Friday, May 31, 2013

Dhaka Days 2-3

The next morning, Tuesday, I awoke feeling a little off, and not just because of jetlag. 

Incredible breakfast spread prepared by Mrs. Huq

We stopped by Zubayr's in-laws' house for breakfast, and got in a few minutes of shopping at an electronics mall and a gift shop, but had to turn back. 


Well...there are some basic rules to traveling in South Asia if you're from a country like the US:

1. Only drink bottled water
2. Don't eat food unless it's cooked, boiled, washed in iodine, or peeled.
3. Bring antiseptic gel and use it regularly on your hands
4. Did I mention not to drink the tap water?

Apparently somewhere along the line yesterday I managed to stray from one of these (probably thanks to some ice in a drink at a restaurant). Anyway, on the advice of my colleague Dr. Drew Lewis, I "nuked" the stomach bug with 1000mg of azithromycin (from a Z-pack) and took an Imodium. This worked EXTREMELY well, and I was feeling better within a few hours. Looks like we have a way to combat Delhi Belly...or, in this case, Dhaka....Belly. Not going there.

Parliament Building in Dhaka
Anyway, once I was ready to travel again, we drove around to take in the sights, including the very interesting and modern Parliament building, and met up with more friends of Zubayr's, Schumonn (local celebrity/actor and officer at an e-learning company) and Ahmed (multiple business owner and all-around nice guy). It was nice walking with Schumonn as for once people stared at someone other than me - you should have seen the expressions! 

We shared a great dinner at a local restaurant called Oh Calcutta, then joined another friend, Anik (news show host/actor/laugh-riot), for coffee at a very fancy Gloria Jean's. After some great conversation and a few laughs, we counted it as another successful day on the books despite the gastrointestinal misadventure!

Dinner with Schumonn, Zubayr, and Ahmed at Oh! Calcutta

Wednesday started off well - feeling 100% better, good as new, right as rain (which seems to be coming and going a bit here). After Skyping with my family, Zubayr and I finished off leftovers for a late breakfast and generally took it easy. Today was a strike day in Dhaka, and no cars were on the road (just bicycle and auto-rickshaws), so we decided to head over to his in-laws' house in one of the autos. It wasn't bad! Just a little rough hitting potholes on three wheels...

Inside the auto-rickshaw

At Professor and Mrs. Huq's house, we met up with Zubayr's sister-in-law, Anouchka, and had another wonderful homemade meal. After relaxing a bit and chatting (and getting a little help with my laundry), Anouchka had to go to work (she is a news anchor) so we dropped her off and went for another drive, eventually meeting up with Mridul and Rubayat again. We talked shop for a bit, and Zubayr, Mridul, went to a great seafood restaurant for dinner. Z and I dropped by Gloria Jean's for a "nightcap" coffee drink, then back to his parents' place to turn in.

One more full day to go in Dhaka - it zipped by quickly!

Thursday, May 30, 2013



After a very short time in Delhi, I am now in Dhaka. I planned this trip after I found out that my friend Zubayr, whom I met at a negotiations course at HBS back in 2008, would be here doing research for his PhD. What better way to visit a country for the first time than with someone who knows the ropes?

After a 2AM wake up call and a 2:30 cab ride to DEL (which turned out to be WAY earlier than necessary for my 5:45 flight), I was pretty exhausted when we finally rolled up to the Dhaka airport gate. Let me say that flying Air India felt a bit like stepping back in time...but not far enough back to when service was given with a smile. Old plane, bland food, grumpy attendants. But who cares - it was just two hours!

Zubayr and his Father-in-law, Professor Huq, met me at the Airport. It was a bit of a comedy of errors trying to meet up at the VIP lounge, especially as I arrived 30 minutes early! ("no, I really am on the list - can you check again? - Maaaatthew Azzaaara - oh, forget it"), but Professor Huq eventually saw me. It was great seeing Zubayr again after 5 years. I think he got younger. I definitely didn't.

