September 30, 2009

Bangladesh… Where do I start? After 21 hours of traveling, we left the Dhaka airport and stepped outside into the bright sun and sauna of South Asia. The heat wasn’t overwhelming but the humidity added a level of discomfort that I knew I needed to get used to, if at all possible. We met our host, Vanu, and were escorted to the regional office to meet the district superintendent and the rest of the team. After we all got acquainted, we took a nap to recharge our depleted selves, but after 24 hours without sleep, a 2 hour tease ended up doing more damage than good. Nonetheless, we went over everything we would do that week. It was then I discovered how intense this trip was going to be. We had multiple reasons to go on this trip; we were getting footage for a video about the Jesus Film ministry and a video about church planting along with some testimonies from people affected and/or involved in either.

We drove into the city center to get some b-roll (supplemental footage that is intercut with the main footage in an interview or documentary) and I soon discovered the art and craft of driving in South Asia. Basically, if there was space you drove, if not you still drove and honked to let others know you are coming. This type of driving would never work in America since most Bangladeshis don’t have insurance; everyone is at a loss if there is an accident. There is a mutual respect because both drivers know that there will be no point in blaming because no authority will come to solve the matter. Also, the unceasing honking isn’t done out of anger or frustration as much as a preliminary caution and notification. There are traffic lights and road lanes but they must have been installed to humor foreigners, but the Bangladeshis are the only ones laughing as most newcomers sit in the back seat, white-knuckled, braced for an inevitable accident. I believed that with the precision and split second decision-making, that South Asian drivers are the best drivers in the world. I wondered how they would do on the racetrack. Maybe this place could be the new training grounds for NASCAR or stunt driving. I wasn’t afraid of this style of driving, but intrigued. I felt like I was on a Disneyland ride like Indiana Jones, but instead of a huge stones rolling down, it was oncoming cars in your lane, or rickshaws carrying stacks of hay. We stopped to look at the parliament, which had one of the most fascinating architectures I’ve ever seen, especially for a government building. It was remarkably geometric with huge triangle shaped windows and the residents apartments were zigzagged in and out along the Buriganga river.

Our next stop gave me an insight on how my experience with the locals was going to be on the rest of my trip. I was worried that I was going to stand out and it was recommended that maybe I should dye my hair. I quickly realized that there is nothing wrong with being different and the people I encountered were politely intrigued. I received lots of stares, none were menacing, but merely curious. We went into a market and I never know how people are going to react to me taking pictures so I always try to be aware and sensitive of my surroundings and people’s reactions. Well I quickly learned that Bangladeshis love to have their pictures taken. Not just kids, but adults would ask me to take a picture of them or their friends and then show it to everyone afterward. It was great to have everyone excited that we were there and I didn’t get the usual eye-roll of “tourists”. However, being a novelty made it hard to leave without being followed by a bunch of kids out to the van as they all pushed and shoved to get their faces in line with the lens of my camera. We left back for the center and I was excited for these upcoming weeks. All the friendly faces and welcoming people had given me a new motivation and passion to capture the openness and loveliness that I had just witnessed.

That night I enjoyed a room to myself with refreshing air-conditioning and a bathtub. I was grateful yet tormented by these luxuries, as I would not experience them again until much later. That morning I was awakened by a knock on my door at 5am, but when I opened it no one was there. Later I heard another tap, but I realized that it wasn’t coming from the door but the window of my four-story room. I opened my windows and couldn’t find what annoying bird was interrupting my much longed for slumber. Whatever it was (I loathed its existence) persisted until I finally gave up on any more precious sleep. I later discovered that the high-pitched tap on glass sound wasn’t coming from outside my room but inside from a little dig-diggi (lizard). The cute little lizard I had welcomed into my room last night to eat all the bugs was making me pay the price for his labor. Later that week, I would have endured all the screeching from a 100 dig-diggi if they provided me with the service I needed, exterminator.

We hit the road that morning with a long 6 hour journey ahead of us to the north of Bangladesh (opposite directions of the tigers) where most of the ministry centers are set up. We stopped for dinner and I had the spiciest curry I’ve ever experienced. My lips never felt such rage. Well I guess as expected, I woke up during the night with my first South Asian sickness. During my sickness, the electricity went out which means not only the lights are off but also the fan. So Simone and I laid in our beds with sweat starting to gather like a small silhouette on our sheets. The mugginess made it so hard to breath that we decided to open the window and face the bugs that may wander our way. It seemed like the lesser of two evils at the time. Well my sickness continued through the night and as I used my phone as a light to guide me, I noticed the time and date 2am on the 23rd of April and thought, “It is my birthday. So God why am I here suffering in Bangladesh in this village on a day that should be spent with family and friends? I hope that what I do makes a difference. I hope this is worth it.” At that same moment, I realized that it was worth it. I thought about my last birthday and couldn’t really remember much about it; not what I did, who was there, or the gifts I received. I knew that I would remember this birthday. It was then that I thanked God for this amazing opportunity and that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; maybe in better physical condition, but I was where I wanted to be, out in the world trying to make a difference.

