Friday, August 3, 2012

Back from Bangladesh


 I feel as if I laid down on my bed at BRAC Inn, closed my eyes, and just now woke up to find myself flying home to Minneapolis. I have experienced so much learning, hardship, and growth, yet every experience feels so distant. More than ever before, I feel like I dreamt the whole thing.

I began my travel process Thursday evening and stayed with my New York bound Bangladeshi friend. Her family kindly hosted me for the night and brought me to the airport. Thank goodness I accepted their invitation because I always underestimate the inconvenience of a language barrier. With them, I also had access to the VIP lounge where I could stream USA’s Gabby Douglas winning the Olympic gymnastics all-around final!

Per usual, my flight took off an hour and a half late, accommodating for Bangladesh time. I couldn’t help but notice hundreds of bug-eyed Bangladeshi men with pink packets reading “Bureau of Man Power.” Because of BRAC’s Safe Migration Program, I knew that a large number of Bangladeshis move to the Middle East for work and send money home to their families. Just as I was embarking on my long awaited trip home, these men were leaving their homes indefinitely for a life of work they know little about. Luckily, organizations like BRAC can help these workers understand their rights and obtain proper documentation. Part of me has always been so grateful to live in the United States, but especially today, I felt just how great this gift is. Both my country and the circumstances in which I was born make me a very lucky person.

View from BRAC's rooftop.
During my flights home, I thought a lot about the country I was returning to. Especially while flying over the dramatic landscapes of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, I couldn’t help but feel confronted by my American identity. When I had called myself American just months prior, I had a very narrow understanding of what that means. Sitting in the Chicago airport, I took in America for the first time in two months; here I felt the appeal, immense freedom, and limitless nature of the place I call home. I smiled looking back at the long customs line behind me, filled with faces of all colors, shapes and sizes. For the first time in months, I saw more bare legs than body on women – I even spotted a girl with a some butt cheek hanging out of her shorts. Although slightly disgusted, I found it more remarkable than anything. How can two such wildly different cultures exist on one planet?

So that, I think, is precisely what I take home from Bangladesh: the knowledge that two such wildly different cultures coexist. On my last flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, I had a strange moment. I looked around at the passengers, assuming most were American, and for the first time in my life truly realized how small the United States of America is. Before Bangladesh, my entire world was America. I knew another world from mine theoretically existed, but now I have lived in it.

When our flight attendant spoke to me in a thick Spanish accent, I immediately wondered about his background and what brought him here. Two months ago, I would not have blinked over an American with an accent. I have gained a greater curiosity for culture and travel. I have a greater wonder of the world and a better sense of self. My world has grown in size and dimension, and I can’t wait to explore more of it.

So long BRAC and Bangladesh! I will miss you both!

The Fast and the Furious


Last week, I attended two iftar dinners: the meal which breaks the daylight fast during Ramadan. In spite of eating breakfast and lunch, I managed to eat more than everyone else at the iftar dinners, making me feel slightly gluttonous. This Tuesday, one of my Bangladeshi co-interns planned to host all the interns at her home for an iftar. Because of my remorse from last week, I decided I would try fasting. I also wanted to understand just how great it feels to gorge all night after starving oneself all day.
A typical iftar feast complete with fresh fruit, fried vegetables, rice, mishti (sweets), and so much more.
Surprisingly, I made it through the entire day without much pain. While the time did pass more slowly, my stomach only grumbled once. To truly test myself, I even sat with the other interns while they ate lunch. I didn't even have the slightest urge to grab their food or drinks. So I successfully went without food or water for 17 hours. 

When the time came to break the fast, I was not dying to eat something because I was hungry. I was dying to eat because I had not allowed myself to all day. Simply having the freedom to eat excited me more than satiating my appetite. I furiously tried every dish on the table, unable to stop myself from indulging in Bengali food that would soon be gone. After dinner, I was absolutely stuffed, more stuffed than when I had iftar after breakfast and lunch. 

The month of Ramadan is incredible to me, particularly when I compare it to the American holiday season. A daily shock to the metabolism causes many to gain weight during Ramadan, just as Americans gain weight during the holidays. However, Americans do quite the opposite of fasting. After surviving the fast, I felt a strong sense of pride in my self-control.  I wonder if this is where the holiday spirit during Ramadan comes from; everyone feels the pain of fasting during daylight for an entire month together, which creates a strong camaraderie. From my perspective, the Muslims almost earn their holiday spirit.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Meeting the Knight

The room was tense, our hearts all racing, waiting in anticipation for Sir Abed to emerge from the other side of the chunky wooden doors. I hadn't been this nervous since SCIAC diving finals in February (which pale in comparison to the olympic performances I have watched this week). Even when I met Senator Stabenow last fall, I didn't feel the same sense of rigidity.

When Sir Fazle Hasan Abed entered the room, I was startled to see everyone stand up and frantically joined the group in welcoming our guest. His warm demeanor set us at ease. He asked us to all introduce ourselves and explain what we had done for BRAC during our internships. When I told him I went to Claremont McKenna College, I was relieved that he recognized my institution and named the alum who awarded BRAC $250,000 just five years ago. When he asked me if I knew the Kravis Leadership Institute (KLI), I explained that I found out about BRAC through the KLI.

Sir Abed gave us the general BRAC spiel describing the improvements in life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality rates, agricultural productivity, education since 1971 in Bangladesh. Our talk became more interesting when he opened the floor for questions. Many of us were more interested in his life as a leader so he talked about his changing role as an entrepreneur at BRAC.

When Sir Abed first started post-war rehabilitation work in Bangladesh, he thought his work would only last temporarily. Soon, he realized that his development work in Bangladesh would have to be longer term than he had expected in order to have a lasting impact. Forty years later, he still has visions for BRAC to grow and improve. Sir Abed was not shy to mention BRAC's shortcomings. In fact, he prides his organization on its ability to learn from its mistakes. Sir Abed specifically mentioned nutrition and agriculture as areas where BRAC can do better.

As most high profile celebrities, Sir Abed had just enough time to take a group picture with us before he rushed off to his next appointment. Despite Sir Abed's fame in the international development world, this was the only moment in our meeting where I felt the celebrity urgency. Otherwise, our speaker was quite honest and down to earth, soft-spoken and humble. BRAC certainly reflects the modest nature of Sir Abed, its leader.

Summer 2012 Interns with Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Also, shout out to USA women's gymnastics! Way to go olympic champions!




Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Uncharacteristic (and Unsexy) Business Model


If you watched the short "The BRAC Model" video I created earlier this summer, you probably noticed the blurb on BRAC Artificial Insemination (AI). The images displayed in the video, though real, are quite graphic. Paging through the photos of the 72 bulls housed at BRAC's bull station titled with names such as "Fantasy" and "Falcon" provided great entertainment for a few hours.  Needless to say, I did not take this enterprise very seriously, that is until last week. After an hour of discussing BRAC AI’s evolution over the past 17 years, its Deputy General Manager blew me away by the multifaceted impact it has made on Bangladesh. 
Initially, I saw BRAC AI as a pretty obscure enterprise; it deals with a highly technical and medical aspect of development. In fact, years ago the Bangladesh government agreed with me and did not allow people, aside from government workers, to administer artificial insemination. Only the government had access to high quality semen and the proper tools to make use of the semen. 
BRAC AI began as a partnership with the government. Because of BRAC’s belief in the power of people and grassroots development, they began training artificial insemination workers. They began training 130 initial volunteers to become artificial insemination technicians. Today, BRAC AI has trained 2,141 artificial insemination technicians. Essentially, these workers are now highly skilled, financially solvent people thanks to BRAC.
BRAC has also helped dairy farmers generate greater income. Before BRAC AI, a local cow would produce 1.5 liters of milk per day. Hybrid cows have much higher productivity, allowing dairy farmers to sell more milk to the market. Hybrid bulls also generate greater income for farmers.   A local bull typically sells for 15,000 taka whereas a hybrid bull can sell for 100,000 taka. BRAC AI has made a huge impact on dairy farmers’ lives, granting them increasingly valuable assets.
BRAC AI has also surpassed the artificial insemination services of the government. BRAC AI’s services average a 61.5 percent conception rate, whereas the government’s services only average a 46.2 percent conception rate. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is the difference in operations for each organization. The government requires farmers to transport their cows to insemination centers, meaning that some cows must travel miles before treated. By the time these cows reach the insemination centers, they are exhausted from travelling in the hot sun. BRAC’s artificial insemination technicians, on the other hand, travel to individual farmers to treat the cows. BRAC AI accounts their success to the calm state in which they treat the cows.
BRAC AI amazed me: its initial confidence in local people’s ability to perform complex tasks; its success in creating a variety of income generating opportunities through a single enterprise; the quality of its services. On multiple levels, BRAC AI should be proud of its immense achievements.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

World Literature


I’ve mentioned before that I have read quite a few books since I have been in Bangladesh. I have never really been a reader, but I thought reading literature from the Indian subcontinent would help me adjust to the culture. Not only has reading these books given me a better understanding of Bangladeshi culture, but these books have been some of my most enjoyable reads.

Tonight, I finished a series of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian American woman. She’s actually from West Bengal making her Bengali (not to be confused with Bangladeshi which means from the country of Bangladesh). The collection of stories is named after one of the nine short stories called “Interpreter of Maladies.” I was drawn to the book for two reasons. First, the Lonely Planet Guide listed it as one of the top 10 Bangladesh reads. Second, one of the stories is about a Midwestern woman who falls in love with a Bangladeshi man, an uncanny resemblance to the fate I joke about with my co-interns.

Each story includes shades of Ms. Lahiri’s cross-cultural upbringing, incorporating aspects of Indian and American culture. Her ability to write with a touch of western perspective made the book much more accessible to me. But what I found even more impressive was my ability to enjoy this book at all. I thought about if I had tried to read this book before my arrival in Bangladesh. I would not have found the material nearly as enjoyable, as it would have soared above my heard without me even knowing it. That is precisely what has made Bengali literature so enjoyable for me; because I have lived the experience, I have an enhanced understanding of the authors’ various texts.

As I make headway into my last week at BRAC, I wish I could have done more work for them. Working solely with the social enterprises limited my experience. Although it taught me a lot about how to run a social enterprise, I had little opportunity to venture into the field speak with the rural poor. However, the times I did go into the field and hearing co-interns stories from the field shed incredible light on my experience in Bangladesh. Living in Dhaka has taught me a lot about Bangladeshi culture, but it is not truly Bangladesh in the sense that it only houses one-tenth of Bangladesh’s population. BRAC gave me the opportunity to understand rural Bangladesh, and what rural poor really means.

One of Ms. Lahiri’s stories called “A Real Durwan (Gatekeeper)” describes a woman who was deported to Calcutta after the partition of India and Bangladesh. Her hardships reminded me of Bangladesh’s violent history just in the last century: a religious-based partition in 1947 and a bloody Liberation War in 1971. It was after the Liberation War that BRAC began its rehabilitation work, helping Bangladesh achieve all that it has today. Although Bangladesh has a long, culturally-rich history, it has only had sovereignty for 40 years. When I think of how young this country really is, I realize how far it has come and how much potential it really has.

Between my urban, rural, personal, and travel experiences in Bangladesh, I learned a lot about this country and life. When I decided to come to Bangladesh this summer, I hoped to come out with a fresh, more worldly understanding of, well, the world. I feel I have achieved this goal, and I look forward to my homecoming to realize just how much I did learn. Without BRAC and Bangladesh, this literature, these people, this country would not make sense to me. Upon finishing Ms. Lahiri’s book, I stumbled upon a passage that describes my feeling completely: 
“I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are time when it is beyond my imagination.” - Jhumpa Lahiri, page 198 of Interpreter of Maladies
Accepting my certificate of participation in the BRAC Internship Program.
Although I am smiling, I am so sad that it's coming to an end. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ramadan

Saturday the Muslim holiday Ramadan began. During this holiday, an overwhelming majority of Muslims choose to fast for an entire month. They wake up before sunrise to eat some breakfast. Not until sunset to do they satiate their thirst and hunger.

As you can imagine, the workplace has experienced a change of pace. People’s energy levels are lower, and the workday ends at 3:30 pm so that everyone can rest before their nightly feast. When I use the word feast, I do not use it loosely. Last week, one of the Bangladeshi interns graciously invited us to iftar (breaking the fast) at her house. We ate all sorts of delicious food, both savory and sweet. Three hours after the iftar, the families eat an actual dinner, which we also stayed for. Embarrassingly, I probably ate more than all the fasters, and I had not even fasted.

Interestingly, the vast majority of Muslims in Bangladesh choose to fast. In fact there is tremendous social pressure in Dhaka to fast. When I invited a non-fasting Bangladeshi to dinner, he expressed concern that he may face resentment from local passerbys. Even Muslims who do not pray five times a day or devoutly study the Qur’an participate in the month-long fast. Needless to say, it has been fascinating to see a city cater to the needs of about 90 percent of the population.

At 3:30 pm many leave work to go to the bazaars to collect heaps of food for their iftar dinners. Some even go the bazaars at 3:30 am to gorge themselves for the day. At the restaurant where I ate dinner tonight, the entire indoor seating was reserved for people breaking their fasts. While I have enjoyed diluted traffic in the city, it also reminds me that people are bonding with their families, enduring the hardship of fasting with their loved ones. When we attended our Bangladeshi friend’s iftar, all I could think about was how much I wished my family was sitting around this dinner table and laughing together.

Ramadan has also heightened my religious awareness. While eating dinner tonight, a man approached our dinner table and asked if he could speak with my girlfriends and me for a moment. Thinking he just wanted to find out my name and where I was from, prompted by the blonde hair, we let him proceed. He asked if he could tell us about Hinduism, clearly unaware that I was sitting with two women of Indian descent who grew up in Hindu families. He informed me that the pants I was wearing, depicting the om (aum) symbol were offensive because according to the Hindu gods, the symbol should only be worn on the upper half of the body, not the lower half. One of my sharp Indian friends retorted, “Oh, God came down and told you this?” Embarrassed, and without anything to back up his statement, he surrendered. I proceeded asked him, “Would you prefer if I took off the pants and sat here in my underwear?” Totally humiliated, he laughed and scurried away. Maybe I crossed the line, but none of us appreciated his sermon especially when I had no intention of offending anyone. As he left the restaurant, he apologized to us, and my Indian friend reminded him that we are guests in his country and the Hindu gods also say to treat your guests with respect. That shut him up.

