Friday, October 28, 2011

Winding Down

As of today, I have one week left in Bangladesh.  I honestly can't believe how fast these 9 (almost 10) weeks have gone by.  At the beginning, 10 weeks felt like an eternity.  Then, a month in, when we were getting ready to leave for Matlab, 5 weeks seemed a little scary.  And now, as I'm starting to say goodbye to friends and make final visits to places in Matlab that I have loved for the last 5 weeks, I am having a hard time figuring out where all of the time went.  And I have had to fight back the tears more than once when I've thought of how few days are left now.

On Tuesday, Sabrina and I took our final interviews.  Today, we took our last boat trip.  The two of us, along with Roslyn, went to our boatman's home for lunch and to visit with his family.  We were there for several hours - we were force-fed really good food (force-feeding is a sign that you are cared for), had some mehindi done on our hands, sang a few songs, and took a bunch of pictures.  Our boatman had told Sabrina and I before, and his wife told us today, that they think of us as daughters.  When it was time to go, a group of 10 women walked us back to the boat and waited, waving, until we were out of sight.  As we said goodbye to our cha-chi (auntie - the boatman's wife), there were tears in her eyes, and when our boatman, cha-cha (uncle), dropped us off and we told him "many, many thanks" he was getting a bit emotional. 

The boatman and his family:  daughter and grandson, 10 year old son (in the back), and wife

The beauty of Matlab is breathtaking.  Coming home from interviews on the boat while the sun sets over the river is one of the awesomest experiences in my life so far.  But the people are what make this place.  For me, there is something special about riding down the street on a rickshaw and getting waves from the laundry guy and "bhalo asen?" (are you good?) from the ICDDR,B office guy.  Or heading out for interviews on the boat and having Shodhagor women smile, wave, and ask where we're going that day.  Or walking into the staff canteen at ICDDR,B for lunch and seeing friendly faces all around.  The people are kind, welcoming, and always so happy to see Roslyn and I (it's also true that we're pretty easy to pick out of a crowd...). 

Shodhagor woman cooking on her boat

Maybe it's the city girl in me embracing this sense of community.  Or, maybe feeling such warmth so far from home makes it seem all the more special.  Sometimes, it can be hard for me to believe that after only 5 weeks, I could mean so much to an old man that he would be so sad to say goodbye to me.  But, then again, he meant that much to me.  So many of the people here have.

The women of the boatman's family waving goodbye

I came across this quote today that seems to perfectly sum up my feelings about leaving Matlab:

"Nothing is so dear as what you're about to leave."


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Doing My Job

I think it's safe to say that, right now, I have one of the best jobs in the world.  (Or at least it feels that way to me...)  I feel bad that I haven't written more about what I'm doing here, but there is so much to write that I never know where to start.  Today, I thought I'd just tell you about what I do (and where I go) most days of the week.

First of all, if I haven't explained this before, the area of Bangladesh where I'm doing all of my research is called Matlab (that's an "ahhhh" sound for both a's).  It is a rural area just 40+ kilometers southeast of Dhaka, the capitol city.  I'm working in Matlab because ICDDR,B, the research hospital that is hosting me and overseeing my project, has been collecting demographic information and conducting amazing health-related research projects in the area for over 40 years.  This means that there are many, many resources available to me here, including super helpful people (who go out of their way day in and day out to help me) who tell me where the Shodhagor (river gypsy) groups are located, how I can get there, and who help Sabrina and me hire boats to take us out for our interviews. ICDDR,B also has a wonderful system to help students - they arrange housing and transport for us and give free transport to and from the airport.  So, in short, they make my life and my research easier and I am ever so grateful for it.

Roslyn and I (and our two assistants, Fayeza and Sabrina) have been in Matlab for over 3 weeks now and have less than 2 weeks left.

