Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The rains have come...

Streets were already starting to fill with water. Everyone was carefully hiding under the street-side roofs while trying to get a CNG rickshaw. While a local musician was blowing his flute, one local was trying to be the first of twenty (including us) to get a CNG rickshaw, bolts of lightning were striking the heart of Chittagong, and we were getting a cold because temperatures suddenly dropped to 25 degrees, a very kind and soaked man with umbrella was throwing himself at the traffic to make a CNG rickshaw stop for us.

And off we went into the night in a rickshaw that was surprisingly dry, while streets were surprisingly wet. It is sheer impossible to get public transport when it's raining, unless you're willing to be soaked. Rain is not only good for the land, it is also good for the CNG rickshaw drivers. They take the risk of damaging their motors, while they can make twice the profit (no bargaining once you are safe and sound under the rickshaw's roof!).

Once at our guesthouse, we had to wade through the local sewer: our front gate appears to be the lowest land of the neighborhood. I think we mentioned something about sanitation issues in our latest blog. This time the fishes came for us, no need to go on field trips purposefully! Just on a side note, there is no sewer system in this city. People use sceptic tanks, if they can afford it. If not, then they either use latrine pits or the local gutter... which is the one that ends in our front gate...

...all our experiences here are intense. We live a hundred lives and there is something magical about this place that is hard to put in words. The feeling of relief that comes with the first rains is a real experience: even the rickshaw wallahs were laughing and having fun while getting soaked to the bone.



The emergency of emergences

It has become apparent that it is difficult to analyze the emergency of a natural disaster within the complex emergences (pre-existing trends and tendencies) of a less economically developed country like Bangladesh. There is only a little gap between the problematic consequences of the emergency and that of the emergences. A more economically developed country can deal with a disaster in a more isolated manner since it can, relatively, get a much higher priority. Note that we consider yearly floods, winds and monsoon rains part of the emergences more than emergencies. Until now, we have looked at the impacts of the 1991 disaster in Chittagong city and district. This made it possible to analyze the long-term effects of a disaster and get an insight in the emergences.

There have been numerous responses to the cyclone by the government and NGO's. Spatial redevelopment has been planned to some extent, related directly to disaster prevention, but formal plans are hard to realize or can have adverse effects. For instance, the government has pointed out locations where building is not permitted unless buildings leave open the first floor. This makes the areas less profitable for developers, so that informal settlements take over the land where formal settlements are restricted. The question we are facing, thus, is how to understand the complexity of the issue of post-natural disaster redevelopment, if it has such an informal character. One intriguing formal project by the government, on the other hand, is the planting of mangrove forests along the coastal zone (up to 300 meters in width). This will decrease the wind speeds of a cyclone.

We have had difficulties to accurately research the first phase of aid after the 1991 cyclone, because it is such a long time ago. One thing we did conclude, however, is the lack of proper infrastructure. There is one proper tarmac road that runs from Dhaka to Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar. But as soon as you take a turn away from the road, the small embankment roads will not let you drive faster than walking speed, if at all. A lot of roads are made of bricks... and the lack of them. It makes us wonder how the first phase post-disaster aid can be executed properly. Those living in remote areas will be extremely vulnerable, after losing everything (including tube wells) and being cut off from the aid. Aid may be possible by boat. Still it is interesting that relatively little is done about these roads. Could NGO's be more involved also with the upgrading of roads, as it will enhance the first phase of post-disaster aid? With flooding, roads tend to get damaged, so that repair works seem to be a yearly process. The damage of cyclones and floods on the infrastructure, as well as the modality of aid transport, is something we can further investigate in the Sidr effected regions.

This leads us to the following question as well: where is the boundary between the task of the government and that of the NGO's in a country where there is relatively little governmental funding? NGO's obviously prefer to deal with people directly: sad faces attract money, happy faces justify the spent money. However, the pre-disaster problem of infrastructure also becomes a problem in the post-disaster setting. Does proper infrastructure not give the people opportunities, as well as a quicker aid during disaster response? Note that we do not blame NGO's for their work! Rather, we are interested to look at the role that the NGO's can have within the Bangladesh government.

Cyclone shelters can save the lives of many people. Awareness programs make sure people move to these shelters. Raised lands (killas) can save the people's livestock. But when the people return, the first urgent issues seem to be the lack of proper sanitation and drinking water. After that, the people will be concerned with their livelihood: did the cattle survive, where is the boat, how are the crops, is the garment factory closed, what to do as a rickshaw puller? And after that, spatial redevelopment is often informal.

