Monday, August 31, 2009

Amazing DVD Extras

Sometimes, the additional features offered by a DVD are even more incredible than the movie itself. See if you can spot the one that caught my eye in the second picture below.


Dhaka has turned into a ghost town. The normally chaotic traffic, with its cacophony of horns and shouted expletives, has vanished from the streets, leaving behind only a handful of rickshaws to take command of the empty boulevards. The crush of pedestrians competing for space on the sidewalks has also disappeared, much to the relief of Kristel and me, though we soon start longing for the safety offered in numbers as the dusk gives way to night and the shadows consume our path. Hushed conversations that would ordinarily be lost in the din of daily life spring from the candlelit corners of street stalls as we approach them, their occupants offering us greetings that would have gone unnoticed only an hour ago. I check my watch to confirm the time – 7:35 pm. Iftar has already begun - another day of Ramadan has come to a close.

Pretty suspenseful, eh? But before you applaud my audition for the lead in “I Am Legend II”, I should say that the reality of the situation is a bit less dramatic than portrayed, though no less interesting. The holy month of Ramadan began last week, and for the first time, it has my full attention. In Canada, a country that is overwhelmingly Christian in its religious leanings, the most I would ever hear about Ramadan is a passing reference to it on the radio at its beginning and end. Without any contact with the Muslim communities in Toronto or elsewhere, the month never took on much significance for me. Even in Nigeria, where fully half of the country follows the Muslim faith, I heard little about Ramadan, because my community there was predominantly Christian, and the tensions between the two religions didn’t exactly encourage exploration of each other’s beliefs. But in Bangladesh, it’s a very different situation. With over 80% of the population claiming Islam as their religion, the Muslim community here is the fourth largest in the world, so Ramadan is a very big deal indeed.

The ninth month on the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is the time when the Muslim faithful observe complete abstinence from food and drink from dawn until sunset. From the time of the first morning prayer shortly after 5 am to the evening prayer just before 7:30 pm, nothing can be taken, including water. Other practices deemed ill-natured, such as smoking or having impure thoughts, are also forbidden during this time. The principle that the month emphasizes is a reaffirmation of the spirituality, patience and modesty within each Muslim along with their dedication to Allah. Fasting is not the only manifestation of this observance; a greater number of prayers and good deeds are also performed during this month to atone for past sins and ask for forgiveness.

The timing of Ramadan changes if one is to go by the conventional solar calendar, shifting forward about ten days each year. Its exact start is determined in Bangladesh by the first observation of the waxing crescent moon by the Moon Sighting Committee. Weather conditions this year prevented the committee from completing its task for a day or two, resulting in the start of Ramadan being set for August 23rd. The festival of Eid ul-Fitr (or the Festival of Breaking the Fast) marks the end of Ramadan after 29 or 30 days of fasting and is usually a time of celebration with friends and family.

A typical day of observance for Muslims during Ramadan begins with getting up before dawn to eat the meal that needs to sustain them throughout the day. In addition to the regular set of five prayers that occur throughout the day, an emphasis is also placed on reading the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. Of course, regular life doesn’t stop during this time, so people must continue with their work as they would at any other time of the year, although in recognition of Ramadan, businesses often reduce the hours for their employees and shorten the workday from 9:30 am to 4 pm. With the evening prayer complete, those observing the holy month can then take the Iftar meal to break the fast for the day. Shops and other offices will often shut down during this time to accommodate the prayers and the meal, resulting in the calm and quiet that take over the entire country for a short time. Once the prayers and meal have finished, the shops reopen and the bustle of life returns for the evening.

As someone who is not participating in the fasting, I tip my hat to my colleagues who are observing the practice. Fourteen hours without food or water requires an enormous amount of discipline and takes a huge toll on the body. With temperatures in the country hovering around 30 degrees each day, I would find it next to impossible to abstain from drinking water for the better part of each day. Considering the physical nature of the labour that many people perform, it would seem to require a superhuman reserve of strength to get through each day. Exceptions to the fast are permitted where one’s health could be endangered by going without food or water, though these seem to apply more to those who can’t complete the fast due to pregnancy, age, or illness.

