Bangladesh: Lessons Learned and Brought Home, by K.G.

Saturday, Jan 26, 2013

A few months ago, work requirements took me to a country where I’d never been before, and where, frankly, I never dreamed I’d go: Bangladesh. I’d venture to guess that few Westerners (and even fewer Western women) have had the opportunity that I recently did, and so I’d like to contribute to readers some of the experiences I had and some of the lessons I was able to bring home. Before writing further, let me say that less than two weeks in any country does not make an expert of any visitor – myself included. I can’t and won’t pretend to know more about the cultural nuances, social details, and differing world views than those ten days taught me. People are universally complex, and those residing in non-Western countries deserve this consideration no less than anyone else. But I believe that what I did glean from the travel, country, situation, and people is important enough to be shared. Perhaps you, too, will consider these lessons worthy of thought and practice, as I discovered.

To preface the following lessons, let me fill out a few more details (though, for OPSEC, not too many) about myself and my work to illustrate how I found myself bleary-eyed, sticky, and dazed in the Dhaka airport after 36 hours of sleepless flights. Very generally, I am a young researcher in the field of renewable biomass (may I add that if you’re looking to change careers, biomass- and bioenergy-related areas can put you in position to learn and apply an immense amount of information about renewable energy for less grid-reliant living). As Bangladesh is an extremely densely populated country, energy resources are becoming scarcer. When this fact is coupled with the extreme poverty that many Bengali face, it becomes clear that affordable, renewable energy is a critical resource. I was sent to an area somewhat outside of the capital city, Dhaka, to conduct a consultancy for locals also in this line of work.

Many resources – not just energy – are scarce, and Bangladesh is a challenging place to live. There is a recent history of suffering (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangladesh#20th_century), and many young people feel stuck and without opportunity in a land where unemployment can reach 30% (as per a conversation I had with a young Bengali man). Despite these hurdles, the people I met and dialogued with were extremely bright, warm, and welcoming. They treated me, a stranger, with incredible kindness and generosity  I believe that the least I can do to recognize their resilience and to thank them for their hospitality is to remember what I learned, share it with others, and apply it in my own life. Especially in the area of preparedness, we’d do well to learn from those who live it every day.

In no particular order, the key lessons follow.

Always have duct tape, Ziploc bags, a knife, and a permanent marker.

I think I used duct tape on every day of my stay. From taping power plugs into unusual outlets (they’d fall out otherwise), to securing a battery in a critical piece of equipment, to sealing biosample bags (Ziploc, of course), duct tape did it all. I stored mine wrapped around my Nalgene bottle – a trick many of you are familiar with, I’m sure. Wrapping it around the Sharpie (used for labeling equipment and samples) might have worked better and been even more portable.

I bought an inexpensive single-blade pocket knife just for this trip, as I didn’t want to risk losing (via TSA or other means) anything nicer. However, asking anything of it beyond cutting duct tape was tenuous. On many occasions we had to shave eucalyptus kindling, and this knife simply didn’t perform. In fact, as many of you already know, flimsy, dull blades present more of a hazard than a quality knife that holds an edge.

Lesson learned: cheaper isn’t always better. Go ahead and risk keeping a nicer, higher-quality knife on you, because with a little care, it’ll be more than worth it. Also, I promise that you will find 1001 uses for duct tape and plastic bags. Everyone says it, and that’s because it’s true.

Pockets are a tool

Where do you plan to store your daily necessities (see above)? Can you carry them in your hands? Do you have a bag? Maybe you need to use your hands to teach or demonstrate, and maybe your bag is large and bulky and makes you more of a target for theft. That’s where the lowly, underrated pocket comes in. You’ll blend in better if you don’t have strange objects in your hands or an odd-looking bag on your back.

I took three pairs of pants with me on this trip (wear one, wash one, dry one), and it quickly became clear that the two pairs with cargo pockets were better tools. They were loose-fitting enough that it was never obvious that I carried a lot in my pockets. Granted, I never carried my passport or ID in pants pockets (I’d recommend a hanging, under-the-shirt neck wallet for that), but everything else (room key, cell phone, extra pen, pocket knife, spare TP…) went in the pockets quite unobtrusively.

Lesson learned: don’t bother with pants without pockets, no matter how fashionable they are. You’re just depriving yourself of one of the most basic, accessible, low-profile, and acceptable tools you could ever have. Also, look at reframing your current concept of tools. Not all of them have handles.

