Three years ago, as part of my quest to go sixty new places while I was in my sixties, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Bangladesh. Not only did I travel with a group of wonderful women, the country itself became one of my all time favorite places to be. I am happy to be sharing my memories of that special place and time in my life.
While bouncing on a bus seat through the countryside of Bangladesh, a young woman from the town of Khulna was amazed that I had chosen to visit her country. “Why Bangladesh?” she asked. My reply, “Why not?”
The two days it took me to get to Dhaka involved a four hour drive to the airport followed by 19 hours of sitting in an economy seat on Turkish Airlines and zero hours of sleep. I spent the first day sleepwalking through a market and somehow ended up with three bundles of fabric, all of which would be magically transformed into salwar kameez, the traditional lightweight clothing worn by women in Bangladesh.
I stumbled up a set of stairs behind the fabric vender who promised to take me to a tailor who would give me “best price”. I’d never had tailor made clothing before but I snoozed through the first couple of measurements. When the tailor said “waist…92” my brain yelped. I remember thinking that those airplane peanuts had done a number on me but I was too tired to care. It was sometime later that I realized the measurements were in millimeters. Well, probably centimeters, but I knew it wasn’t inches. I registered the fact that my new outfits could be picked up the next morning before flying to Jessore where I would board the bus to Khulna. I don’t remember the rest of the day but I think it involved an apple and some peanut butter crackers.
The next 19 days were a kaleidoscope of bright colors, beeping horns, sweet milky tea, honking horns, spicy food, blaring horns, and the Muslim call to prayer, which woke me up every day at 5:00 a.m. They were a whirl of three wheeled vehicles called easy bikes, bicycle rickshaws, bicycles, vans, bleating goats, barking dogs, a bus, a seaplane, and a motorboat.
I walked in parks, shopped for pearls, got henna tattoos on my hands, bounced on buses, and played with children. I managed to use the squatty potties without peeing on any of my loose-fitting clothes, or falling in. I left my shoes at the entrance to all the houses and churches, and walked around barefoot like everybody else. I visited schools, an orphanage, a sewing circle, and a class for mothers and babies. I went to a church service in Bengali, another in English, and to a women’s conference. During my stay, I had the privilege of working with a group of people who were trying to make life easier for young girls from the slums. I still miss the fellowship, their generous spirit, their kindness, and their shy but sincere smiles. I was a guest in three private homes where I was served tea, fermented yogurt, coke, potato chips, channachur, which is a spicy snack mix of sorts, and a super sweet, gooey ball of something soaked in a sugar syrup.
I checked out a rice paddy from the ground and more from the air, and I’m pretty sure that I ate a paddy’s worth of rice during my stay. Rice was served with every meal, along with a vegetable mix, potatoes, and dal, a broth type soup made from lentils. There was the occasional piece of chicken and we ate all of it with our fingers. It was spicy! I took the advice of another lady, who had tears streaming down her bright red cheeks, and did not eat the green bean look-a-likes. They were really super hot peppers just pretending to be green beans. The meals were all the same everywhere I went. I think there might only be five recipes in all of Bangladesh.
I enjoyed lunch in a restaurant with two delightful twelve-year-old giggling girls, watched beautiful young ladies dance while holding candles embedded in bowls of flowers, and went with a group of children to the zoo, where I may have been the most exotic exhibit. Truthfully, this wasn’t hard since the zoo was a pretty sad place. I was asked to pose for three different pictures, one with two women and a baby, one with a little boy, and one selfie with the male photographer. The photo session was over when the baby looked at me and started to cry. I’m pretty sure that, because of my red hair, they thought I was related to the red-faced, red-butted monkeys! It is a land of dark black tresses so anything else really stands out. Multiple times throughout the trip I saw men standing in front of me taking selfies, and I’d watch as they angled their phone so that I was in the picture. I finally just started smiling at them. I learned that staring is not considered to be rude there, which is good because, otherwise, pretty much the entire population would be classified as rude.
When my three weeks in Bangladesh were up, I was ready to come home. I missed my dogs, my bed, my pillows, and my walk-in shower. I missed my plush, ultra-strong toilet paper and brushing my teeth with water from a faucet. I missed ice cubes, unsweetened iced tea, forks, and wearing shoes in my house. I missed horn-free commutes and the quiet country nights of my home in West Virginia. As soon as I left, however, I missed the people from Bangladesh. Their lives are not easy. They work very hard. Sometimes they go hungry and their unclean water makes them sick. The young girls become mothers at an age when my youngest daughter was still sleeping with stuffed animals. They have almost nothing but they are all willing to share what they have. Despite all of this, they are like walking rainbows with their bright clothing and ready smiles.
I miss the new friends that I made in Bangladesh and I know that my life has been enriched by each of them. I wish I could talk to the young lady on that bus one more time. I’d tell her that her country is beautiful, that it is full of beautiful people, and that it was my honor to visit. This trip was more than just a few steps beyond normal for me but they are steps I’m glad I took. Sometimes, it’s good to be reminded that my normal is an easy place to be.