commentary, fun!

unlikely similarities

Upon telling people that I was moving to Dhaka, many replied that I couldn’t have chosen a place less like home.  In some ways, they were right; saying that it’s been a cultural adjustment would be putting it lightly.  Yet at the same time, this city has revealed itself to share many characteristics with something that I found quite familiar.

Namely, Jewish grandmothers.

While imaging a hoard of windbreaker-clad eighty-somethings hurtling their way down a Dhakan alley leads more to images of dissonance than of harmony, over the course of my ten months here I’ve found many areas of overlap.  So here are the top ten – in some sort of order – ways in which Bangladesh is like a Jewish Grandmother.

Top 10 Ways in Which Bangladesh is Like a Jewish Grandmother

10. She never drives within the lanes.  While one might be doing it because of reduced eyesight and/or depth perception and the other because traffic laws hold no sway, both lead to the same white knuckles on dashboards.  Basically, Dhakan traffic is like that of West Palm Beach if it had a population of 17 million and a much less well manicured road network.  Oy is right.

9. She’ll talk about what’s for dinner while you’re eating lunch.  More for the love of food than for the necessity of planning what’s next, meals are a hallowed time not to be taken lightly.  And that’s meant in an emotional and nutritional sense.  Luckily, the brick-like feeling in your stomach after the meal is generally justified by the deliciousness of what just caused it.

8. You’re wearing that!?  Anything too low, or too short, or too tight will likely draw a few choice words or looks designed to dissuade you from walking out the door in your ensemble of choice.  Looking for something more fitting?  Try something a little less so.

7. She will talk you off your rocker.  Here it’s called adda, there it’s called playing mahjongg at the club with the girls.  Both roughly translate to an hours-long chat about anything and everything.  Cha (tea) and shinghara accompany the former while coffee and rugulah might go along with the latter, but – as is generally the case – food plays a starring role in each.

6. She has an opinion on everything.  And will not hesitate to make it known, often more loudly and more frequently than you’d prefer.  From commenting on how you’re still not married yet to letting you know just how under-rested you look, she’ll be sure to fill you in on what’s filling her thoughts.  Smiles and nods, kids.

5. She likes her clothes shiny and bright.  From magenta tops with sequined necklines to shoes that glint in the sun with silver and gold accents, she’s bound to have something shiny and blingy somewhere in her outfit.  Well, probably in many places.

4. She constantly warns you about potential impending sicknesses.  While antibacterial handwash hasn’t made it big in D-town yet, worries about maladies certainly have.  Changing seasons loom large on both collective minds, and warnings about taking a jacket along to protect you against the vicious changing seasons translates well between Bangla and Bubby.  And if you do happen to catch the sniffles?  For whatever’s ailing you she’ll always have a fix, whether it be chicken noodle soup or frying garlic in sesame oil and then rubbing it all over your chest (bonus points if you can match those remedies to their respective owners).

3. She has a penchant for tacky decoration.  I’m just going to say: there are entire markets dedicated to fake flowers here.  Imagine the look on the Hadassah gals’ faces.

2. She won’t stop feeding you.  If you sit down at her table, don’t even bother declining the plate of afternoon sweets she offers; it’ll be in front of you in 30 seconds no matter what you say.  You’re completely stuffed from the meal you just finished 30 minutes ago?  Well surely you have some room for this large bowl of fruit and some of that brisket in the fridge.  The words not and hungry are simply not available in the same option together.  Kapiche?

And the number one reason?

1. She loves her family.  If you couldn’t figure as much from the plethora of photos of relatives adorning her home, then it will be immediately evident as soon as she starts chatting you up.  The conversation, no matter where it starts, will most likely turn to her kin – often even beating out foodspeak – and she’ll beam with pride as she tells you where her grandkid goes to school or shows you a picture of her doctor son.  And most importantly, she’ll treat you like family, too, whether you share her DNA or not.  The bear hugs and hospitality extend well beyond blood relations, and she’ll be more than happy to welcome you into her larger clan.  As long as you eat this plate of sweets first.

So the next time G-Ma calls and tells you about her plans with the gals for the weekend, be sure to let her know she has roughly 160 million potential friends in what she might consider to be the least likely of places.  Miss you, Grandma!

