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Saturday, 3 December 2011


The day after my birthday I caught a CNG early in the morning to meet my friend and colleague Kanika at an intercity bus stand  We had a mission in mind - visiting the far flung district of Birishiri, on the border with India.  Around five to six hours in a bumpy and jammed back bus (to go 170km) finally yielded fruits when we arrived in a place of complete beauty and splendour, far away from the Dhaka dust and horns.  An atmospheric rickshaw journey and walk took us to the border of India, where the golden light from the west lit up the paddy fields like a lantern of the god's.

We stayed at the local YMCA that evening, and the next morning set out early on a rickshaw, trundling with a slow grace along the banks of the Shomeshwari River as the sun languidly climbed in the sky.  In afternoon we headed for ‘Karshban’ the  school, now led by the famous Bangladeshi poet Nirmalendu Goon.  The primary school was established by his grandfather as the first in the Upazilla over 100 years ago, and now the secondary school teaches a creative curriculum with music, dance and visual art.  Regular performances by the students draw in the local villagers and families who can learn more about the school and by extension the importance of education.  Nirmalendu Goon led us proudly around the school, which was a rare example of creativity in education in Bangladesh.  Apparently I was the first foreigner to visit, but I'm sure I won't be the last.

Thursday, 1 December 2011


Is it self-indulgent to write a post on your birthday?  I guess it is in line with keeping a blog on your life and travels.  Birthdays are strange affairs.  You start out totally ignorant about them while parents crowd around and make a huge fuss. Then you get into them and get obsessed with cakes and wrapped presents.  Later in teenage years they may become popularity contexts; or the affirmation of the absence of popularity.  And later on there may be an unsettling feeling regarding the passing of the years...

This particular birthday didn't really fit into any of the above categories actually.  Despite being one of those events that is about 'you' yet you don't really get to have in-depth conversations because of hosting responsibilities, the evening was very enjoyable in the end.  People brought all manner of home-cooked food, which basically covered all the table and presented a gastronomic challenge to the guests.  There was an inspiration sharing session half-way through (a bad habit of mine is to turn social events into experimental workshops), which I was curious about people reactions to.  Such processes tend to polarise a general (non self-selecting) audience - some people were really into it, others seems to be trying to find places under the table to hide.  One highlight was a friend Satish's improvised didgeridoo performance using a vacuum-cleaner hose. 

To round out the evening, around midnight the remaining guests ascended the single flight of stairs to the rooftop where myself and my French friend Melody tested out our home-made fire-staff and fire-poi (which we stayed up to midnight the previous night making out of curtain rods, jeans, chains and wire).
To my surprise and the audience's relief we didn't cause any major combustion or conflagration in our fire dancing.  There's nothing quite like hearing the roar of the flame rushing past you, feeling its heat in the night air, and smelling the thick smoke...    

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

South Asian Social Forum

I learnt about the World Social Forum years ago, an open meeting place where social movements, networks, individuals, NGOs and other civil society organisations come together to oppose war, commercial globalisation, militarisation, capitalism and neo-liberal imperialism, and to pursue their thinking about 'another world' of equality, social justice, and sustainability.  Its formation was inspired by the mass upsurge across Latin America, in particular the struggle of the Zapitistas in southern Mexico and the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation.

I had been to the Melbourne Social Forum, the micro-scale version of the above, a little collection of friendly stalls at CERES Environment Park in Brunswick.  All very interesting, but unfortunately it seemed to only attract people already quite involved in the usual campaigns... 

So when I heard that the  South Asian Social Forum would be coming to Dhaka, I was very curious.  Scheduled for November 18-22th, it took place at Dhaka University, which has a long history as a platform for nurturing democratic and progressive movements.  The university was the centre of Bangladesh’s historic language movement in 1952, which demanded recognition of Bangla as a national language. Its students and teachers played a key role in the national upsurge in 1969, and the liberation war in 1971.