Ramadan also has a way of tipping things upside down for the foreigners who live here. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel guilty about eating and drinking. Because my office is shared with a colleague who acts as a team leader for one of YPSA’s projects, there is a high amount of traffic from team members and other YPSA staff coming to visit. I often find myself strategically ducking behind my desk to make a fake adjustment to my sandal straps while sneaking a biscuit or cracker at the same time. I feel as though my water bottles should be stored in my desk like an alcoholic’s secret stash of gin. None of this pressure comes from my colleagues, of course, who understand that I’m not fasting and encourage me to behave as I usually would. But one can’t help but feel some remorse over indulging when others can only watch.

Kristel and I have also experienced some bizarre moments that would never take place at any other time of the year. On the first day of Ramadan, we travelled by bus from Chittagong to Dhaka. The journey is a relatively long one, averaging about six hours, so the norm for the bus companies is to make a pit stop at one of the roadside restaurant and shopping complexes halfway through the trip. Usually, everyone on the bus makes use of the facilities before heading to the restaurant for a meal, so Kristel and I did the same. This time, though, we looked around and saw all of our fellow travelers returning to the bus without entering the restaurant. We hesitated outside the restaurant, knowing that the entire bus would be waiting for us to have our meal and likely grumbling about our lack of consideration. Seeing our indecision, the restaurant staff came out and pleaded with us to enter, knowing we would be their only business from that bus. Wanting to avoid the label of “bastard bideshis” while still needing to eat something, we arrived at a compromise and smuggled a tin of Pringles on to the bus and crunched as quietly as possible as the bus rolled on to Dhaka.

As the month of Ramadan continues, we expect to experience more moments like this, as the basic needs of food and water continue to compete with the higher needs expressed by the Muslim religion.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tarantino Bollywood

The most fun I’ve ever had at the movies was in 1996 at the Ridge Theatre in Vancouver. The Ridge was one of the grand old theatres in town, long ago losing the battle for box office to the newer and flashier multiplexes in the downtown core. Reborn as a rep cinema, it primarily showed recent second-run movies but occasionally dug deeper into its vaults for twin bills of classic films. Usually, the two films had something in common, a shared director or star. Woody Allen was a mainstay, Stanley Kubrick made his regular appearances. On this night, however, the films only could claim a common genre between them – Science Fiction. And not just any Science Fiction, but the most beloved of cult films ever to make it to celluloid. The late feature was “Blade Runner”, Ridley Scott’s bleak vision of a dystopian future. But the real attraction of the evening for me was the early show, an original print of “The Planet of the Apes”. I had long heard that this film was a treat, not to be missed for reasons both good and bad, so the chance to see it for the first time on the big screen was irresistible.

From the opening credits, I knew this night would be memorable. Planet of the Apes had its debut in 1968, which meant that the print we were watching was older than me. It had not aged gracefully. The screen showed a spider’s web of scratches on the film and the soundtrack was ear-splittingly loud. On regular occasions, one scene would abruptly stop and jump to the next, betraying the splice that had been needed to keep the tattered film in one piece. And the crowd loved it. They howled with laughter at each wobble of the film, expecting it to burst into flame at any second. It was as if we knew that this might be the last time this particular reel would ever be seen. And of course, the action onscreen only added to the cheesiness of the experience. Charlton Heston swaggered his way through the entire film, chewing the scenery with such gusto that the talking apes became mere bystanders to his performance. The signature lines of the film drew loud cheers, not for their poignancy, but for their incredibly hammy delivery. When Heston hissed “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”, the audience almost gave him a standing ovation. It was a great night at the movies, never to be repeated.

Or so I thought.

