Monday, September 2, 2013

Dhonnobad Bangladesh

One of my favorite novels of all time is Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. The book is a collection of nine short stories about the lives of Bengali and Bengali Americans struggling to deal with their identities and relationships. One of the most powerful stories in the novel is the first one entitled "A Temporary Matter." A Bengali couple whose marriage is on the brink of collapse decide to use the intimacy afforded them by a series of power outtages to confess to one another all the secrets they have held back over the years. Some of these confessions concern the mundane, others bear more weight, but over the course of five days they share these truths with one as another as a means of saying goodbye. 

I have been in a relationship with Bangladesh for 8 years. While we are not saying goodbye forever but we are parting ways for the foreseeable future. So these are my confessions, my goodbye to Bangladesh. 

My first confession has to be an open display of gratitude for the people and the circumstances that enabled me to come to Bangladesh. I am forever indebted to the generosity of the council behind Northwestern's Research Grants and to the kind donors (To Ann Keech and Ian Gellar here's your special shout out as promised!)and many others for funding this expedition. To my professors who inspire and continue to believe in me, I cannot thank you enough for allowing me to risk my diploma on a paper I had seemingly no authority to write, save for the fact that I was the only person you knew who had read The Big Necessity cover to cover multiple times. Thank you for believing in my passion and for trusting that a sociology paper on the sanitation crisis in Bangladesh was simply what I needed to study. And as always, to the WEAA who continue to support women's educational pursuits. To my parents for being the base I can return to time and time again no matter where I am traveling from. This journey would not have been possible without any of you.

My second confession is to openly acknowledge what a struggle it was for me to maintain this blog. It wasn't the act of writing I found to be so daunting, it was the feelings I couldn't bring myself to authentically convey. So here is essentially a laundry list of some of the emotional experiences I withheld for fear of judgement or disappointment. 

I made mistakes. I gave in to fear when I should have been more open. I didn't make enough of an effort to learn the language. A friend I made in bangladesh pointed out to me how good it can make people feel when you make the attempt, no matter how haphazard, to speak to them in their language. Even if the phrases are as simple as hello and thank you. It makes them feel good and it helps you begin to understand the culture. 
There were moments I hated Bangladesh. Not I kind of disliked it, not a sense of intense discomfort, but open hostility to the fact that I was there. Some of the most difficult moments I had in country were convincing myself to walk down the stairs of my apartment each morning. 
I was afraid to be honest in this blog. I was afraid that my honesty would be distancing and that it would be misinterpreted. So I withheld stories no matter how much they affected me. For example, there was an incident once where I quite literally trod on a beggar child. I was trying to get to the other side of the road and a group of beggar children followed my friend and I as we tried to cross. As I moved from the island in the middle of the road to try and and make a run for it, one of the children darted out from between my legs, and I just completely stepped on the kid. He got up and moved away like everything was fine but I felt so ashamed after the incident. This kid has a hard enough life without needing to be stepped on by the flustered Western woman. I felt like I had committed some cardinal humanitarian sin. Instead of just telling the kids to go away, that I had no money, I thought I could just convince the situation to normalize, and that they would just go away. But we can't wish away the things that makes us uncomfortable or challenge us. 

My third confession is more of a realization: At the end of the day just do you. My greatest moment from Bangladesh, and there were some truly great ones, occurred when I stopped trying to figure out what everyone wanted or expected me to be and I was just myself. There's a story from my first field visit that I never got the chance to mention in this blog. At the end of the visit, the members of the BRAC office are kind enough to provide visitors with lunch. As I began to eat, I noticed that everyone around me was eating with their hands, whereas I was using a fork and spoon. I asked my guide if Bangladeshi people typically ate their meals with their hands. She told me yes but that they gave me utensils because their Western guests seemed to prefer them. I looked down at my plate and back up at her and asked "Well, would you like to see me try" and I plunged my hand into that curry and rice and proceeded to make an utter mess of myself. There really is a skillset to eating Bangladeshi food neatly. I, however, do not possess that skill. My hands were covered, I had rice and curry all over my face, and everyone around me was hunched over laughing at my struggle. And it was one of the greatest moments I've ever had abroad. It's hard to stop worrying about what people will think of you but sometimes it's not so bad to make an utter ass of yourself. Because most of the best times of my life have been when I am acting utterly foolish.  

My fourth confession is that, while I am indeed an actress and a writer, I have come to understand that I am first and foremost an advocate. I have no idea how these aspects of myself will manifest themselves over the course of my life. There is a smorgasbord of worthy causes to invest one's life in. But I believe large scale issues can't be cured until we address the fundamentals. Maybe it doesn't seem like much and it certainly isn't glamorous but I have a very simple thing that I intend to dedicate my life to: making sure every woman has a safe pot to piss in. To me the ability to use a toilet without fear of being beaten, assaulted, or raped is not just a basic human need, it is a fundamental human right. 

For those of you who have been reading along with this blog, you know the story of my disaster filled arrival in Dhaka; I struggled to convince the airport officials that I was staying in the country for as long as I was, I had to hide a painless yet gushing cut on my hand, and was temporarily stranded when the person scheduled to pick me up was a no show. And at that moment I asked myself "Am I sure this is the place I want to be?" So you can imagine my surprise, several weeks later, at finding myself standing inside the waiting area of that same Dhaka airport, preparing to fly back to the States, with a sudden aching in my heart. I didn't expect to be standing in that airport wanting to turn around, to go back to my apartment, to the family I had made. Back home. To Dhaka. What do you when you love the world you are going to just as much as the world you have to leave behind? How do you leave one love for another?

