The kindness of strangers

It wasn’t only that I like the idea of wintering in the tropics. I felt a need to be totally removed from life as I know it, for personal and professional reasons. It wasn’t an escape as much as a desire for completely different surroundings, wanting to lose myself in another culture. I wanted different sensory input, the freedom that comes with organizing your own travel adventure, and yes, some warmer weather.

What I got was all of the above and a whole lot more.

Bangladesh is one of the poorer nations on this planet and has the unfortunate classification of being first in political corruption. It is also at the head of the pack in terms of achieving the Millennium Development Goals. There are more civil society organizations in this small country than anywhere else; Grameen Bank micro-credit originated here as did BRAC, the largest CSO in the world, ranking as one of the top four in effectiveness. While there is so much to be done, there is a lot being done.

A visit to Dhaka takes away any hope of urban planning, never mind the practicality of paving. Getting out of Dhaka is an adventure in itself; being out of Dhaka is what it was all about for me. The process was more important than any destination and the destinations ended up being excuses to see the bright green rice paddies, to hear the noisy vehicles, to appreciate the incredible variety of colors and designs on women’s shalwar-khemiz, to wonder what would happen to the school children who clutched on to their books, to seeing water everywhere and remembering that it really does mean life, to taking 8 hours to travel 250 kilometers by train, trying to find the damn boat, and relishing the incredible freedom of no one knowing where I was, being completely lost in myself and my own personal experiences.

It was 8 days before I saw another foreigner in Bangladesh. The lack of exposure to foreigners is means that there is a genuine excitement when coming face-to-face with one. From the hijab-wearing high school girls who told their cycle rickshaw driver to stop! and came running up to me to speak a few sentences in English, squealing and jumping up with glee with my every answer to the man in the market who searched his basket for the perfect tamarind to give to me, my belief in the basic goodness of people was affirmed. ‘Hello sister!’ ‘Ma’am, your country?’ ‘How are youuuuuuuuuuu?’ are all genuine inquiries, people making contact with this white woman who is bourgeois enough to be able to travel, yet not so much so as to eat with utensils in places where others don’t.

Some things that I know but would rather not accept were verified: fair-trade really only works with coffee and cocoa and in very few places; environmental awareness and conservation are privileges of those with access to financial resources and a conscientiousness that goes beyond worrying about working for tomorrow’s meal for you and your family as well as the land-owners; laborers will always not only be exploited but they will clamor for jobs under terrible conditions for little pay. Life is hard for way too many people.

And yet I have never been met with such warmth, over and over and over again. I was welcomed, greeted, laughed with, stared at but not pestered. I am in many more photos than I have people in mine, thanks to the addition of cameras on most mobile phones. The smiles that greeted me were smiles that came from within, giving joy, one person to another, with nothing other than human contact, a connection with another person, wanted.

To see the trees for the forest, I needed to completely remove myself from my life as I live it. To move on personally, I needed to be away to let go of what I have no control over. To move on as a small business owner who is trying still to focus on the business aspect in order to make the socio-environmental aspects sustainable, I needed to see another reality, to see how other people are dealing with creating opportunities for those who need them but cannot see where they might exist – if they are in fact out there.

What I had not counted on was the sincerity of the warmth of the people. From trying to get a train ticket to getting on the right car and finding the right seat – no common language, never mind a common alphabet there, and knowing that our ‘8’ is their ‘4’ did not help that often; from trying to understand if I wanted milk or red tea, someone was always there to help out, and mostly some male, from 10 to 50 years in age, tried to watch over me and make sure I was okay, while letting me be my stubborn, independent self while making sure that I got what I wanted and was headed in the right direction.

It was in the markets that life shone the brightest for me, that I had the best interactions. I ate there, I photographed there, I even bought papaya to have sliced there. May I be as kind to our customers and passers-by as the small vendors at small stalls in Bangladesh were to me.