Sunday, February 22, 2009
Sunday, November 2, 2008
After 2 flights totalling 17 hours, we're home. Mr. Hadi and his wife, Marzan, hosted a farewell feast at their home and presented us with gifts on our final evening in Dhaka. You see us in this photo wearing our new duds --- The Panjabi for the gentlemen and the Kameez for the ladies. (For more pictures visit the photo gallery)
As a new travelling volunteer for SCAW, and on my first visit to south Asia, I was looking forward to this Bangladesh distribution as a learning experience, and it exceeded all of my expectations.
Working with a great team of Canadians and overseas volunteers, I have learned things on many levels --- about Sleeping Children, about Bangladesh and its people, and about myself.
I already knew, of course, that SCAW is a wonderful organization with a tradition of helping in many parts of the world. I had not fully appreciated the extent to which the spirit of founder Murray Dryden guides the decisions and interactions in the field day-to-day.
I saw it in the unflagging concern for the details, in the care with which the children were always handled, and in the courtesy and respect accorded all participants, even under trying conditions and time pressures.
When choices had to be made, Murray was there in minds and hearts, ensuring that the mission remained clear and shining. Our expert team leaders, Joan and Richard, ensured that there were no compromises of the SCAW values despite the inevitable challenges and distractions created by unfamiliar surroundings, language difficulties, and cultural differences.
I learned how much the Bangladeshi volunteers were an integral and essential part of the SCAW team, not just in terms of procurement and logistics, but also as fully involved participants in deciding how to deal with the reality on the ground. Many of them, and some of their spouses, are now friends, and I know we will stay in touch.
And I learned how a team can come together, using the talents and strengths of all its members, while setting aside personal comfort to achieve a common purpose. There was never a time when a ready hand was not extended, or a favour withheld.
The in-country experience has been a constant and enveloping flow of sights, sounds, smells and sensations, sometimes assaulting the senses, sometimes delicately massaging them. Heat, humidity, flavours, chants, laughter, sweat, flowers, dust, rain, depressing poverty juxtaposed with relative luxury, excitement and mind-numbing fatigue --- all were part of an everyday experience far removed from life back in Canada.
In fact, Canada barely existed for two weeks, except for occasional e-mail messages from home. We were all fully engaged with our new friends and with the task at hand. We had no idea what the stock market was doing, how the world financial crisis was unfolding, what political issues were in the headlines back home. We could have checked, as we had iPhone and Blackberry and Internet, but these things were of little concern on planet SCAW. There is something about this thing that focuses the mind of even the most addicted news junkie.
I learned that in every country, and especially in Bangladesh, many people are working for the improvement of their country and their communities, making personal sacrifices for the betterment of others, and reaching deeply into their own pockets to make it happen in a society where public funding is not available for many worthwhile causes. They have a vision of where the country must go, and they are committed to doing what they can to move in that direction.
The people of Bangladesh are industrious and hard working, motivated by the same desires and goals as us --- security and wellbeing for themselves and their families, a better life for their children.
I also learned that this almost-66-year-old could hang in there physically and match the pace of younger folks for 12-hour days with the humidex at 45. I learned that I could be a good follower, something I am not called upon to do in my regular life. I learned that I can live happily, at least for a while, without all of the gee-whiz stuff we take for granted back home, taking pleasure from simple things --- the joy of a child with his or her new bedkit, the big grins when they grabbed my hand and said “Hello,” or “Assalamu Alaykum,” or “Thank-you.” And I learned that I can still get excited.
Thanks to our team leaders, our Canadian and overseas team mates, and all who supported this effort in whatever way they could.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
After almost 2 weeks of faithful service, my iPhone is failing to access the network today, so this is being posted from the hotel's computer, which is crawlingly slow, so there will only be a couple of pictures. [Update: Upon arrival back home in Canada, I discovered a message from Rogers Wireless, left on my home phone in Brampton, advising that they had arbitrarily suspended my cell service because they thought the roaming charges were higher than normal. Duh!]
We went to Tongibari today for our final distribution of 600 bedkits. This village on the Meghna river is shown in the above photo.
After the kids received their kits, we visited the home of one of the recipients, and strolled around the village. This was the first time we had actually seen how the poor in the countryside actually live. It is appalling. This particular group of families had lost their homes when the river flooded its banks, and had relocated to rented houses. Fuel for the cooking fire is dried cow dung. The cooking stove is hand moulded from clay by the wife and mother. She was making a new one as we visited.
As you can see here, the bedkit had been unpacked, and the mattress was drying in the sun. Other parts of the kit were seen inside the house. All of the items are highly prized by these people who have nothing but what they can make for themselves.
