Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Bangladesh for a week with a group of 10 Australian women. We were there to visit the work of Baptist World Aid Australia, who work through several in-country partners. We saw the work of only two of those partners: Baptist Aid and PARI (Participatory Action for Rural Innovation).
We were all leaders of women’s ministries from various Australian states, apart from one student who came with her Mum. (It was great to have a younger perspective with us!) The intention was to bring our first-hand stories home, so we can raise support for BWAA during leadership activities.
A little bit of SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment)
I had not known until preparing for this trip that the country itself is home to 160 million people. They are squished into a space a little bigger than the US state of Iowa . . . Or in Aussie terms, ⅔ the size of my home state Victoria. (Although currently I live in Tasmania.) This density of population alone was enough to cause terrible traffic congestion, even without the poor condition of many of the roads.
As you can see from the map, Bangladesh is pretty much surrounded by India, and has one small border with Myanmar. When I left Australia, there were reports in the media of a huge refugee crisis, as millions of Rohingya, a persecuted people group, escaped to Bangladesh from Myanmar. However, our travels were not taking us into that region.
Dealing with my preconceived ideas
We all have ideas about a country, even if we don’t know we have them! These are shaped by previous personal experiences, hearsay from other sources, or unrelated imaginings. They all colour our first experiences of a country. And to be brutally honest, because of my preconceived ideas, I wasn’t really looking forward to the trip.
This is because, years ago, I’d had a pretty difficult time during a 6-week trip with a group of 13, run by my church to India. And had no itching desire to go anywhere like it! As I journaled about it in the weeks before going away, I realised there were a few overlays on the India trip that were no longer relevant for this trip to Bangladesh. For example in India, we travelled with three of my own children, ranging in age from 22 months to six years old. But this time, there would be no small children to consider. That was a huge difference!
Also, that trip to India was my very first experience of Asian culture. And the culture shock was overwhelming. Everything – the food, the noise, the squash of humanity, the level of poverty, the clothing, the language, the traffic, the smells – absolutely everything, was completely unfamiliar. Now, all these years later, I’ve done a lot more travel, especially to Asia; I’ve consciously developed my food preferences; I have appropriate clothing in my wardrobe; and I know so much more about world poverty than I did then. From that perspective, it was quite a different trip, not because Asia has changed, but because I have changed!
As I journaled all this, I made the decision to rise to the challenge, and decided looked forward to the trip with what you might call “reluctant expectation”. As a side note: Journaling is such a helpful process, and I recommend you have a go at it, especially if you have something you need to work through. My journaling helped to sort out my emotional responses, before I even arrived in-country, and that was very helpful.
What we did
So, I arrived in the capital, Dhaka, one Saturday in January, after a very long day. It was 10pm before we arrived at our hotel. With the time difference, my body clock was telling me it was 3am – and I’d got up at 4:30am that morning for my first-of-three flights!
We spent the next day or so de-jetlagging, acclimatising and enculturating. Surprisingly, it was quite cool, as it was winter in Bangladesh. The days were only 20-23˚, and there was very little of the expected humidity. Most mornings during our visit the whole country-side was covered with a thick, wintry layer of fog. This was a surprise. I’d been in India at the same time of year and it had been terribly hot. Another preconceived idea fell off the wagon.
We went out shopping on our first afternoon, all glad of the opportunity to purchase some culturally appropriate clothing – tunics and pants, called salwar kameez, or “Punjabi suits”. Matching scarves were de rigueur. For the rest of the week we were going into remote villages where tourists (read: Westerners) do not go. Being representatives of aid agencies and NGOs, it was important we didn’t cause a stir with our Western-style clothing. Modesty means different things in different places, I had discovered in India. (Well, that was one bonus!)
What we did next
For the rest of the trip we were based in Mymensingh – three-hours slow drive directly north of Dhaka. It was a slow trip, not so much because of poor roads, but because of the constant traffic! The ride was a short introduction to the rest of our week of adventure.
Let me know if you have been to Bangladesh (or India!), and what you thought of this extraordinary country, in the Comments, below.
CLICK HERE for a “snapshot” of one of our village visits when we went to see the women’s Self Help Group, pictured below, in the village of Bausi.