Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Notes from Bangladesh: typhoon holiday

We got off-season rates at Cox’s Bazar on the Bay of Bengal. It was a wonderful time to be there. Every day we had stretches of sun parenthesized by downpours and impressive winds.

Boats in the Bay of Bengal

Sunken bridge

In the bay

Food ranged from the sublime to the grotesque. The grotesque included the high-carb ‘free’ breakfast at our hotel—flatbreads, Chinese noodles, curried vegetables, dals with beef or mutton, chicken curries, oatmeal, sweet rice puddings, omelettes, boiled eggs, croissants—where families and honeymooners fueled up for the day’s activities.

The sublime included the best grilled fish I’ve ever tasted at a hole-in-the-jungle eco-restaurant that we got to by hiring an electric baby-taxi to drive us up the coast past army teams repairing washed-out roads. The most exotic, and by far the least expensive, was a dining hall where families, labourers, businessmen, and ladies with their friends filled benches at tables on either side of a corridor that allowed waiters to whiz up and down delivering delicious fish curries, bhotas, vegetables, rice, pickles, and much else and where the three of us could eat splendidly and take home doggie bags for an equally splendid evening meal for just over $5.00.

The best grilled fish I’ve ever tasted

On a hotel-arranged tour of beauty spots, little boys with prehensile feet carried Isha up a gully to see a waterfall and across a channel over a decorative bridge.

Carrying Isha up a gully

Next week after a Vancouver visit, I’ll be heading back to drought-ravaged Ottawa, where Danjuma tells me he has plenty of peppers ready to garnish Italian sausage.

Saturday, June 16th, 2012

Notes from Bangladesh: Elephant shakedown

Filed under: business,elephants,Notes from Bangladesh,protection — alison @ 13:05

Patrick is in Bangladesh, taking the philosophical view.

*** *** ***

Picture from the Internet, not taken by Patrick.

Picture from the Internet, not taken by Patrick.

Yesterday I was waiting in a long, slow-moving queue for a government service. The queue was an everyday affair, so small tea stands and coconut carts had set up parallel to the shuffling crowd. After I had been there an hour or so an elephant came along with a mahout and passenger astride. The elephant stopped at a stand, ate some of the discarded coconuts shells, rose on his hind legs, waved his trunk around, and shouted. It was clear there was mayhem on his mind. Every merchant understood the drill. Very quickly and with obvious trepidation, each approached proprietor held out a ten taka note (about ten cents), which the elephant took with his trunk and passed up to the mahout. The apparent alternative was to have the stand’s product consumed, dispersed, or destroyed.

The whole operation was enormously entertaining for the people in the queue, was carried out efficiently, and took very little time. A model for the rest of us.
Kuda habis (take care),

Notes from Bangladesh: Change of season and culinary implications

Filed under: Beli,food,Isha,Notes from Bangladesh,weather — alison @ 10:55

My father is back in Dhaka, the cricket pitches are wet, the goats amuse and the food is good.

*** *** ***

Dear Family and Friends,
It rained this morning in Lalmatia. The sky was dark and it was going to rain when the marketers (Beli and Lippy) set out for the bazaar in a rickshaw. Everyone was laughing. We are now at the beginning of Asharh, the first month of the two month “monsoon season.” Isha and I were watching cricket from the rooftop when the first large droplets began to fall and the boys scattered. Rain was shooting in through open windows when we got back to our flat.
Within an hour, the big boys were carrying pallets of sand onto the field to fill the puddles. The smaller boys were swimming in larger puddles beyond the cricket-playing areas; or they were building canals, dams, and drainage systems to the ditches around the park. The windows in our flat were open again. Isha and I were following a goat around on the cricket pitch, watching it eat the seed-tops off the grass. The marketers were buying vegetables and fish that hadn’t looked so fresh for months. There is nothing subtle or gradual about this change of seasons, and it feels good to everyone.

The pictures speak for themselves. Some shrimp was curried for lunch and two of the fish were fried. Most of the fish will be prepared and frozen for use over the next week or two. The second tiniest fish will be individually cleaned with the heads reserved for a bhota (a paste for kneading into your rice), one of the three or four or five dishes served up at every meal.
Water lily stems

The water lily is at the top of a rolled up two or three metre stalk, which is the part we eat. There are at least three types of, including sweet potato leaves, greens in the big white bag; several varieties of cucumbers for cooking or eating fresh; tendrils that hang down from lattices supporting gourds, cooked as a vegetable; and an impressive pile of what is sold in Canada as ‘bitter melon.’ There is a bag of achi (roasted and coarsely ground red rice) and a bag of attah (the wheat flour used for making roti, fresh flat bread, for breakfast). And there are guavas, three varieties of mangoes, and a large clutch of lychees. There was going to be a jack fruit, but the load was too heavy for an additional fruit about half the size of Isha. That will have to come tomorrow.
Seasonal best wishes!

