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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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Journey Woes and Lessons

It’s unbelievable to think that it’s only my first day in Bangladesh. I feel like years have passed since I left Cary.

Despite the fact that this is the longest journey I have made in my life, the flights here were all relatively easy-going until Istanbul.

As I was boarding the final plane east at Ataturk International Airport with the mid-journey stop in Karachi, I handed my passport to the Turkish airline official checking the gate passengers. She flipped over the green pages, and finally asked me if I had a visa. I told her I didn’t have one, that Turkish citizens can receive a 90-day visa on arrival. “I’ve never seen a Turkish citizen go without a visa,” she replied. She called over her colleagues to discuss and analyze, and informed me that the only thing the government would give me, maybe, would be a non-extendable “landing permit” for 15 days. At this point, the most incredible feeling of panic had surged into my body. I know I had read, “visa on arrival” on the Bangladeshi consulate website, which I had searched in-depth even before I knew I could come to Bangladesh. I showed the airline officials my invitation letter from Friendship, on the verge of tears, and one of the men said in Turkish, “I mean, I don’t know if they’ll take you, but I’ll sign off. She has a letter and everything.”

I joined the group that had already been checked, probably visibly shaken. A Pakistani woman I had met minutes before came over and asked me if I was okay. I sat, telling her and a surrounding group of people the saga of my Bengali visa, or the lack thereof. A man sitting across from me stated in a Bangla accent I have come to love, “Everything can be done with money. No problem.” One sitting behind me said, “Don’t worry. I know the Director of Foreign Affairs,” and scribbled his name and contact information on a sheet of torn paper. We lined up to board, and a Turkish man waiting behind me said he thought he remembered that they give visas on arrival. He asked me why I was going, I told him about my public health work, and he said, “Are you sure you want to go to Bangladesh? For that long? You know what you’re getting yourself into, right? I went for a week and I regretted it.”

With annoyance, I boarded the plane, to experience the slowest, most torturous eight-hour flight of my life. “What if I can’t get in?” became the only thought in my mind, echoing and strengthening with each passing minute. What would I do? I couldn’t contact anyone – no phone or Internet. I felt like a toad of some sort had lodged itself in the middle of my throat and any real capacity of my brain to think logically was impeded by “what-ifs” and scenario possibilities. I had been nervous before just about the airport pick-up; now, I knew that I would be the luckiest girl in the world if I could just get in.

The sweet Pakistani woman I’d met before sat next to me for six hours to keep me company, talking over possibilities and listening to me. She tried so hard to distract me from my own thoughts, directing my attention instead to the stars at dawn outside our window, or to my family, or to the US.  It is the most incredible act of kindness, to sit with a stranger during their tough time to help them through. We finally landed, and she told me I was welcome to visit her in Pakistan if Bangladesh didn’t let me in, leaving me her phone number and contact information.

Looking at the Pakistani landscape outside of my window during flight (and we weren’t allowed to leave the plane for security reasons when we landed), I noticed that the Karachi seemed extremely dusty and gray. Kind of like the movies, but I wish the same Americans watching those movies could have met some of the Pakistanis on this plane.  A well-educated, well-traveled and multi-lingual bunch, they would make any person think twice about stereotypes.

Life throws the most incredible people at you, right when you need them. I just don’t acknowledge it on a day-to-day basis.  During the wait, I also met a young woman sitting behind me, from the States, researching in rural Bangladesh on a Fulbright. Christy had learned Bangla, and was coming back from a short visit to the States.  She was the embodiment of what I wanted to be – she had an incredibly happy and easy-going spirit, and was extremely comforting to be around, both with the wealth of her wisdom and her down-to-earth mentality. We talked for a long time, and I felt more and more confident I would somehow find a way in. I told her my frustrations about people’s reactions to Bangladesh, how most people felt entitled to have a negative opinion on the country without ever having visited.  We talked about travel, about Dhaka, and she kindly offered to accompany me through immigration control when we landed, which we did, three hours of horrible baby-screaming, bumpy-flying later.

We walked out, and my body became more and more weak under the symptoms of anxiety. We approached the immigration desk, where two Bangla police were checking passports. My turn. My legs disappeared, my hands shook. He flipped the pages of my passport while Christy conversed with him in Bangla, I handed him my invitation letter and he directed me with a smile to the small room of a “visa office” behind us. My eyes had never seen anything so beautiful. Visa-on-arrival? Check. I was given a 30-day visa, not 90, that I can extend once in Dhaka. Even that, I owe to the fast-changing and ambiguous laws of Bengali immigration.

Happy as a clam, I walked with Christy to pick up my luggage, which arrived flawlessly. We walked out with our trolleys past the security cage where hundreds of families were separating or reuniting, taxi drivers were yelling, cars were honking. The monsoon rain had started since our landing, and a dynamic, colorful sight I’d never seen before met my eyes. Certainly, the rain brings life to Bangladesh, and it was the most beautiful sign of good fortune and of livelihood for me.

I got out of the airport just fine and made it to Gulshan-2, where I am staying. I’ve learned some very valuable lessons from this adventure:

  1. Airline officials are likely to know absolutely nothing, even though they boast walkie-talkies and Internet access. DON’T LISTEN TO THEM. If you read something on visa/travel regulations from a reliable and relevant source, print it out to show them. However, specific airlines do reserve the right to not let you board the plane if you do not have a visa, despite what the rules are in the country you’re traveling to. Call ahead and find out. I don’t think I would have been allowed to board in Istanbul if I hadn’t been Turkish and explained myself to them in that way.
  2. Worries are relative. Whereas before the idea of having to find my own way from the airport to my residence was daunting, that worry quickly seemed to disappear in the face of bigger worries.
  3. What goes around comes around. I have definitely accelerated the aging process for my parents by coming here, so it is only right that I also aged 40 years in the actual act of coming to Bangladesh.
  4. The same goes for good, positive acts. I will never forget the beautiful people – Munira, Christy, the Turkish businessmen, and THY hostesses – who provided a much-needed hand of help and encouraging words during a really trying time for me. I am still floored that I was the lucky recipient of such kind-heartedness, and I promise to pay it forward.

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