Monday, February 27, 2012

What happened when I tried to get a massage in rural Bangladesh

After a long day on the road we arrive to the town of Kulna in rural Bangladesh. My room has no running water, but the hotel has a spa, so I figure I might as well use it instead. It’s almost closing time and I’m the sole customer, but they take me in. After closely reviewing the list of available services I choose two: oil hair  treatment (which will at least mean I do not need to wash my hair for another week), and a full body massage.  The price seems a bit high for the standards, but I’ve been riding up and down this country in the back of a car for over a week now, and my body can use the pampering.

One lady begins the head massage with what appears to be your traditional kitchen grade olive oil. Meanwhile,  four idle ladies stand next to the mirror in front of me, staring straight at me like I’m the 4 o’clock news. Subsequent  social outings would confirm this as normal behaviour around a foreigner, or “farnear” as they call us, which if you think about, is probably the origin of the word to begin with.

"where you come from?”

one finally ventures

"Spain” I reply, still uncomfortable with being the entertainment.

I will soon learn that this is pretty much all Banglas want to know about me. Once that question has been answered they can move on, their curiosity fully satisfied. In Africa the question is “are you married.” Here it’s “where you come from,” sometimes  followed up by  question number two: “do you have facebook?”

Soon the head massage begins and my mind wonders off as does the novelty and they go back to their activities. They are all wearing matching black and maroon uniforms, which are a westernized version of the local long top and baggy trousers. One is getting her hair done. She giggles in a most contagious manner. They are chatting loudly, with none of that reverent spa attitude we are used to expecting in the West. Eventually we move  on to the massage room. We haggle over where my things should go, and nobody leaves the room in order for me to change. Two keep reorganizing things, while others come and go. We are a crowd when I finally lay down on the massage table,  and then I understand the reason behind the high price of the massage, as each lady grabs one leg and begins massaging. 

I’ve had a four-hand massage before. There is something utterly decadent about it, but frankly, I find it hard to focus, especially as they keep chatting and giggling while trying to coordinate their movements, so now I’m focusing on wether or not they manage. I feel like I should be helping them keep rhythm or something. Then a third lady walks in, grabs my right arm and starts going at it. At this point I’m starting to suspect that they’ve  figured this way they might finish faster, and frankly, I wouldn’t be too bothered if this experience was cut short. Another lady, the one with the contagious giggle, comes in and begins massaging the stomach area. I hold on to a tiny scrap of towel that is still covering my breasts afraid of spending the next twenty minutes getting a one-on-one boob massage. Then the fifth lady grabs the remaining bastion, my left arm. At this point I am  being tossed and pulled in five different directions. There are ten uncoordinated hands pulling and pressing my body  at different beats, and I can’t work out if I’m in a soft porn film or an automatic carwash. There is nothing relaxing about it, my body is fully exposed and I’m getting kind of cold. They carry on giggling and chatting as if I wasn’t there at all. Sadly, the highlight of the experience is the hot shower I take after, which makes me conclude I would not be a good orgy partner.

As they dry my hair I notice the ladies getting ready to head home. One by one they slip out of their westernized clothes and into their long covers. I watch them carefully place the veil over their forehead and tuck it behind their ears. As we leave they have transformed from women who ignore my naked body displayed like an anatomy lesson, to clothed ghosts, their brisk happy walk the only reminder of the giggling ladies that have tortured me for the last 90 minutes.  

strange "farnear" under observation

Monday, February 20, 2012

hell hath bad traffic

Aid work is bizarre, to say the least. We are good at trashing it. we should be. Critical and self critical personalities are not only useful but a necessity.  To survive, to stay  relevant. 

But maybe sometimes we should also highlight "the other" side. The one most of us signed up for. 

Yesterday was one of those such days. I woke at dawn, compliments of a massive jetlag that keeps me half a day ahead of the people I love. With my brain and my heart in different time zones, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of which day I'm in. I had breakfast in an empty lobby next to a pool I'll never use, and then headed off to the "office"

First stop, I found myself surrounded by 20 imams. 20 male religious leaders of a faith I barely know. we spoke of child marriage and of dowries. They ate grapes while I munched on almonds.

