We rang in the new year not in Dhaka, but in Rangamati, a small village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. We spent a week traveling non-stop around the new year, exploring, but mostly in transit, it felt like – from Dhaka to Chittagong via train, Chittagong to Rangamati via bus, from Rangamati to Bandarban via bus, from Bandarban to Ruma Bazar via slow, slow boat (seriously slow; since it’s not the monsoon season, the water was low on the river), and back again – from Ruma Bazar to Bandarban via SUV, Bandarban to Chittagong via minivan, and Chittagong to Dhaka via plane. Whew. Once we got back home, school started back for Matthew and Lindsey (phew) and then about a week or so later, school started back again for Josh. Presumably, anyway.
When we left the hill tracts, we really left right in the nick of time. The day after we returned to Dhaka, the political situation deteriorated quite quickly. We returned on January 4th. January 5th was the anniversary of the contested and controversial election that brought the current government into power.
Ever since then, it has been a slowly boiling and ebbing level of political anger that has really impacted millions of Bangladeshis across the country. The government is angry, the opposition parties are angry, the citizens are frustrated. The opposition party has called for the longest blockade in Bangladesh’s history, effectively grinding commerce to a halt. Ports have tons of fresh vegetables, rotting, because they can’t move it where it needs to go. The government has forced internet service providers to block social media apps (like WhatsApp, Viber), and most recently, cut network service around the area of Gulshan where the opposition party has been living (in her office, having been blockaded in for several weeks). This past week has been called hartal by the opposition party as well, with rumors of more (and maybe, indefinite) hartal. Here’s another link to what’s been going on here. Simply put, it’s a mess, and both sides have legitimate beefs.
It’s been weird, sitting on the inside/outside of this situation. Obviously, as you all know, we are not citizens of Bangladesh, we do not and will not vote in the elections here, but this is our home now, so we are impacted, though gratefully, we are impacted less (the city has seen more random acts of violence and protest that have truly been horrific – a school recently, bombed. Trains derailed, buses torched.). Josh is almost in the third week of the semester and has barely been able to teach class (especially this past week, with nonstop hartal all week long!). I substitute teach at an international school in the diplomatic enclave and while school hasn’t shut down, rickshaw drivers are legitimately more skittish about crossing from one neighborhood into the next. When I leave the school after I substitute teach, I am once again reminded that censorship is alive and blatant when my phone leaves the wifi network at the school and is silent until we once again reach a zone where the cell towers are permitted to continue operating and my phone reaches a signal once again. We are fortunate that we live in a relatively separate area (for Dhaka, this is pretty contained and separate from other neighborhoods) and so in my day-to-day, I feel safe. But when I go to a coffee shop to work on my dissertation, our nanny cautions me to be careful of crowds. Every few days we get emails from the embassy in Dhaka to be on the lookout and avoid traveling in the dip zone on rickshaw or CNG after dark.
In the US, Josh and I have both been upset by different actions by the US government, on the state or federal level. We took Matthew to his first political rally when he was about 20 months old, in support of our belief that discriminating against same-sex couples marrying was just wrong. Before we married, we marched in New York, protesting the start of the Iraq war in 2003. I have written letters (and even sent some of them!) to governors and senators expressing my concerns as a constituent. I vote. I donate to political causes. I am loud on social media, smugly so.
Here, I stand by on the sideline. I wish I could do something, but in many ways, this is not my fight and it’s not my place. I wish I could, though, because in the short time we’ve lived here, it’s really grown on me. Living in a new culture is hard by any means, and I wonder if living in Bangladesh is just harder, because of the newness of this country (which has only been in existence not much longer than *I* have been in existence). Maybe the country is still in shake-down mode, trying to get a comfortable fit in a new pair of shoes. I don’t know. All I do know is that its people are suffering. Students are protesting and telling the government that they have had enough. It is a vaguely ironic sort of laugh that I have because I know in the US, there is much discussion and criticism over the common core standards and the testing that comes along with it – that is another blog post entirely on its own – but here, we have countless students who are protesting and putting their lives on the line in order to be able to take a standardized test, so that they can get into the universities they want to attend, to attain the degrees they desperately seek. Obviously, the differences between the US and Bangladesh are much more nuanced than my glib overview, but the dedication here is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the US.
For someone who doesn’t feel like she has much to say about the current political situation in Bangladesh, I sure did spout a whole lot there. The gist: peace, please. Please. I am not a praying kind of person, but if you are, I am sure Bangladesh could use any positive juju you got.
Beyond that, things have been busy here, at least for me. I’ve been substituting at a local international school, which has been a nice experience (although working with really small people – holy crap, exhausting!) and I have been working steadily on my dissertation, preparing my prospectus. I’ll write more about what I am doing at another time, but it feels good to get as much done as I have over the last few weeks. More to come, always more to come. More reading, reading, reading…