Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bye-Bye, Bangladesh!

The title sounds flippant, but my feelings are not. It's just that "bye-bye" is an English phrase that translates. So if the country could hear me now, it would know that I'm leaving.

What it might not know — so I'm going to tell it — is how deeply it's touched me.

Of course, "it" is really "them" — the drivers and the chiefs of party, the farmers and the fishers, the boatmen and the shopkeepers. I've been fortunate to travel to a place preceded by decades of good will, since Winrock International has been doing important work here since the 19980s.

Bangladesh is an old culture but a young country. Half its people are under 25, and it has the energy and drive to prove it. Things may seem a bit slower at home when I return. And that will be fine — for a while. But it won't take long to miss the honking horns and the colorful rickshaws — the chaos and the color of this place,  and — most of all — the heart.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sunset Swim

It's my last night in Bangladesh, so I celebrated with room service, a bad movie, and before that ... a sunset swim.

The rooftop pool tempted me from the start, but there hasn't been time for it between trips to the field. Now my work is almost done, so I spent a few minutes side-stroking through the gloaming.

It was good to be suspended in the warm water, thinking about all that I've seen, the people I've met, how we all live under the same sky and clouds, how we all look up at the same unfathomable blue.

Not a lot in common, true, but more than it might seem.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Walker in Hazarikhil

Usually, I get to know a place by walking through it. This trip has challenged that way of knowing. There have been exceptions: a soggy slog to a pond where vegetables grow from the bank; the stroll to a trafficking survivor's home, which led past a lake fringed by palm trees. But mostly I've seen Bangladesh from the backseat of a vehicle. 

Until today. At Hazarikhil I hiked to a tribal village, an ecotourism ropes walk and a camping site. On the way I heard stories of pythons captured, and of leaches that stick to your skin and must be pulled off with great force. At one point I looked down and saw a leach on my sandal. Luckily, someone pulled it off before it could suck my blood.

Let's just say this is not your typical walk in the suburbs of northern Virginia. But how good today to stretch my legs, go up hills and down. It gave me a feel for the place that I haven't gotten before, a weariness of limb and a wariness of step and an appreciation for ... the air-conditioned back seat.


Monday, August 28, 2017

Buckle Up

I'm writing today from Chittagong, the second largest city in Bangladesh — with the traffic noise to prove it. Car horns here are a way of life, a feeble attempt to manage the constant flow of cars, buses, baby taxis and pedicabs that clog the streets.

Most of the horns are high-pitched and tinny, but the buses make up for it. Their  blasts are as long and deep as a fog horn. They're the tigers of the four- (eight-? ten-?) wheeled world, blowing down the narrow roads, scattering goats, dogs, people and any vehicle smaller than they are. 

Since no one minds sharing lanes, you're likely to see them barreling right at you, usually with a handful of passengers riding on top. Which is when I double-check the seat belt that I looked so hard to find. Ah yes, there it is. 


Sunday, August 27, 2017


As the pace of this trip slows from breakneck to brisk, I try to process all I'm seeing. I stare at the photos:  two women hiding under an umbrella. 

Rice paddies gleaming in the sun:

Laundry hanging from a line:

The goats are doing their goat thing, the cows are doing their cow thing, and the people are buying and selling and cooking and cleaning; tending children, herding cattle, driving tuk-tuks.

There are so many people, and so little space. If I had to pick a word it would be "teeming." This place is brimming with life.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Cattle Market

Today's adventure led us through a cattle market. Young goats and old cows, bulls with horns, skinny animals and fattened ones, all in a crazy, crowded, mooing jumble.

Next weekend is Eid Al Adah, a Muslim holiday that features animal sacrifice. "The streets will be running with blood," our companions told us. 

Today we saw not only some of the doomed animals — but also the knives that will be used to slaughter them.

Other cultures, other customs. All I know is that when I sidled through that teeming cattle market, dodging dung and kicks ... I've never felt so far away from home.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Flood Tide

Traveling the roads and lanes of southwestern Bangladesh, I see narrow brick lanes disappearing into shady groves of banana and palm trees, and narrow strips of land slicing through the rice paddies.

Every village has one pond or several, and I can't always tell where the ponds end and the flooding begins. Many Bangladeshis are homeless this season because of the rising water and swollen rivers — and this in a nation already tested by hunger and poverty and climate change.

Flooding is just one more trial, as being wet is just one more condition. The rains fall and the clothes are wet — but they will dry out. Let us hope the country does, too.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Speaking of Mud

You can't visit Bangladesh during monsoon season and not talk about the mud.

Today I was up to my ankles in it — until the project people we were traveling with whisked us onto a bicycle rickshaw. This is my view from the back of it, clinging to the bicycle seat with one hand and my dogeared notebook with the other.

But even with the ride I was still caked with mud. I conducted half a dozen interviews with squishy sandals and splattered trousers. No one seemed to mind.

