2001.06.07

Another update, what's up with that? Myq, you're spending too much time in the city I see...

Today I've brought my journal with me and will put in for the entry today a piece I have titled:

Umbrella

It didn't really happen like in the movies, but then I don't really watch movies so what should I know? But the rainy season (1 of the 6 seasons that Bangladeshis observe), is supposed to start about now.

Considering that it has rained at least once per day and often more frequently over the past few days, I'm going to conclude that it has begun.

I have been asking about it for months: "When will the rainy season begin?" We were taunted with a few days of rain a few weeks ago that left me excited at the prospect, but the rains stopped and everything dried out, and the weather returned to its hot, muggy self.

It was during that brief teaser of the rain to come that I bought my first umbrella. After leaving my raincoat in Chittagong (a gift from my co-workers and also a first for rain coats), I snuck out during a brief respite and handed over 110 taka for a Dove-brand, made-in-China umbrella.

The novelty of it all is hard to convey to others. Where I come from, there's only a few days of rain in the spring when it's a little too warm to be snow, and a bit in the fall when it's not quite cold enough to be snow. And even when it does rain, which is not often at all, if you wait 30 minutes or so, it will stop and you can go outside. There has simply never been a need for protection from the rain.

In Bangladesh, umbrellas are also used to protect the bearer from the intense sun (which will soon be to the north of me for about 5 days!). Sunny days, rainy days, most days you will see an umbrella offering protection from something.

I have yet to get in the habit of carrying mine around. After waiting out a brief shower at lunch time, I retrieved it from my residence and put it in the staff room. It was fortunate that I did so as the afternoon shower seemed to go on forever and came down hard.

I sat and watched the rain at the end of the day while I chatted with 5 women from the satellite school program. This is a 15 day course run by the PTI for teachers in so-called feeder schools. These are rural schools that teach only the first two grades before sending their students off to another primary school. Typically these feeder schools are run by NGOs and consequentially the education level of the teachers tends to be lower along with the salary.

One trainee from this program told me that she doesn't get a salary for the 3 hours of school she teaches 6 days per week, but rather an honorarium of 500 taka per month (a little under US $9). As we were all sitting, waiting for the rain, I asked when they were going home for the day as they were staying rather late. One replied that they couldn't go home.

I was a little confused by this statement as she had told me the day before that she has been commuting every day to attend the classes.

She explained that she had no umbrella and therefore could not travel in the rain. I pointed out that with the beginning of the rainy season, she should probably start bringing it with her. She informed me that she doesn't have one at home either. "Why?" I asked. "No money," she replied.

I asked the four others in the group if they owned umbrellas. None of them did. Two were staying in the hostel and could run without getting too wet, but they were keeping company with the three that were stranded for lack of something as ubiquitous and essential in this hot, rainy country as a US$2 umbrella.

For me, buying an umbrella was a novelty, something that I wanted to tell people about and felt clumsy and ridiculous using. For these three women, it was an essential tool for living in Bangladesh that they could not afford.

I lent them my umbrella which was received with big warm smiles to shake off the chill of the rain. Three small women crowded underneath what barely protects me from the rain, and were no longer bound by the whims of the clouds.

After half an hour, the rain gave a temporary respite and I walked the fifty yards to my simple-by-American-standards home, stopping midway to realize that even on 4000 taka per month, an amount less than what I would make in a single day in the States, I am wealthy beyond most people's dreams.

And now, some questions from email about life in Bangladesh:

> Do you have more women or men that you teach?

It's about equal men and women. This is a bit of a surprise though. I think it's because the Muslims and Hindus are a little more balanced where I'm at. Most of the women are Hindus, and most of the men are Muslims. This makes sense because in Muslim culture, women are not really supposed to work or be a part of public life.

>Where do they come from and do they all live there?

Everyone (almost) lives in one of two hostels on the campus of the PTI. They come from the southern half of Chittagong zila (roughly equivalent to a state). They also come from part of Banderban zila which is in the Hill Tracts area where the indigenous people live. There are a few of these students at my PTI (Marma and Chakma mostly) and they look a lot more Asian than India sub-continent looking. They are quite nice to talk to and are often Buddhist.

> When do the children start learning English?

For some strange reason, English is a compulsory subject in grades 1-5 in Bangladesh. They don't really learn much, however, and none of them can really say anything in conversation other than "how are you". They can read fairly complex stories by grade 5, but they basically memorize them and can't really use the words to communicate any ideas to other people.

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