Bangladeshi adventures – part 1

As some of you know, my browner half / partner in crime has traveled home to Bangladesh at the end of December to visit family and renew his visa for the next many few years that he’ll be a post-doc. While it would obviously have been better if Dr. Trot could have gone South Asian adventuring as well and reporting the events back first hand, that was totally impossible this year. Fortunately for you (however unfortunately for my ego) Dr. M is as good of a writer as he is everything else and has agreed to let me share some of his adventures with you. Also fortunately for you (but unfortunately for him) it has already been quite the adventure just making the trip to Dhaka. But like I said, he is a far better story teller than I so I’ll leave the rest to him. Enjoy!!

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Introduction

Greetings everyone!

I apologize that it has been a while since I last sent out an update. It seems like I need to be almost completely detached from my work in order to have enough time for one of these. I am currently in Bangladesh (Dec 28 – Jan 26), and for once, in years, I have a ton of time with not much on my plate. Well, at least not much work-related stuff anyway. The purpose of this trip is partly to redeem myself for not visiting the last 4 years. In addition, I need to renew my US visa, take official ownership of certain family assets, dodge marriage proposals, establish myself as the coolest cousin to a 7 year old (there is no competition currently) and learn some new recipes. If you have noticed the journal article theme to this update, it is because I have been infected with the style. In the weeks leading up to my departure to Bangladesh, I have had to deal with writing up 3 separate publications.

Abstract (Short version)

The trip took 9 more hours due to fog in Kungming, China, making it a total of 45 hours instead of the 36 that I had prepared for. Flying China Eastern Airlines and connecting through China was a grueling experience; I felt lost in translation for the most part, communicating with single words, grunts and gestures. I made it to Dhaka but have not left home much as the political situation in the country is extremely unstable, and the sounds of gunfire and petrol bombs are common even in my quiet, residential neighborhood. I am still unmarried and plan on returning so. I am applying for my US visa tomorrow: wish me luck so I can come back and go for a beer with you at some point. Below is a detailed account of my journey and my time so far in Bangladesh for those interested.

Observations and Discussion

I had bought my ticket for home in late November, much later than I anticipated. Luckily, I managed to find a pretty affordable deal with China Eastern Airlines on Vayama (thanks to Dr. Volzing): just over a $1000 for a trip across the world, not too bad! It would be grueling time-wise (a 36 hour journey in all, including connection time), but it was easy on the postdoc lifestyle. I set out for the airport 4 hours before my scheduled flight (thanks to Antone for obliging). In the past, I have had to go through a special registration process when leaving and entering the country (for being a foreign national from Bangladesh) before going through security, and the process has often taken longer than an hour. Being that it was the day after Christmas, there was not much traffic at the airport. It actually ended up being great finding out that they have eliminated the special registration process since my last international travel!

I noticed a confused looking South Asian lady watching the departure and check in board for information on flights. I went up to her (referred to here on as B), we head bobbed to each other and thereby confirmed that we were both on the same flight to at least China. It turned out she was on her way to Calcutta, India and spoke Bengali (my mother language)! As we sat indulging ourselves on some Indian snacks she had managed to pack for the flight, I found out a little more about my newly found travel companion. B had been in California for 14 years, was married with two kids (12 and 7), and was on her way to see her dad who recently suffered a brain hemorrhage in the left cerebral cortex. At this point I had already told her I was working on a Parkinson’s disease related project, so she pulled out the CT and MRI scan reports on her phone and showed them to me. The region in the left brain controlling motor functions had been affected, which manifested itself as a lack of control/movement of the right leg. Additionally, his speech and recognition were also impaired. B was on her way to prepare her mom for the worst.

The first leg of the flight was 15 hours long. Although I had been up since 6am, sleep evaded me and I instead ended up watching 5 movies and chatting for the rest of the time with my travel mate. Also, as soon as we stepped aboard the plane, all pretenses of English went out the window. All announcements were made in both Chinese and English of course, but I kept waiting for the English version to come only to realize the announcement had ended and what I thought was being delivered in Chinese was actually in English. I never realized when the switch happened. After a couple of rounds of these I realized they were starting out the English version with something that resembled “Ladies gentlemen” and ending as “thank you for understanding” (NOT!). I was also not impressed by the food they served. I really thought it would be decent Chinese food, instead we got a chicken noodle thingy, a seafood udon which barely fit the description, and half a ham & cheese sandwich.

During the course of the next 5 hours while waiting for our next connection at Shanghai airport, I made the acquaintance of 2 other Bangladeshis (A and N) in the sea of non-English speaking East Asians. As the four of us sat around chatting (between 1am and 5am Pacific Standard Time), I realized that this long tedious journey still ahead of me might potentially be a little more bearable. Now I realize that I had underestimated both the tedium of the journey ahead and the usefulness of my companions.