On a recent trip to Bandarban, Kristel and I happened upon the town’s lone cinema on one of the back streets. Posters decorating the front of the theatre advertised the current feature and promised a pleasant afternoon matinee filled with romance, intrigue and death from sharp objects. The two blood-soaked central figures appeared to be locked in a struggle for control of a battleaxe last used by Braveheart. A supporting cast seemed equally tense, brandishing swords and scythes coated bright red to emphasize their recent nastiness. Not exactly what I would consider a great date movie, but Kristel was enthusiastic about giving it a try, having already experienced Bangladeshi cinema on a recent trip to Jessore. As we stood there staring at the posters and taking pictures of them for posterity, the usual crowd of local people began to gather around us. One fellow pointed at the poster and asked whether I would be going to see it. When I asked him whether it was any good, he nodded enthusiastically and gave a big smile to reinforce his recommendation. “This film, it’s called ‘Killer Biya’”, he said, pointing at the title. I had to check that I had heard him correctly, thinking he might have been saying “Kill Bill”, the Tarantino movie from a few years ago. But it appeared that this movie didn’t share the same title as its American cousin, only a similar appreciation for bloody mayhem. With the dark skies threatening to deliver on the promise of the monsoon season, we decided that an hour or two indoors was time well spent, so we made our way to the ticket counter, where I generously offered to pay for both of our 40-cent tickets. As we took our tickets, a bell rang inside the theatre to indicate the start of the next showing, so we hustled inside past the crowd of onlookers who were clearly amused and somewhat mystified by our interest in a Bangla movie.

Entering the theatre, we started toward the main floor entrance, only to be directed upstairs. Apparently, our more expensive tickets entitled us to the deluxe seating that was only available in the balcony. The chairs were reminiscent of the Ridge, beaten up from years of use but not uncomfortable. Looking over the edge of the balcony, we could see that the cheap seats below consisted of wooden benches arranged for maximum occupancy. As we took our seats, we looked around the mostly empty balcony and returned the friendly stares of our fellow theatre-goers. All of them were men, and whether this was a comment on the movie or of cinema attendance generally was difficult to tell. In any event, we had arrived just in time to enjoy the commercials preceding the main feature. Actually, there was only one commercial that was repeated a couple of times, a musical number that seemed to be promoting a certain brand of rickshaw tires. The familiar hum and pop of feedback that followed signaled the start of the star attraction for the afternoon.

At least, we think it was the start. Skipping over the opening credits, the movie jumped to the main storyline, which centred on the main character solving his community’s problems. His wisdom and fairness had apparently earned him a place of great standing among his peers, signified by his use of a small outdoor stage and a big blue throne that would do Papa Smurf proud. As he sat on his throne, his fellow townspeople would approach him and tell their tales of woe, to which he would make thoughtful humming noises as he pondered a solution. I found myself pondering his magnificent hair, which surely ranked with that of Steve McGarrett of Hawaii Five-O as the most impervious hairdo ever captured on film. A hurricane wouldn’t budge a hair on this man’s head. Once the problem had been described, he dispensed his answer without hesitation in a rich, sonorous voice that Barry White would envy, and there would be much relief and gratitude expressed.

Of course, sometimes a man of great wisdom must prove himself to be a man of great kung fu talents as well, so the film regularly showed our hero getting off his throne to battle the various evil-doers in his community. Without ever disturbing his hair, I might add. His martial arts skills were impressive, as his kicks to the chest caused his opponents to fly through the air in slow motion with echoing clanging sounds. One particular move I admired was his method of grabbing his foe by the bottom teeth and spinning him over his head before casting him aside to land in a defeated heap. Bruce Lee, eat your heart out.