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travel bugs

After the rave reviews that came in for my Mom’s debut blogging endeavor, Daughter in Dhaka (Mama, finish uploading your posts!), I knew that she would be leaving a travel-account sized hole in far too many people’s RSS feeds.  Well, you’ve waited long enough; now introducing Big World, Tiny Backpack, the escapades of one Miss Becca, who’s currently on her way to meander across S/SE Asia and collect elephant sighting along her way.

Her destination list is long and her backpack small, and she’s one of the swellest gals I know and definitely worth a bookmark.  You’re gonna wanna know when that elephant sightings counter ticks.

On a flight heading the other way around the world only a few days prior was Miss Laura Curren, one of Paris’ newest and most fabulous residents.  Google Maps tells me it’s a mere 11,523 km away from Dhaka town, and only requires one ferry (in addition to all the winding roads, of course).

Roadtrip, anyone?

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hartalled out

© Elizabeth D. Herman, 2011.

I spent weeks planning.  Looking at maps, considering which route would be most efficient to take, which sites were most important to visit, which contacts were in the selected areas.  It was to be my longest-running out-of-Dhaka research excursion yet, and I wanted to make sure that I tried to spend the time wisely.

And then BNP called for a two-day long hartal, and my carefully planned route flew out the window.

Hartal is the term used to describe a general strike in Bangladesh, in which most everything closes down for a day (or in this case, two).  Think politically-charged snow day.  Most Bangladeshis tell you to keep off the streets, and certainly out of cars (they have a thing for torching larger vehicles here), but walking and taking cycle rickshaws are generally an okay way to get around, depending on the area you’re in and the strength of the protests.  The strikes are always called by one of the opposition parties, or a combination of them, to make a point about some grievance they’re most recently upset about.  For example, a few weeks ago, a coalition of opposition parties called for a strike against women’s rights.  That is, to protest the renewal of the 1997 Women Development Policy that would legalize women’s rights, including women’s rights to own property.  Thankfully, that one wasn’t widely “observed,” as it is said, at least not in Dhaka city.  There was one about a week ago to protest the abolition of the caretaker government system, in which an interim government takes control of the country for what is to be a three months period to administer elections.  This time, the protests were called to protest the last protest (right?), or the arrests that were made prior to and during them.

There is no doubt that each party has its own grievances, especially when it comes to their relations with the other, but the tradition ofhartals (or agitational politics, as it’s known in Poli Sci speak) is not only pretty frustrating to anyone trying to get anything done, but also deeply costly.  Between 1995 and 2002, there were 611 hartals, an average of one every four days.  And in the year prior to when the caretaker government had to assume power in 2006, they were a near every other day occurrence.  In 2001, UNDP calculated that for each ‘successful’ hartal, the country loses close to $18 million dollars – and that’s a long obsolete number, calculated using economic figures from the 1990s.[i] To consider the cost to Bangladesh at its current (significantly increased) rate of productivity would be far more significant.

The hartals are also, oddly enough, fairly predictable. The political terms here are five years long; for the first 2 to 2.5 years, things are relatively calm, but as you approach that 2.5 year mark, the opposition party starts to make waves in the hope that they can a) create enough chaos that the general populace will naturally want the ruling party out by election time, b) create enough chaos that they will be able to (more) legitimately call for early elections, or c) unseat the government.

In a country fond of national traditions, the hartal is one that is as old as Bangladesh is.  But in terms of efficient and productive political dissent, hartals do little more than disrupt the workweek and give whoever is the current ruling party the mandate to use them when it becomes their turn to be the scrappy opposition.  It’s zero-sum politics through and through.  As Akhtar Hossain writes in his “Anatomy of Hartal Politics in Bangladesh,” “These parties fail to cooperate not only because they underestimate each other’s political strength but also because each has an urge to establish a monopolistic rule by knocking out the other, believing that the losing party would simply fade away.”[ii]

So while the political parties at be duke it out, I’m using the forced vacation to catch up on some writing and file away what we’ve done thus far on the trip (ironically, much of which has to do with why exactly these big kids continue to vie for these positions of power in the way that they do).  And to eat mangoes.  So many mangoes.  We’re currently in Bogra, which is in Rajshahi division, the mango capital of Bangladesh.  So, while it may be guesthouse arrest, at least the rations are quite tasty.


[i] The Daily Star Staff Correspondent.  “Hartal eats up 3-4pc of GDP.”  The Daily Star, 11 March 2005. http://www.thedailystar.net/2005/03/11/d5031101011.htm (accessed 12 June 2011).

[ii] Hossain, Akhtar.  “Anatomy of Hartal Politics in Bangladesh.” Asian Survery 40:3 (May – June 2000): 521.

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commentary, photography

magnum expression award: yvonne venegas

A bit of old news, but just going through old files and came across this post, which I meant to put up quite a while ago.

The winner of Magnum’s Expression Award this year, announced a few months ago, is Yvonne Venegas, a photographer from California.  Her work that claimed the Expression Award, entitled Maria Elvia de Hank, is very quiet, very thoughtful – and very compelling.  She describes it as:

…a view into the life, family and environment of eccentric millionaire and former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rohn…a work that reflect[s] on identity and a way of thinking, a state of mind that the couple of Mr. and Mrs. Hank have created together.

One of the things that struck the most about her work was not the images itself, but rather the way she speaks about them.  Her entire artist statement is fascinating, but the words that struck me the most were these:

I understand that the intimate will consist only of the instants that I can locate behind those that are camera ready.

There are countless times that I’ve found myself, or other photographer friends have said that they’ve found themselves caught in a situation that seems far too cliched, to known to photograph. They can be varied in content, from formal wedding portraits, to a news conference, to even the release of Durga Puja statues into a river in Bangladesh, but they are similar in that they appear unoriginal, insincere – seen before.  As Venegas says, to be able to look beyond and underneath these photo-ready moments is the job of the photographer, to convey emotions and content that extend beyond the actual edge of the frame.

It’s wonderful that Magnum’s award, designed to allow for the creation of a body of work that is purely the expression of a photographer, went to a woman who does that so beautifully – a photographer who can not only find striking moments within timelines, but who can also articulate why they are so.  I hope to be able to take a few pointers from her.

For those interested, see more of Venegas’ work here.

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what do your days look like in Dhaka?

This, the most frequently asked question I’ve received in the past seven months, is the one that I often feel the most hesitant writing home about.  It’s not because there’s not much to tell about or because I think my projects are particularly dull to others (hope not!), but rather because of a slight aversion that I’ve developed to day-to-day recounting of events from ‘far away’.  Back when I started the first iteration of this blog from Paris in 2008, I made a small pact with myself that I’d try to avoid ‘travel blogging’ as much as possible, convinced that such posts were boring or too self-indulgent, something that would drive friends, family, and readers to the mouse faster than I could finish a whole post.  But after hearing about the wide-spread popularity of my Mama’s blog, and considering how much I often crave to hear little details of friends’ days – of how distance makes knowing even just the mundane seem like little treasures – my opinions are slowly changing.

So I thought it was high time to write a little bit about what I actually do in this water-logged, people-packed, and lovely little nation I now fairly readily call home – or at least part of my conception of what constitutes it.

A quick note before I do – this doesn’t mean that this space will become a diary of sorts, I’m not good at doing what my Mom or other Fulbrighters in the past have done so well, in giving full-on accounts on what days and nights look like over here.  (Seriously, check out this one American in Dhaka’s blog, it’s incredible – a true log of all his daily activities, a treasure trove of memories.  And makes quite a bit of sense coming from him given his research, which chronicled the number of riders and timing of each and every bus route in Dhaka.  No easy task when they look like this.)  But I think I too often write in the abstract, and knowing details of what’s what is not only helpful in stitching together an image of what Bangladesh looks like (at least with the lens through which I see it), but also key in providing background and context for those other, more off-in-space pieces.

Afternoon traffic in Dhaka.

So. What am I working on in Bangladesh?  The first three months, I mainly focused on learning the language – Bangla, or Bengali (the former being the Bangla name, the latter the English translation – think Deutschland and Germany), taking classes five days a week, four hours a day, plus 10 hours of one-on-one with a language partner to practice conversational Bangla each week.  While the classes were only from 9 to 1 each day, between the conversation practice and the homework and the test prep (we had one every Monday!) and the courses, it ended up eating up quite a bit of my days and nights those first three Dhakan months.

But around the second week in I started feeling little ancy (didn’t take long…!) about not making any progress on my research during the classwork.  So, with the help of my affiliate here in Bangladesh, the Power and Participaiton Research Center run by Hossain Zillur Rahman, I found a research assistant to help me begin to sort through the archives at the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, the agency that regulates textbook revision and publication in Bangladesh.  Mizan, my RA (I know, weeeird), would go down to the NCTB three to four times a week to dig through the shelves, identify textbooks of relevance from 1960 to the present, and note the appropriate pages.  I would join two or three days after class to go through those stack of books and photograph large portions of them, as I wasn’t allowed to take any of them from the building.

CNG central.

While it wasn’t a particularly difficult task, it ended up being fairly challenging in some unexpected ways; as classes didn’t end until 1 pm, that meant that I had to grab a quick lunch as soon as it ended, hail down and hop into a CNG (or, cage on wheels, as pictured above), and make the hour-plus trek in post-school traffic (many schools in the city let off around that time, and the route I was taking was always a particularly popular one) down to Motijheel, the part of the city in which NCTB is, to try to squeeze in two and a half hours of work before the institute closed at 5pm.  The NCTB library itself was an interesting workspace – a dusty, ill-kept room – but worth every sneeze.  A treasure trove of information, well-supplied with textbooks from all subjects in the years since the country’s inception (and sometimes, even before that).  It was without an AC, with a fan that worked when the power was on, which was only occasionally.  That also meant we were often sifting through and photographing books by candle/flashlight, as the room was windowless.  And who says archival work is dull?

That portion of the work wrapped up a few weeks after my classes ended, at which point I began the next stage of the project – speaking with policy makers, educators, and historians about the political and educational structures of Bangladesh.  This was less about the main research question itself (how do politics influence education?) and instead more about trying to draw a clear diagram of the inner-workings and mechanisms of the Bangladeshi state.  While there have been a number of previous studies done on educational infrastructure within the country, as a fairly politically volatile state, it is highly subject to swings and shifts in its priorities and policies.  I wanted to get a picture of the institutions themselves and visualize how various agencies fit together, in order to try to isolate precisely at which decision-making levels political dynamics filter into and influence curriculum and textbook development.

This meant many phone calls, office runs, contact snowballing, flakey appointment-makers – and a whole lot more CNG riding.  I got through 200 pages or so of Infinite Jest mostly from within the confines of the green bars of those baby taxis.  That portion of the research is now just beginning to slow down – although, it’s likely that it won’t ever really feel complete.  But that’s actually quite a great feeling (if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have any work to do!).

In the belly of the beast.

And I’m now in the planning stages for what is, by far, the most intimidating portion of the research – the school visits.  Meaning heading out to all corners of the country to visit schools and speak with teachers, students, parents, and educational administrators about the ways in which they use textbooks in their classrooms and homes.  While it would be ideal to just take off and show up on school stoops, it’s been far more complicated than I originally imagined, from getting permissions, to arranging transportation, to finding a research assistant/translator who can travel outside of the city for a couple of weeks on end, to structuring the visits themselves.

Not to make it more confusing, but I’m also trying to double up on the site visits, so to speak, to look for women who were involved in the Liberation War in each location that beckons for educational research.  It’s part of a separate, but related project on the Liberation War that I’ve been piddling away at since arriving, slowly gathering information on the role that women who took up arms, or served as spies, nurses, caretakers, and so on, in Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.  Women Warriors, as the project is called, is an oral history and photography project born out of a similar work I did during the VII/Exposure workshop in Hue, Vietnam this past summer, which focused on the post-conflict experiences of women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army in the war against the United States.  The Bangladeshi component of this project proved far more challenging than the work in Hue had been in the beginning; locating women and finding their contact information in Dhaka always felt just a couple degrees out of reach.  But with the help of a few fantastic women from three organizations – Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), Mohila Parishad (Women’s Council), and Naripokkho (Women’s Society) – this incredible network of female Freedom Fighters began to emerge.  Many are still close friends with each other, meeting often to share memories and meals and family.  And a few have been kind enough to share some of their time with me.

Maleka Khan, a social worker who directed centers for women raped during the Liberation War, at her village home.

The next challenge of the project as it is emerging is to find women outside of this circle – and outside of Dhaka.  The women that I’ve spoken with thus far are incredible, with beautifully strong voices, speaking often about the importance of recognizing the plethora of roles women played in the Liberation War, of creating a narrative that extends beyond that of woman as victim, which remains the most common in the country still.  But there are many other lesser known voices of the Liberation War, many belonging to housewives and farmers residing in the rural areas of the country.  Yet much like arranging school visits, finding them has proved startlingly difficult while in Dhaka.  This most likely means that it will simply involve picking up and heading out to villages, to walk around and talk to people about their lives as they were in 1971.  There are all sorts of challenges associated with that, from the cultural taboos surrounding women that fought and families’ subsequent hesitancy to speak about it, to – again – the language barrier that is much higher for me outside of Dhaka city.  But it’s an exciting challenge, and the enthusiasm that I’ve received from those within the city thus far has been incredibly encouraging.

Taken together, this basically means that my days are open to scheduling as I see fit – both a rather overwhelming and simply fantastic prospect.  In a city that can wear you down quite quickly, having the ability to swap a dedicated workday from Wednesday to Saturday, granting yourself some time off in the middle of the week to decompress and re-evaluate, is simply invaluable.  It also means that it’s afforded a flexibility in the work that has allowed it to go off in all sorts of directions, linking with a plethora of people and organizations that I never could have anticipated when writing this proposal.  It’s meant that I’ve seen first hand the importance of long-term, on-the-ground research, the power of actually researching where your research is.  That I now realize how vital learning the language of where you’re working is, even if just at a basic level.  The kindness extended, and especially after individuals find out that I know even just a little conversational Bangla, has been astonishing and heartwarming.

These past few months have taught me a great deal, about living and operating in an entirely new culture and mentality, about learning how to pick my battles and what is in fact worth fighting for, about planning and organizing my own schedule and deadlines, about not being a student.  Thinking back to September 2010, it never ceases to amaze me that I knew no one in Bangladesh other than a few fellow Americans and a handful of contacts passed along by friends and family.  When my phone got nabbed a few weeks ago, it was saddening not because of the loss of that junky $5 handset, but rather because of the potentially unrecoverable contacts, of all the numbers saved to that little limegreen Samsung.  And something in that frustration was simply wonderful – that there was a community here, in this place that all of a year a go was just be a dot on a map in my mind, for me to fear losing.

 

Sonargon, Bangladesh.

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travel logs, 1: southeast asia logistics

The sites detailing where, when, and how to visit Asia are far from numerous.  But in planning recent trips, I’ve found information scattered across multiple sites, hidden within sub-pages, or just a bit too ill-formatted to enjoy reading.

So, in the interest of encouraging visits to Asia (new testimonials from Mama D’Amore to come!), I’m going to start posting travel information in segments on this site.  It’ll be grouped by region (South Asia versus Southeast Asia) and will include details on flights, visas, and health prep, as well as where to go and how to prepare to get there.  This first entry is a slightly more logistics-oriented one on Southeast Asia – a favorite destination on account of its high-value & low cost accommodations, fascinating history, and stellar beaches (really stellar).  Where to go and what to do will come in a later post.

Conveniently, as Bangladesh serves as some sort of boundary between South and Southeast Asia, it’ll be included in both groupings!  Surely no bias here, though.

SOUTHEAST ASIA-BASED AIRLINES:

Are numerous!  Often Singapore, Kuala Lampur, and Bangkok are the origins of the cheapest direct flights, so routing your trip through those locales will often save you time and money.  A few of the best/cheapest carriers are:

The airlines above that are bolded are the budget ones, often with crazy cheap tickets (read: $0 fares + taxes and fees, translating into $20 one-way rates).  There are other ones as well, but these are some of the best and most reliable.  For example, one other large Bangladesh airline is Biman (literally means plane in Bangla), but it’s notorious for delayed flights and shotty service.  If you’re in a pinch, though, it’s a good standby with non-stops to many locations – so if none of these have what you’d like, don’t be discouraged.