Even though my Indian friends made really good points about the Hindu religion, I still felt really embarrassed and slightly ignorant. Since Christianity has no wardrobe restrictions that I know of, it has been challenging living in a country where your appearance says so much about your beliefs. First off, my blonde hair is a dead giveaway that I am not Muslim. Yes, there are blonde Muslims, but not nearly enough for anyone to assume I am Muslim. Second, wearing the traditional salwar kameez verses the makeshift salwar kameez that I throw together sends a message. The women here have an uncanny ability to match the most unique, colorful, and intricate prints together. Their outfits look far more put together than my dress plus leggings plus pashmina scarf.

Maybe this month of Muslim festivities left this Hindu man feeling especially vulnerable. Either way, I am not wearing my om pants until I return home. Appearance means far too much here for me to take the risk.
One fun part about standing out is the curiosity that ensues. Literally three seconds after I stepped out of the CNG and onto Hindu Street in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh National Television spotted me and asked if I could comment on my experience in Bangladesh and why I was touring Hindu Street. 



Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sundarbans

4:30 am, my alarm went off. Without even thinking, I turned it off. 15 minutes later my back up alarm woke me, and I remembered that I had a train to catch. And quickly gathered my packed bags. In just a couple hours, I would leave for the Sundarbans, a National Forest and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the southwestern corner of Bangladesh. In fact, the Sundarbans straddles the Bangladesh-India border. The Sundarbans houses the largest mangrove forest in the world, fiddler crabs, dolphins, and the man-eating Bengal Tigers.


A picture of our guide taking a picture of us
admiring the view from the longest bridge in
Bangladesh.
As usual, our train was delayed. It was actually so delayed that our guide for the weekend rode over to our train stop and boarded with us. His enthusiasm, charisma, and humor absolutely charmed me as well as the entire crew. If you could create the perfect tour guide, he was it. When he asked me about my experience in Bangladesh, I immediately spilled my worldly revelations and personal growth from living here for the past 7 weeks. After 10 hours of talking, sleeping, and reading the book Hungry Tide, a novel that takes place in the Indian side of the Sundarbans, we arrived in Khulna, Bangladesh. Naturally, we walked 5 minutes to a waterway and took a boat to our small cruise boat. That night, we moved into our cabins, gazed at stars from the roof of the boat, played cards, and ate a delicious meal cooked on board.  I kid you not, the home-cooked meals on the boat were the best food I have had Bangladesh.

The next morning, a group of five other foreigners joined our tour group: three Americans, one Canadian, and one Korean. Once they settled in, we embarked on our three-day cruise. The first day on the boat was spent traveling down the Pusur River in order to reach the southern tip of Bangladesh. Unable to leave the boat, we spent most of our time reading on the roof of the boat, soaking in some much needed sun and retreating indoors to avoid periodic downpours, typical of monsoon season. We bonded with the other tourists over games of Bananagrams, Hearts, and of course our travel experiences inside and outside of Dhaka.

Our Boat!
Over the past month, I have met the most well traveled people I have ever met in my life. Their passports are packed with visas and stamps, and their stories are filled with wisdom and worldly advice. They all similarly advise me to see the world as much as I can. While I find their hunger for travel inspiring, what I find most impressive is their ability to date people from all over the world. Freshman year of college, I decided that I would never be able to seriously date a non-American. I couldn’t imagine ever finding a cultural medium. Meeting countless multicultural couples (and having a few Bangladeshi crushes myself), I observed that these relationships have a surprising amount of strength. In a way, the partners are forced to learn about one another more deeply than when culture is mutual.  They challenge each other to think in new ways and deepen their understanding of life, which I find both mind-blowing and romantic. 

After a month in Bangladesh, the thought of securing a full-time job in Minneapolis after college seemed quite comfortable. I thought, “I am just not born and bred to be an expatriate, world traveler.” But, meeting numerous expats empowered me to travel non-stop on the weekends and soak up my last weeks in Bangladesh. The more I traveling I did, the more excited I became to see more of the world. Maybe I am more cut out for this lifestyle than I gave myself credit for. After all, Dhaka is one of the hardest cities for foreigners to adjust to, whether from other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas. Having met people from all of these continents, I know that Dhaka is one of the most culturally shocking cities in the world. Interns, expats, and locals joke, “Now that we’ve done Dhaka, we can get by anywhere.”

I enjoyed meeting more expats and taking part in cross-cultural exchanges, but my favorite part of the ride was observing the fishing-town lifestyle here while reading Hungry TideAs I read about Piya and Kunai's adventures, I became more eager to enter this mysterious and poetic place. I actually finished the book on the boat, adding to the intensity of the cruise down south. The strong head wind paired with the last 100 action packed pages of the book made for a dramatic entry into the Sundarbans.
A row of fishing boats traveling together.

Narrow waterways
As we ventured deeper into the south, the rivers became increasingly narrow. Finally our boat began trolling silently through the mangroves. I had expected to see stunning, breathtaking scenery, but instead I found the Sundarbans more eerie than anything. The terrain consists of hundreds of islands that flood from the Bay of Bengal’s daily high tide. In the mornings, trees stand tall on top of muddy islands, but by noon, water covers the snarled networks of mangrove roots and tree trunks.

At 5:30 am, our guide took us on a rowboat through some of the most secluded, narrow waterways in the Sundarbans. We quietly paddled close to the islands, looking desperately for a Bengal Tiger. We sufficed with colorful birds, hundreds of crabs, and 20 different species of mangroves randomly placed throughout the Sundarbans.

After a couple hours, we returned to our cruise boat for breakfast and to prepare for our leisurely hike on one of the islands. When we first stepped foot on the island, we made our way through thick mangroves, but after just a couple meters, grasslands stretched for miles. Spotted deer speckled the fields, nervously fleeing as we approached their territory. Butterflies, only found in the Sundarbans, fluttered in the squat shrubbery. Within 45 minutes, we reached the other side of the island, where the mangroves again resumed. This time, the mangroves were met with the sound of powerful, crashing water. We had just reached the Bay of Bengal.

At low tide, we could see the mangrove roots poking out of the ground.
The roots emerge from the earth since the sand does not provide enough
oxygen for proper growth.
The tall waves would have made the Bay of Bengal a great surfing spot if it wasn’t for the tree stumps lining the coast. Crawling out to the water was a process, as a few of us stumbled into tree wells before reaching a comfortable depth.  Once I reached the hard sand bottom, I felt the freest I have felt in months: kicking my bare legs under smooth water, submerging myself periodically, both feeling and hearing the muffled tide crash above me. The highlight of my swim was on my way back into shore. I stumbled over a tree stump just when a wave crashed behind me. Without many options, I ducked under water. Lucky to not poke an eye out on one of the stumps, I gasped for air and found a root to hang onto just in time for the next wave. When it hit, I was forced underwater. The only thing keeping me from losing control was my strong grip on the tree root. The water tried to pull me into shore, but I didn’t give up on the root. For five seconds, I felt like I was in an action movie.

The (treacherous) Bay of Bengal!
After our swim, we hiked back to the cruise boat for a rest. I proceeded to nap for a couple hours until our next activity: the grueling hike. After high tide, the water leaves the islands extremely muddy. Because most tourists don’t come prepared for this terrain, the boat has a stock of retired Bangladesh army boots to lend to passengers. No matter the footwear, we all struggled hiking through the mud. Our feet frequently stuck to the ground, taking some extra umph to release them. The smooth feeling of mud between my sandal-covered feet, I could hardly resist picking up a pile of mud to run through my fingers. A like-minded travel buddy of mine from BRAC quickly helped me initiate a mud fight among the more adventurous few.
High tide covers the islands almost completely. As you can
see, the stumps are barely emerging from the water.

