The Power of the Pencil

Based on the title, you might think this post is about writing, but it’s not.

I first learned the real power of the pencil a few years ago while I was teaching on a small island in Korea. One of my friends organized a fundraising event for an orphanage in India. As part of the fundraiser, she encouraged her fellow English teachers to create a lesson about the children in the orphanage, share it with their students, and then hold a “Bring a Pencil to School” day.

You see, the children in Jeju, who sit in wired classrooms with abundant materials and supplies, who carelessly throw partially used pencils in the trash, have no inkling what it’s like for students in other parts of the world who live without such luxuries.

The idea behind the fundraiser was this: One small act, like a child donating a pencil, could have a greater positive impact on the world. And it worked. The fundraiser was a huge success. The orphanage in India received loads of pencils as well as a sizable monetary donation from the Jeju expat community. More importantly, it raised awareness and gave everyone involved, children and adults alike, a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation.

Recently, this beautiful idea has touched other parts of the world as well. A former member of the Jeju community, who is now living and teaching in Hong Kong, decided to hold another donation day. But this time, the pencils were sent to Bangladesh where I had the privilege of delivering them to an elementary school in a small village.

Now, most of the students at this particular school aren’t orphans, but their learning conditions are incredibly basic, and their families are very poor, so purchasing even one pencil can be a burden. But thanks to one teacher and her class in Hong Kong, that burden has been relieved, and an entire school of Bangladeshi children are positively beaming with joy.

See how powerful a simple pencil can be?

Now it’s your turn! Please share your ideas about small acts with big impact.

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An Unusual Commute

Tree lined roadLong car rides can be powerful sedatives, not only for cranky babies, but for (sometimes) cranky women as well. Just ask the seven men who share the van with me on the way to the village.

The drive takes about an hour. On most days, it takes my eyelids about 20 minutes to give up the arduous task of staying open. I’m not sure how much time passes before my head starts bobbing and my jaw goes slack, allowing my mouth to open wide enough to catch flies, but the sight must be lovely. (My apologies to the seven men in the van.) Whenever the driver’s abrupt braking or overzealous honking jolts me awake, I’m just thankful there’s no drool.

Some days, though, my eyelids feel light and lively and I take the opportunity to marvel at the sights outside the window. On this drive, there’s no famous architecture or breathtaking scenery, but there are countless interesting vehicles, and every single one of them defies the laws of common sense and physics.

A three-wheeled flatbed cart takes up the space of a large truck as a man pushes an endless pile of bamboo poles down the road. A tiny motorbike emulates a family sedan filled with a husband, wife, two kids and groceries. A bicycle is transformed into a mini shop, displaying dozens of tin pots and plastic bowls. A mother becomes Hercules, balancing an enormous bag on her head (no hands) and a baby on her hip. A bus becomes a giant chariot carrying countless men, both inside and on the roof, bending trees in its path as it sways precariously from side to side.

After awhile, though, these sights lose their novelty and become normal. Dare I say, boring? Seeing four people crammed onto a single rickshaw no longer draws my interest. But, somehow, there’s always something I haven’t seen before that does.

One day it’s a cart filled with jackfruit the size of young children, or an aging farmer with a physique that would put a 20-something gym rat to shame. Another day, it’s a four-year-old girl standing on the crossbar of a bicycle, casually holding her father’s neck for balance she doesn’t seem to need. Or a man bathing in the lake with his cows, or a bull with horns growing down into its eyes, or a family of goats lying on the edge of the road, barely budging when one of the chariot buses screams by. A little further down the road, it’s another family of goats climbing a pile of bricks as if it were a majestic mountainside. And further still, a butcher in his bamboo shack hanging slabs of goats whose climbing days are over.

Some days, I see an elderly man with a stoop so severe, he looks like the letter “C”. Still yet, there’s the ever-changing farmland with its rice-paddy greens, jute browns, pea-plant purples and mustard-seed yellows. Or a traffic jam that reminds me of a stadium parking lot after a huge concert … except here you must wait for cows and pedestrians and bicycles and motorbikes and flatbed carts and buses and trucks and chickens and goats and geese and water buffalo and dogs and hogs–and the occasional elephant–to merge.

After awhile, though, even this sensory overload isn’t strong enough to counteract the powerful sedative of the drive, and my eyelids get heavier and heavier.