This is why our research has, until now, very much focused on the first two issues as described above. We will narrow down our research more towards the short-term effects when we get to the Sidr (2007 cyclone) effected region. Due to the research in the emergences and long-term effects of the cyclones, we aim on understanding the short-term emergencies based on this.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Chittagong Chow (urban): Cooking up a storm on independence day

Trying out a situationist approach on the 38th birthday of Bangladesh, we decided to start the day with a walk! It seems, though, that wherever we go we create quite a crowd of gawking young men, all asking us “your country?”, education, marital status, favorite color, mother's middle name, personal idol, astrological convictions, and of course general opinions about Bangladesh. Everyone wants to indulge us in the Bengali hospitality and sometimes it can almost be a little intimidating. Today was rather exceptional, as we actually had someone admit to us that he had been following us from a student protest rally to a little cha shop - for our own safety.

This year’s independence day was met with mixed feelings around the country; due to recent political unrest all large gatherings were prohibited in the capital, obviously obstructing any big celebrations. In Chittagong however, the feast went on, or so we were told. Exploring this on a local level, we found very little different from everyday life. A lot of shops were closed, but there were no real signs of anything else being different. Deciding to photograph some of the street scenery instead, we got interrogated by a local man who felt insulted that we should be taking photographs of alleys and closed shops, instead of the richness of people living behind these facades. He convinced us to go into one of the houses and photograph a woman with her goats.

After meeting the whole neighborhood, we decided to move on to the center and see if there was anything going on. We were met by a student road blockade, carrying big signs and shouting slogans. Having set out in search of a good party and only finding protest rallies, we decided to take a break from braving the pressing humidity and stop for some tea. There we met the aforementioned student who told us that for our own security he had accompanied us there. This felt a little awkward as we had never had any cause to feel unsafe in Bangladesh.

We decided to leave the tea shop (unfollowed) and go to the national stadium. Outside of the stadium there were many cars with official looking men giving speeches and rallying. Chittagong played a very important role in the independence of Bangladesh as it was here where independence from West Pakistan was first proclaimed in 1971 over a Chittagong radio station. This was followed by a nine-month war, where between 200,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis were killed (depending on whether Pakistani or Bangladeshi sources are being used). This was the final separation of the country after being dominated for centuries respectively by Mauryan, Mughal, and British Empires, and finally 24 years of West Pakistan governance.

The 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent in many ways created more problems than it solved. The division in which and West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) were united as one country (because of shared religion) was mainly due to political circumstance. It caused one of the largest cultural migrations in history. The division of these countries has implications for all aspects of modern Bangladesh. Being almost landlocked by India, water management of the three main rivers that flow through Bangladesh has proved very difficult without mutual cooperation.

Pondering these thoughts as we finally headed into the stadium, we found the action had already taken place. A little confused, we headed back home, were the pressing weather exploded in a thunderstorm of black rain, seeming strangely appropriate.


Chittagong Chow (rural): Follow the fish, shrimps, salt and rice

Thanks to Caritas, we were able to make a second field trip into the very remote areas between Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar that were most affected by the 1991 cyclone and are most vulnerable for future cyclones. All still recovering from stomach upsets, we set off (by local bus) to cross the great Karnaphuli river once again en route to the highway cum embankment to Cox’s Bazar. The bridge, originally donated by the Dutch in the 70’s, was destroyed by a flying crane (!) in the 1991 cyclone. It was repaired, but will soon be replaced by a fancy new concrete bridge donated by Kuwait. The construction is under a lot of pressure, as the ends of the bridge must meet before the cyclone season starts (in April) to avoid history repeating itself…

We carried out our fieldwork in the disaster stricken areas of the Pekua and Moheshkali upazilas (subdivisions of the Cox’s Bazar district). The focus of the fieldwork was to gain insight into the vulnerabilities of different livelihoods in the area, seeing as economic migration is one of the main spatial tendencies in Bangladesh.

We stayed in Chaukaria town, a typical linear city so characteristic for Bangladesh. From here we went on life-threatening bus trips, off-road CNG drives, jaw-rattling rickshaw rides and cross-river rafting adventures to some of the most remote areas of the country. Everywhere we traveled we were met by smiles, apologies for not being able to provide more hospitality, and emotive stories of friends and family members lost in the Gorky cyclone of 1991.