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Moving Day: from Ottawa and Jamalpur to Dhaka

Filed under: Beli,Isha,Notes from Bangladesh,Patrick,sewing — alison @ 10:01

A letter from my father in Bangladesh; possibly the first of many as he settles into a new, bi-continental lifestyle.

*** *** ***
Dear All,

I arrived in Dhaka on August 22nd. Beli and thirteen month old Isha arrived at my guest house two days later. Most of the following week was getting to know Isha and vice versa, and looking for a flat. Both endeavours were successful. Isha is a total delight and seems to think I’m okay. We celebrated Eid ul-Fitr together on the 31st with Beli cooking in the guest house kitchen, then B&I returned to Jamulpur (eight hours by bus) to prepare for the shift to Dhaka. Beli has just called to say they are returning tomorrow. The household goods have already arrived. (See below.) If it sounds like we are in the process of forming a family unit, that’s what it feels like, too.

The flat is brand new, 1450 square feet, 7th floor, tile floors throughout, three bathrooms and a servant’s bathroom and will be serviced by an elevator as soon as the electricity is fully installed. For now, it is like a mini Grouse Grind (Vancouver torture climb, for those not in the know), eight or ten times a day.

At 11:30 Sunday night, Beli’s brother-in-law, Abul Khair, phoned from the border of Lalmatia. Would I take a rickshaw to where he was waiting with the truck and lead them to my flat?

I found Abul Khair, the truck, and driver and we bumped our way back to the flat. Labourers arrived shortly after — contracted through tough negotiations earlier in the evening. The labourers carried the contents of the truck up seven flights of stairs, mostly on their heads. Chairs, tables, beds, china, pots and pans, fridge, and a huge steel box containing curtains, table mats, and a great deal of stuff yet to be uncovered — the contents of the house I had left nearly three years ago. When the truck was empty, Khair and I found a couple of mattresses and slept.

The next day was like opening a summer camp left mostly unattended for two or three years. After depositing the goods in her village eight hours north of Dhaka, Beli traveled her own small odyssey through a marriage, the birth of a baby, and divorce. The goods didn’t follow her through most of this but they did weather three monsoons. Everything in the steel box is pristine. A mahogany table, a glass-topped rattan table that I use as a desk, a bed, two comfortable rattan chairs, and six dining table chairs are very much fit for service. China doesn’t deteriorate and cook-ware has been in use since Beli returned to Jamalpur ten months ago.

Yesterday, the electrician from the guest house installed fans and lights, repaired the surge-protector for the fridge, then helped me buy and install a new ‘chula’ (two-burner cooker) and gas canister. Khair, who had had a hand in the packing and knew where most things were, did most of the unpacking — taking a break every once in a while to make the flat clean and tidy. This morning while I went out to buy take-out breakfast, Khair sorted out the curtains, which we put up after breakfast.

My office projects from the front of the flat, with four large windows on three sides allowing a nearly constant breeze and light and the reflection of cumulus clouds on my glass-topped desk. This afternoon a technician will install wireless throughout the house. Tomorrow I will probably go out and buy a printer; then CEP, South Asia branch, will be fully operational.

I will be returning to Ottawa towards the end of September, and then back to Dhaka for a month or so in January. Note that I now have room for guests (not luxury) in both cities and time to spend with them.

PICTURES: Each picture showcases a different dress. Each sewed by Alison. There are seven in all, and they all went to Jamalpur for the baby parade.





Monday, June 28th, 2010

Notes from Liberia – third trip

My father has just returned from another trip to Liberia. The danger pay isn’t what it used to be, but he still loves his work.

*** *** ***

Dear Family and Friends,

I came back from Liberia in early June after three weeks of field work on a mid-term evaluation for a USAID-funded education program.

Liberia is putting itself together… with help from NGOs and International Organizations whose signs are on every corner.

When I was there in 2004, there was still tension. People weren’t confident that the wars were over. Young people who had been fighters and young people who had not been fighters were uneasily moving back together in their old villages – though many former child soldiers, ashamed to return home, stayed in Monrovia, the capital, with no trades except the ones they learned in war. Market women sat in front of the home of a warlord/minister, silently holding up signs that said No More Fighting. My danger bonus was 25%.

In 2009 I visited teachers’ colleges. The students were from all fifteen of the country’s ethnic groups. You could still see wariness, but mainly they were working well together as Liberians. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was President and was respected. My danger bonus had dropped to 15%, and applied only when I was in the countryside.

