Rich’s Bangladesh Journal
· May 1
Smooth if endless flight over
and we all rendezvoused in Dhaka, where we learned that (a) the domestic airline
that was taking us to Chittagong had never heard of us, and (b) our return
flight next weekend from Chittagong back to Dhaka did not exist. Both problems
solved with a liberal application of money, to be recovered from the booking
agency after suitable yelling once we get back home.
Upon arrival in Chittagong after 25 hours of travel, Tanushree's parents of course took us all shopping to buy clothes from the wedding. (I mean, what else WOULD you do? It's not like you'd want to shower or sleep or anything.) Details of that adventure later but here are a couple of pics to give you an idea. Tanushree's parents generously bought saris for Alice, Tanushree, Judyann, and Darrow; Alice then saw another one that she loved and bought for herself. The process took about 5 hours since nothing in Bangladesh happens quickly, or without at least ten people shouting opinions at each other. Upon finally being brought to our hotel we collapsed into bed, which appears to be stuffed with slabs of granite. This did not matter in the least.
More later as time permits....
· May 2: “Getting There is Half the Fun”
As I mentioned in my earlier
email, our flights over were uneventful. The Dulles - Doha (Qatar) leg was
nearly 12 1/2 hours, but I slept for a good 6 or 7 hours of that thanks in
significant measure to a pharmaceutical "bon voyage" gift from my trusty evil
assistant Angie. We rendezvoused with Sibren, Tanushree, and Judyann in Doha
and flew together to Dhaka to complete the family rendezvous by meeting up with
Gabriel and Darrow, who had started in San Francisco and gone around the other
way, via Hong Kong, and with Tanushree's parents. So we had a grand old family
gathering in the Dhaka airport and checked in for the short flight to Chittagong.
That's where things got squirrely: Alice's and my names did not appear on the
passenger list, and no amount of waving confirmation printouts helped. It was
at this point that we learned one of the primary rules of Bangladeshi society,
which is this: "Everyone Gets Into The Act". Tanushree's father came over and
started berating the check-in agent, who got some of *her* people to come over,
and pretty soon we had a whole Jerry Springer thing going, only in Bengali.
(This phenomenon of inclusivity was a factor in stretching our sari-buying trip
out to its glorious 5 hour length, as I mentioned yesterday.)
With no obvious progress being made, I cut the Gordian knot by shouting, "Enough! I'll buy new tickets!" There are two kinds of problems in this world: those that can be solved by throwing money at them, and those that cannot. This one fell squarely into the former category, and anyway, I figured I can always extract reimbursement from the booking agency later. So the agent marched us over to a teeny tiny little office manned by a lonely guy with a very, very old computer. He looks over the passenger list. I am still not on it. Then he looks over it again, and remarkably, nothing has changed. So he reads through it a third time and notes, aha! there is a passenger named Sibren Isaacman on the list, and perhaps that is me? I insist that no, Sibren Isaacman is an entirely different person, standing about 60 feet away at this very moment. So he reads through the list a fourth time and notes that there is a passenger named "Islam". A typo, perhaps? Might Mr. Islam be me? I insisted that this was highly unlikely since Mr. Islam's first name was "Harooq", which is not especially close to "Richard". So the agent shrugged and said, "OK, what flights do you want?" I suggested that the ones on my original reservation -- we're talking round trip, remember -- would be convenient.
The agent starts to enter the flights into the reservation computer but stops, noting with a frown that our return flight, next Saturday at 9:25PM, does not exist. And indeed, as he shows me on the monitor, that seems to be the case. Not only we, but Sibren, Tanushree, and Judyann have reservations on a return flight that does not exist; the latest flight out of Chittagong back to Dhaka leaves at 3:30 PM. Imagine our surprise had we not discovered this until the day of our departure, when we would have shown up at the airport in Dhaka only to discover that our flight had left 6 hours earlier, and that there is no way to make the rest of our flights back home. So it would seem that our misplaced reservation may have been a blessing in disguise.
After buying tickets to replace the dropped reservation and getting everyone rebooked on return flights that actually exist, we returned to the counter to check in. Gabriel and Darrow, having come via a different route, had a connecting flight to Chittagong on a different airline, though the flight was at about the same time as ours. At least, until THAT flight disappeared, which happened about three minutes after we had straightened out the first set of problems.