To maintain the dramatic tension of the film, our hero was matched against a nemesis who was nearly his equal in cunning and hairstyle. Leading a small gang of thugs, the criminal terrorized the populace through regular use of his trusty battleaxe, swinging it to decapitate or to maim, depending on his mood. If he was ever caught without his axe, he always managed to find it, at one point opening the hood of his car to grab his craftily stored weapon. His evil deeds were sometimes accentuated by the use of special effects, as the movie would reverse its exposure at critical moments, like the negative of a strip of film. At least, I think this was done on purpose. The villain would regularly come into contact with our hero, but aside from some slow motion glares, there was little fighting between the two. But make no mistake, there would be some climatic ass-kicking to come.

But an epic film such as this one wouldn't allow itself to be defined by senseless brutality. It must have dance sequences! So, after a particularly gruesome beheading or mass killing, the film would cut away to concentrate on two minor characters who were obviously madly in love with each other. The two would be walking along, hand in hand, and one would take the opportunity to start singing. And…..cue the music! Soon, the two were joined by various bystanders in performing more or less synchronized dance moves, which would have been impressive had the dancing not resembled that of a drunken wedding guest. As it was, the pelvic thrusts were so exaggerated that I feared someone might pull a lower back muscle. These sequences proved quite popular with our fellow audience members, though, as they seemed to enjoy the sexually charged nature of the dancing. Perhaps a little too much. At the end of one such scene, someone a few rows behind us let out a loud “Aaaaaah” which I hoped wasn’t as relieved as it sounded.

After another hour or so of dancing and decapitating, the movie reached its critical final scene. Our hero had raced to protect a family who were being menaced by you-know-who. Somehow managing to put them on a train to safety while single-handedly (and footedly) holding off five of the attackers, he turned now to take on the bad guys. And was promptly stabbed and killed. Hmmm, I must admit, I didn’t see that coming. A bit of a downer of an ending, but….Wait! It’s not the end! As it turns out, our hero has sired a son who will inherit the mantle of community saviour and will now take on……

I looked at Kristel and asked, “Are you ready to go?” and received a nod in return. We gathered up our things and fumbled our way out of the balcony, past the surprised looks of the rest of the audience who couldn’t believe that we weren’t staying for the sequel. As we left the theatre, we squinted at the daylight still remaining and experienced that sense of momentary imbalance that comes with reentry into the real world. Grateful that we weren’t being set upon by axe murderers or gyrating dancers, we walked back to our hotel and recalled our favourite moments from the film. Though it’s unlikely to achieve the same enduring popularity that Planet of the Apes has enjoyed, Killer Biya still made for a cinematic experience that I likely won’t ever forget. No matter how hard I try.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Dream of Ronald Reagan

As with many developing countries, the threat of malaria in Bangladesh is a very real danger to the people who live here, though the malarial zones in this country are smaller than in other countries afflicted with the disease. Carried by mosquitoes, the effects of malaria can range from flu-like symptoms to much more severe consequences, including the onset of coma and death. Volunteers posted to these countries have no inherent immunity to the disease and are just as likely to develop malaria as anyone else who lives here without the proper prevention being in place. For most of us, this means taking one of the antimalarial drugs prescribed as prophylaxes for the prevention of the onset of the disease. Each of these drugs has side effects that differ in severity and kind from person to person. The widely-prescribed doxycycline can burn one’s throat, damage the liver or cause an over-sensitivity to the sun, a rather regrettable side effect in sub-Saharan Africa. Malarone has been touted as an effective alternative with few side effects, but the cost of the drug, combined with a required daily dosage, makes it unattractive for agencies responsible for providing the drugs to a large number of long-term volunteers. This leaves Lariam, or mefloquine, as the remaining alternative for people at risk of contracting malaria. But as many people have discovered, the effects of the drug can be almost as dangerous as the disease it’s meant to prevent.

The warning posted in the VSO Health Handbook provides a clue as to the particular risks invited by taking Lariam:

People with a history of epilepsy, cardiac arrhythmias, anxiety, depression or other psychiatric problems, or those who have not reacted well to it in the past, should NOT take mefloquine.