Try to fit in

It seemed clear to me that as a white Western female in a predominately non-white, Eastern, male-dominated culture, I just wasn’t going to fit in. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. I did what research I could ahead of time; despite the local library’s lack of guides to Bangladesh (apparently not a hot tourist location), even a cursory look at a web site or two provided key facts that proved crucial for adapting to my first few days in the country. Learning how to say Thank You, discovering that one always eats with one’s right hand, and coming prepared for a dearth of toilet paper prevented me from making any major faux pas during those stressful first few days of adjustment.

In fact, learning a handful of common phrases ahead of time, and repeating them often to native speakers, eventually had a beneficial consequence. At first, the woman who cooked for us (another major cultural adjustment) seemed very quiet, reserved, and uncommunicative. Although it felt awkward at times, my coworker and I decided to keep saying Good Morning, Thank You, and Good (food). After a few days of making these shaky attempts, she began to respond in English and Bengali, started teaching us a few different phrases, and even helped to correct our pronunciation! Because we made the effort to value her, her language, and her culture, she decided that we were worth investing in as well.
          
Though I only have my own experience to draw on, and others’ visits may have differed, it seemed to me a peculiarly American stance to enthusiastically and good-heartedly (though not without blunder!) attempt to learn local language and customs. This work trip was financed by a European aid organization. One of their employees occasionally served as our guide and liaison. Though he had been in Bangladesh for about three years, his total acquired Bengali vocabulary was less than I’d picked up in five days. I say this not to laud myself but to illustrate how different mindsets can affect how one fits into one’s surroundings. This man’s reluctance to attempt to fit in turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as consultancy participants seemed reticent to interact with him. Moreover, his lack of Bengali vocabulary really limited his efficacy in the job he had. By contrast, learning even a few key words (water, okay, this, that, etc.) amplified my impact on the job, as I was able to deal with needs and problems immediately, rather than minute or hours later.

In another area – clothing – mere minutes of research beforehand, coupled with a stance of humble learning, saved me days of hassle in the country. It’s not hard to learn that in Bangladesh, a country where about 80% of the population is Muslim, women dress modestly. They cover their arms and legs, and, when the call to prayer sounds, they cover their heads with the ubiquitous scarf. Picking up some long-sleeved, long-tailed shirts, a few pairs of loose-fitting pants, and a long scarf at the local thrift store was a no-brainer – anyone would’ve done that, right? Or so I thought.

One day, our European guide introduced us to another young woman working in the area. Also from the US, she was wearing a scarf, but otherwise was dressed in a very short sleeved T-shirt and capri pants. “How did you know to dress like that?” she asked me when we met. I didn’t say much, but the situation made me think. We were both young, white, Western females, but as far as I could tell, because she didn’t do her research beforehand, it would be even harder for her to fit in, do her job, and be taken seriously.

Although I’d done my research on clothing in general, I was still easy to pinpoint as an outsider, because of how I wore my scarf. Bangladeshi women don’t wrap their scarves around their necks for warmth – which is how I, disembarking from a chilly airplane, arrived at the Dhaka airport. Rather, they drape them across their shoulders in a fashion that seems almost backwards to Western eyes. This facilitates draping one end over one’s head when necessary. Coming from a culture where I’ve never been required to cover my head, I of course didn’t even think of this before my trip. Rearranging my scarf style took some getting used to, but it was absolutely worth getting rid of that mark of being an undereducated outsider.

Lesson learned: Even in the United States, different states and regions have different idioms, culturally acceptable habits, practices, ways of dressing, and more. Circumstances may force you from your home – but that doesn’t mean you have to be unwelcome elsewhere. If you try to adopt some of the language, customs, clothing, and other social norms of the place you end up, your efforts won’t go unnoticed, and might even gain you the appreciation of the locals. In fact, even doing a little bit of homework ahead of time could put you miles ahead of others. You’ll be able to do what you need to do quicker and easier, and you’ll be in a better position to both give and receive help.

You might never fit it
Is it odd that I should say this right after describing all the ways I tried to fit in? I don’t think so – I think it’s realistic, and here’s why.

After a long but intense ten days of work and cultural immersion, my coworker and I found ourselves once again at the Dhaka airport, ready to begin the long journey home. This time, though, I was wearing my scarf correctly! As the call to prayer sounded over the airport loudspeakers, I pulled my scarf over my head, and kept reading to pass the time. Two local men sat down with my male coworker and began chatting with him. I overheard one of them asking him if I were Muslim. The more I’ve thought about that question, the more I believe it summarizes my brief experience in Bangladesh.

