Volunteerism

Tashi Delek

A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan


Thimphu Dzong

It’s shamefully embarrassing to admit this, but upon reflection I think I have reached the point where I’m travelling to countries that just a few years ago I knew little, or nothing about. My move to Bangladesh back in 2011 not only introduced me to this golden land, but given that my job is teaching students from 15 different countries, my eyes and ears have been exposed to each and every one of those countries in some way. I’m undoubtedly a lot richer for that.

A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to visit one of those countries that had most intrigued me, and thanks to the assistance, amazing kindness and visa office doggedness of Dechen (a former student) I was on a plane to Paro and landing in Bhutan.

Bhutan is sandwiched in a somewhat intimidating position between India and China and is unique in its policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP. In effect, focus is placed more firmly upon the preservation of culture with a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development. Thus, it’s not the easiest of places to enter as a tourist or to roam freely once you are there. However, don’t let the bureaucracy deter you because quite frankly, it is stunning and so very endearing in many ways.

Punakha

In this account of my brief stay in Bhutan, I will try to explain just why, based of course on personal experience, this kingdom of just 800,000 people made such an impression.

Here is an album with a selection of photos – Bhutan


Natural beauty

Eastern Himalayan mountains, deep and dramatic valleys, winding rivers, dense forests, fertile pastures, and wide open plains all contribute to the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you. As the plane lands in Paro, it weaves between mountainous peaks and according to this article, only eight pilots are currently certified to land aircrafts there!

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Preservation of culture

Bhutan is proud of its cultural heritage, and has taken strong measures to ensure not only its survival, but crucially its conservation and continued significance in everyday life. Television and internet is a surprisingly new feature of life in Bhutan having only been introduced (officially) in 1999. Tourism is limited and controlled, and national dress is a must at various locations including most workplaces. There is a gritty commitment to rejecting and actively fighting those external influences that can commonly be accused of eroding traditional culture in certain other countries that have welcomed tourism with open arms.

Dechen, Pema, and Sonam in traditional dress

Dechen, Pema, and Sonam in traditional dress


Road safety signs

On the beautiful winding and meandering main highway between Paro and Thimphu, which I imagine is one of Bhutan’s busiest, there are regular road safety signs that predominantly focus on reducing speed. They get their message across though in a quirky and sometimes cheeky fashion. I wasn’t able to capture any photos, but I did make a note of two in particular that stuck in my head…

“If you are married, divorce speed!”

And…

“Be gentle on my curves”

On a more serious note though, it does appear that road safety is a huge priority in Bhutan with regular police checkpoints and from what I saw a diligent appreciation of the laws in place.


Dogs

In Bhutan there are dogs….so many dogs. They are everywhere. On every street corner, under every bridge, asleep on every sidewalk and at night they serenade you until the early hours with huge canine choirs. They are also quite often big, furry things that generally add a level of happiness and warmth to an already happy and warm country!


There are bins. People use them.

There seems to be a genuine commitment to, and pride in keeping the country clean. It may seem a little patronizing to point this out, but from travelling and from experiences back home in the UK, I feel that many places (and people) have abandoned their responsibility to this simple and basic condition. The bins are also covered in motivational and encouraging messages, just in case you feel the inclination not to utilize them.


Hospitality

This was not much of a surprise. Whenever I travel I encounter genuinely kind and hospitable people. Bhutan was no different, and I had not expected it to be. Before I’d even begun the visa application process, my Bhutanese students and their families had offered all kinds of help and support, and once I landed in Bhutan that help and support became even more ubiquitous. From the man in the coffee shop who gave me a warm welcome each morning, to the friend of a friend who within thirty minutes of meeting me had paid for my dinner, it was a week full of unrelenting kindness. Special mentions must go to Dechen, Pema, Sonam, Yeshey, Kencho, Namgay, and to Roma and her family. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.

Pema, Dechen and Sonam

Roma with some local kids

Namgay – my new friend and fantastic guide for a day in Punakha

Dechen and Pema


Beautiful Buildings

In Bhutan it seems there are beautiful old buildings everywhere. In Thimphu many of the newer buildings also display the traditional style, which goes a long way to once again preserving the history and cultural heritage.


