22 February 2012

Photos from Dhaka

Here are some photos from my month in Bangladesh. All photos were taken in February 2012, and are the author's unless otherwise noted. All can be clicked to enlarge.

Below: Unintended irony. For the building next door or for the wiring, I wonder?

Below: Typical street view, from what I saw.

Below: spot I passed everyday. Note the wires.

Below: typical side street. Right behind me is where the child was breaking bricks.

Below: Building a highway overpass by hand.

Below: another street view.

Below - trying to give a sense of the density of the place. It just goes on, and on, and on...

Below - a loaded rickshaw van. I couldn't help but wonder every time I saw one: how much does that load weigh? And next, how many calories does this driver need a day to be able to peddle that load around town?

Below: Pollution made for dramatic sunsets - didn't really capture it here.

Below, Newmarket - one of the shopping centers in Dhaka.

Below, city bus on Airport Road.

Dhaka Int'l Airport on the way out of town. Honestly, it felt like a clear day. I was a little surprised when I saw the photo...

Sayonara, Dhaka!

21 February 2012

Week 4 - What I've learned

Last week in Bangladesh. Great month, and was consistently humbled by the generosity and kindness of people - but Bangladeshis were among the first to admit that it's not the easiest place to travel. Last installment of what I've learned.
  1. Green grapes are not seedless. Careful readers will already know not to try to get the seeds out of your mouth with your left hand.
  2. Internal flights in Bangladesh - wait, let me back up. Bangladesh is roughly Wisconsin. We were flying from, say, Oshkosh to Madison, so we wouldn't have a seven hour drive on crappy roads (no bridges, and the ferries are less than reliable in terms of schedule). And then we were driving the geographic equivalent of Madison to Beloit, which is 121 km/ 75 miles, which takes three hours. (See above re: roads.) To get from roughly Oshkosh to Beloit takes a flight and a three hour drive. That should tell you all you need to know about the infrastructure here.
  3. For internal flights in Bangladesh you do NOT need to be there two hours before departure. Take on all the liquids you want. And if you're white, evidently, and you set off the metal detector on your way through, no worries - just carry on, they won't stop you. And if you stop yourself because you're obviously the cause of some beeping, they'll keep waving you through.
  4. Planes can make u-turns. On the ground. At least in Jessore they can. And it's fair enough, why take up more land for another runway? I was surprised by the proximity of farmers - not farms, but farmers - to the runway, but again, land is at a premium here.
  5. Despite all of the challenges of road travel, going by bus or by road in general still takes LESS time than going by train. Trains here are slow, uncomfortable, and expensive. Which means that the British left Bangladesh with mind numbing bureaucracy (and tea breaks and cricket) but NOT with a functioning train system. Wha...? Why get colonized by the British if you're not going to get rail out of the deal? (Don't get colonised, of course, but if you do, the British are awful but not the worst. Bangladesh may as well have been colonised by the French so they'd've gotten some interesting fusion food, at least.) (But still, never, ever, get colonised by the Spanish. Oof. World's first concentration camps? In Guam, thanks to his "Most Christian Majesty" Philip II [at least according to Pope Paul IV] in the 1570s... Okay, I'm getting far afield.)
  6. If you don't take seconds you will offend your hosts. Taking a little something, however small, is a compliment to the chef. Never mind that you're the slowest eater at the table, take some more.
  7. Sunrise or sunset on a paddy field is stunningly beautiful. (above right- click to enlarge.)
  8. Turmeric and eggplant are saline resistant. Remember the old tale that Rome salted the fields of Carthage so that the Carthagians would never again be able to rise to challenge them? Well, people in southern Bangladesh are trying to find some work-arounds. They have to. Cyclone Aila and its concomitant storm surge salted fields across southern Bangladesh. (Left - click to enlarge, though even from this view you can see the salt rime between the stubble of the rice plants.) What do you do? You hope for rain, as that will eventually wash the salt back into the sea. That takes time. In the interim, you try to figure what crops are saline resistant. Across the road from this salted field, the gentleman below was growing eggplant, and doing it well. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Bushley; click to enlarge.) Turmeric is also saline resistant, but the price of turmeric has fallen through the floor in the last few months. Not sure what these farmers are going to do, though some NGO have stepped in to provide storage facilities in the hopes that they can ride out the bust and hopefully sell when prices have rebounded a little bit. What do they do for revenue in the meantime? These are subsistence farmers. It's going to be tough.
  9. Bangladesh is 90% Muslim, but it's still the third most populous Hindu nation in the world just by virtue of its colossal population base. There are many Hindu villages all over the country, but particularly in the southwest, where we were doing site visits. Besides the bindi, you will see an absence of gender separation in these villages and while there are still gender roles, of course, they seem to be less rigid. One village meeting I attended in a Hindi village had all the men to the left of the speaker and all of the women to the right, but the women and men both spoke, the women were not veiled or covered, and they were part of the decision making process of the village in terms of planting strategies for crops and investments.
  10. Indigenous people in Bangladesh, unfortunately like indigenous people nearly the world over, are lower in nearly every socioeconomic indicator than Bangladeshis.
  11. Mutton is not sheep. It's goat. And not unlike the chickens, the goats in Bangladesh are not particularly well fed. I defy you to eat it with only your right hand without making a complete mess. If you have the option, go with the fish.
  12. Nearly every car in Dhaka has a DVD player - below left, that's not a rearview mirror, that's a DVD player (playing, in this case, a Bangla movie from the early 60's). Given the time you sit in traffic, honestly it seems fair enough.
Off to Thailand and home soon. What a month!
I'll continue to think about it for a while. More pics and posts to come.

