Beyond the Mountains

Reflections on my time in Afghanistan


One month ago today (August 15th, 2021) the Taliban marched into Kabul, Afghanistan unopposed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. It triggered a panicked evacuation that filled our news media, and many of us no doubt watched in horror and disbelief. Amazed that after two decades of bold promises and expensive commitments, this vast operation came to an abrupt and shocking end. An embarrassing defeat. Or, “mission accomplished” according to press releases coming out of Washington and London. If you repeat something enough and shut out all evidence to the contrary, perhaps it becomes convincing enough in the end. Perhaps. Many of us are not fooled though. The fallout of the treacherous actions of certain sections of the international community will be felt for decades to come.

I would like to use this post to offer a little glimpse into my recent experiences in Afghanistan through my current job. I haven’t written about it previously, but now feels like an appropriate time. I just wish I was able to write with a more promising and positive tone.


On the desk sat this shiny new mug adorned with a black, red and green flag and three simple words. I had just entered the office that I would share with several other teachers, and one of my Afghan colleagues had placed the mug on my desk as a gift to welcome me to his country. A country that fills him with pride, and a country in which he was born, educated and now works and raises a family. A country that I imagine (until recently) filled him with expectations of a more optimistic outlook for his children.


My colleague hoped too perhaps that I would come to embrace his country. To taste its food, hear its songs, learn from its stories and poetry, understand its history, and all being well work closely with its people and participate in some tiny way to its positive future. And of course, as I spent more time in his country I too would come to do as the mug states, Love Afghanistan.

Each day this same colleague would arrive at the office with a bag full of freshly baked bread bought on the way to work. Knowing that many of us were unable to enjoy this simple pleasure due to our circumstances, he took it upon himself to bring it to us. Day after day, week after week. I never got tired of that bread. It filled the office with the most welcoming and delicious aroma, and it connected some of us to a part of Kabul we were unable to experience. Our colleague’s small but deeply kind gesture a constant reminder of how lucky we were to be there and how people consistently reached out to make us welcome, to help us feel at home, and to share their lives with us.

The morning I found that mug on my desk was August 18th, 2019, and two days prior to this I had arrived in Kabul to begin my new teaching role at the American University of Afghanistan. It was a beautiful summer day with a bright and bold blue sky illuminating the mountains surrounding the city. I never got bored of gazing out towards those mountains, and the longing to be able to explore beyond their peaks has certainly not diminished, despite having yet to realize that opportunity. One day, I hope.



As the sun set on my first day in Kabul, it brought a warm, balmy evening and the view beyond the campus (and my new home) sparkled with thousands of little lights emanating from homes that stretched as far as the eye could see up into the hills. There was a calm quiet, and as I sat and chatted with new colleagues, I felt invigorated and buoyant about my new location and job. The campus exuding a homely and welcoming atmosphere despite the huge, reinforced walls that encased it. These walls of course a constant reminder of the challenges faced by so many both within and beyond.

Earlier that day I had landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport (Kabul) to be met by security personnel who would take me (and several other newly arrived colleagues) directly to the university campus. There was no stopping en route. I sat somewhat dazed from a long journey and admittedly a little anxious as a number of instructions and updates (that meant very little to me but seemed important due to the earnest and concentrated expressions on the faces of my armed chaperones), bellowed out of two-way radios.

We weaved forcefully and efficiently through traffic, and I stared out of the window, absorbed by the sights and the streets teeming with activity. This was Kabul. A capital city steeped in a proud history and rich culture of which I was (and am) still largely ignorant. Yet also a city that had time and again received attention and come under intense scrutiny from our frequently prejudiced and ill-informed news media for many years now, obscuring and distorting the lens in which we viewed it. I hoped that my new job would help me in deconstructing some of this misinformation and misrepresentation.

As I sit here now, composing this post, I do so regrettably from the UK and not Kabul. A lot has changed since that August evening just over two years ago when I went to sleep nervously contemplating an exciting new chapter. This post is composed with an extremely heavy heart and an indescribable amount of frustration for what has transpired in recent years, months, weeks and days.

We’ve suffered from the unpredictable and (perhaps) unavoidable pandemic that left no corner of the world un-touched, severely inhibiting, but certainly not deterring our university’s drive to educate our students. However, recent political events in Afghanistan were entirely preventable and reflect an extremely uncomfortable betrayal by the international community and abandonment of a generation of Afghans who deserve better, much better.

