This is the sad sad story of how I got home. So my ticket from Nepal back to Bangladesh was for Tuesday afternoon, giving me a full day to get to Dhaka, collect my big luggage that I left at the Grand Prince, and get a good night's sleep before my flight to Dubai on Wednesday. Paola had left Nepal a day earlier, so Tuesday morning Homero and I headed to the Kathmandu airport, ready to get home. Nepal was great but it was a little draining just from the constant hawking of street vendors and begging from street kids. As soon as we got there, we found out that our flight was delayed a few hours, and then it was cancelled until the next morning. We were shocked that they would cancel a flight at 4 PM, when there seemed to be plenty of hours left in the day to get a plane to Dhaka. It's only an hour and a half flight so it's not far. The next-day delay immediately caused stress: the proposed 11 AM departure meant that I would miss my 11:35 AM flight to Dubai. The airline officials recognized this but said they could do nothing for me until we got to Dhaka. Then we got a firsthand glimpse of how the third world airline system works: instead of a PA announcement, an official shouted for all the Bangladesh passengers to go back out past security and to get on a bus where they would be taken to a hotel for the night. The official then pulled me and Homero aside, and told us to get on a different bus that was filled with Bangladesh-bound passengers, but ones that looked like businessmen or had money. It was a vastly different crowd than the tshirts and backpacks group that were taken no-doubt to a rundown hotel right away. We were told they were taking us to a nicer hotel. It was an awkward and slightly uncomfortable to see the obvious segregation that was going on, and Homero and I both knew the only reason we got on that bus was because of our white skin and foreign passports. And it was terrible to think it, but we were so glad to be there. It was a sketchy situation to begin with and it was nice to be with a group who were educated, knew some English, and would be getting a little less third-world accommodations. Still, the whole situation seemed unjust.
An hour of immense traffic later, we pulled into an alley in Thamel with a hotel that didn't look so great. They had about 15 rooms and Homero and I saw them and then decided to just go ourselves back to the guest house we'd stayed at previously. It was cleaner and less sketch, and we knew the people there. That night was a quiet dinner in Thamel, in shock over the delay and the barrage of unfortunate events that had filled the day. I was texting my mom and said that it would take a miracle to get me home the next day, especially because we heard that the reason the flight was cancelled was because the airline officials went on strike. Her response was just what I needed to hear at that moment: "I believe in miracles." What a good reminder.
That night I spent hours on fuzzy Skype calls with the various airlines that were supposed to be flying me home, hearing a lot of discouraging news about my options and what it would take (money-wise and time) to get back to the US. The next morning we went to the airport early, arriving at 9 AM, to hear that the flight to Dhaka had just left. We were dumbfounded and immediately irritated because the airlines didn't tell us the flight was leaving at 9 and not 11. They even went so far to say that since we weren't there, it was no longer their responsibility. And they took it further to say it was not their responsibility that I was missing my flight to the US. We spent a few hours arguing -- unsuccessfully -- with the station manager, who finally got us on the next flight to Dhaka that afternoon, but wouldn't do anything for my US flight. When we landed in Dhaka 8 hours later, I spent three more hours talking to various airline managers who all refused to do anything for me, instead talking in Bangla to themselves even though I asked them repeatedly to speak in English, since they know the language fluently. They finally told me to come back at 6 AM the next morning and they'd see if I could get on the next flight to Dubai.