20 February 2012

The other elephant in the room

Writing about life here and not writing about poverty is dishonest.
People here are poor, and many, many people here are very, very poor. You can’t really wrap your head around the numbers. To define what we’re talking about, the poverty line is set at 80 taka / person/ day, or about a dollar a day, and 49% of Bangladeshis are at or below the poverty line. That's 71,000,000 people, or slightly more than the entire populations of Argentina and Peru, in an area smaller than the state of Illinois, living on less than a dollar a day.

And yes, of course, the cost of living here is much cheaper. Eighty taka can buy you some rice. It won't buy you rice and oil to cook it with, but maybe you can get some water to boil it. But it won't buy you rice and a heating source. Eighty taka is not enough.

About 20% of rural households (which equals almost 23 million people, since Bangladesh is 85% rural and has a population of about 142,000,000 - so we are talking about more people than in all of Australia, or about 2.5 times the number of people living in Haiti) live in what's called "extreme poverty" which means, a.) that they suffer from food insecurity (they go to bed hungry frequently, much of their days are spent trying to acquire food, they often do not know from where their next meal will come, or of what it will consist); b.) that they have no access to land; c.) that they have no access to means of production or assets (like a bicycle powered rickshaw, say, or a goat). Many fishers are in this category, which another reason why the depletion of freshwater aquatic resources is so critical, and so alarming. Within this country slightly larger than Iowa you've got the equivalent of Australia's entire population in extreme poverty.

Alongside them, in the same physical space, there are another 33,000,000 people, w
hich roughly equals the entire population of Canada (the whole country), who are considered "moderately poor" meaning that a.) they may own or be able to lease a small plot of land, or some livestock, and that for most months of the year they have enough to eat, but their diet lacks the necessary protein (see above re: declining fish stocks) and variety to be considered healthy. In other words, they are one setback away from disaster. And this is a country with 80% of its land at 10m above sea level or lower; you can see population density by elevation here. Dhaka and its 15 million people (or the equivalent of the entire population of Guatemala, that is relatively poorer than Guatemala, in one city) has an average elevation of 4 meters. So one setback could be a typhoon. Or another few years of global change. Not that those are discrete categories.

So you've got the population equivalent of Australia plus Canada who are the rural poor or the rural very poor, PLUS another 81,000,000 people, or roughly between the entire population of Germany (82,000,000) in a country smaller than Iowa.

As I said, it is hard to wrap your head around the situation.

The poor are not hidden or segregated, simply because they can't be. There are too many of them.

