10/18/11

Chaos in Chittagong


Learning is never restricted to a classroom. WorldTeach volunteers discover that their experiences outside the classroom in their new country can often be just as educational. Alicia, a WorldTeach Bangladesh volunteer, shares the challenges of living daily life in Bangladesh and the lessons learned as a result.


Today I took my first ride in a rickshaw alone. I negotiated a price in Bangla, was not ripped off too much for being a foreigner, and hopped in for a bumpy ride that I’m still not really comfortable with. Word to the wise: wrap all bags and packages around your hands/ arms whilst riding and brace your feet on the foot board (this will keep you from flying forward into your Rickshawalla), and as I discovered today, will keep your flip flop from falling off of your foot and into a muddy puddle in a particularly pot-holed road. Thank goodness it was a side street and I was able to retrieve it before it was run down by an unruly CNG!

Unruly indeed. That is what I’ve come to feel great annoyance about, but also great affection for in Bangladesh: the lack of rules. In the traffic, it’s a true free for all. In my rickshaw today I observed an argument between a CNG driver and rickshawalla because the CNG driver was blocking the street. If there had been rules, each person would have had their turn (like in a four ways stop) and the hilarious incident that took place never would have occurred. The Rickshawalla jumped down from his pedals in annoyance and slapped the side of the CNG in all while yelling in Bangla. A bystander came out of nowhere and proceeded to take control of the situation, eventually guiding the CNG out of where it was wedged on the street corner. Meanwhile all the pedestrians clustered together on the end of the sidewalk (sidewalk is a very loose term for a series of concrete slabs we walk across on the side of the road) waiting patiently, the ones in front blocking those behind so our line of rickshaws could pass through.

In Bangla class, which just ended today, we’ve talked a lot about how Bengali people identify themselves as part of a group. For example, when asking someone where their home is, they will respond by telling you where their “barre” is, or family home, often located in the country, even if they have not lived there for quite some time. What I witnessed and continue to witness on the streets of Chittagong really underlines this mentality for me. We’re all part of one mass and in order to move, we have to both be patient for and help along the “other.” Of course this lack of rules and inefficiency has gotten to me over the last two weeks. It’s taken a week and a half of calls and follow-up to get my air conditioner in my bedroom fixed. I still have a fan, but it has made for some rather steamy nights.

But a challenging place has its rewards. Last week our amazing field director organized an outing for us to some scenic places in and around the city. We went to Foy’s Lake, a wonderfully serene little park, Batali Hill, the highest point in the city, offering very nice views, and out to Patenga Beach. In the car between all these places, I was growing increasingly car-sick thanks to, again, the unruly traffic and the constant start-stop-swerve of our vehicle. Thank God, I didn’t puke on any of my new friends, but was feeling quite disgruntled each time I came out of the van nonetheless.

But at Batali Hill we were able to meet these wonderful children, who truly made me thankful for being in a place like this. Most children are curious and open, but the children I’ve met here have truly touched me. They don’t stare at us and whisper like the adults, they engage with us and are eager to learn from us as much as we are from them. And at Patenga Beach, we saw the Bay of Bengal for the first time. I’ve always found it incredible to see a new large body of water—like when I first saw the North Sea, and then the Mediterranean—it’s an awesome feeling and this was no different. So yes, living here offers huge challenges, but also interesting, life-changing rewards. Again, it’s all a matter of being patient, stepping back and just being a part of it all.

Interested in being part of it all in Bangladesh? Click here for more information on how to become a WorldTeach Bangladesh volunteer!

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