That is, until a brightly painted yellow truck rushes at us, engaging our driver in a game of chicken, and just as our driver gives in and falls back, a motorbike-turned-family-sedan, rushes onto the two-lane road—without looking—and narrowly misses us as well as the bright yellow truck and a family of goats lounging in the road. Seriously, what is with the goats and the road?

Would you play chicken with this guy?

Would you play chicken with this guy?

Yep, I’m definitely awake now.

It will only take a few short moments before I’m annoyed as well. Not because we narrowly escape a second, third and fourth near-death experience, but because I can’t stand the damn horns!

What is the purpose behind the auditory assault waged by every single car, motorbike, truck and bus in Bangladesh? There must be a language to all this commotion, right? That’s what I tell myself when I can’t take it anymore, when I muster every ounce of strength I possess to stop myself from screaming, “SHUT UUUUUUUUUUP!”

I don’t really mind the light, quick beep, beep, beep that seems to say, “Hiya! Just letting you know I’m here. Please don’t do anything stupid.”

But the long, bullying hoooooooooonk, usually reserved for huge trucks and hurrying buses, is rather unnerving. It starts in the distance and gets louder and louder and louder, as if the driver has strapped a two-ton brick to the steering wheel to make sure the horn produces maximum volume at all times, especially the moment it passes you, almost knocking you over with its intensity, before it continues on, leaving a slew of surprisingly unaffected drivers in its wake. If this horn could speak words, it would surely say, “Get the F out of my way, before I flatten you like a pancake.” Everybody seems to listen.

And then there’s the impatient mahmp mom mom mom mom maaahmp that’s like an incessant tap on the shoulder. “Hey you. Move, move, move. Did you hear me? Move, move, move. I want to get by. Hey you. Did you hear me?” This horn is our driver’s favorite—and it makes me want to punch him.

But even he’s no match for the cacophony outside.

Mee me me me meep. Beeeeee be beeeeep, be be beep. Hooooonk! Beep beep. Beep … beep … beep … be beep. Mahmp mom mom mom mom maaahmp. BEEEEEEEEEEEEP. Beep beep… Beep beep. Mawp mawp. Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep meep.

And I become a cranky woman.

To drown out the noise and hopefully invoke the power of the car sedative, I turn to my iPod and a playlist titled “Sleepy Time.”

Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes on, and suddenly, I’m in two worlds at once. I’m here, in this van, on this road where a man with no legs powers a bike cart with his arms. I’m also in a parallel universe, driving my luxury car on an open road in the snowy Sierras, remembering wonderful times with wonderful friends.

As I look out the van’s window, smiling from the memories, a woman, who clearly suffers from mental illness, wanders aimlessly into the middle of the street, and my smile fades as I wonder what parallel universe her mind inhabits.

It occurs to me that this woman, along with most of the women here, will never own a luxury car, let alone drive one, or even ride in one, and the difference between where I’ve been and where I am now slaps me awake again.

You asked for it; you got it!

On the morning of our Bangladeshi dance debut, Heather and I sat in a decaying performance hall, waiting for our turn to practice on stage. As we waited, I watched a few of the male dancers attempt to hang a projector from the ceiling using rope netting and a huge ladder that was broken in crucial places. Every time someone moved, the ladder swayed from side to side more than any ladder should. A few guys stood around the base to add support, but as far as I could tell, they weren’t making any difference. Suddenly, one of those, “Oh, I need my camera!” moments struck. Not because I thought anything bad would happen, but because this was so typical of Bangladesh.

Setting up

In this part of the world, you take what you’ve got and you make it work.

I snapped my photo and scanned the auditorium, imagining what it looked like when it was new. The peculiarity of the situation sunk in. Instead of watching a Bangladeshi dance performance later that evening, I was going to PERFORM in one! And for the studio’s 20th anniversary, no less. Kind of surreal, actually. But hey, why sit by and watch when you can do, right?

In the weeks leading up to the performance, we spent lots of time and energy going to practice, getting costumes and finding jewelry. Our biggest stress, though, was hair and makeup. We were clueless about what to do, and we needed help! Thankfully, Bangladesh is full of wonderful people, and an entire family came to our rescue.