Last weekend, I visited three rural villages. This (right - click to enlarge) is one of the best homes that I saw, provided in part through an NGO to this villager who is now a shrimp farmer. You can tell it's one of the nicest homes because it has both a cement foundation and a tin roof - both of which are rare, but to have the combination in the same home is a local signifier of wealth. According to the community surveys that were conducted by the workshop participants, these two factors put this household in the wealthiest 7% of residents of his village. He's doing well. (Another view, below.) He has a steady source of income from the shrimp farm, a few chickens (which were in the house, so I kn
ew they were his), a water catchment tank (to the right of the house in the picture above, provided, like thousands of others in this district, by USAID) for "sweetwater", and relative protection from storm surges based on the home's elevation.

Many, many people are doing far less well. They spend hours a day trying to get water, to start, and then hours more trying to get food. If they have a goat, they may have to walk miles to find a bit of pasture land. If they don't have a goat or a cow, maybe they can try fishing but fish stocks have plummeted dramatically due to overfishing, destruction of habitats (dams, bridges, canals), and due to pollution - toxic water run off - from garment manufacturers. (One of the workshop participants found that in Baikka Beel, one of the most productive and critical of Bangladesh's freshwater wetlands, there was up to a 50% loss in fish production due to effluent. When you buy clothes made in Bangladesh, that low price might be due to the manufacturer skirting pollution laws. Or paying its employees nearly nothing. Or both.)

Do you catch brood fish - i.e., fish that are about to spawn - knowing that doing so will affect the long term health of the small lake that you were born next to? Well, if you are hungry and your family is hungry, you probably would.

The poor are not limited to rural areas. Many in Dhaka and other major cities - Chittagong (3 million), Khulna (2 million), Sylhet (1 million) - are extremely poor as well. Walking home from dinner the other night I tried a short cut through one of the narrow alleys that are webbed through Dhaka, and I saw, at ten at night, a boy who couldn't have been more than five, impossibly skinny, breaking bricks. He was literally breaking bricks. To what purpose I don't really know, but when I walked down the same alley a few days later, during the day, an emaciated women and two girls were in the same spot doing the same thing. I had my camera both times but I didn't take their pictures - I couldn't.

People in the rural areas know that the standard of living is higher in the cities, of course, and there is a lot of internal migration. Millions of people move from land that is exhausted, or polluted, or unprofitable, or salted by storm surge, or which has been divided up among family members until it is too small to farm, and move to the city - where they are homeless, where they can't get clean water or access to education for their children. There was a photo in the paper recently describing as "lucky" a kid growing up on the sidewalk around the corner from my dorm because his mom - an internal migrant from the country - was insisting he learned how to read and write. (Photo and caption here.)

The beggars can be quite persistent, which I understand. There are children, men and women - with emaciated or deformed limbs - legs the size of sticks, literally no more than six inches around from foot to hip - eye sockets permanently blinded and shut with scarification, and thousands and hundreds of thousands of homeless. It's a beautiful country, but it's also a country of dire poverty and what can only be described as ugliness. And the juxtaposition can be shocking.

Bangladeshis are to some extent inured to this. It's their normal, part of their experience. Many of them give to beggars, and undoubtedly this support keeps recipients alive. The state - moribund, weak, hopelessly corrupt, and destitute itself - is incapable of the structural changes necessary to break the structural poverty and to redress this on any significant scale.

The shocking thing is that much progress has been made on poverty in this country. The rate had dropped from 69% two decades ago to today's 49%. In part that is due to remittances (over a billion dollars a year and climbing); in part it's due to international aid (two billion a year); in part, yes, it's due to exports, led by the garment industry.

I can't imagine it a third worse than it is right now, like it was in 1990, but then I can barely imagine it now. And the projections are for a lot more people to join those already there by 2050. Bangladesh is one of the south Asian countries with its population under control, but there are still going to be 80,000,000 more people in 2050 than there are now, which would bring the total to 233,000,000 or so. Which is over two thirds of the current U.S. population.

Which is adding the current population of Germany (or Spain AND Peru AND Taiwan) to who is already there.

In a country slightly larger than Wisconsin.

As I said before - it's getting crowded. I wish them luck.

