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.


  1. Well that's one massive story you've got there. Make sure you also spent some time outside, not just behind the keyboard ;-) Good to hear everything went relatively well so far and I hope for three of you things will continue to go well. I'll try to keep reading the entries, but if you're going to post a book like this every day I can't promise I'll keep up hahaha. Best!

  2. Believe me, we're mostly on the road! But architecture students cannot do without late night work... Updates will be on the way soon, maybe we will do more pictures than stories from now on. Anyway, I bought local clothing, so beware when I return :)