The twice-annual Lattitude training is upon me once again - my busiest times of the year. 15 Aussies arrive on Monday [some pictured here] and I've been spending most of this week making sure the coursework, admin and classrooms are all prepared. This time I'll be doing all the training myself as Robert, my boss, is in the UK on business. Thankfully another Chinese teacher, Kelly, is handling the visa, pastoral and projects side of the placements (a role I was very happy to pass on to her earlier in the year) and our most experienced secretary, Winnie, is back from having a baby to handle the administration (booking hotels, restaurants, coaches, refreshments etc). So together we'll aim to get through the 8-day course without mishap and get all the volunteers safely to their schools around China, where they will be teaching for 5 months. Fingers crossed!
I consider myself a fairly cautious driver in China (...assertive at times...) but, as I drove to the supermarket and back today, I was within inches of hitting other vehicles at least ten times, through no fault of my own. Mopeds, cars, buses, bicycles; they all weave to and fro without indicating, cut into your lane without warning and suddenly stop without reason. You really have to keep alert and assume stupidity.
Rarely do I drive anywhere without seeing at least one accident en route (I saw two today) and, unlike in Britain, the vehicles involved just stop in the middle of the road until the police arrive to take photos. It really snarls up the traffic which has to crawl around them, all stares.
I saw this helmet perched on a motorbike the other day. It had clearly been in a couple of accidents already and was patched together with Sellotape! I kid you not! Life is cheap here sometimes...
Ava keeps on improving her little balcony garden bit by bit. We bought some old shelves from the second-hand market the other day, which are now decorated and filled with displays of her plants, flowers and ornaments. It's a tiny balcony, also used for drying clothes and storing ma-in-law's piles of rubbish (which she periodically sells to the rubbish collector for trivial amounts). But even so, I'd say it's looking rather pretty these days.
Woohoo! After 6 months without daily running water, we've finally been told that low-pressure, but 24-hour, water has been resumed. With the recent torrential rainstorms, it's not before time. We've emptied our bath-cum-reservoir and are looking forward to our first showers at home for half a year. It's been a difficult time, but it's amazing what you get used to when you have to. Buckets are being stored away again. Let's hope this really is the end.
(Stop Press: I spoke too soon. The liars at the water company turned it all off again today. Now, where are those blummin' buckets? 23.8.12)
Jiajiaa's been moaning about the state of our sofa suite for a year or two now and recently found a possible solution online with a company who can provide dyes which can be painted onto leather. So we've spent the last two days cleaning the seat, two-seater and sofa, applying 3 layers of dye and finally a layer of varnish. They have now been transformed from dirty white to light grey (ie I can't tell the difference), but the wife is happy and that's the main thing. I'm a little worried that over time, increasingly large specks of white from underneath will reappear and we'll end up having to buy a new suite (it is a decade old). Maybe that was Ava's plan all along?
Some time ago, I was the subject of a Kunming television documentary. One of my students, Lily, recently spotted that it's been uploaded onto China's equivalent of YouTube. Although it's largely in Chinese, some of you might enjoy seeing pictures of me at work and at home. If so, click the button below...
Not only did China overall do pretty well in the Olympic medal count, but athletes from my province of Yunnan managed to get a handful of medals including a gold (ChenDing, left in the 20k walk), bronze and team gold (Sun YuJie, in fencing) and team gold (Guo Weiyang in the men's gymnastics).
Not quite as good as the UK county of Yorkshire, mind you, which would have come 12th in the medal table all by itself had it competed as a country, with 12 medals including 7 golds!
Ava bought a Bengali dress a couple of days ago but it needed altering. We splashed out on an air-conditioned taxi to return to the shop, some 6km away, today. But the roads were absolutely jam packed with rickshaws, buses, cars, baby-taxis (motorised ricks), bicycles and ambulances. After 2 hours we had travelled just 4km! Unbelievable!
At that point, I decided to get out to walk the final 2km to the shop while Ava returned to the hotel (another 2 hours). I was lucky to meet a really nice Bengali guy at the shop, however, who gave me a lift most of the way back, via less congested backroads. It turned out he is also a "country-bagger", with a very impressive 46 countries visited. I suggested a race, with him trying to reach 50 before I reach 100.
Ava decided to spend today in the hotel, still feeling rough. I decided to go it alone and try and tick off some of the city's main sights while I could. After visiting the local Post Office for the second time (still closed, this time for "Krishna Festival"!?) I took a rickshaw to Lalbagh Fort. Right in the middle of the old city, it nevertheless was something of a haven of peace and quiet, with the various palace buildings surrounded by well-kept gardens and an absence of beggars! It reminded me a little of Walmer Castle and gardens, where Ava and I had our honeymoon a year ago.
I then walked for 2-3km down small roads and alleys, squeezing past rickshaw jams and puddles of mud. The sights, sounds and smells were overpowering at times. Down at the port, I found a small boat to take me out for half an hour, and savoured a little of the river life for which Bangladesh is famous. Then, a short walk to the Pink Palace (shut) and a long rickshaw journey back to my hotel. Overall, a tiring afternoon, and I think I got ripped off 3-4 times, but at least I felt like I'd seen Dhaka properly.
We've been trying to do a little shopping amongst the flooding and upset stomachs! Ava and I visited three different shopping centres today, starting at a cheap outdoors wholesale market and working our way up to more expensive air-conditioned boutique stores.
