"Many times we must beat bus driver...sometimes"

Trip Start Sep 05, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Monday, March 10, 2008

Many times in Bangladesh, people ask me what is my country...sometimes. As I rode back from work on the top of a bus, dangerously dodging cycle rickshaws, young boys and cows, a fellow passenger starred at me, as if he was looking through me, searching for something that made sense to him. Finally, he worked up the courage to ask me, "Your country, China?" Holding back the laughter was difficult, and I kindly informed him that no, I was not in fact from China, but America.

The other day some volunteers were heading out to the job site, and like every other day they waited patiently in the early morning at the dusty crossroads that is our local market. The bus did not come, and it was not until a few days later that the reason surfaced. The bus driver was given some beat during a heated dispute with another local Bangladeshi. It becomes clearer and clearer every day that to give and receive beat is a common Bangladeshi way of solving problems. Just last night, Rajib, our translator, and landowners son (who is by the way becoming quite a good friend of mine) sat frustrated with me explaining that the man who is repairing his new computer speakers has repeatedly told him that tomorrow, tomorrow they will be ready. To Rajib's frustration, five days had past, each day he was told that tomorrow they would be ready. He turned to me after taking a long drag on his cigarette and asked, "should I beat him?" Bouncing this idea off to another Scottish volunteer, he cracked up stating our typical western response to the question that "Rajib you cannae just go beatin' folk for nothin'!" Again, I failed to hold back my laughter, sometimes the cultural differences are just too funny.

Last week was highlighted by the emotional conclusion of another house finished. I led a construction crew out to a job site about a kilometer away from our base for a total of five days. The site was a bit further out in the country, and a bit further away from even the small municipal presence in town here in Rayenda. Kids were often not in school, as this was one of the poorest parts of Rayenda where men stood around all day in large crowds with not much to do. I suppose that isn't really any different from the rest of Rayenda or Bangladesh, but it was exaggerated at this particular job site. I have described the work at this job site to other volunteers from my perception of a huge transformation in the home owner. The owner of her now new house is a 65 year old woman who's husband left her shortly after cyclone Cidr. The unfortunate ensuing reality was that of many women in Bangladesh who lose husbands to disease, old age, or family problems. The household income drops to zero. This woman makes her money by begging. I found myself thinking so much about the hundreds of times I have been approached by beggars in India, Bangladesh, South East Asia, San Francisco, and how complicated that situation is. There is a constant internal debate about giving money, not giving money, giving to a charity...how do you actually help these people, or not. In this particular situation ended up building a house for a beggar, a woman no different from any other old wrinkled woman who has approached me on the street, gestured toward her mouth and held out her hand. On the first day of the build, the old woman spent most of the day walking around her tiny plot of land with a large knife randomly hacking at trees and bushes, and yelling at other random people. She appeared to be scowling at us, and extremely skeptical of 5 white people on her land, making a lot of noise and promising to build her a home made from $425 of material that we promised to provide for her. At the end of the first day, we didn't have much to show for our work, it certainly didn't look like a home. One wall was standing and another wall was laid out on the ground, ready to be built and stood up. She looked on disapprovingly. By the end of the second day, we had been at the site for two days, working consistently. A building frame, clearly recognizable as a house stood on her previously bare mud foundation. Her old wrinkled face began to show signs of happiness. She could now see that this was not some empty promise by an NGO that leaves another family hopeful of change, but is left confused by colorful banners advertising help for a distressed community. A quick smile confirmed that her hopes had in fact been confirmed. Day three involved a lot of work on the roof, and at the close of the work day, there was a partially completed roof and some material on the walls. It was beginning to look like a real home, and she was beginning to struggle to come to terms with the idea that we were in fact building this house for her, and we were in fact going to see it through to completion. She did not want us to leave the job site that day, and as we left to return to our little patch of western soil that is our home, tears began to well in her eyes. The fourth day brought us near completion. Her tired face beamed all day, and she began to assume ownership of the new home by militantly shoo-ing obnoxious children from our worksite, and defended our less than professional craftsmanship from the local men who are always quick to point out our errors. At different periods of the day, she pulled aside one of our female volunteers, Eve, to hug her. We did have Rajib on site for much of the day translating for us and he explained the she had been muttering to herself all day that she did not have any words to describe her gratefulness, she was simply above and beyond overwhelmed. She had spent most of her adult life begging, and instead of the normal 5 cent passing donation she might get on the street, we came and gave her a house. Finishing the home was emotional for everyone. The scrap tin shack that she lived in was home as far as she new it, and the thought of moving into the new home that was now ready for her seemed to make her physically weak. She weaped in the arms of a Eve for about half and hour, afraid to leave, afraid to embrace the crowding community around her, and appeared afraid or unprepared to thank us in some way. Eve slowly coaxed her out of her hutment and walked her arm in arm to the threshold of her new home. She again, was hesitant to make the symbolic first step into her new home. It took some more careful prodding from us, and the physical comfort of holding Eve to get her to step into her home, where she grew faint and almost collapsed. I struggled to hold back tears of my own.

Just another day with Hands On. Just another day of work in Bangladesh.

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