Interestingly enough, many of the villagers that were interviewed had migrated to the area from other disaster areas (river erosion and embankment failure). The ‘leftover’ land that they had chosen to settle on was extremely vulnerable to cyclones, a fact they all experienced in 1991. Despite the great tragedy this disaster brought about, most people returned to the government-owned squatted land after the disaster due to strong family ties. Hardly any of the villagers actually owned their own land. Besides this, most also appeared to have multiple livelihoods; usually consisting of a main livelihood and renting out services as a day laborer to make some extra money.

There also appeared to be a strong hierarchy in livelihoods; for instance the shrimp farmers seemed to be much better off than the pure day laborers. We found this was closely linked to the disaster vulnerability of the different livelihoods. Salt farming seemed to be the most resilient as salt can be stored underground during a cyclone and the harvest isn't dependant on the yearly seasons. Shrimp cultivation tended to take more than 2 years to regenerate; despite this it was a profitable business (shrimps are seen as a luxury product and are for a larg part exported). Fishermen could store their nets and boats in the channel between the mainland and the off shore islands to save them from destruction. However cyclones tend to affect the fish population quite drastically. Rice farmers came out most vulnerable after a cyclone; the saline water completely destroyed the land for several years after a disaster. In extreme cases making the land so barren that the land owners didn't bother to try to cultivate the land again but switched to mining salt (which in turn made the land even more saline).

The different livelihoods directly found their ways onto our plates as well in the local restaurants: the menu seemed to be one of rice, fish, shrimps and vegetables. Local fruits widely available were bananas and coconuts. For some reason on the bazaars everywhere in Bangladesh you only find fancy imported fruits like grapes, apples and oranges. We wound up our trip with a visit to Cox’s bazaar: the world’s longest beach and being voted on as we speak to become one of the new 7 world wonders!


Sunday, March 22, 2009

City slums: Urban Rurality

After meeting with the Chittagong Development Authority and learning of their plans to heighten the embankment and plant mangrove forests, we wanted to visit some of the affected communities living in slum areas around the embankment that protects the city. We got pointed in the direction of the Chittagong City Corporation, where we met architects and urban planners Reza and Shahidul, involved in the department “Healthy City”. They busy themselves with issues surrounding slum development. They immediately invited us on an all day slum excursion, where we visited the most disaster prone and economically poor areas of Chittagong.

We set off in our CNG, in which we thought only three people could fit. However, our super guide Shahidul squeezed himself next to (on top of) our driver and folded his arm around him. The first part of the ride took us through the outskirts of the port area which can be seen as the economic heart of the slums. This is where the broken ship parts (from the shipbreaking industry) are processed and resold to be used in the building industry. Everything is recycled! Due to the port proximity, it is also where most of the garment factories are located, one of Bangladesh’s largest economic export products.

Our first stop was at a Hindu Fishing community, an informal settlement that was under development by the Chittagong City Corporation. People were proudly laying bricks for a narrow path (three bricks wide) through the small structures. We had not quite expected to be walking on such a good looking pathway in our first slum. We could see that these people were fishermen, due to the fishing nets that were used as fencing. There was one toilet for the whole community, which was apparently not sufficient. Most houses were in the traditional Kanchi style, made of bamboo. They preferred this over the tin sheeting due to interior climate, although parts of the bamboo houses needed to be rebuilt. The spaces were small, housing ten people on twelve square meters. Despite their struggles, these people were very friendly and the children were extremely playful. Just outside of the community, a canal was dug out again for water flow. Things were clearly under development.

We then moved on to a local farm next to the embankment. First of all, it was surprising to see farm land inside such a huge city. Secondly, it was even more surprising to see Frisian cows invading the countryside! They were famous, because they came from "Australia". The ground was clearly very fertile. Rice paddies were green as green can be. The main problem the farmer faces, is the lack of killas (raised land) to protect the cattle in case of cyclones and flooding.

The next stop was at the embankment itself, where we met with some fishermen and had a cup of tea. There were two embankments. One was newer and used as a highway. It was not possible to access this road from these villages, making them less connected. The other embankment had an old dirt road, which was nothing our CNG driver couldn't handle. The fisherman on the good side of the embankments have lived in the area for a long time. They have suffered greatly from the 1991 cyclone, and they surely do not feel comfortable with their current situation if a new cyclone would hit the area.

On the other side of the embankment, a vital group of women lived on government owned land. They came from the Barisal region, where they had lost their husbands during the Sidr disaster of 2007. They migrated towards the city to earn a living. In Chittagong, they now collect and sort garbage until they get removed from their land. The people were full of life and exclaimed: "Where there is work, there we will go".

