Sunday, March 26, 2006

Returning to Bangkok Tomorrow

I've been in Dhaka, Bangladesh the last two weeks. My original date of departure was March 21, but that was pushed back. I could easily stay another week, but Mike wants me back in Thailand. Why, exactly, is a bit of a mystery. Mike tends to oversimplify everything... partly, I'm sure, because everything is so easy for him. But, after months of pressure to get the Bangladesh surveillance up and running, now that I'm in a position to do so, I'm pulled back to Bangkok just to be available to consult as my colleage goes through some data analysis. Anyway, I'll come back here in probably another three weeks time (just a WAG - Wild Ass Guess) to complete what I've started.

When I came here I came with the exclusive purpose of getting their data entry software up and running. Two weeks later I will leave and the software still isn't running. why has it taken so long, you ask?

Things work on differently here. Remember, Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries. The people here make about $500 per capita per year. The energy demand far outstrips the supply. So you get use to things just not always working. For example, yesterday, upon TASC's insistence, CIPRB (the local NGO that we ae working with) installed a $150/month internet service. I downloaded one much needed file and then started to get another when the service just stopped... I couldn't connect anywhere, not to the FTP site, not to Google, no where. This lack of connectivity remained until the end of the day.

And this was the $150 upgrade... previously they were using a residential provider that basically was a shared cable connection between all the members of the neighborhood. That connection was freqently up, but would drop out for 30 seconds at a time every few minutes or so. This drop out is invisible if you are browsing the web... most browsers will keep trying to reach a site until it connects. But downloading a file was something else. I'd get 10%, 50%, even 90% done with a file and then the connection would break, and I'd have to start over. I spent an entire day once just trying to download a 3MB file. I eventually solved that problem by finding a FTP client that supports resume, but too much time was wasted just trying to download files.
More critically than the internet, power will go out. Typically twice every day at random times all power to the office just dropped. It may be down for 5 mins, it may be down for an hour or more. Since all of my work is computer based, that meant I just had to stop and wait. Back at the hotel, as you are watching a movie on HBO, typically power and/or the cable will go out for 5 minutes or so. This is not at all unusual. You just sit there in the dark waiting for it to come back on. HBO here, by the way, has commercials.

The other unusual thing about working in Dhaka (at least to the Western perspective) is that, since 80% of the population is Muslim, once or twice a day everyone in the office will engage in prayers. Muslims must pray three times every day, and there's a very strict way of doing it. When they touch their heads to the floor they are engaging in a proscribed ritual. They must touch their heads down something like 3 times at mid-day and 5 times in the evening. Now the managerial level staff tend to find some private office to pray in, but the data entry personnel just whip out their prayer rugs right there and get to it. So while some members of the office are working on one issue another group of folks may be facing Mecca and prostrating themselves. You get used to it rather quickly, though.

Remember how I wrote that Mike tends to over simplify things? He made up his mind that the data entry environment should be completely isolated from the rest of the office, that the data entry terminals should all be thin-client, and that the whole thing should be Linux based instead of Windows based. I, of course, was given responsibility to make this happen, despite the fact that I have no Linux experience nor any Thin Client experience. So, when I had completed the first version of the data entry software I estimated that it would take me to 3 weeks to install it. That estimate was based on learning and installing Linux Thin Clients and migrating my Windows-based application to Linux platform. I heard through Ross that Mike "didn't understand why it would take so long." Grrr....

I spent the first week getting the network running (complete with Thin Clients) and then spent the next tackling all the issues that kept popping up as I attempted to install the software. It still isn't complete, but I am on the last step now. Hopefully I'll finish that job Monday morning before I leave.

Other unusual things about working in Dhaka...

Outside my hotel is a shanty down. Probably a hundred Bangladeshies at least gather in this empty lot outside my hotel every night, put up their cardboard shelters, and settle in to sleep. Then they disperse during the day...

I have been advised not to leave my hotel because I would make an easy kidnapping target for a local group of terrorists that have been causing trouble (don't worry Mom and Dad, so long as I stay inside I'm fine)...

I woke up this morning to the sounds of cannon fire. It was not being fired in combat, thank goodness. Today is Bangladesh's Independence Day, and that was the early morning way of starting the celebration...

The hotel staff drives me crazy. They are so polite and attentive. Have you ever been to a restaurant where your waiter keeps coming to your table to ask if you want anything? Well imagine living in that kind of environment. Every morning as I leave my room to go to breakfast I'm approached by a member of the staff to ask if I have any laundry. I've told him at least twice that I will have no more laundry (I leave tomorrow). Finally today I lost it. "Do you have any laundry, sir?" "NO! I AM DONE WITH LAUNDRY! DO NOT ASK ME AGAIN! IF I HAVE LAUNDRY, I WILL BRING IT TO YOU!" The restaurant staff are much the same... taking away my depleted bowl of cereal (and room-temperature milk) as soon as I set it aside. Pouring me a cup of coffee with the same care you might pour a glass of champagne. It's absolutely maddening. A couple of days ago, as I was grumpily scarfing down my rice crispies, a waiter kept chatting with me. Where are you from, what do you do... blah blah blah. I eventually sent him to get me more coffee just to get a moment of silence.
So I return to the normalcy of Bangkok (how odd to call Bangkok normal) tomorrow... and in another three or four weeks I'll return to this country that Ross sarcastically calls "Bangladouche". Remind me again why I choose to get a master's in International Development?

4 comments:

pacatrue said...

Welcome back, llama, and have a safe trip back to the BKK.

Anonymous said...

Correction/Elaboration... Muslims (Sunni) are meant to pray 5 times a day, though 2 or 3 of the prescribed periods are usually not in normal 9-5 office hours (depending on your geographic location and the calendar)

naughtyloki said...

Reminder: You're getting a master's in International Development so that you can live like a king in exotic locales while raking in the mad phat benjamins. That's the only reason I can think of which doesn't involve the term "fugitive from justice."

kristybox said...

Just a friendly reminder that should the term "fugitive from justice" seem relevant to you, call me first! I keep telling my friends this, but some of them just don't listen.