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)