It was a hot afternoon and we needed a walk. The sky looked dark and we wanted to get back before the evening call to prayer. So, with Elias on my hip, we crossed the street and went into an alley that led to a path around a pond. It’s our normal walk – down these little alleys with big apartment buildings crowding in . . . . and past empty lots where boys play cricket, to a neighborhood built around a pond. The pond is large. There are walls on every side of the pond, so it actually looks like a natural swimming pool! There are big stairs down to the pond where ladies wash their clothes, and where people step down for a bath. With the ancient Hindu temple rising out of the buildings in one corner, the palm trees in the carefully kept gardens, it’s the perfect Bengali scene.
We had done one round around the pond when a wind started up, and we looked back to see a small gray cloud in the distance. “A storm is coming! Do you think we can make it home?” Not five feet more and the wind got angry. I handed Elias to Jacob and we were going to make a run for it, but big dust clouds swirled up and engulfed the cricket players and women getting water from the well. As we watched, the dust billowed over us too, hitting our faces. In one empty lot, there had been a few ladies sitting with their toddlers in the grass. As the storm hit, the mothers ran around to grab their kids, and their saris blew off their heads in colorful disarray.
We stood behind a house to get out of the dust storm. But then two feet from us, a coconut hit the ground with a loud bang. Forget making a run for it! A young guy saw our situation and knocked on a nearby door, and told us to go in. A young girl met us at the door and let us into the small room. The window shutters were thrashing: coconuts, mangoes, and hail were hitting the tin roof above us. There was still no rain, just the crash and bang of thunder and wind. The power went out, and the girl brought a kerosene hurricane lantern.
With the storm fierce outside, we were captive! The room was a very normal Bengali room: small, but with a double bed, sofa, two armchairs, a coffee table, a desk and a bookcase all squeezed in. The walls were peeling green paint and the roof was makeshift. Everything was orderly and clean, the curtains and bed spread a festive royal red. On the walls there was a colorful calendar and a picture of the Kaabah. In front of the one tiny open window, there was a green plastic wind chime whose bells danced loudly to the wind until Jacob was able to tie the window closed with some string to stop the dust from coming in.
The storm lasted about an hour. The girl introduced herself and asked us many questions. She got some toys for Elias and held him. Soon her mother came in, all wet and excited from being caught out in the storm while doing errands. She said that her younger daughter had held Elias the other day when I was chatting with some women, so she was glad to have a turn too! By now, it was raining and the wind was dying down, and we had settled down to be welcome friends! When we made signs of leaving, the lady said she was cooking tea. In a few minutes, she placed a tray in front of us, with watermelon, cake, homemade hot potato chips, and tea. Such a “tea” for sudden unknown visitors! We praised her chips so much that she almost gave us a bag of the dried potatoes that we could fry ourselves, and we had to protest loudly. I promised that I’d come back soon and would have more then.
So with our new friend arranging my shawl around both Elias’ and my head, we left our refuge and stepped back outside. The wind was light and teasingly cold. The gray sky was turning mauve and peach with the sunset. The green trees were fresh and bright, and some daredevil men were bathing noisily in the pond, cleansing themselves for the evening prayer.
In the cold western countries, there is nothing comparable to the beauty of snow, the intricate ice on trees. Those in hot climates cannot even imagine such a scene. And those in the cold western countries cannot begin to understand the fierceness of kal-boishakhi storms or the eerie brilliant colors they leave behind.
Monday was the Bengali New Year. While it’s not as fun as Thailand’s songkran new year festival, there was alot going on! All the girls wear red and white saris. There are lots of parades and concerts. Everyone eats fermented rice and green chilis for breakfast. Our house-helper, Amina, was laughing because that’s what she eats every day for breakfast! Elias had a fever, so I couldn’t go see the festivities, but Jacob went to have a look and take some pictures.
Elias taking a bath! Now that it’s hot season, he just loves it. Sometimes I just let him splash around even after he’s all clean, as then I get a few minutes of peace!
We don’t have a yard, so grass is a foreign thing to Elias. The other day we took him to a park and let him explore. He was a bit wary of the huge green space.
A while back I wrote about Hira, who was made to work 22 hours a day for 2 months straight. Hearing that story made me want to let everyone know what goes into the clothes they buy at Walmart!
But the situation is much more complex than that. I have a friend Zakia who works as a social worker at one of the garment factories. The western buyers make it mandatory for there to be a social worker in the factories. But the company told Zakia that she is to tell the western buyers only what they want her to tell. Zakia wants to keep her job, and so she complies. She felt bad about all the lying that she had to do, so she quit. But after a few weeks of trying to find another job, she went back to the factory. When Zakia heard about Hira, she was not surprised. She said she knows other people who have swollen limbs, one single lady in particular — who is sick, but can’t take time to rest or recover as she has two small children– the little time off that she has needs to be spent taking care of her children. Even Zakia does not get enough time off. Sometimes even the one day a week that is her day off has to be a regular work day. The western buyers for the most part want good working conditions, fair pay, legal hours etc. for the garment workers, but making it happen is another thing entirely — as the companies promise one thing and do another. Where the blame goes is a sticky question.
But that’s only half the story. A friend of mine estimates that 400 factories do comply with labour laws. One factory named Far East Knitting and Dyeing Industries Limited was showcased in a local magazine the other day as having their own effluent treatment plant that treats their wastewater, a child-care unit, a full-time doctor, fire extinguishers, women ‘welfare officers’ etc. I have heard from friends that the knit factories are known to not over-work their employees, and they even send buses full of employees back to their home villages during holidays.
Bangladesh needs the Ready Made Garment Industry. 2.2 billion people work in the industry. It’s a huge source of income. But it is hard to see so many people work so hard for so little. A friend that Jacob used to play football with got a job in a garment factory. Every few months, he gets enough time off to come home on an evening bus, and spends the night at home, then in the morning he leaves again to go back for work.