For minutes, we slid through the mud and covered each other head to toe with the slick mud. Like all such activities, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Having become too friendly with our young guide, he retaliated by rubbing mud on my face which naturally got into my eyes. So that ended the mud fight for everyone, and we proceeded more deeply into the island. We reached the high points of the island which serve as tiger perches during the high tide. We weaved through thick trees that I decided would make ideal sceneries for music videos.  


Toward the end of our mud hike, we reached the Bay of Bengal shoreline. Lines of tree stumps covered the edge of the beach to about one kilometer inland. Under the dark blue, cloud covered sky, the scene had a sort of freaky serenity, almost like the eye of a storm. Having used this analogy, it may not come as a surprise that these stumps remained as damage from a cyclone five years ago. For most of my life, hurricanes have meant displaced people and damaged property, but in this part of the Sundarbans, the trees and animals had experienced this cyclone alone. What made the Sundarbans so remarkable for me was their estrangement from civilization. While the villages further north of the Sundarbans faced extreme hardships from this cyclone, I could not see past the striking damage on the waterfront, completely uninhabited by humankind.
Posing on a tiger's high tide retreat.


Back on the cruise boat, we took the most refreshing showers. Those of us who were covered in mud asked our guide if we could just jump in the river to rinse off, but the possibility to hungry crocodiles prohibited us from taking a river bath. That evening, Ramadan began, a holiday where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The fasting lasts for an entire month. The poor crew, especially the cooks, had to smell our mouth-watering food while they complied with their religious obligations. 

To take full advantage of our last night in the Sundarbans, a couple of us laid on the roof of the boat, staring at the stars in silence. It had been a while since I looked at the sky this way, seeing millions of stars so clearly. I closed my eyes and felt the remoteness of national forest, virtually uninterrupted by civilization. All I could hear was the sound of small waves brushing the boat's hull. I thought back to the song "Somewhere Out There," a song my mom used to sing to me every night when I was 5 or 6 years old. The lyrics resonated with me, as I always found security in them: "And even though I know how very far apart we are, it helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star. And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby, it helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky." No matter how far I ever traveled from friends and family, I felt closer thinking my loved ones were under the same sky as me. Instead of yearning for home, I actually grew quite sad that my time in Bangladesh was coming to an end soon. Although my friends here would continue to share the same sky with me, all the things I would miss in Bangladesh rushed into my head. I felt incredibly lucky to have this life-changing adventure.

Over dinner, our guide proposed two activities for the following day; either we could take another 5:30 am boat ride or spend the afternoon swimming. The thought of floating freely in fresh water, feeling the current run against our bare bodies sounded absolutely alluring so we unanimously vetoed the boat ride. After six hours of cruising, we anchored the boat and spent a couple hours diving and flipping off the boat. In my element, I even practiced some of my basic competition dives.


The last supper on board was a sad one, as we parted ways with our newfound friends and a couple BRAC employees who planned more extensive travels. At 7:30 pm, we boarded the midnight train. It looked like a ghost train as it rolled up to the Khulna station, dark and abandoned. After some good laughs and conversation, we drifted into slumber and found ourselves suddenly greeted by the stuffy Dhaka air. Although the Sundarbans trip was totally different than I expected, it provided some of the best memories I have had in Bangladesh. Maybe it was the sheer freedom of bearing my thighs or reuniting with fresh water. Maybe it was the wind blowing through my hair or the sun scorching my cheeks. Our trip to the Sundarbans was an escape from civilization and the social protocols that comes with organized society. 


We all laughed at this image, thinking back
to the sophisticated intercom systems in our
Western countries. Here, this crew member
simply shouted to his colleagues on the
other side of the horn.



Pearls Are a Girl's Best Friend

After a long day of work and our time in Bangladesh slowly running out, a few of my co-interns wanted to go shopping for gifts, keepsakes, and souvenirs.  Having watched a program on Bangladesh right before I came here (thank you for recording, Grandma) I had a deep desire to purchase Bangladeshi pearls. I have never bought nice jewelry for myself, so I had no idea where to begin guessing the price. My only reference was a $200 pair of Tiffany pearl earrings a dear friend from college owns.

My friends conceded to hit the pearl market before going to Aarong (the clothing and handicrafts store), and they have me to thank. We proceeded to spend an hour and half digging through all the pearl jewelry in the market. Because of the odd shapes and sizes, we knew these pearls were authentic; their imperfections made them even more alluring. When I found a pair of classic white pearl earrings, I asked, “How much?” Upon hearing “100 taka,” I stared, dumfounded, into the salesman's eyes. That’s about $1.25 for a pair of real pearl earrings. Now you’re probably thinking, "Poor Carmen is so naïve. She just got completely ripped off." The truth is, pearls are so abundant in Bangladesh that they cannot sell them for exorbitant prices. Also, the metal they use for the pendants, brooches, rings, bracelets and earrings is extremely cheap, giving the final product less value. But, when you’re an American girl faced with real pearl earrings for $1.25, it’s hard to fuss about silver quality. In fact, I even bargained for a lesser price. Shameless, I know.

Five of us interns celebrated our retail victory over Indian food. The salesmen also seemed pleased as we left, hoping we would tell our friends about our newfound treasures but not about how much we paid. I have to admit, until this experience, I had never really enjoyed shopping for fine jewelry. As someone with more colorful, whimsical fashion tastes, I have not grown into the elegance and simplicity of showcase jewelry. However, this experience was incredible! Maybe it was the affordability that made it more fun. Who knew that I would find a love for jewelry shopping in Bangladesh. One thing is for sure, I will never be able to buy pearls anywhere else in my life.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Final Days in Nepal


Mountain views on the ride to Pokhara

Day three in Nepal, we woke up at 6:00 am to catch a 7:00 am bus to Pokhara. The 7-hour bus ride, traversing through the mountains, landed us in the quaint lake town. The town had  a much different vibe than Kathmandu. Although both touristy and kitchy, it was much quieter and relaxing. Once we dropped our things off at a hostel, we found a restaurant which overlooked Lake Pokhara. The one we chose had a Greek Island/Mediterranean theme, as the tables and chairs were painted white and dressed with blue cushions and napkins. After a 36 hour whirlwind in Kathmandu, we sunk deeply into our seats and absorbed the tranquil scenery surrounding us.

After dinner, we made our way out to the lake and walked around a bit. At least 50 rowboats floated in the water, awaiting passengers to ferry across the lake. We stared into the majestic blue sky and eerily still lake, planning our adventures for the following day. On the way back from the lake, we stumbled upon one of many spas in Pokhara, and decided to get impromptu massages; it’s hard to turn down a 45-minute massage for $6.

Boats on Lake Pokhara
The next morning, we woke up to pouring rain. Although absolutely soaked, we did manage to find Pokhara’s famous organic coffee house. We giggled at our über relaxed waiter over Himalayan plunger coffees and chai teas served in mugs resembling large beer mugs. His totally relaxed demeanor sent us over the edge as we observed him tossing menus to customers nonchalantly and reluctantly dragging himself into the kitchen to relay orders and prepare drinks. We waited the rain out by shopping around, realizing that established tourism also means higher price expectations, despite one’s ability to bargain.

