"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David...He went there with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." -Luke 2:4-7
Mary and Joseph traveled a famous journey just before the birth of Christ; Christmas Eve, over two thousand years later, I traveled a similar journey to celebrate His birth. While the couple's trip is frequently romanticized, pictured as a big-bellied Mary riding a docile donkey with Joseph desperately searching for a room in an inn, it probably was much more prosaic. Similarly, my trip was an average Bangladesh journey.
Jeannette and Steve Noolan, an Aussie couple in their fifties working for the NGO Symbiosis in Mimensingh, and I arose before dawn on December 24th and headed down to Mirpur to catch a Hanif bus to Kumarkhali. After 15 minutes spent searching for the correct bus stop on a long road filled with identical bus stations, we found the correct ticket counter and settled down to wait for an hour. Before boarding our bus I ventured into the Asian toilet (basically a hole in the ground that you have to flush by dumping water down), as I knew there were no toilets on the bus. I pride myself on being a connoisseur of toilets in Asia, and gave this one a 4 out of 10, with 1 being the worst.
We boarded our rickety bus along with other families carrying mysterious cardboard boxes taped shut and pots of rice wrapped in newspaper. Jeannette and I sat next to eachother in order to be culturally apropriate-in Bangladesh men and women sit separately unless married-and discovered we could have highly private conversations in English without people around us understanding. For the next 6 hours we proceeded to discuss everything under the sun, including our personal interpretations of what the Bible says about sex and marriage. Women in burkhas and shalwar kameez, men in lungis and mismatching plaid dress shirts, and children dressed up in their besplangled best stared at us curiously, but understood not our discussion.
Talking was an ideal distraction from watching the road, as buses in Bangladesh are kings of the road, fearlessly roaring past rickshaws, vangaaris, and other vehicles on broken, narrow roads. Our driver was milder than bus drivers I've had in the past, so I only clutched Jeannette and yelped "oh, dear, God" once or twice.
Another distraction we had on the long trip was crossing the Ganges River on a ferry. Rather than sit on our less than trustworthy bus on the even less than trustworthy ferry (safety regulations have yet to touch Bdesh), we climbed to the top deck and admired the fog covered river. Here I finally gave into the persistent vendors hawking us and bought what looked like a package of twigs covered in cane sugar and sesame seeds and tasted like wood. Jeannette and Steve snacked on mandarins and chepati from the sellers.
In the afternoon we arrived in the Western town of Kumarkhali and were met by Josh, another man from the land of Oz who's working on community development projects in the area. After eating dahl, chicken curry, rice, and rice chepati at the bari of the CDP director we went back to Josh's imposing three storey house sitting peacefully on the edge of several man made ponds and rice paddies.
Here I decided to learn how to cook dahl (spicy cooked lentils) from the cook. In the kitchen she was fiddling with pots and pans when she suddenly commanded me to "asun" [come] and ran downstairs into the courtyard, where a small crowd was gathering. I stood around with the locals, as they gawked at my white skin curiously, wondering what was going on. Finally I asked Mike, the only other foreigner living at the house who is working on an arsenic water project. He laughed and nodded towards two goats on a rope, informing me there was going to be a goat slaughter.
The next few minutes involved the crying of goats, large pools of red blood, and twitching carcasses. After that my anticpation of goat curry for Christmas dinner declined dramatically.
Later that night under my mosquito net, I breathed in the smoky country air and images of legless, furry, bodies hanging from sticks ran through my mind.
The parent of two of my students once told me their family doesn't go on "vacations" in Bangladesh, they go on "adventures." On looking back on my Christmas Eve I see it was a normal Bangla adventure, but for those reading this in westernized countries it probably has all the exotic appeal of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem.