Sunday, 31 May 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: The Bangladesh Edition (Part 3)

And now, because I don't want to pretend that everything was rosy throughout my stay, the lowlights

Remember the operation I mentioned in part 2? Well afterwards, I was told that we students had to wash the bloody beddings and sterilise the surgical equipment ourselves, even though we had hardly any gloves with which to work. At first I was shocked, then I became sad when I thought about the exposure of healthcare workers there (and in many other countries), to blood borne diseases. I donated some money when I left, but I wish there was a way to ensure the constant availability of gloves and aprons, at the very least.

And on Sunday evenings, all those Indian movies we watched came with adverts about skin bleaching. They usually started with a woman whose life was going badly, usually with no marriage prospects etc., that is until she discovers "fair and lovely." Again, it made me so sad to see that the same disease that has unfortunately infected many people in Nigeria, could also be found here. The funny thing is that the girls went on and on about how beautiful my skin and my hair were, but then they all talked about saving up the little money they had to buy these creams. I really tried to make them see that this made absolutely no sense, but I knew it was a futile effort because I knew I was going against the tide, in a society where pale skin had been celebrated and the darker hues denigrated for generations.

Related to the colorism above, is the explicit racism I faced a few times, even though most of the people in the community took me as one of their own. I'll never forget the particular incident that happened as I took a walk with my (white) friend round the hospital one afternoon. A lady, seeing us, rushed towards my friend and touched her foot in reverence. Slightly bemused at the look of panic on my friend's face, I tried to distract the lady by saying hello, but she shouted out a few words, looked at me in shock and fled the area. Obviously with my extremely shaky Bangladeshi, I wasn't able to decipher what she'd said, until my Bangladeshi friend shamefacedly explained to me that the lady had been scared that I would touch her with my "cursed black devil" hands. I kind of found it funny that I was supposed to have that much power, but it also make me sad to think of how she thought my (white) friend could bless her while I'd only curse her, all this based solely on the colours of our skins.

Another issue that I discovered was how the people of that area, being ethnic minorities, were discriminated against. In an unfortunate echo of certain parts of the Nigerian society, I learnt that intermarriage between the majority and minority ethnic groups is severely frowned upon, and I got to know of a few people whose families had disowned them.One of my friends was a product of one such marriage and she told me of how she'd suffered and still continued to suffer for the "sin" of her parents. It really was hard to hear that love doesn't always conquer all. 

Having always thought that leprosy was a disease that had been eradicated, imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was a leper's colony on the hospital site. It really was shocking to see people disfigured, with noses/ears/limbs missing, but it was even more heartbreaking to hear about the huge stigma they faced. "Sufferers" are often ostracised and shunned by their communities, and even their children, whether or not they have the disease are banned from living with the rest of the population. This means access to healthcare, education, work and normal life are denied to these people, in spite of the fact that leprosy is a disease that is hard to contract, when one has a well-functioning immune system. Thankfully, the hospital established a centre where the people could find a community, live in peace with their families, learn a trade and even earn a living.

I realised that in many ways I had taken on the negative traits of the stereotypical "westerner".

I was a vegetarian for years, and I particularly hated birds of any kind as well as their eggs, so imagine how I felt being fed eggs trice a day, every single day. I initially just gave the eggs and daily banana offerings to my dorm mates, but soon noticed that I was the only one that got any sort of animal protein as well as fruits. It turns out that the monthly tuition and boarding fees of 1000Taka (equivalent of £10 at the time), was not enough to provide a balanced diet for everyone. Of course the school could have raised the prices, but many families in spite of being middle class, already struggled to bear the cost of sending their children to nursing school. Here they were offering me special treatment and all I could do was grumble about not having a more diversified diet. Luckily I realised this fairly early on, told myself off firmly and tried to be grateful for everything I was given.

Another #firstworldproblem for me was one of personal space. In Bangladesh for instance, it is quite normal for people of the same sex to hold hands, but I found it extremely uncomfortable whenever one of my friends grabbed my hands. I found the constant touching and the physical closeness very very hard to bear indeed, and at some point even began to feel like I was being constantly assaulted. The other thing that bothered me seriously was the hand-feeding that sometimes happened between close friends. Within that community, it is usual for one to eat rice and everything else with one's fingers, and it is quite common to use the same hand to feed a morsel of food to a close friend or family member. After dodging this so many times, it inevitably happened to me one evening as we had dinner.  A dear friend tried to hand-feed me a ball of mashed rice and curry, and I almost lost the rest of my meal in the process. I sha managed to overcome the sick feeling, and in the end, even I got used to the idea of hand-feeding.

In spite of these negatives, I really enjoyed my time there and honestly would go back in a heartbeat, if ever the opportunity presented itself again.

Have a lovely Sunday! 

