Thanksgiving in January

I’ve been sporadically blogging for almost two years now. In the beginning, most of my readers were friends and family, but in the past six months, I’ve slowly started becoming part of the greater blogging community, which means I’m spending at least as much time—probably more—reading and learning about other people as I am writing about myself. And it’s been so much fun! There are so many interesting people out there with so many amazing stories, talents and ideas.

veryinspiringblogger1Last September, to my surprise, I received my very first blogging award–Very Inspiring Blogger–courtesy of the The Retiring Sort. Please check out the TRS blog for some truly inspiring posts.

I can’t tell you how delighted I was when I got the notification! My acceptance of the award is ridiculously delayed, but my appreciation of it is heartfelt and sincere.

versatileblogger11In December, I was again surprised and delighted to receive another award, The Versatile Blogger, from Lasesana.

Her blog covers a variety of topics from Spanish lessons to cycling to cooking. Talk about versatile! You can spend days wandering around her site … and you should!

So now it’s time to pause for a moment and share my gratitude with my fellow bloggers … and spread the love.

As part of the acceptance process, I must share seven random things about myself and nominate 15 bloggers for the awards.

Below, you’ll find 30 bloggers (15 for each award) whose musings most certainly deserve recognition (of course, there are many, many more), but only seven random things about me … I can’t come up with 14!

Random Me

  1. If we had a contest about who had the most impressive, ridiculous, interesting bicycle stories, I would totally win.
  2. In college, I learned how to play the sitar (but couldn’t play one now).
  3. I suck at math.
  4. I LOVE flip flops.
  5. I once spent three days jumping into the Olympic training pool in Park City, Utah—with a snowboard strapped to my feet.
  6. The first sentence I learned in Bangla was “Mosha ami pochando kori na!” which means,I don’t like mosquitoes!”
  7. I’m usually pretty smart, but sometimes I’m a complete airhead.

Very Inspiring Blogger Nominees

The following bloggers are inspiring (at least to me) for many reasons. I admire the paths they have chosen in their lives and their willingness to share them, their various talents, and their ability to help me see the world from a different perspective.

  1. Life Out of the Box
  2. A Word in Your Ear
  3. Steve McCurry’s Blog
  4. Izzy Lynch
  5. Brian Cooney’s Photography Blog
  6. Traveller Soul
  7. This Man’s Journey
  8. Everywhere Once
  9. Serenity Spell
  10. Cee’s Photography
  11. Adventures of Andrea
  12. Dreamlife Moments
  13. Trading Places
  14. Hot Milk for Breakfast
  15. Ken Thinks Aloud

The Versatile Blogger Nominees

The following blogs are a great source of ideas, tips, inspiration and sometimes just plain random or humorous rants to make your daily reading a little more interesting. Check them out!

  1. Wayfaring Teacher
  2. Taste for Adventure
  3. 3rdculturechildren
  4. Native to the Place
  5. Bolt in the Blue
  6. Joy and Woe
  7. Alice through the Macro Lens
  8. Fabulous 50’s
  9. Tom Reeder’s Blog
  10. Sometimes Interesting
  11. You Monsters Are People
  12. Trash Backwards
  13. Yoga Spy
  14. Zeebra Designs and Destinations
  15. Stolen Goods (Maybe this nomination will encourage her to start writing again!)

Award Acceptance Rules

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and share a link to their blog.
  2. Attach the award icon to your site.
  3. Share seven random things about yourself.
  4. Nominate 15 bloggers.
  5. Inform the nominees and explain how to accept the award.

Thanks again SO MUCH for the awards!

Happy reading and happy blogging everyone!

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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.

Defying Fan Death – One Night at a Time

A couple years ago, some friends and I were sitting around, drinking mediocre beer at some hof in Jeju when the subject of fan death came up. The conversation went something like this:

Me:Fan death?”

Friend: “Yeah, Koreans won’t sleep with the fan on because they think it will kill them.”

Me: “No way. You’re kidding.”

Friend: “Nope. Ask anyone. They really think they’ll die.”

Me: “But how? That doesn’t make any sense. How would it kill them?

I imagined rogue fan blades flying through quiet bedrooms, severing heads and limbs.

Friend: “They think it steals their oxygen.”

Me: Speechless

The topic came up countless more times during my two years in Korea. Each time, I couldn’t believe an entire population could believe such ridiculousness.

My two fans. They haven’t killed me yet.

My favorites were the tales of heated arguments between American guys and their Korean girlfriends. The boyfriend, who wanted to use the fan on hot summer nights, would explain the scientific impossibility of death by oxygen-stealing fan. The girlfriend, fearing for her boyfriend’s life, would frantically insist that the fan could — and would — kill him in his sleep.

Well, I hate to break it to you Korea, but for the past four months, I’ve been sleeping with not one, but two fans, spinning at full force each and every night — and I’m still alive! In fact, I’m pretty sure that, if it weren’t for those fans, I would have overheated to death. (Yes, I know that’s not a thing.) So really, in my book, fans are life savers, not takers.

