Pondering the virtues of chaos over the illusion of order

The reaction of many of our friends and relatives, usually those who have never lived outside their home country (and this is in no way meant as a negative judgment, simply an observation) when we told them that we were moving to Belgrade, was: “Oh, wonderful, Belgrade is Europe. This is going to change your life.”

It certainly has, in more ways than one. And as I’m still in the first transitional year, I have decided to refrain from trying to decide whether this is indeed a wonderful thing. But something happened, a couple of days ago, that had me reflect and come to this conclusion: if I must choose between one disorganized way or another, I’d rather go with the kind found in places like India or Bangladesh.

Of course, the following rant is colored by my current mood, a sort of confused and forgetful nostalgia where the many difficult moments spent in my last host country tend to blur and smudge even as the good times come into bright focus, effectively distorting my memory. No matter, a little rant from time to time keeps this brain’s cells working. So, here comes:

Before I even landed in Beograd, I somehow heard about the Serbian way of driving : fast, reckless, macho (although I’d like to add a twist to that one, because I have found women behind the wheel to often be as aggressive as men, here). I just laughed, responding that after driving in India 4 and half years, not much could phase me. I was also told that even though Serbia is requesting entry into the European Union, it retains enough quirks and idiosyncrasies to keep things interesting – a comment I found enormously reassuring.

So, I was quite surprised when I found out about the parking system in place. Cities are divided into zones, according to the number of hours we’re allowed to leave our car in the same area (one, two, or three hours). The parking spots have their colored markings, and signs planted at street corners indicate the zone and give a phone number. You SMS your plate number, and that’s it. Of course, I had not been told that you need to send an SMS for each hour that you’re allowed to park in a 2 or 3 hours zone, and I collected a ticket on my very first day. Neither had I been told that when you’ve collected a ticket, you are entitled to remain in that parking zone for 24 hours, and if you are to return to the same area before the 24 hours have expired, well, you may send as many SMSs as you want, they will not be validated. BUT, the second the 24 hours deadline expires, here you have an agent leaving a nice blue rectangular ticket on your windshield. You do receive an SMS warning you that your time is up, but as it is in Serbian, well, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. So again, I learned the hard way. Five months later, and apart from one time when I totally forgot to send the SMS (I was late for a Flamenco class), and received another ticket (these parking attendants walk their assigned area with utmost zeal, I can vouch for that), I’d say I have pretty much mastered the parking system in Belgrade.

Then, the other evening, I was driving along the street, trying to park. Two empty cars sat on the side of the roadway, each in front of an empty parking spot, effectively blocking it and disturbing the traffic along that 3-lane avenue.IMG_2753 I slowed down, and pressed the horn, thinking they might come out of a shop, but nope, no such luck. I grumbled, drove around the block, twice, and eventually found a spot in a nearby street. I was still grumbling as I took pictures of both cars, thinking: “honestly, who would do that? Block a parking spot, not even bothering to enter said spot, and leaving the car on the road instead.” Then, I noticed two parking attendants. “Ha! they’re gonna get it,” I thought gleefully. Yeah, I can be vindictive, that way. Imagine my astonishment when both parking attendants walked past the cars, not even looking at them. If my Serbian were better, I might have run to them and started gesticulating, asking them why I get a parking ticket if I’m two minutes late sending my SMS, but they don’t give a ticket to these two people, even though they are so blatantly breaking the mighty laws of rational parking? Maybe it’s a good thing I still don’t speak Serbian.

IMG_2754In India or in Bangladesh, there are basically no road rules. Or rather, the mightiest road rules of all is: the biggest car gets priority. As for parking, anything – and everything – goes. It is absolute chaos, everyone knows that, and I, for one, find some semblance of order in that notion. What I find hard to deal with are places where some things obey a number of rigidly enforced rules and regulations, except for the times when they don’t, but when does the exception apply, well, that’s anybody’s guess.


Jet Lag through the ages – well, mine.

I’m Back in Dhaka, after a 2-month summer holiday that’s taken me to France, to the Dominican Republic, and back to Bangladesh by way of Paris, where we stopped for a few days in hopes of alleviating the effects of jet lag. Fat chance. I have not been able to fall asleep at night since we landed, three days ago, and at 4 am, this morning, my confused, exhausted mind began crafting this post.

In my twenties, when I first travelled far enough to cross a few time zones, Jet Lag had a delicious, exotic quality. It meant that I had become a globe trotter. I was young, full of energy, and even as someone who’s always needed a lot of sleep, skipping a night was not worth even a passing thought.