These events have also immeasurably changed the way in which we can educate our students and cast an uncertain shadow over our future as an institution of liberal arts higher education. For now though (and hopefully in the long-term) we will continue to teach, as far as we possibly can. Education will prevail.



Our students and Afghan colleagues were promised so much by the international community. Assured that if they worked for the positive development and rebirth of their country, the world would stand by them, shoulder to shoulder and support them every step of the way. Economically, politically, militarily and ideologically. Ensuring Afghans could stand tall and forge ahead with a system to be proud of. A nation emerging from a war that had lasted far too long and caused a whole generation of people to endure often incomprehensible loss and suffering through no fault of their own. For twenty years it certainly was not perfect, but there were tangible signs of progress. Our university was a microcosm of that progress.

To avoid any potential jeopardization of security I had previously been unable to share images of the campus in which I lived and worked in Kabul. One heart-breaking outcome of recent events is the beautiful campus falling into the hands of the Taliban who now occupy and control it. Therefore, I would like to share a few images of how it looked in far more positive days before it became blighted by those who do not seek progress and those who are ignorant, intimidated and fearful of reason, global perspectives and critical thinking.








Merely a few weeks ago this small plot of land in Kabul was still brimming with energy and positivity. The university campus brought together an eclectic group of students and teachers, from all corners of Afghanistan and all corners of the world, full of hopes and dreams. Despite being enclosed inside the intimidating concrete walls, the site within offered a peaceful haven filled with green space and crucially the freedom to converse, learn, debate, build friendships and share ideas and cultures. Having lived there and experienced this first-hand, it is still incredibly difficult to accept this evaporated so swiftly.

My stay in Kabul and Afghanistan was far too brief, cut short by a global pandemic and political events beyond our control. However, over the course of my time there, I met some wonderful people, and I will never forget the generosity and kindness they afforded me. There are numerous moments that stick in my mind, but two in particular stand out.

Firstly, on a day celebrating Afghan culture, a group of students presented my colleague and I with a traditional Salwar Kameez. They had it tailored from a shop outside and gifted it to us so that we could join in and feel part of their celebrations.

On another occasion a group of students invited my colleague and I to join them for lunch. Knowing we were unable to leave the campus and visit local restaurants due to security reasons, they ordered and brought onto campus an array of Afghan cuisine to share with us. We ate delicious food and chatted with our students, learning more about their lives beyond the classroom. Once again, a simple but deeply kind gesture that made us incredibly welcome.

Right now, the future for those students and for the many other students and colleagues I met in Kabul looks highly unpredictable, and that thought leaves me with a feeling of emptiness. A lot different to the hope I felt back in August 2019. Predictably, the mainstream media has moved on and Afghan stories are slowly disappearing. However, there are scores of brave and defiant Afghan journalists, academics, civil rights activists, writers, artists, etc, etc all still working to shine a light on the darkness that has enveloped their society. I urge you to listen to them.


Panch Bochhor (পাঁচ বছর)

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.


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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.


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Sandwip


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Sandwip


One man and the sea


Sunset on the water



All images © John Stanlake

A Voice For The Voiceless

Animal Welfare in Bangladesh


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One of the most frustrating aspects of social media is the simple fact that stories about complete idiots are thrust directly in front of your face on an almost daily basis. Anyone who saw my Facebook page in the past week or so may have noticed one such story.

The news I’m referring to is surprisingly not about Donald Trump, Jeremy Hunt, or Sepp Blatter (although this trio are worthy contenders), but rather revolves around a group of people who epitomise the ignorance and disregard demonstrated so often by the human race to other creatures.

Endangered baby dolphin dies after swimmers pass it around for selfies

A dolphin plucked from the water and passed around like a trophy so that bronzed beachgoers of all ages could pose and take ‘selfies’ with it. Once the selfies were complete, the dolphin had inevitably died. Because you see, what these humans had so crucially forgotten, is that dolphins can’t survive for prolonged periods outside of water, and what those people now have on their cameras, or smart phones, or whatever they were using that day which caused them to lose all sense, is a selfie with a dolphin who died because of them.

It happened in Argentina, but this could be anywhere in the world, and the flagrant disregard for the life they passed around in their hands that day sums up the arrogance and sheer contempt we, humans, demonstrate on a daily basis.

