Saturday, March 31, 2012

Last Week in Bangladesh

My last week in Bangladesh has seemed like an eternity. Project is running in the field and doesn’t need my constant supervision. Passing on the reins of my baby to another field coordinator. Wrapping up in-field research. Drinking obsessive amounts of cha. And trying to pass the time so I can go home.

My mom told me to enjoy my last few moments in Bangladesh, to relish it, because I’ll be back and soon realize how good I had it. And I agree and understand that. But ma, that’s easier said than done.

We had an early birthday party for Muzi the day before she left. We cried when we hugged goodbye. I found an amazing woman and we shared so much. We used to joke that one day we would start our own NGO. It’s like fantasy akin to hoping someday to get married. I’ll let you know if it works out.
Rebecca and I have decided to make our last few days a littttle bit more interesting.

We spent our last weekend in Gaibandha so we could have a: WEEKEND OLYMPICS. Everything we did was made into a contest, recorded, and bet on. Card games, people’s reactions and hummus making turned into a cut throat competition. Augustine voted my hummus the best, but Rebecca has so far won all of the card games. It’s close. But it ain’t over until it’s over (tonight right before I leave the country is when one of us pays up.)

My last day in the office my co-workers had a going away “party” (more like a conference) where we all sat around a table, ate mishti (Bangladeshi sweets), drank cha, and everyone talked about why they admired and respected me. It was fantastic. I was given a bouquet of flowers and a heavy brass cup engraved with my name, Jiva, and the dates I was in Bangladesh. I said goodbye to everyone, EVERYONE, and walked home.

For one last time the kids on my block ran up to me screaming my name. This time I told them all “Asen! Apni amar bari jaben!” “Come! You all go to my house!” All of the 20 something kids (and some of their mothers) followed me like I was the pied piper into my small little house and saw the collage I made from all of their pictures. They pointed out their own pictures happily and then turned to me for presents. I was prepared and armed with a box of things I planned to leave behind to hand out. Gatorade packets, fun pencils, Swag blank journals I had collected at the conference, my flowers.

Little Mayisha, my favorite little girl, wrapped her little arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, and looked at me asking if I was coming back. When I said no, she kissed and hugged me again and ran away. I wanted to crumple her into a little ball and put her into my pocket for keeps.

Now we are in Dhaka. We are on a tumultuous tour of all of Dhaka’s hot spots to gather gifts for everyone. I have bought my sister more things than all of my family members (including myself). I am so excited about this. She is so easy to buy things for.

Hailing autos and rickshaws is a lot like fishing. You put your hand out into the deadly traffic, hoping to not get it bit off. There is only a small chance you’ll get something you want. You’ll get a rickshaw when you want an auto, and you’ll always get these creepy unmarked “taxis” offering to take you anywhere you want to go.

Last night we went to meet up with an ex pat we had met a month earlier. Rebecca and I have learned to walk extremely fast through certain parts of the city to help trail off the children who are following us asking for money. But last night we had jumped onto a rickshaw and rode it for a while before a little girl poked her head through the rickshaw back and between our heads asking for money. I screamed so loud. And then started laughing so hard. Which didn’t help because it only encouraged the girl hanging off our rickshaw to laugh back and stick her hand further into our seat.

And so now I’m in North End Coffee. Once last time. We’re going to Computer City to buy some bootleg computer software programs. Then we’ll eat some Bangla food one last time. And then head back to our hotel for some final games of poker to end our epic contest.

I leave at 1am to catch my 4am flight out of Bangladesh.

I’ll update one more time so stay posted.

Asalam Walaikum,

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On Science and Faith

Those of you who have read from the beginning started with me in India. I was 19, working in the slums of Kolkata, trying to reconcile my work in the lab with what I saw on the streets. How to compromise the microscope with faith in my mind.
Those of you who have read saw me through Israel. Saw me praying for the strength of faith I saw in the Christians, Muslims and Jews around me.

Science and faith has been a thematic duality in my life for a long time. Sure I’m a scientist and thus a skeptic. We’re taught to be fearful of religion as it is unfounded in evidence (the only scripture of science.) But fear is scary no matter what the origin. And I figure, if I’m going to be in a field helping people be healthy I should try and understand what sustains them beyond the antibiotics. And maybe along the way I’ll find a little faith myself.

Now I’m in Bangladesh with Muslim prayers reminding me of faith 5 times a day. In the villages there are signs of warding off evil spirits on the children’s amulets around their necks and by the ash rubbed on the baby’s foreheads. When the women cannot afford doctor’s visits they visit the local Shaman. And who can blame them?
It’s the big questions, the ones that catch in your throat, that are all around me in Bangladesh. The questions about death and dying. What do you say to a woman my age who just lost her baby?

It’s big and it’s tough and I have no answers. I feel desperate because after death, I believe one’s existence is over. I’m afraid feeling like this will ruin me in this field and make my toothpick faith framework fall down.
I’m afraid because if I fail to save you, you will not live on in another world. I will be here, and you will be gone, and that will be that.

We’re always talking about sustainability. Sustainable programs, sustainable environment.