Mud has a way of slowing you down, making you think. I walked through it meditatively, wondering what it would be like to live with it for months of every year, to plant saplings in it, to coax it into bloom. It can be done — I saw the fruits of it today. But having walked a few feet in the shoes of those who do it, I would rather not walk that way very often.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Road to Khulna

In Bangladesh, goats seek out the warmest part of the road and stretch out there, oblivious to the traffic that flows around them. Motorized rickshaws, battered buses, bicycles carrying chickens, beds, you name it — all jockey for position on roads that are buckled and muddy from monsoon rains.

Drivers honk horns whenever they close in on another car — or whenever they feel like it — a cacophony of street noise.

It's nighttime now in Khulna, but I can still feel the jumble of the road. And I'll fall asleep to the din of car horns honking.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Past and Future

A sail across canals and oceans of time, a voyage so fantastically different from my normal life that I can hardly describe it. That is the last three days in the Khulna region of Bangladesh.

My photographs will come later, as will more descriptions. I'm writing this post now thanks to the generous loan of a colleague's iPhone "hot spot."

But I felt today that I had gone both back and forward in time, seeing a communal past ... and a watery future.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Paying It Forward

Today I flew from Dhaka to Jessore to interview victims of human trafficking. Here are several who became friends through the ordeal and are now growing beans and eggplant together on leased land to pull themselves up from poverty.

Later, we went to a community meeting where a trafficking survivor explained how to safely migrate out of the country. It's her way of paying forward the kindness shown to her after she was victimized.

"It is my pleasure to help others," she said, "so they don't have to suffer as I did."

These people are no strangers to suffering. They live on rice, endure torrential monsoons — and generally work hard for everything they have. But they offered me their only chair and pressed cold drinks in our hands. As we left, they said one of the only English words they know: "Bye bye"!


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Dhaka in Daylight

Pushing my curtains aside this morning, at first I saw only a gray mist, moisture rising from a thousand rivers and inlets, from the sea that is steadily stealing this country away from the 169 million (about 3,279 people a mile) who live here.

But as the sun rose beyond the haze I could see tall buildings rising, lush rooftop gardens and this view from the breakfast buffet bar.

Almost nine million people live in Dhaka — which means that when it comes to photographing the place, above the fray is the right place to be.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bangladesh Welcome

"It's your Bangladesh welcome, Madame," said the Winrock driver as we sat in snarled traffic on the way from the airport to my hotel in Dhaka.

I was almost asleep. Now that I'm the hotel, of course, I'm wide awake.  Hoping a few minutes fully stretched out on what looks to be a comfy bed will change that directly.

But there are a lot of thoughts and images jangling around in the brain: motorcycles whisking in and out of the traffic, brightly colored tuk-tuk taxis with wire-cage sides, vendors hawking popcorn and peanuts in the gridlock, and, finally, a quiet hotel down a quiet lane. Ahhhh....


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Taking Off

Writing this post from Dulles Airport, a gateway to the world that just happens to be 15 minutes from my house. Out the window: rain, clouds and the gigantic nose of an Airbus. Inside: people from many nations milling around in search of coffee, water and connecting flights.

I've been planning this trip for months, and will be preparing even in the hours I have en route. But in truth, nothing can prepare me for the people I'm about to meet, the roads and rivers I'm about to travel, the interviews I'm about to conduct.

In the end all I can expect is ... the unexpected. That's what travel is about.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Almost Gone

It's been a day that moved along a little faster than I could keep up with. A day of preparation. Tomorrow I fly to Bangladesh for two weeks to interview (among others) farmers, shop owners and survivors of human trafficking,

I've been planning this work trip all summer, but now that it's here, it feels unreal, as if I'm stepping off the edge of the known world. Terra Incognita.

Before I finish packing, time for a backward glance at the sunny (and sunset-y) world I left behind.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

For the Birds

My favorite is the nonchalant heron that hangs around the fisherman. If a heron could whistle that's what this one would be doing, acting as if he just happened to be strolling down the beach when he came upon this bucket of fresh-caught snapper.

But there are other birds to love here: the brown pelican, the royal tern, least tern, and the endangered black skimmer with its yellowish-orange beak and its cool eye. There's the gawky willet and the adorable snowy plover. There is the gull with its distinctive cry.

There are the birds I've shared the beach with this past week. With them I have gazed at the ocean and walked into the wind. I will miss them ... and a whole lot more.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Sugar Sand

Dotted at discrete intervals around Siesta Key Beach and its village are signs proclaiming it the "Number One" (#1) Beach in America."

The research behind this claim may be a bit suspect (it involves someone named Dr. Beach from Florida International University, so perhaps a bit of state favoritism at work). But still, the list includes beaches from Hawaii to Cape Cod, so there is at least an attempt at inclusion. And if consistency matters at all, Siesta Key Beach has been in the top 10 several times in the past.