The itty bitty white temple you see at the top
of this picture is the Peace Pagoda.
Finally, the sun came out and we embarked on our hiking adventure up to the Peace Pagoda (temple). When I first saw the Peace Pagoda, triumphantly standing on top of the mountain across the lake, I was shocked to hear the hike takes about 45 minutes; we expected a day-long expedition. We started the journey with a calming boat ride across the lake. Then we began the grueling expedition up the mountain. Although shaded by a forest, the morning rain had dissipated all cloud coverage. We sweated profusely and finished all of our waters before we finally reached the Peace Pagoda.

The white and gold structure was absolutely stunning on the mountain top. Around the temple were carvings depicting the Buddha’s history and captions describing each scene. As I read about the Buddha’s progression toward the meaning of life and inner peace, I could not help but feel like I was on the same journey on top of this mountain. Looking down at Pokhara, it was hard not to think about life’s greater purpose. As for the history of the Peace Pagoda, after WWII, particularly the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Japanese Buddhist monk decided to erect Peace Pagodas across the world in order to unite people under the same goal of promoting peace and non-violence. Today, there are over 80 Peace Pagodas in the world.
View from the hike

Peace Pagoda
Before hiking down, we stopped at a nearby café and admired the view for another hour while indulging in the most flavorful momos of the trip. On our hike down, we hoped to find a waterfall called Devil’s Falls, but unclear trail markers caused us to find the main road before the waterfall. We hopped on a local bus and made our way back to our hostel to shower up and prepare for dinner. On the way to the restaurant, we decided another $6 massage wouldn’t hurt after a grueling day of exercise. So, we treated our bodies before returning to the Mediterranean oasis restaurant. As my last meal in Pokhara, I was sure to load up on fresh vegetables, a rare treat in Dhaka.

In the morning, we caught a 8:45 am local flight to Kathmandu. Within 25 minutes, we were back in the city. Having received an email from Biman airlines that our flight would be delayed until 3:40 pm, we headed out into Themal, Kathmandu to do some more shopping and eat one last fresh meal. We stopped at the hostel where we had previously stayed, and the friendly staff graciously stowed our bags for a couple hours while we paraded down the streets of Themal, bargaining our brains out until we had completed our shopping lists. As our last supper, we ate at a famous pizza restaurant called Fire and Ice. It did not compare to my local Minneapolis favorite, Punch Pizza, but it was the best pizza I had had in Asia thus far.
I was so sweaty, but it was worth this nice view of Pokhara.

When we got to the airport, we were not surprised to find that Biman had further delayed our flight. Coincidentally, we ran into a man we had met on our way to Nepal four days prior. This Bangladeshi man, I learned, attends the University of Minnesota! Running into a Minnesotan is always special, especially halfway across the world. Between his charming personality and ability to speak Bangla, we passed the time sharing stories from our trips and keeping tabs on the flight status.

By the time we boarded the plane, I noticed my seat number was 2A. How I ended up in first class, I do not know, but I enjoyed every bite of my complimentary mixed vegetables and chicken curry. I even had a private viewing of Mount Everest out my window as the crew fended off the eager coach passengers trying to get a view from first class. An up-close view of the Mount Everest peak ended my Nepal vacation on a perfect note.   

Mount Everest!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tour de Kathmandu

The fresh air in Nepal makes a perfect location for rooftop terraces and balconies. For breakfast, we picked out a lovely restaurant called Helena's. We climbed up eight floors to find the best restaurant view in Themal. With mountain views from every angle, we enjoyed yak yogurt with fruit, pancakes, french toast, and my first Nepali tea, a hearty meal for a busy day of touring. 

We first stopped at Sayambounath, also known as the Monkey Temple. Nothing could have been more fun than seeing heaps of monkeys and their babies crawling, jumping and swimming all around. I was so enamored by the wild monkeys, I was reluctant to leave and see the rest of the temple. Nevertheless, I proceeded up the stairs to find numerous vendors, temples, and small children trying to pickpocket us. Once in a while, a monkey would come out from behind a temple or crawl down from a tree - such an amazing sight to see, not to mention the mountain views. We stopped at a second Buddhist temple that, in my eyes, did not compare with the Monkey Temple. 
Such cute monkeys! Can you see the resemblance? 
So many Buddhist sculptures at the Monkey Temple 

Kathmandu
View of the Old City from the rooftop restaurant. The tall
building on the right is the tallest temple in Nepal.
Our next stop was Bhakdapur, the Old City in Kathmandu. We stopped for another roof top meal to be surrounded by mountain views yet again. As always, we ordered plentiful momos (basically pot stickers). I of course stuck as close to local cuisine as I could. When finished, we ventured into the Old City and toured the stunning buildings. Some of them were over 2,000 years old. Many were too old to tour inside, but there were others in which people actually lived. The most stunning was the tallest temple in Nepal partly because of its height and partly because of the large statues lining the steep stair case up to the entrance.

This is actually an imitation of a scene in a Bollywood film called Lagaan.
One of the few serious pictures we took.




Our last stop of the day became an exciting race against the sun. Having spent much longer than expected admiring the Old City, our driver had to punch the gas in order to get us to our stunning sunset view in the mountains. As we traversed uphill and through clouds, I felt like I was back in Colorado, except without guard rails. When we finally reached 21000 feet, we had reached our viewing point. There, monumentally standing in front of us was Mount Everest. The drama of this moment caused me travel in time a bit, back in elementary school when I first heard of the Himalayan Mountains. They were so exotic and so far away, and now, probably 10 years later, I was standing in front of them, eyeing the peak that humans vie to defy. In a way, Mount Everest represents a standard of invincibility, and here I was, little me looking right at it. I thought of the Bangladeshi girls who returned from climbing Mount Everest shortly after my arrival in Dhaka. What an amazing feat.

My one successful
airborne shot.
Of course we took a million different pictures on the mountain together. Everything from jumping, serious, and silly pictures; we had a small-scale photo shoot in front of Mount Everest. Once the sun set, local vendors at the viewing point sold us beer and made us Himalayan coffee. Even though coffee is one of my favorite smells in the world, I absolutely hate coffee, but when traveling, I am an in-the-moment person and decided that I had to try Himalayan coffee brewed right in the area where it grows. The glass of Himalayan coffee I drank was absolutely fantastic. It may have converted me to becoming a coffee drinker.

Once the sun set, our driver carefully returned us to our hostel, artfully navigating his way down the unlit roads lining the mountainside. Completely exhausted, we quickly fell asleep yet anxious for our next adventure. To be continued...

Tourism


At the crack of dawn, I was awoken by my concerned Bengali girlfriend. Using my newly developed Resident Assistant repertoire, I reassured her that our $2.50 per night hostel would be plenty safe, and if it turned out to be dirty, we would move. Her housekeepers set the table with beautiful bowls and plates for us to eat basic breakfast food like milk, cereal, toast, jelly, and peanut butter. Maybe this gesture was out of hospitality for me, their guest, but as a college student, I have become accustomed to plastic bowls and paper cups. Their effort was more than generous.



We managed to make it to the airport with an hour and a half to spare. Per usual, Bangladesh has no formal organization so the airport was absolute chaos. Without organized lines behind the ticket counters, we shoved our way to the front of the line just to find out that we needed to line up at a counter on the other side. Frustratingly, the airport accounts for Bangladesh’s general disorder and allowed all the passengers for the flight to Rome, leaving in 30 minutes, to move to the front of the lines. Four ticket counters and an hour later, we made it through security only to find our flight was delayed two hours: disappointing to wake up at 5:30 am for nothing. A couple minutes later, we noticed that our flight was delayed by another two hours. Moments later, the flight disappeared from the monitor.