Sibren and Gabriel were chatting, and Sibren, looking at the departure monitor, remarked, "Look, there's your fl...huh?"...as Gabriel and Darrow's flight disappeared from the monitor at the moment he was reading it. Seems they just decided to, well, cancel it. After a heated discussion at THAT airline desk, this time involving only about 5 people, we once again resolved the problem by unsheathing the Sacred Golden Credit Card of Dad and buying them tickets on our flight.
There were about 50 people on that flight, which was scheduled to continue on to Bangkok after Chittagong. But only 9 people got off at Chittagong.....us. This led Gabriel to remark, "Wow, lucky thing that I pulled that cord over the window to alert the pilot that our stop was next."
And THAT is the story of how we got here. Seems that my stream-of-consciousness instincts have gotten the better of me and I have gone on for a lot longer than I expected. When the opportunity arises, I will write more about today's events, which consisted of:
By the way, for those of you who are not in the family loop, this impending wedding is for my daughter-in-law's (Tanushree's) brother Prasun, who met his intended during a semi-arranged marriage/wife-hunting trip a few months ago. She seems like a reasonably pleasant and attractive girl whom none of us -- including Prasun -- knows particularly well. As you will be able to tell from the pictures, one of the many nuptial ceremonies that we seem to have missed is the one where they raid Imelda Marcos's tomb to come up with an adequate supply of makeup for the bride. (But we do not hold this against her.)
· May 3: “We are Fam-i-ly…”
Leave it to us be visiting a
Muslim country when the US finally takes out Osama Bin Laden. The family we're
visiting is Hindu, as you know, and so were happy about it, but we were advised
not to talk about it in public. The tone of newspaper coverage here was
enlightening, to say the least. One of the major Bengali-language newspapers
had a big airbrushed photo of Bin Laden on the front page, making him look
rather saintly. But the front page of its English-language counterpart carried
a photo of the smoking World Trade Center towers. And the interesting thing
is......that these two newspapers are owned by the SAME COMPANY. Guess they
know their markets.
I have mentioned a couple of times how every discussion or action here seems to involve a large number of people. It seems to me that this phenomenon flows from the very extended and intricate web of family relationships that -- at least in our little corner -- seem to characterize life here. This makes itself known in the language; it seems like there are separate words for every familial permutation, as people keep getting introduced to us not simply by name, but by detailed relationship. That is, each introduction -- usually to a short, smiling person who does not speak any English -- begins with something like, "This is my wife's second-youngest sister's husband's older brother's middle child," a relation for which Bengali seems to have a single word. I am never good at this sort of thing -- my otherwise reliable memory fails miserably at names, faces, and directions -- and so I move through this social milieu in a constant state of low-level panic that I am going to offend someone by not remembering who they are or how they fit in to the family tree.
My children, to their great credit and my considerable surprise (where did they get it?), seem preternaturally adept at this. I have more than once overhead Sibren and Gabriel talking about some conversation they had had with [inset Bengali familial term here]. They move with impressive grace and evident comfort in this environment, which makes me very proud of them, if a little mystified as to how they do it. I expect it of Tanushree, of course, since she grew up in this world -- and has been shepherding us through it with truly heroic patience and stamina -- but I would have been unsurprised if my sons had been at least a little more like bulls in the social china shop, like their father. They aren't, and everyone here adores them.
As an aside (and in the context of Bin Laden), I should mention that seeing and being a part of all this makes me understand tribalism a lot better. Places like Afghanistan and Pakistan are frequently referred to in news articles and the like as "tribal" in a vaguely pejorative way that implies that they are somehow more primitive than we are. But what it really is, is a far more acute awareness of family and other social relationships than we are used to; and we see that first hand -- and in a very positive way -- in our interactions here. There's definitely value in it. (And our government's continuing blindness to that truth is precisely the reason that we will NEVER get it right in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
So given all this, you can only imagine what weddings are like. For that matter, you can only imagine what wedding *photographs* are like. I can't even count how many group pictures got taken the day before yesterday on the dais with every possible permutation of about 200 people posing with the couple-to-be. (And this was just an engagement party...the actual wedding isn't even for another two days, with assorted events in between.)
It is a Bengali Hindu tradition to decorate one's house with lights when there is a wedding. But the family here lives in an apartment building. Soo-o-o--- they hired someone to festoon the alleyway leading to the building with lights, as well as the entire side of the apartment building. (See the pictures.) I'll say one thing for these people: they don't believe in halfway measures.