Two sisters from our dance class, Shima and Lima, invited us to their home so we could get ready with them. Their older sister, Poly, selflessly turned her bedroom into a parlor and spent several hours transforming all of us into stage-ready dancers. What she was able to achieve with my hair alone was magic. And the makeup! Never in my life would I have attempted to wear red eyeshadow, but it looked better than I expected (and took only five washings to remove from my face).

After a long day of preparation, we were finally ready! We all piled into an easy bike (sort of like a big golf cart) and headed to the performance hall. As we walked up the steps and into the auditorium, we were greeted with gasps of, “Shundor,” (beautiful), and we exclaimed, “SHUNDOR!” right back. Everyone looked amazing! But the little ones were the cutest of all.

Now, take a moment to imagine something: You’re about to perform in front of a large audience. A little scary, right? Now imagine this audience is in a foreign country where the culture and customs are incredibly different from yours, and you don’t understand the language, and you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, and you have to change costumes, and you can’t remember the steps to your dance, and you’re afraid your sari is going to fall off, and you’re pretty sure you’re going to make a fool of yourself.

A lot scary!

But then … you remember that everyone around you is on your side and no matter what happens, they’re just delighted you’re there to share this experience with them.

So you can breathe again. And you perform. And you make a few mistakes. But your sari stays on. And everyone showers you with compliments. And everything is great. And you’re so happy that you did it. But you’re in no hurry to do it again … well, that is, until your performance tomorrow night.

Honestly, I don’t know how professional performers do it. It’s exhausting! But I guess it’s a good thing that’s how I feel because, as you’ll see in the much anticipated VIDEO (!), I’m not exactly a pro level dancer. Try not to laugh too hard, ok?

OK. I did it, I shared the video. Now VOTE FOR ME to win a trip around the world! Please!

Help Me Win a Trip Around the World!

Vote for me When I saw the details for My Destination’s Biggest, Baddest Bucket List contest, I knew I had to enter.

Despite the fact that I have no experience making travel videos, and this part of Bangladesh isn’t the easiest tourist destination to promote, I was excited for the challenge and SO EXCITED for the potential reward. Turns out, making the video was super fun and rewarding in and of itself.

Capturing hundreds of moments and whittling them down to a three-minute video became a labor of love that really helped me appreciate how amazing this experience has been. And with my time here drawing to a close, that realization was a wonderful gift. I just hope my little ode to Bangladesh–in video form–will serve as a gift to all the people I’ve met here as well. And I really hope that more travelers will come discover the charm and warmth of this country.

Now, this contest is called the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List, and if I win, I intend to add some spectacular items to that list, but I’ve also learned that tasks don’t always have to be big and bad to be entertaining. Sometimes simple is just as fun … and just as difficult.

Here’s my simple yet challenging Bangladesh bucket list:

  • Trade places with a rickshaw driver (Done! See contest video)
  • Learn to carry heavy stuff on my head (Done! See contest video)
  • Learn a traditional Bangladeshi dance (Done! See video here!)
  • Learn how to properly wear a sari (in process, this will take years)
  • Drive a cow cart (to do)

I’ve only got about a month left to complete the last item. I better get on it!

While I tackle that, please help me win this contest.

HERE’S HOW TO VOTE:

Go to the contest page: http://www.mydestination.com/users/angelajacobus/bbb#, then scroll down to the green box next to my video and VOTE FOR ME using one or all of the “share” buttons there. You must vote from the green box or it won’t register. If you have accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, StumbleUpon and Pinterest, you can vote FIVE times! See how easy that was? Now, please spread the word! And thank you SO MUCH for your support.

Unrest in Bangladesh and the Luxury of Being an Expat

Before reading this post, please read A Crossroads for the Future of Bangladesh written by a well-informed expat living in a different area of the country.

I was in India when the Shahbag Movement turned tumultuous so I was unaware of any danger I might encounter when I returned to Bangladesh. My boss’ driver picked me up at the Dhaka airport and I spent the next day sleeping — recovering from both a stomach bug and a nasty cold I had picked up on my travels — at her apartment, which is nestled in the Diplomatic Enclave, consisting of Banani, Baridhara and Gulshan.

