Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adventure 1

The beauty of my present living situation is that I am staying 19 floors below my desk. Yes, the BRAC Inn is in the same office building as BRAC the NGO. After hearing numerous people urgently tell me multiple times not to go out after dark alone, I became slightly agoraphobic. For me, that means not going outside for about 48 hours. So, I planned an adventure for myself. Since I am not quite ready to haggle with Bangladeshi drivers, I decided to limit myself to somewhere within walking distance. Thanks to my Lonely Planet: Bangladesh guide, I decided to check out Books Express. Here, I could purchase some of the top ten reads to get into the Bangladesh mindset. As a bonus, Lonely Planet also said that the cakes served in Books Express are "epic."

BRAC's chai wallah makes the best tea!
When the work day came to a close, I walked over to the elevator and chatted with one of my co-workers. She is a native Bangladeshi and graduated from a college here. When I told her where I was living she giggled, since it is quite ridiculous that I theoretically never have to leave this building, and said "At least you don't have to deal with the rush hour." As I giggled, my agoraphobia sank in again. Suddenly, the outing I had planned did not feel quite as doable. A Bangladeshi friend of mine from college once described Dhaka as "rush hour in New York City...all the time." But, my cabin fever was hot, and I was going to walk the streets of Dhaka no matter how uncomfortable it was.

And uncomfortable it was. At least the city has pseudo sidewalks; that I was not expecting. But for ten minutes after I returned from my adventure, I could still hear beeping in my ears, and no, the beeping was not coming from outside my window. Bangladeshi drivers honk their horns constantly and incessantly. It is as if they must reinforce their turn signals (yes, they do use their turn signals). If their vehicle does not have a horn, they have a bell or some sort of noise making device. As for pedestrians, Godspeed. At some intersections, there are stop lights, but certainly not walk signs, especially not walk signs that speak to you and warn you that you have fifteen seconds before the traffic light turns yellow, not even red. When I arrived at the loud, busy, scary intersection in Gulshan (a neighborhood of Dhaka), I first looked to the road to determine which cars were moving and which cars were stopped. Confused, I turned to the traffic lights to determine which cars were supposed to be moving and which were supposed to be stopped. Deducing that red must mean "go really, really fast" here in Dhaka, I looked to a group of locals and crossed the road in their midst.

After finally crossing this giant intersection/roundabout/free for all, I faced my biggest fear, the true reason why I had become so agoraphobic. I was terrified to face the poverty that I knew awaited me in the streets. Having to ignore a barefooted four year old girl, who both gently and desperately stroked my arms, turned my stomach. Seeing limbless teens sitting on the side of the road, I couldn't understand how this happened. I began realizing this during my pre-trip vaccinations: I have taken my health care for granted. I don't want to speak for the entire United States, but I think many Americans take their Health Care for granted. Certainly our system isn't perfect; it has its "winners" and "losers." But, we have eradicated so many diseases in the U.S. because of sophisticated sewage systems, organized trash collection, and modern medicine.

Although it may not have looked like it from my perspective, Bangladesh is certainly on its way to great health improvement. BRAC has helped educate millions of impoverished people on how to live hygienically. It has provided assets and trained millions more to provide healthcare to their community members. One of the Social Enterprises I will get to work with which deals with healthcare is called BRAC Salt. It crushes, iodizes, packages, and sells 13,000 metric tons of salt to Bangladeshis every year to help prevent iodine deficiency diseases. BRAC found a way to inexpensively and properly iodize salt, but what's even cooler is that this enterprise was made possible by the 120 Bangladeshis employed by BRAC Salt and the Community Health Volunteers who deliver and sell the salt to their villages. BRAC intends for Bangladeshis to take ownership of their work. Instead of giving hand outs to the kids I saw in the street today, I hope my work at BRAC can help these kids pull themselves out of poverty and into a life of great health.

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