Marking 5 years
I like milestones. They provide a satisfying sense of accomplishment and achievement whilst ensuring the preservation of a little focus and direction.
This post is a celebration of one such milestone. April 9th, 2016 marked exactly 5 years since I first posted on this blog. It’s a pleasant feeling to know that despite the many twists and turns, the sporadic uprooting, the hellos and the goodbyes, and the often unplanned wanderings, I have still found time to regularly (well, kind of regularly) update and commit part of my energy and heart to this little project.
A project that began with the somewhat vague aim of recording my ramblings has now grown into a means by which to document a multitude of experiences that came along the way.
What this milestone also represents is that it is now a little over five years since I arrived in Bangladesh. When I think back to that time (March 2011), I really had no idea I would remain so long in this country, but I don’t regret it one bit. I arrived on a short term contract with a cautious ambition to perhaps extend that to a year. Five years on I’m still here aside from a one year sabbatical (of sorts) in Guyana.
Bangladesh has been good to me, and I am very grateful for that. I can’t really believe how quickly the five years have flown by, but in that time I’ve been lucky enough to explore this country a little and also travel to Nepal, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Laos, Bhutan, Thailand, and even back to Rwanda a couple of times.
Most importantly though I have been lucky enough to work in a job that has inspired me to grow and learn. I’ve been surrounded by some fantastic colleagues right from the start, and they have been a source of constant knowledge whilst encouraging me to change and develop my outlook on many, many things.
I have of course also been privileged to teach and work with students who have taught me far more than I have them.
As always with these short posts that mark a milestone, I prefer to let images tell the story, so here are a few which I think sum up just why that tentative first few months turned into five years and provided me with so many amazing adventures under this one sun.
All images © John Stanlake
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 Summer in Devon
As has become an almost mini tradition with this blog, my August post will be dedicated to photos from home. The academic year in Bangladesh came to a successful close in June and a six week vacation was divided between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and of course, Torquay, Devon.
In my next blog I’ll share some of those images from Rwanda and DRC (which will include molten lava and bullet-holed signposts), but for now here is a selection from home. This inevitably comprises photos of sunsets, dogs, hills, family, real ale, Plymouth Argyle, and the ocean.
The title of this blog post simply means “lucky” in Bangla, and when I am home in the UK it always makes me stop and reflect upon how lucky I was and am to have grown up in Devon and to be able to go home and visit on an annual basis.
This summer was no different, and there were several moments I reflected on this good fortune. Perhaps these photos will explain better than words can. Just as I feel often mesmerized by the Bangladesh countryside, Devon provokes a distinctly parallel experience.
There was one evening in particular. I took Jack, our border collie, for an evening walk and the sun was just beginning to set over the fields that spread towards the horizon. The light was perfect and the peace and silence was unlike anything I had experienced for a while.
I’m back in Bangladesh now, and I don’t know quite when I’ll experience that type of silence again, but I do know the countryside here offers just as many peaceful experiences, so “bhagyaban” undoubtedly applies to my time here also.
So, here’s a small selection of photos from my latest summer of reconnection with home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK
It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…
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.
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
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;
…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.
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.
I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
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.
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
I was in a record store. I recall browsing without purpose for some time, wandering around considering whether I should add to my rapidly expanding music library. It was 2003, and I was a student at the time. I’ve always derived great pleasure from random music searches, yet it’s been trickier these past few years due to my locations. On this particular day though, I had no idea the purchase I was about to make would have such a lasting and definitive influence on my tastes in music, or perhaps more significantly an enduring effect on the way I aspire to look at life events (not always successfully I must add, especially recently).
As my seemingly fruitless search for new music neared a conclusion, and I contemplated leaving empty handed, one record caught my eye. The strange album cover was compelling. A myriad of colours and faces all intertwined. It was unashamedly psychedelic, and seeing as I had at this point embarked upon a fairly dedicated journey toward 60s music discovery, I decided to at least give this item the acknowledgment I believed it deserved.
Upon inspection the song titles were suitably convincing that for some reason the record had to come home with me. ‘The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This’, ‘Andmoreagain’, ‘Alone Again Or’, ‘Bummer in the Summer’, and ‘You Set The Scene’ to name a few. Everything about this record intrigued me. Even the name of the band, Love, seemed so clichéd yet perfect.
“For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while, and the things that I must do consist of more than style…”
My reason for providing this fairly mundane anecdote is because I’d like to touch on the theme of change. As the record I bought that day testifies, forever does change, and this has been a fairly weighty feature of my life in the past few years. I’ve experienced some notable transitions, with the most recent being arguably the toughest challenge of all. I left Bangladesh (see previous blog) to pursue a slightly different career path. I’ve been lucky enough to get the opportunity to rejoin the WorldTeach team.
WorldTeach is an education non-profit organisation that links up with governments and organisations in developing countries and sends volunteer teachers to spend a year in their country of choice. I volunteered with WorldTeach in Rwanda in 2010. I’m now the Field Director in Guyana, which basically means that I oversee the program on the ground here and assist the current Guyana volunteers. It’s rewarding in that even though I’m not in the classroom directly teaching, I am still very much involved with international education.
“And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game, do you like the part you’re playing?”
So, I’ve changed jobs and I’ve transferred location. From the most densely populated country in the world I now find myself on the northern coast of South America in a country home to just 750,000 people….total. I once again face the guilt of being a Brit in a former colony, but this guilt is slightly negated by the fact I also live in the only English speaking nation on this continent…..which helps….me.