Now, let me explain that Gulshan (where my boss lives) is like its own planet. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, think Woodbury without the Romanesque entertainment and crazy Governor. The rest of Dhaka could be in all-out war, but in this expat neighborhood, I imagine daily life would continue undisturbed with people walking around, shopping and dining out as they normally would.

After my day of rest in Gulshan, I returned to Jessore and learned that there had been a hartal (a nationwide strike) while I was gone. No big deal. We’ve had lots of hartals lately as each political party chooses a day or two to rally support for its point of view.

In Jessore, there has been almost no violence related to the strikes, so to me, they’re just an excuse to miss work (transportation is banned on hartal days, so driving to the village is too risky). Besides, most of the hartals have taken place on days I didn’t have to teach anyway, so my daily life hasn’t really been affected.

The biggest impact I experienced came a few days after my return to Jessore. The British Aid Guest House Association (BAGHA) in Dhaka was hosting an Entertainment Expo and my company was participating, so I went back to Dhaka with three of my colleagues to promote the resort to the expat community that would be attending.

There was only one problem: the day of the event coincided with the sentencing of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a Bangladeshi war criminal. Many Bangladeshis demanded the death penalty for him, but Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, did not. The evening before the event, bursts of violence erupted around the city.

Safe in Gulshan and busy preparing for the Expo, I had no idea anything was amiss until one of my Bangladeshi colleagues, who had been running errands outside the enclave, returned to the office and told us he had just witnessed gunfire on the streets!

We wondered if the event would be cancelled, but it wasn’t, so we moved ahead with our planning, instructing everyone to avoid traveling to dangerous areas. As long as we stayed in Gulshan, we’d be fine.

And we were.

The day of the event, a Thursday, Sayedee was sentenced to be hanged. Throughout the city there was celebration as well as backlash. Things were heating up, but where I sat, everything was normal and calm (except for our own frenzy trying to complete our booth on time). In fact, except for the smaller-than-expected turnout at the event, and the harrowing experience of my colleague, I would never have guessed the country was in crisis.

At the Expo, a band was playing classic rock cover songs. One vendor was giving out free ice cream. There was a bar, with actual alcohol, next to our booth. I saw high heels, skinny jeans, cleavage and cans of Heineken. This was not the Bangladesh I had been experiencing the past nine months. I pondered how different my life in Bangladesh would have been if I had lived in Dhaka. This was a surreal bubble … and I envied it.

But I realized my life in Jessore, even without the familiarity of Western comforts, is its own bubble. More than 40 people have died in the streets, and the country is quite possibly on the brink of a civil war, yet I have felt not even a tiny twinge of fear. Even after the Jamaat called a three-day hartal, I wasn’t worried. Instead, I was happy to have a few days off to catch up on personal business, like writing this blog.

Of course, even though I haven’t heard about any violence in Jessore, I haven’t ventured outside the past three days. It’s better to be safe than adventurous at times like these. Besides, I’m used to staying in.

The Jamaat hartal ended at 6 p.m. this evening, and for now, it’s back to business as usual. Who knows when the next hartal will be called or whether it will be peaceful or violent. No matter what happens, my hope is that the issues from the past don’t prevent Bangladesh from moving into a peaceful future. The country truly is at a crossroads, but like the blog post “What Brings Me to Shahbag, What Pulls Me Back from It” reminds us, Bangladesh is struggling with many other big issues, perhaps more pertinent than demanding justice for war crimes. For this country to truly progress, they must also be addressed.

Sitting here in my little bubble, I pray they will.

How Dance Set Me Free

If you’ve been following Untitled Adventure for a while, you might remember that, a few months back, I almost became a shut-in.

Well, thankfully, these days I get out of the house quite regularly. Oftentimes, I even stay out AFTER DARK—which probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to most of you, but imagine six months of keeping the sun’s hours. Then, imagine the liberation you’d feel the first time you ignored its orange-tinted warning to hide inside.

Trust me, it’s a big deal.

So why the change? Well, mostly, it’s because, after several months of asking and waiting, I am finally enrolled in a Bangladeshi dance class! Heather, a new intern who recently arrived, was also excited to join the class, so I’ve got a buddy to share all the awkward and humiliating moments.

Thanks to our impeccable timing, the potential for both is especially high … it just so happens that the studio is celebrating its 20th anniversary later this month, and we have been asked to perform in the milestone celebration. Oy vey! Err, I mean … Yay!

