Jun 17

Reflections – Mirpur One


I learned of the hartal (strike) yesterday, when I arrived at the airport.  No travel warnings were issued.  And none followed today.  It’s just life. Here in Bangladesh, it’s just life. 

At the airport I was ushered into a taxi, and the Grand Prince Hotel staff member insisted on accompanying me.  “Please Miss, we must take an alternate route to the hotel.  The roads are closed due to the strike.”  “Yes, of course.  Whatever is best”, I reply.  The major streets of Dhaka are typically deserted after 10 or 11 pm.  This appeared to be the case when I stepped off the plane, and I wondered what all the fuss was about.  Until we passed through the slums.  Here there are throngs of people. Not angry mobs or any sense of unrest, just many walking dreamlike through the streets, not unlike a scene we would normally see during the day.  Still, to see so many people milling about was unusual. 

I awoke at 4 in the morning to the sounds of Muslim prayer that saturated the airways/airwaves.  The loud speakers are set up at strategic points throughout the city, to ensure that the prayers are observed.  The religion permeates every aspect of life here. 

I crawled out of bed at 5:45 am, feeling surprisingly well rested.  What no jet lag?  That’s new.  Down to breakfast in the hotel.  Fried egg, roti and a savory vegetable dish.  I’ve never been much of a morning eater, but today I ate well.  Off to the market to purchase shalwaar chemises and an international phone.  Except nothing is open, save the Bata Bazaar attached to my hotel.  I purchase an overpriced salwaar chemise for 1400 taka (about $20 – should’ve been $10).  Just something to throw on as I head out about town.  I will purchase other garments later.  The street bazaars will offer reasonable prices.  Except that everything is shut down for the strike.  “Come back next month, on Tuesday”, says a smiling security guard.  I’m hoping he means next week on Tuesday. 

Nothing to do but take a walk.  The streets are much quieter than I remember for this time of the morning.  I later learned this was due to the protesting in Uttara. 

Out I go, walking along the city streets of Mirpur One.  It is the most anonymous I’ve ever felt on a Bangladeshi walk.  Usually people flock around to shyly ask their questions, but there are more important issues at hand today. 

I walk down to Grameen and take pictures of a stunning beggar child.  She is so sweet and shy.  Her name is Anastazia, which sounds more iron curtain than Bengali to me, but it fits her none the less.  I snap a few pictures and she follows me for a while, smiling shyly before drifting off into the crowd.  Gone.  Next, my attention is caught by a frail young woman.  She carries her mother in a wooden wheelbarrow.  The mother is blinded by glaring blue cataracts.  She is wizened and emaciated.  I ask if I may take a picture.  And I give some Baksheesh as a token of appreciation for their time, a 10 taka note.  They continue up the street, begging for change.  And my heart breaks for them both. 

All morning, it is more of the same.  Stories of extreme hunger, despair, injustice and hopelessness all wrapped up in colorful sari’s and shalwaar chemises… these poor women.  What are we to do? 

I return to the hotel.  Oh, hello jet lag.  I’ve been wondering where you went.  Soooo glad you’re back.  I go down to lunch, beginning to nod off at the table until finally I admit to myself that I’m going to take a nose dive into my daal if I don’t get my butt up to bed.  Now.  Zzzz.

The food is brought to my room and I eat quickly, trying not to doze off just yet.  Half of the food is still on my plate.  So tired.  But the food is still fresh and warm, and there are children downstairs literally starving on my doorstep.  Back down to the restaurant for a box.  This is shared among four boys picking through the garbage on the street below.  Three of them are happy with the arrangement, but not the boy who was handed the box — he wants it all.  I don’t blame him one bit.  He doesn’t know yet that I’ll come back every day to feed him, talk with him, and just be there with him.  Not yet.  But these small gestures are really not enough, they offer only  a short term solution.  I must return to the US in less than three months.  And I haven’t enough money with me to help them all.  Not even all of them on this block.  I think to myself, “How many blocks just like this are there in Dhaka?  Each with its unfed street children?”  It’s an overwhelming thought.

Two hours later, I awake.  I’ve been hit by a freight truck.  No wait, just jet lag.  I want to go back to bed, but know this to be a bad idea.  Downstairs to check email, and write BRAC and Maer Achol regarding appointment changes.  My flight delays have had the unfortunate result of pushing my work back 12 hours.  Not that I could have accomplished much in any case, not with the hartal still in full swing. 

Time passes slowly.  I walk about, I email, I reread microfinance texts in preparation for meetings …  until I feel I might sink into a state of catatonia.  Then the manager comes into the computer room.  “Miss Rachel this is your phone”, he states.  “There is someone calling for you.”  No, I haven’t purchased a phone yet.  This must belong to some other Rachel.  But he insists, so I take the call to tell the person that their Rachel is not here.  It’s Christian Raymond, founder of the Maer Achol Children’s Shelter.  I am so disoriented.  Is this my phone?  No, of course not.  I realize then that Chris has called the hotel cell phone.  Man, sleep-deprived stupidity is something else.  Umphf.  Mr. Raymond wished to know, can I meet today?  He is leaving tonight, not on the 13th

A rickshaw is arranged to pick me. 15 minutes later it arrives and whisks me away to the shelter where I am reunited with Kakoli, the Maer Achol staff and a group of flourishing youngsters who have been rescued from the streets of Dhaka.  I am rejuvenated by the scene.  Suddenly many new ideas, projects and pathways open themselves to me, as we talk about partnership ideas between Maer Achol and Seeds of Change;  as we animatedly discuss the volunteering I can do when I return as a Fulbright Fellow; when we talk about ways to access funds and job opportunities within the garment district; and as we think about how to raise monies for the higher education that is currently beyond the financial reach of these deserving youth.  We will do it.  We have to.  I’d say it’s time to get down to business.  This is why I came to Dhaka.  Even modest successes will carry an impact, so we put our best foot forward for the women and children depending on us.  This is what Maer Achol has been doing for the past decade and now we want to make sure they can continue their efforts well into the future.


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