09 February 2012

Week 3 - What I've learned

Can't believe it's already been three weeks.
  1. After close observation, Dhakans flail when walking down the street, just like I do. They bob and weave and get stuck behind a porter carrying what looks like two 50 pound bags of cement mix on his head, just like I do.They get trapped between two rickshaws, just like I do. They get marooned on the islands in between the seas of vehicular traffic, just like I do. They step out into the street to avoid the human scrum on the sidewalk only to have a pick set by a CNG, pulling them up short and forcing a retreat back to the sidewalk, just like I do. This makes me happier than I’d like to admit.
  2. A “decimal” is a unit of area which, despite sounding metric, is actually 1/100th of an acre. It’s obsolete everywhere except in some parts of rural Bangladesh and some parts of Annam in India, where it’s still used to measure household plots. Farmers use it around the Teknaf and Chunati forest reserves. Good luck converting that to hectares.
  3. It can take three hours to go 45 kilometers, or two hours to go 15 km. Traffic is gridlocked around the capital for much of the time. Red lights mean nothing. Horns are used all the time, though for what I’m not sure since no one heeds them. (And when I say “all the time” – that is only slight hyperbole. On a three hour drive last weekend from Jessore to the end of the road in SW Bangladesh, the longest the driver went without using his horn while I was awake was 45 seconds. I fell asleep in self defense.) On side streets, sometimes a horn from behind can tell your rickshaw driver to make way, but many times, where’s he gonna go?
  4. If you are so inclined to give to beggars on the street, keep your small money handy, like in your shirt pocket vs. your pants pocket, so it’s less awkward and so you don’t have to pull your wallet out. If you give while stuck in traffic, either pedestrian or vehicular, your action will attract many, many others – especially as a foreigner. Proceed as you wish.
  5. Bangladesh has a bag ban! No "poly" (i.e., plastic) bags. And it's mostly observed. Bags in stores will be made of jute (locally grown) or instead of a bag you'll get a net made from jute or hemp.
  6. Carrots are in season, and are delicious. You can buy them nearly anywhere, including sitting in traffic. Though again, if you buy anything – carrots, popcorn, BAUs (sour apples the size of an egg, so-called because they were developed at Bangladesh Agricultural University), a laminated guide to the fresh water fish of Bangladesh (on offer, improbably) – while stuck in traffic, you will most certainly be approached by many, many more vendors.
  7. I defy you to find a green vegetable in Dhaka - and I mean a leafy green vegetable, not a pepper or a cucumber. I went out for a fancy meal the other night, for a change of pace, and the menu said "House salad: mixed greens and tomato." I got a bed of peppers and a cherry tomato. Tasty, but... not quite what I was thinking I'd get.
  8. Next time I'm bringing packets of instant oatmeal.
  9. Lots of garments are made here, and lots of irregulars stay here. There was a guy with a “Wrenesto Che Guevera” shirt. The pink shirt that looked like it’d lost a fight with a bedazzler I saw tonight on a 30 year old I sure hope was an irregular.
  10. Hoodies are a surprisingly common sartorial choice here. Saw a guy, mid twenties, full beard, skull cap, Islamic dress, wearing an “Old Navy” hoodie tonight. You see them on males everywhere: your 30 year old rickshaw driver, the 20 something passing you in the street, the 65 year old shopkeeper.
  11. Many people walk around with English slogans on their clothes that don't always mean what they think it means. The guy at the mall yesterday with the “boy crazy” shirt may have been, but my money is on something getting lost in translation. The shirt worn by our van driver to the National Park yesterday read “My heart beats all day,” in big block letters. That is surely accurate, as far as it goes.
  12. Bangladesh is conservative country in terms of dress. Even for a field trip to a National Park the expectation was absolutely for a collared shirt (as we were there for official business), and the preference was for a button down shirt and dress slacks. They don’t have to match or to be new, but that’s the protocol. I’ve not seen anyone in shorts outside of the gym, and even there I’ve taken to wearing my sweats.
  13. Gender. I’m still observing and trying to understand gender here. It’s complex and nuanced and I haven’t figured it out. There are women in very public roles here, including both the current and previous prime minister, and you see many women in the street, on buses, driving - this isn’t (our ally) Saudi Arabia. Most women in Dhaka wear a sari, and most of them have something on their heads, though not a full covering – usually the back third. They are scarf-like, brightly colored, and draw further attention it seems. And the women here certainly are attractive. You will see some women in full burkas on the street in Dhaka, and a higher percentage out in the country side. This ain't California, either. Women are presented as "other" in a way I’m not used to considering. This should be its own post.
  14. Global English is different than what native speakers use with each other, of course – it’s a lingua franca that is leached of its beauty, often, but there are charming turns of phrase that pop up every once in a while. (When's the last time you used "bestowed"?) “Available” is used as a catch all for “there is”or "there are" - in the Sundarbans last weekend we were told that “Bengal tigers are available in the forest” and “monkeys are available also.” I didn’t ask to see a menu.
  15. Many sounds in Bangla are very similar to Japanese. I swear I've heard "Nandaka" every day, but when I look there is not a Japanese-looking person available. (Except for earlier this week at breakfast, when there was.)
  16. The present perfect as a tense isn’t well understood in spoken English here, even by people with pretty advanced skills. In writing it shows up all the time for the simple past, but in speaking it's pretty consistently going to throw someone for a loop. You can see them replaying the question in their minds and looking for the verb, particularly with irregular English verbs. Instead of asking "Have you been there before?" you'll get further ahead by asking "First time (place/ experience)?" and point at them. The present progressive is, however, available. For simple present. Or for simple future. All the time.
  17. On the street in Dhaka, the penetration and quality of English is very high, the highest I've seen in Asia outside of Singapore. Better than Hong Kong, from what I remember. It's just that I am editing for eight hours a day.
  18. The English language TV options are pretty limited (so I turn it on sometimes. So?), but where has Supernatural been all my life?