The Studio
Picture this: Two fair-skinned women—aged 41 and 32—fumbling around a small cement room. There are no mirrors, except the dark eyes of the onlookers, 20 of them at least, watching intently. The other students in the class are mostly young girls—aged 6 to 16. When they dance, they move with fluid precision, unlike the new additions to their class.

It would be so easy for them to bemoan our presence, but they don’t. When they aren’t busy dancing, they rush over and crowd around us with eager smiles, and one by one it goes like this:

“Hello. How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Hello. How are you?”

“I’m great. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Hello. How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

Until each child’s heart has touched ours.

There are male dancers, too, but they’re all a bit older and much more shy than the girls. Instead of trying to talk to us, they take videos and photos on their mobile phones from across the room. All of the teachers are male, too. The master teacher is a friendly yet authoritative man and perhaps the only person in the room, including the doting mothers, who is slightly older than me.

The Dance
On our first day of class, as we attempted our first steps, we began to realize that an entire dance was being choreographed especially for us. (Awkward moment #1.) Except, it wasn’t the traditional Bangladeshi style of dance we had hoped to learn. Instead, it was a mix of extremely basic ballet and ballroom (to match our skill level) with a few Bangladeshi folk moves thrown in … and the tone was overtly romantic. (Awkward moments 2 through 10.)

Despite the word, “maiden,” I couldn’t understand a thing in the song*, so we asked what it was about. One of the girls explained that it was written by Rabindranath Tagore, a nobel-prize-winning Bengali poet, and told the story of his love for a foreign woman. (Awkward moment overload.)

A few days later, a partner change was added to the choreography, which was … you guessed it … extremely awkward, not to mention rather confusing. If this was supposed to be a love story, why did we have to change partners in the middle of the dance? Again, we asked for an explanation. The girl with the strongest English replied, “I don’t know. It’s a very long time that a foreigner danced with us. Everyone is very excited.”

We were still confused but decided not to worry about it because we, ourselves, were excited about learning a second dance … an actual folk dance. We were even more excited about the ankle bells, called ghungroos, we will get to wear during the dance. (According to Wikipedia, a novice child’s ghungroos have 50 bells. Ours have 20.) I don’t care how many bells they have, I love them.
Ghungroos

The Performance
No dance performance would be complete without costumes, so about a week into our instruction, we went shopping with the master teacher and one of his apprentices (both of whom just so happen to be my partners in the confusing romantic dance). Due to our limited ability to communicate, the excursion was riddled with surprises—mostly related to fabric choices and the amount of money we were unexpectedly spending on items we’ll never wear again. It turns out we need two costumes: one sari, which, quite honestly, looks like a tablecloth, and one white taffeta princess gown. (Can you guess which costume goes with which dance?) By the time we were finished, we had purchased loads of fabric and ribbon for less than $50, including the tailor’s fee. I guess I can live with that. We haven’t seen the finished products yet, but I’m guessing humiliating moment #1 is coming soon when we try on our white gowns!

In addition to the costumes, we’re supposed to wear the traditional makeup, which is dramatic and heavy-handed. (Potential humiliation #2.) My apprehension about this aspect of the performance is eclipsed by only one thing: the unlikelihood that the sari will stay on my body the entire time I’m on stage. (Humiliation overload.)

It’s just a little over a week now until the big event, and we still have a lot of work to do, but I’m pretty sure this performance is going to be my favorite, if not most embarrassing, moment in Bangladesh.

If you’re lucky, I might just post a video!

*As I was writing this post, I listened to our version of the song (there are many, many versions) and suddenly realized that a good portion of it is sung in English. I must’ve heard the song at least 100 times but didn’t recognize the language as my own until just now. The singer croons, “I know you, I know you, you’re known to me, oh maiden of a distant Allah.” Well, that’s a little less awkward, I guess.

My Year in Photos

Well, I was planning to do it anyway, so when I saw the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: My 2012 in Pictures, I couldn’t resist joining in the fun.

2012 started with a month-long escape from the bitter cold of Korea to the warmth and beauty of SouthEast Asia. Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, to be exact.

After an amazing month traveling, it was time to go back to Jeju and enjoy my last few weeks before moving away from Korea.

