Sunday, July 27, 2008

Visa Extension Shenanigans Part Tin

The saga continues…

After leaving the letter from the Vice Chancellor with the inspector at the eSpecial Branch office of the police in Malibag, we did not hear anything for several days. We’ve found it to be mostly the case here that as long as we do nothing no one else does either. So Jen finally got on the horn and called the police inspector to see if he’d received our application from the folks at the passport office. No so sorry, he had not. He suggested that we go back to the passport office and ask them to give us back our application so that we could hand deliver it to the inspector in person. Naturally we were reluctant to do this because it would involve another trip to the passport office AND another trip to the eSpecial Branch office in Malibag. So we let it slide for a few more days. Jen tried several times to call the Assistant Director of the passport office, but the woman never answered her phone. So when we’d still heard nothing by the end of the week we decided to take the police inspector’s advice.

But first we thought it would be prudent to get another copy of the letter from the VC, this time addressed to the Director General of the passport office, in case the incorrect salutation on the previous letter was the cause of the present hang-up. This meant another trip to Baridhara, which is actually not so bad. We have lots of friends staying there, and it doesn’t hurt to have an excuse to pay them a visit once in a while.

With the new letter in hand, we went back to the passport office. It was about 11:30 AM when we arrived. We waited in line until it was our turn to speak with the Assistant Director, a woman whose face is now very familiar. We explained that the application had not been received yet by the police. We wondered if the cause was the incorrect salutation on the last letter. Yes that was the reason she said. But you said the last time that it would be okay. No response. Well here is the new letter with the correct salutation. Now can we have our application, please, to take to the police? Before we can release your application we must write a letter to the police. Wait until my window closes and then remind me and I will give you the letter and the application. Okay, that sounded good, never mind that her window didn’t close for another hour and a half. Luckily we had anticipated the possibility of a long wait and sat down, me with a book and Jen with her knitting.

At 1:00 PM the Assistant Director’s window closed. We went to inquire and were admitted beyond the “Entry Forbidden” sign. We were pointed towards the Assistant Director’s office. No one was in there, but we sat down and tried to look like we belonged figuring she’d have to show up eventually. About forty-five minutes later she did. She came in, sat down, and started signing papers on her desk. Then a Korean man came in and started complaining about how someone had told him he’d have to wait an hour for something or other. He was very put-out but eventually sat down and began to wait. Periodically various people came in to drop off or collect papers. It was interesting to see the conversational dynamics between the Assistant Director and her colleagues. Mostly she yelled and griped at the men and women who were bringing papers in and taking them away, telling them (as far as I could tell) that they weren’t doing their jobs properly and that they’d better get their shit together. At first I thought, oh great, maybe things will go more smoothly now that she’s cracked the whip.

Nope. Upon further observation, I realized that the men and women shuttling papers remained totally unfazed by the tongue lashings. In fact, this appeared to simply be the daily order of things. At one point the Director General walked in and asked some questions. There was a remarkable change in the Assistant Directors demeanor when she spoke to him. She switched to a more educated/bookish Bangla register that clearly demonstrated deference and respect.

Eventually the Korean man grumped at the Assistant Director again, then got up and went out, leaving only the three of us remaining in the room. The Assistant Director turned to us and started complaining about her job. What do these people want from me? How do they expect me to work here? What does it take to make them happy? (At which point I thought to myself, gee, most people when they come here, they really just want a visa. Getting one would probably make them happy. But I refrained from making this point at the time)

The astute reader may have noticed that I have not yet reported any communication from the Assistant Director to us about the status of our application or the letter she was going to provide. Why? Because she hadn’t said a damn thing about it! When she came in she greeted us and simply got to work signing papers. There was absolutely no mention of what was happening with our application. So there we sat. And sat. And sat for about an hour.

Finally, of course, we broke down and asked what was going on. The letter has been written she said. Now it must be signed. So we’re waiting here for someone to sign the letter? Yes, he’s having lunch. Thanks for keeping us informed…

We took advantage of the current lull in activity to re-explain our case and re-state our primary concern, which was that we be able to leave the country without paying a big fine for having overstayed our visas. What happens if the police do not grant us permission this time? Oh no problem, she said, just come back here a week before your flight and submit a letter requesting an exit stamp. Then three days later you can come back here and get the stamp. And they won’t charge us when we leave? No, no everything will be fine. (AAAAARRRRGGGGGG!!!!!!! Why have we been running around all over this godforsaken city writing letters and talking to police inspectors and vice chancellors and your charming customer friendly staff for the past month trying to get this issue resolved wasting their time and ours, when we could have simply filed our appeal and let the application sit on someone’s desk gathering dust until a week before our flight, when we could just come in and get an exit stamp?!!! I’ll tell you why!!! Because we didn’t know it was a @!*&% option! Because no one had the good @!*&% sense to tell us that it was an option!) Oh, great that’s good to know, we reply.

We continue to learn over and over that if you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right information. How do know which questions to ask? You get screwed repeatedly until you develop an intuition. That’s all I can figure.