So, those are just a few aspects of my trip to Bhutan that stood out and made we wish I’d had significantly more time to really explore further. As with many of the places I’ve visited, I plan to return one day. I’m not sure when that will be, but hopefully sooner rather than later.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tashi Delek is difficult to translate directly, but it is often taken to mean “blessings and good luck” and is used in Bhutan, but also parts of Nepal and northern India.

Here is a gallery of some further photos from my trip…


Four Years Through a Lens


Almost four years ago to the day I began my random musings on this blog. In that time it has evolved from a predominantly word-based account of travels and the daily life of living internationally, to (I hope) an increasingly image-focussed reflection upon the diverse, distinct, and unique environments I am lucky enough to find myself in.

Two years ago I marked the second full year of this blog with a selection of images that captured the essence of that period.

https://johnstanlake.com/2013/04/09/two-years-through-a-lens/

Two years on again, I would like to repeat this exercise with ten carefully selected images from the period April 2013 to April 2015, which are collectively some of my favourites from this time and provide a small glimpse into another two years of travel, exploration, and life as an expat.


1. December 28th, 2013 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

An incredible sunrise at one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious archeological sites. It is moments like this that make the cramped buses, early mornings, and days of unwashed clothes completely worth it.

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2. December 18th, 2013 – Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Taken as I stood on a bridge with the city of Yangon sprawled around me, this image sticks in my mind as the famous Shwedagon Pagoda seemed to be visible across the whole city.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar


3. July 2013 – Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve never actually written about Prague in this blog, but it’s where my teaching life began in 2009, so it holds a special place in my heart. Visiting again in 2013 reminded me just how wonderful the city is. One of Europe’s finest.

Prague, Czech Republic


4. Georgetown, Guyana

My home for one year until June 2013, Georgetown (and Guyana) has a vibrancy that’s hard to explain in words. You really have to experience it to realise how the diverse cultures fuse together to create an intriguing country.

Homes in New Amsterdam


5.  December 2013 – Bagan, Myanmar

Sunrise over the ancient pagodas in Bagan. It’s hard to put into words quite how beautiful this morning was, so hopefully the photo provides some idea.

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6.  January 1st, 2014 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Spending the first day of 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City was a nice way to kick off a year that involved more travel and exploration. It was my first time in the south of Vietnam and I plan to return one day.

Ho Chi Minh City


7. March 2014 – Sandwip, Bangladesh

The photo may speak for itself, but Sandwip (a small island west of Chittagong) was a total joy to experience when I stayed there for a few days with a colleague’s family. This photo was taken one early evening, and it’s one of my personal favourites from any of my travels.

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8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK

It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…

Dartmoor, Devon


9. July 2014 – Huye, Rwanda

This is less about the actual image and more about the significance of the location. Fours years after leaving Rwanda, July 2014 was the first time I set foot once again in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It was a special feeling to be back there, even if just for a week.

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10. March 2015 – Jessore, Bangladesh

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

– Robert Frost

Jessore, Bangladesh


 


Heigh-Ho!


In my previous blog I presented the photographic evidence of copious tea shop visits and interactions with the owners and clientele. During those photo walks I also captured a few images of people at work.

I found that it was quite fascinating to sit and photograph people going about their daily work and trades. I wanted to post this blog simply to present the images that reflect daily life here as I see it through my lens.

This is what I enjoy most about engaging in one of my favourite hobbies here in Chittagong. Through photography I extract so much joy from being able to view and explore this fascinating city and country and to view sights that perhaps seem ordinary or even mundane to one set of eyes, yet to others tell a story.

So, here are the results. Some of the photos were taken some months/years ago, but all are from Bangladesh. Also you may notice that there are few women featured. This was obviously not a conscious decision of mine, but rather reflective of the trades I photographed, and crucially, my location.


The Welders

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The CNG driver

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The Rickshawalah

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Rickshawalahs


The man who fixes the rickshawalah’s wheels…

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The Boatmen

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The Tailors

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The Fishermen

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…and the man who transports their catch to market

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to the man who sells them at the market…


The Farmer

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The Produce Sellers

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The Butcher


The Ice Cream Man

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The Jeweller


The Carpenter

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The Cooks

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The Load Carriers and Goods Transporters

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And finally, the metalsmith

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Learning To Learn Again

Some weeks ago I contributed a post to the Asian University for Women’s  Center for Teaching and Scholarships blog. It is a space for teachers and professors to reflect upon their experiences as educators. I thought I’d share this post on my personal blog also, as it seems like an appropriate time. The current school year has recently come to an end and I’m feeling proud of the students I taught this year, as they have now successfully graduated from the one year Access Academy course and will move on to the full undergraduate program in August.