That morning I was still sick, but now with 30 bug bites just on one leg. Where are you dig-diggi?

Due to my condition, I stayed behind on the first outing and went back to bed until the electricity went off again. When I got up I felt much better so I decided to just explore. I didn’t get far because out the front door I met 2 little girls that were living at the ministry center. I took an immediate liking to them and based on the rest of the afternoon I guessed they did the same. We took pictures of each other, played with play-doh, colored, danced, and let them do my hair. When the rest of the team returned at lunchtime, I had a bindi (South Asian forehead decoration, not to be confused with a tilaka, hindu marking) dot on my forehead and my hair was done up in two very high pokeman like pigtails. The girls squealed in delight as they showed me off to everyone and my team gave me the usual “silly Amy” look as we all sat down to eat. No curry that meal.

We took off for another village where they had currently showed the Jesus Film and it was part of the Jesus Film Team project to go back where they showed the film for a follow-up. When we arrived, everyone was sitting on the ground waiting for us. In each village, we received the same curiosity and excitement. It was a weird feeling having everyone treat us like we were some novelty. All the children would show no passivity as they approached us and shoved in front of each other to have their picture taken. What really surprised me was that the elders did the same, but with more politeness and courtesy towards each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people there had never had their picture taken. So for them it was a momentous ordeal. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable photographing people I don’t know for fear of being invasive or rude, but there I felt it was rude to not take a picture of someone. If someone stood in front of my camera, I couldn’t turn him or her down.

Our next stop was to a church planting mission where people were listening to a sermon and worshiping together. I felt awkward interrupting their service, but they didn’t seem to mind at all. The next stop was at an organized church then next to a Jesus Film showing. I was amazed by the openness people had to having strangers come into their village and document them and the work the church has done in those areas. I wondered if I would be so welcoming and excited if strangers from a distant land came and took my picture. Would I be flattered or offended? Would I think I was special or some kind of exhibit? I know I wouldn’t run in front of their camera or give them my smile or adoration. Why would they deserve it? Why do I deserve it? That is what I didn’t understand. I don’t deserve their kindness. I haven’t done anything for them. I had no idea about the work going on in Bangladesh before I arrived there only 2 days before. I am merely an observer and a transferer of information from them to the outside world. Nonetheless, I selfishly enjoyed their love and affection.

When we arrived back at the mission where we were lodging, my new friends greeted me with a “Happy Birthday” and a flower. I wondered, “How did they know?” Our host brought me into the back room where they handed me a beautiful bouquet of Rajangandha, a flower with a scent sweeter than honeysuckle, and also there was a lovely birthday cake sitting on the table that read, “Happy Birthday Amy.” I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “When did they do this? I was with them the whole time. They even put my name on it.” They told me there was a local who specialized in cakes, which is rare since cakes aren’t very popular there. Then everyone joined in to sing “Happy Birthday”. As the lights were turned off and the candles were lit, Vanu said, “We are all family here and I hope this makes you feel a little more like home.” Strangely it did. Out in the most rural of villages in Bangladesh I was home, surrounded by my family. It was by far one of my most memorable birthdays.

The next day we headed out to more villages that have been impacted by the Jesus Film and other related ministries. Our first stop was to a village where there was a woman’s self-help group who gathered together once a week to find ways to help their village. They all pulled their money together and then loaned it out to others in the village or surrounding villages. With the profits they made from the loan service charges they put it back into their community by buying cows, making latrines, or giving out bigger loans. We interviewed two people who took out loans that were then able to open up restaurants to support themselves and their family. We went to these restaurants and tried their specialties. One was a deep-fried honeycomb sweet and another was rice fried in sand, which tasted like rice cakes but looked like rice crispies. I was amazed at these women’s business skills.

Our next stop was to a children self-help group where they say a song for us and asked for one in return. Steve and Simone did a wonderful job with the “Noah’s Ark” song and I made sure to do a wonderful job capturing it on film. Even though the children didn’t know the words, they were still delighted.

So far I had taken more portraits on this trip than I had done in my entire photography career (can you call it a career if you don’t get paid?). Portraits aren’t my favorite because I’ve never been good at them and to be honest it never really interested me. However, while out in the villages amongst the locals dressed in their traditional garb and stoic postures, I couldn’t resist. So often when someone would look at me they wouldn’t smile or look away, but just stare into my lens as if challenging me, “I’m ready. Show me what you can do.” With the click of my shutter their stoic faces would fade into a bashful smile as I showed my subjects what I could do. Most people, no matter their age, were tickled to see their picture on my little LCD screen. They would gather together and their friends would point and laugh at the still image of themselves. The children loved the whole process, pose, click, check. It almost became impossible to take pictures of anything else because they would run and position themselves in any direction my lens was pointed. Nonetheless, it was a photographer’s paradise because I felt so encouraged to take pictures that otherwise I would be too nervous or cautious to take. I don’t speak Bengali, obviously, but I don’t think anyone said, “Please no pictures, I’m not wearing any make-up today, my hair looks funky, I look tired.” Why is that Americans have such a hard time accepting how they look? We always need to look better. Why? What does looking good have to do with anything? Who are we looking good for, friends, spouses, potential spouses… ourselves?