We quickly sought a Biman Airlines representative who unhelpfully directed us to the airport café “Spices.” After hours of waiting, my Bangladeshi friend, with my full support, raged at the Biman Airlines crew member who spoke of the all too familiar “technical problem.” It took us six hours to finally depart for Kathmandu, Nepal. We essentially lost a day of touring. Normally, I am fine with a delayed flight. What made this situation so miserable was the lack of communication between the airline and its passengers. I would like to think it was a language barrier, but I traveled with a native speaker who was just as frustrated as our British and Australian comrades. They had experienced the same lack of communication in the Dhaka passport office where they obtained their multiple entry/exit visas. This quality even exists in BRAC, where there is no central database where each department of the organization can access common files and information. To collect information for my video project, I had to run around offices within and outside of BRAC. Communication is not one of Bangladesh’s strengths, which probably contributes to its lack of tourism. 

The busy city street. Had I come here before traveling to Dhaka, I would have found this
street overly populated and grimy, but instead I found it energetic and inviting.
A short, one hour flight landed us four ladies in Kathmandu, Nepal. The moderate climate and breathtaking mountains had us jumping in our seats. We couldn’t wait to explore the big city situated in a valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world. When we exited the airport, we were bombarded by sleazy cab drivers, begging us to pay exorbitant prices for service to our hotel. I was intimidated by all the fluent English-speaking, smooth talkers. Suddenly, it became very clear that we had entered a tourist friendly destination. Having lived in Dhaka for five weeks now, I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable being bombarded with business cards, cheap jewelry, and tacky souvenirs. On the flip side, I was enamored by the vibrant streets, lined with colorful shops and people from all over the world.

When we arrived at our hostel, we were impressed by the hospitality of the staff and their eagerness to help us organize an itinerary for the next day. We were not so impressed by the modest accommodations and filthy bathroom. Although the sink spat out brown water, the shower miraculously had warm water. We planned to spend all day on the town anyway, so we sufficed.

Our adventure began exploring the streets of Themal, Kathmandu, the tourist hub of the city. Shopkeepers beckoned us to enter their stores. After a while, we realized most stores sold the same products. Among the heaps of mementos, I managed to find some goodies. Of course, I never paid full price for anything, bargaining my way down to nearly fifty percent of the asking price.





A glimpse inside a temple in the middle of the busy Themal streets.
Chanting monks joined us shortly after this photo was taken.

Fresh fruit juice stand - a novelty when coming from Dhaka.


Momos quickly became our favorite snack in Nepal. They
are basically a pot sticker, but they taste much fresher,
especially at an organic-food restaurant!
Once the stores closed, we suited up in our new apparel and made our way to a lovely little place called “Organic Green Restaurant and Farmers Bar.” One major challenge in Dhaka is eating quality food. While the city has hundreds of restaurants, people are safest eating warm, cooked foods. Fresh produce is often contaminated with pesticides and preservatives harmful to human health. Adventure sports like trekking, bungee jumping, and hang gliding attract outdoorsy tourists. For those of you that do not know, Mount Everest is actually located in Nepal. Naturally, Kathmandu has loads of organic, fresh foods, and we took advantage of this treat. We also took advantage of the predominantly Hindu and Buddhist religions in Nepal and ordered rum punches. The food was absolutely delicious. I even grew a liking for yak products like yak cheese, yak milk, and yak butter.

On the walk home, the girls spotted a shisha (hooka) bar, where we spent the next couple hours relaxing. While I refused to smoke tobacco, I thoroughly enjoyed taking in the starkly different culture surrounding me. To think that just hours ago, I had been in a country where I cannot bare my shoulders and knees, where I am an overwhelming minority, where I can hardly communicate with local people, where alcohol is sold exclusively in a few licensed restaurants and bars. My head was in the clouds as I watched young women in skin tight skirts and tank tops crawl over the low lying tables to order drinks from the bar. I had not seen people take shots since the “No Regrets” party after final exams at college. I felt refreshed, but I could place what exactly caused this feeling of relief. As the third developing country I have visited, I was amazed that I felt safe walking the streets at night and quite welcome. Certainly in Dhaka and Tijuana, one has to take great precautions. By the end of the night, I understood something that I had never really understood before: tourism.

I had known the dictionary definition of tourism, but now I have lived in somewhere without any such industry and visited an even poorer country with an incredibly developed tourism industry. My understanding of this concept has become three-dimensional. A couple of my travel mates were shocked to learn that Nepal is in fact poorer than Bangladesh. Like in Mexico, tourism in Nepal shields visitors from its stark realities. On the other hand, poverty is inescapable in Bangladesh. It is one of the most vivid realities for visitors. Less beggars, less decrepit persons, and loads of tourists left me awe-struck but also aware of the sheath I had discovered. To be continued...

Four happy travelers!


Unrelated announcement: My partner and I won BRAC's Facebook video campaign competition! It has been announced on BRAC's Facebook so you should check it out. Thank you so much for those who voted. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Parental Control


Tomorrow, I depart for a trip unlike any trip I have ever taken before. I am traveling with a Brit, Aussie, and Bangladeshi girl – a multicultural group! Even though we haven’t even taken off for the trip yet, I feel like the adventure has already begun. Not only do we have to compromise among our personal interests, but we have to compromise among our cultural differences. It probably does not come as a surprise that the Brit, Aussie, and myself have a fairly easy time striking a middle ground. Planning our travels with my Bangladeshi friend has taught me a lot about how kids grow up here and their loyalties.

This morning, when finalizing travel plans, I thought back to my post from last night had a realization. I neglected to analyze the ubiquitous presence of parents in their children’s lives in Bollywood cinema. The parents in Dilwale  Dulhania Le Jayenge had immense control over their daughter’s life. Every decision she made in life had to be approved by her parents, particularly her father. Rarely do American romantic comedies include parental roles. Certainly there are exceptions, but on the whole, the success of “true love” comes down to two peoples’ decisions. In Bollywood, this is a family affair.

When I bought my ticket for Kathmandu, Nepal, a couple of my Bangladeshi friends laughed about how their mothers prohibited them from traveling there or how their fathers wished they could send body guards with them. When they asked me what my parents thought about my travel plans, I proudly admitted that I had not told my parents yet. They looked at each other in utter dismay. I explained that when I told my parents, they wouldn’t mind and would support my thirst to travel. In fact, they may even want to join me for a weekend at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains if possible (anyone would be crazy not to). I went so far to say, “When I ask my parents for advice, they usually tell me ‘Carmen, you are 21. You can make your own decisions without my approval, and I will support you in whatever you decide.’”

Sometimes, this responsibility can be tiring. It would have been much easier to get denied from all the colleges I applied to so that I would not have had to make a decision. There were a few times this year when I wished my parents, a friend, or a professor could make a decision for me so that I would not have to fret about making the wrong choice myself. Listening to my friends talk about their relationship with their parents, I have become very thankful for my independence. I have 100 percent control over my destiny because my family and culture allow me to. I think back to these desperate times when I have wanted others to decide for me, and I know I will never be able to think like this again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pop Culture

First order of business: the BRAC Interns are having a competition of the best video project. The videos are posted on Facebook, and we need votes! Follow the link below, like the BRAC page, then you can vote: https://www.facebook.com/BRACWorld?v=app_202991206406825&rest=1
The videos are really fun to watch. Although I hope you will vote for mine, the others are really good, and tell great stories about some of BRAC's amazing programs!