At 30, I moved to New York City, and for a few years, I went back and forth between France and the US. Jet Lag was still exciting, still something I could negotiate without pain, but I did start to notice some patterns. It was easier to travel from France back to the US than it was to fly the other way, for instance. Going West simply meant that I’d wake up very early for a few days. Going East, well, it would take me a day or two to adjust.

In my late thirties, I became a mother. Oh boy! From one day to the other, sleep became a mirage, something elusive that you desperately long for. During the first few months, until our daughter slept at least five hours through the night, I basically stumbled about life – the perfect Zombie Mama. Taking my baby daughter to France for three weeks when she was only two months old did not help her to settle into a sleeping routine, of course. And then, we moved from New York City to Nigeria. Thankfully, our little one quickly developed the rare ability of adjusting her sleep to the needs of our schedule. Did we go to bed at 10 or 11 PM for some reason? She’d conveniently sleep until 10 or 11 AM the following morning. Not always. But all things considered, pretty often.

Then, came our second daughter, born in New York City, between our appointment in Nigeria and our new posting in India. The first few weeks in the US were slightly easier than the beginnings with our first baby because my mother, who’d come to help, this time, took the 5 AM shift. Still, when the little one turned six weeks old and we had to fly to Hyderabad, ten time zones away, the combination of postpartum hormones, accumulated fatigue, and the usual stresses linked with moving meant that I cried the entire day. I cried as I showered, and frantically packed suitcases. I cried behind my sunglasses as the taxi took us to the airport. I cried some more when we were checking in, and I had to rush to the toilet because  my periods had chosen that moment to return. I was still crying in the plane as it took off, and I continued to cry until we were way over the Atlantic ocean. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go to India. I just didn’t want to leave Brooklyn, not right then. We landed in Hyderabad around midnight, local time, exhausted beyond words, but proud that both our daughters, the 4-year-old, and the 6 weeks old, had behaved impeccably throughout the whole journey. We crashed in our hotel room, and I remember that our baby was sleeping on the bed, beside me. When I woke up, six hours had passed, and the baby was still sleeping! She’d just slept through her first night. I always attributed this little miracle to the fact that we had changed time zone and day had turned into night. A good consequence of Jet Lag.

Well, I’d entered my forties, by then, and our second daughter turned out to be quite different from her sister. She does not need a lot of sleep, and she’s not very good with Jet Lag. She’s now eight years old, and she’s spent the last three nights wide awake, and determined not to be left alone. She keeps barging into our bedroom, declaring that she has nothing to do. When it is 3 AM, and all you wish is to melt into Morpheus’ slippery embrace, having such an imperious little person around is pretty hard on your frazzled nerves. Fortunately, school started again, this morning, and she had to get up at 7 AM. I’m counting on sheer exhaustion to take care of her Jet Lag – and hopefully, mine, too. But as I prepare to exit my forties, I hereby declare that Jet Lag is no longer fun or exotic. It is a pain.

Racing boats and celebrating Women in Agoiljhora, Barisal

Last week, I (along with 8 fantastic ladies) visited the village of Agoiljhora, a couple of hours drive from the port town of Barisal, in the south of Bangladesh. We were gone only 48 hours, just enough to travel back and forth and partake in the celebrations around International Women’s Day, but these hours were filled with intense, fun-filled, and unprecedented experiences.

We left Dhaka aboard one of the Rocket Boats, a paddle-wheel river steamer built in the 1920’s, and I’ll dedicate another post to that first leg of our journey. For now, I would like to rush to the Barishal regional office of TARANGO, the acronym for Training, Assistance and Rural Advancement Non-Goverment Organization, where a traditional welcome with marigold garlands, and the traditional Tilaka or Tikka (the area is predominantly Hindu) awaited us.

In the past 30 years, TARANGO has helped tens of thousands of women through their programmes (Handicrafts, Women Entrepreneurship Development, Village Savings and Loan Association, and Women Institutional Development.) They’re best known for their beautiful jute bags, and their baskets sold across the UK and other European markets, including fancy stores like The White Company, London.

Recently,  TARANGO started organizing a women’s boat race on International Women’s Day, but this year, the race involved a group of unexpected, if rather conspicuous participants: eleven Bideshi (foreigners in Bengali) women crazy enough to embark on a traditional flat bottom boat without any preparation whatsoever. All we had was a pair of arms each, and plenty of enthusiasm.

I had somehow accepted the responsibility of steering the boat, being blessed with reasonable good balance, but after only a few minutes during which I narrowly escaped falling headfirst into the water, and almost clobbered my friend sitting at the tail of the boat, a man wearing a dhoti tucked high up on his legs jumped aboard, grabbed the steering paddle from my hands, and proceeded to steer the boat while yelling orders in Bengali that none of us could hear – the racket was astonishing – forget about understanding them. In his considerable enthusiasm, our rescuer also cheered us up, shouting, and swinging his arms wildly back and forth. Incidentally, he also hit my head and shoulders (and those of my friend paddling on the other side of the boat) whenever they happened to be in his way – pretty much all of the time. And when he felt we were not paddling fast enough, he’d drop the steer, leap forward to the middle of the boat, which immediately diverged according to the current (which was pretty strong and contrary, I forgot to mention), yell and swing his arms some more, before he remembered his mission and bounced back to his steering position.  I have no idea how long the race lasted, but thanks to this impromptu collaboration, we eventually did glide under the red string marking the finishing line.

Of course, we lost the race. But it’d been a long time since I’d laughed so much. And, if the joy and appreciation demonstrated by the very large public is any indication (the banks of the river were packed with throngs of people on each side, as shown in pictures below), the story of our clumsy participation will keep the area’s villagers entertained for many years to come. Invitation was already extended for us to come back again next year, and indeed, why not ? It would be nice if we could train, though, so we don’t look so utterly ridiculous, next time. Maybe I’ll bring a helmet, too.

None of us took their cameras on board the boat. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to operate it without capsizing it. Besides, we’d seen a few of the local participants frantically scooping water out of theirs, so we also had to worry about it sinking. But I still hope some pictures or short video will turn out, somehow.

In the meantime, here are photos of the area, the crowds cheering on each side of the river, and last but not least, the official participants to the 2011 TARANGO Boat Race.

This lady kindly demonstrated the paddling moves for us.

Before the races, we sat under a colorful tent as they kicked off the day's celebrations with a few speeches and, much more to my taste, a couple of songs.

As we only participated in the last race, with the winning team, we first got to follow the action onboard a "speed boat" - well, it had a motor. This was the bottom! See what I mean when I mention the possibility of sinking?

On your marks! Get set! Go!

As I said, there were a few people around...

The winners, their red and white saris still soaking wet. It was a joy to witness their pride and unabashed happiness. The team was awarded medals that we each passed around their necks, and... a television to be shared by the community.

By then, it was only the middle of the day, and we still had a few mundane things to do, like break a clay pot blind-folded, sing a cappella in front of hundreds (more?) people, and dance, but this is for another post…

Mother’s Day

So, I’m reading my Facebook wall, and all of a sudden, it’s all about Mother’s Day. As a majority of my friends are women, and many of them either live in the US or Canada or hail from there – even if the expat bubble landed them elsewhere – yesterday was all about celebrating mothers.

If not for Facebook, this would have eluded me totally.

To begin with, Sundays are working days, here, in Bangladesh. Something I’m yet to get used to, even though we’re now reaching the end of our ninth month in this country. A full gestation, but it has not given birth to an organic understanding of that bizarre shift in our week. I constantly refer to Friday as Saturday, to Saturday as Sunday, and routinely forget appointments made on Sunday. Strange, how our minds get used to a rhythm, to things being a certain way. If we think about it, we still have two days off work and out of school at the end of the week. They just happen on different days. But that makes the whole difference.

If that was not confusing enough, Mother’s Day is not on the same day all over the world (see here.)  In Spain, it’s on the first Sunday of May. In France, it is usually on the last Sunday of May, or the first Sunday of June (to not clash with Whit Sunday, and to keep everyone on their toes, ’cause that’s something the French like to do.) Haiti celebrates mothers on the last Sunday of May, Pentecost or no Pentecost. And according to the Wikipedia link above, Bangladesh celebrates it on the same Sunday as the US.

Really ? I just checked the newspaper, and indeed, found a small article and photo of some function in the city marking Mother’s Day, yesterday. Bangladeshi mothers don’t even get a free day on their day.

For this mother, Mother’s Day yesterday was also like any week day : I worked, my kids came home, I supervised their homework, made sure they ate dinner and brushed their teeth, and everyone went to bed.

The nice thing about our family’s confusion about Mother’s Day is that pretty often, I get a surprise when I least expect it. Not that I’m sending any hint to anyone…