Wherever we go we are constantly hassled by children, disabled people and the elderly, begging for a few Taka. Ava had a good idea before we left China, buying 100 x one jiao banknotes (total cost: 10RMB or £1). We're handing these out quite liberally each day. The children see them as a fun novelty, the disabled are mostly bemused and some of the elderly got a bit angry. But even so, it is still proving very tiring to have to fend off poor people for hours on end. Our hotel is, once again, something of a respite.
Bangladesh hasn't been the toughest country I've travelled in (Paraguay - I'm looking at you!), but it's probably in the top (bottom?) three! Ava's found it particularly hard - vomiting for days on end takes the shine off any adventure. On the positive side though, it is country #95 for me - one closer to the magic 100 - and it does make you grateful for what you often take for granted (unbroken pavements, clean food, cool climate, etc). It's also been quite cheap and just a 2 hour direct flight from Kunming. But by far the most impressive memory I will take with me has been the friendliness of the people. Some are just "helpful" in the hope of a tip, but the vast majority are genuinely outgoing, curious and delighted to meet a foreigner. The opening question has always been, "What is your country's name?" - an unusual and quaint construction, but eliciting an excited response when England is named ("Britain" gets a blank stare, sorry!) as the conversation rapidly turns to cricket (of which I know nothing). One 20-second greeting stands out for me; on hearing I was from England, an elderly gentleman with remarkably good English simply said, "Ah, England. A land of great civility. Sir, I apologise for our country's infrastructure but hope you will experience the warmth of our people." And with that he smiled and walked off.
Our plans to return to Dhaka by "gentle river paddle boat" have again been quashed when we went to buy tickets yesterday and were told the boat no longer reaches Khulna due to the rainy season. We opted instead for an overnight train back. We paid for a first class carriage and at first were pleasantly surprised to find we were the only two in a sleeper with 6 beds. But, at the first station, we were joined by a Muslim guy and his two women (wives?). He proceeded to sing his prayers on the floor throughout the night as one "wife" was being sick in the toilet and the other fell out of bed (and amazingly didn't even wake up).
We arrived in Dhaka at 6am to find the city flooded... [see below]
Jiajia and I have been tied to the bathroom for the last day or so! Today we were determined to get out and see "a sight" before leaving Khulna tomorrow. My guidebook described a pleasant rickshaw/ferry/bus trip to an ancient mosque. We took a rough hour-long rick ride to where the ferry should have been, only to find a huge bridge there now [see top left]. Undeterred, we found a way to get up onto the bridge and started to walk across. Half way, the heavens opened and we were getting drenched, when a motorised "baby-taxi" stopped and offered to take us to the old mosque. The roads quickly turned to mud [see top right] and it took us over an hour to complete the "30 minute trip".
The mosque was quite old, quite attractive [see above] and quite interesting. Nothing very impressive! Despite buying tickets to enter, and being very sensitive about those praying and not eating, we were quickly approached by the Imam (Head Muslim) who told us to please leave as soon as we had seen what we had to. Not the welcome we had expected - if you don't want visitors, don't advertise or sell tickets!
A nearby (dull) mosque held an unexpected surprise. Behind the building was a large man-made lake (built for water storage). As Jiajia and I sat there cooling off in the breeze, a man approached carrying a live chicken. "I wonder if chickens can swim?" I joked, and then to our surprise we watched as the man lobbed the chicken into the lake! And what do you know - chickens CAN swim! As the soaked and exhausted chicken reached the bank, the man picked it up and headed back to the mosque [see photo above left]. I suspect it was a ritual cleansing before a sacrifice ...or perhaps just a prelude to dinner? The journey back was by two big buses in torrential rain [see photo above right]. Ava raised plenty of glances as ever - it has been quite rare to see women in public here, and foreigners even more so.
Our planned "gentle river trip" down to Khulna in the south of Bangladesh changed into a bumpy 7 hour bus ride due to a ticket office having a long holiday. The bus trip included a ferry crossing over a wide river which broke up the monotony. Khulna is Bangladesh's third biggest city, and less frantic than Dhaka. Our hotel is better too, which at least enables us to relax and enjoy some air-conditioning after our excursions into the 35°C, 95% humidity weather.
One of the big bonuses of our time here is access to satellite TV and coverage of the Olympics with English commentary. There is still a 5 hour time difference with the UK, so watching events "live" is limited, but it sure beats the Chinese coverage which barely featured any sports outside, badminton, table-tennis or diving!
Bangladesh is a country half the size of the UK but with twice the population. Ava and I arrived here yesterday after having our first flight cancelled and the second - a day later - delayed by two further hours. We arrived at 4am and, after few sly backhanders, I managed to get my visa. Since then we've been somewhat overwhelmed by the heat, the noise, the humidity, the begging, the traffic and the pollution of Dhaka - the country's 10 million strong capital city. We've arrived in the rainy season and amidst Ramadan - the Islamic month of fasting. With 85% of the country being Muslims, few restaurants are open and we have to be careful where to sip our bottles of water so as not to give offence. Our pre-booked hotel is filthy and broken, so we hope to move to a better one tomorrow. We had planned to take a 36 hour river boat to the south of the country, but we found the ticket office shut today and not due to open for 3 more days. So we'll try a bus.
Ava and I went to a large pet and garden centre the other day. She was after more plants for her ever-filling balcony garden. I was more interested in the specimens above; Pitcher plants [top], Sundews [bottom left] and Venus fly traps [bottom right]. They are all carnivorous plants, catching flies and other bugs by various devious means. I've seen them in pictures before, but it was really interesting to finally see them in real life and up close. I resisted the temptation to buy though. Me and plants do not thrive well together!
Past blog entries