Saturday, May 25, 2013

Cars, ferries, boats, rickshaws and a pair of red snakeskin rain boots

So, I just went on my very first fraud investigation trip. I spent a few interesting, to say the least, days in the south of Bangladesh delving deep into remote villages to try and found out whether our venerable visa applicants have been truthful with some of their more outrageous claims at the visa window. Yup, we do that, it is in the job description. You won’t believe the kind of things people would have you believe in order to get that coveted immigrant visa to the U.S.

After a lovely 7 hour car ride from Dhaka, during which I mostly slept in the roomy Embassy SUV, we stopped to bust some fraud in what was supposed to be a village “right off the road.” Two and half hours later into the deep river jungle, after crossing one river on a ferryboat with the SUV, and then another one without it, on a small boat (the ferry on that river crashed last year and there hasn’t been a new one since then), then trekking some more in the blistering heat we finally found our village. I had the honor of an 80-year old man insisting on carrying a massive black umbrella over my head through the tall grass as we were marching towards the village and he would not let go for all the gold in the world. Bangladeshi people ARE the nicest, mot hospitable people in the whole wide world. Even as we are having a rather unpleasant conversation regarding immigration fraud, they still beam in your face and try to force feed you some tea and bananas, while a variety of children insist that you sit on the only chair in the house.

The next day we were back hard at work through the maze of rivers and canals of the area we were casing. The big SUV navigated the dilapidated village roads for a while and when we finally came to a tiny bridge, the driver gave up. My Bangladeshi colleague and I set out on foot, in the hopes of finding SOME mode of transportation for the next 5 kms towards the village we needed. No such vehicle appeared. Instead, at every intersection where we stopped for directions, we attracted a massive crowd, portions of which would then follow us from a distance until our next stop, when it would exchange for a new crowd. With such retinue in tow it was a bit tough to arrive unannounced and inconspicuous. Actually, if all TV channels would have announced our arrival, probably less people would have known about it compared to the efficacy of the village grapevine. And then it began raining and did not stop for the next 2 days.

To the utter delight of the village male youth, I donned a pair of bright red, snakeskin-immitation rain boots and continued to prance through the mud without a care in the world. I was also sporting my favorite old pair of jeans, fashionably torn at the knees. At one point, as I was getting back into the car, a crowd of about 50 fascinated men ranging in age from 5 to 75 stood to stare at me taking off my boots as if they were observing a rare monkey dance the rumba. After some back and forth with the crowd, it became clear that I speak Bangla, which caused a complete adoring furor. At the very front was an old man, white beard to his knees, his snow-white robe and cap indicating that he was a devout Muslim. After staring some in complete silence, he suddenly asked me, clearly puzzled, why were my pans so old and torn??? I told him it was fashion. Judging from his expression, he thought that I was a lunatic. Then again, sometimes when I watch the catwalk and some of the top fashion houses’ shows, I feel the same way about their designers as well. So, I suppose grandpa had a point.

At another point during the trip, the car was left helpless behind some other impassable bridge, and we realized that out destination was about 12 kms ahead. While I welcome the occasional physical exercise, plus I possess a healthy dedication to my job, this was a little too far even for me. We decided to hire a “cab” – a mechanized version of the rickshaw, which runs on natural gas, allows for the transportation of about 2 passengers in the back (even though I have seen as many as 6), looks and is as beaten down as an old Russian Moskvich and allows you to feel every single tiny stone and hole on the road you are on. Try 12 km on that contraption. You come out and you don’t feel your ass at all. The only thing worse than that is knowing that you have to climb back on that and travel another 12 kms back to your comfortable SUV. Did I mention that it was raining all the time?

Other than that, Bangladesh is beautiful. The rice fields bloom in gorgeous golden yellow, and the only thing that spoils the idyllic scene in the fields are the children who are working there rather than going to school. The ferries are a hoot and one can buy a variety of useful things while traveling on them, among which are lychees, children’s coloring books, towels, popcorn, bananas, tupperware; in addition, you can also have your shoes polished. Bangladeshis are most hard-working, exceptionally genial and disturbingly curious. As we were passing by a village, we stumbled upon a wedding procession – the groom was on a boat with a million of his relatives on his way to pick up the bride. Everyone got overly excited as I stopped by to take pictures from a bridge above and pulled the poor groom out from the crowd so that I can have a better view. In the midst of this, a curious relative shouted towards me, “Where is YOUR husband?” which was neither here, nor there. I have heard this question before and it always gives me great delight to answer, “At home, minding the children” which invariably manages to produce confusion and consternation in the asker. This time was no different and the groom was left to ponder this curious state of family affairs as he sailed towards his bride.