Then again, maybe the Assistant Director did try to communicate this option to us when we received our initial rejection. She seemed very unconcerned about the problem. She just kept telling us all you have to do is file the appeal and every thing will be fine. You’ll still be legal, everything will be fine. But how will it be fine, we needed to know. And what is fine? Is fine showing up at the airport and having to pay 30,000 Taka in order to be allowed to leave the country? It might be fine with you, but it’s not fine with me.

I guess she didn’t feel like she could just come right out and explain the let-it-sit-and-gather-dust option. Or maybe she just wasn’t thinking ahead enough to consider that as a labor saving option that was very much in everyone’s best interest. Or more likely, it was just so obvious to her that that was the thing to do that she couldn’t figure out why we kept asking so many questions. I guess we’ll never know.

But back to the details of the moment. After realizing, implicitly, that the best thing for us to do would really be to stall the process (so as to save everyone the hassle of having to deal any more with this application) rather than try to complete it, Jen and I exchanged glances and stood up to leave. After all we’d been sitting there for four hours. Nothing seemed to be happening. If we managed to leave before anything happened it seemed pretty clear that we could count on having to make only two more trips to the passport office and no more trips to the eSpecial Branch office in Malibag. That seemed like a tolerable outcome. We’d made it half-way across the lobby when someone came running after us. Madame! Madame! Your letter!

Damn! Damn and blast! We turn around and go back to the Assistant Director’s office. The letter is typed. The letter is signed. But the application must be photocopied. So we wait. The application is sent out of the office. It comes back. There is now a photocopy of the letter. No, no! Photocopy the whole thing, the Assistant Director cracks her whip again. The application goes out. We wait some more. The application comes back. Now there are two copies. You go with them. She will give you the application for the police, the Assistant Director says.

Which one will we take to the police Jen wants to know, the original or the copy? The original the Assistant Director says. We will send the copy later. The original? I’ll take the original, Jen asks just to be sure. Yes, the original. Don’t loose it or there will be big problems.

We go into the other room with the Assistant Director’s passel of assistants. One addresses an envelope. Another staples some pages together on the application.

They put the photocopy of the application in the envelope and hand it to Jen. Jen takes it out of the envelope. She said to give us the original. This is the original he says. No listen to me, Jen says, She told me that you would give me the original. This is the original, he’s pointing to the letter. Jen steps into the hall intending to go back to the Assistant Director for clarification. The door is closed. Shit! Jen says. The female assistant says, she hasn’t had lunch yet.

Jen turns back to the man. She told me – He interrupts her. This is the ori- Jen is furious. NO! You listen to me!! Are you listening to me!!? It’s plain that he’s not, but Jen goes on anyway. She told me you would give me the original. If I go all the way down to the eSpecial Branch police station in Malibag and they tell me I have brought the wrong copy I will be very angry, do you understand! He stands there totally unfazed.

We could wait another half-hour to speak again to the Assistant Director, but it’s 3:30 PM and we haven’t eaten since breakfast either. So we take the photocopy and leave. Outside we try to get a CNG to Dhanmondi where we could get a bite to eat at a restaurant. The CNG driver says he’ll go. We get in. He won’t turn on the meter. He wants sixty taka. It should be a 20 Taka ride. Jen jumps out of the CNG. Because I’m white you think I’m stupid! You’re stupid!! She smacks the windshield as hard as she can. I get out. He drives off. A peanut vendor says, wow she’s crazy. Let’s just go home, I say.

We try to get a rickshaw. It’s never hard to get a rickshaw to our house from here. Today the first three we ask say they won’t go. Finally, someone will take us. We spend the ride home glowering and thinking very uncharitable thoughts about Bangladesh.

The next day we get an early start and head down to the eSpecial Branch in Malibag. I have misgivings about going down there. After all we could just go to the passport office on August 31 and request and exit stamp. But some how now it feels like too many people know about our situation. They’ll notice if we don’t show. We’d better go.

At the eSpecial Branch office in Malibag. We are promptly admitted to see the inspector with whom we’d met previously. He took our application – the photocopy was fine – and left the room. He came back. He left again. He came back and asked us to come with him.

We went down the hall and entered a big air-conditioned office with only one desk. Clearly the man sitting there was important. We sat down in front of his desk and he asked us some questions. Jen explained that we’d applied for a visa extension, been denied for lack of proof that she was doing research, we had that proof now, bla, bla, bla. The man asked about me. I’m just family, I said. Okay, so when are you leaving he asked. August seventh we replied. So you will stay another year? No, fifteen days! I say. He doesn’t say anything, but by the look on his face it seems clear that he thinks this is ridiculous. What’s all the fuss? Sure, we’ll have someone take care of this right away. He motions over one of his subordinates and says some stuff to fast for me to catch. Then to us, he will take care of your case.

