A volunteer returns to Bangladesh after 40 years

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RPCV Tom McMahon's Journal of a return visit to Bangladesh after 40 years

RPCV Tom McMahon's Journal of a return visit to Bangladesh after 40 years

Journal of a return visit after 40 years

On January 13, 2001, I headed for Bangladesh after 40 years to see the changes and to meet some of the new batch of Peace Corps Volunteers.

Having retired in August of 2000, and having a life-long case of itchy feet, it seemed natural to return to see it all first hand, especially in light of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

Seems like only a short time ago that 29 of us "East Pak 1" Peace Corps Volunteers, having responded to President Kennedy's call to action, strapped ourselves into a then-modern 707 Pan Am jet and sailed off into the sky to East Pakistan ... where the heat hit us like a blast oven as we stepped out on the tarmac in Dhaka (then Dacca), and the airport itself was like something out of a Bogart movie.

The airport is modern now, and air conditioned, and there is even a motorized bridge connecting the plane to the terminal. You would think you were getting off at JFK!

The customs and immigration people were friendly and I did not even have to fill out twelve forms to get in the place.

Mine was to be a spiritual journey in the best sense of the word, a time to close some garden gates and to refresh myself at the age of 61. A time to look back and assess what happened to the country, and to me.

Introducing myself to Bengalees as returning "cholish bochor poray" was a little like Rip Van Winkle. The pictures on the Peace Corps office made it seem even more so.

And the country director, Michael Bedford, offered to give me the picture of myself at age 22 showing me meeting with the technical training teachers in Rajshahi.

But I wanted that picture (and the ones of Rachel, Kiki and Sarge) to remain on the wall for all to see! (part of my 15 minutes of fame)

It was difficult finding my way around as I tried hard to recognize landmarks that have faded or disappeared altogether.

The country has changed a lot and yet it has remained the same in many ways.

Like friendliness.

The people of Bangladesh remain some of the most welcoming and sharing people in the world, and if riches were measured by degrees of hospitality, then Bangladeshis would be wealthy beyond any accounting.

I spent 5 weeks in Bangladesh and then headed for India (Darjeeling and Calcutta) for two weeks before returning home to the US.

I have included some remarks and photos that I took on the following pages. I hope you enjoy a little bit of the spirit of the country and encourage all my colleagues who "grew up" in Bangladesh, as I did, to consider taking their own personal look back in time.

As one of the travel posters says, "See Bangladesh Before The Tourists".

I can assure you there is still time.

In my five weeks there, I spotted 6 tourists (actually only 2.. since I saw the same Dutch couple pedaling around three different cities. We must have been on the same schedule)

Tom McMahon East Pakistan I (1961-1963)

My tour

Bangladesh - An Introduction

Bangladesh - An Introduction

First of all, please note that the following are my very subjective impressions and ramblings based on only a short five weeks in the country. I am making no attempt to be inclusive or to present all sides of an issue as it struck me, but only to share my thoughts for what they are worth.

Guide Book: The 4th edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh was invaluable for planning the trip. I highly recommend you get a copy of it, and then to use it for your own travel, remembering that any travel guide is out of date in lots of places. So be flexible.

I have extracted some info from the Lonely Planet guide as well as other sources too humorous to mention.

The best time to visit Bangladesh is December, January and February - the weather during the day was great, a bit brisk at times, like our northern US weather in May or early June.

It was chilly at night, and I am glad there were heavy comforters available wherever I went. I also had a sweatshirt and longees just in case and they were handy for a few of the really crisp nights.

I definitely needed them in Darjeeling, and by the way, that is not a place to visit in February unless you fancy unheated 40 degree hotel rooms, rainy and foggy and windy. And no view of the Himalayas since so much haze and fog.

But the weather in Bangladesh during the day was marvelous!

Bangladesh is much more crowded now vs 40 years ago; about 130 million people and in the early 60's I think it was around 70 or 80 million. But the population growth is down to 1.8 percent annually from 2.7 in the 60's. Dhaka is very very busy, and the traffic is horrendous, about 600,000 cycle rickshaws in addition to everything else.

The air pollution in the city is unbelievable as all the motor rickshaws spew out the oil-filled exhaust and create a blue haze that rises about 50 ft off the street. Lots of people wear face masks. And for those with pulmonary problems, the air is more than rank.

One bright spot is a new generation of taxis - they are comfortable, the meters work and the rate is reasonable.

The beggars are there as usual, though I did not detect any more than 40 years ago. You would also think that men could procreate themselves, as the women are almost invisible. I saw only two women drivers in the week I was there. Along the street, it is mostly boys and men to the age of about 40 or so.

Women somehow appear in the nice shops - I thought there must be an underground passageway for them to come up into the markets without being seen on the street.

There is an attempt to keep the streets clean, but it is a big task.

Open sewers run along the sidewalk, and often the concrete covers are off, so watch where you walk.

Here is a street cleaner loading up his cart in Dhaka.

The Bangla language is much more dominant than in the 60's.

In Dhaka I found lots of people trying to learn English . Post-liberation Bangladesh seemed to have Bangla supplant English, and English signs were painted over. So India forged ahead of Bangladesh with English skills, essential in a country of dozens of languages.