However, the most notable change of all has been the people in my life. The past three years have been a quite remarkable adventure. The places I’ve seen, the photos I’ve taken, the foods I’ve tasted, the journeys I’ve embarked on, the insects I’ve battled with, the inspirational folk I’ve met and stared in awe at, the stories I’ve heard and shared, the generosity and hospitality that has always been so welcome, the number of instances I’ve mused ‘Ben Fogle would probably do that if he were here now’, the smells that have at times purified my senses, the occasional challenges I’ve struggled through, the suffering I’ve witnessed that’s so often faced with sheer strength in adversity, and finally the quite incredible sunsets I have had the privilege to capture in both my mind and on camera.
“There’ll always be some people here to wonder why, and for every happy hello there will be goodbye….”
However, principally, the past three years have been defined by the people I’ve met and formed close relationships with. And with that comes the toughest part of travelling, because moving on inevitably means leaving behind those who have shared so much with you on that particular stretch of road in the crazy journey.
Saying goodbye becomes the toughest challenge of all, and it doesn’t get any easier with experience. Location in life is often irrelevant. If we’re surrounded by good people it doesn’t matter what exterior conditions we find ourselves in. I have come to realise this at a number of points throughout the past three years. Waist deep in water and suppressing fear in a dark, dark cave in Laos was one. Lost and a little bewildered at a Nuns’ dining table in Rwanda was another. Sandwiched between a huge man and a good friend on a minivan in northern Botswana also springs to mind. In the middle of the night lined up against a coach by South African police on the border with Zimbabwe I recall being particularly grateful for company. Sat on a sweltering bus for sixteen hours straight in Bangladesh, and in gridlocked traffic on the single lane highway between Chittagong and Dhaka was completely bearable because of one person.
These are examples of specific moments, but Prague, Rwanda, Bangladesh, and all travels in between have been distinguished by so many genuinely good people. People who I have learned so much from and who have made the journey that much more enjoyable and meaningful. All people who I have at some point in the recent past had to say goodbye to. However, goodbyes aren’t always forever.
“You Set The Scene”
The name of the record I bought that day back in 2003, long before I embarked on this journey, is ‘Forever Changes’…perhaps fittingly. Written and performed by 1960s LA band ‘Love’, they were led by singer and chief songwriter, Arthur Lee. Lee was an incredible lyricist. A poet many say. The collection of songs concludes with my all time favourite by any artist (‘You Set The Scene’), and I mean that. For me the composition is perfect. Perfect in terms of structure. Perfect in terms of the dreamlike instrumentals that weave into its dramatic crescendo. Perfect for the manner in which it is constructed and delivered, and perfect for its seemingly timeless message.
However, primarily it’s perfect for its lyrics. The song’s powerful and inspirational words have always made me wonder just how far we can push ourselves. Change is inevitable, but right now as I begin a new chapter I’m struggling to know quite how to deal with it, having at times been completely overwhelmed by its total disregard for stability. However ‘You Set The Scene’ has been a constant reminder of the wider picture.
“This is the time and life that I am living,
And I’ll face each day with a smile.
For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while,
And the things that I must do consist of more than style.
There are places that I am going.”
“Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging,
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange.
Then you should be the first to want to make this change,
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game –
Do you like the part you’re playing?”
The lyrics of the song in full can be interpreted in many ways. Written in 1967 Los Angeles, it clearly expresses the burning political frustrations of the day, namely Vietnam. “There’s a private in my boat and he wears fears instead of medals on his coat”, “There’s a man who can’t decide if he should fight for what his father thinks is right.”
Dramatic change was beginning to define a generation in the 1960s, and Arthur Lee reflected this perfectly in his songs. I discussed the words with my students at AUW a few months back, and they presented their own understanding of what Lee was conveying. These were both characteristically thoughtful and extremely well considered.
So, as I continue with my journey, I do so with the words of Arthur Lee ringing in my ears. They provide strength, and they crucially pose testing and provocative questions. This is not a usual post for me. However, my blog has never really followed a set structure, and the recent move has once again left me pondering how I can represent my new experiences through words. Right now my experience is defined by change, and I’m therefore grateful to have the opportunity to write about these moments.
To conclude, here are the full lyrics of You Set The Scene, and below is a live recording of it performed by Arthur Lee and his band in 2003. Bear in mind Lee is 58 in this video. He sadly passed away three years later, but for fans of Love his legacy lives on.
You Set The Scene – Love (Lyrics: Arthur Lee) 1967
— Part I —
Where are you walking, I’ve seen you walking
Have you been there before?
Walk down your doorsteps, you’ll take some more steps
What did you take them for?
There’s a private in my boat and he wears
Fears instead of medals on his coat
There’s a chicken in my nest and she won’t
Lay until I’ve given her my best
At her request she asks for nothing
You get nothing in return
If you want she brings you water
If you don’t then you will burn
You go through changes, it may seem strange
Is this what you’re put here for?
You think you’re happy and you are happy
That’s what you’re happy for
There’s a man who can’t decide if he should
Fight for what his father thinks is right
There are people wearing frowns who’ll screw you up
But they would rather screw you down
At my request I ask for nothing
You get nothing in return
If you’re nice she’ll bring me water
If you’re not then I will burn
— Part II —
This is the time and life that I am living
And I’ll face each day with a smile
For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while
And the things that I must do consist of more than style
There are places that I am going
This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that’s all that lives is gonna die
And there’ll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello, there will be good-bye
There’ll be time for you to put yourself on
Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you’re playing?
I see your picture
It’s in the same old frame
We meet again
You look so lovely
You with the same old smile
Stay for a while
I need you so, oh, oh, oh, oh
And if you take it easy
I’m still teethin’
I wanna love you, but
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh