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Site Changes, Personal Changes

When I first started this blog, I didn’t have much to show for this project. In fact, the day I wrote my first blog post I was stuck in a relatives’ home because all of Bangladesh was under military curfew.

Since then I have a lot to show: I’ve given away two cases of water during the summer flooding season. I’ve given over fifty mosquito nets (including one long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito net called PermaNet) to rural villagers. I’ve given wind-up flashlights to low-income students trying to study without electricity as well as one to a low-income disaster relief volunteer. I’ve helped to pay for a large group of poor children to have a balanced and healthy meal. And, recently, I’ve distributed 70 blankets (30 of which I did with Save the Children, another 30 with Muslim Aid UK, and 10 I gave out one-on-one) to victims of a Cyclone Sidr.

So it’s about time I tweak the look of the site a bit. Gone is the static photo of my Notre Dame hat and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ book. I’m still using that photo – but the main picture on my site now changes randomly every few minutes (you’ll have to reload manually) to shows some of the things I’ve done and interesting people I’ve met. This change also reflects a decision I’ve made.

When I first came to Bangladesh, I thought I would stay here for a couple of months and then go. But since coming here, I’ve kept changing my departure date. September departures became October departures – and so on. I don’t know when exactly I am going to fly home – but I know I will be here in Bangladesh Christmas and the New Year. For the first time in my life – I’ll be spending Christmas and New Years away from both my Mom and Dad.

It’s not easy staying here. There are bugs, germs, and it’s easy to get sick. I’m far from my friends and I am kind of getting homesick. This has also had a cost on my family (in particular my mother who had contracted Dengue Fever during the time she was accompanying me on this project). But, despite all this difficulty, I have a unique opportunity. I’m doing something no one has ever done before (at least in terms of how I’m sharing my experience and work online with others through Flickr, YouTube, and blogging). And I’m helping others while I do it. How many people can say that?

I also want to share a message and inspire others. It’s hard to do that if I’m just uploading old footage and photos from my home in Canada. Hopefully by staying this project can grow and perhaps inspire others.

Disaster Area: I’m Starting To Remember More Details

They say when you see such suffering and devastation first hand, you’re mind goes into shock. I didn’t believe them until I experienced it myself. I kind of feel like a weakling for reacting like this. I mean, I wasn’t harmed by the Cyclone – my family is safe thousands of miles away – what is there for me to be in shock about?

But, here I am just now – reviewing some footage I took during my time in the disaster area – and all of a sudden I vividly remember something I must have blocked out. And, now that I remember it, I kind of remember why I would have wanted to block it out in the first place.

As I mention in the last youtube episode (or see below, after the jump), I spent the third day with Nick Downie with Save the Children. We had to walk among endless rows upon rows of make-shift housing from people displaced by the cyclone. I had forgotten until now, but a group of people raced up to me and asked me in Bengali if I was a television reporter.

They wanted to tell the world how improperly aid was being given in their part of the disaster area. They were explaining to me how they were waiting and some people were getting aid and relief for the second time and they hadn’t received any at all. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule and I was falling behind – we hadn’t even reached the abandoned school yet to test its water. After explaining to them I wasn’t with any Bangladesh TV station – I left them behind. I’m just starting to remember how sad the looks on their faces were.

I also understood why they were complaining about how aid was be distributed. Technically, aid hadn’t fully reached this region yet. My sparse 30 blankets were some of the first aid of its kind in that area. There were also far more pressing concerns. For starters, there was no clean water anywhere in sight. I had brought with me my Notre Dame Nalgene water bottle. In such intense heat, I finished the water in the bottle very quickly. I spent the rest of the day parched. Because, although there were tube wells everywhere we went – the cyclone left them too contaminated to drink from. Water from every tube well was yellow with chunks of dirt in it. Yet, that’s exactly what everyone else was drinking who was stuck there. One day in that area and I was tempted to risk drinking from it.

Imagine having to live there.

[UPDATE 1: Somebody submitted this blog post to digg. I am really flattered. If you want, you can digg it here.]

[UPDATE 2: Welcome to those who came here by Stumbleupon.]

Continue reading ‘Disaster Area: I’m Starting To Remember More Details’

Cyclone Hits Bangladesh – My View from Dhaka

It felt like something out of a movie. I was in a car on the way home – it was fifteen minutes to midnight. There wasn’t a soul on the street and the only sounds you could hear were the rain beating down on the streets, the noise of the wind, and the car’s engine. It was pitch black too – every home, apartment, and building as far as the eye could see had no electricity. Then – all of a sudden – a blinding bright light and a roar erupts right next to the car – just outside of my side of the car. My window then gets showered in glowing sparks.

I wasn’t in any danger – it was just a transformer exploding. But, for the first time in this whole time in Bangladesh – I was scared…

I’m writing this on my battery’s laptop power. The glow of the screen is the only thing that is lighting up this room. Now, this isn’t the first time there’s been a blackout – but this time it’s different. This isn’t the first time its rained – but this it’s different. It’s different because, this time it’s caused by Cyclone Sidr. It hit the coats of Bangladesh at approximately 6 pm local time and hasn’t stopped.

The good news… well… ummm… the good news for me at least – is that I’m pretty safe here in Dhaka. It’s just a nasty storm with heavy rain. Although, it’s heavy enough that the streets are getting water logged/flooded, things are getting really cold, and the winds are creating a widespread problem with the electrical grid. From the more modern areas where foreigners live (Gulshan) to old parts of the city (Shatinagar) – all have experienced or are experiencing blackouts tonight.

If this cyclone has this effect for people in the city, I can only imagine how things are on the coastline – where many of the rural poor live. BBC is reporting tidal waves of 3 meters in height with homes, schools, and trees just blown away. Many have been displaced and those who aren’t displaced have lives disrupted.

My latest episode on YouTube talks about being trapped in the cycle of poverty. It seems like even Mother Nature makes it hard for people to pull themselves out of the trap that is poverty.

Bangladesh Corruption – I’m Sick of It! Five Facts That Boil The Blood.

Literally and figuratively – I am sick and tired of this country’s corruption. Corruption alone maybe what keep this country firmly entrenched in its third world status. Here are five facts that bring my blood to a boil.

Fact #1: Paying the Bills Isn’t Enough.

I was at Notre Dame College the other day. Notre Dame College is a middle school and high school for Bangladesh children that provides education to middle class and extremely poor Bangladeshi children. It’s founded by the same Catholic organization that founded my alma mater in South Bend, Indiana. Some of the staff there used to be Rectors at some of the Halls at the American Notre Dame too. I’ve spent a lot of time there during this trip – makes me less homesick. My last visit there I was surprised to find the phone lines were cut – and it had nothing to do with forgetting to pay the bill.

In fact, the bills were paid on time and in full. It turns out that, in Bangladesh, paying your bills doesn’t get your service. I’ve talked about the corruption at the local water authority. The sad news is that this type of corruption isn’t limited to water. This corruption exists at the phone company and the electricity company too. If your water stops flowing – you need to ask for the water company to send a water tanker to your building. If the phone lines stop working – you need to have a technician come to your place. And, rest assured, every phone technician, water truck driver, and the middleman you need to deal with will be asking for a “commission” (which is just a nice term to legitimize bribery).

Fact #2: People suffer when this happens.

Believe it or not – there are honest people in this country trying to make an honest living here. But, rest assured, they are given a hard time by those a bit more corrupt. This is the Muslim month of Ramadan. For those not versed in Islam, it’s basically as important as Christmas is to Christians. A lot of people are buying and shopping at this time of year. It’s a time when those shopkeepers – who want to be able to survive for the rest of the year – need to be able to do business. This was made impossible for shopkeepers at the Bongo Bazaar in Dhaka (I found this great video of some foreigners shopping in the Bongo Bazaar if you want to see what it looks like). Despite paying their bills, the shop keepers didn’t have access to electricity. This wasn’t like a rolling blackout – that’s quite common here. This was a complete shutdown of electricity. Most of these shopkeepers could not afford backup generators. In much an enclosed and non-ventilated space – even local Bangladeshis couldn’t tolerate the heat there for more than two minutes.

No electricity means no fans. No fans means no shoppers. No shoppers means no business. No business means no income. No income means that it’s impossible to bribe the electricity company so that the power gets put back on. Sometimes I feel Bangladesh does a good job of keeping itself trapped in the poverty cycle.

Fact #3: People get sick when this happens.

In medieval Europe, people would put the contents of their toilet into a bucket (or just use a bucket as their toilet). When it needed to be emptied – they’d go near the window and dump it all out. This is how people lived when indoor plumbing didn’t exist. It’s good to know that corruption helps to keep the medieval spirit alive and well. Because, when there is no water, my neighbors in the adjacent apartments sometimes scoop out their toilets with a bucket and dump the contents out the window. This would be less disgusting if the entrance to the place I’m staying didn’t happen to be where they dump their stuff. Disgust aside – with medieval practices come medieval diseases. It’s no surprise that everyone who lives here has had pink eye, typhoid, and stomach related illnesses.

