Map of Bangladesh

Map of Bangladesh
for more detailed map, scroll to bottom of page

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Good Bye Dhaka (What a Bus Ride!)


I’m sitting on a bus from Dhaka (capital) to Srimangal (village) and the scenery just keeps getting more and more picturesque- luscious green areas, dotted by garment factories and brick-making towers.  We just passed an overturned tractor trailer in the middle of the road.  At times I think our fate will be similar, but time and time again the driver of this miracle bus proves me wrong.  We weave through towns and people and traffic like a torpedo through a coral reef. I will never understand where these Bengali drivers get their powers. Seriously, this is a more exhilarating adrenaline rush than any amusement park I’ve been to (and for a better price).  Saint Christopher, patron of travelers, watch over us and over this entire country!

Since my last blog post we’ve spent time throughout a good chunk of Dhaka.  We traveled down to Old Dhaka, which is the Hindu section of the city.  There, we got the chance to walk down some beaten down and smelly (squatting and relieving oneself on the side of the road is a common event here), but appealingly lively and colorful alleys.  I loved it because, due to its narrow streets, it was impassable to cars and their frequently blaring horns (those car, bus, and motorcycle horns may prove to be the worst part of the country to me). Old Dhaka was born about 400 years ago and thrived as a Hindu center for centuries.  Idols and shrines to different Hindu gods still exist there as testament to the area’s history and as nourishment to the modern Hindus who still live there.

We also got the chance to visit Notre Dame college, the most prestigious college (equivalent to our high school) in the country. It is run by the Congregation of Holy Cross and one of my favorite aspects was that 10-15% of the acceptance spots are reserved for young Catholics from the tribal groups and villages.  These are people like those whom I will meet at the end of this bus ride and whom I will teach.  At the college we had an hour or so of free time, which we used in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat some students in barefoot soccer.  By the end of the game, there was a sizeable audience of workers from the metal-working and other vocational trade shops on the college campus.  At dinner that night I got to meet a living legend, Fr Dick Timm, whose autobiography I read this past semester. I was unaware until recently that he was still alive.

On our last day in Dhaka yesterday, we played basketball with the seminarians.  The team for whom I played lost (I’ve had a losing record throughout the trip so far), but we all got to enjoy dinner and a community night together afterward, as well as the birthday party of the seminary house’s Rector, Father James Clement Cruze, a now-45-year-old Bengali man.  All weekend, we four boxers had been preparing a song, based on the famous Chicago Bears’ 1985 “Superbowl Shuffle,” which we finally performed during the community night festivities.  It went very well, aside from a mishap in my beat-boxing during the third verse.

A serious issue which has plagued me in Dhaka (as well as in cities in the United States) is giving money to beggars.  Giving money seems a bad way to encourage dependency and uncomfortable attention for wealthy people.  Denying money seems a heartless, selfish crime.  Most often I have compromised by giving food or drink or offering to purchase something of such practical value, but what can one do when those offers are refused or not possible?

I have been reading a beautifully written book, My Life with the Saints, written by Jesuit James Martin.  Two chapters that pertain especially to this concern for the Poorest of the Poor (as Mother Theresa called them) are the ones about Mother Theresa (whose Missionaries of Charity we visited in Old Dhaka) and Dorothy Day (who happened to be my ND Vision model of faith last summer).  Their lives of complete humility and service, driven by their love for the poor, are inspiring.  A total yes is easier, if not in practice, at least in principle, than the more common balancing act in many people’s lives. I still have not decided in what capacity I feel called to serve, but I know it will always be important (hopefully central) to me.  I will never belittle a person whose life is given to service of the poor, even extremely or to the detriment of that person’s worldly life.

Remembering this commitment to service and acting on it always proves more difficult when not confronted daily by struggle or pain, so I pray and I ask that you pray for me, that I not back down from whatever I am called to do.

It’s difficult to reconcile logically the fact that in four months I will be studying abroad in Europe, spending a couple extra thousand dollars to travel to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, London, and possible more cities, whereas this current trip is, at least nominally, dedicated to serving those less fortunate, teaching English, and developing relationships with beneficiaries and friends of the Bengal Bouts.  Some would say that not all are called to love in such radical ways as mission work.  Some would say that leisure and sight-seeing are important to development of the whole person.  Some would say that one needs to take care of oneself before presuming to be ready to serve others, but I can’t say any of those sentiments entirely satisfies me.

