Friday, May 01, 2015

My First Eventful Mission in Bangladesh

April 25, Saturday (first two paragraphs are lifted from my DayOne entry)

Breakfast in Feni, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Barely got to sleep last night. Got scared with electricity going out twice! Not sure how I'm going to hold up the entire day for discussions with farmers, the five-hour train ride back to Dhaka, and the mission report to finish.

Add to my woes the fact that I couldn't take a decent bath. I look like I didn't take a shower, which frankly is true. Water in the shower is brown, the color of coffee mixed with 1 sachet of coffee mate!! So I had to run the water for a while until I got a fourth of a pail of water that's clear enough, and just had to make do using a drinking glass as dipper. And of course I didn't get to wash my hair. Pity. But this is development work so I can't complain.. 

Bangladesh is an interesting country. The people are warm, curious and appear sincere. I enjoyed the last 5 days getting acquainted to its landscape and people. I hope water and sanitation facilities would be improved. It's ok when you're in Dhaka and staying in five-star hotels, because everything is clean. It's when you go out that eating, use of public toilets and accommodation can become challenging to some, me included.

Much of Bangladesh consists of flat agricultural lands like this with ponds in between. 

Checking out the irrigation canals and pumps. 

We met with officials and members of water user associations at the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) office in Feni. There were some 30 plus attendees, two of whom were women. The farmers were very eager to support the irrigation improvement project that the Mission presented. The women, wearing their saris, stood up to speak as well. In this Muslim country, it's amazing how women are getting organized to rally their causes. More and more women are getting their college degrees and getting employed. This project mainstreams gender equality and requires the project to employ a minimum number of them. The downside to that is it's manual excavation labor that women would have to do, and of course, it would be those very poor that would participate.

The farmers who stand to benefit from the irrigation improvements and innovations the project will bring.
Upon finishing the meeting, news reached us about the earthquake. I was told that there was an earthquake in Dhaka. All my companions were all suddenly on their phones checking on their families and properties. When everyone had settled down, relieved that everything seemed ok except for some buildings that sustained cracks, we noticed that my mission leader was still on the phone and looking very much worried. His family resides in Nepal and he was talking to his wife, getting as much information as he could. 

It was a strained ride back to the BWDB guesthouse. On the way back, we stopped for a stroll along a historical pond where we chanced upon some locals bathing.

The train is a primary mode of transportation in Bangladesh. It is safer than going by car
 to the other administrative divisions and districts. This coach is quite comfortable. 

April 26, Sunday

We had to wrap up the mission abruptly as my mission leader had to fly back to Nepal to help his family. Fortunately, the Kathmandu airport reopened the day after the 7.8 magniture earthquake and he was able to get a flight. We only saw how bad the situation was when we reached the hotel late night the previous day and saw the news on CNN. 

I was left at the hotel finishing my input to the mission aide memoire when I suddenly started feeling wobbly. I thought I was getting dizzy from lack of sleep and exhaustion from the field trip, until I realized that the building was shaking. I was on the 16th floor! I put on my shoes, grabbed my phone, went out my room, and got panicky not knowing whether to take the stairs or the lift!! I was scared, I was crying. I took my chances, got on the elevator and prayed hard I would reach the lobby. I know I should have taken the stairs but I thought that it would be a long flight from where I was!! 

A few minutes after, all the guests were made to evacuate the building and gather at the hotel's open parking lot. And then shortly after, we were informed that it was safe to go back to our rooms. It turned out that it was due to a strong aftershock in Nepal.

I wanted badly to go home... Good thing my flight was at midnight that day. I asked to be transferred to a room on the lowest floor possible. I packed early and was ready to go by 6pm.


If not for that earthquake, we would have concluded the mission successfully. For me, a novice to this kind of missions, it was a good six days of getting to know the project and the government officials managing it. I got to see Dhaka and its people, experienced taking the train and seeing the lush countryside with farmers immersed in their rice paddies or in the ubiquitous ponds, saw many kinds of birds, ate their food with my bare hands to mimic my local companions, shook hands with Bangladeshis, chatted with some to know more about their culture, and survived the roads which were abuzz with rickshaws, cars, buses and trucks all wanting to get ahead of each other and weaving through traffic at extremely close distance from each other.

Normal chaos on the road with drivers able to squeeze into very small spaces, honking horns along the way,
to get ahead. Their manual and auto rickshaws are the tuktuks in other countries or pedicabs and tricycles in the Philippines.

That maybe reserved but that definitely is a pose from the man in blue.

I would want to go back.

Let me end with a prayer that the people of Nepal would be spared from any more natural disasters as they pick themselves up and move on.. May Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia forge ahead and keep up or be ahead of growing new economies.

The famous rickshaws each uniquely designed and driven by brave hearts! 

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