Map of Bangladesh

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On Bondage

On Societal Bondage...
Mishor Rema, a 20-year-old Catholic Garo, is the fourth and final son of a couple of cha bagan (tea garden) laborers in Habiganj District, Bangladesh. As a result of inadequate medical attention in their village, both of Mishor’s parents died before he reached legal adulthood.  When he failed his matriculation exam, the pastor of Srimangal parish removed him from the care of his older siblings and in-laws, who already had a total of six children to look after and were unable to provide for him.

Now, as the table boy at the St Joseph church compound (where Kevin and I live), Mishor earns his room, board, and the equivalent of 14 dollars each month, serving in many more capacities than his title would suggest.  He sends more than half of the money he earns to his brothers, two of whom still work in the same tea garden as their parents, and one of whom works halfway across the country in a garment factory.

Many Garo people of Bangladesh have been forced into modern slavery under tea companies.  The Garo, or Mandi as they call themselves, are one of a few tribal groups in Bangladesh, a country that is possibly the most religiously and ethnically homogeneous in the world.  As the extreme minority, Garo people have traditionally fallen victim to severe discrimination.  Now, penned in tea garden villages and given just enough food and shelter to live, they are being stripped, systematically, of their humanity. 

Much of the northeastern region of Bangladesh is fertile for tea production.  This industry requires enormous labor power.  Removed from their lands over the last 50 years by violence, deception, and intimidation, many Garos turn to the tea companies for the promise of steady employment.  Steady employment in a tea garden has come to mean no money, no education, poor medical care, no land to call their own, and worst, no hope for a better future. The tea companies have intentionally secured a perpetually renewable workforce.

After years of effort, Catholic priests in the area have gained concessions from the tea garden managers.  Churches have been built in many tea gardens and Catholic mission schools are now allowed to take children out of the villages. Though there are only enough priests to visit each village once per month and there are not nearly enough schools, at least some Garos will be allowed to choose their own destinies, loosened from the bonds of an unjust society.

On Animal Bondage...

we ate this pig 4 hours later

 we saw this chicken killed 4 hours earlier

 On My Bondage... this shirt; apparently mediums run small in Jalchatra

On Racial Bondage...
Matthew 25: 32- "and he will separate the sheep from the goats"

On Fighting out of Bondage...
the new Bengal Bouts uniform- hard-working lungis

On FREEDOM from Bondage...

but buckle up for safety- even though this is binding in one sense

dancing for joy and singin "Aint No Mountain High Enough" again;
this has become one of the anthems of our trip (indicative of the terrain of Bangladesh)

Just some random stuff since we are now free from bondage...

I call this masterpiece "Water Droplet on Leaf"- courtesy of Father Pongkoj

Yes, rumor confirmed.  Kevin and a Khasi boy were holding hands tonight.
And you can trust that the smile on Kevin's face was just as happy as the boy's

The little one's name is Davidbeckham- no kidding. We've also met Maradona, Brazil, and Argentina- still not kidding.  One Bengali student was even named Julrich- just kidding... but maybe someday

 Beckham's Soccer medals and trophies
(they're really his father's, but it looks like he's of the right pedigree huh?)

da local gangstas (just kidding again)... btw bamboo poles always means construction

further random stuff...
  • The four of us boxers will be united for Independence Day, but only for breakfast- guess we'll have to do fireworks before dawn instead of after dusk
  • Kevin and I will attend a First Holy Communion for 40 kids tomorrow
  • One of the priests here delivered a baby on a motorcycle- once again, not kidding. I need to regain the trust of my audience.

alright th-the-that's all for now, folks. Live free from bondage, but remember to lend a hand to those who might not have a choice.

God Bless,

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Picture Book: Mariamnagor Trip

Kevin and I traveled to Dhaka and then up to Mariamnagor this week. We also stopped at Jalchatra and Pirgacha, where boxers have stayed in previous years.

It's time for a simple picture story

dancers in Diglacona, or as most Americans call it- "Little Heaven."  It is a hostel village for primary students and it is featured prominently in the Strong Bodies Fight documentary

trekking through the small mountain paths at Little Heaven- "the old boxers did it"

all the boys together again, singing Lean On Me

Leo and I with the kids

When we went to "little heaven," the kids washed our feet.  This is the second time here that I have experienced this greeting. Usually they only wash one foot, but I accidentally offered my second foot so they felt obliged to wash both of everyone's feet.  Smooth, Jeff. 
By the way, that's Father Alex, or Achu ("grandfather") in the white.  He's another living legend.  He's from the Phillipines, but has been in Bangladesh for about 50 years.  He illegally brought a special kind of dry-season rice, called Irri rice, to Bangladesh, so that people could have two harvests every year instead of one! He's an agriculture expert and actually helped develop the rice in the Philippines.

the beautiful courtyard at Moreau House in Dhaka

just a cool moth on my shirt.  I could make a book of all the interesting bugs

chattin it up with Fr. Homrick in Piragacha.  "There are 1500 freedom fighters at the border.  And they're armed with arms and ammunition"

A woman at the loom in Piragacha.  They make clothes and big pieces of cloth that can be used for many purposes.  We bought some stuff from here and were also given shirts at Jalchatra.