Looking back, the one blessing from this horrible travel experience was the conversations I had with Homero. We had hours and hours of waiting time in airports and bus rides to talk, and we had a lot of serious conversations about religion and convictions and the role of the church in a believer's life. I always appreciate these opportunities, shining little gems that God grants me, to share my faith and learn and be a light for Him. I can see in myself how much I've grown in my faith and become more comfortable in who I am. I actually love these opportunities now -- such a change than the new and timid believer I was in high school. It's harder to have these encounters at home; traveling puts you in unique situations where you can get to know strangers in a matter of days or weeks. When everything else is new and strange, the same familiar faces become good friends. But you know you only have a short time to be with these other travelers or interns or friends so conversations can span anything -- childhood, school, families, career plans, dreams, religion, politics, culture. There is no routine talk of the weather, that is for sure. It comes with a little bit of uncomfortable newness, definitely, putting myself in new situations with unfamiliar people , but I am always happy that I have done it. I just think of how many conversations I have saved away in my heart from unlikely people in South Caicos, Nicaragua, and now Bangladesh and Nepal, and I feel so blessed. There are a lot of searching souls out there and I am so glad if God can use a few words from my mouth to make someone think about their own life. It strengthens my own faith and prods me to commit more of the Bible to memory and study it more.
Anyway, I got up before 5 AM to traverse the Dhaka streets one last time to the airport. They were quiet, for Dhaka, at that time and I was so thankful for my time there but so ready to be home. At the airport, which was packed with people, I immediately had to explain my situation over and over to security guards and immigration officers and baggage attendants who wouldn't let me through the transfer desk, where I had been told to go. When I finally made it to officials in charge, I was treated rudely again and after an hour was given no help. It was beyond hot in the un air conditioned airport and I had to lug a bag, backpack, and suitcase all around the airport as each person sent me off to talk to someone else, where I had to reexplain the situation and was again told the airline could do nothing for me. The final outcome, as I was close to tears and just dying to get out of the country and HOME: a $300 change fee and a $620 ticket to Dubai, where I could catch the rest of my flights. The delayed airline would cover none of it. It was a very sad moment but there was no other way to get home and at the moment, I likely would have paid anything. Reflecting on it later, I think the blessing in this can be the lesson that money is just money and it is all God's anyway, so I shouldn't be too sad about it. That is hard to believe in practice, but I am working on it!
So, one full day later than I was hoping, I boarded a 5 hour flight to Dubai to start my trip home. Then I had 12 hours to wait in Dubai and then a 14 hour flight to DC. I landed in DC at 6:30 AM Friday and connected in Chicago before I got to Portland. Just trying to take as many flights as possible, it appears;) I took a quick trip into the city to have lunch with Tiera over my layover, so that was a nice reprieve from these airports and airplane seats I'd been in for the past 40 hours so far. Only another 11 and I'm home!
Seriously though, I have so much appreciation for our country now. More than anywhere else I've been, the Indian subcontinent made me realize how much we have in the West and how much the rest of the world envies us. The name "America" stirs awe, hope, respect, and jealousy ubiquitously, unlike any other country in the world. As the plane lowered into the DC sunrise, I was so happy to be home I could almost kiss the ground: a country where we have security, clean water to drink, toilets with plumbing, people speak English, people actually drive in lanes and follow a semblance of order -- you don't need to worry about getting hit every time you cross the street or ride in a rickshaw, we have a beautiful climate and air conditioning when it's hot, we have a comfortable population size for our country -- we don't have thousands of people living in spaces much too small. The population density in Bangladesh is like if the population of the ENTIRE WORLD lived in an area the size of the United States. Or if you put 143 million people in the state of Wisconsin. We are spoiled to have so much personal space when the rest of the world lives in constant crowds. We have the luxury to expect -- demand even -- 24/7 electricity, and when the power goes out for an hour it throws our life into a spin. On other side of the world, the power usually goes out for 10 hours a day and some people don't even have electricity in their houses. For them, the world goes dark at 7 PM. These are hard truths to deal with and not question why I was born where I was or feel guilty for what I have. I hope God can use these experiences to teach me more about His plan for me and to give me a greater awareness and thankfulness for the abundance He has given me. And now the strength and grace to get used to being back in the US!
