Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Journey into the deepest, darkest...er...Bangladesh?

My past two days were spent travelling in remote villages near the Jamuna River [Blue River] helping Steve and Jeannette, who work with the non-government organisation Symbiosis, with what Steve cleverly termed, “a bell curve, as it was a uniform distribution.” Translated from Australian into American this means formally presenting navy and white schools uniforms at Bengali schools near the Jamuna sandbar.

These schools are tucked away in out of the way villages surrounded by farms growing a variety of rice; mustard seed; vegetables like chili peppers and squash; and what Bengalis grow best, people. We may be as remote as you can get in Bangladesh, but Bengalis are liberally sprinkled everywhere.

This country is insanely populated.

As we walked amongst the paddies I nibbled on green chilli peppers and stared back at the villagers who dropped their plowing to gawk at the bideshis [foreigners]. Jeannette responded by stopping abruptly in her tracks to snap pictures at whatever local striked her fancy. Quickly I noted her unpredictable walking and learned not to walk behind her, so I walked next to Steve and laughed at his stories.

Steve responded to the curious stares by ignoring them. He was fascinated by the tropical Bengali plants, like the tall, spare barinda trees, which grow seeds that can be dried and squeezed for oil. He gathered a few to see if the oil is usable as a petrol alternative. I stopped to admire the barinda trees with him, but only because their leaves are beautifully shaped.

We took an ancient looking wooden boat along the cloudy river for an hour before landing and hiking up the grey shore, which was rough and uneven because of flooding during the monsoon season, to the first school. It was the dry season and the sand stretched long and dry up the banks. When we reached the JRDP (Jamuna River Development Project) school the sun was glaring on a hundred or so children lined up painstakingly in rows. I wondered if they’d been waiting in the heat for hours, and their orderly rows reminded me of a Nazis concentration camp. The headmaster greeted us and blew on his whistle, initiating a complicated series of half exercising and half dancing movements from the students. They didn’t stir from their positions, but saluted, stomped, and waved their arms in uniform movements. A young boy beat a drum, repeating the same thump, thump, thumping rhythm over and over till the beat ingrained itself in my head. Obviously the students enjoyed this homogeneous production, although it bothered me that their individuality was stifled. Again my western perceptions interfered with my appreciation of their collectivistic culture.

After the rhythmic performance, Jeannette spoke to the children, empowering them to stay in school as long as possible. She realised what a struggle it is for the boys and especially girls have to continue their educations. For the next couple of hours Jeannette presented each student with a crisp new uniform her catholic school in Australia donated.

I stand on the outskirts with an urna covering my yellow hair, which earlier that day I braided tightly out of sight. The evening before Jeannette requested I not wear any of my “gorgeous sarees, as it will steal all the attention like it did in Kumarkhali village at Christmas.”

My plan to be invisible works for the first hour, until I started chatting with a local villager wearing a brightly woven saree. Her strong, handsome face fascinates me and I struggled to find the right words in Bangla to find out more about her. I gazed at her two nose piercings and she examined the gold and silver bangles on my pale wrist. Quickly a crowd circled around me as men, women, and children gazed at the ghost-like foreigner. Steve sauntered up and laughed at my entourage.

“I wish I knew some tricks to entertain them,” I lamented, “like how to juggle.”

“Oh no,” chuckled Steve, “you just have to stand there.”
After a long day of travelling we headed back to the Symbiosis Jamuna River Branch Office for a “cultural evening,” (yes, the Bengalis actually termed it that) where the national staff sang Christian songs and a midget with an amazing sense of rhythm danced for us. In return we taught them the old western Sunday school song “Father Abraham.”

That night they dragged a wooden bed into the dining room for me to sleep on, and I sat in bed reading a New York Times bestseller while Jeannette uploaded her two million pictures from the day. Okay, maybe it was more like 400 pictures. Men wandered in and out the room on various errands and we laughed that this is the only time I’ve worn an urna [a scarf worn over clothes out of modesty that covers a woman’s breasts and head] to bed out of necessity.
We went to sleep exhausted and I awoke the next morning at 7:15. I looked at the dining room table in front of me and immediately noticed my backpack is gone.


Startled, I clambered out from under the mosquito net and examined the floor. My tee shirt and books are scattered on the cement, but my backpack is definitely missing.

I headed for the door to the Noolans' room, before remember Steve’s command that I not wake him before 7:30- he needs his beauty sleep. I balanced on the edge of my bed to wait till 7:30.

Five seconds flick by.

“Wait a minute,” I decided, “this is an emergency!” I skipped into the other room and quietly announced. “I’ve been robbed.”

Steve was alert in an instant and stirred the national staff into action. Soon my bag was discovered outside of the bars of my window and I searched my possessions to see what is missing. Predictably, my money, phone, and camera are missing. In the back of my mind I am pleased that my second favourite kameez and second favourite knickers weren’t stolen. Hmm. At least that’s something.

I noticed that weirdly the only non-valuable item stolen is a pack of tissues and I create a mental profile of the thief: an impoverished Bengali man with a bad cold. That narrows it down to how many million people.

Apparently the thief pulled the tablecloth to the window with my bag on it, than slipped the bag through the bars. Shivering, I imagined a burglar watching me sleep.

“Maybe it’s the man who followed me last night when I went walking. He grabbed me. He was muttering things to me and stalked me until I made it back into the lighted area of town and several Symbiosis staff found me.” I pictured the shuffling man in his lungi.

The staff were upset by the theft and one of them formally apologized to me. The others had drawn faces and refused to look me in the eye. I made a point of smiling at them.

“It is my fault,” our translator blamed himself, “I should have told you to put your bag on the floor.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him, “it was nobody’s fault.”

It definitely wasn’t the fault of the staff, and I don’t like to blame the thief, who maybe was a poor man driven to robbery for survival.

But dang it!

This trip was supposed to be all about Jeannette and her seeing the final product of her fund and awareness raising in Adelaide for the ultra poor schools. This was supposed to be her two days. I’m exhausted by my burden on Jeannette and Steve. I’m only too aware that I’m a single female who in the past week has had a scary experience on a rickshaw, been felt up on the street, and now been robbed.

They don’t complain.

Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God,” and I am glad this experience has happened, as it gave me the opportunity to prove I trust God to care for me, not just think it. Here God has protected me with the Noolans and the Symbiosis staff.

Oswald Chamber reckons, “It is only the faithful person who truly believes that God sovereignly controls his circumstances.”
Jeannette, Steve, and I smiled-the national staff looked like they were about to burst into tears- and our trip went on.

The rest of the day continued on as normal, with us journeying to a preschool and a primary school. The children stared at us grimly, refusing to smile for the 300 pictures I was commissioned to take of them by Jeannette, but I understood that was merely cultural and they were actually pleased to own such sharp new uniforms. Their old clothes are brilliantly coloured, patterned fabrics, yet worn and hole-filled.

At the end of the two day journey we arrived back into Dhaka covered in dirt, sweat, probably a sprinkling of goat and cow dung, and smelling of the aromatic fragrance of rural Bangladesh.

“Are you happy with how the trip went?” I queried.

“I am,” Mrs. Noolan states with a satisfied smile.


  1. Amazing experience, descriptively written. All that's needed is a scratch-n-sniff computer monitor to add the smells!

    Praying for you, and especially for wisdom regarding future plans.

  2. What an honour and privilege to have journeyed with you in these last few weeks especially. I have seen you grow in that time and have grown to love you.
    We will miss you greatly.
    Please visit us in Australia sometime... what a picture you have created here!