Another Marist Brother- Brother Eugene.  He's in Jalchatra

There are many Catholic charity compounds here.  This is the second Missionaries of Charity site we visited (The Missionaries of Charity are Mother Theresa's sisters for those unsure)

Look at those rippling muscles... not mine! His! It's odd riding on the back of rickshaws, being peddled by guys who weigh half as much of us.  I always have the urge to trade places or get off and push.

Kev, Father Pongkoj, Andrew, and Leo at Father's house in Mariamnagor- great food

some newborn lambs with mama. They go everywhere together.

Even Church! But they're not the only animals in church

Eustace, the dog, is a regular parishioner at Mariamnagor too

Don't hold your breath for more pictures from the trip, but I'll post an entirely new blog by Friday probably.  We have two weddings (one is a triple wedding) and one day trip this week.  Besides that it's back to the normal teaching schedule.

Oh and one unusual addendum- just a short list of intentions for you to help pray about:

1) A thief in a local village was caught.  They cut off his arm as punishment. He died a couple days later.

2) The brother of one of my students committed suicide yesterday.

3) A girl from the hostel in Jalchatra died of some unusually quick sickness when we were visiting

-please pray for all three of their souls and for their friends and families

4) A dear family member is getting some medical attention within the next two weeks.  Please pray that all goes well.

5) There are 7 marriages this month of June in Srimangal Parish- please pray for their faithfulness to each other and to God

6) Many friends and some family are leading or attending ND Vision and Steubenville retreats around this time of summer.  Please pray that their retreat experiences are fruitful.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day

(The title of this blog is a little misleading.  The post begins with two sentences about Father's day and ends with one picture.  The middle is unrelated)

First of all, Happy Father's Day.  Apparently this holiday started in the U.S., but has spread to other countries, including Bangladesh- we celebrated a little yesterday and I got to talk to my family, including my dad.

Second, I must publicly correct my last post- I said my Nagymama was a parishioner at St Elizabeth Parish.  Whether I was connecting her with Hungary, confusing her church with my dad’s parents’ church (really St Elizabeth’s), or just experiencing a slip of the mind, her parish was called St Bernadette’s, which I should know like I know my own name.  I have walked to it many times, though not as many times as my mother to and from elementary school there, and have even prayed at the replica grotto, which should be a dead giveaway that is dedicated to Bernadette, not Elizabeth.  My apologies- I realized the mishap one morning in mass when my mind was just wandering, unable to listen to the Bangla sermon (and sure enough there was an email about it from my family too).

And now for something completely different… (but actually somewhat related because I thought of this while my mind was wandering during mass too)

I often think of those sleeping pill commercials on TV that show people “going through life on autopilot” and the commercials claim that the reason for this is lack of sleep.  They say that if you get a good night’s sleep you will live more fully and not be on autopilot.  I agree.  Any of my friends at school can testify that sleep is a priority in my life.  I’ve been known to climb up to my bunk at 11pm or midnight to sleep, while guys are in the room studying, drinking, playing board games, yelling about Mario Kart, or participating in a variety of other activities around me (not unlike my paternal grandfather).  A few of my friends have even borrowed “the sleep book” from me- it’s a book I read in Anthropology class freshman year of college that legitimately changed my life.  I have certainly found that sleep is helpful in living a full, alert, energetic life, but I realize now that I have put too much emphasis on sleep, to the neglect of vocation.

Here in Bangladesh I get as much sleep as I can possibly want.  We are free to go to bed anytime after dinner, which ends around 8:30 p.m. (and often we are in fact pretty quick to the pillow).  We do usually wake up in time for 6:30 mass, but that leaves 10 hours to snooze (assuming you manage to ignore the roosters, birds, lizards, and cows, which begin choir practice at 4:40 a.m. sharp).  We also have time for up to 2 hours of napping most afternoons, which we seldom take advantage of, but who needs to nap when you’re getting double digits of sleep at night? Somehow, after all that rest and relaxation I still find myself zoning out during long homilies at mass, closing my eyes on bumpy car rides, feeling sleepy at supper, and occasionally acting just plain lazy.