Yesterday mid-morning I was hanging up laundry on the veranda when I heard a big bang – and looking down on the street below I saw a mix of motorcycle and sari. The motorcycle quickly drove away, leaving a woman laying on the road. She stood up, then fainted. After a few seconds someone dragged her to the side of the road into the shade. Everyone sort of watched. Who was going to help? One person took her pulse and then walked away. I couldn’t just continue hanging up laundry, so I ran to tell Karin who in turn ran to tell Paul. We went down there. Several people had gathered around her. She was still unconscious. There is a doctor who lives downstairs and he came out purposefully with a flash light. He also took her pulse and looked at her eyes and said, “She is alive” and then walked away.
What to do? People were coming to stare .. the was no blood or sign of injury except that she was unconscious. Karin took her blood pressure, and it was all good. Soon a poor lady with three little babies came near and started to cry, pulling up the lady’s sari to see if she was hurt. Little by little, with everyone’s advice and questions, we sorted out that the two ladies were sisters, out begging with their three little kids. As for what to do, Karin wanted her taken to the medical college. As they wouldn’t all fit in a rickshaw, Paul gave the sister money to take a rickshaw home to drop her kids off. She didn’t want to go, she keep saying, “But I don’t have anyone to watch the kids!” Then Paul paid the rickshaw fare so our friend Tirot and our househelper could take the unconscious woman to the medical college. The crowd dispersed.
Later in the afternoon, Karin, Elias and I traveled by rickshaw to the hospital. I gave Elias a carrot to chew on to keep him quiet for the fifteen minute ride. I had never been in a government hospital. The care is free or very cheap, the food is free, but the wards are packed, the equipment is completely outdated, and the nursing care is almost nonexistent. The ward held about 50 people, with one nurse to look after everyone. We found our lady on a red blanket on the floor, holding her leg and moaning. She did not talk or respond to our questions. Right near her was her begging bowl, which was empty. Elias dropped his carrot, and the lady’s little toddler son picked it up and ate it.
Karin went to talk to the nurse, and gave the nurse some extra pain medicine to give her that night. Karin went out to try to find some drinking water for the lady . . while I sat and waited. A crowd gathered round out of curiosity. Somehow, someone in the ward knew the whole story, so they were telling it with great zeal. “No, they didn’t injure the woman. But it happened right in front of their house. They are big people, and they help the poor. Their servant brought this lady here. The lady has nothing, she is a wanderer.” Elias was passed around. They asked where I lived, and where I was from. When I said Thailand, they didn’t know where that was, so they just assumed that it was somewhere in Bangladesh, which led to a funny conversation. One woman said that her relatives had white children just like my baby. She told how the kids were all white, even their hair, and they couldn’t look at the sun because their eyes were weak. I knew from previous similar conversations that she was talking about albinos, and that she was assuming that Elias was an albino too. So she said, “Why is your hair not black? Did you dye your hair?” I told her that it was my natural color, and she looked very confused. Someone asked me who Karin was, and I said that she was my mother-in-law. They told me off for calling her mother-in-law, as I should have said that she was my mother. Now that is what a good daughter-in-law would do! I smiled and said that I already had a mother. I didn’t need to say that, but I feel like I already live with my in-laws, please don’t make me do anything more!
Karin came back with a water bottle and an orange. We put the things in the lady’s hands and tried to explain to her that they would do an x-ray on her leg the following day. She just nodded. Her sister had come in, and she looked desperate and confused, but there was not anything to do.
The following day, we heard from a friend that the x-ray had happened, and the leg was not fractured, and the lady was discharged.
Life is just too busy for family time at home, so a few days after Daniel and Hanna arrived, we went to Sikkim. Sikkim is a little state of India bordering Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet. From where we are in Bangladesh it takes a day and a half to get there — by bus, over a land border, across the horrible roads of West Bengal by taxi, a train ride to Siliguri, then a four hour jeep ride snaking up the Himalayan mountains, following the path of the Teesta River.
We stayed in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. It is known for it’s flower shows and views of the world’s third highest peak, Kangchenjunga. We spent alot of our time taking walks and eating the famous momos (steamed dumplings). The highlight was riding the cable car into the city and going to a restaurant named Hotlicks where we ate superb lasagna. Charlotte and John, thanks for the heads up about that place!!
There are monasteries, Buddhist libraries, and Hindu temples. Tibetan monks in their red robes are a normal sight. The prayer flags and prayer wheels are everywhere. As someone who has grown up in the Buddhist world, I find myself wondering if people do pray when they spin the wheels . . and if we Christians could learn from the Buddhists about worship arts . . and what if Christians could do something like the Buddhist monkhood, where we give up a few months, put on plain robes and live in simplicity and community, fasting and praying. What do you think?
We stayed in a place called Pandim Lodge, which has a beautiful restaurant decorated in Tibetan art. Their Tibetan bread and lemon tea was a hit.
. .. or at least think twice about where your clothes come from!
Hira is my age. She is now in the hospital with extremely swollen legs and malfunctioning kidneys. She used to work in a garment factory in Dhaka — but is in no condition to work anymore. Her boss had told her that there was an express order, and asked her to work for 22 hours a day, for 2 1/2 months straight. The wages are so low at the garment factories that the people like Hira feel like they have to work more, long hours, and if the bosses make demands on them, it’s either lose their job or work even harder. One day while working she looked down at her legs and noticed the gross swelling. She had to quit, and she used up her whole meager savings on getting medical treatment. The factory owes her two months salary, but is refusing to give it to her until she comes back.
“What happens to a person who does not sleep for 2 1/2 months?” This is the question Karin is asking the doctors. They just shake their heads.