After visiting two other cyclone shelters, where we witnessed a Rabindranath concert by candlelight, we moved on to the meet all the "family" of our guide. Everyone was very hospitable, and apparently we now are part of his extended family!

The next day the NGO Codec took us to another fishermen village, where they worked with a participatory approach to develop their living standards and awareness regarding cyclones. Some of their main concerns included: the still weak embankments, broken sluice, lack of cyclone shelters, and weakness of own houses. Towards the shore we could see a new mangrove forest that was planted to protect the area from cyclones. People said they spent 200-300 euro for a bamboo house structure, which they could build in one week. Codec also did research in the possibilities of micro-insurance systems in case of disaster.

For our latest field trip, YPSA (a local NGO) took us to visit a garment factory and their communities. Quite understandably, most of the workers were not at home in their homes. We did visit a local bakery and went to two schools. The children dreamt of becoming doctors, teachers, or famous cricket players. We spoke with an old man who had lost his eyes during construction work. He and his wife now relied on the help of family and friends for food. The man told us that the water came up to his chin during the 1991 cyclone, and that people took shelter on top of the roofs. Most people migrated from more rural areas like Comilla due to land loss from river erosion. The men often work in the ship-breaking industry, while the younger women work at the garment industry. 600 people worked at the local garment factory, most of which were women. The factory appeared to be well organized, although we only got to see two of the working floors. Most of the valuable machineries were stored on the higher floors to prevent from flooding. One of the officials informed us that there is currently a trend around the country to move garment factories out of the city. In Chittagong, however, the factories still rely on the proximity of the port. Another 1000 of these factories exist in Chittagong itself. It is a huge industry.

Yesterday, we were supposed to finish our research week with a trip to the ship-breaking communities, guided by YPSA. YPSA has been fighting for better working conditions within these ship-breaking industries, and to stop child labour that supposedly makes up 25% of the working force at these yards. At the moment of departure, however, we were informed that we would not be able to go due to security issues. Today we read in the local news paper, that workers made a human chain of 10 km to protest against a court case that forces several ship yards to close. Apparently, they chanted slogans against NGO's, and YPSA in particular. They blamed the NGO's for potentially losing 30.000 jobs in the industry.

We are great with timing.


Happy world water day!

Today is world water day, a day in which we can dream of clean fresh drinking water for all Bangladeshi. And us. Unfortunately, though, one of the main water related issues in Bangladesh is the lack of clean drinking water. The safest water is bottled water, but not all of the brands produce the same quality. Tube wells are used to extract ground water, which is more or less fresh, but not very drinkable. People either cook or filter this water, but even then bacteria may still remain. Additionally, Bangladesh is facing a huge problem with arsenic that is mixed with the ground water. For us, as short-term visitors, this will not be a problem. But there are severe long-term effects for chronic intake of arsenic water. A lot of research is being done to solve this issue.

Secondly, there is the problem of sanitation in Bangladesh. Proper sewerage systems are lacking, and the frequent occurrence of flooding makes it difficult to separate sanitation drainage from the urban areas and fresh water supplies. As a result, a lot of people die due to diarrheal outbreaks. These outbreaks also occur after natural disasters, and can take more casualties than the short term effects of the disaster itself.

So let's hope things will improve for Bangladesh, and call for a happy world water day! Although, honestly, we're not all enjoying it as much as we like. By now, we've fully, uhm, acclimatized. Food here resembles alcohol: you enjoy it greatly at the moment of intake, but one has a strong regret the day after. Especially Magnus and Diederik went through some of the problems of sanitation and drinking water in person, and on multiple occasions. The hungover diet included ORS and Immodium ("an ORS a day, keeps the doctor away"). We have the luxury of staying in bed for a day or two, but the poor people of Bangladesh do not have this option, so that their condition becomes dangerous. As our stomachs turn, we feel for the people of Bangladesh...

The only hope may be, that the cause comes from our Malarone Malaria pills. When reading through the side effects, we stumbled upon: "diarrhea, stomach pains, vomiting, headaches, and fever". To name a few all too familiar symptoms, that may be unnecessary because Malaria doesn't actually exist over here (more up in the hills). We hope this is actually the case, or else the rural areas will become quite a journey. We promise to show the GPS map of sanitation spots!


