Friday, February 12, 2010

The World's Second Worst City

You guessed it....Dhaka, Bangladesh.
My Dad passed this article along to me, I don't know about living here, but for foreigners Bangladesh is a rough place. At the moment I'm sitting in our hotel lobby, which is in the aristocratic neighborhood of Dhaka, and I feel like my lungs are being squeezed. Every breath is full of exhaust, dust particles and mosquito spray. I cannot get the dirt out from under my fingernails and I have about 72 mosquito bites- malaria is imminent. Bangladesh is eating away at my immune system.
We've been in Bangladesh for one week and on about the second day we decided to move up our flight by about 4 days. We leave on Monday.

But enough complaining... We came here to partake in a Grameen Bank training program- and for the last four days we've been 200km north of Dhaka in the rural villages outside the city of Rajshahi, near in the Indian border. The journey there took 5.5 hours by bus, and despite the incessant honking, the terrifying recklessness of the driver, and potential bladder infections from lack of a bathroom, we made it one piece.
We stayed in one of Grameen's 2,000+ branches, in a village called Parila. The visit was set to be 3 nights, and when we were shown our dormitory we weren't sure we'd make it that long. The large concrete room had two "beds" which consisted of a thin blanket laid over iron slats. After we found our mosquito nets we hung them haphazardly, creating little forts for ourselves which seemed like the safest place to spend the remainder of the trip.
The situation only got more hilarious when they showed us the "bathroom"- a pit latrine on a pedestal. And a sink with a dribble of water. Truthfully the bathroom was not horrible- and we both consider ourselves pretty pro pit-toilet users now. But no shower...for four days...
Thank goodness for baby wipes.

When forced out of our forts we made the rounds through the villages. Immediately a group would gather behind us and continue growing...and growing...and make us increasingly uncomfortable. Bangladeshi people do not see foreigners very often... if ever.
Those that we were able to spend time with were incredibly sweet- offering us food and drink and hospitality beyond what they could probably afford.
The Grameen Bank has around 8 million borrowers currently, something like 97% of them female. Grameen found out early on that the female borrowers have a much higher repayment rate than the males, and tend to use their loans to better their families, rather than for personal gain. In reality most women are in joint ventures with their husbands- they own plots of land and sell vegetables, work with iron, sell cow's milk or fish, etc.- but the loans are made only to the women, and all paperwork is in their name. The women are incredibly proud of the advancements they've made with the help of Grameen: saving enough to build a new house, owning a small plot of land, consistently putting food on the table. The women were very eager to show us around and show off their goats, cows, and TVs.
We were able to spent time with other people benefitting from Grameen including students taking education or scholarship loans. One university student in particular was a beautiful, smart girl who's dream is to study in America. (Of course this is very common). She asked us if it was possible and we told her that US Under Secretary Judith McHale was just in Bangladesh and spoke about increasing the number of Bangladeshi students in the US from 2,500 to 20,000. (Of course this is not likely to happen anytime soon.)

It's extremely hard to imagine living the life of a Bangladeshi.
We couldn't resist the urge to take 20-minute long showers yesterday upon our return to the hotel, and subsequently went out for Italian food for dinner.
The culture shock is certainly extreme, and we keep reminding ourselves that the culture shock would be just as bad, if not worse, for someone from here to walk off a plane in America.

We've have a few hilarious stories to hopefully I'll get around to those later today.

For those of you wondering- Mason has tried a few times to blog. Earlier this week she wrote a whole post on sex tourism in Thailand but then the electricity at the hotel went out (that tends to happen a few times a day.)

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