· May 4: “Chitty Chitty Gong Gong”
I have not written anything
so far about the actual city that we are in. Chittagong is the 2nd largest city
in Bangladesh, a port city with a population of about 2.5M. It is in many
respects a typical 3rd world big city: unbelievably crowded traffic,
half-constructed (but nonetheless in-use) unadorned concrete buildings
everywhere, grinding poverty, and an emerging middle class. There are wires
everywhere, crisscrossing the streets and snaking around the houses -- no
underground electrical infrastructure here. The wiring even in a middle-class
apartment would give an American electrician a stroke, and so far we have
experienced an average of about 3 electrical blackouts a day. These have ranged
in length from 30 seconds or so up to about 10 minutes. Since the weather is
fairly hot and humid -- at this time of year, no worse than a moderate
Washington DC summer -- the sudden loss of air conditioning is quite the eye
opener (or, more accurately, pore opener).
It's not an attractive city, nor would you expect it to be given the economic straits of the region. There is fairly little green even in the occasional dusty-looking park area. But you see a lot of sandlot cricket in such places, that sport being wildly popular here. I took some nice photos of some local kids playing cricket in the lot next to the community center where the engagement party took place. (For the record, the batter whiffed the pitch.)
Traffic has to be experienced to be believed. It doesn't matter whether the streets are narrow alleys (as in the residential areas) or wide boulevards (as downtown): they are all choked with traffic. Now, those of you reading this who have traveled a bit might at this moment be saying to yourselves, "Oh yeah, I've driven in Rome and Paris. I know how crazy it can be." To which I respond: I have also driven in Rome and Paris, and let me assure you that you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Chittagong traffic makes Rome look like Sioux Falls on Super Bowl Sunday. There are no traffic rules to speak of, other than a halfhearted attempt to drive on the left, UK-style, and there are NO traffic lights, literally not a single one. This makes intersections an exercise in Darwinism.
Attempting gamely and pointlessly to mediate the process are the traffic wardens, who stand on small round islands, two or three feet high and about eight feet across, in the middle of major arteries and intersections. They wear military-like olive green uniforms and carry 2' sticks which they wave around dramatically in a fruitless attempt to direct traffic. If you would like to experience their sense of accomplishment and job satisfaction, go to a nearby park where there's a small turbulent river or stream. Find a 2' stick. Then go stand in the middle of the river and wave the stick around in an attempt to direct the water molecules. You are now a Chittagong traffic warden. (Alternately, if you do not want to go to a park or get wet, look online at the Kennedy Center website and choose a night when the National Symphony Orchestra is performing. On that evening, find a stick in your back yard. Then go stand in your living room and attempt to conduct the NSO by waving the stick around. You will accomplish exactly the same thing.)
With screaming irony, at one of these intersections there is a tiny storefront government office with a big sign that reads "Traffic Management Complaint Office". I can only imagine what goes on in there, but I have a mental image of a guy behind a desk who sympathetically listens to you choking with frustration and rage at some horribly traumatic traffic-related experience, writes it down on a form, and says, "You're right, that was terrible. Why don't you become a traffic warden? We'll give you a green uniform and a stick."
The predominant species of vehicles are elaborately-decorated bicycle-chain pedicabs (rickshaws), vans, and tiny green natural-gas-powered taxis. The latter are cheesy-looking three-wheeled vehicles about 2/3 the size of a SmartCar, with metal mesh in place of windows. They are very similar to the ubiquitous "tuktuks" used in Thailand, and like them, have crash-safety ratings in the negative numbers. The pedicabs probably deserve a whole book to themselves, as they are absolutely everywhere, and all powered by profusely sweating men with thighs like tree trunks and low life expectancies. You will often see the grunting drivers step off the seat and manually push the passenger-laden rickshaw up hills where even they cannot power the bicycle chain.
Partly because of the slow-moving pedicabs, the average distance between vehicles is often measured in inches (no exaggeration). Navigating traffic in the hired van (with driver) that has been our main source of transport is no mean feat, and we have had at least a couple of gasp-inducing close calls variously involving pedestrians and drivers cutting directly across us. Oh, and horses. One encounters occasional untethered, presumably feral horses roaming the side streets; they are presumably smart enough to stay off the main arteries. I have no idea who feeds them but they certainly enliven the driving experience.
Two more important characteristics of the Chittagong street scene are billboards and beggars.