Next, I spent a week traveling solo in Japan and saw some truly amazing things!

I then escaped the bitter cold of Japan and headed back to Thailand for six weeks–four of which were spent getting my CELTA certification. Somehow, I still managed to fit in plenty of fun.

 

Finally, it was time to head home to America to see my family and friends and take care of some business … like emptying out my storage unit after four years.

It took the better part of a week to sort through and sell or donate everything. Ugh. Never again.

After a month back in the States, it was time to head off on my next adventure … a year in Bangladesh.

Oh 2012! What a year it was! Let’s see what 2013 has in store.

Happy New Year!

Merry Muslim Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve here in Bangladesh, but if it weren’t for my calendar and my Internet connection, I would have no idea. Makes me laugh about the post I shared last year from Korea titled “Christmas Without Christmas.” Wow. If that was Christmas without Christmas, I don’t know what to call my experience this year.

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Unlike last year, I have avoided listening to Christmas music because I was afraid it would just make me sad. This year, in addition to missing all the lights and decorations and festivities that are synonymous with the holiday season back home, I’m really missing the childlike anticipation I always felt—even as an adult—about waking up Christmas morning and seeing the tree and enjoying a special day with my family.

Luckily, I was able to change my teaching schedule so I’ll be available to Skype with my loved ones on their Christmas, which is really when Christmas is happening for me, anyway.

And, if I do start feeling depressed, I remind myself that I’m relieved I don’t have to deal with all the commercialism associated with the holidays and all the pressure people put on themselves to bake the perfect cookie or give the perfect gift or host the perfect party.

I imagine my students sitting with my family on Christmas morning and seeing all the presents and all the food. Heck, just seeing the house itself would blow their minds!

As I write this, I realize that I have spent so much of my time here feeling lonely and isolated that I have forgotten to be thankful. This Christmas, again, I remind myself that generosity, goodwill and gratitude are the most important aspects of this season to me, and that here in Bangladesh, I have so many opportunities to practice all three.

So on that note, I’m going to listen to The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington and play with the five puppies we have in the house … because nothing says Christmas like The Nutcracker and puppies … at least not in Bangladesh!

Puppies

HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM ME AND THE PUPPIES!

UPDATE: After I posted this, we drove around Jessore in search of some holiday lights. The first stop at the Catholic church yielded only a small nativity scene. There was, however, a field full of fireflies next to the church, which made me really happy. (God’s Christmas lights perhaps?) Our second and final stop at the Baptist church delivered a pretty good attempt (see below). Incidentally, when Bangladeshi couples get married, they cover their homes with lights–which put this Christmas display to shame.Christmas Lights Bangladesh

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Bandarban Hill Tracts–A Different Side of Bangladesh

Nine days off?! It’s time to explore. Part 2.

The Bandarban hills are alive with … indigenous tribes.

On our first full day in Bandarban, my teacher friend and I–plus a Swedish woman who was traveling solo–hired a guide for 1,000 Taka ($12) and a baby taxi for 1,500 Taka ($18) for the whole day. Take a moment and do the math. That’s only $10 each … for the entire day!

We could have gotten a nice truck for 4,000 Taka ($50), but we opted for the more economical version. As we discovered, it was the better choice, not just because it was cheaper but because, in the baby taxi, which is basically a roomier version of a motorized rickshaw, we were able to feel the air and see the view more completely than if we were trapped behind car windows. Plus the ride up the steep hills was significantly slower, so we had more time to take in the scenery as we headed to our first destination.

Bawm Village
Our guide (let’s call him Lek) was a member of the Bawm tribe, so for the first stop on our tour, he took us to his house, which sat on a lovely hill IMG_4778-2 a few miles away from the main village. Getting to his house required a short walk down a narrow dirt path, across a stream (where his goose was swimming), and up another dirt path to his front door. He invited us inside where his daughter and wife were sitting on the floor, watching a small TV at high volume. As they turned down the television, we joined them on the floor and sat looking around the modest home, trying to figure out where they slept.

I noticed a pile of woven rugs sitting near the TV. (Weaving is the Bawm people’s specialty.) Lek asked if we wanted to see any of them. At the time, I declined, thinking of the days of travel ahead and the burden that a heavy rug would add to my backpack. I now regret that decision. What a unique memento or gift one of those rugs would have made!

