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Last Ramblings

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.

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A Day Off

*July 6, 2011

The past several weeks have flown by with the same resolute wind that blew me to Bangladesh in the first place. But it’s amazing how different things look when you take a step back.

I had my first day off with Sareeta Apa today. We traveled to Chilmari and took a rickshaw to drive us around the village of Machabanda, a serene place surrounded by clusters of rice fields, divided by elevated dirt roads. Sareeta Apa wanted to walk, so two young girls offered to lead the way to a beautiful spot in between two fields, next to a small stream. It was there Sareeta Apa and I sat in silence, facing a vivid scene of goats and fishermen and water and trees, as bubbly monsoon clouds flirted with the sunset light in the distance. One of the most flooring things about being in the chars is just how tangible the silence is, especially after the bedlam of Dhaka.

Silence amidst beauty in the chars

We weren’t sitting in silence for long, as word spread like wildfire around the village that a bideshi (tourist) had arrived. At one point, I counted 18 children surrounding us. I also wasn’t doing my best at not attracting them, as I had started to practice some of my Bangla with the two girls that had led us to this spot. One of the girls that later joined us was 17 years of age. Her face was just ebullient, though it also revealed a maturity that I’m certain I didn’t have when I was 17. When I told her I was from Istanbul, she said one day she would come to my country and find me. She extended her hand, shook mine, and put her hand to her heart. A Bengali way to make a promise, I’m told. I’m a big fan.

The tone of the conversation makes it so easy for me to understand what they’re saying and asking, which makes it even funnier for Sareeta Apa when I don’t know how to respond. When Sareeta Apa asked why everyone was so intrigued by me, one of the girls answered that usually when bideshis come, they just sit the kids on their laps and give them money. She says no one has ever tried to speak to them before.

Proof that water is incorporated into all aspects of Bengali culture

During our visit, we also encountered a group of children racing toy boats – their hull made from banana leaves, their sails from thin plastic. No wonder I’ve seen the most beautiful boats I’ve ever seen in my life here – everyone starts training really young!

This boat, and others like it, presents the main method of transportation among the char-dwellers

We traveled back home on a lovely road called Dhormopul, sides lined with long, agile trees. Among rice fields that graced our view from the tuk tuk (one step up from a rickshaw, open and motorized), we also saw many brick guilds and fabric factories.

View from our tuk tuk

On the final boat home, I rode on the top like I have so many times before. I gazed out at the chars at night. It’s a scene devoid of any sort of electrical lights as far as the eyes can see, with only the stars to light up the view.

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