TO ASIA FROM THE UNITED STATES:

Airlines that fly from the east coast to Asia include Continental, United (the American, not Bangladeshi one), American, and Cathay Pacific.  Many Asian Airlines (like Singapore Air) are also beginning to offer transcontinental flights for cheap, often with pretty exceptional web-promos, so checking those sites sometimes works, too.  The Asian airlines listed above often fly direct to the west coast of the U.S., so it’s definitely worthwhile looking if you’re starting from anywhere west of the Mississippi!

Interestingly, roundtrip flights to Dhaka right now are relatively inexpensive compared to those that go straight to Southeast Asia than those to (1400 v. 1700 USD) – unfortunately, likely a result of the trouble in the Mid East.  While gas prices have risen for nearly everyone, it’s less of a worry for the mideast airlines (which are the ones that fly to Dhaka) – as the same governments who control the flights also control the wells.  Suggested airlines to take from anywhere in the U.S. to DAC are Etihad (the best, I think!), Qatar, Emirates, Gulf Air, and Kuwait Airways.  Flying on to Bangkok or Kuala Lampur is often exceedingly cheap from Dhaka (with one-ways starting at $100).

I usually find bookings on Kayak and then book with cheaptickets.com, which often has the cheapest fairs and decent customer service.  Which is very, very important.  I would NOT recommend airfare.com – when trying to switch my flight to Dhaka back in the Fall, I was put on hold for literally seven hours.  And then the call dropped.  Ask my mother, it wasn’t pretty.

VISAS

  • Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia: not necessary for US citizens!
  • Cambodia and Laos: visas are about $25-$50 upon arrival for each.
  • Vietnam and Bangladesh: are the challenging ones in the region.  Travisa is an excellent visa processing service that doesn’t cost much more ($5 extra?) than just walking your passport over to an embassy/consulate yourself, so I’ve always gone through them.  You FedEx them your passport with all the various forms and a self addressed envelope, and they FedEx it back with when it’s done!  The length of time it takes to get a visa varies by country and  – unfortunately – your personal background (what your country of origin is, etc.), but for each Vietnam and Bangladesh I would allow about two weeks.  If you can do it a month or two in advance, that’d be even better.
    • Vietnam: tourist visas cost different amounts dependent on their length and whether they’re single or multiple entry   – the single entry 1 month visa is $75, while the multiple entry 1 month is $105.
    • Bangladesh: single, double, and multiple entry tourist visas for up to a year all cost the same amount ($155, SORRY!  we need the money?).  So if I were you, I’d just apply for the year-long one.  The ‘desh is a lovely place, why not come back??

VACCINES

As someone who was once called a pincushion by a travel clinician, I can tell you that getting vaccines has become virtually painless – most health insurance plans cover all vaccine-related costs, and the nurse practitioners who take care of such things are extraordinarily well informed.  Your primary care provider will likely have an in-house travel clinic, but if they don’t, you can search for one near you here.  Going to see the travel clinicians is actually quite fun – a trip to Asia inspires a few ooohs and aaahs, and they love doing the research needed for more oddball destinations.  It may be a few extra needles, but the security provided by getting these vaccines is great.  Cause often, hospitals where you’re going are not (although, increasingly they are!  But still get vaccinated!).