Our next stop was to a clinic, which is rare out in the villages because it’s hard to find doctors that prefer to work close to free (hard to believe). The doctor at this clinic only comes by twice a week and the rest of the week the nurses help the patients. The nurses were so delightful. They were just as enthusiastic as the children, gathering in groups wanting their picture taken. One young woman who spoke English well asked us all if we were married. She was shocked to find out we weren’t and asked what we are waiting for. I guess Nazarenes ask the same questions every where in the world. I really enjoyed this woman’s frankness and curiosity. She was lovely and had a smile that made me automatically like her.

We got back to the center at 5pm, 2 hours behind schedule, but enough time to drink some chai (tea) and head on out to visit a Hindu temple. The temple had one of the most intrinsic designs I had ever seen. All along the walls there was detailed carving depicting life during the era of construction.

Afterward, we went to the market to buy salwar kameez (traditional dress). The small shop had hundreds of different colors and designs. I found a pink ornate one for my grandma and a cute purple one for me. I was surprised that there only appeared to be one size. I didn’t realize it until now that all the women were about the same size, short and lean. Since a salwar kameez is just pajama-like pants (salwar), a long shirt (kameez), and a long shall (dupatta) it fits most Bangladeshi women fine. Well I’m not Bangladeshi so it was a little more snug in the arms and shorter than others. A salwar kameez needs to be washed before wearing to get rid of all the dye and chemicals, but since there was no washing machine I was bathing in the purple rain… purple rain…. uhhh I mean shower.

The next day I was dressed in my new salwar and walked out feeling a little silly and awkward, until my little friend Shara told me, “very nice”. I no longer felt like a poser, but instead felt appreciated for my efforts to embrace the culture. After chai and breakfast, I had to say goodbye to my little friends because we were headed back to Dhaka that night. I wish that I had something nice to give them, but all I had was a few Rappen (Swiss coins). They didn’t complain.

Our first stop that day was to another ministry center, which welcomed us with more chai. Then we were off to another self-help center that just replaced their unsanitary well with a new water faucet, which they showed off proudly. When we left that village and walked to the next one we were followed by a posse. A man asked me for some takas (Bengali currency) and food for the baby he was holding. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any takas and tried to communicate this to him. I don’t know what he understood from my sign language but the next thing I new I was holding his adorable baby. Then some one gave me a flower and I handed it to the baby. This seemed to please and entertain the crowd along with me as well. The baby was so cute and squishy that I didn’t want to give it back right away, but I was falling behind, as usual, and needed to catch up. As I walked away, the crowd did not disperse, but continued with me. One of the young men walking with his friends with an umbrella sacrificed his friend’s shade to shield me from the blazing heat. My salwar, while light, its looseness meant I could feel a sweat bead travel from my neck down to my toes. So, therefore, I was more than grateful from the break of torment that the umbrella provided along with feeling like royalty. However, nothing in life is free since my shade-man then took a rubber-band from my wrist and put it on his. I thought, “Oh great that probably means now we’re married.” Luckily, he gave it back after our little stroll, guess I wasn’t his type. This experience was definitely a highlight. I was really starting to love this country (except for the heat and being rejected).

When we went back to the ministry center, we had more chai, of course, which is supposed to help cool down the body, not so sure about that. We also grabbed some footage of a women self-help sewing group that got together in order to provide a second income for their family.

Our next stop was to a school where the children greeted us with painted faces singing, dancing, and throwing flower petals at us. It was incredible to feel that welcomed along with giving us an insight into their culture. Once inside the school we were given more flowers, dancing performances, and pictures the children drew for us. I couldn’t stop smiling it was all so spectacular.

After some more chai and a few more interviews we headed back to Dhaka. We arrived around midnight and I thanked Jesus for air-conditioning again. The next day we grabbed the last interviews then headed back into the city this time on our own leisure. A friend that I had met in Ukraine had grown up in Bangladesh and his father founded a store that sold crafts from local artists. Well Simone and I had to check it out and, of course, support the local artists. We then spent our last evening in Bangladesh downloading pictures and preparing for our next trip to Nepal.

The next morning I headed outside to grab a few more pictures before heading to the airport. I didn’t get far before one of the ministry team members came running out to accompany me. I guess walking out alone wasn’t the greatest idea. My “bodyguard” knew some of the locals so we were welcomed into people’s huts for chai, but was chai’d out and I knew it was getting close to departure time so we headed back.

At the airport, we said our goodbyes with some final group pictures and hugs. I knew I would miss the people I had met and their hospitality. I didn’t know what to expect coming to Bangladesh, but I left feeling so blessed to have been welcomed into this country. I would love to come back, but next time I’m going to see some tigers. Rawr.

If you want to watch the video click below

If you want to check out more pictures click below.

Since I’ve been back there have been terrible floods killing hundreds of people in Bangladesh along with destroying ministry centers and schools. So please keep them in your prayers.

I’d like to leave you with “Bangla Desh” a lovely song by George Harrison released as a charity single.

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