I am out of gas, as are my team mates. We are in sensory overload, and will need time to process all of the information we have taken in. We have no frame of reference for much of what we have seen. We know it will be impossible to accurately describe this to our friends and family back home. We can show them the pictures, tell them the stories, but they will not really understand if they have not experienced something like this first hand.
So our team shares a special bond that comes from going through this together, discussing it, trying to understand it, trying to assess whether we made much of a difference by being here.
We think we did make a difference. There are 8,000 kids who have a decent place to sleep, a new outfit, a mosquito net, a water bottle, a back pack, a sweater for the cold weather, pyjamas, some school supplies, and some other odds and ends. The proof is in the smiles.
I think my job was the best one on the team. I had the last station, where the kids received their bedkits. I could see that they didn't really believe 100% that they were going to get one until it was actually in their hands, and then every one of them broke out in a big smile that said, "Yeah, it IS real. I'm actually going home with this. Wow!"
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Yesterday, we saw railway cars full of gravel being unloaded in the same fashion.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
They range from high-end models with a hose for bum flushing, to the kind pictured here with a couple of bricks and a bucket of water, to a hole in the floor and nothing else.
Personally, I find wet wipes work well, but then there is a disposal problem as it is poor form to throw anything in the toilet.
It was very moving and several of us had a moist eye. Then they sang their national anthem, and we reciprocated with a rousing chorus of O Canada.
Everything looks so much better in sunshine. Even the potholes seem shallower. This photo shows the road into Shibpur for today's distribution of 700 bedkits at the local school.
No other motorized vehicles passed down this extremely narrow and twisty road all day.
Traffic is so light that a man was drying his rice right on the road.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Today we went to Balaboo. We started out in wind and rain on a good road that quickly deteriorated into the world's biggest potholes, some 12 ft. in diameter.
This went on for half an hour, with van creaking and groaning as the body twisted. Good thing Marg, with her stomach problems, wasn't on this ride. The sun peeked out briefly at 9:00 a.m., the rain stopped, the winds died down, and the highway smoothed out a bit.
At Baraboo, all went very well. The people there were particularly friendly and the kids seemed extra-handsome. It was fun to see moms and dads heading home with bedkits on their heads and children in tow.
It was also good working weather in the mid-20s. The forecast is for a return of the hot stuff later this week.
We're being taken to an Indian restaurant tonight.
We have now distributed 6,000 of our 8,000 bedkits.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
We are short one team member this morning as Marg has fallen ill with stomach problems.
This is not uncommon among westerners exposed to unfamiliar, spicy foods, sometimes served on plates washed under the village pump
without benefit of soap (as was the case yesterday).
Here's a shot of yesterday's working conditions.
Some of their saris are priced at $USD 1,000+. Shown are two skilled workers embroidering with gold thread.
There is a huge gulf here between the relatively small business elite and the poverty-stricken masses.
At the village of Sreenagar, a school room filled the bill. It was impossibly dark, lit only by whatever light entered through a louvred window on this overcast day.
There was, of course, no electricity. Somehow, team leader Richard and Doug M were able to find camera settings that produced good photographs, and we got 500 kits distributed to kids who arrived on foot and by boat from the surrounding countryside.
As this picture shows, water was everywhere today, and the temperature plummeted to 22 degrees. This felt cool in contrast to last week, and some of our party reached for sweaters and jackets.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
The 3-hour trip took us over a winding single-lane road, through rice paddies and potholes that could swallow a VW Beetle. Traffic stalled when a large truck ahead of us got stuck in the mud.
The shoulders of the narrow road were lined in places with houses and shops just inches away from our van and hanging out over the river, their backsides supported by stilts.
We marched aboard a rusty old shallow-draft boat singing "O Canada" and waving the Canadian flag that always accompanies us. I took this picture through the open hatch. The crowd typifies the kind of curious attention we attract everywhere we go.
After almost an hour on the river, subjected to the deafening noise of the engine, we arrived at Naria, and clambered up a rain-soaked mud bank to the footpath leading to the village.
The villagers had erected a large canopy on a bamboo frame to keep us and the kids dry for the picture-taking, but this plan collapsed along with the canopy as wind and rain assaulted us without let-up.
We moved our operation indoors, using a funeral bier (used to carry
the dead to the cemetery) as a backdrop for the kids' pictures.
We distributed 800 kits, and then reversed our journey after sharing a light meal with a family in the village. Of course, we were soaked and had to sit in our wet clothes the four and a half hours back to Dhaka. None of us complained. We could only say how lucky we are to be having this adventure, seeing things we couldn't have imagined, and putting a big smile on a lot of kids' faces.