Second stop a support center for people living with HIV aids to see a group of courageous women survivors of violence. They told me their stories. we smiled and talked while some of the children slept on the mat. Women who's own families won't allow them to sit on the same sofas they use, who won't feed them. One, just a child, had joined their ranks at the age of nine. All fighters. I felt proud to sit side by side with them, and embarrassed when they presented me a gift, a gift they can ill afford. They asked me to come visit them again. 

"I cannot" I excuse my self  "I live far and I have left small children behind to come meet you"

then comes  the translation of their response
"she says she too has children, but she has to die and leave them"

slapping me back to my place. that of a stranger that can barely touch any of their lives. I leave humbled and embarrassed.

Third stop a training center for women who have chosen to leave all they know in search of money.  Most of them headed for Saudi Arabia to work as domestics. Here they are taught to make beds, how to use machines that you and me take for granted, like the toaster or the vacuum cleaner. A small mannequin of a child stares back at me. A buggy next to it.  These are the things they must come familiar with for their new life. 

Then the airport. Children smile as I photograph them through the  glass barrier that divides our worlds: that of those  sipping tea while waiting to board a plane from those begging for food. 

"at least you made them smile" replies a little voice inside me. I feel smaller than the voice.   

Back in Dhaka my "assistant" speaks non stop during the long taxi ride. It's night and I'm tired. He tells me stories that unveil the world that surrounds me, even if just a little bit. He  keeps referring to me as his "master", I suspect fully aware of how uncomfortable that makes me. The density of the traffic makes me think that this is not only a god forsaken place -in the most literal sense of the word- but in addition it has bad traffic. Of course it figures that hell on earth would have bad traffic        

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On how to avoid the (stomach) traveling blues

I wrote this for a travel magazine, but in the end they decided not to publish it, so here you go, enjoy my hard- earned "wisdom"

You might have already been there, or maybe you are planning a trip that is making you wonder if you are headed there. Stomach blues (to put it politely) is one of the most common hazards of off-the-beaten-track travel. The bottom line is that your body is stretched trying to overcome jet lag while doing a lot more hours of hiking, walking and bumpy roads than it is used to, as well as dealing with hot temperatures and unfamiliar foods. Doing all this while on toast and tea, or worse, adding god forsaken toilet visits to your guided tour is something you really want to avoid.

You are already familiar with the basics, which you can pick up in most travel guides:

  •  Don’t eat fruits and vegetables unless they are peeled or boiled (in a clean environment).
  • Avoid undercooked meat and fish like you life depends on it (seriously)
  •  Avoid dairies. Period (ok, some cheeses may be ok, but if you want to play it safe stay clear of those too)
  • Wash you hands regularly (take hand sanitizer and use it often)
  • Don’t drink water unless it is bottled, and preferably have them open the bottle in front of you (some cultures will do this as matter of fact, highlighting your need to ensure your bottle is not being recycled)

Here are some other interesting tips from the trenches you might not have heard of:
  1.      Remember, ice is also water. Also, if glasses are not clean try to drink straight from a bottle (cans are renown for being germ fests, so definitely avoid those).

    2.     take probiotic pills or products before and during your travel, it helps to strengthen the immune system and the healthy flora in your stomach

    3.     don’t bite your nails! Seriously what is the point of avoiding the unpeeled fruit if then you go around touching everything and sticking your dirty hands in your mouth, (same applies to your eyes)

    4.     take toilet paper and wipes with you wherever you go. Chances are that your stomach will have some degree of reaction to all the changes its experiencing, and you never know where the next toilet paper roll will be.

    5.     Wipe and sanitize gear you are often holding with your dirty hands like the camera or passport, it is collecting germs and you’ll have a tendency to consider it sanitized back in your hotel haven and forget to wash after handling it.

    6.     Consume local prepackaged and pasteurized yogurts as much as you can and as soon as you arrive. This is because every location has its own bacteria, if you can consume some of it safely it will help your body deal.

    7.     Lemon and lime are acids and natural disinfectants. Can’t hurt to use it to clean your glass, bottle top  or cutlery, and tastes great. You can also add it to your bottle of water, will cleanse and refresh.

    8.     If you can handle hot spice this is the time to do so. There is a reason why hot poor countries consume chili like there is no tomorrow. It is proven to prevent stomach cancers but also ward off disease, they are also apparently the ultimate decongestant.