Now, back to my cultural insights:

Getting into a different cultural mindset has been one of my greatest challenges in Bangladesh. Learning about Bangladeshi culture from experience can be painfully difficult at times, so I have really enjoyed studying Bangladeshi pop culture through literature and cinema. Yesterday, I bought a three Bollywood films for 100 taka each, and today I had the chance to watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. If I had to guess, most Americans have not heard of this film. When I learned of its immense success in India, I was shocked by my ignorance. This film, released in 1995, is the longest running in Indian cinema; it still plays in a theater in Mumbai.

"Dilwale dulhania le jayenge" does not translate precisely in English, but it basically means "the one with the brave heart will take the bride." The Bangladeshi and Indian girls in the office talked the movie up so much. They said I had had had to watch it because of its heartwarming plot and entertainment value. While I so enjoyed the frequent song and dance numbers and the extreme drama, it did not quite reach my expectations. Don't get me wrong, I would give it 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars, but the archetypal romantic comedy plot simply was not captivating. On one hand, I had seen this movie a million times, but on another, I had never seen anything like it.

A country of nearly 1.25 billion people worships this three hour long film, yet it has little recognition in the United States. What's wrong with this picture? Culture and the comforts of home have a huge influence on the media we enjoy. I noticed this when I discussed the book Brick Lane with one of the Bangladeshi interns. I just finished this book last weekend. The novel had a powerful message, however the text was slow, and I found myself trudging though the last 100 pages. On the contrary, Brick Lane completely enticed my friend because it is a Bangladeshi novel written by an English-born, Bangladeshi woman. She understood the reality of this novel and likely found parallels in her life, whereas I remained in denial that ultra-conservative Muslim women live in captivity. Then I remembered how I felt when I watched Bridesmaids for the first time two weeks ago. At a low point in my homesickness, seeing American cinema, American humor, American actresses, and a Christian wedding, I remembered my home and how great it will be when I arrive there again. There's no way that my Bangladeshi friends have the same appreciation for this film that I do. I live the life depicted in this film (not strictly speaking of course), and they can only appreciate this film as outsiders.

When another Bangladeshi intern commented that Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is a far better film than When Harry Met Sally, I almost accused her of perjury. But, I stopped myself, remembering the different worlds we come from. I have had the chance to talk with the Bangladeshi interns about their love lives and what role their families, religion, and culture have played in seeking love. I find it ironic that parents in the United States view young love as immature and preliminary. High school sweethearts rarely follow each other to college because of parents encouraging independent decision-making. In Bangladesh, parents seem to take young love very seriously, and openly anticipate wedding plans, sometimes even pressuring young adults into committed relationships. Many of my girlfriends at BRAC have already felt this pressure. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is their reality; to some extent, this film depicts the lives they live. Instead of dismissing Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge as just another romantic comedy, my experience in Bangladesh allows me to appreciate how well the movie captures the multidimensional challenges of marriage in the Indian Subcontinent. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

OH. MY. GOSH.

After a little over a month of being cooped up in Dhaka, a group of four other interns and myself needed an escape. Per the advice of a fellow CMC-er, we ventured to Srimangal, a small town about 240 km northeast of Dhaka. Srimangal also happens to be the tea capital of Bangladesh. While planning this trip, I joked with my friends that this trip would be "the best weekend ever." In an attempt to avoid jinxing our get-away, the phrase did not catch on and we humbly proceeded with preparing for the long weekend. Since making it home unscathed, I can say that this weekend could quite possibly have been the best weekend I have ever lived.


The trip began with a 12:32 train ride at the Airport Railway Station. One of my friends had made friends with an German-born, Turkish expat the night before our trip, and after hearing our weekend plans, he cancelled his business meeting to join us. His indifference for cultural barriers and charisma initially shocked me, yet made me more confident in standing up for myself in this foreign country. Of course a huddle of six fair-skinned individuals beckoned a crowd of curious Bangladeshis and begging children. Our Turkish friend assertively hissed at the beggars. When they held out their hands, he shook their hands, joking with them. If they touched him, he picked them up, turned them around, and gave them a light spanking. Needless to say, I strove to keep my jaw from hitting the floor.


Our inhibition-less Turk made friends with a local Bangladeshi who had seats near ours and helped us navigate the frantic scene that pervaded the platform once the train arrived. Upon entering the train, we were pleasantly surprised at the accommodations which the Bangladeshi interns had warned us about. The cushioned seats, fans, and open windows made for an absolutely delightful ride. To explain the title of this blog post, these were the first words that came to mind when the train exited the outskirts of Bangladesh. From the moment we left Dhaka, the scenery left me speechless.
Could this be Lake Minnetonka? Maybe without the palm trees. The majority of the scenery actually reminded me a
lot of the rather flat Midwest terrain. Close to shore, you can see kids swimming. During the uncomfortably humid monsoon season, kids often keep cool by playing games in the 24,000 km of inland waterways. 
To prepare for the weekend, I gladly
accepted a cup of tea during the train 
ride. At a rate of 6 taka (about 7 cents),
this cheap treat of black tea and condensed 
milk hit the spot. Just above my cup of tea 
captures the ever-present intrigue of the 
local people. No, he's not sleeping.



When we arrived in Srimangal, I was delighted to only hear the jingling of rickshaw and bicycle bells. In Dhaka, a period of five seconds without a beeping automobile is infrequent. Within moments of hopping on rickshaws, the quaint town turned into waves of tea bushes, hills of pineapple plants, and  miles of serenity.




While our intern coordinator encouraged us not to travel to the tea estate region because of the flooding in Sylhet (the big city about 90 km away) and our Bangladeshi peers urged us not to take the train unless we scored a first class air conditioned berth, we did take the advice of one of the Bangladeshi interns who recommended staying in the Nishorgo Eco-Cottages. What a cool place. The cottages were erected as part of a USAID project to help promote income from tourism in the Srimangal area. If you know anyone planning to travel to Srimangal, they must stay in the eco- cottages. While they neither have air conditioning nor warm water, the powerful fans and hot weather make these accommodations unnecessary luxuries. Having arrived at about 6:00 pm, we spent the evening exploring the area around the cottages and indulging in our dreamy balcony, where we could actually hear the sounds of nature. With a deep breath of fresh air, I enjoyed my first pollution-free inhalation since May. 

Eco-Cottage


At 8:30 am the following morning, we ate a classic Bangladeshi breakfast of paratha, chili filled omelets, mixed vegetables, mini bananas, and tea. Our first destination was the Lawachara Forest, one of Bangladesh's National Parks. The hike through the jungle-like forest was stunning. Filled with tall trees, critters, and villages,  I had never seen anything like it. A guide led us through the dense trees until suddenly, we reached a pass of small lime trees and mud homes. Its inhabitants were exceedingly friendly and followed us as we hiked through the hills. When we reached one of the homes, we saw they had harvested a number of limes. The family gladly gave us a half dozen limes, but when we pooled our smallest change together, they refused to accept it. Having spent a fair share of my time being swarmed by beggars, a sense of marvel fell upon me. 