This year, the streets of Monrovia are livelier; the towns in the hinterlands are more prosperous; and ‘Ellen’ is running confidently for a second term. We once ran into a roving band of ‘commandos’ who were doing a poor job at intimidation, since they no longer carried guns. To [my wife] Vivian’s chagrin, the danger bonus had been eliminated.

I took pictures and am attaching three for flavour.

The owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School.

The first is the front office of the hotel where I had just spent the night. The woman in the yellow dress is the owner of the hotel and the founder and patron of Zorzor Rural Women Literacy School. She, herself, began school after having three children. With the encouragement of her husband, she eventually earned a high school diploma.

Stop Early Marriage!

Stop Early Marriage!

The second is on a door of a mud house in a village a long way off the main road. We talked with townspeople. Different generations are back at school making up for years of lost education during the wars. Three of the young people who talked with us walk 40 kilometres to school at the beginning of the week and 40 kilometres back on the weekend. Others attend night classes at the local evangelical church. These are the survivors.

The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn.

The third picture speaks for itself. The class is full, so we know that the teacher teaches and the children learn. Children and parents judge the quality of schools; if the school doesn’t provide value, the children go to work on the farm.

My email misbehaved during most of the trip. When I eventually understood what was happening, Vivian hadn’t heard form me for ten days and was contacting the embassy to learn whether I was lost. Soon I started getting urgent messages saying “Please Contact your wife!” (One of the education team opposed getting involved, reasoning that I might not want my wife to know where I was. She was over-ruled.)

My assistant, Frank, and I spent three weeks, mostly on bombed-out or mudded-out roads, in a four wheel drive Toyota whose multiple breakdowns effectively randomized the communities we observed. I stayed in a different bush hotel every night, usually paying extra to have the generator turned on in the morning so I could type up the previous day’s notes. Eating was good – eggs and bread in the morning; bananas, plantain chips, and roast corn on the road; foofoo or rice and goat pepper soup in the evening. Liberia is a Christian country, so there was beer with supper. In Monrovia I ate grilled barracuda on the beach or Lebanese tabbouleh, hummus, and kibbee at a rooftop restaurant run by Indians.

In the capital, Frank found me a well-run local hotel on the main commercial strip, which I preferred to the beachfront expatriate hotels where I had previously stayed. I may have been a disappointment at the hotel, however. The first evening, while I waited for my pepper soup, the bar filled up – an attractive young woman on every second stool. Each one winked prettily as I walked out. The second night, they weren’t there.

It was a thirty-six hour trip back – through Accra, Addis Ababa, Rome, and Washington. Quicker though than the trip over, when we were diverted through Dakar to avoid the volcano in Iceland.

On my return there was two weeks of report writing – now over. And then the excitement began: First a 5.5 earthquake that felt like a ghost train running through the house. Two days later, the police invaded our quiet agricultural neighbourhood and removed plants and occupants from houses on our nearby corner.

Happy Canada Day and Fourth of July!


Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


Filed under: illness,Mark,Patrick — alison @ 07:27

I’ve been sick since March 11th. (I know this because we left on our trip March 10th and that’s when Mark gave me his sore throat.) Mark has been sick since the end of February. Since we got back from our trip at the end of March I’ve been spending my weekends sleeping in bed and getting better, then getting worse again during the work week. Except last weekend we both got sicker and I got fed up. 

  • My father’s remedy, which has been given to him by wise women in Montreal (our pediatrician in the 1970s), Nigeria, China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh:
    A bowl of steaming hot water;
    Twigs of the wise woman’s favourite plant;
    Lean your head over the bowl and breathe.
  • The steam is the important part. Each wise woman has her own twigs and the technique works well in every country anyway. The western MD left out the twigs entirely. The twigs make you feel like you’re doing something medicinal and they make the house smell nice. Eucalyptus is common. 

Mark and I spent the weekend steaming ourselves. It may have helped. I used a little eucalyptus oil in the water, which was probably a bad thing because it stung our eyes and we spent less time breathing steam than we would have otherwise. Twigs would have been better, but so would unadulterated steam. 

I hauled Mark in to see his doctor on Monday. It was a walk-in clinic so I was hoping to be seen too, but no such luck. I don’t have a file there and they weren’t going to open one.

  • Mark’s doctor’s remedy: 
    1 cortisone nasal spray;
    1 cortisone inhaler;
    Plenty of sleep;
    Regular hand-washing.
  • He also got prescriptions for a chest x-ray and an antibiotic, the latter to be filled only if the former shows pneumonia.

So far he’s still coughing a lot and doesn’t feel much better, but he did sleep through the night last night for the first time in a while. 