The main theme for the South Asia Social Forum Bangladesh was  "Democracy for Social Transformation in South Asia: Participation, Equity, Justice and Peace", with various subthemes clustered as following:

Democracy and People’s Participation: Democracy, decentralization, corruption, demilitarization.

Human Rights and Dignity : Fundamental rights, child rights, women rights, labor rights, rights of indigenous people.

Privatization vs Public Services : Education, people’s health (Public Heath Care, HIV/AIDS.), water rights, knowledge technology and people’s entitlement.

Food Sovereignty & Livelihood Security : Farmers’ rights, corporate agriculture, food rights, hunger. land rights, natural resource: (forest, water & mineral resources).

Development Finance : People’s globalization vs IFIs, aid accountability, corporate accountability, trade justice.

Regional and Trans-boundary Concerns : Climate justice, regional cooperation,  peace and security (religious fundamentalism, cast, class and ethnicity), migration and trafficking, water sharing.

The basic goal of SASF was to contribute towards creating a new South Asia, free from poverty and hunger caused by deprivation, exploitation, discrimination, and establish a common humanity based on equality, freedom and justice.

So it was with high hopes that I arrived at Dhaka University right on time at 10am on Sat 19th for the morning session on 'Green Governance in coastal communities'.  It was then that I realised that - like in Australia - passionate people don't necessarily make for organised people.  There were volunteer guides in immaculate uniforms but no one had a map or a program or seemed to know what was going on.  Eventually I found the room, rushing in 40 min late to find... no one there.  Luckily one of the guides was able to take me to an auditorium where one of the main plenaries was being held, with the title 'Another South Asia is Possible'.  Unfortunately the speaker's microphone seemed to be set on the 'muffle' setting and he sounded like he was speaking from underwater.  Fortunately this was corrected for the next few speakers, who were interesting and inspiring.  The last was a passionate woman in her 60s who spoke about many things, one of which was how she viewed herself as a South Asian citizen before she saw herself as Bangladeshi, a shift which invites a broader view outside of nationalistic agendas.  It made me think about how I saw/should see myself - as an Australian, an Asia-Pacifican (!), or simply as a world-citizen.

After this I joined the market place of stalls - hundreds ranging from international NGOs to grassroots groups to movement organisations.  An NGO called the Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) displayed over a hundred different indigenous rice varieties, many of which are rare after the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s promoted high yielding varieties (HYV) with chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilisers).  A growing number of farmers are now seeking alternatives to HYV because of their cost and negative impacts to the soil. There were talks going on and hundreds of people wandered about in carnival like atmosphere.  At another seminar, 'Climate Change and Urbanisation, Perspective Bangladesh', when myself and my colleague Kanika wandered in late, we were promptly asked to introduce ourselves up front with the microphone, which we did.  Often 'bideshis' (foreigners) are thought of as instant experts - luckily I did not speak long enough for them to realise that this was not the case.

In the evening there were some films screening via projector.  One was an arty doco on consumerism. It was an odd feeling to be watching the perils of the consumerist lifestyle in rich countries whilst standing in one of the poorest countries on earth, with the deja vu feeling of recognising your own country in the images, yet being apart from it for so long (well seven months anyway).  I had this feeling at various times during the forum, when people spoke against the developed world and their strings-attached, NGO interventions into the developing countries.  Still, it didn't end up detracting from the feeling of solidarity and hope that was around the forum, and if anything invites the question of your own subject position and role in the ongoing re-creation that is Bangladesh...

Thanks to GLW for some of the background information to this post.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The tears of green parrots

I sit on my rooftop, Dhaka’s morning haze wrapping itself around me, a soft blanket that does its best to protect me from the admidst the cachophony of din assaulting my senses.  The noise is coming from foundation drilling, in a formerly lush green block cleared of its ‘natural assets’, now resembling more a lunar surface than anything of this world.  