Never before have I been the one who left. And I do mean the one. Amongst my closest friends in Dhaka, I was the first one to head back to their respective point of origin. All of my other travels abroad have centered around events that came with a very specific expiration. We left as a group or in smaller packs. But I've never been the first one to hug everyone goodbye or the one to look back at the closed door for final last time. I'm not the one who leaves. But I did. This time I did and I undoubtedly will again. Such is the price to be paid for the life of a permanent wanderer. But I consider the difficulty in leaving to be one of the greatest rewards of my time in Dhaka. Dhaka is a difficult and challenging place to be. So to feel that urge to dramatically turn through the airport and run home to Road 24 is a testament to the power of the people I have had the immense privilege to meet while there. You transformed Dhaka into a place I wanted to stay. You let me into your world, you shared your lives with me, you gave me a home when I felt lost and homeless. I'll miss you. And I will miss Bangladesh. 

When I flew to Dhaka I was asked three times if I was sure that was the place I wanted to be going. It seems only fitting that my farewell ritual occur in three stages as well. There was a phrase I found uttering to myself over and over again as I made the long return journey. It slipped from my lips as the plane took off from the Dhaka airport. Goodbye love. As the cabin lights dimmed on my flight from Dubai, I whispered it to myself. Goodbye love. And as I passed through the final door out into the lobby of the Philadelphia airport, I looked over my shoulder, searching for a world I knew was thousands of miles behind me, and made one last incantation. Goodbye love. Goodbye Bangladesh. 

Thus my final confession is a simple one: I love Bangladesh. 

One of the few words I successfully learned and regularly employed in Bangla was the word for thank you: dhonnobad. And it's a good thing too because I have so very much to be thankful for. So with gratitude and awe I bid Bangladesh and the life I made there a temporary goodbye. And I do mean temporary. Because if I have one more mistake to account for it's to call this a goodbye. I'll find my way home again. Home to Edinburgh. Home to Beijing. Home to Katmandu. Home to Berlin. Home To Sydney. Home to London. Home to New York New York. Home to Philadelphia. Home to Dhaka. I'll find my way home, wherever home is.  It's easy when your home and your heart are scattered all over the globe. I'm not sure when or how I'll get there by I'll wander my way back someday. I always do. 

'Till next time love. 'Till next time Bangladesh. 

Thank you all so much and safe travels on all your wanderings. 


Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Affair To Remember

In Bangladesh the end of Ramadan culminates in the Eid al-Fitr Festival or "The Festival of Breaking of the Fast." During the Eid weekend the city of Dhaka empties. Rather than stay and try and operate in this ghost town, several friends and I, rather impulsively, decided to take advantage of the diversity and ease of access of the region by taking a short trip to Nepal. The proximity to other countries and cultures remains one of my favorite things about traveling abroad. It makes the whole world seem so possible and available. 

Arriving in Nepal felt like some sort of meet cute from an old Hollywood movie. (A meet cute, by the by, is the moment in a romantic comedy when the two love interests meet, often in an adorable manner.) After a few minor hiccups at the Kathmandu airport (one piece of travel advice: always, always carry extra passport photos with you), getting through some bumpy traffic, I tumbled out of the taxi and was immediately swept in by the sights of Nepal. For me there is an instantaneous chemistry with the place. I feel foolish, I've just come from the reality check that is Dhaka, this place can't be as wonderful as it feels. Surely this is just post landing gratitude for someone who hates to fly. I tell myself that this is only the honeymoon phase of my relationship with Nepal, I'll get over it. 

Never happened. I never fell out of love with Nepal. Maybe there's some magic that floats down from the Himalayas or maybe I'm just the sort of girl who always go weak at the knees for a gorgeous mountain. Even though I've never been to Nepal in my life, it felt familiar, as if I'd returned to some distant but not forgotten haunt of my past. That sensation of familiarity even in a strange place, that was the feeling that had flooded in me in China and Scotland. And that was what I failed to feel in Bangladesh. 

One of the more fantastic things I did in Nepal was go paragliding. During your paragliding session you quite literally run of the cliff face of the Himalayas before the wind lifts you and your sail up. Then you are flying. I had one moment of real fear, one moment where I looked down at the harness that was holding me, and just wondered how much turbulence would it take to make one of those clips snap. But once you're in the air you're in the air. 

                                                                  (Me paragliding)

The paragliding session as a whole lasts for about 20 minutes. It's hard to put into words the sensation I felt while I was up there. I think I was struck once again by how familiar it was. That sense of astonishment, that surge of wonder that seems to radiate through your whole self, I've had it before. I had it when I stood on the Great Wall of China and witnessed the intersection between this spectacular man made monument and nature's prowess. I had it standing in a valley outside of Edinburgh, listening to bag pipe music, as I laughed and teared up at the sheer magnificence of the world before me. Up there, above Nepal, soaring between the mountains and Earth, I found that sensation once more. I would not prescribe myself to any one particular religion or spiritual affiliation. But each of those places, each of those mountains evoked the same sentiment in me: "If there is a God, then they're here. They're in this place."

