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.
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.