Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Krishnachura Trees

There are several trees here in Bangladesh that are familiar to me now. But there are 3 that I am positive of on site- mango, jackfruit and krishnachura. And though the fruit/flowers of each are a dead giveaway, I recognize them all now also by foliage and even the bark of the jackfruit tree.
 (above, l/r): jackfruit and mango in Dhaka, (below, both): krishnachura in Dhaka
The krishnachura (pronounced in Bangladesh as keesh-na-sura), delonix regia, is a very beautiful plant. The leaves are dainty, like a locust or mesquite tree, if you're familiar with them. And though I'm a sucker for beautiful foliage, what girl isn't right?, the show they put on during blooming season will knock your socks off.
folliage pic from Wikipedia
The flowers are a vibrant red with orange/yellow stamens. One can see where it gets its common name of Flame or Flamboyant tree. The seed pod that follows the flowers is equally as impressive, growing to lengths of 60 cm long and 5 cm wide, dark brown in color hanging from the branches.
Flamboyant tree, St. Kitts 2002
We saw our first Flamboyant tree in St. Kitts, over 10 years ago and have noticed them in countries since then. It is a tropical tree, so can be seen in many countries now, Guatemala, here, Madagascar, India, to name a few. We have friends heading to Madagascar next year and am sure they will see these beauties along with baobabs and many other amazing species... jealous :)

I learned the name krishnachura from our driver. And I'm sure he's tired of me pointing and saying it daily when we pass them. My Bangla vocabulary is not huge, but repetition is proving productive, adding a few words here and there. The handy men and guards laugh at my repitoire of : "shesh"/done, "donhobad"/thank you, "tik tiki"/gecko, "tikasay"/ok, etc. Let me tell you, I am no where near conversational Bangla, but enough to make locals smile (or just laugh at how simple minded I sound).

Anyway, if you ever get a glimpse, these trees are amazing!

Monday, December 19, 2011


Have you ever thought of yours as a luxury item?

Our housekeeper has a family of 5. Though her oldest son is grown and out of the house, her grandson lives with her now for the opportunity of a better school than what their village can provide. I have baked cakes for him and her youngest son for their birthdays, as she does not own an oven. All of their cooking is done on an open fire on the roof or a gas single burner on the floor of their small apartment.

I bake all...the...time! In the spring, she asked if I could bake a cake for her son's birthday. She offered to pay me for the supplies. I turned her down on the reimbursement, but happily obliged with the baking. He was thrilled to have a fancy birthday cake. So when her grandson's birthday approached, he too hoped for a cake. I asked her to let me know what flavor he'd like... a strawberry cake was the answer. Hmmm. Not really expecting that one. She said he'd seen one in a book. So I made an angel food cake and sent her home with a bowl of sliced berries (frozen, as fresh are super rare here... and sour) and a tub of cool whip. Score!

Now I've started a tradition, at least for our couple years. Everyone in the house (driver, housekeeper, gardener, kids of housekeeper) get to choose a dessert on their birthday. Our driver turned 29 last week and chose peanut butter cookies. The house ate some fresh and warm, and he went home with a bag full. Our house helpers quickly became part of our extended family. Ceiba serenades them all with a hearty "Happy Birthday to You!".

And last week, she bought a large chicken with her extra babysitting money (she uses this for extra special family treats). She asked if we'd mind her to cook it while she was working. So we baked it for hours with vegetables, wrapped it up in aluminum foil, towels and a giant Sam's shopping bag. Her husband stopped by on his way home to help her carry everything on the rickshaw.

But honestly, baking here can be a luxury. It is nonexistent for most of the population, and the rest of us are at the daily mercy of the fuel levels. Most days the oven never even reaches its temperature. That is common. A 10 minute pizza can take an hour to cook just because of the low fuel levels pumping through to the houses. Many nights our housekeeper doesn't get gas at all at home and ends up lighting a bamboo fire on the roof.