My short trip to Nepal was utterly wonderful. Almost too wonderful. My reaction to Nepal made me feel as if I were cheating on Bangladesh. It was everything I had wanted Dhaka to be and which Dhaka isn't. Despite both Kathmandu and Dhaka possessing rival poverty rates, I didn't experience the constant solicitation for money that I did in Bangladesh. I've always found the colors in Dhaka to be muted, covered in a layer of grime, whereas in Nepal they were robust and piercing. The atmosphere of the two cities felt different to me. Perhaps this hearkens back to the religious differences between the two nations, Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim whereas Nepal is mostly Hindu, but it was if some oppressive force had been lifted from my shoulders. From my first steps in Dhaka, I had felt this weight, this sense of constant observation, this never ending watching. While the persistent gazing may simply be the result of curiosity, it didn't feel that way to me. But even more than that, it felt as if everyone who stared, and most of the stares were from men as they have a more prominent presence in the public sphere, felt they had the right to look at me. It didn't matter to me if they were looking with animosity or with interest or with welcome, it never sat quite right with me. Because I had no say in the matter. I had no agency. I didn't chose to be looked at, I was chosen, and it was an inescapable decision. I hadn't expected that. None of it was what I had imagined Dhaka to be. Imagine is, however, the key word in that sentence. That's what I had imagined. Not what I had been told, certainly not what I witnessed, but what I imagined. It wasn't Dhaka that disappointed me, it was myself. 

In acting class I am sometimes critiqued for sacrificing the genuine experience of the performance in order to create an interesting stage picture. I think in images and scenarios. Sometimes I see the scene as a beautiful image, a frozen still of emotion, and I try and recreate my performance around that frozen flash I've created in my mind. I came to Dhaka with all these visuals of what life would be like there. When the world I encountered didn't match up with those projections, I struggled. I had an idea of what I wanted Dhaka to be. After being confronted by something quite different than what I had imagined, instead of changing my mindset as I should have done, I pushed away. There were days I didn't want to leave my apartment because I felt so defeated by the world outside. This was not the place I had dreamed it to be. I found myself at an impasse, completely unsure of how to proceed.

One of the fundamental fissures in common developmental strategies is this notion of bringing the preconceived mind sets of an organization into the culture and locale it is trying to assist. We approach improvements in infrastructure from a Western perspective. I appreciate the draw of the tangible. Western society is all about instant gratification, being able to point to a map and say "See! That's how many latrines we built!" provides that. It shows clear, projectable results. This proof then leads to greater donations, which leads to more demonstrations of success, which leads to more contributions, and so on and so forth. This creates a cycle where more and more money is spent on aid with fewer and fewer long term results. Yes, many, many latrines are being built and that is fantastic. But the construction of a latrine is only the first step. People need to be shown how to use and properly maintain it. How do you convince people to take the oft times stigmatized responsibility of cleaning a toilet? What happens if the latrine breaks down? Are there people trained in the community to repair it? Do they have access to the tools they would need?
To be clear, despite my  critiques, I respect the work of organizations who do take this approach. I would rather have them doing something, and an admirable something, than have problems continue to be ignored. Do I consider it to be a bandaid solution? Absolutely. But I'd rather a bandaid on a wound than nothing at all. 

It is hard not to look at Dhaka through the lens of my assumptions. But it is necessary.  Kathmandu was spectacular but it was also a construction. At the end of the day I went to the tourist section of Nepal, a place crafted to make short term visitors fall head over heels for it. Bangladesh doesn't have that. It is simply what it is. That is perhaps the thing I have come to admire most about the country, despite the challenge it has presented to my pre departure notions. The most successful change that is accomplished in Bangladesh is done the Bangladeshi way, even if the source of that change is a Western organization. If you want to help a person or a community or even an entire nation, you have to help the way they need to be helped, not simply the way you want to help them. Because it's not about you, it's about them. What I have finally come to discover is that this might be my research project but it's never been about me. It is and always has been for and about Bangladesh. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sesame Street Life

Toilets are not sexy, especially the ones in Bangladesh, and no one wants to talk about mensuration and diarrheal diseases, separately or in relation to one another. 

Now, the above statement might seem obvious to most to say the least. But these are the topics I have come to Bangladesh to discuss and immerse myself in. One of the most frustrating and unexpected struggles of my research has been my difficulty in getting professionals to openly and freely discuss these topics with me. I find it perplexing how, whilst being interviewed by me, a man working on improving hygiene policies struggles uncomfortably to find a word that is not poop or shit or anything of that ilk (fyi he eventually settles on the desensitized phrase of defecation.) This syntactical limitation is not constrained by gender. I have found that many of the women I've spoken with struggle just as much as men to speak openly with me about bodily functions we both know are a universal experience for women. How is it we can talk about the deformation of women through acid attacks, which I consider a far more disturbing topic of conversation, but end up spending moments in silence while scrambling for a more palatable way to describe a UTI? 

I understand where people are coming from. I've not always talked about bodily functions with the same ease with which I discuss the weather. When I was nine I went through a phase where the only word I would use to describe, and only when absolutely necessary, what I deemed to be an inappropriate and uncivilized bodily function, was excrement. Or if I was feeling particularly causal, I would at times say dung. I believed that if I could not sanitize the function itself I could certainly do so with the language I used. There is, however, a fundamental flaw with that logic. 

I do on some level understand that these are trigger words that makes the average person, regardless of geographical origin, uncomfortable. I recognize that are layers of cultural and societal stigmas that are attached to those words. But if you can't talk about a problem openly then you can't authentically discuss the problem. And if you can't even discuss a problem how are you ever going to solve it?

Language both constructs and mimics the social structures of a society. Part of the reason that Mary Daly, a rather infamous leader in feminist theology and the author of Gyn/Ecology, put forth a proposition for the restructuring of the English language is because she recognized that the ideas and values of a society, especially the more oppressive ideologies, are intimately connected to the language coda of that culture and community. The notion of the power of words is fundamental across belief systems. The same is true of Islam. The ceiling of the Dome of the Rock was inscribed with Quranic verses rather than images. This was done because human imagery was not powerful enough to express the transcendence of communing with Allah. But words were. 

When I speak to a sanitation professional who feels uncomfortable speaking the word diarrhea outloud, I am a direct witness to the way cultural taboos manifest themselves as limiters of progress. Yet of all the discussions and interviews I've had, there is one that stand out as an example of openness and forthrightness. 