Looking up from my small bowl of noodles, I see several bright green parrots hopping and clinging to the rooftop’s railings, their hooked feet ill-suited for its hard, flat concrete surfaces.  With a jolt I remember the last time that I have seen them – hopping around the coconut and palm trees that used to grow in the block, eating insects and quarelling amongst the dappled foliage.  Like the Swomee Swans from The Lorax, they are just one of thousands of species deprived of their habitat, made home-less by development.
So here I am eating breakfast and watching them, and watching the drilling going at the moon’s surface.  What help to them is that pang of conscience in my stomach?  Like the seven months of living that I have done in Bangladesh, I have seen more suffering, need and deprivation than ever before in my life - all from the comfort of having a home and a (comparably) ample income source from the Australian government).  What use is this witnessing? 

Bearing witness is a powerful pre-condition for creating positive change.  It is the essential act of self-awareness in a suffering world. To quote eco-buddhist philosopher Joanna Macy:

"I call it the work that re-connects. It involves speaking the truth about what we are facing. I think it’s very hard for people to do that alone, so this work thrives and requires groups.

It needs to be done in groups so we can hear it from each other. Then you realize that it gives a lie to the isolation we have been conditioned to experience in recent centuries, and especially by this hyper-individualist consumer society. People can graduate from their sense of isolation, into a realization of their inter-existence with all.

Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure. In all great adventures there comes a time when the little band of heroes feels totally outnumbered and bleak, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings or Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress. You learn to say “It looks bleak. Big deal, it looks bleak.

Our little minds think it must be over, but the very fact that we are seeing it is enlivening. And we know we can’t possibly see the whole thing, because we are just one part of a vast interdependent whole–one cell in a larger body.

So I sit and watch these beautiful feathered verdant bodies flying to and fro, trying to renegotiate and rebuild their lives in the midst of devastation.  As they call to each other and fly, I think about their tiny frames, so marvelously sculptured through millions of years of adapting to the environments around them.  The wisdom accumulated through this journey is immense, and we humans are only now scratching its surface.  And although our collective mind-less-ness is driving us to scratch open raw wounds in the planets surface, I still hold hope that as we learn more of stunning beauty and interconnectedness of this world, we will see that our present actions make as much sense as tearing our own precious skin.

[Note: I was too slow to get a photograph of any of the green parrots, so the image at the top is of a crow in the same former habitat]

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Sundarbans

Since getting to Bangladesh, I had heard about the mythic Sundarbans mangrove forest in the south, the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world, and home to the legendary Royal Bengal Tiger. It remained on some sort of mental 'to do' as the river of life here in Bangladesh flew, drifted, tumbled and otherwise meandered along. All this changed when a French friend of mine Melody organised a small group of us to visit the Sundarbans on an eco-tour.

We converged at the airport midweek after work, and before a public holiday (the hindu durga puja). After some delay which gave extra time to sample some mishti (Bengali sweets), we flew from Dhaka to Jessore, then took a minivan for a couple of sleepy hours. There was a certain deep-seated pleasure from gliding on the soft, furry edge between wake and sleep. Eventually we arrived on The Boat around 1am to drift into an excited night-before-christmas type of sleep.

While we slept the little vessel chugged through the night, inching its way down the Pasur river. Upon dawn breaking, my bleary eyes met with a visage of panoramic stillness, a mirror reflection of distant treelines in the gently ebbing water. We had arrived in the Sundarbans, around 10,000 square kilometres of mangroves, a vast delta on the Bay of Bengal formed by the super confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. From the air it looks like a world of capillaries and blood vessels; from the ground it's like you are stepping into a primordial interface between water, trees, and sky.