Most days, Sabrina and I go out for interviews with the Shodhagor people.  Like I said previously, these people live on their boats in groups of boats that are located in several different places in Matlab and numerous places throughout the rest of Bangladesh.  We are focusing our interview efforts on 4 places for which we had pretty solid information from ICDDR,B employees that a number of boats would be present:  Charmukundi, which is located very close to the place I'm staying; Kazir Bazar, which is an hour's boat ride away; Nayerga, which is a little farther out and requires a motorized vehicle of some sort to access; and Kawadi, which is the farthest of all and requires a vehicle to Nayerga plus an hour-long boat ride. 

The people we're interviewing are almost always on their boats (cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, etc.), so, they are only accessible to us by country boat.  If Sabrina and I are going to take interviews at either Charmukundi or Kazir Bazar (our favorite place), our boatman picks us up on the canal that runs just outside of the ICDDR,B grounds.  He takes us out to the group of boats, and then he helps us find people to interview.  We go from boat to boat, conducting both open-ended interviews, in which we ask about the general lifestyles of the Shodhagor living in the respective group, and close-ended interviews, in which we ask for information specific to the respondent (i.e. how many children they have, how many times per year they move their boats, what they do for work, etc.).  An open-ended interview can take around 45 minutes and a close-ended interview can take up to 30 minutes.  We try to conduct as many as we can within two or three hours (or for as long as we can manage to sit on the boat), then we head home.  Usually, Sabrina spends the rest of the day transcribing the open-ended interviews we've conducted while I check the answers to the close-ended surveys, make notes from the day, and prepare for the next day.

I by no means know enough about these groups of people to make any generalizations.  They seem to be quite a bit poorer than the people in the villages, as many of them have reported continuing to live on their boats only because they can't afford to buy land or to build a house.  They also have some interesting cultural practices; for example, they often move their house boats once or twice per year, according to the weather because their primary source of income is often men's fishing, and availability of fish in an area changes with the season (rainy vs. dry).

I can say a few things for sure, though...  We have met some extremely kind, open, welcoming, and fun-loving people.  Every time we pass a boat where we've previously conducted an interview, they smile, wave, and yell "hello" to us.  They also like to tease us (politely, of course) and each other, sing, laugh, and have fun.  It has been a pleasure and I will be excited to come back for a bigger research project soon. 

I can also tell you that the scenery is like nothing I have ever seen before.  The rainy season has just ended and everything is lush and green.  When we arrived in Matlab a few weeks ago, all of the fields were under water.  Now, as the dry season sneaks up on everyone here, the water is receding and the landscape is changing.  Luckily, we will be finishing up our interviews just before some of what used to be canals dry up. 

And finally, I can tell you with no reservation that some days I fall completely, boundlessly, head-over-heels in love with this place.  Wednesday was one of those days.  The boat ride was peaceful and beautiful.  We had some great interviews and caught a show (haha - video to come later).  And for just a little while, on our way home, I laid back (5 hours sitting cross-legged in a wooden boat can do a number on my back), closed my eyes, and felt the breeze all around me.  And that was all it took.  I was done for.  L-O-V-E

This work is never without struggles, but I sincerely hope this is the job I get to do forever.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Defining Myself

There's something I've been thinking about a lot over the last several months. It has rolled over in my mind about a million times and I've finally decided to write about it...

This summer, in the wake of a particularly difficult breakup, I felt wrecked. I was sad, angry, hopeless, and struggling to rub two ounces of self-esteem together. I was in a downward spiral of self-doubt and having trouble understanding why. In the beginning, I had been so sure that this relationship was the one that was going to go the distance - only to find out two years into it that I was wrong. But, there was more to it than that. What lingered in the background during the second year, while the relationship was failing, and after it ended was the feeling that somehow, I was failing. I wasn't good enough to make it work. Maybe I wasn't caring enough? Or thoughtful enough? Maybe I wasn't compromising as much as I should? Maybe I wasn't pretty enough? Maybe I was too ambitious? Too career oriented? And so on...