It left me totally exasperated once again, as it seems there is not a week that passes without tales of sheer moronic stupidity claiming yet more animal lives. Whether it is a wealthy dentist shooting an innocent and treasured lion, Russian circuses forcing polar bears to dance, or puppies used for target practice, there is no limit to our cruelty and indifference.

However, despite all of this, there is hope, and I have witnessed a few examples here in Bangladesh.

Obhoyaronno is an animal welfare foundation formed in Dhaka in 2009 and has carried out some fantastic work mainly in the Bangladesh capital to rescue animals and educate the local population about animal welfare issues. The organisation has successfully campaigned to have dog culling in Dhaka cancelled, and they regularly carry out dog vaccination programs in the city. They have a large community now of like-minded people who will alert others about any cases of animal abuse or animals in trouble.

Dog Lovers of Bangladesh is an inspiring facebook page dedicated to, well…dogs of course. The members on that page never fail to amaze me with their dedication to the welfare of dogs here, and there are often emergency posts regarding an injured or distressed dog sighting. It is not uncommon for this to be followed by an immediate and robust response from other members of the group who mobilize and swiftly locate the dog, whilst doing all they can to source the care it needs. Other members often chip in with cash donations, and before you know it, a dog once destined to lie dying next to a busy road, has been scooped up and given the life-saving treatment it so gravely needed. The members of this group are caring, conscientious animal lovers who provide a reminder that all is not lost.

Finally, there is a group somewhat closer to home for which I have the utmost admiration; The Asian University for Women (AUW) Animal Welfare Club. Created just over two years ago, the club has grown steadily and in that time initiated a number of projects aimed at implementing clear strategies for improving the welfare of animals.

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)


In truth due to the modest size of the club and its limited financial capacity, the focus has been on street dogs and cats. However, the lack of funds has been no deterrent to the club members, and driven by their passionate club president and founder, Mandy Mukhuti, they have already played a significant role in making tangible changes in the lives of many animals.

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Since its inception in 2013, the club has visited primary schools to educate young children on how to treat animals. They have also initiated a daily feeding program, which entails collecting leftover food and feeding street dogs in the vicinity of the campus. The success of this is highlighted by the fact these dogs now know and recognise the members of the club when they come calling with their plastic container full of food!

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photoography)


The club has also rescued several cats and dogs and successfully found homes for many of these animals. Finally, this past weekend they arguably reached the peak of their success thus far. Having spent a few months raising necessary funds, they teamed up with local veterinarians and students from other universities and set about successfully vaccinating two hundred dogs across the city in just a single weekend! It’s a remarkable achievement given the constraints they experience and a testament to their passion and commitment to such a worthwhile cause.

Dogs vaccinated under AUW campaign

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Photo credit: Dhrubo (Dhrubo Photography)


I’ll leave you with a collection of images taken during my time here in Bangladesh, which show a number of the animal friends I’ve made. This family lived behind our building and the puppies provided hours of fun, yet immense stress! We managed to find homes for most of them, but a couple sadly fell victim to the unforgiving main road that lay just far too close for temptation.

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Father & Son

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A patient mother

At present I also regularly feed Tommy and Rocky who live on our road, and whilst this is just a very tiny act, I believe that the bewildered, yet intrigued gazes I receive as I sit feeding the dogs do go some way to showing people that these dogs are not angry beasts who should be avoided at all costs, but actually friendly animals who just need a bit of love and a friendly face.

Step by step we can make a difference, no matter how small that may be.


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You Set The Scenes

A new project


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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.

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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:

  1. For Rich and I to keep in touch!
  2. To hopefully offer viewers a little glimpse into what our lives are like as expats.
  3. To offer a positive look into the culture and environment of both Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.
  4. To motivate Rich and I to explore our locations further and hopefully create a richer personal understanding of our surroundings.
  5. 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.

Rich’s Czech Tongue Twister

and

John’s Bangla Tongue Twister

Please like our facebook page and subscribe to our youtube channel. We are also on Twitter and you can follow us at @YouSetTheScenes.

We hope you enjoy our future videos, and please comment below with any suggestions you would like us to try!


 

Tashi Delek

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


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!






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!”

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, and Namgay. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.





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…



The People You Meet


Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.



However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realize this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.



International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humor. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”

Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.

I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.

At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveler.

Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.

Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).

Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and traveled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.

So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.



We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.

In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!





Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries.

How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realized this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money.

He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.



The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes grueling ascent and knee-jerking descent.

