Monthly Archives: November 2009

On top of the world

A wise, unidentified and refreshingly foulmouthed (wo)man once said, “Shit happens.” To which I’d like to add, “Even while hanging with monks. Even on top of the world.”

And now, let the wild rumpus of an explanation to this statement begin!

My amazing hosts and I journeyed to Nepal this past weekend to celebrate Thanksgiving and simultaneously avoid the ceremonial sacrifice of a few neighborhood cows, as it also happened to be Eid Ul-Azha in Bangladesh.

The dearly departed

Our hotel in Kathmandu was just down the street from Boudhanath Stupa, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal, where we were able to walk among a host of Tibetan monks offering prayers and tourists seeking peace. Even for those just looking to find a good momo at the home of the world’s highest peaks, it’s hard not to end up delightfully swallowed whole by this place and its quiet energy. (A momo, by the way, is a tasty Nepalese dumpling. Not me.)

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Spiritual scene now sufficiently set, enter “shit” of the comedic incident variety.

After enjoying a dinner of previously mentioned momos, we decided to take a nighttime stroll around the stupa. Most of the crowd from the day was gone, save a few locals lighting candles and children playing in the street. Though it is customary to walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction while also spinning prayer wheels embedded in the wall as a form of meditation, there’s a section where you can enter the interior of the sacred site for further contemplation. And so we did. At the exact moment I was feeling the silence of the space and thinking about my role in the grand scheme of things, my brother, vigorously spinning prayer wheels like a contestant on “The Price Is Right,” jammed his finger between two of them and yelled out “Shit!”

Epic.echoing.fail.

Prayer wheels

A day later, we put our lives in the small hands of a young Nepali taxi driver who promised to deliver us to Nagarkot, a village east of Kathmandu that is renowned for its sunrise view of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. We left for the journey at 4:30 a.m. and sat in silence as he whipped us around dark, skinny, undeveloped mountain roads in a car that had some working seatbelts and few endearing features. After parking and breathlessly making our way up a trail of steps at an unforgiving altitude, we were welcomed at the final point of our destination with the utterance of one word from our driver, who until then had spoken nothing. The word, as you might have guessed, was “Shit!”

As it turns out, even the top of the world has its cloudy days. We couldn’t make out the range or the sunrise, but we sipped tea and shivered among other hopeful tourists from England, who sang Christmas carols and occasionally threw out the word “bloody” in swoon-worthy British accents.

A chilly morning in Nagarkot

I suspect that if you’ve made it this far into the blog post, you’re wondering what the point to this slightly immoral story might be. Keep in mind that I come from a family whose members jam their fingers in Buddhist prayer wheels, but for me these moments served as reminders that shit does happen, but so does grace and hilarity. You can’t fully experience or appreciate one without the others, so try to take life as it comes, trust the sun is rising even if you can’t see it and when the light eventually arrives (most often when you least expect it)… shit, enjoy the view:

A surprise view of the Himalayas on the plane ride home

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Southern (Asia) Comfort

Whenever I meet people in Bangladesh who are not locals and tell them this is my first trip overseas, they generally raise their eyebrows and pat me on the shoulder while delivering some sarcastic line about how I chose “quite the location” to begin my traveling. As one of the world’s most impoverished and least developed countries, it’s not much of a draw for tourists looking to see and experience South Asia comfortably. It’s crowded and chaotic and once used the unsuccessful (or would it be successful?) slogan “Visit Bangladesh before tourists come.”

Yet, I am feeling quite lucky this is where my passport has taken me.

Though the movement of this place has made an impression with its rickshaws, pedestrians and cars that play a perpetual game of chicken on the streets, it is the mood of Bangladesh that will stay with me long after I leave. Ask anyone who has ever had the chance to stumble into this unique territory what they remember most about their time here, and I’m willing to bet my stomach-saving bottled water that it’s the people.

A few years ago, British economist Richard Layard did a happiness survey with the London School of Economics that turned into a book. The study found Bangladesh was the happiest nation in the world in spite of also being one of the poorest. Most of the richer countries, like the United States, Japan, Canada and Britain, ranked much lower on the list. While these results quickly conjure up the old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness,” I think there’s actually more to these findings. It’s not that the people of Bangladesh have learned to be happy by living with so little. It’s that they give so much of themselves to those they meet… whatever they can afford to part with, impart and more.