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Formal: summary of research

We have been in Bangladesh for almost two weeks now. During the first week, we made a lot of contacts in Dhaka, the capital city. We tried to use our time there to get as much information from earlier researches as possible. Through discussions with experienced people from various fields, we were able to construct a framework and get a lot of inputs. After the first week, we moved to Chittagong, the second city of Bangladesh. It is a harbour city of four milion inhabitants, and the economic heart of the country. We continued to expand our contact list, but also did our first two field researches.

For the first field research, we moved to the more "rural" areas (still densely populated between Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar. We also visited Mognama, one of the most effected cities during the 1991 Gorky cyclone. There were a lot of cyclone shelters. We had the chance to visit some of them, and were also able to talk with locals in Mognama (informal in-depth interview). For the second field trip we were guided into some of the slum areas of Chittagong. The inhabitants of these areas were often displaced people due to one of the disasters in the country. The poeople were very friendly and willing to talk.

The discussions and field trips have shaped our way of thinking about the issue of natural disasters in Bangladesh. We are now in the process of writing down all the ideas we have, without linking them just yet. Some of the most interesting leads we have are:

The lack of shelters for possessions: people can be saved by making cyclone shelters for them to hide during the storm. However, their livelihoods rely heavily on the possessions the people have. These include: their crops, livestock, working tools, materials, etc. In the cities, people are reluctant to move to cyclones since they are afraid their possessions might be stolen. In more rural areas, people fear that they will lose their livestock and crops. For the last category, so called "killas" can be constructed. These are six meter high hills where livestock can stay relatively safe.

The scarcity of land: there is a scarcity of land, even in more rural areas. The land has been divided by among the growing amount of family members. This means that people rely on small patches of land. Small farmers have a hard time making a living. As a result, they are under constant pressure to sell their land to other land owners. When they do sell their land, the family will move illegally to government owned land outside of the river embankments (dangerous), or move to the city and live in informal settlements. We will be researching this migration in the coming weeks.

River erosion: one of the big issues in Bangladesh is river erosion. Rivers tend to constantly be on the move. Agricultural land and dwellings are being consumed by the delta rivers. This is another reason for the migrations as described above. There are several reasons for these river problems. Upstream there is a dam in India controlling the water inflow, and India is preparing to build another dam as we speak. Mangroves protect the coastal zone near the Sundarbans, but these mangroves are lacking in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal. There are projects to plant mangrove forests there.

Linear cities: cities in Bangladesh tend to grow in a linear way along the major infrastructure connections. This seems to be an unplanned consequence. These roads are very lively, making them ideal places for small shops and industries. Also, the roads are often built on embankments (raised land to protect from flooding). The land is therefore more safe to build as it is higher. These roads have a very urban feel to them. But as soon as one takes a side street, the urbanity changes into a form of rurality. Encapsuled within the main infrastructure are the agriculture lands. This is why the rural areas can hardly be called rural. The urban and rural are intertwined, both spatially and culturally.

Holy water: in the Netherlands we now see a tendency to move away from only blocking the water from the land. Rising dykes, and poldering land may not be permanent solutions to the problem of water quantity. In Bangladesh, however, people have lived with water for a long time. They rely on the land to be flooded. This makes their land so extremely fertile. At the moment, however, there is a tendency to rise the embankments and "take control over the land". There is an apparent conflict between the need for the water, and the fear for the water. How can Bangladesh cope with this paradox?

There are many more interesting leads, or "fishes" as we call them (see our previous powerpoint presentations). We will be looking into these and post a summary of our main findings as much as we can. Feel free to comment or start a discussion!


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Life on the Embankment : Rural Urbanity

After arriving in Chittagong and getting picked up by our translator and driver (which proved to be a little over our budget!) we got taken to meet with our contacts at Caritas. They offered to take us on a cyclone shelter trip to Cox’s Bazar the next day.

And off we went bright and early the next morning. The man from Caritas accompanying us, Mr Mozharul Islam, proved to be very helpful and knowledgeable in the subject. He had been working for Caritas for more than 20 years, and even worked in the Sidr area after the disaster in 2007. He was going around to all the shelters to check on the repair works and we got to visit their field office, where they were involved in a participatory approach in the village to educate people on how to build their houses in a more sustainable and cyclone proof way.

We then went on to visit on of the worst hit areas after the 1991 Gorky cyclone, the union of Mognama. Bangladesh is divided into 6 divisions, which are subdivided into districts, which are subdivided into upazilas, which are subdivided into unions, which are subdivided into wards, which are around 3 km2. The Mognama union has roughly 30,000 inhabitants living on 20km2. Pretty dense for a rural area.