Must be ready for a 7:00 a.m. start tomorrow, so will sign off for now.
Friday, October 24, 2008
These rivers have deposited their sediment over the centuries to create the land now known as Bangladesh. Most transportation of goods and services is by boat. This picture shows water taxis that ferries people from one part of Dhaka to another.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I particularly like Captain Khaliquzzaman (Khaliq) and his wife, both of whom we have gotten to know rather well. He, along with Captain Hossain, has been ensuring that we get around the country as comfortably as possible. They accompanied us on the steamer trip to Barisal.
She presented each of us with one of these hand-embroidered pictures, each a unique Bangladesh scene. Mine depicts a village. We will be proud to display it back in Brampton, and to tell the story behind it.
Right now I am capping off my day of R&R with a beer on the balcony. Yes, friends, when we checked back into the Rose Wood Residence upon our return to Dhaka, I scored a room with a balcony AND a queen size bed with TWO pillows.
This is the first beer since London 9 days ago, and was acquired at
our "speakeasy" source (see earlier post re: wine).
Two wonderful young men who have been helping us with our work took us on a tour of the city, including a visit to a very old fort that is now a huge green space with gardens and a museum.
We discovered it is also a place for young lovers to grab some time together, away from the masses of humanity in this huge city of 14 million people.
Among facts learned --- there are 740,000 rickshaws in Dhaka.
Language issues cause many minor missteps. A street vendor selling maps approached our vehicle while we were stopped in traffic --- price 300 taka ($2.00). While negotiating for 2 maps for 500, the traffic
moved on after the money had been handed over, but before the second
map had been received. So this is now known as Doug's 500-taka map. Still a bargain.
The picture is a typical pedal-powered delivery vehicle called a rickshavan. There are thousands of every description carrying everything from chickens to sewer pipe.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
We drove through the commercial, government, university area on the way to our hotel. Buildings were modern and tall along broad avenues. Quite a contrast with most of what we have seen over the past week.
distribution in Barisal. We set a team record of 637 kits handed to
kids in the first 2 hours. Humidex was 42.
Wonderful hospitality from Captain Hossain, whose family has lived in
this home for 9 generations. We were treated to breakfast this
morning, and a lunch of traditional foods when the distribution was
completed around 3:00 pm.
The family's first generation was buried here in 1637, according to a
marker on the property.
Our steamer casts off at 8:30 pm for the return trip to Dhaka.
Shipboard passenger quarters last night were quite comfortable.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I am sitting with a dozen kids under a tree in Dhaka waiting for another truckload of bedkits to arrive. The iPhone is keeping all of them entertained, particularly the Koi Pond, but they also seem to like the bluegrass tunes I'm playing for them. "Caravan" by Bill Keith is a particular crowd pleaser.
Monday, October 20, 2008
south toward the Bay of Bengal, which meant another long distance trip
on the crazy highways.
I am starting to develop an appreciation for the informal code of
conduct that makes these work in the absence of any traffic law
enforcement. It's a fine balance of aggression and compromise, and
there seems to be an understanding that the buses won't run the little
3-wheeled taxis and bicycle rickshaws into the ditch.
At it's best, it is smooth, almost balletic. At it's worst noisy and
jerky. Terrible exhaust fumes and grit in the air filling the nasal
passages and making the eyes water.
We have seen a couple of wrecks, but amazingly few under the
This picture shows men digging clay for making bricks in the kilns
behind them. Labour is cheap and plentiful, so you don't see power
equipment on construction sites and the like.
The countryside presents many wonderful views of rice fields, bamboo
weavers, cows and goats foraging on the roadside, fishing nets on long
Virtually the whole country is a river delta, the monsoon season just
ended, and everything is very green.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
involved almost 8 hours on the road, which meant getting back at 7:00
pm after a 500-kit distribution.
This picture shows how well the Rotary guys had the kids organized at
Sirajgong. By the way, those snappy outfits are part of the bedkits,
and they put them on before getting their pictures taken.
There have been a couple of minor casualties from long days, hot sun,
interruption of our natural rhythms, and unfamiliar food. Both Marg
and Doug M are suffering flu-like symptoms, but both soldiered on
The trip was wilder than any midway ride, with vehicles of all sizes
and descriptions cutting in and around each other, and buses without
lights coming at us out of the darkness. Thankfully we had a great
driver who got us back safely despite a couple of near misses.
The countryside is quite beautiful. Bamboo, sugar cane and various
vegetables are grown.