But I have something better than Dr. Beach. I have personal experience. And I can verify that this is a great beach, broad and balmy, palm-tree-fringed and full of the softest, whitest sand my toes have ever dug into. The natives call it "sugar sand." And who am I to argue. No wonder this place is so sweet.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Ascending Descenders

The late musicologist Karl Haas, who I still remember fondly from his radio show "Adventures in Good Music," once had a program about "ascending descenders" or something of the sort. He may not have used that term, but his point was to celebrate the impact wrought from notes that descend in pitch but elevate in intensity.

I see the same process at work in the foliage of south Florida. Yes, palm fronds arch up and over in graceful arcs. Though their new growth shoots ever heavenward, they have an earthbound quality, too. Same with the long stringy stems (botanists would know what to call these things) that are perhaps the beginnings of a new branch.

In thinking about the foliage and the music I see a common theme: a celebration of life as it is, the ups, the downs, the beginnings and the ends. Recognizing the nobility in all of it.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Beach Walkers

Beach walkers are purposeful creatures, and when you hit the strand early, as I did today, you see them in droves: arms pumping, shoulders squared, feet clad in tennis shoes or serious sandals. I fit right in.

For the beach walker, the ocean is a backdrop, the sand a soft cushion for our plantar-fasciitis-prone heels. No shell will tempt us from our mission, which is to make it from the old jetty to the first (blue) lifeguard chair before being overcome by tropical heat and humidity.

But even the most driven of beach walkers can't ignore gulf waters lapping, shore birds peeping, the glorious mixture that is life where land meets sea.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Vacation Time

Every year when I'm at the beach I finally fall into vacation time. Never completely. There is always a part of me that is about efficiency and completion. And never right away. It may take days.

I knew it happened this time when I completely forgot about a meeting I said I might attend. It wasn't a conscious slip of the schedule. It was a complete and utter forgetting. And when the reminder text came, it was as if my colleagues were hailing from a distant world.

This world is waiting for me — I'l return to it all too soon — but right now it is deliciously foreign, the sort of place I used to know but have almost forgotten because of the strangeness of its exotic customs.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Palm Songs

A breeze stirs the palm fronds, setting one against another. They make a gentle tapping sound not unlike rain on water. This is not the sighing of pine boughs. This is a southern sound, a rustle of taffeta.

It can put you to sleep — even when you haven't been awake long. It relaxes and cajoles and leads one outside.

At least that's where it's led me. Hard to think of words and ideas when the palm trees are singing.

Palm trees straight (above) and reflected in pool water (top). 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Light, Again

I stopped walking this morning long enough to take this shot.

"I almost did the same thing," said a neighbor, running past me in the opposite direction. The light would have slanted in a bit lower through the tress when he passed this tunnel of green.

Not that I'm complaining about the angle I got to see. Seeing light pour through the trees first thing in the morning reminds me that there is more on heaven and earth than we can ever comprehend. We're lucky if we have eyes to see and a lens to capture. But the light is there for us even if we don't.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Book Notes

Several years ago I began the practice of typing up notes on the books I read. An exercise in futility? An earnest attempt to bolster failing memory? Yes and yes ... but more.

I like to think they are a written record of what every good book becomes — a conversation between author and reader. After all, these passages are personal, and they are a snapshot in time. Because what may strike me as important about a book I read in 2014 may not make a similar impression today.

But sometimes they hold steady. This morning I looked at notes for a book I read months ago, one that opened my mind and broadened my attitudes. The notes reminded me of why I liked the book in the first place, how rich it is in ideas. So much so that I printed off the notes and tucked them inside the book. I'm reading it again.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Flying Free

Maybe it's just the angle of the light this morning, or the way my chair is facing on the deck, but whatever it is, I'm seeing more clearly the limbs and branches that need pruning, the deadwood.

It's no surprise the oaks need a trim. They're old and tired, some of them just hanging on. They would be much happier if they were lighter, leaner — shorn. Wouldn't we all? And isn't so much of life about finding the balance between heavy and light, rooted and free.

As I write these words a male cardinal lands on the browning stem of a day lily plant, which seems too slender to support the weight of a goldfinch, let alone this summer-plumped bird. But the stem holds, dips gently, then rises again. The cardinal pauses, fluffs his feathers, then flies away. Oh to have that kind of trust, that kind of lightness.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Orchid

One advantage of sitting near a bank of office windows is enjoying the plants the light makes possible. Look at this beauty, which has been blooming almost a month, it seems. I watched each papery flower emerge along the graceful stem.

The orchid's owner received the plant several years ago when her mother died. Each bloom is a sweet reminder of her mother's presence.

And now, because I know the story, the plant has greater presence for me, too, each day of flowering another bid for life. I'm pulling for the plant to live forever.

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