends with us at the park  :)