    9.     When in doubt drink cold coke (as cold as you can get it, but NOT with ice). Coke started off as a stomach medicine and as many opponents will highlight, if you stick  a tooth in a glass of coke it will disappear. This  is a good thing when you are trying to get rid of stuff that should not be in your stomach.

    10. If there is local papaya eat it as often as possible. Another natural stomach strengthener used to make digestive supplements

The most serious stuff is the one that you need to get vaccinated for, so make sure you do this well in advance. Find out from the CDC what diseases are prevalent in the areas you are planning to visit. Often they will over pitch and invariably locals will assure you that some of them are no longer present, but if you don’t have access to reliable locals (emphasis on reliable, many locals are immune to stuff that will keep you down and out)  then better safe than sorry is my motto.

Remember, food is an essential part of the culture and its traditions, not only is fun to take part and try new things, but as far as I’m concerned it is kind of essential,  just do it wisely. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

February family self portrait

Lazy Sunday mornings in bed.... one of my favourite things in the world

to see other months go to the links below.

to find out what this is about go here.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

the guilt box

we've all got one. It might be bigger or smaller, but we've got one. If you are a working mom, you might have a shiny-shiny colorful one, like mine.

This is my "I'm going to the opposite side of the world for two weeks while my kids still haven't recovered from my last trip" guilt box.

let me rewind a bit.

We moved to NYC about 5 months ago. I took a full month off, and carried on working from home afterwards. After three months I felt they were ready (and had previous commitments I could not ignore), so off I went. O started crying when they dropped him off at school and A having trouble at night. we all assumed they would get over it shortly after my return, but alas, only now, two months later,  is O starting to go to school calm, and A is still having troubles at night.

Enter shiny shiny guilt box.

Since I have to travel again I thought that perhaps if I left something behind for every day I am out, it would make my trip feel shorter. Of course, then I felt guilty about spoiling them. Will they get used to getting a present a day? will they expect me to do this every time?

still. I felt that circumstances called for extraordinary measures, but the measures could just be symbolic. Just a little something would do. Enter guilt over the fact that half of those little somethings are sweets. mainly because there are only so  many things that you can get for under 2 dollars (thanks for the other 6 Target!)

will this help?

I hope so. it will at least help me I suppose.

is it a bad precedent? am I spoiling them?

probably....  but guilt feels much better in a shiny-shiny pink bag with ribbons  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Arts and crafts night, or why quality time should only take place in my head

the pink one

How it happens in my head:

“I haven’t been spending enough quality time with the kids lately…. I’m going to organize something nice to do together tonight. Maybe buy some arts and crafts, some nice cookies and milk. I’ll stop working when they get home from school, cut off the internet, and we’ll spend  the afternoon doing things together and talking”

How it happens in reality:

(bring out nice cookies)

O&A- “mammy you are the bestest!”

so far so good

me- and I have some nice stuff for us to do (as I pull out the arts and crafts project)

O- I want the pink one

A- me too

O- I saw the  pink one first!

me- (softly, in a motherly tone and modeling adequate behaviour) no yelling, ask nicely

A-no me! I’m a girl, I get the pink one (pulling the pink one out of O’s hand)

me- don’t take things like that, that’s not nice

O- (crying) I had the pink one first (begins headbutting A)

me- don’t headbutt your sister! (tone rising)

A-(starts crying) he hit me!

me- (as I'm about to open my mouth in order  to admonish O for hitting A, A strikes O) A, no hitting!

A-but he hit me first! (true)

me- just because he hits you doesn’t mean that you can hit him back. Before I could have yelled at him, now I have to yell at you too  (tone going up, meanwhile O has gone back to headbuttting his sister)

A-(begins to cry and scream,) but he hit me first!!!

(O takes this opportunity to take the pink one back and run with it )


(at super human pitch and volume level. Runs after O and pushes  him to the floor. Grabs the pink one and runs off.

O -(crying)

me- enough!!!     The two of you stop it now, I mean it!!!! (while pulling the pink one away from A not nicely and yelling louder than either of them)

A- crying

O- crying

me- fuck it, I’m going back to work (nearly Crying)