One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is the influence you can have on the education of your students. It sounds obvious of course, but well-planned lessons, engaging subjects, and interactive instruction is the catalyst for an effective learning environment. There may be times when you reflect on a specific class you have taught, or a topic you have covered with your students, and wonder if they gained as much from it as you had hoped. However, overall your support, guidance, and enthusiasm have the ability to direct your students on the path to independent and inquisitive discovery both inside and outside of the classroom.

 

 

Personally though, I have become aware during the past five years of incredibly varied teaching roles that it’s not solely my students who (hopefully) have this opportunity. From preparing lessons, teaching classes, facilitating discussion, and, crucially, from listening to my own students, I too have learned so much, and in many ways it has significantly reignited my individual desire for learning.

Upon completion of my Masters Degree, and prior to embarking on my life as a teacher, I spent 18 months working in an office. The job was fine enough and helped to clear some mounting post-university debts whilst introducing me to the day to day responsibilities of paid employment. However, it led to a noticeable stagnation of my motivation to seek out new knowledge. This may very well have been a consequence of my own personal misguided path, but the nine to five routine left me demotivated in other aspects of my life, and whilst I didn’t recognise it at the time, I needed something to change.

In hindsight I did learn tangible lessons from my first ‘proper’ job. It clarified in my head that having progressed somewhat zombie-like straight from school to university, I now needed to explore beyond that particular bubble. At this point I didn’t really know quite where that would take me, but as I reflect on the places I’ve lived, worked, and visited since that fork in the road, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I made.

It began with an important and life-changing decision to rectify the dissatisfaction of 18 months behind a computer screen, and it was at this juncture I travelled to Rwanda as a volunteer teacher in a rural secondary school. It was a challenging year, but also highly rewarding. One of the main reasons for this was my assignment to teach Entrepreneurship.

 

 

My initial reaction was to panic and focus entirely on the fact that I considered myself to be the least entrepreneurial person I knew, most probably due to my cautious and frugal nature; two qualities that no career entrepreneur would ever claim to possess. However, once I set about building a syllabus, seeking out resources, discussing ideas with my peers, and thinking logically about how I could best guide my expectant students, it became something of a new and exciting challenge.

Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of “out of the box” thinking – something many of my students were not accustomed to. Therefore, in order to teach the students before me, I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. I recall sleepless nights, confused faces, and undoubtedly one or two lesson plans that in hindsight may not have been the most effective. Yet, by the end of the year this experience had taken me back to the period prior to my office job. I was driven to learn once again.

 

 

At AUW this experience has been no different. Teaching ‘Interpreting Texts’ in the Access Academy has provided me with broad scope to develop a course that covers a range of topics and utilizes a variety of sources and authors. This past year we studied issues relating to identity and gender. We debated the merits of anthropological research and scrutinized the influence of modern media on our lives. We investigated how fear and stigma perpetuates the global HIV crisis, and we spent time reading about the intricacies of a divided Sudan. We read textbooks, journals, academic texts, editorials, blogs, and even found time to analyze the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Kinks.

Each week I feel I learn just as much as my students, and of course lesson preparation and in class instruction account for the bulk of this. What should not be underestimated though, and is a factor that has become abundantly clear during my time at AUW thus far is the knowledge I gain from my students.

 

 

We’re from contrasting regions of the world and they have faced significantly different journeys to my own, so whenever we discuss a topic in class or they write a response, I am exposed to new thinking and new perspectives I may have otherwise failed to consider. The wonderful consequence of this is that unlike my previous non-teaching job, which at times left me feeling uninspired and lacking direction, I now have no option but to learn and grow as both a teacher and a person, and to strive to consider the world around me. It is thanks to this job and my inspiring students that I am able to experience these opportunities.