In an instant, they invite you into their home and offer you a cup of cha (tea), or haul a wooden chair to the middle of the village for you to sit in while they stand and answer any questions you might have of them in intense heat. They pour themselves into their work and families and conversations. They listen instead of just waiting to speak. They wish you well on your journey. They value community. In fact, the microfinance movement of enabling low-income people to lift themselves out of poverty through small loans began in Bangladesh — not the deep-pocketed divisions of our globe that actually had the means.

Tomorrow, my Thanksgiving may not include the traditional trimmings of marshmallow-laden sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce and dressing, but I’ll certainly bring a better understanding of what it means to give to the table thanks to this greatly underestimated country.

Use your words

thumbsup

In the past week, I have managed to flip off two Bangladeshi men who I was trying to tell “thank you” and “good job” to with a very American thumbs up. I don’t know why I’ve resorted to this mode of communication, as I wasn’t one to really whip out the opposable digit before, but to my detriment I’ve been very thumb happy here. Only recently did my brother kindly inform me that in Bangladesh, it’s the equivalent of giving someone the bird. While an unfortunate lesson to learn in this sweet country, it’ll be my little secret weapon when I get back to the states. Mine and all three readers of this blog (Hi, Mom! Let’s Skype this weekend).

As my Bangla is lacking (existence), I’ve had a lot of time to think about language here. And as someone who is planning to go to grad school to earn a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, it’s something that should be on my mind. It’s been an invaluable experience to be reminded of the tremendous effect that being understood can have on a person — the connection that occurs and transformative power that is found and felt in a moment when one truly feels heard. And in turn, the awkwardness, frustration and loneliness that sets in when one is not.

On Sunday, I visited a remote village in Mymensingh, where I was asked to gather stories of how Habitat homes have changed the lives of those who have partnered with the organization there. Even though I had a translator present to help with the interviews, his English was somewhat limited and difficult to understand at times, leaving me to rely on short, simple words and a lot of smiling. The assignment was taxing, but worth the reminder of the actions, desires and challenges that unite us all, in spite of language and socioeconomic barriers.

I’ve found that phrases I’ve unconsciously collected through the years — “Use your words,” “Say what you mean, and mean what you say,” “Shoot the puppy” — have resurfaced in my daily mindset and approach to conversations here. Relax, PETA supporters and friends with furry loved ones. In journalism, “shoot the puppy” refers to painfully letting go of a part of your story that you love, but know is not essential to the piece; its presence would distract the reader or weaken the overall impact of the story, so you edit it out. It’s been fascinating to discover what I’ve managed to learn, communicate and understand without my puppy, Sarcasm, in Bangladesh. In the U.S., where I’m conveniently able to share an abundance of words with those around me, often very little is actually said in some ironically verbose conversations.

The other day, a coworker of mine at Habitat pointed out that the street kids in Dhaka, who tug on your shirt and heartstrings and mill about the cars and rickshaws begging for money, never really learn how to use or understand future tense. What they’re able to scrape together in a day, they have to use for food or other essentials in the same breath. They can’t save, because they run the risk of getting mugged. Planning or talking about tomorrow is a foreign concept; there is only now. A sad reality for sure, but one that those of us who live comfortably manage to forget actually applies to us as well.

For all, there is no day but today to say what you mean and mean what you say, so shoot the puppy and use your words.

Shop Class as Soulcraft

“There are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.” -Matthew Crawford-

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I stole the title of this blog post from Matthew Crawford, a philosopher and mechanic who wrote the book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” to make people examine what we’ve lost by ceasing to work with our hands and how we can get it back.

As I was visiting St. Joseph’s School of Industrial Trades today in Dhaka, I thought a lot about Crawford’s words and the challenge and importance of finding work that not only connects you to your community, but also back to yourself.

About 150 male students (between 15-20 years old) from all over Bangladesh apply to be part of this 3-year program, which teaches them all the necessary skills to build high-quality furniture from reclaimed wood by hand. The sale of their amazing work fully supports the school’s operations. Beyond that, it offers them job security in a place where education is scarce and poverty is rampant.

To see more photos, check out my album here.

Commissary loves company

wine glassAnyone who has ever sat near me before, during or after meals, or most notably, in achingly quiet situations (like a movie with multiple dramatic pauses or ceremony with long speeches and honored guests) knows I have a very temperamental stomach that’s really into letting me know it’s there. We have this game where it growls at the most inopportune moment, I pat it like I’m trying to appease a small, feisty animal, and it just growls again. Loudly. And longer. I love this game. It’s awesome.