At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since.

He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other challenging locations, which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.

We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organizing hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief among young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.

It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.

So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.

Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve traveled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is.

The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.



46 Cups of Tea

A statistical and image-based reflection on a week in west Bangladesh


After nine straight weeks of teaching, the question was how to fill nine days of vacation. On this occasion I decided to remain in Bangladesh and take the opportunity to explore this country a little further, and having never ventured due west before, that is where I went. The division of Khulna to be precise, which borders India and comprises a number of districts, including Jessore and Khulna.


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Travelling individually has always felt a little daunting to me, so the prospect of spending the duration of the break navigating an unfamiliar area of Bangladesh alone provoked mixed emotions. Nevertheless, I survived, and I’m here to report in.

I’ll spare the mundane play by play account of what happened and instead present an array of telling statistics. Prior to leaving Chittagong I decided I’d take a pad and pen with me on the trip and keep a tally of the inevitable and the unexpected in equal measure.



So, here it is, the story of my week in Jessore and Khulna in numbers, beginning with the most important and reflective of all…

Cups of tea consumed – 46

Cups of tea I paid for – 20

Cups of tea bought for me by ever hospitable locals – 26



Invites to homes – 10

Invites accepted – 4

Photos taken – 659 (see a select set here – Jessore & Khulna)



Modes of transport used during the trip – 6



Times my unmarried status evoked confused frowns – 37

Times it was suggested I marry in Bangladesh – 21

Business cards received – 4

Business cards distributed – 27

Occasions in which I was asked if I came from Japan – 3

Jibes received regarding England’s woeful Cricket World Cup campaign – 24

Times I was asked to reveal my salary – 12

15th century mosques visited – 6



Hindu temples visited – 7



Here is a list of events which occurred just once, but I deemed worthy enough to scribble down in my notepad…

  • Requested to convert to Islam for marriage purposes
  • Military border parades witnessed


  • Squeezed into a body-hugging Bangladesh cricket shirt and told, “It fits perfectly boss!”
  • Asked if Iranian
  • Told to cancel my hotel booking and sleep in the home of a man I had met just 30 minutes previously
  • After briefly chatting with a man I met earlier in the day, he then text to inform me he was knocking on my hotel room door and requested I open said door…
  • ‘Adventure Parks’ visited that made me want to scream “WHY??!!” at the person who recommended it and assured me it was “very beautiful…”


  • Told I was lying about my age as I couldn’t possibly be as young as I was claiming
  • Told a man he was the least friendliest person I had ever met in Bangladesh after he spent a good five minutes ridiculing my intelligence for not carrying my passport and stating that as the British were “Kings” I am practically a disgrace to the great nation of Britain

And finally, a list of occurrences that initially I had firm intentions of meticulously tracking. Yet, as the hours and days passed, I soon realized it would be impossible to keep an accurate record due to the sheer volume. So, in the end they became uncountable, but no less significant…

  • Asked the question, “Your country?”
  • Confused questions with suspicious facial expressions regarding my reason for being in Jessore/Khulna/Bangladesh
  • Enthusiastically praised for my comprehensive Bangla language proficiency


  • Robustly chastised for my low level of Bangla language proficiency
  • Pondered the meaning of life
  • Wondered if rural Bangladesh is the most beautiful place on earth



  • Wondered why my bus driver was trying to overtake three other buses up ahead
  • Wondered how that 93rd passenger was going to find a space to squeeze into on the already cramped bus, but soon realizing there was space for passengers 94, 95 and 96.

So that concludes a brief look at my week in the west. It was fascinating, eye-opening, and at times a little testing. However, it was completely worth it, and evidence once again of why I often question why more tourists don’t come and explore this golden land.


Selfishly I’m glad they don’t though, because there were times on the trip as I sat on the back of a wagon and we meandered our way down a silent, tree-lined country road in the early evening, just as the sun began to set, that I thought to myself, “I’m totally at peace right now.”






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Baro

“Does it bother you that I talk so much?”



Tucked inconspicuously away from the noise and chaos of one of Chittagong’s longest and busiest main roads you’ll find a small tea shop. Not particularly unique in appearance, it is sandwiched on either side by two further tea shops, and all three function identically, serving very similar items to a wide variety of people who happen to sit down that day.