When we were back in the States over the summer, I nearly burned dinner on more than one occasion, because I wasn't used to the temperature being ready at rocket speed. What I wouldn't give to have our oven to 350 in less than 30 minutes. Think of us the next time you make a Friday night Totino's pizza in 15!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jaago School

A few weeks ago, some EFMs (State talk for Eligible Family Members) had a 2 hour talk on volunteer work. There were only 2 groups represented, but it was a great chance to learn about their organizations.

Before we even arrived in Dhaka, I had planned to volunteer time in Bangladesh. I didn't know where I'd volunteer or what exactly I'd offer as a volunteer, but thought it'd be in the orphanage or woman shelter areas. Being pregnant wasn't really in my mind at the time, so when we landed in Dhaka and found out there was a bun in the oven, the agenda kinda went on the shelf. We've been here over a year now.  Said bun (sweet Miss Avocet) is now out of the oven and well adjusted into life in Bangladesh, so Mama can spread her wings a little more freely now.

After the meeting, my friend Meghan and I decided to go to see the school and spend a few hours with the kids. We drove to the slum (about 200,000 people) outside of Banani neighborhood, hopped a boat across the green/grey lake and joined 80ish beautiful little smiling children for the morning.
A man from the school (Jaago Foundation, met us under a busy viaduct to escort us across the lake. We paid the boat driver 20 taka (about $0.30) as we bumped up against the polluted lake shore. It was a steep walk up the embankment. Jaago's administrator Nody met us with a smile and thanked us for coming. We zigzagged through the labyrinth of the slum to the school, knowing a wrong turn could get us lost for hours. She admitted that she too has gotten lost on more than one occasion.
Most of the slum housing consists of tin single room shacks, no running water inside, no electricity. Building here is technically illegal, and houses can be knocked down at any time by the government. Busy life carried out in the shacks we passed. When we came upon the school, it was a happier looking place than I had expected. The buildings were brightly colored and very clean. Most of the bamboo construction was less than 5 months old, as this branch of Jaago was only recently opened. They had a small computer lab and library for the children, both very functional and nice. We entered the preschool classroom first. Forty little faces peered up at us as we took off our shoes and stepped inside.
"Good morning!" they all shouted with smiles in unison.

I felt me eyes well up, but returned "good morning" with a smile. There was nothing negative to cause my rush of emotion, but to the contrary. The environment, the enthusiasm to learn and the smiles on their faces were so positive, especially given the dire conditions in which all of their lives consist. These are the slums of Bangladesh, a land of over 160 million people, the world's most populated country. These slums are not a nice place. Jaago and many other organizations are working hard to make a difference in Bangladesh.

While there, we each took a small group of children to spend time. We sang songs, worked on puzzles, played and made holiday cards. The kids rushed to sit near us and hold our hands. Doesn't every child wish for this? We were lavished with drawings before we left, and we were hugged and smiled at a million times over.  

I am not yet educated enough to tell you too much about Jaago, please visit their website above if you are interested in the facts of their organization. I commented that the first organization I really met here would probably pull me in, and they have. While I cannot financially offer a lot, I can offer a few hours a week of my time. And I can share their story and their mission to the handful of people that read my blog and hope the word keeps spreading. Maybe we can do a project with a US school class, maybe someone will want to send money (1000 taka/ about $12 a month sponsors one child for one month) or maybe more people can volunteer time. A little can go a long way :) Each little face made a big impact on me.

Their mission and vision are:
JAAGO aims to bring about substantial improvement in the lives of disadvantaged people with special emphasis on their literacy and nourishment.
JAAGO works to provide international standard education to the impoverished children from families that have an average daily income below the International Indicator of Poverty (an income below 2 USD per day). This is done through a Free-of-Cost School with an international standard education curriculum.
JAAGO realizes that it is not possible to expect sustainable growth and self-reliance, without taking care of the emotional and physical development of all the stakeholders. As a result, various other programs have been established gradually to ensure the continuous growth of the community physically and mentally. 'Healthy Living', 'First Aid Center' and 'Call for Hygiene' are just some of the examples of such programs.