Clara's Travel Tales: The Bangladesh Edition (Part 2)

The Highlights included:

Getting invited to a traditional Hindu wedding the day after my arrival. As most readers know, I love food as per FFO, and was so happy to discover all the new food especially the desserts. At some point, I was so engrossed in my Jilipi and Gulab Jamun, that I didn't realise the ghee on face ceremony had started until I found my face being "gheed" up by one of the aunties.

Wearing saris and Salwar Kameezes. My student nurses' uniform was a white sari, while my operating theatre one was green. Imagine the fun my dorm-mates had with watching me dress myself 5days a week! I swear the "asian" women who wear them everyday and make it look easy are the original MVPs. Of course on Sundays, my friends liked to dress me up in their own beautiful saris and take pictures. The rest of the time, I rotated between the 5 Salwar Kameezes I had had sewn the day after my arrival. I soon learned about the Salwar Kameez and how it does the important job of covering women's shoulders, boobs and derrière twice, in order maintain pudeur and avoid tempting men.

 In the operating theatre

 Yellow-belted 2nd year student

 Playing dress up, in one of my dorm-mates' saris

 My own stock of salwar kameezes and my super bling sari

And of course this brings me to dorm life and my four wonderful dorm-mates with whom I got on splendidly and had so much fun! They were obsessed with  Indian films, and we spent Sunday evenings singing and dancing to all the cheesy songs together. I tell you, when you're only allowed TV one evening a week, you enjoy every single minute of it.


Getting spoilt rotten. Healthcare staff and students were highly respected in the community, almost to the point of being revered sef, and as such we were treated very differently than I was used to in England. For instance, someone was employed to wash and iron our work-clothes, another to clean our rooms and yet another to cook for us. I was so thankful for the fact that I didn't have to hand-wash my 5 saris, each one yards long. And the food was beyond delicious; super spicy, sinus-clearing curries with warm home-made chapatis, rice or dhal...ahhh take me back please!


Experiencing so many things that I would ordinarily never have experienced as an Adult Nursing student in England. In Bangladesh, nursing students spend 4years at school and learn to be general nurses, able to cover all the specialities, while in England we only do three years at uni, but specialise right from the beginning. This means that you get to learn a lot of things about your speciality, but are almost completely in the dark about the others. So, I was very happy to be able to work in the various wards and specialities, and got to see some amazing things including a caesarian section  as well as a natural birth (I was traumatised for a long time after that). I also learnt about some conditions that I would probably never have come across back at home, TB, leprosy, child malnutrition (and here I mean severe under-nutrition). I loved learning to take blood, doing post and pre-natal care, and teaching school-kids about cleanliness, diarrhoea prevention etc, through songs and plays. It was  funny to watch so many of them crack up at the badly dressed foreigner with her impossible Bengali and "unusual" looks.

 Community program with school kids

On one of the paediatric wards

The kindness of so many people. For instance, I was the only student that got eggs and bananas for almost all my meals, while the other girls only got the fish paste in the sauce as their source of animal protein. I guess they figured I was an ajebutter :( I also constantly got invited to parties and just random peoples' houses and was always treated like a honoured guest, to the point of people killing their  (precious) chickens for me.
Doing mogbo, moya at a wedding, in yet another borrowed sari

Going on holiday to Peda Ting Ting, the remote island (with its beautiful tourist resort), on the Rangamati river. This is probably going to be a post on its own, but let's just say it was lovely!
Being upgraded to business class for the first and only time in my life (so far), on my way back home. The lady at the check-in counter  apparently thought it was a bad idea for a "young girl" like me to travel with all those men. By the way, I was 23 or 24 at the time, perks of being a member of team #babyfaceforever I guess! ;)

(Side note, flights from Dhaka to the Middle East are always packed with migrant workers who are 99% of the time, men).

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Clara's Travel Tales: The Bangladesh Edition (Part 1)

It's that time of the month, when I suddenly realise that time has somehow done its thing and flown again! With only a few hours left till the end of the month, I have decided to take inspiration from my last post and write about my time in Bangladesh.... I hope you enjoy reading it.

My decision to study nursing was very last minute and as I couldn't be too picky, I ended up having only 2 requirements: a London university that offered study abroad options. This is something that was and remains quite rare amongst nursing students in the UK, however as your resident OCDer, I did my research  and managed to snag a place at the highly reputable King's College. Immediately after getting my admission, I asked about going abroad and was told that the very few places available were reserved for the best students. This was enough motivation for me to work hard and get a 1st (which without further motivation, only ended up being a 2:2 by graduation), in my first year. In the end, only a handful of people wanted to go abroad and even fewer qualified for the opportunity, and almost every one of them chose "safe" places like the US, western European countries etc. Me, I just wanted to use the opportunity to have an extended visit with my best friend Jenni, in her home country of India. (Un)fortunately it was difficult for me to find a nursing school and/or organisation that was willing to take me in her area, however, just before giving up, I stumbled across the idea of going to Bangladesh. I was like why not? India's just next door, and the culture (which I know quite well thanks to Jenni), is quite similar right? Wrong! I was to discover and fall in love with a new culture, language and people.