The weather is cooler here than in Delhi, about 85 degrees F, but very humid.

We went to Professor Huq's apartment at the University of Dhaka, where we had an amazing home-cooked breakfast waiting for us courtesy of Mrs. Huq.

 Breakfast! Professor Huq, Zubayr, myself

After completely stuffing ourselves, Zubayr showed me around Dhaka a bit. Let me say that if I thought Delhi was vibrant, Dhaka is even more so! A riot of activity and color and sound - horns and bicycle-rickshaw bells, people calling to each other, chattering birds. Really a feast for the senses. The bicycle rickshaws are all ornately painted, and they weave in and out between the autorickshaws (called "tuk-tuks" in Bangkok for those who have been there), cars, trucks, buses, carts, and walkers.

We first saw the Shaheed Minar, a monument dedicated to those who died in the Bengali Language Movement of 1952, one of the events leading to the successful struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971 - the Bangladesh Liberation War, probably the single most important event in the cultural memory of this country. After the Partition of India in 1947, the Dominion of Pakistan was created, and what is now Bangladesh was named East Bengal and renamed East Pakistan a few years later. After over 20 years of internal conflict over language (Pakistan had declared Urdu the single language despite the fact that the majority of those in the East spoke Bengali) and unequal representation in government, East Pakistan (backed by India) seceded in an extremely violent and bloody war. Students played a significant role in leading the secession, and to this day University of Dhaka students take pride in their continued political activism, as evidenced by their role in the Shahbag Protests this year - which was really a sort of conclusion of the Liberation War, 42 years later - and evidenced by statues and art on the grounds of the University itself.

 Me at the Shaheed Minar

"Undefeated Bangla" Monument at University of Dhaka
After a stop at Dhaka Medical Center, a moving experience (free healthcare is provided for anyone in need, and the hospital was teeming with patients and their loved ones, many sitting on the floor or crowded into rooms), we visited the University, where we had the chance to see Professor Huq (he leads the Department of Soil, Water, and the Environment), meet some of his students, and discuss their research. We then walked through campus, and had a glass of milk tea at a local watering hole. The two young boys that served us our tea decided to camp out at our table and stare at me, something that I understand I'll have to get accustomed to!

                                                                 Artwork celebrating the students' role in civil protests

We also took a walk through the School of Fine Arts, and down the street to Shahbag Square, home of the aforementioned protests of a few months ago.
Rickshaw Driver
Political Paintings in front of the School of Fine Arts
In Shahbag Square



After a quick lunch, we met with Mridul and Rubayat, friends of Zubayr's, and shared some great discussion about their work in Global Development, very much aligned with the sort of work I'll be doing with CARE. We had a late dinner at a Mexican restaurant (!) called El Toro, after which we called it a very productive day.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Last Day in US, First in Delhi

The hours leading up to my flight out were surreal. Kasia and the kids all took the day off, so we spent the day together, and we left early (thank goodness - traffic was terrible!) to go to the airport. We had dinner together there, and said our goodbyes. I mentioned in my last post that once the pre-trip stress dissipated, the emotions would come....well they did. The girls waited as I went through the security line, and when I got to the end, I looked over and saw 7-year-old Gabbie crying. That did it...of course I immediately asked myself if I was making a terrible mistake in leaving. But I tried to keep my mind on what I would be doing in India, and that it would be helping me to determine what I want to focus upon for the rest of my life, as well as helping others in need. The beginning of the flight was very tough, but luckily I sat next to a young man from Delhi who was just heading home to see his family for the first time in several months (he works in Albany!), and our chat took my mind off things a bit.

The flight itself was uneventful - it's direct from Newark to Delhi, about 14 hours. We took off late but arrived on time. I didn't sleep much, but that was a good thing as we arrived at night, having lost about half a day, and I wanted to be able to sleep.