JAAGO looks to create a better society for the next generation, which is free of exploitation, discrimination and violence, and supports the achievement of its highest potential.
No organization can succeed without focusing on its future existence. JAAGO is similarly focused not only on its current success but also on maintaining long-term sustainability. In doing so, the foundation concentrates on expanding its operations, not only in physical presence but also in program variation. JAAGO increases its family, by adding one new class each year.
In the long-run, JAAGO Foundation intends to have a fully operational branch in every district of Bangladesh. JAAGO wishes to give as many children as possible the opportunity to break free of the cycle of poverty.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fresh Veggies

When we filled out the housing questionnaire for Dhaka, one of the only items we requested was some green space for gardening and for Ceiba to play. We got assigned an apartment... without one blade of grass.

Honestly, no hard feelings (I got over it). The apartment is uber-nice, with a floor plan WAY nicer than most of the embassy houses. And we don't have any giant, three-story, scary staircases to worry about.

And in the gardening category, the sunny rooftop is working out swell. Our gardener and I talk every day and go over what to plant next. We supply him with seeds and sincere interest, he grows and tends to some great homegrown veggies (and the occasional papaya), and we lavish him with thanks and smiles. Ceiba helps me pick lettuce at least 3 times a week lately, which Chris enjoys in a salad everyday for work. I use several of the near perennial herbs in our meals. We anxiously await the next vegetables to ripen, as do our apartment neighbors and all of our house staff. Nothing goes to waste and everyone shares in the good fortune (and grocery $ savings) of our own garden. Our helpers teach us how to cook local produce, and we share items that would be expensive or nonexistent on the local economy.

 top: (l to r) zucchini/squash/broccoli, Chris/Avocet/Ceiba grill dogs, our salad patch 1 of 3
 below: (l to r) gourd/pumpkins, salad patch, our one wonderful smelling rose
 top: (l to r) gourds/pumpkins, basil, tomatoes
 below: (l to r) ginger, crown of thorns/euphorbia mili, papayas (sex yet tbd)
 top: (l to r) tomatoes, eggplant/onion/herbs/cauliflower/cabbage, parsley
 below: (l to r) veggie row!
 top: (l to r) chives/bougainvillea/spinach/papaya, our good female papaya, lemongrass

Our current crops:
tomatoes (2 kinds), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash, gooseneck gourds, local green pumpkin, lettuce/mesclun (6 types), spinach, capsicum/peppers (green & colored), jalapenos, green chilies, ginger (from a prolific start in our pantry), pineapples (from leftover tops of fruit), eggplant, yellow onions.

And our herbs on tap:
oregano, chives, lemongrass, sage, parsley (2 kinds), dill, basil, rosemary, thyme, mint.

Khalec, our gardener, now understand crop rotation better, and he now has 3 separate beds of salad greens, all growing at different stages so that we have a constant supply. Lettuce is expensive here, not much variation and can be difficult to sanitize well, so having our own supply is super.

We also have 3 small lime trees, 3 papaya trees and a constant assortment of ginger and other flowers. We learned from our gardener that papayas are either male (flowering, flowering, showy, but no fruit) or female (all work to fruit and no show). He has one great female! The other 2 were males, but he cut them down and started new plants in hopes for females. We're waiting to see the outcome.

The space and the crops it produce are not enormous, but we enjoy them both to the fullest! Plants grow and produce so quickly here. My Grandpa Wilbur would be thrilled to see what a great garden we are helping tend :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

House coat

Our househelper, Mrs. Mokta, is muslim. Each morning when she arrives and night when she leaves, she covers herself from head to toe. She doesn't cover her face, but does wear a flowered burka over her body and a scarf over her head, which is traditional here for devote muslim women. Daily, she wears a shalwar kamiz (pj type pants and a thigh/knee length tunic top with scarf). Occasionally, if she comes in to babysit in a Friday evening, we might catch a rare glimpse of her in a sari. On those days, we giggle and tell her how pretty she looks. She is quick to blush.

