Bangladesh email 3 – Sunday, September 30, 2012 – in the air between Bangkok and Tokyo
It’s been a week since my second email. I didn’t anticipate many new experiences. But the best was yet to come. Last Sunday was indeed mostly a dead day. All of us USAID volunteers in the country at the time were asked to stay in our hotels because a general strike was called to protest the anti-Muslim video. There was indeed a strike. There were no buses or trains running. School and many businesses were closed. But other than a few arrests that were made in the capital there were no demonstrations or problems. And certainly there were no problems in Kushtia. Late afternoon I couldn’t stand being cooped up in the hotel anymore. So I started wandering down the street to see what I could see. I didn’t get more than a block and a half before I was greeted by a young man with two companions. The young man wanted to speak English with me. He’s in his senior year of university getting a science degree. He is preparing for the US Graduate Record Exam in hopes of improving his chances of getting into a US university for graduate programs in biotechnology and genetic engineering. He’s going to be applying to the Univ of Washington and other West Coast schools that offer the program. He was anxious to get any suggestions I might have on how to improve his chances of getting a scholarship to pursue his US studies. Mehedi joined us in a few minutes. We found out the young men were on their way down to the Ganges to watch the racing boat competition. So we went down to the river. Regrettably the races had just finished and the many families that had been at the river were starting to head home. Clearly the biggest event of the day for Kushtia residents was the boat races. As I mentioned in my last email those boats with their 30 or more paddlers make an impressive sight moving rapidly across the river. The young man and I continued our conversation at the river and on our way to the fruit market. We talked politics and I was able to convince him that he’s a Democrat with his strong concerns for the poor status of women in Bangladesh. It was a treat to talk with one of the best and brightest of the local young people. He’s a bit at loose ends right now because Islamic University that he attends is closed by the government until further notice because of conflict between pro and anti-government factions on campus. All over Bangladesh the university students and faculty are a major source of opposition to the current government advocating greater freedoms and social change. So the government closes the schools to squash opposition activity. It’s the third time the universities have been closed this school year. We have a bit of amnesia in the US right now about what a force our students and intelligentsia can be if they organize and push our government for reforms. I’m afraid our students have been drugged by iPods and shopping.
Now the best. Hearing that a US volunteer would be in town the headmistress of a local international primary school had requested I come on Monday afternoon to talk with them for an hour about America. Whoa, that’s a pretty big topic. So that morning I prepared a slide presentation of pictures of mountains, lakes, etc. from our vacation pictures I have with me. Then I added pictures of our family and some of our activities. I figured I’d spend about 25 minutes with the slide show, take questions, then be done. Was I wrong. The students are learning English as part of their studies. So there would be no translation to Bangla needed. The students staying for this after school presentation were mainly fifth and sixth grades and some second graders. The seven teachers were there. There were lots of questions during my slideshow. Then after each student and teacher greeted me individually I thought it would be over. But then one of the students asked me to sing a song. That broke us loose. I sang “The Bear Went Over The Mountain”, then it was “Old MacDonald’s Farm” by request with all the animal sounds. The music teacher brought out their harmonium which she added to the songs. The students sang “We Shall Over Come” with each verse first in English then in Bangla. The singing continued with national anthems (I even managed the high notes in the Star Spangled Banner), then they finished up with some of the oldest girls singing some Lalon Shah songs. The Lalon songs reinforced my impression that the Bangla young people as well as adults really value their heritage in music, language, and culture with much less of the penetration of Western pop culture that we have. After the picture taking none of us wanted to quit. But it had been two hours and it was time for the children to go home. In appreciation the headmistress presented me with an ektara, the one string instrument used in the Baul ballads. Everywhere I have now carried the ektara with me in Bangladesh I have had many adults comment and ask if I play it. The instrument is clearly one of the symbols of Bangla folk culture.