I did as much as I reasonably could to integrate myself into their culture – I ate their food in their manner, tried to speak their language, and dressed in a fashion as inconspicuous as I could manage, yet I was still noticeably foreign. This placed me in a gray area, where it wasn’t always obvious that I didn’t belong. Although I looked Western, certain practices started to mark me as less of an outsider, enough so that folks had to ask.

It would’ve been unwise, though, to let that experience go to my head, and to start imagining that adopting a few behaviors and customs suddenly gave me a free pass in their country. Like I said, a week or two in any region is barely scratching the surface of what it means to be from there.

Lesson learned: Even though you may have done everything right, it’ll be a long time before you’re thought of as a local. That’s okay – as long as you remember that. While it’s always worth it to try to blend in with a new culture, don’t let that initial effort lull you into thinking that you’ve succeeded. Know exactly what makes you stand out from others, and how to cope should that be used against you.

Be alert (and not a target)

On the second evening of my stay, some workshop participants offered to take me and my coworker to the local open-air market. Of course, we accepted -- adventure, here we come! In Dhaka, which is much closer to the equator than my hometown, sunrise and sunset aren’t the gradual processes I was used to. Night falls quite rapidly, so even by 6 p.m. or so, it was nearly pitch-dark outside. Five participants walked us down a bumpy, puddly dirt alleyway -- but which direction? I couldn’t remember where the sun had set, and there was no residual light in the sky to indicate which way was west. Still, I didn’t have to be out of luck. As long as I could find other landmarks and mnemonics, I was going to do fine.

I started by memorizing exactly what all the group members were wearing. I couldn’t rely on staying with the same person throughout the crowded market, so I had to know who I knew and who I didn’t. I also wasn’t going to be able to rely on my language skills (40 words maximum), my ethnicity (minority) or my gender (inferior) to see me through if I got lost or separated from the group. But even if I’d done that, if I’d zoned out with an iPod or texting, that memory work wouldn’t have served me at all. A minute or two -- or, frankly, a second or two -- of technological distraction, and I could’ve been seriously lost.
Lesson learned: Your memory is a tool; sharpen it accordingly. But don’t rely just on a good memory -- make sacrifices (less music, less texting, more difficult mental focus) to insure your safety.

Don’t rely on the grid

Thrice-daily brownouts, often lasting over an hour each, were the rule during my stay. One would usually happen right before dinnertime, which made sense, as using electricity to prepare 12 million meals would put an enormous stress on the system. (Ostensibly, it’s illegal to use electricity to cook food in Dhaka, and folks are supposed to use LPG or biomass, but regulating cooking-related electricity use would be a gargantuan task.) The first few evening brownouts caught me by surprise. I had to figure out where I’d stashed my flashlight, whether the matches were on the desk or the table, and what the best location was for the candles. Planning for the evening brownout became routine, though. By keeping my flashlight in my pocket (see above tip) at all times, I knew I could quickly transition into no-grid-power versions of my tasks, rather than wasting valuable time searching for a way to light my work. It became easy, once I established a routine, to continue washing clothes in the bathroom bucket with no or minimal light.

The other one or two brownouts could happen at any time – including when we were teaching or making presentations. This meant that we couldn’t use the projector to display slide shows. At first, we tried to continue teaching by passing around the laptop and showing slides to each of the participants individually. We quickly learned that this wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. Fortunately, there was a dry-erase whiteboard in the classroom, and we discovered that even when the power came back on, this was a better option for teaching. Drawing out concepts and processes forced us to slow down our teaching – a benefit for non-English speakers. This facilitated more participation and interaction; so, oddly enough, operating in a grid-down situation led me and my coworker to a better teaching solution that we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Lesson learned: Be flexible, creative, industrious, and forward-thinking. Boredom can be a signal of complacency and unpreparedness. You may not be able to plan for specific changes, but you can know that change will come and can avoid expending energy on being surprised every time you encounter change.

Use the grid
Again, it may seem strange to advocate using power right after suggesting not relying on it, but I see a difference between mindless reliance and pragmatic opportunism.

Although electricity may not have been reliable in Bangladesh, it was still there most of the time. I observed many cell phone users plugging their chargers into the wall right after a brownout would end. The mindset seemed to be that because the power situation was so unpredictable, it was best to use it whenever it was on, so that you wouldn’t be caught needing it when it was off. This ran counter to my Western notion of taking care of what I needed only when signaled to do so – i.e., when my cell phone battery was clearly running low. In Bangladesh, it would be difficult to make it through a day without having planned ahead and taken care of needs before they became obstacles.