I had the privilege of interviewing some of the staff members of Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi branch of Sesame Street. Yup, Sesame Street. Sisimpur, the Bangladesh extension of Sesame Street, premiered in 2006. 

When I walked into their office I was prepared to face the same barriers I had faced in all my prior interviews. After all, this is the office of a children's program. If there were ever a group of people that would want to employ as neutral language as possible I assumed it would have to be these guys. It is a testament to the investment and the high intellectual regard Sisimpur (and Sesame Street in general) has for children that these directors of programming had absolutely no qualms about utilizing candid and graphic language to discuss the issues they hoped to address through their workshops and television programs. When speaking with these two men there was never a moment's hesitation for them in using words like menstruation, diarrhea, poop, feces, shit, period, tampons, pads, etc. This acceptance and attention to the needs of women and girls is reflected in Sisimpur's programming. One of the core characters of their show is the character Tuktuki. Tuktuki is the muppet the most closely resembles a human child and is a she. TukTuki was designed to be a clear example for little girls and women all over Bangladesh. It is through her and her skits and actions on the show that message of female empowerment and health are communicated. 

                                             (Me and my new hero Tuktuki)

I've never before truly appreciated the power of a muppet to transform a society. Maybe it's because I grew up with Sesame Street, never analyzing it from on objective perspective, that I've failed to realize thw immense impact it must have had on shaping my ideas and values. Sesame Street and its international counterparts tackle those subjects that other outlets struggle to address. In the South African Version of Sesame Street, Takalani Sesame, they use one of their muppets to dispel harmful myths about HIV, using the muppets to teach children that it's perfectly safe to be friends with, play with, and hold the hands of an HIV positive child. Sisimpur uses Tuktuki to demonstrate how girls should maintain proper hygiene standards, how they should stay in school, and how they should take pride in themselves. What an utterly beautiful use of the power of media and branding. 

            (In a little corner of the office is an ode to all th Sesame Street's all over the world)

There's something transformative that these muppets are able to ignite. They do it across nations from Bangladesh to Israel to South Africa to the US of A. They are not just characters on a children's show. They are the craftsmen of a space that safely allows adults and children to learn and evolve together. As a theater maker and a proponent of the social obligation of theater, I think that Sesame Street and friends are demonstrative of theater at its finest. They are so much more than a kid's show. They are a revolutionary force for a better world. So next time you son or daughter flips on Sesame Street, wherever you are in the world, do yourself a favor and watch it with them. You won't regret it. 

                              (A picture of a Sisimpur workshop)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Confessions of an Ex Anti-Feminist

Once upon a time I abhorred the word feminism. Rather than associating it with a history of courageous struggles, I thought "Feminists, those are those women that go around without shaving or wearing a bra, touting how much they hate men." Though I have always been pro woman, have always stood for and believed in the autonomous rights of the individual female, I could not reconcile those beliefs with the feminist label. It was an identifier that made me uncomfortable. I felt that to be a feminist was in fact a direct threat to my femininity, to my own sense of self as a woman. I didn't think I could be a feminist and still be me.

One of the great revelations in my young life has been to come to terms with the fact that deep down in the very core of who I am lies a raging and fearsome feminist. I pushed away from feminism when I was younger because I feared that my identity would be subsumed into the swirling ideological mass that are the connotations associated with that word. But I am not pushing anymore. Through a combination of academic study and personal experience I have come to witness the power of being a woman.

I believe that is through women that we can change the world. It is by educating women, empowering women, defending the rights of women, that we can make a decisive shift towards alleviating every major crisis the world faces. And while that statement may be a bit hyperbolic in nature ( let's not forget my background is in the theater), I stand by its sentiment. In one of my classes on women and health, my professor taught me that in order to cure a problem, no matter how insignificant or how grand, you have to start somewhere. My proposition to the world of development and aid is quite simple; start with women. 

Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of being able to speak with a number of dedicated and fascinating people about the issues of gender and sanitation in modern day Bangladesh. But the other day I had a conversation with Professor  Fouzia Mannan, one of the creators of the gender studies program at Dhaka University, and the author whose paper was the primary inspiration for this grant. Her paper on the relationship between gender and sanitation in the implementation of sanitation policies and practices reshaped a subject I had been studying for a long while. I am so very grateful that I had the opportunity to meet with and speak to her first hand about a subject that is very near and dear to us both. But I was unprepared for how difficult I would find the conversation. Coming into this project, I was aware of many of the terrible consequences women face because of their gender in Bangladesh. However, speaking with Fouzia, a woman who has witnessed these incidents firsthand, reminded me that these are not case studies, clinical scenarios drawn up for demonstrative purposes in some scholarly text. These are real women. Real women who develop infections and do permanent damage to themselves because of how long they force themselves to wait to go the the bathroom, because it is simply too inappropriate for a man to see them, or even have the implication of them performing  a perfectly natural bodily function. Real women, who after not being able to relive themselves all day, must risk sexual assault, rape, or even acid attacks. Because to deform a woman is to render her valueless. Because what is the worth of a woman if not her face? 

The one point of contention I have with Bangladesh that I have not been fully able to resolve is the country's treatment of women. Even in the most liberal of circumstances, there is a pervasive attitude towards women that supports their status as second class citizens. I can have a fascinating and insightful conversation with a man about the progress of women's participation in education but then, at the end of the conversation, have to have him rebuff my handshake because, according to the systems of his ideologies, he cannot touch me because I am a woman. 