Going through the countryside we noticed that the predominant agrarian activities seemed to be rice paddies, salt collection, shrimp farming, and tobacco plantations. All the economic activity (shops, restaurants) took place along the main road, on the embankment. These embankments are also the most desirable places to live. They are high and dry, so to speak. The areas outside the embankments are much more vulnerable and this is where the landless illegally squat government land.

Mognama is a salt farming community. We got the chance to visit several cyclone shelters cum schools and talk with many of the locals. Salt farming actually turns out to be one of the more sustainable activities, as the farmers can store their salt underground and when a cyclone hits their ‘crop’ is not damaged.

Their main concerns for the future were the lack of killas (raised platforms of 6m height) for storing cattle. Every family has several chickens or goats, and these usually have to be left behind during a cyclone. There are also far from enough cyclone shelters, we were told that there are five, each with capacity of 2500 people, for their entire community of 30,000. They need at least 10 more shelters for everyone to be able to evacuate. They were also in need of more primary schools.

We visited many cyclone shelters and there are several different typologies. The three main types are the orthogonal structures (brick or concrete), raised on columns, the arrow shaped (concrete) also raised above ground, and the aerodynamic drop shaped shelters (concrete) also raised on columns. The average budget for these shelters is 80 lakh Taka. If we’re correct his converts to around 100,000 euros.

We also got a chance to see some of Caritas’ houses, built of concrete columns with a steel framed roof and profiled tin sheeting roof. The infill was simple bamboo mats.

On the way back we also went past Kotubdia island where we talked to some fishermen who had managed to flee the cyclone in 1991 due to the timely warning.


The (wrong) Bangladesh Express

This was a day to remember. Magnus was still feeling a bit bad in the morning, a combination of being ill and having to wake up early probably. After a phone call with Hubert Endtz, who gave us some helpful medical advice, we decided to go for the railway station as planned. We packed all our stuff in the car, and managed to squeeze ourselves in as well. All went well until the driver missed the final turn. We arrived five minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. The train was already there. While looking for the correct coach (extra 1), the train decided to start moving. What followed was a scene that resembled that of the opening of the Darjeeling Limited. Except that Bill Murray was lacking. With our flip-flops we ran to a door opening and jumped into sardine “7th” class…

…only to find out a few minutes later, that this wasn’t actually the train to Chittagong. A helpful man told us not to jump out of the train just yet (“accident!”). There was a lot of movement in the train, and a lot of yelling. We were hoping to be able to transfer on the next station. Wishful thinking. The train conductor wasn’t amused. He stopped the train, and kicked us out…

…at a waste area and in a slum. Interestingly, that confirmed the theories that slum areas tend to grow around railway tracks. People looked out of the train to see us. Some had never seen such tall and white people, certainly not when just kicked out of a Bengal train. After a little scenic sewage walk, we managed to find three bicycle rickshaws drivers who bolted off back to the railway station. While buses were crashing against the roadblocks, cars were honking constantly, us trying to hold on to backpacks and guitars on a shaky rickshaw, our wallahs deciding to take the quicker but chaotic highway, and Laura dropping her flute and pack on this highway, a local passenger of another rickshaw smiled to Diederik, and said:

“Welcome to Bangladesh!”

Not knowing what we were to do next, after getting on the wrong train and getting kicked out, we just enjoyed the ride and appreciated life in all its glory. We’ll see. Inshallah. We managed to get to the railway station alive. We didn’t have enough change, so we gladly overpaid the rickshaw drivers who risked their life for us. Laura decided to take a quick look at the platform: just to check when the next train would be leaving (scheduled half a day or a day later). But to her surprise, the Bangla station announcer casually slipped the word “Chittagong”. How could we have thought that our train would arrive on the official time. Of course it was an hour late, so we were now five minutes early to catch the train we were supposed to take in the first place.

The train was extremely comfortable. It had air conditioning, drinks, and a wonderful view to the countryside. It took us about seven hours to get to Chittagong. We were able to get some sleep, and had a good laugh about a day we’d probably remember for a long while. This is a strange country. Or, as Cecile Endtz put it:

“Never a dull moment in Bangladesh!”


Friday, March 6, 2009

Dhaka on a CNG


Butler in Banani

Even after camouflaging ourselves in panjabis and sawar kamez, learning how to tie a lunghi, and accidentally dying our hair black, we have not managed to get by unnoticed in the Dhaka streetscape. Maybe it's because we have a butler in banani...