 

 


Brishti Hobe – A Day in Bangladesh

Despite the backpack I carry on my shoulders each day, which commonly provokes sniggers, I am not Bangladeshi. It’s obvious of course, but sometimes I receive very clear reminders. I experienced one such reminder this past Saturday, and having not written anything for a while on this blog I thought I’d share my story of one fine day (as a foreigner) in Bangladesh.

My proud backpack

It all started at 7.30am on a grey, but uncomfortably humid morning. The mission was to escape Chittagong armed only with a bottle of water, a camera, and a resolute willingness to explore. Thus, after a quick coffee and a piece of bread, a fairly random ‘plan’ was hatched. Essentially it entailed buying a bus ticket, boarding the vehicle, riding it for an unspecified amount of time, and ultimately jumping off when our gut feeling signalled it was time. A foolproof plan of that there’s no doubt…

On a basic level the plan worked. We bought bus tickets to Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town roughly four hours south of Chittagong. There was never any intention of a day by the sea though, and three hours into the journey we decided this would be a suitable time to abandon ship, which turned out to be easier said than done. Explaining to the driver and his assistant that we’d gone far enough at this point turned into a 5 minute to and fro. A vigorous debate ensued between us all, prolonged of course by the language barrier. When we finally convinced our hosts to stop and let us off, we left a bus full of confused and concerned faces all wondering just why these two strange foreigners were stood by the side of the road, marooned in the middle of nowhere, and 60 kilometres from the final destination stated on their tickets.

Who needs a complete bus?

Not our bus, but impressive nonetheless

It is true, we had no idea where we were, but as always here in Bangladesh it doesn’t take long for someone to offer a friendly smile and an inquisitive hello. On this day it took little under two minutes and we were soon summoned over to a group of men, sat down in plastic chairs and swiftly offered a cup of tea. For me no day out in Bangladesh is complete without an obligatory cup of tea surrounded by interesting new faces. So, given that this condition had been met within moments of us setting foot off the bus, I concluded that whatever happened from this point onwards, it would end well.

Our mission for the day was photography and we were exactly where we wanted to be – out of the city and surrounded by flat, green, rural Bangladesh. Our location was perfect, now all we needed was the photographs. Unfortunately this is where our plan faltered a little. The aim had been to spend the day wandering, perhaps aimlessly, but with the very definite purpose of capturing scenes of rice paddies, local people going about their daily lives, sunlight hitting the various ponds dotted across the landscape, and finally an epic sunset that would make the early start and the bus trip worth it. It didn’t quite pan out this way.

Within five minutes of bidding our tea hosts farewell, the skies darkened ominously, and it was not long before a man from the group of tea drinkers came up behind us with a concerned look on his face and exclaimed “brishti hobe!” – rain is coming! He was correct, and so very kindly invited us to shelter in his home until the shower passed. An hour later we were still there, but it didn’t matter, he and his family made us typically welcome and we had as much fun sat there getting to know his relatives as we would have had exploring the area.

Our host had two children. He also lived with his wife, mother, father and sister who brought us juice and biscuits and seemed concerned that we politely refused the offer of rice several times. His father sat in a separate room and with a warm but somewhat confused look on his face (probably in response to the mystery of how two foreigners had ended up stranded in his house and disrupting the usual equilibrium) invited us to sit. He stared at me intently and then proceeded to ask me a series of quick-fire questions in Bangla. Now, I can respond to several basic questions and even respond with questions of my own, but once the introductions are complete and the comments about how hot it is are over, I’m stumped. This didn’t deter our host though – the questions came thick and fast, much to the amusement of his wife who was peeling lentils outside in a corridor, and sniggering heartily. The more inquisitive he became, the more confused I sounded.

Our host's wife and daughter

Our host’s wife and daughter

Our host's neighbour

Our host’s neighbour

Outside the rain continued to pour down and our hopes of photography faded. No matter though; we were walked over to a neighbour’s house and once again the introductions began. A jovial man welcomed us and we got the sense he was perhaps a central figure in the community. Insisting we sit for a while and drink some famous Sylheti green tea, he proceeded to call his son….and then hand me the phone. I chatted to his son for a while, who was as hospitable as his father and invited me to stay in his home in Srimangal. It is unlikely that such an invitation would be extended to a stranger you had never met before in the UK, but here in Bangladesh it is commonplace.