Lesson learned: Use the resources you currently have to prepare for probable scarcities in the future. Don’t imagine that things will always stay as they are – use what you have now to make it through leaner times that will inevitably arrive.

Use what’s there and make it work

Toilet paper and silverware are not cultural norms in Bangladesh for the majority of people. I discovered that some things I thought I actually needed were quite a bit more negotiable than previously assumed. For example, I came to enjoy eating with my hands; plus, their culture accommodates that practice with sinks and soap everywhere. However, the lack of toilet paper was tougher to deal with. One workaround that I resorted to was actually related to dining. Paper napkins are big in Bangladesh (due, of course, to using one’s hands to eat), and every table will have them – or, at least, some Kleenex. I started stowing these in my pockets (see above tip) just in case the bathroom I accessed was out of TP – which, half the time, it would be. If I’d stayed longer, maybe I could’ve learned how to use the “squatty potties” to better effect. That would’ve removed the need to always be squirreling away the TP. But in the time I had there, I created a workable solution.

Lesson learned: Your cultural norms might not be anyone else’s, and so you’ll have to adapt to what’s there -- or what’s not there. If you can’t immediately find a solution, don’t quit. Other cultural or social differences might hold the answer.

Don’t assume they’ll have it

My camera ran out of batteries a few days into the trip. How hard could it be to pick up a few AA’s – right? Wrong! The closest store was outside walls of the campus where we were based. I would’ve had to walk through a neighborhood where I didn’t belong, to a store that might not have even sold batteries, pay with bills that I now realize were of ostentatiously large denomination, receive correct change and be polite in a language I barely understood, and made it back to campus without drawing attention to myself. Plus, I didn’t even know if it was culturally appropriate for a woman to shop for batteries on her own. Weird question? Maybe not -- but I didn’t know. I hadn’t planned ahead.

Lesson learned: I returned home with only 6 photos, plenty of memories, and a realization that I should never assume that anyone will ever have what I need when I need it. I am, to a large degree, responsible for my own needs. Knowing what your basic (and more complex) needs are now will prevent unpleasant surprises in the future -- in fact, the question is really whether you’d rather be surprised by your needs now or later.

Keep a low profile – and it might look different than you think

This relates to trying to fit in. Often, those involved in the preparedness community tout the benefits of donning drab or earth-toned clothing (see: Gray Man Concept), carrying a low-profile backpack, and wearing sensible, closed-toed shoes. All great tips – for where I normally live in the US. Dressing like this would’ve immediately made me stand out in Bangladesh, where hardly anyone (men included) wears closed-toed shoes or boots, drab-colored clothing is uncommon, and men and women both carry more fashionably-styled rucksacks or purses. Where I was staying, the best way to keep a low profile would’ve looked pretty high-profile here: brightly-colored and patterned clothing, sandals, and a purse.

Lesson learned: Think outside the box when it comes to what it means to be low-profile. Investigate what’s normal for the area to where you might travel or move. Be willing to let go of personal stylistic preferences, possibly for a long time. Understand that the Gray Man Concept might not always literally mean wearing just gray.

Be grateful for what you have and where you are

One of the most poignant parts of my trip came during a conversation with Nayeem, a young man also working in the field of bioenergy. He described how he joined the film club at his university, and began watching Russian, German, American, and other movies. As he spoke, it became clear that he wasn’t watching flicks and eating popcorn just for fun. This was his only way out of Bangladesh. Despite being bright, hard-working, driven, and successful, Nayeem knew that even if he saved everything he earned for almost his whole life, his chances of leaving his country for a better future were essentially nonexistent. But through film, he could, at least for an hour or two, live elsewhere.

Lesson learned: I’ve been incredibly blessed by being born into this country at this time. Despite the problems facing me, I’m grateful I currently have the freedom to live a life where the work I do can concretely manifest itself in the direction I choose to take. I’m not stuck – and I’d find it hard to believe that any of us in the US really are. It might be hard to make changes, but I’m glad I still can.

A final note

It’s possible that some readers may have also traveled to Bangladesh, and probably had different trips than I had. I’d like to reiterate that my experience was just that – mine. It can’t on its own represent any sort of average experience, nor should it. YMMV, as they say.


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