A few days ago I listed, in my journal, the times during the day when I feel most alive here.  They included teaching, planning for teaching, organizing trips or schedules, and playing sports/games.  These insights have been very helpful to me since then.  Even when I don’t quite feel like making a lesson plan or when some urge pushes me to say “no” when the students ask me to play soccer, I think back to the list and realize that choosing the easier path in those situations would be contrary to who I am.  Sometimes we have lazy instincts that mislead us, pulling us away from what we know is good for us and what we know we are meant for.

Ironically this week I will be doing almost none of those.  Instead I will be traveling halfway across the country to visit a few other Holy Cross sites.  First we’re going back to Dhaka, just out of necessity, but then up to Piragacha and Jaltratra (where the boxers stayed last year) and finally on to Mariamnagor where our two friends, Andre and Leo, are living for the majority of these eight weeks.  Who knows what our adventures will entail?

Sadly, we are saying good bye to two of our very good friends here in Srimangal.  Brother Marti (the “little communist” Marist brother) is going home to Spain, where he will attend World Youth Day and remain through August.  Father Michael is passing on the pastoral reigns here to Father Dominic, the singing, picture-taking priest.  Michael will be heading to the U.S., somewhere in Texas, to study more theology.  We hope to see him at Notre Dame sometime next year (maybe even during Bengal Bouts).


just a really good piece of photography

playing a game called Mongshe Chor ("meat thief). Only girls play this game.
This was at Alia Chorra, the village where the primary student hostel is.  Kev and I go here every Thursday and Friday to teach and play.

Rules of Mongshe Chor:
There are two team.  One person at a time is sent from the "attacking team" to try to tag people out and steal the stone from the "defending team," but you can only use one breath of air and you must make a repetitive noise to prove that you are not out of breath.  If you run out of breath or grab the stone, the other team can tag you.  Also you cannot cross the line on which the stone lies.  Retrieving the stone is a point, but if you get everyone on the other team out you win the entire game because no one can defend the stone (infinite points). If the attacking player is tagged after his breath runs out or while he is holding the stone, the two teams switch sides.

(in this picture I am the attacking player, trying to tag people and get the stone)

It took us about an hour to learn all these rules since the girls could not speak English, and even now I am not entirely sure that I have them correct.

Catching mangoes.  People climb up the tree to precarious heights and shake the branches down into the net.

One of the mango climbers (Nerius by name).  Check out his neck- crawling with ants from the tree
cleaning hundreds of fish.  The boys sit on the hilt of a curved knife and use it to cut off the fins and tail of the fish. Then they cut open its stomach and pull out the guts.

Nerius again

some more guys eating raw fish! (just kidding)

my turn

pulling out the guts from the stomach- scrumptious!

A memorial of a nearby massacre during Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971.  The memorial is in honor of the thousands of civilians who gave their lives for freedom and independence.

out at a small eatery, enjoying the local fare

a cup of seven-color tea (each layer tastes different and it takes about a half hour to prepare)

just in case you can't count to 7 on your own fingers, use mine

and this is 2-color tea. Unlike 7-color tea, it can be made in 4 seconds if you stick your finger in the cup and break the seals between the 7 layers

saying a blessing over a few village fathers on Father's day

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Nagymama and the Calm After the Storm

My Nagymama (“Grandma” in Hungarian) moved into our house in New Jersey a few months ago.  She had spent the last 50 years in the Philadelphia area as a parishioner at St. Elizabeth, seamstress for Howard, and mother to three children (including my mother).  This summary overlooks a lot of her life, but it reveals consistency, persistence, faithfulness, and at least some security.  The decision to leave her house, and instead live with the people she once had supported, was undoubtedly a major one.  Though I have not discussed this too much with her, and keeping in mind that I must be careful what words I put into her mouth or what generalizations I make because she reads each of these blog posts, I will relay what we have discussed as well as the further fruits of this discussion.

I have asked her, on multiple occasions, if she is bored yet with her life at our house.  Though her life in Pennsylvania consisted of much more work behind the sewing machine, time babysitting for my aunts and uncles, chores in a house alone, and errands to run (or walk- she never did get a driver’s license, even though I promised her that I would someday buy her a car), she says that she is not bored at all with her new life.  Now she spends much of her time reading, cooking, going to family events, and sleeping (more than she used to).