Finally the rain did ease, and as a glimpse of sunlight began to poke its way through the clouds we thanked our new friends who had provided shelter, tea and kind hospitality. At this point we headed up the road, once again completely aimlessly. We were lucky enough to capture some images of the surrounding countryside (and unfortunately a forlorn bus, which was the latest victim of Bangladesh’s unpredictable highways), but overall the main highlights of the day had been the people we met and the experiences we shared.

Another day in Bangladesh.

 

Unfortunately not an untypical scene

Here are some further images from the day

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The view as we stepped off the bus

 


Images of South East Asia


I’ve neglected this blog so far in 2014. A combination of work, misguided priorities, and the fact I’ve been slightly daunted by the task of describing a one month tour of South East Asia through words, which will almost certainly not do it justice.

So, for now I’ve decided that I’ll let images tell the story. I took many, but here are 15 of my favourites and a selection which I hope do the places most justice. I chose five photos from Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

For a more comprehensive album of photos from the trip please follow this link;

http://www.flickr.com/photos/106865437@N03/sets/72157641803829505/


Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Floating village community, Inle Lake

Inle Lake, Myanmar

Roadside tea shop, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar

Sunrise and hot air balloon rides over Bagan

Bagan, Myanmar

Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar


Cambodia

A quiet village road, just outside of Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

One of the many faces of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Village home, Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial Site, Phnom Penh

(This is the main memorial to mark the genocide that took place in Cambodia during the late 1970s. It is also a burial site for thousands of Cambodians who were victims of Pol Pot’s brutal Khymer Rouge regime, executed here at just one of the many sites across the country, which became known as the ‘Killing Fields’.)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Da Lat hills, in the southern highlands.

Da Lat, Vietnam

Village road outside Thai Nguyen, northern Vietnam

Thai Nguyen, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam

The northern hills of Tam Dao

Tam Dao, Vietnam

It was an incredibly diverse and eye-opening trip. Once again South Asia completely failed to disappoint, and armed with a camera I feel like I saw so much in such a short space of time.

Here is a larger set of photos from the trip;

http://www.flickr.com/photos/106865437@N03/sets/72157641803829505/


A Strangely Calm Ambulance Journey…

They arrived one after the other. As regular and as frequent as the char served in the roadside tea stands that line the road. Ambulance after ambulance pulled up to the airport entrance, and for the uninformed you could easily be mistaken into assuming that a major crisis was unfolding before your eyes. In some respects you would be correct, but not at the airport, which was in actual fact a haven of calm and general inactivity. Other areas of Chittagong were not so lucky.

In the past few weeks Bangladesh has revealed a side I have not observed before in my two years so far at least. Nationwide protests and blockades have become the norm, travelling across certain areas of the city has become an event of some caution, political manoeuvrings affect the core of daily life, and if some rumours are to be believed, the military are waiting in the wings to take over, even if just for an interim period whilst a semblance of calm is sought.

Matters reached a head at 10.01pm on Thursday, 12th December as Abdul Kader Mullah, a senior political figure from the Jamaat-e-Islami party, charged and sentenced to death for war crimes dating from Bangladesh’s struggle for independence (or Liberation War) from 1971, was executed . For many Bangladeshis who had waited patiently and hopefully for 42 years, this was a moment of triumph, relief and crucially, justice. For ardent supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, it was a significant attack on their identity. They have since promised to seek revenge for his death. The streets of Chittagong were eerily quiet that night. The roads were vacant of the usual mass of vehicles and people, and as I walked past the tea shop I was advised to go straight home.

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Often referred to as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, Mullah is held directly responsible for a large number of killings during the three month Liberation War. His execution was controversial in the international arena, as his trial was accused of not adhering to UN codes of human rights. I’m not here to comment on that as I don’t have the background knowledge. I will however attempt to provide a very, very brief and basic description of what happened in 1971 and how this is shaping events today from what I have learned during my time in Bangladesh.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25356034

Upon gaining independence in 1947, India was split in two, well three really – the predominantly Hindu state of India and the majority Islamic states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). However, tensions between East and West Pakistan were a constant as the majority of power and wealth lay in the West and governance was concentrated here. Language also played a prominent role as the mainly West Pakistani language of Urdu was imposed across both states. In the eyes of the East Bengalis this was just one further example of significant and imposing restrictions upon their liberty and individual identity and as such they fought hard to preserve their use of Bangla. Having only just gained their long awaited independence from British colonialism, the people of East Pakistan were once again left to fight and struggle for some of the most basic human rights.