Then we went to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple where they cremate people and then push their ashes into the river. Literally there were bodies wrapped in white ready to be "cleansed" in the river and then temple workers in robes stacked wood and hay on funeral pyres and started the flames. The whole scene was out of an ancient textbook or something. It was really face to face with a religion / culture like no other. I saw things I can't believe, and it just made me realize how far from death we stay in the Western world. In America, we would never be so close to dead people and our way of respecting them is by silence and privacy. Here, whole families and crowds come to watch their deceased family member burn. On the other side of the bridge (the above picture is taken from a bridge), there are fewer funeral pyres and with more space, and apparently only the wealthy or important people get to be burned on that side. While we were there, someone said a politician was being cremated, which is why there was such a crowd.
We were there until sunset and it was an odd mix of spiritual, eclectic, gruesome, and otherwordly. For the people there, mostly Hindus, it was an important and special rite to send their deceased off into whatever happens next. But for me, to see and smell the smoke filling the sky, the flickering fires... it was strange. My reading that night was Revelations 22 and it made me feel dirty for what I had seen earlier that day. Jesus and His plan for return are so pure and upright and wholesome -- I am so thankful that our Creator works in that way, and we have no part of orange flames and incense and flower garlands and burning bodies.
A little bit of the shine of Nepal has wore off. It is still great to hear the rain outside tonight while I write, but the wonder of Nepali people has been a bit smudged. Today I explored on my own and met some interesting people -- a local university student who served my breakfast, a friendly ticket salesman at the boat docks, but also a lot of people who wanted money. It is tiring because they don't immediately ask for money; instead, they start a conversation with you, asking where you're from and if you like Nepal. These interactions are like those of the friendly and curious Bangladeshi people, but then, once you've talked to them for a few minutes, they ask you to look at their backpack full of crafts and please buy some because they are refugees from Tibet and your country is so rich. Or just give them money as a donation. I've even had gnarled old women grab me by the wrist as they point to their mouths and ask for money. It feels terrible because I have a firm position that giving handouts is unhelpful for everyone. It only creates a cycle of dependency and encourages them to continue begging. I would rather give money to an organization doing work that I support, where I know those dollars are going to actual aid. Within ten minutes of my day, as I walked along Phewa Lake and marveled at the serene reflection the mountains had in the still blue waters, I was approached by my first refugee and compelled to buy something from her. I relented (I didn't have much gumption at that point) and looked at her backpack full of beaded bracelets, gold pendants, and turquoise earrings and ended up buying something small for my sister. I am glad I could support her even though I can't be completely positive on her story. I explored temples and rode the local bus into town to see Hindu temple on the hilltop, and then spontaneously arranged for a scooter ride to the top of another hill, to see the World Peace Stupa and views of the lake at sunset. It was cheaper than a taxi and sounded like fun, so I said why not? Soon I was perched on the back of a scooter, skimming past the lake and the tourist district and up the hill to the stupa. It was a blast but would have been more fun if I wouldn't have gotten dirt in my eye in the first five minutes, which had me crying out of one eye for the rest of the trip. Awe passed rock waterfalls that flowed over the worn cement path and then bounced our way over uneven gravel. The last kilometer was walking up several stone flights of stairs that left me winded, but with a great view of the green valley below. At the top were three other Nepalese people at a little snack shop. We had Mountain Dews and kept hoping for the clouds to burn off, but we had a pretty fogged in sunset. I got one glimpse of the Himalayas before they were shrouded again in a constant cloud cover. The woman selling drinks said some things in Nepali to the others up there and I'm pretty sure she was making fun of me and being a foreigner and my tearing eye (it was a shocking amount of irritation that the little piece of dirt had!). That made me sad.