The day started abruptly with the sound of a phone ringing. It was the hotel staff kindly informing us that our bill was 'ready' to be paid. We then got picked up by Cecile, who took us to our new fabulous apartment in BANANI where we are currently residing. It has everything we ever dreamed of and more; black shampoo, as much water as we can drink, a cow painted on the wall, and wireless internet! Also, we have adopted a new member of UE Bangladesh; he's from Barguna, the prime area struck by cyclone Sidr. His name is Nasreen and he comes with the apartment.

After this we proceeded to get local. As true Bengali fashionists we didn't have to look long to find nice things, even in our freakishly large sizes. The staff of the shops were refreshingly honest and blatantly told us when we looked ridiculous. Also, we are not allowed to wear our lunghis on the street because we'll get laughed at... Nasreen laughed anyway.

We also invested in some quality music. Everyone should download Shahid's music legally (rather than our illegally copied cd) from www.amadergaan.com. We blasted his tunes through our apartment. Nasreem was disappointed with our taste. He likes James (left).

We then raced across town to visit the Comprehensive Disaster Management Program, a branch of the United Nations Development Program, and almost met the Secretary. The CDMP will be providing us with a lot of information on the cyclone Sidr response. Coincidentally our neighbor from our apartment works here too. We told you it was a village... As The Secretary was arriving, they did not have a lot of time so we arranged to have another meeting with the CDMP as well as with the UNDP on Sunday. On the way to the elevator we were photographed, we think they may have mistaken us for The Secretary...

It was nearing Bangla weekend (Friday to Saturday) and it seems universal that people try to escape their offices early. However, we managed call our ITC contact just as he was leaving, and he agreed to meet with us. He is a senior GIS and data administrator and has established contacts with officials in Chittagong Planning Development Agency and the University of Khulna Planning Department.

Another thing we noticed is that everyone here seems to have a card... even pharmacies! We have collected an impressive amount of them and are inspired to make our own.

When we got home we were thrilled to find the CV of our translator in Chittagong in our inbox. Thank you CARITAS! We are worried we will leave with an inferiority complex as he is clearly overqualified...

We also had an excellent dinner and even better than that we haven't had to enjoy it twice... yet...

So... we have an early start full of architecture tomorrow, we're joining the Urban Study Group in a 4 (!) hour walk through Dhaka starting at 8 (!) in the morning. We feel like we're off to a kick start and Bangladesh has been smiling at us. However, something we have found is that it is very hard to ignore all the beggars on the street. There are just so many, and it is very saddening... We developed a strategy to at least give the children cookies instead of money, so far the rickshaw wallahs have been more keen on the cookies than the children.

Until next time...


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

First experiences

Well. How bizarre. A strange 36-hour day that started in Breda and ended in Dhaka. The difference is quite apparent. Our flight was split up into three, making stops at London and Doha. We made efficient use of our first day: we were picked up from the airport by Salaam. For that we thank Hubert and Cecile Endtz, with whom we had a chat about Bangladesh and our plans in the Dutch Club. After that, we went to the Dutch embassy and met Dr. Shayer Ghafur from the department of architecture at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. We are now writing our last mails before we take some sleep. Read more for a more thorough summary of the day.

Overall, the flights with Qatar Airways were perfect. The connection between Doha and Dhaka, however, was slightly odd: it gave us a first impression of the Bengali lifestyle. That is: lack of public space (they like to lean over to your chair), no privacy, and lots of interconnected cosiness. Also, Bangladeshi don't follow rules. They sit where they want to, ask questions when they want to (especially when you want to sleep and don't respond: the 5 second rule works a bit too well...), make phone calls during take-off and landings, get their own drinks at the plane's kitchen, etc. People were rather interested in our journey. We talked with a Belgian who was going to visit orphan homes that were built by NGO's near Cox's Bazaar. A micro biology professor (M. Reza-ul (Raj) Karim, Ph.D., SM (ASCP), FES (NBRII)) from the University of Minnesota is going to visit the country side and offered to help us with whatever whenever, even though he didn't know what we did (the way), nor did he have time (the when). But a nice gesture in any case. Talking about cases: luggage claim was interesting as well, as you can see in the post below. People even take jerry cans as luggage.