Common side effects listed include stomach upset, insomnia, dizziness, vivid dreams and anxiety or depression.

An assurance is included at the bottom of the section that any side effects that do occur are usually “transient and tolerable”.

Well, I guess that all depends on your love of giant insects. Having spoken with a few volunteers in Nigeria about the side effects they experienced from Lariam, some listed hallucinations so severe that they decided the risks posed by malaria were preferable to the mind warp that Lariam induced. One described the sensation of having something crawling on her leg and looking down to find a monstrous maggot the size of a terrier coming up to greet her. Another volunteer had regular visits at night from a ghostly figure sitting at the foot of her bed, an annoyance for sure, especially if the damn thing can’t carry on a decent conversation.

And me? I have Ronald Reagan.

I’ve been taking Lariam for the last eighteen months, and I can happily report that I’ve been one of the lucky ones who haven’t suffered severe psychotic episodes as a result of taking the drug. But this doesn’t mean that I haven’t been affected by my weekly dosage. The most significant side effect has been its impact on my dreams, which have been elevated from pleasant distractions to something approaching performance art.

On most occasions, the dreams are innocuous, though they do bear the worrisome hint of underlying insanity. My afternoon with Ronald Reagan is a good example. Now, I must admit, growing up in the 1980s, I was a fan of the President, being at that young and impressionable age where his charm and personality meant more than a careful consideration of his policies. But since he left office twenty years ago, I can’t say that he has occupied my mind. So, I’m at a loss when it comes to explaining why I chose to dream about spending a few hours with Ron and his family. The selection of appetizers we enjoyed was impressive, as Nancy had ordered in quite a spread, but the mood in the Reagan home was anything but buoyant, as Ron had just lost his bid for re-election. In real life, of course, Reagan had rolled over Mondale to gain another four years in the Oval Office. My dreams may be vivid, but they do take artistic liberties. Despite my best efforts to console him, Reagan remained downcast throughout the afternoon. Things didn’t improve when George Bush (Senior, not Dubya) called the house to offer his condolences and complained to Reagan that I answered the phone by saying “Hello, this is the Kennedy household”. (For the record, I said no such thing.) Somewhat soured by the Bush accusation, Reagan banished me to the kitchen, where I took solace in drinking all of their filtered water. Maybe it was all of that water, but I woke up then with an overwhelming need to pee, so I didn’t find out whether Reagan and I were able to patch things up. And I guess I never will.

The dreams sometimes drift into nightmares, and even these have proven to be entertaining. One night, I became convinced that our bedroom had been invaded by rats that were now targeting our bed. Feeling one of the nasty beasties brush my arm, I snapped awake and jumped up in the bed. Making a break for it, I found my escape blocked by the mosquito net, so I began madly pawing at it to find an opening. Meanwhile, the rustling behind increased, so I knew the rats were right behind me. With a flashlight, no less. “What are you doing?” Kristel asked, and I spun around to look at her with a wild wide-eyed look that was likely equal parts frightening and hilarious. I collapsed on the bed in relief and tried to explain, in the nicest way possible, how I had mistaken her for a pack of vermin. Luckily, she was still laughing too hard at my deer-in-the-headlights impression to be offended or banish me to the sofa.

Providing the side effects of the Lariam never go beyond these Presidential dreams and rodential nightmares, I’ll consider myself lucky and keep taking the drug. But the night that I wake up to find Reagan and Bush in bed with me is the night that I flush those damn pills down the toilet and take my chances with the mosquitoes.

Maturity Test

Once upon a time, the test for maturity was defined as being able to listen to the entire William Tell Overture without once thinking of the Lone Ranger.

Here's a test that is even more successful in determining maturity. Kristel and I came across this mistake in a restaurant menu in Bandarban. If you can read the typo below without cracking a smile, congratulations. You are a serious, sober-minded and mature person. If, on the other hand, the misprint causes you to laugh and shoot water out of your nose, well, then you're like me.

How did you do?