The next day, the interactions continued with good and bad alike, but most leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I got up at 4 AM to take a taxi driver to a mountain to watch the sunrise, where there was an unfortunately touristy crowd on a viewing platform strewn with plastic chairs. It was a cool, cloudy morning, dark when we got there save for the milky white fog enshrouding the valley. It got lighter and lighter but I never saw any Himalayan peaks. The Nepalese at Sarangkot, the mountain, are pros at the tourist thing, telling you to come look at their scarves and yak blankets that they have someone making right in front of you. They come up and drape scarves on you without asking and pressure you to buy at least one. It's too pushy and inauthentic. Is there any way to preserve culture without turning it into this? I hate it. When I (and other tourists) say no, it feels like we are reinforcing the Western superiority that is unspoken but known the world over. It has gotten to the point in Nepal that people are so pushy that when you pass shops in the street, you can't even look the owner in the eye or say hello or they will follow you and beg you to buy their wares. I feel like dirt avoiding people's eyes or not answering their calls, but in this country I am seen as a wealthy white person. And I realize in this world I may be wealthy but that doesn't change the reality that I need to go back to my country, where things are expensive, and pay for my apartment and college and living and all that. I can't give everything.
So while Nepal is pretty, I think the Bangladeshi people are nicer and more genuine. But would Bangladeshis be like this if they could speak a bit of English and had more tourists? It's an uncomfortable realization that maybe the only reason they were so nice is because we are a novelty. Plus, most if them couldn't speak our language.
But it's not all bad. I met a young Nepali guy -- my age -- who is a police in Pokhara and it turns out he is a Christian! We had a good conversation by the boat dock, and later I met another Nepali just curious about America and wanting to practice English. I had a heartfelt exchange with an age-worn but beautiful Hindu woman as well, with no words but we understood each other perfectly. I guess it's just life -- not everyone will be a rose.
We spent the day before leaving Nepal just touring around Kathmandu. We went to the famous Durbar Square and saw the many temples and palaces and people there, and then went to Pashupatinath Temple (another post). And then had a fun outdoor dinner in Thamel, th
After our days in Pokhara, we took a "tourist bus" the 7 hours back to Kathmandu where we had a day and a half more. The tourist bus was actually quite nice, with air conditioning and airplane-type seating and a driver that took us more carefully along the narrow mountain-hugging roads (our previous driver seemed to value his life little and was constantly zooming around trucks and buses on blind curves. After a while we just stopped watching because it was too scary!). We all slept and the hours passed pretty quickly.
We had the late afternoon to see Kathmandu, so we took a taxi to one of the most iconic spots in the city: Swayambhunath Stupa. This stupa, also called Monkey Temple, sits atop a hill that looks over Kathmandu, and is a religious complex with several Buddhist shrines and temples, and a Tibetan monastery. We were dropped off at the base and then began to climb the hundred + steps to the top, with craft vendors hawking their tourist wares all the way up and monkeys roaming freely as they greedily ate food left on the ground and sipped from leftover juice containers. We got to the top right as the sun was beginning to set, giving the temple and city a beautiful golden glow. We enjoyed the views for a while, exploring the temples and shrines, and walked back down to meet our taxi driver and get back to Thamel, where we found a brightly-lit outdoor cafe for dinner. Then we did some street shopping -- the colorful yak blankets, pashmina scarves, and paper lanterns drawing us in -- and it was the perfect evening.
Nepal is a beautiful country and has a rich culture of religion, food, trekking, and craft-making. There are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians that all live in peace together, but the Hindu and Buddhist religions are most prevalent. Seeing the temples, monasteries, sacrifices, and offerings everywhere was quite new for me but was a great experience. Definitely an eye-opener to what most people on this side of the world believe.
I'm writing this from a clean white bed in a guest house in Kathmandu, the light bulbs in the wall sconces giving the room a warm light, rain pouring lightly outside the open window. It has been a wonderful reprieve in Nepal so far -- getting out of overwhelming and exhausting Dhaka after four weeks of crowds and stares. When I first arrived in Dhaka, I was a little annoyed to find that the Grameen Bank internship is really best for three weeks, rather than the six suggested online. After four weeks at the bank and running out of things to do, two other interns and I decided to take our last week in Bangladesh and go to Nepal. We were relatively close after all and when will I be back on this side of the world? ;)
Homero (Mexico), Paola (Italy), and I set off for the airport and made it to Kathmandu around 2:30 pm, after a few hilarious moments of disbelief over the fact that Nepal is 15 minutes ahead of Dhaka... Since when can a time change be 15 minutes?! The Kathmandu airport was basic but pretty, and clean, and it was so rejuvenating to hear beautiful Nepalese people saying "Namaste" (meaning literally 'I bow to you', a respectful greeting and salutation used in India and Nepal).