So we go across the hall. The subordinate inspector (who is totally new to our case, as far as I can tell) sends someone to find the record of our first application. It comes back. He spends a few minutes reading the cover page, which must be the report from the inspector who’d previously investigated our case. Then he starts asking us questions. So it looks like you did not have proof that you were doing research in Bangladesh. Yes, that was the problem. We have proof now. Oh, I see. How many times have you been in Bangladesh? Jen explains that she has come here twice before for language courses, and now she’s here doing research for her Ph.D. Do you have a certificate? What? A certificate? You mean from the summer courses? Yes. No. I see. What, is that a problem? No response.

We sit for a while longer. Then the inspector says, okay I will write my report today and send it tomorrow. Can I call you to check to make sure it was sent, Jen asks. Yes call tomorrow or Sunday. They exchange numbers.

Jen doesn’t bother to call the following day. In fact she probably won’t call on Sunday either. After all we really should just stall at this point, that much has been made clear enough.

Sunday morning, the phone rings early. It’s our friend the inspector. He would like to have a meeting with Jen and the people at IUB about her summer language courses for which we have been unable to provide proof of attendance. What? My summer language courses have nothing to do with this visa. This is a research visa. Nevertheless, he insists, they must meet at IUB. Can she come today? NO. How about tomorrow? Well okay, maybe tomorrow.

And that brings us up to date. Jen has arranged to meet with the Inspector at IUB tomorrow. The IUB people were totally unfazed by the request. Oh yes, not to worry this is just standard procedure. Do not be offended. Everything will be fine.

So now the totals stand at 5 visits to the passport office, 3 visits to the eSpecial Branch, and 3 visits to IUB (counting tomorrow’s) and we are guaranteed at least one and more likely two more visits to the passport office, in order to get this resolved. That will mean a total of 13 separate trips to official offices in order to avoid a 30,000 Taka fine. That’s around $430. Do you suppose it’s worth it?

To be continued…

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Visa Extension Shenanigans Part Dui

To all our concerned readers, no we have not been deported. Alas, Bangladesh is too poor to actually deport people. They told us we had to leave, but it was not possible for us to leave. So here we remain. Forever... Not really.

As I said in the last post, the problem was that our visa extension had been denied by the police, who were not convinced that Jen was actually doing research. When we asked the passport office folks what we needed to do to resolve the situation, they said we needed to file a new application with their office. That meant filling out another copy of the application form (yes the one that we’d already filled out three times) and submitting new photographs (the first three were no longer sufficient) and a letter explaining that we would like our case to be reinvestigated along with proof that Jen was doing research. Then we were supposed go to the eSpecial Branch police station in Molibag with a letter from the Vice Chancellor of the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB), to affirm that Jen is actually doing research under the auspices of an approved research institution, and plead our case in person.

First, we got the letter from the Vice Chancellor. This was relatively painless. It merely required that Jen write a letter that said what she wanted it to say, email it to the VC to be printed on IUB letter head and signed. Then we had to pick it up in Baridhara. Which meant braving streets flooded up to the floor-boards of our little CNG baby taxi – turning around mid-stream when the water appeared to be getting too deep – but that’s really nothing out of the ordinary.

Then we had to get more photos and photo copies. The last time we had passport photos taken, the guys at the camera shop had said that if we ever needed more photos, just come on back. They have our pictures stored in the computer and can print more copies anytime. So I went over there on the morning after we picked up the VC’s letter. The guys recognized me and asked for our account number. I didn’t have it. Can you find me by name? They laughed. No we don’t keep track of names. Can you remember when you came in? Maybe two months ago…No maybe in February…I think it could have been February. You think? But you’re not sure? No,I really don’t know.

They were very helpful and started looking through the thumbnails on the computer, but I could tell we weren’t going to make much headway that way. So I asked if they had a phone I could use to call my wife. Maybe she would remember when we’d been in last. They thought that was pretty funny. You don’t remember? No. But you think your wife might? Yes. They laughed and handed me the phone. I called Jen. As luck would have it, she was able to find the little slip of paper that had our account number on it. I relayed the numbers to the shop guys. Oh your wife knows the number? Ha ha. They laughed at me again and quickly located our pictures. I asked how long it would take to print them. About half-an-hour they said. I started to leave, then remembered that Jen had asked me to inquire about prices for printing larger photos from a digital file. I turned and said I have another question. By this point I’d lost all credibility. The guy returned with, yes sir what is your question?, mimicking my overly formal Bangla. I asked about prices, got the answer and left.

In another country, in other circumstances, I might have been offended or insulted, or even emasculated by the mockery. But the idea that I should be embarrassed because I had had to call my wife for a piece of information was so foreign and backwards from my perspective that I really just thought it was funny. At least we can entertain each other…

Anyway, back to the real story. We got the letters and the pictures and the photocopies and went back to the passport office. At the office we went to Counter 3 to hand in our application. The woman there looked at our letter from the VC. This is addressed ‘To Whom it May Concern’ she said. It must be address to the Director General. I looked over at Jen and noticed the steam emanating from her ears. So you need another copy of this letter? Yes. Addressed to the Director General? Yes, we will accept this for now, but next time you must bring a letter addressed to the Director General. Jen managed to keep the lid on just barely. And what else do we need to do? You need to take a copy of this letter to the eSpecial Branch office in Malibag and plead your case with the police in person. We were expecting this, but couldn’t resist asking, Are you going to send our new application to the police as well? Yes. With this letter attached. Yes. But we need to take another copy of this letter to the police ourselves in person. Yes, you should talk to the officer who investigated your case and convince him to change his statement.