As our next flight to Kungming was almost at its destination, we were told that we would instead be landing at a different airport at Chungde, due to too much fog at Kungming. This was midnight, and we would be stuck in Chungde till at least the next morning. Those of us going to Dhaka, Bangladesh had at least 13 hours till our next flight left from Kungming, so we weren’t terribly worried. The Airlines wanted to board us up at an undisclosed hotel, and their description of the next step following us going to the hotel were shady at best. We waited for the bus to go to wherever this hotel was. As several of these buses pulled up, some of the locals went on a wild stampede (imagine close to 20 munchkins trying to fit through a bottleneck at the bus door that could barely fit two). Us brown folk and the few westerners (inappropriately dressed for the cold fog in shorts and flip-flops) that had survived this far watched on. As all this was unfolding, two distinct groups were forming: those that didn’t trust the airlines and wanted to stay back at the airport for more information on our situation, and those who had surrendered their fate to the eastern airline gods. B, A, N and I went with the former group and stayed back at Chungde airport. Let me preface my account of the next 14 hours by saying that if you ever have the option of avoiding Chungde and China Eastern Airlines altogether, take it.

There was no toilet paper in the restrooms, half the sinks did not work, the currency exchanges were closed for most of the day, 98% of the people there did not speak English (this was an International airport) and the other 2% could barely manage to hold a conversation. Almost consequently, people at the counters were rude to non-mandarin speakers, communicating unhelpfully with grunts and gestures. At one point, being hungry with no useful form of currency, we began asking people at the airport for money that we could exchange for our dollars. A nice gentleman from Japan offered me 100 Yuan. We didn’t know what the currency exchange rate was (another instance of how useless I feel without the internet at my fingertips) so I gave him $15. Finally we could eat! We sat down at a restaurant named in Chinese characters, being served by a woman we named “Bilkis”, and shoveled down a couple of bowls of house spicy fish/beef. After spending a few hours trying to fruitlessly find a solution to our problem, we gave up and let them redirect us to a hotel for what seemed like an indefinite amount of time. Fog at Kungming was common at this time of the year, and there was no indication of it ever letting up. We had no idea when we would be able to leave Chungde and make our respective connections.

On the bright side, we got to step out into China. Another country crossed off the list I suppose. Obviously, I would rather have paid an actual visit to the country under different circumstances. But we took what we got. My visit to China consisted of a ride to the hotel, experiencing a little bit of driving without traffic laws (a prelude to what was to come in Dhaka), communicating with single words and gestures, some chinese TV, a nice shower and a nap on a real bed. Getting stuck in China for at least a few more days was a very viable possibility. My process of trying to settle myself in mentally was fortunately quite short-lived, as I got woken up to an Asian lady pounding on my hotel room door asking me to “Go down to 1”. I took that as a signal that we now had a flight going to Kungming. 2 hours later we were boarded, and 3 more hours later we were off to Kungming.

Chungde to Kungming is a short 1.5 hour flight which passed uneventfully. By the time we reached our destination, it was 6 hours past the scheduled departure time for our next and final flight out to Dhaka. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our original flight had been delayed 9 hours, and we would make it to Dhaka on the same day after all! In contrast to our predicament just over 6 hours back, our current position was a miracle. We even found a 24 hour wifi restaurant called something that apparently translated to “hamburger”, and who would accept visa credit from a US card. B departed for Calcutta, and A, N and I made our way to Dhaka’s departure gate. The rest of the trip went smoothly, and before we knew it we were in Dhaka.

In news closer to home: I have been sleeping under a mosquito net; “showering” by manually mixing hot and cold water in a giant 20 gallon bucket and using a 1L plastic mug to splash water on my body; refreshing my Bengali alphabets; eating dessert that I don’t know how to make yet; beating a 7 year old in chess, math, wrestling and 20 feet sprints (Don’t underestimate 7 yr old chess: B’s kid is no.2 in the world at under 8 chess, and he is at a level where he can only be coached by European masters); and looking up potential bioengineering professionals in industry and academia to start a possible future collaboration.

On a more serious note, the current political situation in Bangladesh is the worst I have seen in my life so far. My parent’s house in Dhaka is far removed from the heart of the capital and the place for all political demonstrations, and in previous years the evening news was the only way we got to find out about unrest in the country. However, today the political conflict has spread through all the capital’s veins and it is not uncommon for our 3pm lunch to be interrupted by gunshots outside our front doors, and molotovs and pipebombs exploding down the street. I haven’t been out much, except for the business of the visa renewal, which is a necessity at this point. For situations where we wouldn’t have thought twice about taking the car, we find ourselves in running shoes (my personal treads are Aasics Gel Kayano 18s) in easily exit-able public transportation (rickshaws and autorickshaws), which can be abandoned at a moments notice of brewing unrest and flying molotovs. Tomorrow is my visa interview at the US embassy, and I hope to make it there and back physically unscathed.

Conclusion

Alright folks, that is all that I have now for those of you with patience enough to have read through all of this. I will try and write again towards the end of my trip to update you on any new developments. Hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday season with friends and family, and wish you a very happy new year!

My Best,
Maroof Adil, PhD

P.S: For those of you who have had the pleasure of hearing from me how great of an advisor I have had over the past 6 years, you will be pleased to know that I have been officially granted a PhD from the University of Minnesota’s Chemical Engineering Department on December 31, 2013. Today is the first day I can legitimately add those 3 extra letters after my name (not that it has stopped me before).

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