Our guest house is actually very nice, quaint. The owner got us coffee when we arrived and then was very pushy for us to buy bus tickets and treks from his tour company. It is like that here -- they are much more familiar with tourists because Kathmandu is a starting point for Everest treks. Still, there aren't an overabundance of tourists and we still get stared at a bit. The alleys and streets of Thamel, Kathmandu's tourist district, are packed with colorful shops selling pashmina scarves, woven bags, yak blankets, beads of every size and color, paper lanterns, elephant carvings, and more. It is enough just to feast your eyes. We passed a five foot tall temple tucked into the side of the street and a few steps later got a whiff of the perfumes and incense offered.
Later, it started to rain so we picked our way through the evening streets. It felt like home. Cool, with drizzling rain and the night sky and bright storefronts lining the wet gravel- filled road. We wandered for a while until we found a Thakali kitchen, an authentic Nepalese place our guest house recommended. It was a basic upstairs room with locals and a few tourists gathered, Christmas lights edging the windows open to the streets below. We had fried and steamed vegetable momos, which were spicy as always, and apple cinnamon momos for dessert. So delicious. (Though the vegetable momos did make my eyes water they were so hot). Then we did a little window shopping as we picked our way back home on the quiet streets. Quiet. No hordes of people like Dhaka. And blessedly cool. Tomorrow we head to Pokhara, a city seven hours away that is the starting point for treks in the Annapurna mountains (of the Himalayan range).
My last weekend in Dhaka was shockingly wonderful. I met Paola, a girl from Italy, and the other interns for lunch, and then we took CNGs to the boat terminal. It was some new interns and ones who have been going out drinking a lot, so I didn't expect the day to be that great since I haven't really connected with them. But when we arrived at the boat terminal, we ended up meeting a Bangladeshi with great English who said we'd have to cross the river to see the shipyards and then offered to show us. He helped is get little boats (again;) to take us across the river, and ended up coming along himself as a tour guide. He knew exactly where to take us and knew lots of things about the history and activities of what we were seeing. I was the one who wanted to go so bad, because I heard that these shipyards are the places where big ships are both torn apart and rebuilt. It is hard, hot work and full of action. National Geographic did a spread on the ship-breaking yards in Chittigong (12+ hours south), where poor laborers salvage materials from ships in inhumanly dangerous conditions, the death rate is high. But not only is Chittigong far, the government won't let people in to see what is going on there. So I figured the shipyards in Dhaka would have to do, to give a glimpse at this work. And they did: Big ships, old pieces, sparks flying, sawdust, paint-stained faces, curious eyes, scraggly beards, sweat-soaked backs, kites. We got to climb on one ship being rebuilt to see each deck in it's state of chaotic busyness and dirt.
Then we took little boats back across the river and our "guide" took us through a brightly colored vegetable market on the wharf, a pungent and candle-lit spice bazaar, the dank wet rooms of the meat market. We saw cement welfare housing and climbed to the roof of the lonely building just as the sun was sinking. We couldn't have planned a better end to the day: watching the silhouetted wooden boats glide across the water by the hardworking rower's strength, the blue water shimmering with floating plants, everything awash in the sun's golden glow. It was beautiful.
Then we trekked back through the market, found ourselves some cold Cokes in a street store, and set off in CNGs for the hour and a half ride home.