  • MalaysiaSingapore, and ThailandHepatitis AHepatitis B (three shots, spread out over six months, with the second shot 1 month after the first, and the third shot 3 months after the first ), Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis (this one requires three shots spread out over a month – at days 0, 7, and 30);
  • CambodiaLaos, and Vietnam: same as thailand, plus rabies (good if you’re planning on hiking or being in remote areas at all – as the vaccine doesn’t protect you from rabies, but does give you an extra 12-24 hours to get to a hospital after a bite);
  • Bangladesh: all the above!  Plus polio.
  • Yellow Fever Vaccine: many countries in Southeast Asia (Thailand included) require that you get vaccinated against Yellow Fever and then certified that you were vaccinated (they give you a lil’ yellow card that says so) before you can enter the country.  You have to present the card at immigration upon arrival, so do make sure you keep it after the travel clinician gives it to you at the end of the appointment.
  • Malaria: the best malaria prophylactic medicine is Malarone – while it’s a bit more expensive, the alternatives can give you nausea/hallucinations, so I’d not recommend those?  Worth the extra $20!  You need enough to take one pill a day 1-2 days before entering the affected area, then throughout the time you’re there, and a week after you leave.  Risk areas for different countries are:
    • Bangladesh: all areas, except in city of Dhaka
    • Cambodia: present throughout the country, except none at the temple complex at Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, and around Lake Tonle Sap. (more information)
    • Laos: all, except none in the city of Vientiane. (more information)
    • Malaysia: present in rural areas of Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak), and to a lesser extent in rural areas of peninsular Malaysia. (more information)
    • Singapore: none
    • Thailand: rural, forested areas that border Cambodia, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar). Rare local cases in Phang Nga and Phuket. None in cities and in major tourist resorts. None in cities of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, Koh Samui, and Koh Phangan. (more information)
    • Vietnam: rural only exceptnone in the Red River Delta and the coast north of Nha Trang.  Rare cases in the Mekong Delta. None in Da Nang, Haiphong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Nha Trang, and Qui Nhon. (more information)
  • Cipro: it’s also a good idea to get a prescription or two of cipro, an antibiotic used for travelers’ upset stomach that will generally kill anything that’s hiding in your stomach if you get bad food poisoning!

And that’s all for now.  By no means comprehensive, but hopefully a bit helpful in demystifying the process that is planning a trip to Asia.  For the actual length of the trip, I’d recommend at least three weeks, if not longer – the most expensive aspect of the trip, by far, is the flight.  Once you’re here, cost of living can be exceedingly low (depending on the kind of vacation you’re looking for) and there’s a great amount to see.  One aspect on which I differ from many travelers is the itinerary, often preferring to spend longer periods of time in fewer places, rather than trying to bounce around and hit every locale on the checklist.  Most places take at least a couple of days to get your bearings in, and so allowing yourself time to wander the streets and really get a feel for the place is, IMHO, well worth the price of not seeing nearly as many new spots.  But everyone has their own style, so feel free to completely disregard this portion of the post.  Or any part of it!  Hopefully it’s helpful, and do feel free to drop a line with any questions you may have.

Happy planning!

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conversation on the dangers of dolls

Alisha and I met last year in the Institute for Global Leadership’s EPIIC Colloquium on South Asia; she was always one of the most inquisitive in the class, always posed the hardest questions to the guest speakers, was always staying late and doing more work than was required.

So I wasn’t surprised, but was certainly excited, when a message from her as a response to a previous post on portrayals of white women in Bollywood videos popped up in my inbox a few days ago.  It’s evolved into the start of an interesting little conversation, and so I asked if I could share the exchange on here – she’s agreed, and so here it is now.

The original post, The Dangers of Dolls, can be found on the other side of that link.  Below, you’ll find her response in full, followed by the little note I wrote back.

The idea of the white woman as more loose, and less clad, is not recent. I definitely carried this stereotype with me to the US and I don’t think it was because of the background dancers I saw in films, I think it was because of what I saw in mainstream American films, particularly chick flicks. It’s the cheerleader phenomenon, and that image created by the Hollywood industry is just something the Bollywood industry is now using because of two things: 1) the Indian fascination with white skin 2) the mistaken belief that an Indian women’s modesty is more pure, important and intact than a foreigners. I’m sure you can relate to the second point from what you’ve told me about and written of your experiences in Bangladesh.

I don’t know if you’ve discovered the phenomenon of “item numbers” yet. They are basically sexy cabaret songs and we have a slew of women in Bollywood famous for being “item girls” – and these are the women (for the most part) in the industry seen at the bottom of ladder because they are Indian women choosing to play the role seen as only fitting for the white background dancers in the minds of the Indian audience. They are the subject of trash talk and lewd jokes.