I finally met some of my kind: monkeys! The monkeys
pictured are likely a species of gibbon.
A few weeks ago, when I went on BRAC field visits outside of Dhaka, I understood why people fled to city-life in Dhaka. Standing on top of a tall hill surrounded by a the lush Lawachara Forest, I suddenly became confused. When people move to the city, their purpose must be to make money to bring back to their families. The families that stay out in Srimangal, take in the beauty, and live humbly in their mud homes do not have this same urgency. They may make money selling limes to the village, they may not make any money, but they live peacefully together and enjoy their lives spent with one another. This made me question my purpose in life. Most of the kids I work with, including myself, have aspirations to alleviate poverty, feed the world, and eradicate diseases. In the process, some of us hope to make enough money to travel and achieve a high standard of living for our families. Although I was overjoyed to meet poor Bangladeshi people who did not want to take advantage of our relative affluence, it made me think twice about how I want to live. Do I want to be one of these people who lives to love my family and friends or will I compromise my time with achieving ideals and intangible dreams? Another year of college is not enough time to answer that question, even a lifetime. What I can say is that I hope I can live as humbly and kindly as these fiscally unfortunate because in my mind they are much more fortunate than the relatively well-off rickshaw wallah's and beggars in Dhaka city.  
View from the top of a hill in the midst of the lime farm. The flock of white birds had just taken flight, as if they knew how to make this scene even more beautiful. As you can see, this makes for a great place to contemplate the great wonders of life.
The woman sang to us from her hymn
book. We enjoyed the lovely view out
her back door: a 15-foot drop to the
ground and miles of tall trees.
When we reentered the jungle, our guide took us to a Christian village where a friendly woman hosted us. She gave us bettle-nut, a small red nut that one wraps in a leaf and chews to achieve a buzz similar to that of chewing tobacco. Many Bangladeshis chew it quite openly. The nut turns chewers' mouths blood red, creating a somewhat terrifying image. In this village, the society was somewhat matriarchal. Instead of women leaving their homes to live with men, the men moved in with the women. The woman we spoke with had four children, two boys and two girls, studying and working both inside and outside of Bangladesh. The woman spoke an unfamiliar dialect of Bangla. She showed us her Bibles which were translated into this language. She even sang us Silent Night from her hymn book and in her native language. We returned the tune in our native English 
tongue. 

Seven-layer tea! We counted.
At the end of the tour, we headed to our next stop: the Nilkantha Tea House. Here, the famous seven-layer tea was invented. Layers of cinnamon, sugar, lemon, milk, and three other mystery flavors entertained our taste buds. Followed by a short lunch, our drivers miscommunicated and our group split. Half headed to a Burmese village to collect locally made rice wine. The other half headed straight to our final destination: a tea estate which housed a breathtaking lake. We tried to conquer the circumference of the lake, but sunset prevented us from safely navigating the shoreline. Instead, we turned around in time to snap pictures of the sunset and befriend the vendors at the estate entrance. Because of the tall buildings, pollution, and monsoon clouds, this was the first sunset we had all seen in Bangladesh. Ironically, the red dot on the Bangladesh flag, pictured in the background of my blog, represents the sun. We had no trouble resting our eyes on the glowing sky as it melted behind the hills. We enjoyed the last moments of sunlight learning Bangla phrases and numbers with Bangladeshi children while enjoying the cha (tea) their parents had made for us.


Sunset on the lake.
On our last day, the group split again. Two went to the village to shop while the rest of us traveled to more tea estates. We had been warned that it can be difficult to access tea estates without connections, but we decided to take our chances. Our first stop was the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI). We walked down a straight path for what felt like a heavenly eternity. We turned into the BTRI Resort and sipped down a splendid cup of cha in air conditioning. Across the street, we tried to gain access to the estates, but the young guard would not let us enter. We continued down the endless path, admiring the charming homes, people, and animals. After a few kilometers, we saw a BRAC sign on a thatch hut and had to investigate. Around 20 kids stuck their heads out of the windows and enthusiastically greeted us. I promptly asked their names and explained that we worked for BRAC. They invited us into their classroom. Since the teacher was away on a short break, the kids looked to us for direction. A few girls in the class took initiative led a song to which the entire class sang and clapped along. Two girls danced, giving us a great show. When the teacher arrived, we thanked her and the students for their hospitality and left them to continue their learning. 
Impromptu visit to a BRAC School

As we left the village, young children ran after us waving and yelling "bye-bye." They seemed to use the phrase "bye-bye" as both a greeting and departing expression. Their earnest jubilation kept me smiling throughout the rest of our BTRI exploration. 


Our final stop happened to be my favorite stop of the entire trip: the Zareen Tea Estate. Here, the Ispahani Tea is grown, one of the most widely purchased teas in Bangladesh. The Lonely Planet Guide recommended visiting this tea estate, as it usually welcomes tourists. We sought the garden manager to ask permission to enter the estate. The empty office and friendly men working in the tea processing station spurred us to enter the estate. Shortly after entry, we met a man who was the uncle of a man who lived and worked on the estate. He beckoned his nephew to tour us around Zareen Tea Estate. At first glimpse of the nephew, I had found my purpose in life: to marry this adorable man and co-own a tea estate. Just kidding, but he was really cute and seeing the Zareen Tea Estate was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Miles and miles of tea bushes wrapped around the hills. I wondered if this is where Dr. Seuss gained his inspiration. 


Our rather handsome tour guide leading us
through the steep, narrow paths between the
tea bushes. The pickers, likely barefoot, scale
these steep hills on the regular.
For a clearer picture of the tea industry in Bangladesh, the estates today are owned by Bangladesh elites or the government. When I asked our guide if he would like to own an estate one day, he said he was not qualified. Although pursuing a business education at the local college in Srimangal, he is not qualified probably because he is not in line to inherit an estate nor a member of the Bangladeshi government. Tea leaves must be handpicked; there is not mechanized method of harvest. Highly skilled workers, predominantly women, pick the bright green leaves which come in a set of three. The workers make 48 taka per day on this estate (almost 60 cents). 


If we didn’t have to catch our train that evening, I could have hiked through Zareen Tea Estate all day, all week, maybe even an eternity. During the tour, I was speechless. All I could say was, “Wow, this is beautiful. I can’t even explain how beautiful this is.” None of us wanted to return to Dhaka. We joked about disappearing in the tea bushes and cutting off our city contacts. We reluctantly packed up our eco-cottage and endured the 5 hour train ride back to Dhaka. Clearly in denial that the best weekend ever had ended, we missed our train stop and took a terrifying CNG ride from Old Dhaka to our places. Our driver last night was the craziest driver I have had in Dhaka. Normally vehicles follow the big shark little shark rules of the road, but this guy had no regard for trucks or cars. Speeding through small alleys, we soared over potholes, almost capsizing. At one point, I banged on the barrier between the driver and passengers, wailing to be let out. He thought this meant go straight (the direction I had been trying to tell him to go), so we finally headed the right direction down Gulshan Avenue. Funny how language barriers work. This rude awakening certified that I was back in Dhaka.
Striking a pose on the rickshaw while our drivers were M.I.A.
 Universal Studios should have cast me as E.T.




The weekend in Srimangal showed me a world I did not know existed. I fell in love with an enchanting place of serenity, solitude, and overwhelming beauty. After countless cups of to-die-for tea, one of the interns and me abused the phrase "cha koob moja cheelo" meaning "the tea is very delicious." This morning I learned that this phrase can also mean "very fun" or "very funny" depending on the context. Maybe I can even say "Srimangal koob moja cheelo." Before this weekend, I was not sure if I would ever visit Bangladesh again. Now I know that I cannot die before visiting Srimangal again.