Falling asleep now and must be up for 4:00 am departure for Feni and a 500-kit distribution.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
This is the first of a few pix by fellow team member Marg, who as you
can see is very good photographer with a very good camera. Marg, a former teacher, had these kids smiling as they waited to receive their kits and get their pictures taken.
Also had chance to see a bit of the street life, and have pictures, so check back later for some touristy stuff. Had my first rickshaw ride.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Golshan Ladies Community Club, venue for the first two days of our bedkit distribution.
Day one is in the mid 30s celsius and very humid, requiring constant vigilance to avoid dehydration.
These kids might be wondering what's taking so long.
Inside, we volunteers are getting everything organized. By noon, it will be impossibly hot for both children and volunteers, and we will stop the show and move everything indoors.
The first of today's 600 kids know they are lucky to be at the front of the line. Many more will wait all day to get their precious kits.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Here are my Canadian team mates raring to go.
We arrived this morning around 6:00 a.m. after 17 hours in the air and a 9-hour layover in London. We are all pretty bushed, but excited and looking forward to our adventure.
Our local Rotary Club team members met us at the airport with flowers and transportation to the hotel. The traffic here is unbelievable. Our driver should take up grand prix racing. He maintained a high speed while swerving smoothly through 3-wheeled csabs, huge trucks and buses on multi-lane roadsthat have no lane markings.
Also having technical problems. The iPhone worked fine at the airpot but service became intermittent at the hotel and then ceased entirely. So I'm on the crawlingly slow Windows machine in the hotel business centre.
Bedkit distributioon starts tomorrow here in Dhaka with 700 kits as the experienced hands show we newbies the drill.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
No idea what time it is in Kiev, but the time in Dhaka is about 11:00 pm, so we have about 6 more hours to go on this 9.5 hour leg.
Haven't really slept since leaving home, so will crash for sure at some point. A shower and a shave would be nice.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
The bag will be used to bring home a sample bedkit on the return trip.
Hearing from a lot of friends wishing me "bon voyage." This will be the last post before heading out to the airport tomorrow. All future posts will be from the iPhone, if the technology gods co-operate.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
You can register in advance online, which I did, and then activate your file by phone when you arrive in the country.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
A week from today we're on our way. Current weather there is 28-31 Celsius and rainy.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Bottom line, I will get a pair of these to take along. Problem solved.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Several of our team members, including me, were assuming we could buy a SIM card for our Rogers cellphones in Bangladesh, which would have greatly reduced the cost of calls between team members while in that country.
Unfortunately, we have discovered that Rogers Wireless does not allow their subscribers' phones to be "unlocked" in order to permit this. On the Rogers network, the mobile phone is locked to its [Canadian] SIM card, so all our calls will effectively be calls to Canada, even though both parties are in the same city in Bangladesh.
One of our team members thinks texting might be a solution. Sounds promising, but we'll see.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Less than two weeks to go!
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Checking the current weather in Dhaka, I note the daytime temperatures over the next few days range from 29 to 36 degrees Celsius, dropping to 23 to 24 degrees at night. Lots of showers and thunder-showers.
Also hearing from a few stragglers who are just now getting around to making good on their pledges to donate bedkits. Every one helps.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Still hearing from a few last minute bedkit donors who had pledged earlier this summer.
The floods are receding in Bangladesh, but are leaving waterborne diseases in their wake. Large areas of croplands were also destroyed, exacerbating a continuing food security problem in this country of 150 million people.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Many thanks to all friends, neighbours, relatives and colleagues who have generously supported this effort.
They are having serious flooding in Bangladesh. Although the worst seems to over, the situation in the central parts of the country is still really bad. Major highways out of Dhaka, the capital, are impassable due to deep water. Three children drowned on Sunday.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Since my article appeared in the community newsletter last week, many neighbours have been asking for information about donating bedkits. I have discovered that the best way to handle these inquiries is to make up a little kit with a donation form and brochure in an envelope addressed to Sleeping Children.
The whole online donation thing appears to be a turn-off for most of these retirees, so I am trying to make it as easy as possible. I must say the local response has been very encouraging. Thanks to all of you who may be checking out this blog.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Winter is cool and dry, with temperature ranges from 5°C to 22°C (41°F to 72°F).
Saturday, July 26, 2008
I think I've found a way to e-mail my posts from my iPhone.
We'll know it works if this appears on the blog.
[Note: Hurray, it worked! Now I've got to figure out how to do it with photographs.]
Monday, July 21, 2008
Monday, July 14, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Several people have asked me about the pictures we'll be taking of the kids who get your bedkits, so here's a sample from a previous Sleeping Children trip.