I want to know, how do I reconcile my own science and faith to ensure that I am sustainable?
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What I Will and Won't Miss About Bangladesh

Things I am not going to miss about Bangladesh:

1. The morning dance to keep the mosquitoes from settling on my body. Making sure mosquitoes aren’t trapped in my pants when I pull them up after using the bathroom.
2. The dust that cakes in your eyes and hair and coats your throat just from walking down the street
3. The gaggle of geese that wait for me on my way to work, lower their heads, and charge
4. Dhaal and rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner
5. The noise from the beeping, street vendors, cows, that follows you from the cities to the villages
6. The constant near death collisions from speeding buses heading straight for your face
7. The orna (scarf), that you must wear for modesty, but that traps sweat and is constantly falling off and gets tangled up in rickshaw wheels choking you
8. The pollution and smoke from fires so fierce that your feet are always black and you’re never fully clean
9. The Azaan prayers that wake up all the dogs…and me… with their 4am prayers
10. Being completely covered, head to toe, even in the most brutal summer heat
11. Extremely slow internet
12. The inability to go running outside as a woman for fear of scandal
13. After work, you can go to the market to buy some vegetables, go for a walk along the dusty road, and that’s about it for fun times
14. Not having access to any alcohol
15. Spiders the size of a fist
16. Always looking down to make sure you don’t step in a steaming, fresh pile of cow poop
17. Extreme attention and credence given to hierarchy in the work place and at home
18. Power outages
19. The disease that’s right in front of you, reaching out a hand and asking for money
20. Being so far away from all my family and friends

Things I am going to miss about Bangladesh:

1. Being on a motorcycle deep in the village, with the low sun behind me and rice patties everywhere ahead
2. The deep spicy flavors of every single thing you eat
3. The tiny goats that always getting in the way of cars and that are at once so cute and so tasty
4. Looking out the window of my office and looking straight into the eyes of a bird sitting in the trees just beyond my reach
5. Coming home from the office and being ushered into a house by your neighbors and made to eat sweets and fruits as they sit and look at you and ask questions
6. Leaving my room a complete mess and coming home to find everything neatly in order from Maksuda, our cleaner
7. Having a cook ask you every night, “what do you want for breakfast in the morning?”
8. The sound a rickshaw makes when you are riding one. The creaking of the wood with every bump and turn
9. Sleeping under a mosquito net and being so surrounded by mosquitoes you can hear their collective opera, but feeling safe they can’t touch you
10. Walking around with no shoes on
11. The vibrant colors of all of the clothes
12. Fruits in season. The divine properties of ripe mangoes.
13. The dark orange sun, bigger and brighter than I have seen anywhere else in the world
14. The smell of morning breakfast fires and dusk cha stands
15. The surprise of a cow sticking its head in a window and mooing loudly during a meeting
16. The unbelievable, almost forceful, generosity of all of the people. Especially the women.
17. The children that wait for me on my block and give me the pictures they made in school
18. The children in my study in the villages who now know my name and run after my motorcycle when I leave
19. The camaraderie of my housemates, beautiful girls who make it so much easier to be away from everything and everyone I know and love
20. JiVitA, and how I can go home every day feeling satisfied and excited by my work

Sunday, March 11, 2012
Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Sad, Funny and True

I may have started a picture factory. It started on Valentines Day. A little girl on my block gave me a picture and told me I was her valentine. I was so touched that I ran home and gave her my (automatic glow in the dark) yo-yo. The next day another girl gave me a picture. I gave her a tube of lip gloss. Today a little boy gave me a picture. I want to think that they are giving me pictures because I enchant them. I know it’s because I give them toys. But you know what? That’s ok with me. It’ll be the cheapest commission I’ll ever pay for some artwork. I plan to make a wall collage.

I’ve been going to Dhaka a lot these past few weeks. Dhaka’s great. Delicious restaurants, shopping, NORTH END COFFEE… But it’s also where all the crazies and limbless live. You’ll be sitting in an auto minding your own business when WAM some kid puts his arm stump against the cage right next to your cheek. Within seconds your car is surrounded by little kids, limping slightly, sticking their little hands through the bars.

It’s sad, of course it’s sad. But if you laugh, the kids start cracking up at their own act. The kid may start to wave his stump around in a little dance, the once limping girl may jump around mocking herself. I usually stuff fruits and leftovers into my purse to give out.

Then there’s the really sad. Young boys with heads too heavy for their shrunken limbs to support. Women with mutilated eyes, hands blindly out for money. Usually I pass on without looking at them. I say a little prayer to myself “I’ll work for you, I’ll spend my life trying to help you, but you may die before I can do it, and I have to move on from that.” And then I’ll go into a coffee shop so I can focus and do just that. And maybe get a cinnamon bun. Because they’re delicious.

I participated in my first conference! The Bangladesh Pediatric Association. I wore a fancy Salwar Kameez, and presented in front of over 100 important people. They cheered when my base station device went off when I submerged the turtle bracelet in a water bottle. I had more questions asked than any other speaker. On the program (and on my participation award) I was referred to as “Dr. Chelsea Solmo.” Lovin’ it.

Rebecca came with me to Dhaka last weekend and we decided to do the city up right. We went to a spa for massages, the American Club for salads, and we went to the Westin for drinks. I got a martini and she got a mojito and we sat in the lounge with old Bangladeshi men and a few white businessmen. The entertainment was two Thai girls in tiny miniskirts singing Lady Gaga. They were awful and consequently fabulous. We leaned into each other and giggled incessantly.

My hands are permanently stained with yellow dhaal.

Asalam Walaikum,