From Wikipedia: Fan death is a widely held belief in South Korea that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those sleeping inside. All fans sold in South Korea come with an automatic timer that turns the fan off after a certain number of minutes. In general, scientific consensus holds that fan death is a myth.”

I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that an entire technologically advanced country could hold on to such an absurd belief. But then, I guess it’s really no different than religion. I mean, some of those stories are truly preposterous … but we believe them anyway.

What crazy cultural beliefs have you discovered in your travels? 

Green, Green Grass

They say, “The grass is always greener…” and ain’t it the truth?

Jeju Island, a beautiful volcanic paradise sitting peacefully (for now) in the Yellow Sea, was my home for two years. During that time, I met amazing, inspiring, interesting people; explored breathtaking beauty; lived an active lifestyle; and learned to appreciate a culture I had grossly underestimated before my arrival.

So why did I leave? Well, I hate to admit it, but it was the lack of long-term dating opportunities. When you’re a single woman quickly approaching (then surpassing) the 40-year milestone, your dating pool is already pretty small. Place yourself on a tiny island off the coast of Korea and that pool shrinks to a pond.

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s possible to find love in even the most unlikely places, but after two years of near celibacy, I was ready for some better odds. I was thinking Spain or Costa Rica, Morocco or Turkey, someplace in Europe or Latin America. Bangladesh was never on the list until this opportunity arose.

But even though dating options were my main reason for leaving Jeju, they didn’t weigh heavily in my decision to come to Bangladesh. Obviously. Because here in Jessore, for someone like me, there’s no dating pool, no pond … not even a puddle. Yep, Jeju now seems like a dating Mecca compared to Jessore. But let’s be honest, Jessore makes lots of things look better by comparison. (I kinda feel like I just told a “yo momma” joke.)

As you can surely tell by my recent posts, this transition hasn’t been easy for me. When the locals ask me how I like their country, I answer with an unconvincing, “It’s great.”

But you know what? At least one aspect of living here is great, and I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the patch of green grass on this side of the fence.

When I left Korea, I wished for two things in my next teaching position: Effortless lesson planning and motivated learners. The former eludes me, but the latter appears each day in my classroom with beaming smiles and sincere enthusiasm. It’s fantastic! My students are eager to learn. They want more time in English class. They want me to know how much they appreciate their time with me.

Recently, the resort’s investors came to the village for a tour of the project site and stopped by my classroom for a brief visit. After they left, one student raised his hand. With a furrowed brow and concerned, regretful eyes, he said, “Ma’am. I want to say nice things about you, but no time.”

At moments like this, any discomfort and isolation I feel are replaced with feelings of connection and gratitude. And really, that’s why I’m here, right? That’s why I took this opportunity … to challenge myself and help others. The challenging part is clear. Sometimes the helping part is more ambiguous. Sometimes I feel like I should and could be doing so much more to help people than this. But I remind myself that this is an amazing opportunity for these villagers (and me) and that empowering my students to help themselves is much more valuable than anything else I could be doing.

Perhaps the grass over here is greener than I thought?

Am I Really That Scary?

I used to take it for granted that (most) kids instantly like me. But in my three months in Bangladesh, at least three children have burst into tears at the mere sight of me.

When I smile and wave hello, they look at me, stunned and confused, then start bawling — with legitimate fear in their teary eyes.

Obviously they’re scared, but it’s pretty upsetting to me, too. I can’t help but wonder … What is it about me that frightens them so much?

Perhaps this video explains it.


But seriously, I wish I could trade eyes/cultural perspective with them for a few moments to understand what they see when they look at me. Or maybe it’s better that I can’t.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Urban

This week’s photo challenge from the the Daily Post, focuses on urban photography. From the challenge description:

“Unlike the photoshopped pictures to which we are accustomed nowadays, urban photography presents a more direct, unaltered view of life. It is about documenting urban living space and how people adapt their environment to certain needs and vice versa. Urban photography shots provide cultural, social, economical, and ecological context all at once, and can capture social tension.”

Well, ok. I’d say this is the perfect opportunity to share some shots of my new city.

Jessore is incredibly vibrant and interesting. Everywhere I look, the camera in my head sees amazing photos. Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to capture them on the camera in my hands.

Like this rickshaw driver — just chilling out, having a smoke, counting his cash.

These men caught my eye, so I stopped and asked if I could take a photo. The man on the right gave me that ambiguous head motion that’s so popular in this part of the world. Was that a “no” shake or a “yes” nod? I couldn’t tell, so I asked again. Apparently, it was a “yes.”

The other day, the office assistant and I were riding in a rickshaw after one of my diet coke excursions. He noticed the empty ice cream wrapper in my hand and told me to throw it in the street. (I refused.) I wonder if the cows would have liked it.

Yes, Jessore is far from pristine, but it’s still an incredibly photogenic city. To see more, check out this gallery.

New Kid in Town

Yesterday, this pathetic little creature joined our bustling household. Today, I tried to share some food with him her it. It promptly repaid me by placing two holes in my finger with its little teeth.

That little guy girl bugger is gonna have a hard time fitting in around here if it keeps this up. (And yes, I realize I should know better than to feed a stray animal by hand.)