It has been a little less than a year and half since I returned from my adventures in Bangladesh. I was compelled to write this post, mostly because memories from that green country flooded my mind in vivid detail as I sat in graduation chairs in December, reviewing the experiences that made my undergraduate years so rich.
Experiences like first rickshaw ride of my life on my 20th birthday. Little did I know I would have hundreds more. Places like Bismillah Fried Chicken, Kamal Ataturk Avenue (this was a sign!) that brought comfort, laughter and adventures and others like the upper floor of BRAC and Dhaka slums that brought me a harsh dose of reality. The serenity of the chars and my very humbling realization that I’d never really experienced real darkness, in a world I saw from the dock of the EFH – no electricity, little connection with the outside world. I remember and miss the effervescent streets – the honks and bickering of the rickshawallas.
The walk to and from work every day and stopping by the mango stand at the corner to pick up breakfast. It only took me a couple of days to realize that I wanted to walk to work, despite parental concerns. It was a very explicit decision not to experience or see Bangladesh from car windows. Worth it 100%, no matter how many stares I got. The monsoon rains and the consequent reaction of the Earth, as if everything had taken a collective sigh of relief. Debates with European businessmen during my few excursions to the foreign clubs of Dhaka – little, protected worlds where many fall numb to the inequities that surround them – about development in Bangladesh. Rocking back and forth for hours on end in boats in transit to chars, or in the buses that introduced me to rural Bangladesh. My patience is one thousand times stronger as a result of these journeys.
A dear Bhai from work telling me stories about the Dhaka of his childhood. A dear grandmother of a colleague who took my hands and kissed them after I kissed her in traditional custom for Ramadan, and the way my eyes welled up in tears because my grandfather used to kiss my hands, too. We are all more alike than we think. Hearing the drums pound during Eid from a rooftop in Dhaka, with the sun setting after a heavy rain. The way everyone, everyone, seemed to smile with their eyes.
When I was in Bangladesh, people asked me all the time why I came. I was never quite sure how to answer. The realities of the health infrastructure in Bangladesh and the obvious societal inequities taught me more about the importance of developing social responses to health issues than I could have ever imagined. It is certain that this realization has now permanently shaped the rest of my career.
Bangladesh was a time for me to truly exercise my love for humans, discovery, and ethnography; it was a time of constant motion, seeing, and doing. It was, and still is, substance and meaning for me as I envision and chart a course for myself in public health.
In his early experiences in Haiti, Paul Farmer was confronted with the ethical question of leaving a place behind, after having seen its problems and met its people. Such awareness inspired him to dedicate his life as well as his passion for public health and anthropology to addressing the roots of the problems he experienced. On a related note, a dear friend, one of my favorite writers, also pondered this question of observation versus “full” participation in a travel blog years ago, asking: “what does one do with a passion, a powerful and motivating interest, in another society? To do nothing but observe it feels futile. Where is the middle way?”
After all, this is the question of the traveler, one who is lucky and unlucky all at once to have had nomadic experiences that have awakened him or her to the implications that there is a world beyond ours – one which, no matter how hard we try, we cannot fully know. And yet, this same world is just as easily impacted, affected and often infected by our actions, even from thousands of miles away.
For me, the opposite is also true – my memories from Bangladesh, fleeting in nature, still very much influence me. And though my personal philosophy around travel binds me to the humble realization that I still have so much to learn and perhaps more importantly, that I will never fully know, my experiences in Bangladesh are anchored deeply into my personal history. These anchors have since created a new depth in my life and career, one that I hope will enlighten and inform my passions and interests moving forward, no matter where I am.