I was told that office workers in Bangladesh were reprimanded when they spoke English or produced letters in English in the office.

But the country is now trying to catch up with the 21st century in learning English. And that is not to discount Bangla which is a beautiful language... I was even starting to read Tagore in the original Bangla when I left.

Children are now starting to learn English again in 5th class, and the Peace Corps is helping at the Primary Training Institutes by teaching the primary school teachers better English.

When I was stuck for a translator, I knew if I could spot an older, educated-looking person, they would know English from the "old" days. But the college students I met were for the most part unable to speak English very well.

The Bengali people are still the most helpful and sharing people in the world. When you need something, you are the guest and get all the attention.

From being jumped ahead in line, to being asked to sit and have a cup of tea, it is ongoing and sometimes a bit too much. I even got a free ride across the river (normal fare: one taka = $.02) on the "stand up and hold on for dear life" ferry.

A far cry from what I found in busy Calcutta and West Bengal which are probably so saturated with tourists that there is no time left for niceties.

Peace Corps Volunteers - then and now

Peace Corps Volunteers - then and now

They are of the same breed from 1961 to 2001.... idealistic, caring, energetic, interesting, challenging and inspiring. They are here to do a job, but also to get to know themselves, and find out what they can do.

Over and over again in my talks with the new group of volunteers, I heard the themes of adventure and of learning.

They are there to discover what they are made of, to fulfill a dream, to get to know another country and its people in depth. They have learned the language well, some extremely well, and I had to work hard to catch up to them.

PCV In Comilla

"Mr William David Booth", as the sign appears on his door at Comilla Technical Training Center.

Even though I played the tapes and studied Bangla for weeks before I arrived. Learning language at 61 is different from learning it at 22 I discovered.

Teach Yourself Bengali was my tutor, and with the tapes it got played over and over in this gray head. Well worth the investment of $29.95. The old words came back easily, the new ones took a long time to sink in. So we should not have made too much fun of Jeanne Dumas with her "achas"!

There are about 30 volunteers in the second batch and they have just finished their first year, as of Feb. 2001. The first batch left just before I arrived, and the third batch came in mid-February.

Most of them are teaching at PTIs, one is teaching at a technical training center and one is at a youth development center.

There was a smattering of the usual complaints - Peace Corps Washington and Dhaka does not do enough for them (looks to me like they do pretty well considering the challenges to the Dhaka office in dealing with the perennial forces of Bengali bureaucracy) , the principals at the PTI do not give them a teaching schedule (actually true in many of the cases I saw).

The volunteers are for the most part, living alone. This is a change from the 60s and is less of a hazard, now that the roads and transportation are so much better enabling trips to Dhaka in a day from almost anywhere in the country.

The challenges of living alone in any third world country, especially Bangladesh for western women, is real. But for the most part, the volunteers are adapting well.

Islamic treatment of women, in my opinion, still borders on being a violation of human rights. So some of the women are harassed when they move about; the constant staring and occasional comment could wear one down.

The stereotype of American women comes via western movies.

With repression of women in Bangladesh, and lack of healthy outlets for men, it is natural for them to be a bit aggressive.

The women volunteers in most cases are strong enough to handle any situation well. They fit in, are discreet and cautious when they travel and move about in crowds.

An Email from Dhaka to the Group

January 18, 2001 - Dhaka, Bangladesh

Hello to all Friends of Bangladesh. There is a little internet cafe called La Galleria on the second floor of a building on Kemal Ataturk Avenue near the Banani market in Dhaka. I can look out and see some of the 600,000 rickshaws now plying the streets of Dhaka. The population of greater Dhaka is now approaching 12 million (Lonely Planet book says it was 1 million in 1971) so try to imagine it. The air pollution is horrendous, and many people are traveling with face masks. No bullock carts on the road now, and the beggars are not as many as I remember from the last time I was here in 1992.

High rise buildings are sprouting up all over, as the region sprawls out well past the airport to the location of the new Peace Corps office in Uttara Model Town. I am staying for a few days in Gulshn as I recover from the jet lag and visit some old friends.

I stopped at the new Peace Corps office yesterday to drop off some goodies that my daughters insisted I bring along for the girls here (People magazine, and ten other rags) - along with Hershey bars. When I showed up at the office, the Americans were out of town at Comilla for a conference with the second group of volunteers who arrived last May.

The first group had already left by the time I got here so I did not get a chance to see any of them.

But while waiting in the office for a few minutes, I sat in the conference room, where there were four very nice pictures on the wall. All of them mini-poster size - one with Akhter Hameed Khan and Sarge Shriver (so he really was here after all!); the second was Kiki at Comilla with a group of women, the third was Rachel Jordan at the hospital in Rajshahi and third one was none other than yours truly with two other teachers (banes of my existence) from the Rajshahi Technical School! So they did not forget us after all!

I will go back to see Michael Bedford, the new director, this afternoon. I understand he was PC in the Philippines so he knows some of the routine. The first director left a couple of months ago; staff tells me she was a bit frustrated with the situations (surprise!) and that the morale of many of the first group was not real high due to lack of meaningful jobs, inadequate support, etc. (surprise number 2).