So anyway, I went with the organisation BMS, and was told I'd be going to a place called Chandraghona, somewhere in the south-eastern corner of the country close to the border with Thailand.  Arriving in Dhaka the capital, after almost 14hours in the air, I was overwhelmed with the crowds (especially the children running after me), the heat, the noise and the smells. Luckily I had people from BMS to collect me and we made the long arduous journey to what would be my home for the next few week. As soon as I arrived, I noticed that the people looked nothing like my stereotype of Bangladeshis, with most of them looking like they could be Thai or Malay. I asked and was told that this was a group of people that was collectively known as the Jumma; the tribal people of the Chittagong hill tracts. They were apparently marginalised by the rest of Bangladesh, and had been fighting for their independence for a few years. As a matter of fact, I was there during a period of political unrest, when a lot of guerrilla tactics were being employed by both the state and the freedom fighters. In fact there had been a spate of kidnapping of foreigners just before I arrived, but apart from having to apply for special permission to go on holiday in the area, (with my own special police convoy to boot 8-/), I personally had no problems. Anyways enough of my rambling, on to some of the highlights and lowlights of my time in Chandraghona.

 My Dhaka "fans" ;)

 The hilarious notice at a Café in Dhaka
A Hindu shrine, with revered turtles. Those turtles lead a charmed, pampered life I tell you!

I have decided to break this up into a three part series because it would otherwise be a very long read, so look out for parts 2 and 3 over the next few hours.

Monday, 18 May 2015

One Man's Meat, Another Man's Poison

Two of my French friends are in Thailand at the moment and like all generation X-ers, have been taking lots of photos and bombarding my Instagram page with the weird and wonderful things they have seen, particularly with regards to food. This got me thinking about how each person's definition of food "strangeness" depends on their culture and past experiences. As a Nigerian, I know that we have a lot of foods that many non-Nigerians would find curious or even downright disgusting. I'm talking for instance about Bushmeat, goat's brain in Isi Ewu, Ondo people (my parent's tribe) eating dogs, chicken feet, cows' legs, the offal and innards of cows/goats/birds, fish head and eyes etc. Even as a particularly picky child, I managed to eat and enjoy many of these delicacies without the slightest feeling of revulsion. However, one of the results of my ajala lifestyle is the fact that I have often been confronted with foods that many people, Nigerian and non-Nigerian, would find a little too strange. Of course my inquisitive nature means that I have tried and even enjoyed some of these dishes. Anyway, here's a short history of my "foodie" encounters.

Growing up, my mum (unlike my very picky dad) was an aficionado of the "exotic," and often bought and brought home various kinds of meat including Turtle, Bat, roasted Frogs and even one time Snake. I soon learnt to be comfortable with considering a lot of these as food items, and although I sometimes refused to eat things that felt too strange to me, for the most part, I tried almost everything.

Years later when I went to boarding school, I got introduced to the idea of eating insects...yummy, crispy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside Termites! I don't know who came up with the idea, (actually Google tells me it's a well-known snack in certain parts of Nigeria), but we'd wait eagerly for it to rain then put buckets of water under light sources. The termites, driven out of their holes in ground and attracted to the light would then somehow lose their wings and end up in our artfully positioned buckets of water. They fell in their thousands, and we schoolgirls, ecstatic about this literally forbidden "fruit" eagerly gathered up the harvest and cooked them over candle-flame. Yes I know what you're thinking, carcinogens, improperly cooked food, fire hazard etc. My school thought the same things too, and this activity was completely verboten. However as you can imagine, the taste of termites, the clandestine nature of our activity and the chance to break rules meant that we did this regularly in the rainy season. In fact writing this takes me back to the good old days of the crispy, buttery goodness that were candle-roasted termites. 

Moving to France after having being a vegan for many years, I quickly realised that non-meat diet was a misnomer for the French, and promptly gave up veganism. I then ate and enjoyed Frogs' Legs, having previously refused to touch this with a 10ft barge pole in Nigeria, and tried Caviar which I found much too salty for my taste. A few years later, I tried Horse meat while on a date and didn't like it one bit, although I put this one down to the cook who was also a disastrous date. Steak Tartare which I enjoyed, came later, but it made me worry for ages about getting sick from E.Coli.

For my first Christmas in Paris, I was invited to a friend's place and served Foie Gras (literally fatty liver), a traditional Christmas fare in France. As a former vegan, I was a little bit reticent about eating it, but then my natural curiosity won and I decided to try it...loved it! (Un)fortunately, my principles over the cruelty to animals (geese and ducks are force-fed to effectively make them develop liver Cirrhosis) still cause me to pause each time I am offered this quintessentially French delicacy.