As such, I was a bit concerned as to how said beast would take to the food of Bangladesh. One week in, I’m happy to report and knock on wood that all is quite well, spicy and delicious. I’d be remiss not to include the fact that the comforts of home — Cheerios, Blue Bell ice cream, red red wine — are available at a U.S. commissary not far from where I’m living. I took a trip there yesterday with my sister-in-law and quickly learned that the most crowded aisle is where they keep the beer and wine. As it’s illegal for anyone who’s not an expat to drink alcohol in the country, the commissary is the only place where you can buy it in Bangladesh. A group of guys who had just arrived to the country and looked like fraternity brothers but were actually with the Department of Defense were rejoicing at the sight of a case of Fat Tire. Had I seen any Raisinets, I suppose I would have felt the same.

Regardless of this easy access to a few guilty pleasures, I’m actually happiest when I’m getting to try the local fare. During a meeting my first day at work, plates were passed around with a snack I would later learn was a samosa, which is a pastry stuffed with very.spicy.vegetables. There’s a guy on the staff who has been watching to see if I will be able to “hang” with the locals. Of course, I have taken this on as my new favorite challenge, so I shoved the pastry in my mouth as he watched to see my reaction, maintained eye contact and gave him a defiant smile. Seconds later, my mouth immediately felt like it caught on fire and there was no water in sight for the next two hours. I never let on, though. Too legit to quit… hey, heeeey.

For lunch each day at Habitat, we eat a family style meal that has been prepared for us by a very dear Bangladeshi named Moses, whose smile has been my favorite to encounter here. The spread, which amazingly only costs me Tk 45 (less than $1), typically includes a curry made with vegetables, chicken or fish cooked in a hot spicy sauce, dahl (cooked yellow lentils) and plain rice. Utensils are not included. Though it doesn’t seem like there should be an art to eating with your hands, the first day I dove in, the guy next to me asked if it was my first time. I don’t know if he could tell by the rice on my lip or my lap, but I laughed and then promptly received the lesson to make your handful of food as compact as possible and push it into your mouth using just your thumb. It’s also important to note that it’s customary to only use your right hand when it comes to food here. The left hand is considered unclean, given its use in the bathroom. Enough said.

So I’m learning, happily and slowly, and digesting the lessons at the end of each day with a glass of red wine in my right hand and a happy stomach receiving pats from my left. Pictures soon, I promise.

Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh

Tomorrow, I will be starting my internship with Habitat for Humanity Bangladesh. Please watch this video and learn more about the important work that is taking place here :

International basket case

Though I have no concept of what time or day it is right now, I am certain of my location — I am finally in Bangladesh. Prior to my arrival, I had an overnight stay in Singapore that allowed me to see a bit of the city. Since western influences and conveniences abound there, it was not too much of a shock to my system. I’m sure the colorful chaos of Dhaka will promptly make up for that.

I shared with a friend that in my reading about Bangladesh, Henry Kissinger once described it as an “international basket case.” The irony that I’ve come here to find a measure of peace is not lost on me. All too often, though, I think people equate finding peace with being quiet and still. So easily we forget that whether it’s within ourselves or on a larger scale, peace is something that we make; it requires action. I’m looking forward to getting wrapped up in the whirlpool of activity that this city seems to offer and learning all that I can from its people.

I hope to be better about taking pictures than I usually am, but for now I only have a few to share from my day in Singapore. Aside from walking through China Town and Little India, my brother and I had the chance to visit the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (Say that three times fast! Thankfully, I am able to pronounce the city I will be living in). The first picture is of Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and change. As I myself am experiencing a great time of transition, I found what I learned about her to be quite helpful to reflect on. In Bengali tradition, Kali is said to not give what is expected. Her refusal to do so enables those that follow her to “reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond the material world.” In other words, you can’t always get what you want. And in turn, it’s not always what you actually need.

kali

The Goddess Kali

China Town

China Town

Singapore highrise

Singapore highrise

For the next two months, I will be living in a place that Lonely Planet describes “shows the haves and the have-nots in crystal clarity.” As an American staying with a diplomat and volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, it would be easy to only assume that I have come to do good, pay it forward, share the wealth, etc. In reality, I know my exposure to the stories I am soon to hear will give me far more than I am able to return.