Maybe Ann Kanyusick will tell us how it really was - she and Anne Moscowitz in Philadelphia have been in touch since she became part of the Bangladesh I group two years ago. All the volunteers are teaching English in secondary schools I am told, and none are in Dhaka. So perhaps I will get a chance to see some of them on my way around the country.

I plan to head to Comilla on Saturday or Sunday and then to Khulna, Barisal and up to Khustia, thence to the north and to cross over to India to Darjeeling. The weather is pleasant in the 70s and it is the right time for an older returned volunteer to be here. By the way, in the Peace Corps office here, the admin officer asked me when we were here - I told him the early 60's. He said,"My God, I wasn't even born yet" so I promptly turned and reached for my walker and stumbled out.

Another suggestion for all of you: if you can get hold of a book called Living on the Edge, Short Stories by Peace Corps Volunteers, get it and read it for the time of your life. My dear friend Ann Sheehan who served in Togo and who lives in Reading (PA) gave it to me for reading on the plane. It is a great read! I also got the latest version of Lonely Planet: Bangladesh and some wonderful language tapes called Teach Yourself Bengali with a text.

It is available for ordering on the net for those of you thinking of another trip.

Let's think about having a 50th reunion here in Bangladesh!!!

I spoiled myself at the Sonargaon for breakfast ($16) something we would never think of doing in the 60s - it was wonderful.

The terrible earthquake in India was felt only slightly in Bangladesh (roughly 1200 miles away). The ponds here full of water were undulating for a few minutes and caused quite a stir - too bad I did not get a photo or video of it.

I have spent some wonderful time with two volunteers, one in Comilla and the other in Aliganj, both teaching, one at the Technical Training Institute and the other at the Primary Teacher Training Institute. They are doing very well, and the stories are hilarious, and at the same time familiar.

There are new roads and new bridges, and there is a lot of traffic. The one over the Jammuna is very impressive. So goods can move to market faster - that is a plus. This morning coming back to Dhaka in a bus, we saw a terrible accident out of the morning fog, with a crushed

car, two burned out buses, and big trucks off the road.

The drivers are as crazy as ever. In Comilla, I visited the butter and cheese factory with very large cold storage, all of it started by Bob Taylor and then continued by another PCV in a later East Pakistan group. The manager has great plans to expand to other frozen food and to widen his marketing reach. He needs to sell a lot of cheese though, as his summer electric bill runs about $4,000 per month!

So far I have not met another person who remembers one of us directly from 40 years ago. The PCVs' Bangla language skill is good, their attitude is good and they are doing good work teaching teachers, and in their spare time, they help out all over the place. You would love them.

I visited a Baptist Mission and the ruins of the old Buddhist settlement at Mainamati near Comilla - lots of Bengali tourists. But no Americans or Europeans to be found. I am always asking about the role of women, and there are more on the streets now than in the 70s but fewer than in the 60s. There is a gas station in Dhaka where all the attendants are women, in pink uniforms no less! And the internet cafe at which I am at this moment is owned by a woman.have been surprised about the lack of English signs and the lack of basic English skills among many people who are of the age we used to deal with. But they are now realizing the importance of it and resources are being put toward it. Plus I have given mini lectures to the students at the two colleges and reinforced it with them. The third group of Peace Corps Volunteers will come here in February, and I will not see them since I will be in the north, and heading for India, then perhaps Katmandu.

The nights are cool and a sweater is needed, and the days are sunny and warm, but not oppressive. The Bengali people are as usual very helpful and courteous, and stare all the time. So that part could get old again in a hurry. I am taking many digital photos and videos of the work of the volunteers and will share them with you all when I get back.

Incidentally, in Comilla at the new Academy, there are most pleasant surroundings and lodging, if some of us chose to come back next year for a reunion. I would come again if only to escape the northern winters! Perhaps a couple of weeks where we could review progress in community development, BRAC, Grameen Bank, Women's Issues, etc. and there may be opportunities for some of us to contribute our time and talent to some of the needs here.

Communal difficulties are still here but not as pronounced as in the 60s I am told. India is regarded with some suspicion regarding the long range plan - will she someday try to absorb Bangladesh? That is the theme kept alive by the opposition party and even though they are grateful for the help in '71, they are wary.

Nothing further on the bombing at the rally, but I have been out of the capital city for a week. Tomorrow I head for Khulna on the 36 hours ride on The Ostrich! Hope she is still seaworthy - (if she ever was in the first place). Then to Jennida and Khustia, and Rajshahi and Thakurgaon and then to India. If I get to Katmandu there may be internet. The food here is good and the people are wonderful as ever.

I am in Darjeeling now and looking out over the Himalayan range and it is damn cold. It was just getting warmer on the plains and I am here ahead of the tourist season. Bangladesh was just wonderful and I hated to leave. I did take lots of photos and will send some to you when I get home. Did not make it to Nepal (this time)! Time spent with Peace Corps Volunteers was just magnificent - I am just so proud of all of them and how great they are doing here.

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Bangladesh; Return to our Country of Service - Bangladesh



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