Here in Bangladesh, I have had a parallel experience.  My life at Notre Dame this year was filled with dorm activities, boxing, preparation for Bangladesh and Dublin, Little Flower Youth Group, DEEP, and much other fun stuff (not to mention the big three- School, Sleep, and Socializing) as most everyone’s university life is.  For the past few days here, I have spent the majority of my waking hours preparing English lessons, studying Bangla, writing in my journal, or reading about the saints and Narnia, all here outside the door of our second floor room.  We have a wonderful, walled-in porch around the second floor of the building that partially shields one from sight, but gives Kevin and I a perfect view of a few jackfruit (the national fruit) trees, the main entrance to the parish compound, and a small pond, all from a plastic chair.  I’ve told a few people that my ideal place of rest or leisure would include a view of water, the shade of a tree, and a wooden bench.  Though I am on a plastic chair and I am in the shade of the building rather than the shade of the trees, this place is pretty ideal.

After a long semester, this restful existence (we are getting 8-10 hours of sleep every night) is fully appreciated, maybe even necessary.  A good friend told me, over “bottom left” dinner in North Dining Hall, that people need time to process all the experiences we encounter in life.  During a college semester there is very little time for reflection or processing, and my recent trend has been to pack life with as many exciting, good things as possible, without time to process (in the hopes that I will simply enjoy them, look back on them later in life, and have good stories).  I have realized that, though I have outstanding experiences to look back on and learn from, if one waits for peace to change battle plans, the war already will be lost.

Rarely do I give myself time, in the midst of action, to learn and grow, but one time is certainly during prayer, especially mass and adoration. These were as integral a part of my busy schedule during school as they are here with the Holy Cross priests in Bangladesh.  As an aside, I am nowhere near as good a story-teller as many of my friends and family, which makes me think that I need to spend more time reflecting on and sharing my story, and less time hectically living it. 

My Nagymama shared with me, at our kitchen table almost every day during the one week I was home between Notre Dame and Bangladesh, some of the Hungarian language and prayers, a few of her stories from childhood, and a few stories from my mom’s childhood.

I have the chance to share, over the internet now and certainly more when I come home, some of the Bangla language (the only language, Bengalis proudly claim, that has launched a successful revolution) and prayers that I have learned, and a few of my stories from Bangladesh, connecting them with stories from the rest of my life.

Like my Nagymama in her relocation to New Jersey, I am not bored in my new, less hectic surroundings here.  Like my Nagymama, I have found peace and enjoyment in a life of leisure, the calm after the storm.

Hail Mary in Bangla
Pronam Maria, Prashad de Purna.
Provu tumar shohai.
Tumi narikule dhonna.
Tumar gorvofol Jesuo dhonna.
Hey punomoye Maria Ishyor
Jononi amra papi
Akonoyo amader mritukale
Amader mongol prarthona koro. Amen.

Random... just a great picture of Victoria Falls in Africa- photograph by Kevin Ortenzio (it's his current screensaver and I just had to take it)... you're welcome

Remember the wedding I had to leave? Well Kevin got to stay and here is an interesting picture-
the couple, the parents, the priest, and a random American dude.

a sketched map of our parish, along the border of India, in NE Bangladesh

We took a day trip to Jafflong, one of the two "most beautiful places in Bangladesh."
Jafflong is on the border with India in NE Bangladesh and one of only two places in Bangladesh with natural stone and mountains- the other is the Chittagong Hill Tracks.
Over our heads you can see how fast rain rolls in here.
Pictured is the day trip crew, minus Fr Dominic (who is addicted to taking pictures, but secretly REALLY ENJOYS being in pictures, himself, as does Sr Shilpi who is not in this picture).

told ya so

the ladies (Sr Jumona, Sr Jamalee, Sr Sukriti) posing daintily... and me

We barely fit into this little "I don't know what you call it"- I'm not even in yet and there are two people standing on the ground with me, waiting to get in.

One if by Land: the India-Bangladesh border at Jafflong-
you can reach the border here by road or by river.

The boat we crammed into to travel up the stream 100 yards to the water border.

Two if by Sea: This water is from India, but we are in Bangladesh.
The border is about 3 inches to Kevin's left.
It is guarded closely from a watch tower on top of a hill of stones on the shore.

Many random Bengalis wanted to take pictures with Kev and I at the border- I think I made it into about 13 family photo albums- here's just one example.

The three white stones I am holding were "gifts" from these three boys (in fact they asked for money after the picture was taken).

This is an outhouse (they call this a "khola" or an "open").

Practicing for the coolest picture of the entire trip so far

The coolest picture of the entire trip so far
I am an American, standing in Bangladesh, drinking a waterfall from India.

The tired ride home- we also stopped at a Muslim holy place in Syllhet- gotta love the beard.

Much love to family and friends and thank you for your continuing prayers and support,