A few of days later Jen calls the man who had investigated our case. She explained the situation and asked if we could come by to see him. No, that will not be possible. He has been reassigned to Khulna. He will no longer be working in Dhaka. (Oh boy this could get interesting…) So who should we talk to now? He gives the name of his former supervisor. When should we go see him? Anytime. What should we bring? Bring proof that you are doing research. Anything else? No.

So the next day we decide to go to the eSpecial Branch office in Malibag. Before we left the house we got together all our letters and copies of everything we thought might be important and put them in a folder to bring with us. After about 45 minutes in hot stop-and-go Dhaka traffic we arrived at the office. We entered the room labeled ‘Foreigners Registration’ and went to the counter. Jen read a sign in Bangla. ‘Passport verification’ it said. Shit! I said. What?

Shit! Shit! Shit! I say Don’t tell me… Jen asks. I forgot the passports, I say. You’re kidding. Nope. She’s doing an admirable job of containing her fury.

Let’s just go, I say. Wait, let’s see if we can get some information, she says. So we go and talk to a guy. Jen asks if they need to see our passports. No, he says.

(What a stoke of fortune!) Jen explains our situation. Do you have your receipt from the passport office? Jen looks at me. (The receipt was in my passport.) No we don’t have it on us. Bring the receipt the man says. Then we will see what can be done.

We leave. It’s hot. Traffic is miserable and there are no empty CNG’s. I suggest catching a bus to Pharm Gate. We walk one way to try to find the right bus. Don’t find it. Walk back the other way looking for a CNG. It’s hot. There are no empty CNGs. Jen is not speaking. We keep walking. About half a mile later we come to a big cross street. Finally an empty CNG. We hire it and start the long crawl home.

The following day we get an earlier start, remember the passports and the receipt, and go back to the eSpecial Branch office. We find the same guy and give him our receipt. He disappears with it for 10-15 minutes and then comes back. We do not have your application. Jen and I look at each other. No surprise really. Jen explains our situation in more detail, asks if we can see the guy who was our former investigator’s supervisor. This guy is really trying to be helpful and goes to make further inquiries. Another 10-15 minutes later he comes back with some sort of hall-pass-looking-thing and says that so-and-so will see us now.

So we follow him upstairs and enter an office with about five men sitting or standing and performing various work related tasks. Jen explains our situation to the guy sitting behind the desk, indicating that she expects that he’s heard of us already. He doesn’t contradict anything she says, but it’s pretty clear to me he’s never heard of us before. Nevertheless, he wants to be helpful and listens to our story. He sends someone to check for our application again.

Meanwhile the men in the room begin asking us the usual questions. Where are you from? Colorado. Oh, Colorado is that close to New York? No. Do you have a mother and father? Yes. What do they do? We answer appropriately. Do you have brothers and sisters? We explain. In your country, what do you eat? And so on and so on. The funny thing is that nobody in the room seems to be listening, because each man goes around in turn and asks us the same questions all over again and sounds freshly amazed or appreciative or inquisitive at the answers. Jen, of course, is very accustomed to this from her time spent DOING RESEARCH!!! in the market. Someday she will be able to tell us what function this repetition serves. But that’s another story altogether.

Eventually a guy comes back to say they don’t have our application. Well that’s no surprise. But listen, Jen says, it’s a bit of a pain for us to make the trip all the way over here to the police station. We have this letter with us now. Do you think you could hang on to it until our application comes? Then you could just add it to the application (which already has a copy of the letter, but who’s keeping track right?)

The guy is very accommodating and says yes he would be able to do that. In fact, he says, when your application arrives we will begin a fresh investigation and send someone round to visit you and the matter will be resolved as promptly as possible. Ummm…if you say so…

To be continued…

Monday, June 30, 2008

Visa Extension Shenanigans

Bideshi 1 and I need to extend our visas in order to stay in Bangladesh legally until our August 7th departure date. Because Jen is a Fulbright recipient with a scholarship to conduct socio-linguistic research from November 3, 2007 to August 2, 2008, we thought this would be no problem. Ha Ha Ha!

In Bangladesh everything is a problem. We know this, of course, but everything seemed to be going so well… until today.

We began the visa extension application process in early May. Jen’s visa which was initially granted so that she could attend the Bangla Summer Institute language program last summer expires (well, now has expired) on May 23, 2008. We had initially thought that it would be a good idea to take care of the extension at the end of April before going to Nepal. But time got away from us and suddenly it was a week until our departure date. By that point it was too late to risk applying for a visa extension because what if they needed to keep our passports for a week like the Indian embassy did?