Why billboards? For one thing they are countless, practically close-packed on all the half-finished bare concrete buildings and on posts along the highways, screaming in both Bengali and English. But the odd thing about them -- first noticed by Gabriel on the ride into town from the airport -- is their subject matter. American billboards are mostly for consumer goods and services: cars, airlines, electronics, cosmetics, banks. But the billboards here are an odder assortment. Some tout banks as at home, but many of the rest seem to be for oddly industrial products: there are lots of them for steel, coaxial cable (!), and occasionally concrete. It makes me wonder who exactly the target audiences are for these products, since such a large fraction of the vehicles on the road -- whose drivers would be the ones seeing the signs -- are pedicabs and taxis. Is there some enterprising rickshaw driver out there, dripping sweat as he bears down on his bicycle pedals, who thinks, "Oh, that reminds me, I need to pick up a couple of I-beams on my way back to the hovel tonight."?
Another popular billboard topic is trade and vocational schools, of which there are many. My favorite so far is an especially large and prominent one for the Certified Institute of Accountancy, whose appearance, dominated by the gigantic letters "CIA", has got to be a particularly infelicitous marketing approach around here.
Certainly the saddest part of the street scene are the beggars, of which there are also very many. They are most commonly women and unaccompanied small children, all strikingly diminutive in stature, and all are utterly implacable and relentless, as they probably must be in order to survive. Their behavior is unlike American street people. If you step out on the street, you will immediately be accosted by a woman or a small cluster of children, perhaps six years old and possibly even carrying infants with them. They will tug on you and touch you and gesture with their hands and repeat a phrase over and over, absolutely non-stop, presumably "
Tonight we attend another pre-wedding event, this one involving "painting" the groom with turmeric (to give him that healthy jaundiced glow), then traveling to the bride's house to give her gifts. Details to follow if time allows.
· May 5: “Pre-Wedding Celebration Number, um, I Forget”
We are now at the wedding day
itself, an intimate gathering of 1000 family members, convening tonight. The
weather prediction is for heavy rain, but we'll see; we got lucky and beat the
forecast yesterday; so far today has been sunny so apparently some sympathetic
supernatural force is with us so far.
Yesterday was the final pre-wedding ceremony and party, which took place in two parts:
First, we arrived at Tanushree's aunt and uncle's apartment, which has sort of been the local base of operations since the immediately family lives in NJ, as I think I have mentioned. (Her parents and brother are staying with the aunt and uncle). This is the building decorated with lights, as you saw. (And last night, I got some better shots with my good camera). Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a hellish clamor that turned out to be...a band! Standing outside the apartment! Five guys: snare drum, bass drum, clarinet, trumpet, and a maraca. (Well, sort of a maraca. It was a hollow silvery metal spheroid with a handle that went shikka-shikka-shikka when you shake it, so what would YOU call it?) Nomenclature notwithstanding, since they were standing in a stairwell outside a flat, the volume was earsplitting, rendering conversation utterly impossible and attracting more than a little attention from the neighbors. There were a lot of open doors there, but no one seemed put out; I gathered that this is not unusual around here.
Now, you may have some mental image -- "image" not being quite the right word -- for the music they were playing. (Mental recording, maybe?) Which is to say, that I imagine that you imagine that the music was rather eastern-sounding, sort of Ravi Shankar on a trumpet. But no. It was celebratory, very up-tempo, sort of an upbeat version of a New Orleans jazz funeral with a hint of an eastern theme. The best I can do is to say that it sounded a tad like "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" with an undertone of the Evil Flying Monkey Men/Miss Gulch On A Bicycle theme music from the Wizard of Oz. (You remember that one, right? doodoo doodoo doo DOOOO doo, doodoo doodoo doo DOOOO doo...) Which, now that I reread that sentence, makes it sound like a rather weirder musical concoction than it actually was. But mainly, it was loud. Really, really loud.
There were two primary activities in the flat, neither of which involved the bride nor her family, who were not present. One was a blessing ceremony for the groom, performed by a priest. It was largely identical to the rite that Tanushree underwent the day before her wedding to Sibren; you can see pictures of it here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/
The other activity, taking place more or less in parallel to the blessing rite, was preparing a suitcase containing a bundle of gifts for the bride-to-be. These included: a sari, some household goods, a fresh fish the size of a small throw rug, and collection of bling -- to be worn at the bride's blessing ceremony later that evening -- that Snoop Dogg thought was excessive. Seriously, I have never seen that much decoration worn by a live human being. And I have no idea what the fish was about, and we never did get to eat it, though it was in a nice decorated red box. (Postscript: we ate it the following night.)