Oh and for those wondering about that cockroach we had in our sink. We named him Harry and kept him as a pet all weekend until releasing him to new life in the wild last night.  You’re free Harry! You’re free!


Thanks for reading.  I’ll write again as soon as I can- and more pictures (and maybe even videos, like the one of the Bengal Bouts Shuffle) should be coming if the internet connection allows it.

God Bless,
Jeff

(sorry that there is no picture with this blog post.  I will post some more ASAP)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hello Bangladesh

We arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh  (the capital) at 9:20 a.m. this morning.  Well, almost all of us arrived in Dhaka. Leo's bags are somewhere in Dubai still but they should be getting here soon.  The last half hour of our flight was amazing.  I got to look down on desert, water, trees, grass, and cricket fields.  Oddly, as I was looking out my window, the Bengali guy next to me decided his seat was a window seat too; with his body stretched across mine, his nose was right up against the glass.  Initially hesitant to address him, I soon started a coarse, casual discourse.  From the little I could understand of his English, I learned that he was studying somewhere outside of Bangladesh (maybe England) and was flying home for the summer.  Since I couldn't make out most of his English, this became my first encounter that teeter-tottered between Bangla (or Bengali- they are interchangeable) and English.  The most valuable part of our conversation was a word he taught me in Bangla- "shundur." I'll come back to this.

Leo, Kevin, Andrew and I get to spend the weekend at the Holy Cross seminary here in Dhaka, enjoying leisure, good food, two or three rooms with air conditioning (not our bedrooms), and wonderfully friendly priests, brothers, and seminarians, including the world's leading expert on Nematodes, a bishop, and my friend's uncle, each of whom are Holy Cross missionary priests.

So far, we have informed our parents of our arrival, found a fairly large bug in our sink, played harmonica and basketball, succeeded in getting a soccer ball into a basketball hoop multiple times, using only soccer body parts, and perspired profusely.  For anyone desiring a better picture (or whiff) of the situation, I have not showered in somewhere near 48 hours.  Hopefully I'll have time to tonight before passing out in a real bed (I've slept almost as little as I've showered these past couple days, even though I usually sleep well on planes, trains, and automobiles).

Today was Friday. Fridays in Bangladesh are fairly quiet days of prayer for Muslims.  We were told that the roads are relatively empty and the air fairly peaceful.  Most days in the capital city are full of bustle and noise.  People are the main labor force, as opposed to the machines back home, and the streets are simply packed with them, biking, riding, walking, and running around like fifteen million ants in a hive called Dhaka.  Driving is dangerous here.  Even today I felt slightly uncomfortable on the road as a result of, in my opinion, many nearly avoided accidents.  Tomorrow we'll go out and explore the city some. I'm excited. Bangladesh kub shundur desh ("Bangladesh is a beautiful country").

A Bug in the Sink


P.S. I can now count to ten in Bangla and I'm improving a few other conversational phrases.  Also, unexpectedly I've been able to blog a lot here early on, but that will probably decrease soon.

Jeff

Predictions

(Written on May 26th in Dubai International Airport)
...Before I begin, let me just remind the reader that these are simply some predictions, hopefully not self-fulfilling prophecies nor unhealthy expectations...

We met a young man named Juni today in the Dubai airport.  He was a very kind employee at Hagen Dazs; we talked a bit with him and then bought some ice cream, predicting that we would not get ice cream at all in Bangladesh.  In that train of foresight I was prompted to look forward to my experience in Bangladesh and organize some of my thoughts so as to have some frame of reference to look back on at the end of the summer and even in the more distant future.  I quickled settled on what seemed to be the most pressing issue in my mind and heart, the new life this summer will bring.

After the next eight weeks, I think today will feel like it is in the distant past; on our return journey through Dubai, Juni may not even recognize us.  At the end of these eight weeks, I anticipate that I will feel a lifetime removed from the life I have lived for the past twenty years, for two reasons.  First, time will move more slowly because of the novel environment; I will get to savor it.  Second, I may return so changed that calling my pre- and post-Bangladesh selves the same person and the same life would be somewhat misleading.

When we become accustomed to our surroundings we can become like cogs in a machine, going through the motions of life, school, work, and social interaction.  In this deadened, machine-like state, life passes us by more quickly.  We exist for the same amount of time, but live less than we should, making time feel like it is going faster than we can live.  This is an illusion.  We can certainly live as fast as time flies.