After sitting and smiling and looking around awhile longer, Lek asked if we were ready to leave. We nodded yes, expressed our thanks, and headed back over the stream to the baby taxi for our next stop at the main village.

As we wandered around the main village, taking photos and asking questions, we learned that the tribe, which is Christian, comprises about 100 families. I asked what it was like at Christmastime. Lek explained that each year, one house is chosen to host the festivities and everyone from the village comes over to eat and celebrate. (As I sit here in Jessore on Dec. 21st with no sign of Christmas in sight, the thought of spending the holiday at the Bawm village sounds pretty delightful.)

Murong Village
After our short stay in the Bawm village, we continued up the hill to visit another tribe, the Murong people. Their village was made up of about 20 families who still embrace the ancient beliefs of animism.

Murong Home EntranceLek escorted us through the village to one of the huts and invited us to check it out. In this village, the homes were raised off the ground, so we had to climb a narrow piece of carved wood to get inside. As we entered, I noticed how much bigger it was than Lek’s house. Several children and a few women where sitting around the large, open room. (Here, there was no TV.) A few kids were doing something with flowers. One boy was eating sugar cane. The women seemed to be preparing food. Again, we sat on the floor, smiling and observing. Again, I wondered where they slept. This time, I asked. Lek motioned to the floor around us and pointed to some long wooden blocks along the edges of the room. “They sleep here,” he said. “Those are the pillows.”

I snapped some photos in the dark hut and quickly discovered that, unlike most of the children I’ve met in Bangladesh, the Murong kids were incredibly camera-shy. Every time I raised my lens in their direction, they scattered … and it soon became a little game.

IMG_4827-2As we continued looking around the hut, each of us commented on different things. The open fire in the room with no barrier between it and the small children all around. The gaping holes in the floor. The saws and knives hanging on the walls. We talked about the crazy safety standards in each of our home countries. Those standards didn’t apply here, yet somehow, these children were happy and healthy and injury-free.

I noticed another interesting thing: the storage area hanging below the ceiling. According to Lek, that’s where the family keeps their homemade musical instruments. (Music seems to be the Murong specialty.) I tried to imagine a typical day in this family’s life. Hanging out, cooking, playing music and dancing. Yes, they’re poor and they don’t have much in the way of material possessions, but it seems to me, they have an abundance of the things that make one truly rich.

Lek indicated that it was time to go, so we said goodbye and headed off for the second half of our tour (which would involve truckloads of men with Hindu statues and a river), but I’ll tell that story in a different post. For now, I’ll share the experience I had the next day with the Tripura tribe.

Hatibandha Tripura Village
According to Lonely Planet, “Very few people make it to this village and it’s essential that you obtain the permission of the village headman to be there and remember to tread carefully with your photos.”

This, combined with warnings that the path to the village was steep and possibly slippery made the hike SUPER interesting to me, but not so much to my teacher friend. Lek said it would be no problem for me to go alone, but I decided to hire a guide anyway, so I paid a whopping 500 Taka ($6) to have Lek’s brother accompany me.

The warnings about the path were accurate. It was paved with stone bricks and the morning dew had left them slicker than a slip ‘n’ slide. I had to focus on each step, gingerly sidestepping my way down the trail, while Lek’s brother (let’s call him Sahn) moved quickly and effortlessly ahead of me, continually pausing to make sure I was ok.

Tripura Boys Cricket The hike was supposed to take an hour, but, even at our slow pace, it took only about 30 minutes. As we entered the village, we were greeted, not by a scary headman, but by a group of boys playing cricket.

Normally, when I walk near a group of children in Bangladesh, everything stops and I’m quickly surrounded by excited, curious kids. Not here. These boys were completely uninterested in the foreigner in their midst. In fact, if Sahn weren’t with me, I might have turned around and left, feeling that my presence wasn’t welcome.

Thankfully, though, he was there, and he shared some interesting information about the tribe. (How accurate it was, I do not know.) He pointed to the women wearing hundreds of beaded necklaces and explained that the jewelry’s original purpose was not ornamental. According to tribal folklore, the beads provided protection. When the women wore them, their enemies couldn’t cut their throats!