As movements for independence came to a prominent level in 1971, West Pakistan initiated a severe and violent crackdown with journalists, scholars, and students targeted and executed in high numbers. Over the course of the East Bengal liberation movement it is claimed that as many as three million people were killed and the word genocide has been attached to the actions of West Pakistan military and their supporters in East Bengal at the time, who tried in vain to crush the popular uprising. Abdul Kader Mullah was accused of collaborating with these forces, and as such, forty-two years on he faced trial, was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged – rightly or wrongly depending on who you speak to in Bangladesh.

East Pakistan eventually gained its official independence by the end of 1971, and a new state was born. Bangladesh – a nation proud of its identity, proud of its language, proud of its people, and proud of its hard fought independence.  December 16th is Victory Day in the country, the annual day dedicated to marking the sacrifice and honour of those who gave their lives during 1971 – the freedom fighters as they are widely known.

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On January 5th 2014, parliamentary elections are due to take place, and in the run up to these old wounds have been reopened to some extent. It seems that whilst forty-two years is a significant period of time, the events of ’71 remain very firmly in the minds of the people, and this is understandable. For many Bangladeshis the murder and rape of loved ones, the injustice, and the horrors of war are memories that sit fresh in the mind. The Awami League are the current ruling party and they have pushed through the war crime trials during their recent term in office. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is the main opposition and has some connections with Jamaat-e-Islami. They claim the war crime trials are politically motivated and the division is both fraught and debilitating and still influenced by the events of 1971.

As such, the country is in a state of transition, and from speaking to Bangladeshi friends, colleagues, and tea house clientele, there is a degree of uncertainty about how the next few weeks/months may play out. The opposition party led strikes and blockades continue on a weekly basis and serve only to cripple the country’s economy from what I can tell.

It also appears that as in many situations of a similar nature, it is the ordinary people on the street who suffer most. People trying to go about their daily lives and earn enough money to feed their families who are forced to risk their safety just to open their fruit stand or shop. The rickshaw, CNG, and bus drivers take to the roads each day not knowing if their vehicle will be struck by a Molotov cocktail hurled by a protesting mob. There have already been deaths and there is a high chance of more as the election approaches.

Hence the ambulances I mentioned at the beginning of this post. You see, if you need to get somewhere and you have enough money, hiring a private ambulance is the best plan. I, like the many others who arrived at the airport that day, took this option, and I’m lucky to have this choice. Yet, despite this turmoil there is great hope pinned upon the nation’s youth. They have already organised themselves in large numbers to unite in peaceful solutions.

I am currently on winter vacation and outside of Bangladesh. However, the situation often crosses my mind. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to travel at this point, but the safety of Bangladeshi friends, colleagues, and of course the students are a concern. The question of what I will find when I land back in Chittagong on January 15th is also one that occupies my thoughts and how the election result will be received by the people is a cause of great intrigue and apprehension.

So, as I post this on the final day of 2013, my hope for 2014 is that Bangladesh can find a peaceful solution and a political compromise driven by understanding, cooperation and humility. The past year was a testing one for this country with the Rana Plaza building collapse disaster, the garment factory fires and workers protests, and of course the ongoing political disturbances and violence. However, I have faith that once again the people of Bangladesh will come through this and demonstrate the resilience and strength demonstrated by the people on the streets each and every day.

So, from a cafe in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, let me take this opportunity to wish you a Happy New Year and all the very best for 2014. I’ve enjoyed keeping this blog updated during 2013 and I will endeavour to do the same in the coming twelve months.


Sir, why do you always take photos of…

…poor people?  This was a question posed to me by a student a few days ago. It stopped me in my tracks a little, and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In actual fact, her exact question was why do foreigners always take photos of poor people? I presumed however, given the nature of some of my recent photos, that I most probably fell firmly into this bracket and was the inspiration for her pressing question.

I thought for a second or two and my response was simple. “I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people.” That’s all I could think to say when put on the spot like that. However, after contemplating it a little further, I realised that my initial response had been fairly accurate. I never actively or purposefully set out to capture images of so-called ‘poor people’ but maybe I am naively guilty of it appearing this way.