Crocodile meat, I've had this before when I was younger, but I had forgotten what it tasted like and only got to try it again a few weeks ago when my sister visited Brussels. She tried it for the first time at a Congolese restaurant, and fell in love. And honestly, who could blame her? The taste was amazing! It reminded me a little of the Asun (spit-roasted goat meat) my father used to make when I was a kid. However, the fact that it was crocodile (CROCODILE!) stopped me from really enjoying and re-ordering it, unlike my sister who got addicted and ordered the same dish trice in one week.

In Finland, I tried Mykyrokka (blood-dumpling soup) while visiting the then boyfriend's family and had been enjoying the meal until I decided to be polite and ask about the soup. Let's just say I found it a struggle to swallow the rest of my dinner when I got their responses. During the same visit, I also had Venison (deer meat) which was absolutely delicious but made me feel so incredibly guilty. I felt like I was eating Bambi! :(
During my year abroad in Sweden, I tried Surstromming (fermented or rotten baltic herring, depending on who you ask), and nearly died from the odour that had me nauseated for hours. It was an epic fail of an experience which will never ever be repeated. On the other hand, the equally pungent Shrimp and Fish Pastes fermented in earthen pots for about 6 months underground, which I regularly had in Bangladesh was the bomb! It was used to make beautifully spiced blow-your-head-off hot curries, which we ate with Chappatis or rice.

And to finish, I'm not sure how I came about this exactly, but I've had Kangaroo jerky before, and I loved it! 

So that's my strange food history. What is the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Started From the Bottom, Now We're Here!

Pardon my brief descent into craziness, but I am feeling very proud of myself at the moment. Why you ask? Yours truly after only 4,5months has tested as an intermediate German speaker. Oya, everybody clap for me. Thank you, thank you! ;)

When I decided to start learning German in the second week of December, I set myself some goals and panicked when I realised the magnitude of the task before me. Then in February or March, I booked a ticket to go see T's family in May, and promised myself that I would be done with all the lessons/exercises on Duolingo by the 7th, the day before I was supposed to travel. At one point a few weeks ago though, I started to panic because I realised that I was so behind that it was unlikely I'd achieve my goal, but for some weird reason I became motivated again and due to some intense work, managed to finish the whole thing one week before my deadline. During this time, I noticed that the more German I did (on Duolingo/by watching TV or through reading), the more I became used to the language, and the easier it was for me to learn further. It was a virtuous circle, and so efficient that it almost turned me into a German freak. I have had(and still have) so many ups and downs with this crazy language, and have often felt like abandoning it(even taking a few breaks when life got too overwhelming), but I am so glad I never completely gave up. Of course I am still far from fluent, but I thought I'd share how I did it anyway, because it might help someone else.

So a few takeaway ideas from my experience of learning French, Italian and now German:
  1. Set goals and try to be accountable! Even if your boyfriend and friends  side-eye you for your obsessive behaviour.
  2. Speak, speak, speak. People (again my boyfriend and even my conversation partner were guilty of this) will laugh at your pronunciation and/or just not understand your babbling, but don't let that discourage you. Practice makes perfect, and your efforts will eventually bear fruit. Oh and the same people who laughed at me now compliment me on the progress I've made.
  3. Living in the country and immersing oneself in the language and culture while important, is not essential. I learnt French a bit quicker than I am learning German now, because I was immersed in the language 24hrs a day, but I've realised that these days there are so many ways of surrounding oneself with the target language. Books, the internet, radio, watching TV are all ways of bring the proverbial mountain to Mohammed.
  4. Ups and downs are normal and to be expected in language learning (and with everything in life I suppose). Embrace them. Celebrate every high, mourn every low but never stay static. This is also one very good reason for evaluating and re-evaluating your progress regularly; sometimes we don't notice the progress we've made until we take an objective test or someone else compliments us or points something out.
  5. Surround yourself with "encouragers". Blog readers, my conversation partner/friend, my boyfriend's mum and T have all been very helpful, especially whenever the going became difficult. So yeah a big THANK YOU to everyone that encouraged(s) me, you guys have been absolute darlings. DANKE SCHÖN!!!
  6. No dream ever materialises without some effort, elbow grease and a good dollop of sweat. So to everyone that has some goal they want to achieve, my advice in the great words of Nike, would be to "just do it!"
Addendum:  After putting up this post, I suddenly realised that it might mislead people, causing them to think I speak German perfectly. Well I don't. I can communicate verbally and read without too much difficulty, and I understand a huge percentage of what I see/hear on TV/radio. However (due to insufficient interaction), my speaking language skills still need a lot of work, mostly with pronunciation and acquiring more advanced vocabulary. So yeah I'm definitely still a long way away from fluency!