The return trip to Dhaka was memorable, mostly because the capital was besieged by a strike (called “hartal”), which meant that the Embassy security would not allow us to enter the city until the hartal was lifted at 6 p.m. There was absolutely no other Embassy-approved way of coming back and the idea was that we would stay back for one more day. Usually, that would be swell and dandy (hello, one more day of per diem!). Except for the tinsiest inconvenience that I was supposed to fly that very same night to the particularly attractive country of Thailand for a few days of sunning myself next to a large swimming pool, while the Diplomat diligently brings me tall drinks with unknown but exciting content. After some maniacal brainstorming, we managed to come back to the outskirts of the city where we waited out the end of the hartal, and then the driver bravely weaved his way through the traffic-jammed city and delivered me to the Dhaka airport in time to see Son’s beaming face, ready to check-in. "MAMAAAAAA, I HAVE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!" Why, my dear Son, I have missed you so much too!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Real Bangladesh – Should I Be Scared?

Some time ago I wrote pensively and incisively about the shocking difference in the reality on the Bangladeshi streets and the one at the ubiquitous Dhaka fancy parties. What I mean by that is that everywhere in the streets you will see (if and when) women clad in conservative clothing, often with hijabs or full burka. Granted, there ain’t all that many women on the streets in Dhaka – it is about 1:10 ratio of women to the hordes of men who roam all over with seemingly little more to do than walk, talk, stare and pee in the gutter. At the same time, if you attend a fashionable dance party filled with Dhaka's young ones, you would not believe that you are in fact in Bangladesh. 

So, yesterday was a funny day. In the afternoon, I decided to take Son for his haircut since I hadn’t seen his eyes for over a week now (the kid sports an Ashton Kutcher-like awesome hairstyle). It was also a good opportunity to ride his bike on the Dhaka streets (the salon is a block away) rather than between the kitchen and my bedroom, which is decidedly not amusing for me. So, Son perched precariously on his bike and we braved the dugout street and a half to the salon – I have to say, 3 meters later and I regretted it. We would have been better off with a lunar rover given the horrendous landscape of my street. At any rate, we made it to the salon, and all of us collectively endured the haircut – at some point, 2 women were holding Son down, one was cutting and 3 others were staring (I think staring is Bangladesh’s national sport), while I was nervously sipping tea. Once done, Son hopped on the bike (he was VERY nervous about parking it outside and tried for a while to bring it inside the salon to my horror) and we headed back home. We stopped to stare at some construction site much to Son’s delight – lately, after the Savar tragedy, he acquired the morbid predilection that all construction in Dhaka will collapse. As we were standing there, a small skinny man in a wife-beater and the typical Bangladeshi male skirt on came up to me. Next to him was a younger man, similarly dressed. They were walking deliberately slowly, almost with a nonchalant swagger. They stopped next to me and the older man said the following to me:

“M’am, this Bangladesh.” I nodded, I thought he wanted to chat about “my country” and pinch Son’s cheeks, like everyone else. I smiled. He was so not amused. Instead, he said to me, in a calm, almost imperceptibly menacing tone, “You must control your dress when you here” and pointed out to my short, above-the-knees summer dress while staring calmly into my shocked eyes. His buddy kept looking at me expressionless. Then they slowly moved away and continued their unhurried, deliberate walk. I stood there for some time, unable to move, petrified, not sure what had just happened. Perhaps I became complacent. Perhaps I have been too comfortable here and have lost touch perspective of where I really am? Whatever the answer is, the fact was that I was scared. For the first time.  In Bangladesh. The place I had started calling “my lovely Bangladesh.” And that made me sad.

That same night I went to a very sought after party at the Radisson hotel, organized by a notorious party company in Bangladesh. If my street critic had been there, he might have had some serious religious palpitations. The party had many young and privileged kids who were drinking, smoking and doing some other things decidedly un-religious things. Some of the attire of the ladies (although I do fear it is a bit of a stretch to call them “ladies”) would have sent an Amsterdam night trade professional packing in view of the scantily-clad competition.

Who is the real Bangladesh? I guess it’s both – those people who warn against the evil of short skirts and demand a blasphemy law, torching everything in their way and refusing women journalists to cover their rallies, and those folks who cannot wait to don a Western dress late at night and to have a drink or two while dancing to the sounds of the latest Bangkok DJ. Clearly, both sides are the extremes of Bangladeshi society but they exemplify the profound conflict that this rapidly developing country is now facing as illustrated by the violent recent events. I remain an impassionate bystander.