Living in Bangladesh for the next 56 days will prohibit me from becoming a cog in my own life.  I will be forced to engage my mind and spirit throughout every experience because I will not be comfortable or confident enough to simply enjoy the ride thoughtlessly.  Each day will read like a long page, each week an entire chapter, and the entire summer a based-on-a-true-story novel.  My memory may exaggerate some events and (even more likely) my conscious self will forget some things, but the sum total should be a good story- a story that will be the prequel and introduction for the rest of my new life.  These are just my predictions.  We can return at the end of the story to see how they line up and to see if Juni, or anyone else, can recognize some changes.

Juni and The Boys at the "Zen Garden"
in Dubai Internation Airport

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good Bye U.S.

Jesu Narashon, ("Greetings", or literally, "I see Jesus in you")

My mom bought me a pair of 100% linen pants yesterday, she's making me get more malaria pills this morning, and I won't be able to pack successfully without her this afternoon.  She's been a big part of this last leg before my departure, but tomorrow is more about my dad.  I leave for Bangladesh tomorrow night, after a one and a half hour drive to JFK airport with my dad... on his birthday.  I'm not sure if this is the most appropriate birthday present, but it worked out this way.

This year, between May 25th and July 23rd, I will be out of the country on a mission trip to Bangladesh.  For those who don't know, Bangladesh is a small country on the eastern border of India.  It is home to 150 million people (half of the United States) who are squeezed into an area the size of Wisconsin (thank you Ashraf family).  Based on fairly reliable sources, they are a lively, friendly, welcoming people.  However, the country is arguably the poorest in the world.

For the last two years at the University of Notre Dame, I've been involved with a boxing program called Bengal Bouts that sends money to the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh (mostly schools).  This summer, following in the wake of Mark Weber (see the documentary, "Strong Bodies Fight"), Bobby Powers, Dom Golab, Mike Doran, Jack Healy, J.P Foley and others, I get to go to Bangladesh to teach English, learn about their culture, play soccer, hang with the priests, and get to know the kids.  Needless to say, it'll be an unforgettable summer.  People have told me that I'll be forever changed by what I see and do. I find this neither doubtful nor disagreeable.

My current emotional state is not incredibly interesting to note. I'm neither notably nervous nor anxious.  I'm excited, but not quite bubbling over.  I'm looking forward to the trip almost as a young child looks forward to his or her very first day of school or as a young adult looks forward to college- it's a new world that others have been to and told stories about, but which one cannot imagine before experiencing.

I do look forward to teaching.  I want to see if teaching is a possible career vocation.  I anticipate that I will enjoy making lesson plans, watching them fail, and adjusting to improve.  I expect to have many difficulties, which will only force me to invest myself further and love what I am doing.  Aunt Erzsi, Mrs. Straka, Mrs. B., Dr. Gubernat, Dr. Fagerberg, Dr. Schneider, and a few others have taught me what it means to be a dedicated, inspiring teacher.  I hope to follow in their footsteps this summer (and possibly forever).

Though I don't know totally what to expect, and my future posts (hopefully weekly) may not be this long or well-composed (though they probably can't get much less), I do know that I am drawn to the life I will be living when in Bangladesh. Who knows how quickly I will get sick of it, but living with a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, and about 5 shirts in sandals, unbearable heat, no air conditioning, and occasionally clean drinking water carries Franciscan tones.  And that doesn't even include the excitement and struggles in the barriers of language (ah, reminiscent of Hungary) and culture (eating with only your right hand).

I will keep prayer (at least five times a day- Bangladesh is 90% Muslim), mass (every morning at 6), reading (whenever it's too hot to do anything else, which will be quite often- the average temperature during the day will be in the 90's with constant 100% humidity), and journaling (for class and for myself) central to my life there.  Whether you contributed financially or not, I appreciate any prayers, well-wishes, notes on this blog, or emails that you can send my way this summer.

While writing this, I have begun to see this trip to Bangladesh as a better and better birthday present to my dad.  It'll be good for the world and great for me.  For his birthday I get to show him that I'm growing up to be someone he can be proud of.

Ashi! ("bye!", or literally, "I'll be back")

Jeff

an early adventure with Dad
(adventures in Bangladesh to follow)