My Bangladesh Adventure:
A Journey of Discovery
October 2005. The 17-hour flight was the least of my worries as I waited patiently with my parents in Vancouver airport, Canada about to embark upon the most intense journey of my life. The flight schedule was straight-forward enough even though the kilometers were long and I was being flown to the other side of the world. The flight path was Vancouver to Seoul, Seoul to Singapore, Singapore to Bangkok, and finally Bangkok to Dhaka. Getting on the plane, my mind was flooded with all kinds of thoughts about what it was going to be like, I knew it wasn't going to be easy, this wasn't just a simple get-away-from-home vacation for a week or two to go and rest and unwind.
This was something I wanted to do, to change my vision and perspective on the world, to help me understand other peoples and cultures. I was embarking on a 4-month trip to spend time in Bangladesh working with a non-government organization called RDRS (Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Services). My parents flew down with me to spend a week getting me settled in and visiting their dear Bangladeshi friends, then, assuming I was 'adjusted' flew off to Australia leaving me in the very capable hands of their friends in Dhaka and RDRS.
In addition to the green countryside, the humidity and temperature differences were the first things I noticed when we arrived in Dhaka. I remember the feeling so distinctly, it was as if I had landed on another planet. My father's very good friend, Iqbal Rahman, was the one who greeted us. It had been 3 or 4 years since we have seen him, Iqbal and his wife Nazreen were my local guardian in Bangladesh. As we loaded our luggage and bags into his car, everything around me was so different, the tropical vegetation (remember, I come from Canada where the only thing tropical is bought in cans), the armed police men walking around with heavy machine guns, the beggars walking around with no shoes on, it was all so surreal for me. It took a little longer than the week my parents had stayed with me to become adjusted to the change in lifestyle and the new country that was to be my home for the next four months.
My first experience with the poverty of Bangladesh occurred within minutes of leaving the airport, sitting in traffic at a red light a woman with a very infected, very diseased cut from her elbow down to her hand came up to the car and was showing us her cut, trying to get help. The saddest thing about it is that it is the standard to just ignore them. I remember that gut-wrenching feeling of sadness as I saw this take place. I came to realize that there is often little choice but to do so.
I spent 2 weeks with Iqbal and Nazreen touring the city, visiting many different parts of Dhaka, getting a feel for the culture of the city. Spending time in Dhaka was a fraction of what I had come to Bangladesh to do. Getting used to the life style change in Bangladesh like the food, the people, the culture, the 12 hour time difference. The heat was tough, but after a few weeks I felt more comfortable being there. On the 2nd week in Dhaka I met with the president of RDRS to meet and discuss my itinerary for my field work. This is what I really came here to do.
I spent 3 months in the rural areas of Bangladesh in places like Thakguraon, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, and toward the end of my trip I spent 7 days on the Char Islands of Bangladesh. These are the islands that are flooded every year because of the monsoon season, causing all the inhabitants to move and start again with nothing every year. It had been arranged so that I could spend one week of every month in Dhaka, which was very good for me, Dhaka was the place in which I met other Canadians. There was actually a Canadian Club where you could congregate, work out, swim, so this was like a life line for me in the middle of this very, very different world. The other 3 weeks of the month I would spend in rural Bangladesh. The RDRS head office was in the rural city of Rangpur, this office was called the Northern Bengal Institute and was where I spent most of my time.
Yet, I would also journey even further away from civilization during my time in Rangpur because 5 or more days out of every week I spent out in the field. These places were the most desolate places one could think of. Most of my time I felt so alone out there yet I survived and I wouldn't be the same person I am right now if I had not experienced this.
RDRS operates out of Rangpur yet none of their field work takes place there, all the administrative duties are taken care of in Rangpur, but all the field work, like working with the poor, working with schools, were all done outside of Rangpur in areas even more rural and desolate. Words cannot be placed on paper to describe my experiences and feelings in Bangladesh, it was the most eye opening, life-changing experience I have ever encountered.
One of the most cherished moments I will always hold with me was working with this one tiny school on the Char islands. I spent a day with the children there talking about myself, learning about them, showing them where Canada was and where my home was (with a translator of course). These beautiful children showed me in words and actions how you can be happy no matter where you are, smiles across the faces of all children. One thing that I will always remember is that no matter where you go, a smile is a universal language and no matter what language you speak, a smile is the same in every language.
From attending children's school class to sitting in on board of education meetings, I did a lot of job shadowing with RDRS members to observe what they do to better empower the rural poor. In the process, I earned a better understanding of how NGO'S like RDRS operate, and came to respect the tremendous dedication of this organization and the people who run it. It expanded my mind on how much NGOS like this actually help the poor, from the smallest things like providing children with high energy biscuits, to providing micro finance loans to struggling farmers. Also the beauty of Bangladesh was exposed to me in a different way when I visited Chittagong and Cox's Bazar.
As Iqbal use to quote to me from a Bangla saying,
“You come to our shore as a stranger
We invite you to our home as a guest
Hoping when you leave our shore you leave as a friend”
I have certainly left Bangladeshi more then a friend
As my experience in Bangladesh was life changing and I am just waiting for the day I get the opportunity to go back. At my young age of twenty I have been to over 10 countries in this world, and Bangladesh is one country that I hold in my heart, body and soul forever.
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