06 February 2012

Week 2 - What I've learned

  1. It's not the food in Bangladesh that I don't love, it's the food in Dhaka, or maybe mostly our hotel. Went out to the countryside last weekend where I had the best shrimp I've ever had, and chicken tandoori on the grill (I know, but they called it tandoori), and crab the size of a mastodon. All amazing.
  2. I don't know what's second, but cricket is first in terms of national pastimes, by a long shot. Everywhere there is open space, you'll see Bangladeshi boys and young men playing cricket, even if it's with a bamboo stick and a homemade ball. I've seen two badminton courts, one soccer pitch, and countless games of cricket underway - on the sidewalk, on the roof of a building, by a school, on the railroad tracks - everywhere.
  3. When drinking from a water bottle, don't put your lips to it, even if it's your own and it's small - that precludes you from offering a drink to someone else. (Drinking water from a bottle lip-free requires practice. I recommend trying when you're by yourself, so you don't blort water all down your front.)
  4. Eating with a spoon is okay at meals. They've all told me so. (Though I accept that might just be them taking pity on me after watching me flail as I try to eat with my hands.)
  5. Don't get lulled into a false sense of security from not having had any digestive issues so far; don't accidentally drink the tap water when brushing your teeth or rinse your mouth out in the shower or eat something that's wet.
  6. Although at times it can't be helped. When a farmer gives you a freshly picked fruit that's wet, what are you going to do? Only one thing to do, really - you dry it and eat it. When you walk back to the road from his farm, and you see the kids knocking the fruit off the tree into a small pond with goats standing around it that is roughly the color of the Chicago River on St Patrick's Day, well... you don't think about it.
  7. Plan ahead for digestive issues and pack your Tums, Pepto, and Immodium. And stay hydrated.
  8. The ubiquitous Nescafe does not have the same effect on one's digestive tract as, say, a cup of brewed diner coffee would, sadly. And the less said about all of this, the better.
  9. Give up your sense of personal space. It's crowded. When in a crowd and immobilized, hold on to the person in front, and don't be surprised if someone behind you touches your shirt or shoulder. You will also likely get asked questions, in this circumstance.
  10. Whoever invented Frogger probably tried to cross the road here (left) when the idea came. That inventor might also not have had the assist from the local that I got: after watching me for a couple of minutes look apprehensively in the direction of oncoming traffic, a man mid 60's, full beard and skull cap, live duck upside down in his right hand, took his left hand, placed it on my forearm and said "Wait." And then he got on the traffic side of me and said "Come." I waited and I went, and he and his duck went off wherever they were going once I was safely across. Without his help, I'd likely still be there. (And just when I'd thought I had mastered crossing the roads here, too.)
  11. Bengladeshis tend not to smile for photos. They can be beaming but once you aim your camera at them they often pull a serious face. The boy that was sure-footedly piloting our boat (that's the rudder on top of his foot) through the mouths of the Ganges for much of the day Sunday, incessantly wearing a big, toothy smile, would consistently look like this when I'd pull the camera out (right). He laughed as soon as I snapped it. (Looking back he may have just been having some sport with me. Fair enough. He was awesome.)
  12. Bus stops are sorta wherever the driver wants to slow down enough so you can hop on. You'll have better luck in numbers, it seems; even on busy highways buses will pull over and slow down if there are three or four people waiting. And notice I didn't say "stop" - they usually don't.
  13. Always have "small money" or 100 taka notes or smaller. No one can break a 500 taka note (about $6.50) - not at the domestic terminal at the airport, not at the coffee shop, not at the corner mini mart. In Japan I'd walk into a 7-11 and buy a pack of gum with the equivalent of a hundred dollar bill and they wouldn't bat an eye; here, get small money whenever you can.
  14. ATMs let you withdraw sums in 100 t increments. Always either go up 400 or down 100 so you have some walking around money.
  15. Dang, do I wish it would rain. This air could use a scrubbing.

