2001.05.04

While coming into Chittagong today to check email and write this update, I found out from a fellow volunteer that two more people have resigned from our batch. We were supposed to have 35 in all. 33 came to registration in San Francisco, 6 quit during pre-service training, and now after two weeks of being an official Peace Corps Volunteer, two others have quit. That's a total of 8, and at least one had to quit for reasons beyond her control. She had wanted to leave during training to be with her ailing grandmother who raised her. However she made it through training after considering all it took to get here. I haven't heard from her, but I hear her grandmother is getting worse, so she left. I'm sure there are other reasons as well; there are always many reasons why a person wants to resign. When I got to my site two weeks ago, within 24 hours I had thought about resigning at least a half-dozen times.

Things are slowly evolving at my site. I'm feeling things out, learning the ropes, and basically trying to fit into the woodwork for the time being while I learn what things are like. I think I've done a pretty good job of it. In the mornings, I go to various schools in the village areas to watch the trainees do their practice teaching. I take observation notes, but I don't evaluate anything yet. I just want to see how things work before I make any judgments or try to make any suggestions. The village areas have been a good experience for me. I have seen what life is really like for the majority of Bangladeshis: a school with no lights, rarely fans, no walls (just partitions of woven bamboo inside of a long concrete building), too many students cramped together so they can't really move, chalk boards that you can't really see, text books that teach stuff but don't stimulate thinking skills, and an educational philosophy that encourages memorization only.

Did I mention that this is going to be a challenge?

Ok, a bit about daily life for a bit. I live in the Superintendent? quarters, which is a two-story house that is one of four buildings on the campus. I have the whole upper level to myself and it's basically a palace by Bangladeshi standards. I'm quite lucky to have what I have. Every evening, around 7 p.m. or so, we experience this great phenomenon called "load shedding" which is basically a rolling blackout. There's too many people demanding electricity and it's a fact of life (yet it doesn't make the international news like the blackouts in California. Go figure). Anyway, I have finally gotten frustrated with the load shedding and bought a "hurrican lamp" which is fueled with kerosene like my stove.

I was so excited to get the lamp and get back before dark. I ran out and bought some kerosene and filled it up. Tested it all out, and left it lit, waiting for the load shedding to begin. I even turned out my lights briefly when the sun set to see what it would be like. Well wouldn't you believe it, on the night that I bought the lamp, there was no load shedding that night! So the next night comes (last night). I'm ready. I've practiced lighting the lamp, I've got the matches nearby. Even before the sun is down, I notice that my light is out. Wow, load shedding! I light my lamp as the sun is setting and try out some reading and writing next to my lamp. It's kind of fun and it will work (although it's not too bright). After about an hour I think, "hey, this load shedding is lasting a long time." Usually it's for 1/2 hour but sometimes up to 2 hours in the evening, and several times during the day when it's not noticed as much. I look out my window and see lights on everywhere! what's up with that?

Turns out that one of the grounds keepers had turned off the power downstairs for some reason. I don't know why (she used to do it to turn the outside light on and off until she found the proper switch for it). But it turns out that there was no load shedding last night either! Sigh. I don't think I'll ever get to use my lamp now...

Another interesting thing I saw a few days ago with someone giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a fish. I kid you not! They were fishing in the PTI's pond with these large round nets that catch everything. They pull out the small fish and through them back to catch another time. When one fisherman threw a small fish back in who had been out of the water for quite some time, the fish floated belly-up. I watched the fish while the fisherman continued to clean his net. When he was done, he noticed the fish. He picked it up and blew strongly into it's mouth (he didn't actually touch the fish with his mouth, but was about 3 cm away). He blew a few times and put it back in the water. A few seconds later, the fish swam away. It's just another example of the local knowledge people have here. They know about things that are practical to them. English, however, is not practical when you are still at a subsistence level.

It is a challenge to teach something to people who will probably never use it. Why in the world do kids hate to learn geometry? Because they think (and know?) that they will never use it. It's the same with English quite frankly. There are many things that need to be done before English is of any interest to them. Such as a bit of security in life. A little bit of extra income so that they aren't living hand-to-mouth. Even the trainees admit that they live hand-to-mouth.

Being an American doesn't really help either. They are convinced that every American is incredibly wealthy, and they all have a relative in the US who is making lots of money (after converting it to taka and sending it to Bangladesh) to prove it. In a way, of course, they are right. Even the poorest Americans have much much more than the majority of Bangladeshis. They think that I'm incredibly wealthy and they don't believe that I only get 4000 taka per month (most of them receive about 2-3000 per month for their jobs as teachers). It is hard to convince them that in the States, I didn't have a phone, a car, a TV, a microwave (if they know what that is!), etc. They simply don't believe it. Quite frankly, I'm starting not to believe it myself. Even the poorest people in America often have a car. Not a very good car, but a car. They usually have a nice place to live (compared to a bamboo shelter), a TV, a phone, etc. They have quite a bit. Things cost more in America, but more is available and it's easier to find work. I don't know how one would go about finding a job in Bangladesh, especially in the villages. There's no one to work for, and no one has disposable income to set up your own business. Nor would there be any customers since no one has any money. It's a vicious cycle that I'll need to look at more closely.

To end this entry, I'll note that in a few days is the Buddhist holiday. I forgot the name, but I believe it celebrates the birth of the Buddha. Since my area has a higher concentration of Buddhist minorities than the rest of Bangladesh, I'm going to try to find the temple in my town and see what's going on. I've seen some in orange robes walking around town (something you don't see anywhere else in Bangladesh it seems!) so I know there's a temple somewhere. If it's interesting, I'll write about it in two weeks.

I plan to update every two weeks. See you then.

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