I was lucky enough to participate in two field visits with BRAC, an international NGO that have been an integral part of developing Bangladesh as a nation since its inception as an independent country in 1971. On these field visits, I was able to witness a diverse range of the programs BRAC offers in rural areas. One of the programs I was able to observe was a part of their human rights sector. In certain regional offices there are human rights lawyers who act as resources for those who might not otherwise have access to legal advice or legal representation. These lawyers will advise and represent clients free of charge Almost all of the people who seek out their help are women. I was very graciously allowed to sit in on the meetings between several women and these lawyers. All three women whom I spoke with were between the ages of 17 and 20. All three women where seeking the assistance of these lawyers in cases of long term domestic violence. All three women had been beaten repeatedly and tortured by their husbands for years at a time. All three women wanted the lawyers help not to seek a divorce but to get their husbands to behave so they could remain married. I asked each of them why they didn't want to seek a divorce. My guide told me that for them it was better to be married than to be a divorced woman with no rights and no place to go. 

These women, these mothers and wives all younger than me, these people with stories and voices of their own, have to make a life decision I will never have to face. No matter what happens, I always have somewhere to go, I will always have a refuge. I struggle to accept a world where the only concept of refuge and safety these women can find is in the hopes of tempering an abusive domestic life. I don't blame these women for an instant. I sit in a seat of incredible privilege. I come from a  culture and a community that, despite its problems, provides me the opportunities and the love to have a choice in this kind of situation. These women have no choice. The ideological construction of the society within which they find themselves doesnot provide for a choice, at least not one that provides them access to their basic human rights.

I found myself a bit despairing after that. How is it possible to break that cycle? To so drastically shift the cultural and ideological foundations of a society? How do you reconstruct a way of life to provide a better life for other members of that society? Is it even possible? Then of course there's the other all important question: do these women want that change? Is this their cause or the cause I've imposed on them? Because if this isn't a fight these women believe in, then it's a fight that can't be won.

But I truly do believe there is something there worth fighting for. I attended a community empowerment meeting where a group of village women all sat down to discuss the problems of the community together. Looking at that group of women was the first time I could see the color and the brightness of Bangladesh. At this end of the meeting I thanked them in Bangla and began to walk away. All of a sudden, from over my shoulder there was a piercing cry of "your welcome!" I wish I could replicate the energy of that cry. I have no idea which of those women replied to me with that unabashed gusto. But I do know that the spirit behind that voice belongs to each of them. 

Not everyone woman wants to be that voice above the crowd. That doesn't render you more or less of a woman. It's simply a choice of expression. For them and for the rest, for those anonymous female voices that catch you when you least expect it, for them I want nothing more in this world than to participate in the construction of a society that provides those women the platform they deserve. 

Sojourner Truth once posed the question "Ain't I a woman?" I think we need to go even one step further than that sentiment, and pose the question for women all over the world "Ain't I a human being?" 

                      (A local community empowerment meeting plus myself)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Little Fall of Rain

Despite having been in Dhaka for several weeks at this point, I still catch myself fumbling sometimes. I still get lost. Like extremely lost. As in I was in a rickshaw for an hour trying to go somewhere that is maybe ten minutes from where I live. Or taking so long to convince a CNG (basically a little green tin cage attached to the flatbed of a moped) driver to take me where I needed to go that I missed an appointment only to realize it was because I was asking for a driver on the wrong side of the road. My ex-pat friends have told me that Bangladesh is a place of habit, you find your center by establishing your own series of habits to ground you in an otherwise unfamiliar world. However, I have the feeling they were encouraging me to pick a regular cafe to visit, not my daily trips down the back alleys of Gulshan Avenue.

The emotional life of an expat in Dhaka is reminiscent of the pattern of a heart rate monitor; there are these immense peaks followed by these even shapers falls. You have days where you are so incredibly excited and invested in the work you are doing here and there are other days when the culture shock and overwhelming nature of the city makes you afraid to leave the apartment. Never before have I so greatly appreciated the sentiment of Bilbo Baggins's renown line "It's a dangerous business, going out your door."

I used to believe that the hardest journey a person could take was the first step. But I don't think that's true. Our first step is the easy one. At that point there's the momentum and the promise of the journey ahead to carry you through, you haven't failed yet. I think the hardest steps are two and three, the ones you need to take after you've learned that it is indeed possible, and in fact quite likely, that you will fail. But if Dhaka has taught me nothing else, it's that when you take those second and third steps you find the journey most worth venturing out for.

Dhaka is a challenging place for me to bond with. There is a part of me that wonders how much that would change over time. If I stayed here for another two weeks or months or years, would I ever come to feel more a part of the place? Or is it really possible to be too different, to be so far removed from another group of people, from another way of life, that the bridge can simply never be crossed? I guess that depends on your definition of what it means to cross a bridge. Whether it be London or Dhaka, it is difficult to ever remove the "difference" that all foreigners to a place possess. Is there a moment in time or a certain length of stay when a person can conclusively say "Yes I now belong to this place. I understand the complexities and the nuances of the region, for better or for worse, as if I had been here all my life." I don't have the answer to that. But I do believe, in spite any innate differences, any person can come to connect to any place. 

Despite the struggles I've had with it, this city still manages to put a smile on my face. The other night as I was taking a rickshaw home, I turned to my right to see a herd of cattle being walked down the street. This is the main thoroughfare in my area and there were just a bunch of cows strolling down Main Street in the city. I could not stop laughing at the absurdity and the hilarity of it all. 