My heart is heavy after seeing a garment factory today. It does not seem real that this is people's lives in this century. It looked like the stuff of textbooks, conditions that we as Americans hear about but don't imagine as real. We toured Grameen Knitwear, a company that knits, dyes, and sews clothing to then be shipped to European and American clothing companies. The entire place seemed like a concentration camp: our minibus drove past security gas into what looked like a run down business district, where we had to pass armed guards and more security gates, and then we walked into the factory. It was all gray and metal and steam on the first floor, with huge machines weaving immense quantities of material. Workers with masks over their nose and mouth tended the machines amidst the intolerable machine droning and poor air conditions. The next floor up held more workers with masks drenched in sweat as they guided the material through huge steaming vats of dye. Another floor had workers with chain metal gloves cutting four inch stacks of fabric with industrial shearers that could easily slice a finger, or a hand. Above them we entered the sewing floors: a gym sized room with thousands of young Bangladeshis bent over sewing machines in crowded rows, each sewing one seam of the garment and then passing it to the next, that same seam over and over and over and over all day long. They were young people, in their teens and twenties, and all making hundreds of thousands of identical athletic shirts for US and European markets. All this so we can have cheap tshirts and sportswear. It was very hard to see. I like inexpensive clothes as much as the next person, but to go here and look these people in the eyes... They know and I know who is benefiting from this factory. And we both know it's not fair.
On the way home from the factory we stopped at Rana Plaza, the wreck site of an old garment factory. In this area there was first a pond, but developers filled in the pond to build their factory. At first it was supposed to be two floors, but then they kept adding on, shaky floor after another until the building towered over others in the area at eight stories. Cracks were discovered in the building and the commercial stores on the first floor evacuated, but workers in the garment factory were ordered back to work or they would lose their jobs. The next morning, the building collapsed, killing over 1100 people and injuring over 2500. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history. And when did this happen? Last year!! Last year, April 24, 2013. How does this happen?? It is unfathomable to see this kind of tragedy, something so preventable, something that should be the stuff of textbooks, still happening today. We slipped under some barbed wire connecting a few tin sheets surrounding the area, and saw the destruction site. Today, a year later, the hole is filled back up with greenish pond water, and surrounded with rubble. Knit scraps and abandoned shoes and plastic trash peaked out from under the concrete debris, and one man was wandering around the site looking for something of value. Outside the tin sheeting, the crazy city of Dhaka continued as usual -- shouting, rickshaw drivers, mule carts, tea stalls, dust, heat. The presence of death is less unusual here. It doesn't shock them so much.
There is so much that happened in the village, but it was wonderful, hilarious, sweaty, eye-opening, heartfelt, crazy, colorful, bug-bitten, rustic, dirty, and sweet all at the same time. Here is the second half of the week in pictures:
The roads are terrible. This is not even a good photo of it. Usually more and worse potholes than this, and yes this is a one-lane road and we are about to meet a semi. And both vehicles don't want to slow so we will careen past them and pray that we aren't hurt. That is seriously how driving goes in this country.
On our last day at the branch, Dimitre, Shinji, and I talked with Nazrul, the branch manager, late into the night. We sat outside between the branch office and the building we stay in, asking him questions about life and the bank and watching the heat lightning overhead. Then it started to rain so we went inside to continue the questions. Things started to get funny then, since we were all getting tired. Nazrul's Bangla/ beginning English and Shinji's Japanese/broken English made for some very funny miscommunications and soon we were all laughing. Listening to the loud thunder and pouring rain while sprawled out on the bed, finally cool -- the perfect temperature, it was the perfect evening. Laughing and talking and learning and I am so happy to be here.
I'm a twenty-something from the Pacific NW making home in new places as I follow where God leads.
My intent is to show Christ's love to the world and use business to solve some of the social problems we face: hunger, illiteracy, healthcare, economic hardship. For now, I'm in a stage of learning. A little adventuring, a few books, some good friends, and a whole lot of prayer and life runs on.