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The whole question though makes me uncomfortable. One of my favourite weekend activities here in Chittagong is to wander somewhat aimlessly with my camera capturing anything that makes for an interesting shot. This pastime has earned a pronounced regularity since I returned to Bangladesh, but a simple question posed by one student has made me question every aspect of it.

My photography subject of choice here is predominantly people, so I am certainly in the right place. I cannot deny though that this does weigh heavy on my conscience at times. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the railroad communities, and as I peered down from the bridge above, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment.  Why is this interesting to me? Why do I presume it’ll be interesting to the people I eventually share the photos with? All I can say is that it is different. That is all. Different in so many ways.

Railtrack community

I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,

 “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Railtracks

Living in Bangladesh, I want my photos to represent life in all its forms here. So when I share them, my hope is that viewers will see beyond just the single image. I want people to be able to contemplate this country and the people of this country in a much deeper capacity.

The residents of the railroad communities, I would hazard to guess, are poor in the most simple and raw form of the word and in the sense that their single image suggests. However, who am I, or we to judge if they are poor? And how do we define poor? That is not something for me to do, and it is not something I want to do. All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.

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Therefore, here is a collection of images representing just a tiny corner of Chittagong, Bangladesh taken quite recently in the past few weeks. And here is one more quote,;

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”  – Richard Avedon

Tea shop kitchen

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Abar Ashben

“Abar ashben” roughly translates as “come again” in Bangla. In the days leading up to my departure from Bangladesh back in June 2012, these words were delivered insistently at times, and on other occasions in polite passing. At that point I gave a standard response of “Heh, heh…inshallah.” Or, “Yes, yes…god willing.” And then I left.

I wasn’t sure quite what was willing me to come again (so soon at least), but I did, and here I am, back in Bangladesh, back in Chittagong, back again. I’ve never returned to a place before. Rather, I’ve never returned to a distant land before where I have previously spent a prolonged period. However, the chance to continue working for WorldTeach and back at AUW was compelling motivation to make this a first. Two organisations close to my heart, both of which have provided me with unique experiences in the past few years, and both working in partnership here in Bangladesh. I’m proud to work for both, because not only do I get to lead another group of conscientious and dedicated WorldTeach volunteers,  I also get to teach another set of inspiring AUW students, hungry for education. It’s difficult not to be motivated.

Never go back. These three words floated around in my head for a long while as I contemplated my next move. As a big football lover, I can think of various occasions when a player or manager has returned to a club only to experience a torrid second spell. For any fellow, hardy Plymouth Argyle fans out there….Paul Sturrock. Yet, I was willing to risk this for the reasons given above, and after one month back in Bangladesh I so far feel satisfied with my decision

In the coming months I hope to once again utilize my blog to express my experiences, though more importantly I would like to use it as a platform for other stories, for other images, and for other perspectives.  For anyone still reading I say thanks, and I will try to ensure I keep you interested so that you too ‘come again’ to my blog.

Abar Ashben!

Here are some photos taken since my return. The second photo shows the WorldTeach Bangladesh group and Dr. Fahima Aziz, AUW Vice Chancellor (third from right).


Wild and Precious Life

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a wonderful project initiated by two great friends of my family. ‘Wild and Precious’ was created by Liz Scott and her husband Stuart. Combining a wide ranging set of skills developed through their respective jobs, they have dedicated this corner of the internet to documenting and presenting the stories of ordinary people who have very different tales to tell. The collection of short films is a growing mission and they are all wonderfully produced.

Last summer I was very honoured to be asked by Liz and Stuart if I would be interested in discussing my experience in Rwanda. I jumped at the chance as I had never done anything like this before, and I was really thrilled to see the fruits of their labour a few days ago. You can view the short film here;

John’s Journey to Rwanda

I was especially humbled that they asked me, given the nature of the other stories they have documented previously. I hope you enjoy viewing their films, and I’m excited to hear the stories recounted on their website in the future.

Their project is inspired and named in recognition of a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled ‘The Summer Day’.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In many ways the final two lines reflect perfectly why I continue to write on this blog. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been on this journey, and my way of acknowledging this is by documenting it through words and images.