Our little boat was an exercise in rotund cuteness; squat yet charming, with green and orange sides. There were six tiny compartments down below that slept two each in a cosy fashion, while up top a mini deck provided a shared relaxation place. I felt a bit guilty that there were at least six crew there to support the eight of us, mostly crammed into the crew box-like section at the back. However these type of space constraints were pretty much standard in Bangladesh - maybe you just notice it more when you're on a boat for three days. The tour operator, Rapantar, was more than just a travel company, quoting from Travel To Care:

The company originally had its start as a development organisation under the name Rupantar, which means ‘social transformation.’ The central idea behind its work is that development practitioners use local social/cultural media to encourage change among its client villages. In plain English, these are music performances where the villagers gather not only for entertainment but to hear stories about the difficulties some members of their society face and how they overcome those challenges. Given the low literacy rates and difficulties in transmitting information between the remote villages of the Sundarbans, Rupantar has discovered a unique, effective and culturally appropriate way to spread ideas.

Over the next three days we drifted through various canals and tributaries, marveling at the expanses of sky and water around us, unheard of back in Dhaka. At one point we took on two armed guards - apparently to protect from pirates and tigers. Back in Dhaka I found a Daily Star article that suggested we were lucky to be protected by more than just sticks! As for the tigers, there are estimated to be around 450 left in the forest, but these are threatened by poachers and angry villagers. On the latter point, the villagers actually do have a reason to be angry - on average a tiger will kill a person every three days in the Sundabans - the exact duration of our trip. With their habit shrinking from illegal woodcutting, tigers have been increasing coming in contact with humans. There are some projects that provide alternative livelhoods to villagers to make them less reliant on extraction from the forest. From the tigers' side the SundarbansTigerProject increases research and conservation efforts in the area.

Eventually though it all had to come to an end, and as the sun set while we chugged along back to Khulna, I realised that the last three days had been the most peaceful and beauty-rich in Bangladesh. I hope to return someday!

Postscript: Praise Kid Garden

I took a day off and to stay in Khulna, another of our party Anne did the same. We visited a school that my wonderful Bangla teacher in Melbourne, Mary-Anne Hess, would donate the money from our classes to. I had always wanted to visit it and finally got the chance. The school, called Praise Kid Garden, housed and educated around 70 children from disadvantaged backgrounds - many from indigenous minority groups in the north of Bangladesh. It was started in 2002 by a NGO worker and Christian preacher Patrick Dias, who wanted to find a home for the many small children that he found local women were offering to him as they could no longer support them. Today he still runs the school entirely voluntarily, doing additional translation jobs as paid employment. He is an inspiring, warm hearted man who embodies a combination of love and determination.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Stillness and Beauty

Finally having the discipline of going to bed ‘early’ (before 11pm), I mange to rise early this morning, around 6am, and wander upstairs to the roof to ensure that I don't flop back into bed again.  This rooftop is my little haven, a place removed from the staccato rhythms of the sharehouse living below (and most importantly away from the numbing television with its gapless noise).  Up there, the expanse of the open sky meets the crest of the world, and I humbly cling to the interface, my roles in life collapsing down to an anonymous, conscious appreciator of the world's beauty. 

After some brief meditations I open my eyes to the morning light, which is clearing and distilling itself through the haze as it inches further into the sky.  I turn my head and a flash of movement catches my eye - I glimpse a brilliant green parrot clinging expertly to a gently swaying coconut bough.  A smile drifts up from somewhere inside me, a rising bubble to the water's skin which bursts into flower on my face.  Walking a few paces towards the sun I hear the peeling laughter of children, a glance down reveals a school yard with playing kids, the lightness of their footsteps and the ripple of their voices brings back flashes of carefree memories.  Yet I am here, in the present, the warming air drifting over my face, whispering secrets to my skin.  I turn my gaze from the children and it comes to rest upon some wiry plant that has garnered a precarious foothold on the underside of the concrete roof just near its edge.  The hardy explorer has put out dozens of slender arms, each holding a dessicated star-flower.  They hang sprawled through the air, a Medusa's nest of minute and elegant proportions.   

Beauty is everywhere. We spend most of our lives running between persons and places, places and persons, our footfalls too quick to gather the moss of the world.  A moment's stillness - in mind and body - is all it takes to for the quiet beauty that is all around us to reveal itself,  our silent lover whose caresses are always but a breath away.