And like the bazaar that had no electricity, Notre Dame college which had no phone lines, or my residential block which (once again) has no water – this all is happening during the month of Ramadan. A time when people need extra cash to shop and spend on their family. And it just so happens that the electricity, phone line, and water all magically come back when you give the right person the right amount of bribes. Corrupt people need to shop for their families too – but it’s innocent victims that line their pockets.

Fact #4: Corruption disproportionately hurts the poor.

I was visiting someone who had an apartment in a region of the city called Baridhara. Baridhara is a diplomatic zone – it has the US Embassy (along with other embassies from other countries) and is the home to many foreigners and rich locals. Many of the apartments there would put most homes in North America to shame. LCD TVs in every room, each room with its own independent A/C, marble flooring and countertops, and all the fancy fixtures and accessories to go along with it. If the power goes out – there is a generator that can power everything for up to a day. If the water goes out – houses and apartments there come with massive reserve tanks. And when bribing is necessary, the apartment building manager pays off the right people and adds the cost to the apartment fees. Bribing for a flat rate – how convenient is that?

The same is true for the stores that cater to the rich. At a local supermarket called Lavender, one of the few places where white customers out number Bangladeshis, a small bag of cookies costs about 8 US Dollars. In local terms thats over 500 of the local currency – or about 4 times the daily income of over 80% of the population. But, unlike the Bongo Bazaar, the shoppers there never need to worry about a lack of electricity for the A/C. The high price of goods helps pay for the bribes. Not every store can be like Lavender and add the cost of bribes to the price of the products.

Fact #5: Corruption is so bad, even aid agencies don’t trust the locals.

One of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals is to stop the spread of HIV, tuberculous, and malaria. To help in this cause there is a Global Fund – literally called the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculous and Malaria. The Global Fund helps many countries – but when they decided to try and help Bangladesh, they decided not to work with the government or most local NGOs. When it comes to purchasing things like mosquito nets, the government and or an NGO needs to place a request to a foreign agency like the World Health Organization. The UN then acts as the honest broker and makes the purchase ensuring that money meant for poor people doesn’t get pocketed by corrupt officials.

I don’t think anyone really understands what kind of corruption this country has until you come and live here. Where is Don Corleone when you need him? The man would be a saint in this country.

Mosquitoes Bite Rich and Poor Alike?

I just got rid of an infestation of mosquitoes – and I feel stupid for not catching it earlier.

Mosquitoes breed in stagnant and standing water. That means if you have a pool of water (it doesn’t have to be much) they can breed and grow. I had got into the habit of saving buckets of water when there were a regular water outages at the place I am staying. I say were because the outages stopped ever since I showed up with a video camera at the local Water Authority offices.

I had one bucket of water left from the water shortages and hadn’t needed to use it – so it just stayed there for days. When I emptied it out just now – I found a dozen mosquitoes in the bucket. That would explain why I had so many mosquitoes hanging around in my room lately – and the fact that I now have a few big mosquito bites on my arm.

But, once again, it got me thinking: I’m pretty lucky that its this easy to get rid of mosquitoes. I started this blog with a photo of this kid, he’s my reminder of what I’m here. In the corner of the photo is a pool of black water – its old stagnant water mixed with tons of garbage, dirt, and mud. Perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. The pool actually extended to a nearby slum (called bostis here). You can see the pool leading up to the bosti in this photo:

Bosti Near Construction Site

If I can get bitten by a dozen mosquitoes breeding from a bucket of tap water, can you imagine how many are growing in that puddle of black ooze? And for people living in the slums, getting rid of mosquitoes isn’t as easy as emptying out a bucket of water and calling it a night.

Good night.

Dhaka Water Crisis: Corruption in the Pipes?

In a country like Bangladesh, its hard to tell where the corruption ends and the legitimate difficulties begin.

Take this recent water crisis in Dhaka. I wanted to wait a couple of days to be sure, but it seems that – for those living around me – the water shortages are over. Both my house and the neighboring apartments have had continuous access – without interruption – to city water for over 48 hours. But here’s the thing: no pipes needed to be replaced, no pumps needed to be repaired, and no city capacity had to be increased in order for this to happen.

In fact, the only thing that happened was that I showed up at the Water Authority with a camera and started asking some questions.

Click the jump for more of on this including a picture of one of the city’s tube well stations….. Continue reading ‘Dhaka Water Crisis: Corruption in the Pipes?’

Dhaka Water Crisis – My Breaking Point

I have to admit – I’m reaching my breaking point. It wasn’t the weather that got to me, or the riots, or the curfews, or the cockroaches, or even having to deal with a hospitalized family member. But, a recent developing water crisis might be the straw that breaks my back.

Click the jump to read more of my dehydrated rambling. Continue reading ‘Dhaka Water Crisis – My Breaking Point’