                                             Where 14 hours in a Boeing-777 gets you

At the airport in Delhi, I found that I had two rides waiting for me! Steven from CARE was there to meet me, but due to a mix up in arrangements, a driver from my hotel was also there. After a couple of quick phone calls, we sorted everything out, and I went with the driver to the hotel. The JHT was just right - comfortable bed, plenty of space. I ordered a quick dinner (Chicken Tikka Butter Masala - very spicy, very good - and some garlic naan), and then figured out the Wifi and called Mom and Kasia on Skype. We had to figure out a few kinks, and lost connection quite a few times, but we managed. I fell asleep quickly.

The next morning, Steven came by about 9:30 (it was already over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) to pick me up and take my two big suitcases to the apartment in which I'll stay. The current tenant, Marge, is a retired CARE executive, who still works on international assignments. She gave me a tour of the apartment - very spacious, with two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, outdoor terrace/patio, and a living room/dining room that is also serving as her office. She moves out on the day before I return from Dhaka, so I will be able to move right in when I get back.

Marge gave me some great tips about the neighborhood, and invited me to join her for lunch in the local market square. We met up a few hours later at a Chinese restaurant called Yo! China - and I was amazed to see several American food chains in the Market (Dunkin Donuts, Gloria Jean's, Pizza Hut). Not that I plan to eat a much American food while I'm there, but it's nice to know I can get a a little taste of home if I want one. 

After lunch, as we walked around the square (and Marge pointed out all the stores that she frequents, where I could buy groceries, housewares, gifts), we discovered that they had just opened up a Starbucks there as well! We went in for a quick cold drink, as the temperature had climbed to about 115 by then.

                                     LOTS of staff in the new Starbucks at M-Block Market

I have to say, the sights, smells, and sounds were nearly overwhelming to my jetlagged brain! Everywhere were wonderful cooking smells, spices, and flowers permeating the air. The streets were very crowded with people walking, cars, and autorickshaws, and the occasional hand-drawn cart. Some stray dogs were trying to beat the heat laying in the shade on the marble walkways. I saw a few cows in the road as I was driving around with Steven earlier, but none were in the square. People just move around them, and they seem perfectly content. The neighborhood here is largely middle-class, so there were lots of well-dressed people our shopping at the brand-name stores and eating in the various restaurants and cafes. 

After parting ways with Marge, I went back to the hotel for some rest. Realizing that I had to be up extremely early (2AM) the next morning for my flight to Dhaka, I went out for an early dinner in the square (biryani at an North Indian restaurant), then went back to my room, made quick calls to family, and passed out. A good, full day and hopefully a sign of good things to come.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Last Preparations

The time is near!

Two days until I head to India. This week I've been packing, gathering the final details about where I will be staying (an apartment in New Delhi), asking for last-minute advice on what to bring (and what not to bring!) with me, re-packing, finalizing details about my trip to Dhaka next week, and most importantly trying to spend time with my family.

It's been a pretty crazy week already, but I still feel like it's not 100% sunk in yet. I'm sure I'll get on the plane, and once all the pre-trip worries (did I remember to bring a pillow? sneakers? my phone?) and logistics (check in early to try to move to a decent seat! get suitcases wrapped in plastic!) fall away, the emotions will find their way through.

I am of course going to miss Kasia and the girls terribly (and of course all my family and friends here) - all the more reason to ensure we have three or four back-up plans for communications.

We've set up Skype on multiple devices, and I've pre-paid some minutes to get me started. Unlocked an old iPhone so that I can get a sim card in New Delhi. Apple FaceTime should work on WiFi where I can find it. Of course there's Facebook and Email for writing back and forth. Extra charging devices are packed to help during those pesky power outages.So I hope we have it all covered.

I am looking forward to getting there and getting settled, so that I can start working on my project. I'll be paired with a Fellow from another pharma company - first time we've had such a partnership! - so it should make for interesting work.

And I'm particularly excited that I'll have the chance to visit with several old friends whom I haven't seen in ages - at least I hope so! More on that later...

Anyhow, wish me luck! I have a loooong plane ride ahead of me.