Today I got caught walking in a downpour, something that seems to have become an intercontinental ritual of mine. And I found myself getting frustrated. Frustrated that I hadn't prepared for the rain, that I had just stepped in a puddle of god knows what that was now covering my foot, frustrated by all the people blatantly staring me when all I wanted to do was get from point a to point b in peace. I ducked under the awning of a shopping center to try and avoid becoming completely soaked. I stood there for awhile, waiting for the rain to end. But then I stopped waiting and just started looking. And I watched what had been perfectly clear skies before turn into a tumultuous mass of dark grey clouds. I watched the rain pick up speed and density and witnessed for a few brief minutes what the opening moments of all a full blown monsoon might be like. Standing there, watching this rain, I couldn't help but smile. Because it was beautiful. Just as beautiful has it had ever been in Edinburgh and Beijing. 

Bangladesh is so unlike any other place I have ever been and it has been a struggle for me to come to terms with that. It's not Scotland or China or America. It's not supposed to be. But it's still beautiful, nonetheless. 

It just took a little bit of rain to finally see that. 

(An otherwise dirty roof transforms into something magical after a little rain fall)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rain Over Me

When I was a kid, one of the strange little tricks I found I was able to do is smell rain before a storm would hit. To this day the smell of rain before the storm, when the wetness has begun to perfume the Earth before ever leaving the sky, remains my favorite scent in the world. I have always had a deep connection to water. I am drawn to its ability to simultaneously cleanse and destroy and how it can carry us from one journey to the next. Most of all, I see water as the great elemental symbol of change. It can change landscapes and environments but it can also alter perceptions and ways of seeing. 

Rivers and rain have always featured as prominent moments of communion in my travels; in both Beijing and Edinburgh I came to realize the profundity of my love for each of those places in a moment of rain. Getting caught in the downpours of those cities made me feel that I was really there, really a part of those places. 

It's been raining for the past two days in Dhaka. The mostly unpaved streets are turning into walkways  of squelching mud. The drainage ditches that line the roads are filling up with putrid water, making it very clear to me why the sidewalks are so elevated. So instead of walking through dirt, my rickshaw driver must now pull me through mud. Instead of walking through the heat, women walk barefoot through water I wouldn't step in with tightly sealed hunter's rain boot. 

I have seen water create destruction before. I have witnessed the power with which it can wreck major cities as in the aftermaths of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. In my own small way, I have seen the floodwaters of my basement rise to such high levels as to render the entire space unlivable. But I have never before in my life viewed rain as a hardship. 

Yet it can be. Looking around at my surrounding in Dhaka, I see that even the enjoyment of a rain storm can be an act of great privilege. For the part of me that smiles at getting caught in a rainstorm on a rickshaw, there is a part of me that grimaces as my driver takes me up to the very steps of the cafe, preventing me from getting wet while allowing himself to get soaked. As he peddles off into the storm, I find myself once again confronted by the conundrum of western privilege. Though its been nearly a century since the West held any direct imperial control over this place, the trace elements of colonialism seep to the surface like toxic groundwater overflowing into a lake after a storm. There is a system if hierarchy here that I am benefit from solely from my obvious appearance as a foreigner. But those benefits come with a burden that I am unprepared to handle. For all the special treatment I receive, I find myself the target of what I would refer to as taking advantage of a hope. The hope being that I, the seemingly wealthy foreign woman, will give something more, whether through being told a false price or personal ignorance or pure generosity, than the average citizen here. Yet I am torn. 

This is a personal debate I experience on a daily basis here.  What am I supposed to do? Do you give to the children who beg or do your turn them away? Both options feel utterly impossible. I am from New York and one of the first lessons my parents ever taught me about being a New Yorker is you never give money, you can and should give food but you just don't give money because you'd end up giving it to every person you see. That is a lesson I internalized a long time ago. But that lesson from another part of the world don't seem to be very applicable here. I don't know what to do when a pair of little girls stand next to my rickshaw telling me how hungry they are and can't I please give them some money. What am I supposed to do? I don't know what do when a little boy with a bloody nose chases after me begging for a few spare taka. How do you ignore that? How do you just walk on by? One of the sounds of this place, one of the sounds that will haunt me for as a long as I live, is the sound of the elderly beggar woman's fingers sliding across the side of the car I was sitting as she moves on to try her luck in the next vehicle. Every time they approach me I feel ashamed. I want to turn to her and look her in the eyes and say 'I'm sorry, I am so very sorry but don't you understand, don't understand that I can't. That that's the lesson, you can't help everybody, you can't possible give to all. Don't you know that's what I'm supposed to do?' But that lesson I learned as a five year old doesn't matter very much to this woman. And, since I am clearly not giving her any money, I cease to matter very much to this woman. But she matters to me. 

So you do what you can. What feels right to you. I almost never give to those who physically approach me asking for money. I have my reasons for that. But I would never tell anyone else not to do so. I pay my rickshaw drivers much more than I am supposed to. But that extra money to them is what I feel I can do. I don't know if all of them are good guys, I'm sure not everyone spends the extra money I give them in a way that I would approve of. But that's not my choice. Charity is a lot like love in that sense. if you give someone your heart, you hope that they'll honor the gift you've given them but your act of agency is to chose the vulnerability that comes with giving a part of yourself to another person. In giving that rickshaw driver my money, I hope he will use it to feed his family or to buy his daughter the schoolbooks she needs but once I give I acquiesce my control I no longer have any say in the matter. You can't control much here and as a control freak I find that a particularly difficult challenge. Sometimes, however, in giving up our sense of control, we find the greatest rewards. 