Tonight as she was leaving, she stopped in the kitchen where we were making dinner, to grab a sack. She had on her burka,  but didn't have her scarf on yet.

Ceiba said, "Mrs. Mokta has her housecoat on."

It could not have sounded cuter!

We explained to her what Mrs. Mokta was wearing and explained to Mrs. Mokta what a housecoat was. We all enjoyed a smile. And Ceiba got a pronounciation lesson from Mrs. Mokta on the word "burka".

Monday, November 28, 2011

River Trip

The blue SUV in front of us stopped. Charlie opened the driver's side door and walked back to us. "We're about to get off the interstate, the roads could get a little rough."

Everyone smiled, and I cackled out loud for minutes, tickling myself again with his quote each time my previous laugh subsided. If you had seen the crazy village backroads we were on (and knew Charlie's charasmatic and witty nature), you couldn't help but chuckle.

It was the day after a nice home cooked Thanksgiving with them and other friends. Ana and Charlie, our upstairs neighbors and aunt/uncle of sorts, had invited us to join them for an afternoon on the river. Ceiba's eyes lit up, Chris happily accepted and my mind soared at the invitation. Unfortunately, Avocet is well into teething, and we were afraid she would not enjoy 3+ hours in the car. We weren't sure what all the ride and boat would entail, so she spent a snuggly afternoon with our ayah/housekeeper in the a/c and the comfort of her own crib.

We took out at 1PM, a caravan of 2 cars - does that actually constitute a caravan? - enroute through the bustling streets of Dhaka. Our journey led us out past the airport and then more off the beaten path, past vibrant markets, villages enjoying their holy day, a wedding, brick breaking, being literally stopped in traffic as men prayed across the street, past waterways and along single lane bridges and narrow paths. Chris & Ceiba sat in the back;  I commendeered the front seat, snapping photos all the way.
Arriving at an open soccer field, we parked and gathered our bags. Our driver, Bijoy, stayed with the cars while we ventured to the water's edge, flanked by our welcoming boatsman. The boat floated alone on the low riverbank, a small wood plank out to invite us aboard. First though, there was the business of petting the adorable, coal black kid goats on our way down to the water. Ceiba was nothing short of in love with them, gently kneeling down to touch them, all the while giggling and smiling a genuine, full-bodied smile. She was in her element, loving on the babies and enjoying the attention of the adults around her. We leisurely boarded, laid down our blankets, opened our coolers and saundered our way down the river.                           
                                                                                                            The water level was very low, especially for being so early in the dry season, but we managed quite well the whole afternoon, stopping only a few times to clear water hyacinth and vegetation from the propellor.   We enjoyed sausage, cheese, chips/salsa, pecan pie, popcorn, wine and drinks on our ride, while our eyes devoured the view.
The river is alive with activity, beginning with nature, birds mostly, and turning into the vibrant activity of the villagers and farmers along the shore and in passing boats. Many were out hand digging new rice paddies along the banks, now exposed by the dropping water level. Farmers were tending to livestock and beautiful crops; Bangladesh is now well into the prosperous, cool growing season. The brick factory, one of many along the country's waterways, was busy with activity, the heat waves from the ground furnaces visible afar. Ferries chocked full of passengers meandered beside us.
It was a feast for the eyes; my camera seldom lowered from my eyes. It was the rare opportunity to enjoy the many beautiful sights Bangladesh has to offer and a chance to refuel the recently flickering flame for life here. Sometimes daily life in the busy city can wear on me, but it takes the smallest moment to refuel me. Whether it's a quaint encounter with a friendly person uptown or a beautiful day like this outside of town, once replenished, my love for the people and life here is genuine and heartfelt. It is a beautiful place with resilient people. I disappoint myself sometimes when I briefly lose sight of that. The afternoon was a perfect one, and a chance for me to feel artistic again. I could sit behind a lense all day and enjoy the photos a million times over after the moment is gone.
 As the sun began to set, we were sad to see our day come to an end. The markets still bustled as we journeyed home. My camera passed out on the ride, worn out from its hard work. What a wonderful day!