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):


  1. Vic, I have enjoyed reading about your journey and am so amazed that you have taken on this venture all by yourself. You are incredibly brave and talented. Continue your adventures in good health and a safe trip back home.
    Love ya ... Debbie and the Meuser clan...even the 4-legged ones!

  2. Vicky, This is an e-mail from a friend of mine ,who your mom and grandma know. She wrote it to me after reading your blog:
    For the first time, longer then I can even remember, I am completely and unbelieveably speechless! Vicky's bravery in the face of such devistation and such unknown daily life, not even to mention the complete solitude, literally sends shivers of fear up and down my spine! What a lesson she teaches us, who are safely tucked away in our own self induced cocoons! Proud is a word that comes to mind, and then it just doesn't seem justified enough for someone so daring to keep such a long time promise to herself. My heart, my mind, and these arms are extremely happy to have embraced this amazing young lady! Sending lots of positive energy and lots of prayers for her safe return so that her story can continue.