01 February 2012


Almost every night I go for a walk. Some nights it’s easier than others, but so far, only once did I walk downstairs to my room after nine hours of reading and editing in the conference room, hunker down with reading and writing (and the Simpsons – on at 9:00 pm), and stay in for the night. When am I going to be here again? I like to go out and see what I can see.

There’s a lot to be seen.

When taking a walk in Dhaka, you have to keep alert. For starters, watch what’s above you. That's so you don’t electrocute yourself. Literally. There is a story in the paper every morning, literally, about someone who has died from electrocution, and while many of them were trying to run a line to those already strung up, I’m pretty certain that the wiring in Dhaka is not UL certified. In fact, I’m pretty certain a UL certifier would take one look, shake his or her head, and get back on a flight out of town. If there are government regulations about the electricity, they are, like many other regulations here, ignored. And why not? The “government” has no power to impose a collective will on 15 million Dhakans, so people do what they like. The black electrical wires (left) that are hanging at head level, if you’re over 5’7”, which seems to be the median height here, are most likely not live. Most likely. Why take the chance? Keep your eyes open, look up, and duck, bob and weave as needed to avoid contact. You don’t want to be the guy they write about in the paper.

But don’t just look up – if you do that, you’ll likely break an ankle. You have to look down, too. Most of the main streets have sidewalks, of some sort, but those sidewalks are not in a particularly well maintained state. And they double as commercial space. Anyone who wants can throw out a blanket (or not), pay the local mob boss or corrupt politician or police officer (that part isn’t optional, according to my Bangladeshi acquaintances), and sell stuff.

From the main corner to my hotel (a distance of 600 meters), you can buy, in order: shoes, porcelain bathroom fixtures, peanut brittle of some kind, men's underwear, tires, oranges, belt buckles, deep fried dough (donuts?) of some kind, cigarettes of all kinds, bedroom furniture, haircuts, and between almost every one, eggs.

Whatever you want, presumably, except alcohol. What’s interesting is that everywhere there is retail commercial activity in Dhaka, there is an economy of agglomeration – one guy with a sidewalk stand selling men’s briefs will be surrounded by four or five others selling men’s briefs. (And how many men, walking home, soil themselves or otherwise need new briefs? Seems odd to me. They are also sold in 7-11s in Japan, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.) This agglomeration isn’t just for sidewalk enterprises; even in the more formalized spaces for retail (a/k/a “malls” but they look and feel pretty different than the malls we think of) a watch shop, say, will be next to 4 or five others selling watches. Rickshaw down the road past the pet stores, and there are, literally, more than 30 pet stores - even more, the bird stores are all together, as are the reptile stores, the goldfish stores - you get what I mean. It's fascinating. There is no zoning requirement (zoning, in Dhaka?! Ha!) for this, it just seems to be naturally occurring.