There was one night in Edinburgh, I was walking home from dinner with a friend, when I happened to be carrying leftovers. My budget in Edinburgh was extremely tight so I was very grateful to have the extra food to provide my wallet a little breathing room from the work out it had been receiving. When I walked by this woman on the street I maintained the ultimate New Yorker pose: brusk walk, head up, eyes ahead. I got about two blocks before I slowed completely to a halt. It had become difficult to keep moving forward and I felt a great pull to go back to that woman. I looked down at the food in my hands and looked back to where I had come from. I had to save money, I kept telling myself, I was going to be broke before the end of this trip if I didn't. So, as in any moral dilemma, I called one of my parents. I got ahold of my father first and explained to him the absurdity of my situation "Hi Pop, I'm immobilized on a street in Edinburgh because I'm having a moral dilemma between doing what I think is right and doing the responsible thing for myself." As I explained the situation to my father he laughed at me and said "Listen to yourself right now. You can only ever do what you think is right. Listen to how you're speaking. You already know what your answer is." I hung up the phone, turned around, and gave the woman my food. I can't always help and I certainly can't always help everyone. I wish I could. But if I can't help everyone I can help some or at least someone.

One of my, favorite moment in Star Trek is when Spock turns to Kirk as he is dying and tells him "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." It's a beautiful sentiment especially in the moment. But, as much as I love the ideology behind that quote, I would be cautious to not forget the importance of the one. Sometimes all you can do is help the one. Sometimes it can only be a simple singular moment of kindness. It's important for us to remember the value in that. We always say take joy in the little things, well any act of kindness, no matter how small, is something to take joy in. So Mr. Nimoy, love you though I do, I have to add an addendum to your famous line "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one but never forget the value in simply helping the one." 


                              (The blending of privelege and the world without):

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Converting to Bangladesh

In the Jewish tradition, when you want to convert to Judaism, you must ask a rabbi three times before he will agree to begin your conversion journey. You have to ask three times because beginning the path to a new faith is not a road to be tread lightly. You need to be committed to what you are about to start.

When I was boarding my plane from Dubai to Dhaka I was stopped three times. While standing in line to board the plane, a security officer came up to me and tried to move me from the line, saying "No, no, this is for Dhaka." When I told him that's where I was going, he paused for a moment, smiled, said "Ok. Ok," and left me to stand in line. When getting on the bus to drive to the airplane, another man said to me "You know this flight is for Dhaka?" And when I told him yes that was where I was trying to go, he shrugged "Good luck," and walked away. The woman who checked my ticket stub as I was boarding the plane, looked down at the ticket, looked back up at me, and asked with a smile "Are you sure you are going to Dhaka?"

There was a moment, standing in the Dhaka airport, trying to get my visa, trying to hide my hand that was now covered in blood from when I had cut it 2 minutes after getting off the plane in the airport bathroom, trying to convince the man I really was in Dhaka for a month as a tourist, already sweating bullets, when I too wondered to myself "Are you sure you are going to Dhaka?" (Quite frankly what I was actually thinking was a bit more laced with profanity since my brain under duress isn't at its most cerebral or eloquent.)

Are you sure you are going to Dhaka?

That is going to be the defining question of this journey. What in the world am I doing here? It's not as simple as an answer as it might seem. Technically, I am here on research grant from Northwestern University (my home institution) to study the relationship between gender and sanitation and to create a playscript about it. On a more personal level, I am here because I have been writing about Bangladesh in some form or another since I was a freshman in high school. One assignment in a social studies class sent me on a path that I have felt compelled to follow ever since. My interest in toilets (yup, toilets) has helped get me to China, to Northwestern, and now to Bangladesh. So, on a personal level, this trip is the culmination of an 8 year passion, albeit a strange one at that. I'm not sure what the future holds for me, and when I discovered this resource for Northwestern students, I had to apply for it. I just didn't know if I would ever again have this kind of opportunity to get to Bangladesh. So here I am, after all these years, after all the papers, after all the toilets, sitting in a flat in Dhaka.  

And I feel utterly unprepared. Despite all the years I have spent researching and writing about this place, I have arrived and been immediately  confronted by the fact that I know next to nothing. There is no amount of prep work, reading, or any kind of planning that can brace you for the culture shock that is Dhaka. So it seems, after all these years, after all this effort, my realm of knowledge is still so small.

When I started this blog last year, I promised myself I would use this as a forum to honestly convey my thoughts and experiences. In Scotland that was easy. Each moment seemed to improve upon the next. But it's much harder to be honest when things aren't going so well. My inability to instantly navigate my way around ---I feel as if I have failed the expectations of other and my expectations of myself. 

But there's something important to learn about being a professional wanderer. The hardest journeys are the ones that are most worthwhile.

I always knew coming to Dhaka would be difficult but there's a difference between knowing something on a theoretical level versus actually experiencing it. As I first rode  through Dhaka on my way to my flat, I felt a rising wave of hopelessness. The poverty is inescapable. I have never before been confronted before by a city without a refuge. There is no hiding from Bangladesh's problems, they are there for the world to see. And to be confronted by all that at once, well quite frankly, there was a small part of me that wondered if I could just get back on that plane. One of the hardest things in the world to do is have the conviction and courage to live up to the promises we make. I made a promise, to my University, to my supporters, to myself, that I would come to this place, that I would come to Bangladesh to try and help in my own small way. I was taught to keep my promises, especially the ones I make to myself. So, somehow, I walked up the stairs and literally, as well as metaphorically, opened the door to my life in Dhaka.

What I've come to realize I need to embrace if I am going to make the most of my time here is that, at the end of the day, it's perfectly alright that I don't know much.  I am here to learn. There would be no point in coming here if I knew everything there is to know. And it would take decades more of intense study to be able to maybe, just maybe, fully grasp the immense intricacies and networks of influence that affect the status of sanitation in Bangladesh. The best I can do in the right here and now is find the story or stories I connect with most and simply let them speak from themselves. 

