"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Monday, November 21, 2011

Finding Peace in the Midst of 12 Million People

As the saying goes, “My how time flies…” Almost a year ago I wrote a post about my then recent trip to Bangladesh. As the one-year anniversary of my return from that trip approaches I’ve been reminiscing about my experiences there. So, here’s more of the story.

Our first day in Dhaka was spent getting familiar with the city and shopping for some traditional tunic tops for Aimee and I. First, though, we needed to go to the ATM for some taka. It was weird to make a withdrawal for 25,000, which was the equivilent of about $325.00 U.S. dollars. Then it was off to the bank for change. In Bangladesh, they don't like to give out small bills. Luckily, the bank employees were feeling friendly that day, took mercy on the American tourists, and broke our large bills into smaller denominations. 

After a couple of days exploring in the city, the six of us loaded into our chartered van and headed to Srimangal, the tea capital of Bangladesh. We weren't the only ones leaving the city. Eid al-Ahda (the feast of sacrifice), a major Muslim religious holiday was being celebrated the next day. Many people return to their villages to celebrate Eid with their family, so traffic was crazier than usual.  People were literally packed on the top of buses and trains that were already filled beyond capacity. The streets were filled with people leading goats and cows home in order to sacrifice them the next day. I felt sorry for the animals, many of them brightly festooned with flowers and paper garlands, being led unknowingly to their fate. 

Here's a video clip to give a sense of the street noise in Bangladesh.

Travelers packed on top of a bus.
The drive to Srimangal was kind of harrowing. Roads in Bangladesh are notoriously dangerous and accidents are common. The posted speed limit on most highways is ridiculously low, and everyone drives as fast as they want.  Narrow highways are shared by large buses, trucks, cars, CNGs, rickshaws, bicyclists, and animal-pulled carts. The center line on two-lane divided highways is driven on like it's a third lane!  For most of the drive I put my head down trying to focus on reading and attempted to tune out the frequent exclamations of "Oh my Hell!" and "We're going to die!"around me. At one point a car coming from the opposite direction passed so closely it tore off our passenger side mirror. Here's a video clip from that day.

The drive was worth it though. Srimangal was amazing! We stayed at a small eco-cottage on a lime plantation. The thatched hut cottages were the perfect mix of rustic and civilized. There was running water (although the promised hot water never worked), indoor plumbing and electricity. All of our meals were prepared and served in the main house, which was just up the path from our cottages. The food was amazing, and I looked forward to the delicious sweet, hot tea served at the end of every meal.  
The front porch of our cottage.
The main house.
Celebrating Eid with sweet pastries from our host.
My brother and sister-in-law had stayed there numerous times and become friends with the owner. He  invited us to witness the Korbani (sacrifice) that would be performed the morning of Eid. Because this is a sacred Muslim religious ritual, it was very kind of him to allow three non-Muslim strangers to witness the Korbani. On the morning of Eid we walked across the street to his home and went around back where the ceremony would be performed. The whole thing was much more quiet and calm than I expected. Other than the death rattle of the cow, which was awful! I stood back, hiding behind my camera, snapping pictures and trying not to think too much about what I was witnessing.  
Preparing for the Korbani.
After the Korbani, we went back to the cottage where our host brought us a plate of traditional sweet treats prepared for Eid by his wife. After eating our snack and letting our minds recover from what we'd just witnessed, we headed up the road to explore the village. The atmosphere in the village that day was festive. Everyone was dressed in their best clothes with most of the young girls in bright new Eid dresses. Many of the women and girls had fresh Mehndi on their hands and feet. Everyone greeted us cheerily with "Eid Mubarak!" (Blessed Eid). It was a happy day of celebration, and everyone we met seemed happy to have us share it with them.  

As we walked through the village a young girl waved to us from her window. We pointed at the Mehndi on her hands, motioning that we liked it. My sister-in-law, Sam, could understand the girl and turned to us to tell us she was asking if we wanted her to paint some Mehndi on our hands. Of course we did! The six of us crowded into the small house, which was already full of family and friends there for Eid. Neighbors gathered in the doorway and peered in through the windows to see the six Americans, and to watch us have henna applied to our hands. We laughed and chatted with the kids, many of whom knew a few English words and were excited to show the Americans what they knew. I treasure my memories from that morning--the welcoming villagers, the generosity, and the feeling of warmth and kindness from nearly every person we met.   
A work in progress.
Curious kids watching us get Mehndi.
Aimee, Sam and I with our Mehndi artist.
The three days and nights we spent at the eco-cottage were so relaxing. Our days were spent exploring and sightseeing. Evenings were spent chatting on the porch of our cottage drinking cocktails made from our makeshift, limited bar. Dark came early, and every evening by 7 p.m. I was ready for sleep.For the first time in months I slept soundly, cuddled under heavy quilts, surrounded by mosquito netting. Early every morning before sunrise, I'd lay drowsily half asleep listening to the morning call to prayer being broadcast over loudspeakesr. The chanting soothed me, and I'd drift back to sleep to the sound of it.  
Our makeshift bar. 
Jon clowning for the camera while Atticus & Sam shop for snacks.

Before arriving in Bangladesh, I was worried about how I would cope with the poverty and beggars I'd see. I live a very comfortable middle-class life and I'd never before been confronted with such extreme poverty. Beggars and physically handicapped, disfigured people are everywhere. They surround you on the streets and swarm around cars stopped at intersections. Luckily, Jon and Sam educated us all on how to deal with the beggars, helping me be comfortable with the nearly constant onslaught. It was fun to watch them interact with some of the children that begged at a particular intersection.They had developed relationships with some of them and the children knew not to ask every day. With a few, they'd negotiated a deal that Jon and Sam would give them money every few days, if they in turn respected their space and didn't beg every time they saw them. One of the many reasons I love Jon and Sam is the respect they have for people, regardless of their circumstances. They've taught me so much about accepting people from all walks of life, seeing them as equals deserving of the same human rights, dignity and respect as anyone, regardless of material circumstances. 
While the women shopped, Jon & Atticus found some fun.
Sam buying a dress for a young beggar girl.
Jason & Jon bought dresses for some beggar girls we'd grown fond of.

One day near the end of my visit, we were walking down the sidewalk, followed by a crowd of curious locals as usual. Aimee and I were talking about the trip, and how we still had to pinch ourselves to believe we were really there. We'd done it! We hadn't just talked about how nice it would be to go, wishing and dreaming, but not acting. We made it happen. We were talking about everything we liked about Bangladesh, and getting a little misty-eyed at the thought of leaving. That's when it occurred to me, right there on a crowded, noisy sidewalk somewhere in Dhaka. I was at peace. Finally, after months of functioning under a cloud of sorrow and grief, I was living again. For over a week, I'd traveled and explored, never once afraid of memories lurking around a corner or in a particular house or place. There were no memories there for me. Everything was new. Not a single place or experience there reminded me of Julie. Until that moment I hadn't realized how heavily my memories had been weighing on me. Somehow, unconsciously, imperceptibly, I'd turned a corner while I was there. I remembered how to live in the moment, looking forward to new experiences and adventures.  

There are so many things I love about Bangladesh. The beautiful, friendly people, the history, the green rice paddies, the food, the clothes, the tea, the noise, the chaos, the savvy, entertaining beggar children, and relaxing evening rickshaw rides through Dhaka. But more than all those things, I'll always remember and be grateful for the way being there helped heal my soul.  

Me enjoying a rickshaw ride.
Tasting 7-layer tea.
Dressed in saris for a night out.
Me and my brother Jon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. Your wonderful mom pointed me in your direction since our son, Jon is living in Dhaka right now. Jon spoke also of Srimangal and I have a post scheduled about his impressions in a couple of days.


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