I went in to work after my failed attempt at a clinic visit but was sent home for coughing too much. I was planning to stay anyway (I don’t always have to work face-to-face with people, and working alone in my little cubicle is not much less restful than sitting around at home) but changed my mind when I got whole-body aches. Crap. The flu. I didn’t get a shot this year.

I went to my clinic yesterday. Mark dropped me off and swiped a face mask to wear going to his x-ray clinic.

I was seen first by a nurse, who didn’t introduce herself as such. I started to realise she wasn’t a doctor when she started asking me questions and writing down the answers without looking at me. Doctors look at you because they’re trying to figure you out. When she asked me what medications I was taking and she’d never heard of them — I had to spell them out — I knew for sure she wasn’t a doctor. She did a swab for a quick strep test (negative) and sighed, said I’d need to see a doctor and took me to another exam room where I was seen by a medical student.

Yaay! I love being seen by medical students. I get to participate in their training and it’s fun to compare what they do with what a doctor does. The medical student carefully went through a standard checklist of questions and turned up notable but irrelevant facts about my poop. She enjoyed listening to my heart, though it had no connection to my cough, just because I have an interesting murmur/arrhythmia. We reviewed my history related to my heart purely for the sake of education. Then she went away to present to the doctor.

When they came back together, the doctor quickly identified that I’d had asthma as a teenager and that my whole-body aches had started only the day before and were therefore from a new virus and not relevant to my complaint of six weeks of coughing. He also made a connection between my heart murmur and my recurrent colds and coughs: I must not use stimulant cold medicines! They are bad for my heart! I assured him that I do not use stimulant cold medicines: they make me feel like crap. (I had always assumed they made everyone feel like crap, but that other people found that more tolerable than their cold symptoms. Now I know that they really do make me feel worse than they do other people.) It was quite cool to compare a newbie and an experienced professional asking questions about an everyday, very banal complaint. They were both smart and nice, but one was better at it. 

  • My doctor’s remedy:
    2 asthma inhalers, one cortisone to be used for two weeks to a month, and one bronchodilator to be used for four days or as necessary.
  • I should keep them around and use them again next winter when I get sick again and keep coughing long after I should be better, because it’s probably just irritation at that point.  

Anyway, this post is not because I think anyone’s interested in the details of my cough or poop. It’s because I’m interested in the way different people approach similar problems.

My father didn’t ask questions to try to figure out exactly what was causing our misery: he didn’t need to. He could hear us both hacking away and shared the remedy that he uses successfully to ease his own distress when he is hacking away.

The doctors asked fairly pointed questions and took measurements to determine exactly what was wrong. Mark was determined to have a virus and post-nasal drip and given the appropriate remedies to ease his distress; I was determined to have a virus and asthma and given the appropriate remedies to ease mine. For both of us that means cortisone inhalers.

Question: what is the relative efficacy of steam with eucalyptus twigs vs cortisone inhalers? I know from experience that steam has a greater risk, because my sister ended up in the hospital for six days with second-degree burns after tipping a bowl of boiling water into her lap trying to steam her sinuses. And I can bring inhalers to work but I can’t steam my head at work. So even if they were equally effective there would still be reasons to use inhalers. But… is there a fundamental difference between my father’s remedy and the doctors’?

The other question is more philosophical. Going to the doctor gives me peace of mind, and that’s really what I went for. Not the inhalers. Now we know for [pretty] sure we don’t have chronic infections. Mark will know for sure that he doesn’t have pneumonia (but will be able to treat it if he does). This peace of mind is important to me. I want to be told specifically what the problem is and what the scope of it is. I don’t want the uncertainty of thinking we possibly have something worse than usual or worrying about what we’re doing wrong that is dragging things out so long. Without access to doctors, would we be steaming away and not fretting about it? Either steaming helps or it doesn’t. Either we get better soon or we don’t. Would the peace of mind issue become a non-issue?

I suspect it wouldn’t. I don’t think the idea that we become fatalistic when denied information is really borne out by experience. I think we can look around and see that people are pretty free about inventing information when they don’t have it, and give themselves peace of mind that way. I think the exercise of seeking out information when we don’t have it instead of making up an answer is probably at least as valuable as the answer itself, at least in the situation of persistent respiratory thingies in otherwise healthy adults.

Then there’s judgement about when knowledge is necessary to peace of mind at all. Up to what point do we tolerate not knowing, before we either try to find out or make up an answer? What does it say about me that my intolerance for not having descriptions of the exact causes of our coughs sent me to the doctor when I have a perfectly good home remedy that appears no less specific than the pharmaceutical one?

Besides that I felt like crap, of course.

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