The headmistress has been searching awhile for a native English speaker to come be a guest English teacher. She really would like me to come be a guest teacher. She would also welcome Deni. I told her we couldn’t come for a whole year or two as she’d like. But we might be able to come for a month or so. We are mutually exploring that possibility now. It would be so much fun. We would hopefully stay in some of the students’ home. Deni wants to come to Bangladesh now that I’ve had such great experiences. The Bangla people are so friendly and welcoming. And it’s a beautiful country. It would be a great winter break to return to Bangladesh. The two hours I spent at the SunUp International School was the highlight of my trip. It was pure fun.
Tuesday was my fourth and last workshop. Again all the participants were women. So there was much interaction with many questions and contributions by the participants. After lunch at the SETU office it was gift giving and parting. They were very pleased with my workshops. Then Mehedi and I began retracing our steps on the way back to Dhaka. The flight from Jessore to Dhaka was Wednesday. Three other volunteers and I spent Thursday and Friday in Dhaka finishing our reports and getting acquainted along with some touring. I do like to get to know the other volunteers. I have already found such contacts to be valuable. It was through another volunteer that I made contact with Daniel Oltimbau, our guide for the February Serengeti trip with our grandsons. This next January I’ll be doing a joint assignment in Angola with another volunteer that lives in Lake Oswego.
Thursday morning Michael, another volunteer, and I went to the Dharmarajikha Buddhist Monastery. It’s an oasis of tranquility in the southern section of Dhaka. It was founded in 1962 with a prayer hall, clinic, shrine and K – 12 school for students of all faiths. The monastery is also the home of 672 orphans. It’s an impressive institution. After touring the facilities which surround a large pond and Buddha statue we had tea with the head monk and companions. The head monk is 76 having been a monk for 60 years. Accompanying him were the retired senior monk, 84, a retired physics teacher, and a retired police commander. Both of the senior monks have made multiple trips to Mongolia and Myanmar (Burma) forging ties with monasteries in Buddhist dominant countries. The Dhaka monastery also has a sister monastery in India. The acolyte monks and orphan students were busy readying the facility grounds for a visit Saturday by government ministers. The Prime Minister has visited three times in the past. I was quite pleased to see there is continuation of Buddhism in Bangladesh. Though now a minority religion Buddhism has a long history throughout India.
Returning from the Buddhist monastery we took a driving tour around Dhaka where we saw Dhaka University, Parliament, and other sights. The most notable sight was the Memorial to the Intellectual Martyrs. In 1971 the Pakistani military summarily executed over 250 university intellectuals and political leaders in their attempt to squash the breakaway of then East Pakistan from West Pakistan. The Pakistani military was subsequently overwhelmed by the Bengalis and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. The memorial has busts of each of the slaughtered intellectuals placed in a triangular field with a memorial spire in the middle. It’s a grim memorial of what the Bangla people have had to endure to gain independence from first the British, then the Pakistanis.
Friday the activity was a visit to the National Museum. We only got 2-1/2 hours in which to explore. I could spend two or three days there. They have a wonderful collection of porcelains, fabrics, furniture, wood carvings, silver, armaments, classical and folk instruments from the height of Bangla Mughal (Muslim) culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. I was fascinated by a series of large detailed pen and ink drawings chronicling the coming of the first British soldiers to Bengal. The drawings covered two whole walls. There were parchment Sanskrit documents in Bangla script from the 8th to 16th centuries. There were even a few early and late Buddhist stone and terra cotta images of various gods and stories. But of course the largest collections of the early Buddhist objects are in the British Museum and the Louvre in Paris. I’ll have to return to the Dhaka museum on future trips.
That’s it. I’m in the middle of my 36 hour journey home with last night, Saturday, in Bangkok and a brief plane change today in Tokyo. I hope I make my 1 hour and 30 minute connection in Tokyo. The pilot informed us we’re having to swing way east to avoid a tropical storm that is working it’s way north from the southern tip of Japan. It will hit Narita tonight when hopefully I’m already on my flight to Portland. Ending up in the middle of a typhoon is an additional excitement I’d like to avoid.
Thanks for joining me in my travels in Bangladesh. I’ll start up emails again in January when I reach Angola.
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