So we waited until the beginning of May to apply for the extension. We tried to find some information about the process before going to the office – without much success. Several blogs mentioned that it was such a huge hassle you should just give up and go home. Our Bangladesh Lonely Planet guide book was not much better. It told us where the Dhaka passport office was located, but basically said that it’s easiest to apply for the visa from your home country. So we knew three weeks was probably cutting it close, but we figured hey, the worst they can do is deport us right? And would that really be so bad…?

We were prepared for the worst, but our first visit to the passport office really wasn’t so bad. We arrived at the office around 10:30 AM. As was to be expected, it was very crowded and not air-conditioned. There were five counters with various signs in Bangla and English explaining their various functions. We picked up our applications at Counter 3. Each application was two pages long and we were told to fill out three copies each. Three copies? Yes. Three copies each? Yes. We each have to fill out the same application three times? Yes, madam.

The application included the usual name, passport number, and nationality questions, along with questions about our local sponsor. In particular we were to provide the Name and address of persons in Bangladesh who will furnish information as to the applicant and also furnish financial guarantee for maintenance and repatriation if necessary. We were asked to provide those persons names and addresses and annual income!? How are we supposed to know that?

We did the best we could, then went to Counter 2. The woman there looked over our applications and mentioned that passport photos were also needed, one for each copy. Luckily we had anticipated this and had enough photos. Also, we need a copy of your passport, one for each application. We had those too. You’ll also need a cover letter explaining why you need an extension, she said. Well, we just happen to have this letter here from Our Sponsor, at the American Center in Dhaka. Perhaps this will satisfy the requirement. Yes, yes okay that will do nicely. (Whew, another narrow escape! We had not known we’d need this before hand – how would we – but luckily Our Sponsor had given us a letter three months ago explaining our purpose in Bangladesh for when we left the country to go to India, just in case we had any problems at the boarder.)

Finally, the application was accepted. The lady at Counter 2 scrawled something unintelligible on the front and sent us to Counter 1 to pay. We took a place in line at Counter 1 and waited several minutes. Just as we stepped up for our turn, a man rushed up from the side and shoved his arm in Jen’s face and pushed some documents through the window. Excuse me, we were standing here, Jen says. Oh this will only take a minute, he says. The hell it will, I’m thinking, he’s got six names on his application.

He continues to stand there with his arm in Jen’s face, shouting at the guys behind the counter. Jen says to me, plenty loud enough for everyone to hear, lines don’t exist in Bangladesh, huh? No response from the man with his arm in her face. Another minute passes. There is some problem with the man’s application. Clearly it will take more than a second. Finally, Jen gets in his face and yells, you can’t wait just one minute!?

Okay, okay, he says and goes to the back of the line. Slightly incredulous, Jen says to the guys behind the counter, lines don’t exist in Bangladesh, huh? They laugh and say, sometimes we have lines. I hear the guy behind me, who’s been standing there patiently the whole time, say, actually lines are good. There seems to be general approval that Jen has put the obnoxious man in his place.

We hand our application through to the guys at Counter 1. Okay, they say, that will be nine-thousand-thirty-nine taka (about $130). Come again? Nine-thousand-thirty-nine taka!!? For both of us right? No, no each. Total for two… (punch punch punch on the calculator)… eighteen-thousand-seventy-eight taka. We look at each other in dismay…Umm, we don’t have that kind of cash on us. Really!? They can’t believe it. You don’t have that much money? Nope, not today. Actually, we don’t usually walk around Dhaka with 260 dollars cash in our pockets. We’ll have to come back tomorrow.

Rats…things had been going so well. Still we figured, if we only have to go back once, that’s not so bad, is it? But $260 dollars, that’s a lot of money. How much would it cost if we just over-stayed our visas? We knew that the fine is 200 taka per day for the first fifteen days, and 500 taka per day after that. We started doing the mental calculations. My visa would expire July 19th. We are leaving August 7th. So 200 X 15 = 3000 gets us to August 3rd. Then four days at 500 is another 2000. So I could save 4000 taka by not applying for a visa extension.

We pondered this for a moment. I wonder, when do you pay the fine? Do you just show up at the airport and hand over the cash? Or do you show up at the airport and get told that you have to drive across town to pick up such-and-such a paper and take it to the other side of town for so-and-so’s signature before taking it back across town to pay your fine, by which point you’ve missed your plane out of this godforsaken place? Surely it’s not that bad… On the other hand we really don’t know, do we? So maybe it’s better to play it safe and just apply for the legal extension.

We caved to our law abiding inclinations and returned to the passport office the following day, cash in hand. We went straight to Counter 1 and paid. Then we took our receipt to Counter 4 and handed it through the bars. Come back on June 30, the man behind the counter said. June 30? Yes. June 30! That’s like seven weeks from now. Yes, madam. My visa will be expired by then. Yes. Won’t that cause a problem? No, no. No problem. Come back June 30. Do you need our passports now? No, no. Bring them back on June 30.

