A new project
So I’d like to take the opportunity to use this somewhat older (hmmm, let’s say more ‘mature’) platform of communication to tell you about a new project I’ve started working on.
I say I, but it is in fact ‘we’ – my good friend Rich and I. We know each other from our days in Prague when we both completed the same TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and have remained good friends ever since.
Rich still lives and works in the Czech Republic in a town called Podebrady, and he came up with the idea of creating a Vlog (video log) in which we both contribute regular videos offering a little glimpse into our individual experiences in the Czech Republic and Bangladesh respectively.
The slight twist is that in doing so, we will set each other various challenges. We will also seek input from our viewers (who will hopefully exist!) and ask for suggestions for challenges they would like to see us complete, hence the name of the vlog – You Set The Scenes. Also, crucially, whoever receives the most thumbs up on youtube for their video wins the challenge.
*The name of the vlog is also a little nod to one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands.*
The main aims of this new project are as follows:
- For Rich and I to keep in touch!
- To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
- To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
- To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
- To do things we may not have previously considered, which will no doubt at some points make us appear awkward and uncomfortable…perhaps much to the amusement of our viewers (again, if we have any)!
So that’s it really. I’m sure it will be a challenge at times, but also worthwhile, rewarding and fun. We both love exploring and getting away from the ‘tourist track’ and hope that this new vlog will reflect that.
Check out the trailer…
Our first challenge was to learn and recite a tongue twister in the native language of our countries. So I learned a tongue twister in Bangla, and Rich learned one in Czech. You can see how we got on below.
We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!
A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan
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.
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
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!
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.
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!”
“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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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 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
Pronounced ‘Shon-deep’ (or Shun-deef depending on who you talk to) the island of Sandwip sits at an estuary of the Meghna River on the Bay of Bengal. Open precariously to the elements, the residents of the island are no strangers to the carnage and chaos extreme weather can bring. On April 29, 1991 it is estimated that 40,000 people were killed by an unforgiving cyclone that tore through the island leaving thousands dead and even more homeless.
Almost 23 years on from that day, the island was a perfect picture of calm and serenity when I visited last week to spend a couple of days with a colleague who was born and raised on Sandwip, and whose family still reside there. The memories of that fateful day in 1991 still haunt people though, and as my colleague introduced me to one family member the immediate response was to enquire somewhat confusedly as to why I had come, and was I not scared of the threat of a cyclone? The fear still grips residents of this community and as water levels rise, shores slowly creep towards homes, and extreme weather becomes even more unpredictable, it’s easy to understand why.
However, apart from one short, sharp thunder storm my visit was largely undramatic in terms of weather. The rumbles of thunder and the patter of raindrops on the tin roofs only added to the charm of this place. You see Sandwip proved to be an experience of some contrast to my regular, everyday experience of Bangladesh. In Chittagong (my home for the entire two year duration of my life here so far) the noise of trucks, buses, cars, and CNGs penetrates and pollutes the air almost everywhere you go. It’s a city of 6 million people and thus it is hard to find a place to escape that hustle. I appreciate Chittagong for so many reasons, but the noise can take its toll at times.
When I returned from Sandwip I told a friend quite proudly and perhaps even a little smugly that I had seen only one lone car during my time on the island. His response was to point out that I had in fact been rather unfortunate as most visitors don’t see any!
Without wanting to sound patronising or to belittle Sandwip in any way, I would sum up my time there as taking a step back in time. I mean this in the most positive way. At night the stars filled the sky and were as bright as I’d ever seen them. In the day the local market bustled with traders and large numbers of cattle ready to be sold.
Agriculture drives the local economy it seems and manual labour appears to be the catalyst for this. There are countless tea shops, and each and every one seemed to be the centre of discussion and socialising amongst the islanders.
There are few roads on Sandwip. In more developed areas paved paths allow bicycles and rickshaws to pass easily, and if you go ‘off road’ you will find more basic, dusty paths that make it more complex for anything on wheels to pass. Bathing is also a distinctly communal affair for many.
I bathed in the pond close to the house where I was staying. This essentially entailed tying a lunghi around my waist and diving into the pond. It all went fine until I dropped the soap and it sank beneath the murky water, causing much amusement to the onlookers who had gathered to watch me bathe. Sandwip does not receive a vast number of foreign visitors, so my half naked presence in the pond drew a crowd!
Life is visibly tough though for many people here, and it was evident everywhere I visited on the island. Manual labour dominates as I mentioned, and this comes in a variety of forms. For example, as we left the island to return to the urban sprawl of Chittagong, we had to board a speedboat. At the time we and around ten other people wished to travel, the tide was out and thus the channel sat far out in the distance, and before us lay a mass of deep, dense, and unsympathetic wet sand. The solution was to herd us into a nearby wooden boat, and it soon became apparent that 10 men would drag us out to where the speedboat was waiting.
For the next 25 minutes they heaved and used every muscle in their bodies to get us to the water. When the boat became trapped assigned men would leap into action and strategically dig away the offending sand and we’d continue on our way. At some points they would chant in unison to motivate each other and it was apparent that teamwork was paramount. We arrived at the speedboat and 25 minutes later we were back on mainland Bangladesh. Well, not quite. The process was repeated and once again we were dragged across the sand. By the end I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach.
My time in Sandwip was short, but I caught a glimpse of something I felt it was possible for me to connect with. Of course life on the island is very different to my previous personal life experiences, but there is something about rural Bangladesh which intrigues me. The people were so welcoming and despite my still very limited Bangla skills, I was able to converse and bond with a number of people. My colleague and his family were the perfect hosts and I am already planning on when I can return for a longer visit.
For my full album of photos from Sandwip follow the link below;
Finally, the title of this blog post is the English translation of a lyric from the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla, by Rabrindranath Tagore. Today marks Bangladesh’s 43rd year of independence. Here is a wonderful rendition of the song,
All images © John Stanlake
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;
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Floating village community, Inle Lake
Roadside tea shop, Yangon
Sunrise and hot air balloon rides over Bagan
Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon
A quiet village road, just outside of Siem Reap
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
One of the many faces of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Village home, Siem Reap
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’.)
Ho Chi Minh City
Da Lat hills, in the southern highlands.
Village road outside Thai Nguyen, northern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi
The northern hills of Tam Dao
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;
Armed with a new camera I have been exploring Chittagong a little more by foot in the past couple of weeks. Last weekend it took me to the fisheries market. Arriving at 4.45am we waited for the sun to rise and for the energy of a new day to dawn.
By this time however men were already rushing by, scooping the night’s catch out of nets and piling it upon waiting baskets and wagons. The tea shacks were already serving hot, sweet tea to the various workers, and it was difficult to sense quite when night ended and the new day began.
The photos I was able to capture that morning reminded me of a simple, yet profound lyric from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands – ‘Alone Again Or’ by Love. I hope the images speak for themselves.
In my next entry I’ll touch upon an example of just why the people of this country continue to make Chittagong and Bangladesh an easy place to live.
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;
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.