I asked Sahn if I could buy some necklaces and take a few photos in return. He said it was no problem and led me to one of the houses. We were not invited inside, but were allowed to sit down out front as they retrieved a large plastic bag of necklaces. I found a few I liked and asked how much they cost. The prices were much higher than I expected, and I kinda felt like I was being ripped off, but when you think about it, each string of beads is truly one of a kind. And how many people can say they hiked into a remote village to meet the people who created and shared a traditional piece of their culture?

Note to friends and family: If one of you receives one of these necklaces from me, you better appreciate it! ; )
Tripura Bead Necklaces

If you’re ever in Bangladesh, I definitely recommend taking a trip to Bandarban to see the tribal villages. It’s an interesting, perspective-gaining experience like none I’ve ever had.

Here are some more photos, but out of respect for the villagers, they’re mostly just buildings and animals.

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Warnings Shwarnings

Thanks to Durga Puja and Eid al Adha – two holidays I never knew existed before I moved to Bangladesh – I was able to enjoy a nine-day vacation. And thanks to the second teacher who finally arrived a month ago, I was able to explore some of the country … with a travel buddy. Hooray! (Part 1.)

First Stop: Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bandarban

When searching for information about the Chittagong Hill Tracts, I came across various travel alerts stating things like, “all non-essential travel to the area is not recommended,” or “reconsider your travel plans.” I was a little alarmed by the warnings, but I wanted to understand why the area should be avoided. I couldn’t find any specific or recent information to illustrate the danger — just instructions to notify the Bangladeshi authorities and obtain a permit before entering the region.

It sounded sketchy enough that I did consider changing my plans, but then I talked to my boss. She assured me that the warnings were outdated; she had been a few years back under the same conditions and everything was fine. Besides, Bandarban is touted as a must-see in Bangladesh, so travel there should be considered essential, right? Plus, from what I’d heard, the Hill Tracts region promised a very different view of Bangladesh, and I really wanted to see it! So my new teacher friend and I decided to go for it.

As you might imagine, the tourism industry in Bangladesh is virtually non-existent, so it’s rather difficult for independent travelers to find good information about where to go, what to do and where to stay. Pre-booking accommodations – even in big cities – can be challenging. There are a few reputable tour companies in the country (Bengal Tours, Unique Tours and Travels and Guide Tours) but I’m not really an organized tour kind of person, so I tend to avoid them. Guide Tours, however, runs the one and only resort in Bandarban, so I decided to give them a try.

When I called the contact number, a friendly woman who spoke excellent English answered the phone. I asked a gazillion questions and she patiently answered each one. I learned that she could obtain the necessary permits for us and that we could hire local guides (for a reasonable price) to take us to the tribal villages in the Hill Tracts. When I asked about safety, her nonchalant, “No problem,” put any lingering doubts I had to rest. Apparently, we could even visit the tribes that Lonely Planet described as potentially off-limits. I was sold.

I decided not to share the details of the trip with my parents, though. (They’d just worry for nine days and what’s the point in that?)

So after a few email exchanges and an infuriating trip to the bank to transfer our payment (don’t get me started on the antiquated banking system in Bangladesh!), we had everything we needed for our adventure.

Beginning of the journey: two men in front.

First we flew to Chittagong and then, with permission slips in hand, embarked on a bus journey to Bandarban. It was the first time on a Bangladeshi bus for each of us. Considering the decrepit buses I see every day, packed to the gills with people, I was expecting a horrible ride, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined. Although, I’m pretty sure we ran over a dog at one point.

Midway through the journey: six men in front. Not too bad.

After bumping and jerking along for two hours, we knew we were getting close to our destination when the driver pulled to the side of the road, and we, the only white people on the bus, were instructed to disembark to show our passports and permits to a man in a small guard shack.

The man knew exactly who we were as he greeted us with a smile and asked us to sign a book. We obliged, got back on the bus, and continued on our way to Bandarban. Totally painless and anything but sketchy.

When we got to the resort (“resort” might be a bit of an overstatement), we were relieved to find a clean, comfortable bamboo hut nestled among the trees with a large balcony overlooking the hills and valleys below.

Enjoying dusk on the balcony.

So far, the adventure was off to a great start. Thank goodness I wasn’t scared off by those silly travel warnings!

Next up … visiting the tribal villages.