So we left. By this point we’d visited four out of the five counters, some of them more than once, but things actually seemed to be going smoothly. Though it only occurs to me now, Counter 5 which is labeled “Passport Stamp”, has been closed with a large plywood board each time we’ve been to the office. I did not realize it at the time, but clearly it was a portent of things to come…

The next several days passed uneventfully. Then we got a call from Our Sponsor from the American Center. A police investigator assigned to our case had been by to see her. She had confirmed that Jen had a Fulbright scholarship and was doing linguistics research. She said the man was very friendly, but apparently needed some photocopies of our current visas or something. So we should get in touch with him at such-and-such a number. Our schedule was a little busy that week. So we didn’t get on it right away.

Then, a few days later the investigator showed up at our house. Oh, shit! We don’t have the copies ready. Thank you, sir, for making this trip. Really it is very considerate of you, but so sorry, can you wait while we run and make some copies. No problem. I run off passports in hand and leave Jen to answer some questions about her work in Bangladesh.

While I’m gone, it comes to light that the investigator would like to have copies of more than just the visa pages from our passports. He’d also like to have a copy of the Fulbright award letter. So Jen sends Shohag, the darwan’s son, out with the letter to find me at the photocopy shop. Unfortunately, we must have passed in the street without realizing it because he never found me. So the three of us, me, Jen, and the investigator, are now waiting for Shohag. Eventually he shows up. Rather than wait for me to go out, make the copy, and come back, the investigator decides to go with me to the shop – it’s on his way anyhow.

En route to the shop, I tried to make some polite conversation. I asked the investigator where his office was. How long had he been doing this work, and a few other banal questions like these. We’d said on my application that I was learning Bangla, and I figured I’d better try and keep up appearances.

He was polite in answering my questions, but then he said, you said on your application that you are here to learn Bangla. But you are not affiliated with any institution. How do you explain that? Or at least that’s what I thought he said.

I said, I’m sorry I didn’t understand everything you said. He repeated himself. This time I know he said what I thought he said. I wasn’t sure how Jen had explained my situation, and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth. So I said, I’m sorry I don’t understand. He let it go.

Back at the house, I asked Jen how things had gone. She said she thought they’d gone well. The investigator had been very polite. He had asked a lot of questions, but just seemed to be trying to get the situation figured out. She thought that in the end he’d been satisfied.

So we didn’t think about it again until today. This morning we braved the flooding in our neighborhood and went back to the passport office and stepped up to Counter 4 labeled “receipt and passport.” The guy asked for our receipt. We showed it to him and he told us to go to Counter 3. Luckily it wasn’t crowded today.

The man at Counter 3 took our receipt and began riffling through an ominously large stack of papers. Not to worry, he soon found ours and brought it to the window. You have seven days to leave the country, he says, come back this afternoon and get your exit stamp. What? Seven days to leave the country, did he just say? I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch that.

Your application has been refused. You have seven days to leave the country. This is not right, Jen says, I’m here doing research. I have a grant through August 2nd. My plane leaves August 7th. I’m sorry, madam, you will have to talk to the Assistant Director. Please have a seat.

Not knowing what else to do, we have a seat. Ten minutes go by. Nothing seems to be happening. Neither of us feels like we really understood what the guy at Counter 3 said. So I get up and go back to Counter 3. Who am I supposed to talk to, I ask. What? the man asks. Who am I supposed to talk to? She hasn’t come yet, he says, we’ll call you. What is her title, I ask. What? he says. What is her title? The one I’m supposed to speak to, what is her title? Assistant Director, he says, we’ll call you. I go back and sit down.

Another ten minutes pass. It has been our experience that as long as you sit quietly and wait for something to happen, nothing will happen. So Jen goes back to the window. Excuse me, she asks, I just want to know what is going on. Why was our application refused? The police rejected your application. What? We spoke to the investigating officer. I told him about my work. He knows what I’m doing here. I’m sorry, madam, the police rejected your application. Can I see, Jen asks. He shows her a small piece of paper written in Bangla. She studies it for a minute. But this says I’m not doing research. Yes, madam. But I am doing research. By this point the Assistant Director has appeared.

Can you explain this, Jen wants to know. No, the problem is not with us. It is with the police. You must leave Bangladesh in seven days. But that’s impossible, Jen says, we have an apartment here. I have work to do. We can’t just leave. Then you must appeal this decision with the police. How do we do that? You’ll have to submit a new application, with a letter asking for the police decision to be reconsidered. A new application? The application that we already filled out three times? Yes. With more passport photos? Yes. Jen’s so mad she can hardly see straight. We leave.

Outside, we call Our Sponsor and explain the situation. She’s incensed. This is the first time in the history of the Fulbright program that a student hasn’t been granted a visa! Who did you talk to? I want names!

Good, at least we’ve got her on our side. So we go back into the office and get names. Again they repeat, the problem is not with us it is with the police. You must talk to the police.

Jen calls Our Sponsor and gives her some names and numbers. A few minutes later she calls back. What is needed is a letter from the Vice Chancellor at the Independent University of Bangladesh confirming that Jen is in fact doing socio-linguistic research. Apparently the police investigator has never heard of the field of linguistics and, despite his civil demeanor, remains unconvinced that Jen is here doing research. Arrrgh!!!

To be continued…

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Here are some photos to go with the bit about sewage treatment in Dhaka. They're not great, but they'll give you the idea. I took them from the window of our apartment.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More from The Daily Star

Every other day, it seems like, there is some news story in The Daily Star that makes us shake our heads in disbelief and think, “where are we?” I keep thinking that nothing will top the current story for sheer absurdity but inevitably another story comes along that’s even crazier. I’ve decided to share some of the highlights.

Several weeks ago there was an article about sewage treatment in Dhaka. The article was based on an interview with one of the head officials at WASA, the local water supply and sewage treatment company. According to the WASA guy, WASA has the capacity to treat one-third of the sewage produced in the city. However they are currently only operating at half-capacity because a vast number of home and building owners prefer to connect their sewage lines directly to the city’s storm drains in order to avoid paying a sewer bill. This means that only one-sixth of the shit from a city of 15 million people is getting treated, which means that the shit from 12.5 million people is going straight into the rivers that run through Dhaka. Gross!!

It also means that the shit from 12.5 million people is flowing through the storm drains. When it rains, especially in our neighborhood, the drains overflow and flood the streets. The water can frequently be over a foot deep in several places between our home and the local markets. And what are you walking through if you have to walk through that water? The shit from 12.5 million people!!! Argggg!!!! Naturally we take rickshaws as much as possible when it rains.

On a related note, there was another article about pollution in Dhaka’s rivers on June 15. It was titled Rivers void of life forms. There are three rivers that flow around Dhaka, the Buriganga, the Turag, and the Norai. The article reports that a recent three-year research project found that basically nothing lives in these rivers. It said that when the monsoon comes and the water flow increases on account of the rains, then “some invertebrates and small organisms come into being…But these life forms completely disappear in the dry season…” Bummer man.

Another common theme in the Daily Star is ‘corruption.’ Recently an article caught my eye titled Bridge built without approach road. It’s about a bridge that is being built under the supervision of the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) on the Shibu River in the Rajshahi district. The construction company doing the work, which is owned by the vice-president of the Rajshahi chapter of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), was awarded 39,200,000 taka (about $580,000) for the project despite the fact that neither they nor the LGED owned any land around the bridge site on which to build an access road. The article was mainly about the details of this one case, but it mentions 20 other bridges that were built during this particular BNP coalition rule that are still unusable. The article concludes by saying, “the number of unusable bridges is 600 in Rajshahi division. Contractors, chosen allegedly at the behest of former ministers and lawmakers, have reportedly withdrawn all the money for the constructions.” The organization and prose in this article, which is typical of The Daily Star, leave me somewhat skeptical and confused as to the actual facts, but it seems pretty weird to build 600 bridges and no roads – and this is just in one district!

A third theme that appears practically every day in The Daily Star is the ‘mob beating’ which usually results in the death of several people. An article from June 13 serves as an example. It was titled, 8 bandits beaten to death in Natore with the subheading one shot dead during Rab-robber gunfight (Rab stands for rapid action battalion. They are the elite military branch that has carried out numerous assassinations over the past two years.) The highlights are as follows:

The incident occurred around 1:30 am when the gang of at least 13 gathered on Adimpur Primary School ground prior to launching an attack on the village…But more than 100 villagers were lying in wait for them around the field with the gang oblivious…The villagers chased the gang and a few of them managed to flee while most jumped into a pond, finding no escape route, on the northern part of the school compound. The villagers encircled the pond as announcements were made through loudspeakers of mosques alerting other villagers about the criminals. The gang opened fire on the villagers in a bid to scare their way out of the situation. Rab personnel tried to negotiate their surrender but the criminals kept on firing forcing Rab to retaliate…The criminals later ran out of ammunition and the law enforcers asked villagers to get the criminals out of the pond. The villagers got them out of the pond, took them to the school ground and gave them a mass beating. Six of them died on the spot and the law enforcers were able to rescue two of them but they died on their way to Singra Health Complex…The body of the other criminal was found in the pond with a bullet wound in the head…

These articles typically refer to the people beaten as ‘robbers’, ‘bandits’, or ‘criminals’ and never mention any charges being levied against the ones doing the beating. As in this example, the scenario is usually something like this: criminal observed being a criminal, someone gets on the horn at the local mosque, a chase ensues, one or more criminals are beaten to death by the mob, end of story. And it happens every day. Sometimes there are several articles like this in a day. I would really like to know how the number of people beaten to death by mobs in Bangladesh every year compares to the number killed by handguns in the US. If anyone can answer this, let me know.

Finally, in the category of sheer absurdity, one of our friends pointed out an article last night at dinner about the international airport in Chittagong. It needs to be read almost verbatim to be fully appreciated. The title was Ctg airport faces risk as fire tenders out of order.