After a lot of thought, some help, and a lot of talking to my family and good friends (who, thankfully, never told me to shut my pie hole), I had a bit of a breakthrough. First, I realized that I had felt self-doubt like this before. I won't bore you with all of the details here, but let's just say that an experience with an old coach really did a number on me (it is so not ok for a coach to tell your teammates behind your back that he thinks you're fat/a bad teammate/a bad leader/a bad athlete). Then, I realized that, for a long time, I had been letting other people define who I was. I had taken my coach's words and believed them about myself. All of the nice things that the person I dated didn't say about me became untrue in my mind and all of my fears that went uncomforted became my reality.

As time went on, I started to understand that someone else's definition of me doesn't have to be my definition of myself. That what others think (or don't think) about me may say more about them than it does about me. I understood that a failed relationship didn't mean that I was a bad girlfriend or that I'm irreversibly screwed up. I realized that what really matters is what I think of myself and how I define myself.

So, as I've said, this is something I've been sitting with for a while. And it's something I've waited to put into words because I wasn't quite sure how to say it and, frankly, I was uncomfortable with it. For one thing, the pain is still there.  But mostly, this whole "letting other people's opinions become my own" thing really doesn't fit well with the person I had always been. For the first 23+ years of my life, I made a habit of making up my own mind about myself. I never quit something because someone told me I wasn't any good. In fact, rejection was almost an invitation to me; if someone told me I couldn't, I set out to prove them wrong (and almost always did).  And it’s true that, when a certain coach suggested that I quit the team, I refused and became ever the more determined to stick it out.  But, since then, I have struggled to find joy in a sport that I was once insanely passionate about.

I feel that I know myself pretty well. I know what I want to do with my life, what I like and don't like, and am constantly learning new lessons about myself (foreign countries are great places to do that - like a crash course). But, knowing information about yourself is different from your beliefs about yourself, I think. And I have spent the last 6 years believing certain things about myself because someone I thought I could trust said them about me.

I have thought about writing this blog post for, um, approximately 3 months now. It is rather personal and revealing. But maybe it's something a lot of people struggle with. How often do we let others determine how we feel or think about ourselves? How often do we give up on something because someone else told us we weren't any good? Or, we don't buy a particular outfit because we're worried about what people will think?

For me, it is time for a change.  It is time to figure out what, exactly, it is that I believe about myself.  And it’s time to let go of these other people’s opinions that I’ve held onto for far too long...

Friday, October 7, 2011

On The River

As most of you know, a significant portion of my time here in Matlab is spent on a boat, interviewing people who live on their boats.  While I originally thought the group should be called "Beday," I found out that Beday is a bit of a derrogatory term and the people prefer to be called Shodhagor, which means "merchant." 
As I am currently exhausted from spending almost 5 hours on said boat today, I thought I'd at least share a few more pictures with you.  It is so incredibly beautiful here and I have taken SO many pictures already that I had a really hard time finding pictures to share.  But, I figured pictures with people are usually best.  Enjoy!

Our boat man, who we call "cha cha" (meaning uncle).

This is the boat we ride in every day.  It is not super comfortable, but I love it all the same.

Me with a water lilly that our boat man picked for us on his way to pick us up that morning.

Holding an 8 month old Shodhagor baby.  He was as sweet as he was adorable.

That's all for tonight...  I really hope to be back soon with something more to say.

Until then, take care!  Goodnight from Matlab!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

First Day in Matlab

Hello!  Now that we're in Matlab, using phone modems for internet access, blog posts take quite a bit of time.  So, for now, I thought I'd show you some pictures of our first day here!  More pictures to come soon...
Roslyn with Fayeza (her research assistant) and Sabrina (my research assistant) on the bus, heading out of Dhaka

Me and Roslyn on the micro-bus

One view from our daily walk from the guest house to the ICDDR,B offices and canteen where we eat lunch

Another view of the walk - this is a type of fishing hut

My room

The view from the balcony off my room