Salaam drove us to the Dutch Club, where we are staying tonight. There were road signs and road markings. But none of them were used. We saw various modalities of transport: walking, the bicycle, the motorcycle, the bicycle rickshaws, the motorcycle rickshaws, the yellow cabs, the not so yellow anymore cabs, and the busses. Busses don't stop. Bus stops evoke a mass relay race, where people have to catch up with the bus and find a place in the bus. Which there isn't. The different modalities work on different scales. Using the public transport from one part of the city to the other will involve using two of these. The bicycle rickshaws to the closest roundabout, and the yellow taxis between major areas. Funnily, only the bicycle rickshaws know local streets, because the city is just too vast to remember. Then again, taxi drivers don't mind asking around.

We will not be staying at the Dutch Club for longer than one day. It is rather expensive, but at least it is safe. Everyone agrees that we ought to stay in the safer areas of the city (Gulshan and Baridara mainly). But these are also the richer and more expensive areas obviously. Considering the recent murders and tensions, we prefer safety over budget right now. With a bit of luck we will be able to sleep at another guest house or hotel from tomorrow on which is both safe and affordable. At the Dutch Club, Hubert and Cecile Endtz welcomed us and gave us some practical advise. We are very thankful for their help and kindness. Cecile has offered to join us to some clothing shops tomorrow. We're trying to look more local, although I doubt we'll pass. For that Magnus and I will desperately need a black mustache.

From the Dutch Club we took bicycle rickshaws to the Dutch Embassy, where we registered with our contact information. They were so kind to give us advise regarding our visa and accommodation. We were also updated with the latest news regarding the tensions between the rifles and the army. We have seen quite a lot of army soldiers in the city, but have not felt uneasy about it. From the Embassy we took a taxi to the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. The taxi driver did not know the address, so he dropped us of somewhere in the campus. A bicycle rickshaw driver offered us a lift to the faculty of architecture, but we would not fit in with the three of us, so we decided to walk. The friendly cycler then showed us the direction when we got lost a bit. So we decided to let him and another driver cycle us to the faculty after all. In the end we wouldn't have found it without help. Our driver kept talking about his favorite football team, but I honestly don't know any teams in Bangladesh. Don't blame me. We overpayed them, made a picture of them with their rickshaws, and left to the faculty.

The faculty was rather easy to distinguish from the faculty of civil engineering. You can see what I mean. Modernistic concrete building. Hooray (sorry Laura)! We met with some students, who were about to do a graduation thesis presentation. Everything felt so similar to TU Delft: tired students due to sleepless nights, scale models scattered around, presentation panels being rolled up safely, and a lot of Bengali student talk, which probably involved a lot of architecture as well. Professor Shayer Ghafur was a most inspiring man. We had a thorough chat with him about our research. Surprisingly, his ideas overlapped largely with our conclusions so far: he emphasized the livelihood, social factors, and the economical consequences of the disaster. His colleague at the planning department told us there were plans for new shelters that could protect both people and their livestock. Here we can also see some interested consequences due to the micro-credit system: poor people take a loan to buy a goat, then disaster strikes, killing the goat because there is no shelter for it. The owner comes back from the shelter, leaving him with nothing plus a debt. Result: a worse situation. We will be processing the information into a more formal report later on.

When we headed back it had become dark. Dhaka became rather mysterious: street lamps did not work so that all the light came from informal shops' oil lamps or the traffic. The street was filled with bicycle rickshaws. All in all, words cannot describe this city. You need to hear and smell it. We will try to get some odor sample of what this city smells like. It at least includes food (peanuts) and burning of something (waste). The people are really interested in tall white foreign people. They'll say hi, shake your hand, giggle, smile, or just stare at you. The seem an honest people, giving back money when we overpay rickshaw cyclers for instance. But poverty is always around, which is sad and makes us uncomfortable at times. Ignoring people feels so rude. After all, we have too much and they have too little. We are trying to find ways to overcome the awkwardness. For instance, we could buy candies and give some to begging kids. Not sure how that will work out.

We mapped most of our day with our GPS device, just to try it out. You can see the track at the right. To our (pleasant) suprise the result seemed more precise than back in Delft, this thing might come in handy after all.

Tomorrow another day full of suprises and new encounters awaits.


Happy Landings with Happy People

After a mere 72 hours with no sleep, 3 flights hopping from Brussels to London, Doha and Dhaka with Diederik almost getting arrested on the plane (falsely accused for smoking in the toilet, communication error at stewardesses), and changing our perception on what luggage can be, we have landed in the biggest village on the planet; Dhaka. Dodging rickshaws and bicycles that were miraculously going against traffic, we have made it to a little Dutch oasis amidst the madness. We plan to swim and play darts all day long.