While the white dancers aren’t chosen particularly for their dancing skills, they are chosen because they cost less and provide the same value. For example, Shiamak Davar’s Dance Co. – what is now one of the premier Bollywood dance companies – has dancers that are ready to provide skimpy clothing along with sexiness and high quality dancing.  For example,

But the skin will never be bared in quite the same way, and I think this is also because (having been part of the amateur group in the company for some time) most of the Indian dancers just aren’t ready, especially en masse, to bare it like that. There is too much at stake – being disowned from your family, marriage prospects, reputation. Not that it doesn’t happen these days, and isn’t happening more, but it’s more of a struggle with the Indian female dancers. I remember that in our dance shows where our directors wanted us to wear some of the type of clothes you’ve described in the videos you chose, we wore full skin leotards underneath if we wanted to. More often though, we weren’t asked to bare skin in a way that made us feel cheap.

I don’t know if there’s one particular point im trying to make. I’m just giving you some more info, and saying that I don’t think what you’ve experienced as a white woman in Bangladesh stems simply from a Bollywood desire to denigrate the image of the white woman.

P.S. For a good depiction of a white woman, watch Lagaan. Even though the white female lead isn’t American, she’s British, she’s as white as it gets. The caveat there is that the film is set in pre-Independence India.

-Alisha Sett, Tufts University (A’12)

And my response:

Alisha, thanks so much for writing this – yours is a fascinating insight into an issue that I’ve only just begun to explore.  The points that you make are spot on – Bollywood is just following the lead of Hollywood, and so it’s no surprise that the image of white women is essentially a mirror of many of those portrayals seen in the US.

The aspect of this all that is most troubling to me is that the depiction is so one-dimensional; while white girls are certainly portrayed as sex objects and ditzes willing to don just about anything (or nothing) in American films, they are also shown in other roles – as brilliant lawyers and secret agents and powerful single mothers – and the list keeps growing as women continue to fill more roles in American society.  These certainly do not eliminate the idea of woman as sex object that we receive so often from the American media, but they do make it more layered and complex.

The danger with recent Bollywood films/music videos, as I’ve seen, is that there is only one role for white woman, and it is one that it is seen over and over again. I’ve yet to watch a Bollywood film with a white woman in a strong, confident, sassy role like those the leading South Asian women play. (To be my own devil’s advocate, there are far too few Hollywood films with women of color in such roles as well.  But really that’s a whole other issue – that women of color just aren’t cast in films nearly as often in the States, in any role.)  Where in contrast, white women seem to be being sought out more and more often in South Asian films – a number of my white friends here in Dhaka have been recruited for such films – but only in this one familiar part.  And that’s where the problem lies.

In the end, the point of the piece as I intended it was not so much a critique of Bollywood – I don’t blame the industry for assuming the image projected by successful white actress after successful white actress in the US – but rather to speak to how it’s affected my time as a white woman in South Asia.  How I think it has directly influenced the way that men treat me at work, on the streets, everyday.  That they speak to me and approach me and, at times, touch me in a way that they would never dare to do with a Bangladeshi woman.  And that the reason for that lies beyond the fact that I am different – they would likely not act the same way with a Black or East Asian woman (although, this is again something I’m just surmising, and open to be proved wrong by the experiences of ex-pats in South Asia!)  – rather that it lies in the fact that to them, white skin equals open, easy, and ready to bare all.  And that now they don’t just have to turn to American media to receive that.  It can be found in local – and therefore more familiar and understandable – media and entertainment.

Mine is not a rigorous or conclusive analysis by any means, it is more just my own musings on this idea that popped into my head recently, and has remained there ever since.  I really appreciate your taking the time to write, as I think it’s helped me clarify ideas, and made me challenge a number of other ones I came up with in the first place.

And so I’m curious to know – are there any other voices that would like to weigh in on the conversation?  Bollywood fanatics?  Fellow ex-pats?  Otherwise interested individuals?  I’d love to have my ideas questioned, and to know more about this all in general.  So do write (elizabethdherman (at) gmail (dot) com) or leave a comment if you’d like to add your opinion.  And thanks for reading!

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