So walk along, looking up to avoid the wires and looking down to avoid stepping on a belt buckle or egg vendor. Or to avoid stepping in rubbish in the street.

My first semester in my MURP program at UH Mānoa, I was examining urban planning in a city in the Philippines and I presented to the class a case study of garbage collection. The city in question (I've forgotten which but it was the size of Indianapolis, so about a million residents) had acquired a fleet of garbage trucks through a one off grant from the Philippines national government, and with these there was now a closed system: garbage didn't go into the street, wasn't transferred multiple times (from residence/ business, to street, to truck, to collection point, to city garbage dump) - it was clean, efficient and hygienic. I thought this was a good thing for livability and public health, and saw it as a small but good step forward. That's how I presented it.

My prof ripped me a new one. "What about the people who make their living by going through the garbage for food and materials for recycle and sale? How many garbage pickers are now going to be unemployed - and thus face the very real threat of starvation - because they don't have access to this resource? Are there any provisions in the grant or the city plan to accommodate these people? How would you respond to a claim that this was a transfer of funds from a poor central government to the middle class?"

After I stood in front of the class for what felt like an hour, more or less imitating a goldfish, I stammered that I'd like to present again next week, if that would be okay, and do some more research. It was a great lesson for me - who are the stakeholders, and how are they affected? How are the poor affected by livability issues? I read about garbage pickers in the Philippines for a week, I presented again to the class, and that prof and I got to be on terms.

So there is garbage on the street. And it smells, and it's still winter here. I can imagine that in the summer, your senses would be frequently assaulted - on walks now, your senses are more... jostled (fumes from the furniture or tire shops, say) than assaulted really. But that garbage represents the livelihoods of many. Many. One night out to dinner with two colleagues, one American and one Bangladeshi, there was some confusion on the order and we got four dishes for the three of us. Despite our best efforts we couldn't finish it, so some food went back to the kitchen. I always hate to waste food, but in such a poor country as this it seems particularly offensive.

Walking home, I realized that the food we didn't eat would quite possibly be eaten by someone else, out of the garbage pile (depending on how it was thrown away); and if not then it most certainly would get eaten by a stray dog. People live off garbage - from home or business to street; from street to common neighborhood garbage heap; from garbage heap to truck (left) - at each stage the garbage is gone through and examined for anything that may be of use or may be scavenged, reclaimed and sold. As you walk, keep your eyes open for that.

And breathe through your nose. There is a lot of dust, lead, and fumes in the air, and you don't want that all to end up in your lungs, so breathe through your nose. And not only dust - Bangladesh has the 2nd worst air quality in the world, ahead of only India, and Dhaka has the worst in the world (click the link for some grim reading). Yes, you will blow disgusting black stuff out later, but where would you rather it be?

You will also want to be scanning from side to side as you walk. There are a number of small driveways and side alleys and an innumerable amount of people. Rickshaws, CNGs, cars, and men and boys carrying improbably large loads on their heads can enter and exit at anytime. Yesterday I was almost taken out by the metric equivalent of a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood - one of three simultaneously being balanced on the head of a worker, navigating down the narrow sidewalk. (Without an intervention by a thoughtful Bengali, I would have been - I had just glanced up at the wiring.) The gentlemen in the picture at the right are carrying what has to be their weight in produce. I want to rush to my chiropractor every time I see it. I have seen people carrying a roughly queen sized bed frame, a large bag of cement mix, a bundle of 8' (okay probably 2 meters, but you get me) long PVC pipe and aluminum poles, and bags of rice, many, many times. It's astounding. And it requires vigilance.

So - scan side to side to avoid losing an eye (or your whole head) to something being carried, scan at your feet to avoid stepping on someone's goods for sale or into something unsavory, scan at eye level and up for wires to avoid electrocution. And breathe through your nose. And if you feel like a slightly spastic bobblehead, then you're probably being appropriately aware.

One of my colleagues goes for a walk in the early morning, which he says is much more relaxing. It can't be less relaxing, though it might be less interesting. I'll try it, and see how it goes.