It’s easy to miss the turning into the road these shops are situated on, and most people will pass straight by. My chance encounter came about in a characteristically haphazard manner. I was stranded at the back of a huge line of people all waiting to gain entry into the Indian High Commission.

As I stood there exchanging frustrated head nods and tuts with fellow embassy hopefuls, I pondered if it were more logical to continue standing in this line, or whether I should try my luck at camouflaging up and attempt a covert border crossing through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.



All was not lost though and help was at hand in the form of a cup of tea and a citizen from the very country I was trying hard to get a visa for. Sharmistha, my friend, colleague, and fellow tea enthusiast had learned of my queue predicament and very kindly arrived to offer moral support/language translation skills.

She also went off in search of tea and came back telling the tale of the shop this blog centres around. However, it is much less to do with the actual shop, but rather the person who serves the tea and runs the establishment. Her name is Asma, and she is just twelve years old (“baro” in Bangla).

After eventually entering the High Commission, both Sharmistha and I returned to Asma’s shop for another cup of tea, but also because we wanted to learn more about this tenacious 12 year old. She informed us the shop is her father’s, but as he works as a security guard in a neighboring hospital, Asma has been assigned the crucial duty of ensuring the tea business runs smoothly.

Thus, she sits from morning until evening each day serving tea, paan, bread, and cigarettes to customers, 99% of whom are most probably men. She is twelve remember.



Sharmistha and I have returned to chat with Asma several times now and also with her father and some of the regular patrons of the shop. It is clear they think very highly of Asma, and why wouldn’t they?! She is outgoing, friendly, efficient, and has one of the warmest and most engaging smiles I’ve ever seen.

Asma has inspired me to use this blog in future to highlight some of the characters I regularly meet here in Chittagong. Special thanks must go to Sharmistha, who is responsible for the majority of the translation that was required!

When we first met Asma two months ago, she was not attending school. Her father had promised to send her once he found a suitable arrangement for the tea shop around his work schedule. He had tried employing others to run it in his absence, but claimed he was unable to trust them. It therefore fell upon Asma to keep everything in order.

This was a wise choice. From observing Asma she is highly efficient and able to confidently deal with the pressures of a bustling tea stand. She is also very astute with money. On one occasion we came to pay for our tea and Asma’s father wouldn’t take our money. Typical Bangladesh hospitality once again. We protested and exclaimed that if Asma were here, she would certainly accept our money. He laughed and replied, “Yes, you’re right!”



We returned once again to see Asma yesterday and the great news is she is now attending school. Her classes begin at 6.00am and finish for the day at 11.00am. She returns home, eats lunch, completes her homework, and by 2.00pm she is at the tea stand where she’ll remain until around 8.00pm.

We enquired about school and she told us she enjoys it. Currently in class 4, she finds the lessons interesting, and also playing games, something she has previously had little time to do when whole days were spent at work.

Asma attends school with her friend from next door, and this works well as, “She is a good girl, who doesn’t fight with me and she helps her mother.” The school they attend is divided with classes for girls held in the mornings and the classes for boys held in the afternoon. Asma didn’t seem too concerned by this arrangement and wisely concluded that;

“If boys and girls are put together, there will be trouble!”



Originally from a village in Noakhali district to the north west of Chittagong, Asma’s father decided to move to the city in search of work. She admitted to missing village life and particularly her grandparents and the other children she used to play with. The green, the rice fields and the ponds are also aspects of village life she misses. However, her mother is here with her in Chittagong and this is incredibly important for Asma. She told us;

“I love talking with my mother. If I’m not sleeping when I’m at home, I’m talking to my mother. I love her very much.”

As I mentioned earlier, Asma receives respect and affection from the people who regularly visit the tea stand. Whilst we were there yesterday a local policeman stopped for tea and is clearly fond of her. He referred to Asma as “mamoni” an affectionate term used for younger people. Another younger man was asking Asma about school and encouraged her to go there and “make good friends.”



Some regulars seem to look at me and Sharmistha with puzzled eyes, perhaps wondering why we keep returning to the small tea stand and drinking up to three cups of tea at a time just so that we can learn more about the girl with the infectious smile. Asma asked Sharmistha yesterday, “Does it bother you that I talk so much?!”

No Asma, it really does not.

So that is Asma, a twelve year old girl balancing a life of school and work at such a young age. She does so with a smile and positivity that is truly inspiring. She is also extremely wise. As I left yesterday her advice for me was;

“Stay well, and eat your rice well.”