I've come to realize that this trip is more than just a grant or a personal project, this is the moment where the story of a nation that is fighting tooth and nail to move from developing  to developed and mine intertwine. This is my chance to play a small part in the story of Bangladesh. And that is a role worth taking. 

                                                  (My room for the next five weeks):

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Victoria of Arabia

Transitions are the way I begin every journey; transitions between countries, between cultures, between ways of thinking and ways of being, and between air spaces. Sitting in the Dubai International airport, I am lost in transition. For 12 hours I cannot leave this space. For 12 hours I have to be nebulous, neither going forward or moving back, merely waiting until the journey can resume. As cumbersome as such a long layover may seem, I am grateful to have it. I am grateful to have the moment to rest and absorb.   For as long as I have been preparing for this journey, it is still quite surreal to think that I am actually on my way to Bangladesh. And as I take a moment to breathe, I am filled with an immediate sense of panic.

The whole atmosphere of the Dubai airport is different than any of my other travel experiences to date. I have always experienced heavy scrutiny walking through airports. This has occurred without fail across America, Europe, and China. I've become so accustomed to the elaborate process of checks and rechecks of the rules and regulations of an airport that its never occurred to me how an airport might function without that system in place. I've grown up in an environment where airports have been added to the seemingly ever growing list of places where danger is likely to occur. Driving to the airport back in the States, I asked my parents if there was a time you could walk your loved one to the gate even if you yourself weren't boarding the plane. They told me that, once, that was possible. But, for as long as I've been traveling, I've only ever seen something like that in films. I have inherited a world where the airport is equated with susceptibility and risk. My family has never been allowed to walk me to a gate. At the Dubai airport, because of the length of my layover, I had to wait in the main concourse. When I went to walk through the metal detectors there were two airport employees just standing there and having a chat. I walked through the metal detector rolling my carry on behind me and not one of them blinked when the detector went off, they just waved me forward. The exact same thing occurred when I passed through the metal detectors at the end of my layover. No fuss, no worry. More for show than for anything else. I couldn't shake how weird and out of place the experience felt. Then I realized what threw me for such a loop; they weren't afraid. I can't remember the last time, if I ever had one, where I didn't sense a slight undercurrent of fear and suspicion at an airport. But this was a place in the world where that thought wasn't of a great concern to them. It was strange to realize the fear that has become such an ingrained part of my nomadic experience. I often fear airports more than I fear countries themselves. Airports are the gate-locks one has to open to step on the path. Yet they are often a crucial part of the journey.

So there I am, in the middle of the airport, unsure that I have the mental or emotional capacity to make it past this gate and onto the next level of this trip. "I don't belong here," is the vicious mantra that begins to repeat itself in my mind. "I'm too inexperienced, I'm too unprepared, I'm too different." I'm too different. Difference is going to be the battle of this adventure in a way its never been before. 

I have never felt so acutely aware of my difference.Not even during my time in China. I have come to a place in the world where I am the odd man out.  The fact that I am undergoing this journey alone only seems to accentuate this sensation of separateness. 

This is the first time in all my travels I feel incredibly self conscious. It feels as if there is a right way to be and a wrong way to be, the only trouble is I don't know which is which. As I walk up and down the concourse I feel like I have absolutely no idea how to behave. Do I make eye contact with people or will that be rude? Should I have worn more conservative clothes? Oh god I've passed by this same man 5 times-he's going to think I'm just some stupid American girl lost in the desert. And then I realize that's what's making me so nervous. It's my Americanness. Before I've even been informed I've made a mistake or done something wrong, I have already begun to assume and project onto the world around an innate attitude towards myself and my entire country. And that's  simply something I cannot continue to do. The mistakes and the triumphs of one's nation do not define one's self. I am an American but I am not America. I am my own entity and it is up to me, not my origins, to define my current experiences. If I get lost or I trip and make a fool of myself, it is not a great sociopolitical commentary on American culture, it is just a girl who happens to be very new to a place. 

It seems that I have forgotten the most basic travel rule: Different doesn't mean bad. As much as that ought to apply to one's perception of another culture, it's also something we should remember about ourselves. Just because in this environment I'm different, it doesn't mean my difference is looked upon with anything more than curiosity and interest. Difference can be, and very often is, a positive thing.

I am not a hot weather person. I'm not fond of desert regions and I struggle to even embrace the dry heat of Southern California. I like my chill to mild temperatures and environments quite a bit. But I've never seen a desert that drew me in so much as the portion of the Arabian desert around the airport. I could only experience it via the windows of my plane and the concourse but I was fascinated by the way the environment enticed rather than pushed me away. The way the sand moves and shapes itself, the whole landscape seems to be alive. There's something tempting about this desert, it's as if, despite the fact that it looks to be an unsurvivable place, if you only know where to look, you can discover something quite magical. 

I left Dubai in the wee hours of the morning, with night still swirling about the city. And as we flew over the desert once more, it shifted its shape once again as well. The landscape transformed into a softly billowing pool of black ink, the only indication of the desert's daylight form was the warm golden haze of sand being kicked up by the wind, as it covered the lights and borders of the city. 

It is the incredibly array of diversity wrought by our individual differences that make this world such a rich and wondrous place to explore. Dubai was only a brief moment in my journey but I believe it is an important moment that I will return to over and over again over the course of my stay in Bangladesh. I know that there will be times, probably many more to come, when I will doubt not only myself but the ability of the world around me to accept me as I am. But it can happen. It won't always but there is always that potential. And that potential for acceptance and understanding is what makes you push through those moments of doubt and fear to find something far more worthwhile on the other side. 

Onto Bangladesh I go. 

 (The sun begins to rise as I leave Dubai for Dhaka)

Friday, June 28, 2013