Once the blessing was complete and the gifts all packed -- into a big red suitcase that made it look like we were sealing the deal on a ransom of some sort -- the band struck up and we all (musicians included) headed down the street, out to the van, and over to the reception hall. The musicians accompanied us down the street, blaring away that high-decibel Bill Bailey/Flying Monkey melange, and I gather that this will take place again tonight on a much larger scale. It feels a little odd to be in a group of about 9 people, strolling down a maze of narrow third-world streets and alleyways, accompanied by a brass band. The locals took it in stride; they see it a lot.
This is a good time for another few words about those streets. They are dark at night, not at all like big-city streets or even side streets in the US. And the reason for that is simple: they are dark because there are no lights. No traffic lights, as I mentioned yesterday, but also no street lights, and -- weirdly -- relatively few headlights. Despite careering around in close quarters on narrow streets, a large fraction of drivers do not feel compelled to use their headlights. The pedicabs -- which are the single largest components of traffic -- have no headlights at all, and the boxy mini-taxis have a single watery headlamp that throws almost no light.
At this point, the more analytically-inclined among you may draw up short and say, "Wait a minute. If there are no streetlights, headlights, or traffic lights, it must be nearly pitch black. So how the hell does anyone cross the street at night without getting killed?" Good question. I told you it was Darwinian, now didn't I? The only saving grace, such as it is, is that the traffic moves pretty slowly. In practice that only means that your body won't be thrown very far.
But there is some light, the gloom broken by isolated pools of illumination from the various storefronts and street vendors, strung like beads along the alleys. Walking along an alley this way is an otherwordly experience, ineluctably alien, and this experience almost more than anything else drives home to me the foreignness of the place.
Anyway, we made our grand musical grand entrance to the reception hall, where the bride's army -- er, family -- was waiting for us, sprinkling us with water as we walked in. The hall was a stark large multipurpose room with painted concrete walls, several rows of plastic red chairs, and a bank of long picnic tables for the eventual day-camp-style dinner. There was a low dais up front, festooned with an archway of pink balloons. As the honored guests from far away (and the only white people), we were ushered to the front row. A gaggle of teenage girls in beautiful saris approached Alice and very shyly asked her if she had been in any movies.
The ceremony that followed was essentially identical to the groom's from a couple of hours earlier, performed by the same priest. But Prasun, the groom, was not present, nor was his and Tanushree's mother. Reason: the groom is not permitted to see the bride in the 48 hours before the wedding, and he is also not allowed to be alone. So he stayed home with his mother! We were familiar with the whole groom-not-seeing-the-bride tradition -- lots of cultures have it -- but the not-being-alone thing was new to us, and we speculated among ourselves about its origin. We came up with three plausible explanations: (1) to protect the groom from evil spirits; (2) to protect the groom from elements of the bride's family who may think that this marriage is not such a hot idea; and (3) to prevent the groom from blowing town should HE decide that this marriage is not such a hot idea after all. Take your pick, but it could be none of the above.
Frankly, the bride seemed none too happy about the whole thing. She smiled almost not at all the whole evening, and cried at a few points during the blessing. I am assuming the latter is emotion; she will be leaving everything she knows and loves to come to America with a near stranger, once she gets her visa in 6-10 months. But Judyann advanced the more prosaic theory that she was in physical pain: her bracelets were too small, and we could see her attendants struggling to get them on her. However, the general consensus was in favor of the "going away forever" explanation.
At the conclusion of the service, and -- as a few days earlier -- after photos of every possible permutation of family members on the dais with the bride, it was time to eat. Or, in our case, time to look. Tanushree's father had cautioned us NOT to eat the food here, and we did not need convincing; catching some foodborne nastiness would be a very, very bad thing for us, and the risk of that happening is not small. So we begged off, and begged off, and made apologies and excuses right and left, and made our retreat back to the hotel, leaving a visibly offended bride's father in our wake. I felt bad about that, but there was really no choice, and Tanushree assured us that it was not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and that he would get over it quickly. (I hope so, since we will of course be seeing him tonight at the actual wedding. Fortunately that event will be at the hall where we had the engagement party on Day Two, where we ate the food safely.)
And that was yesterday. Tonight is the main event, and I get to wear my new "kurta", the outfit that Tanushree's parents bought on Saturday (Gabriel and Sibren each received one as well). My mother, seeing the picture of me in it, commented that the Mandarin look suits me; my evil assistant Angie remarked that it made me look like a slave driver, and she should know. So with endorsements like that, I will definitely have to buy another one.