Aircrafts are facing serious risks while landing at or taking off from Shah Amanat International Airport (SAIA) in Chittagong since all the airport’s three fire-fighting vehicles have been unserviceable for about two months. Airport authorities have made arrangements with the fire service stations in Chittagong city for sending fire-fighting vehicles daily to attend aircraft landing and takeoff. But the authorities often have to advise planes awaiting landing to fly slow or hover in the sky when fire-fighting vehicles delay in reaching the airport…Airline officials fear that if the international aviation watchdogs come to know about this situation at the SAIA, they might downgrade it from its present status of an international airport. According to rules, the presence of fire-fighting vehicles at an airport is a must at the time of aircraft’s landing and take-off. On June 12, the pilot of an aircraft of Biman Bangladesh Airlines landed the plane at the airport at his own risk after hovering in the sky for about 40 minutes although fire fighters had not yet arrived…”We ask pilots to fly slow or hover in the sky when fire-fighting vehicles arrive late or when an aircraft arrives before its scheduled time,” a high official of the SAIA told The Daily Star seeking anonymity. He, however, initially declined to provide any information, saying as a government official he cannot give journalists any such information…

Vehicles out of service for two months? Fly slow? Hover? What more can I say…?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Joke

The other night Bideshi 1 and I had dinner with some Fulbrighters and friends at a local restaurant. One of the people in attendance was a Bangladeshi man who had gone to the US on a teaching Fulbright. He told a joke that was pretty funny and captured a certain Bangladeshi cultural motif. I’ll do my best to retell the joke for your reading pleasure, but first you need some Bengali vocabulary.

The vocab: Bhai-jan, kemon acchen? means Brother how are you?

Bhai-jan, ami bhalo acchi means Brother I’m well.

The joke:

Bill Gates recently put out an add seeking a regional manager for the Pakistani branch of IBM. The position was to be a lucrative one and would confer much honor on the chosen candidate, so about fifty-thousand people applied. As part of the selection process Bill Gates called a meeting with the candidates to expound on the necessary qualifications for the job.

First, he said the successful candidate would need to be able to program competently in the Java language. About half the people present did not know Java and promptly got up and left. Now, among the applicants there was a Bangladeshi man. He did not know how to program in Java either, but he looked around and saw that no test was being administered. So he figured what the hey, I’ll just hang around and see what happens.

Next Bill Gates said that the successful candidate would have to be familiar with current semi-conductor manufacturing techniques and supply chains. Again, about half the remaining people got up and left, realizing that they did not possess the requisite qualification. As for the Bangladeshi man, he didn’t know the first thing about techniques for manufacturing semi-conductors, but still no one seemed to be administering any tests. So he figured what the hey, I’ll just hang around and see what happens.

This process continued for quite some time. Bill Gates would name a requirement for the job and about half the people would get up and leave realizing they lacked this particular qualification.

Eventually there were only two candidates left, the Bangladeshi man and one other guy. Bill Gates said, “since this job will be located in Pakistan, there is one final qualification. The successful candidate must be able to speak Pakistani. You are the only remaining candidates. Let me hear you speak some Pakistani.”

So the Bangladeshi man turned to the other guy and said, “Bhai-jan, kemon acchen?” To which the other guy responded, “Bhai-jan, ami bhalo acchi.”

The End

Monday, May 26, 2008

Put it in the fridge!

Shadin, charming little man that he is, has taken to issuing quite the list when he comes upstairs to “Char Tala” (“The Fourth Floor”, as he calls our residence). These days, the list goes something like this: “I’m gonna wash my hands, and then I’m gonna wash my feet, and I’m gonna do it by myself, and then I’m gonna eat a cookie, and then I’m gonna drink some water, and then I’m gonna wash my hands, and then I’m gonna wash my feet.”

A couple of days ago, he brought up an 7-Up bottle filled with water. (Ben and I have been going through the 7-Up like mad; we have discovered that if you juice half a lime and add it to a glass of iced 7-Up, the result is quite possibly the best soft drink ever. So we have amassed a ridiculous collection of empty green 1-liter bottles, which we give to Rasheda, who in turn passes one along to her grandson from time to time.) Before launching into his usual list of activities, he had a request for me. Frize thun, he said, with that enormous brilliant smile of his: Put it in the fridge! But alas for Shadin, there was no room for his bottle in the fridge. I can put it in the freezer, I told him, but then it will become ice and you will have to wait for it to melt before you can drink it. He beamed again: Okay! So I put the bottle in the freezer, and he came back late that day. Sure enough, it had frozen solid. He grabbed it with both hands and grinned: oooh! Cold! And giggled, and lugged the heavy thing back downstairs.

Today he arrived at Char Tala with another 7-Up bottle, and he was chattering away: That bottle, that bottle from the fridge? That one, you know, last time? That bottle? Inside it turned to WATER! It turned to WATER! Hee hee hee! Now put THIS one in the fridge, okay? Put this one in the fridge too!

I freaking love that kid.Add Image