America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

First Encounters

The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Anina Tweed.  Anina is currently volunteering in Bangladesh during the summer of 2012. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.

The first breath of Chittagong smacks you in the face and pulls you under in a wave of sensory overload. The most immediate threat being the ridiculous chaos of honks and swerves that result from a complete lack of traffic laws, lanes, signs or guidance. The throngs of elaborately painted rickshaws, green mini taxis, overcrowded buses, imposing trucks, and the occasional car seem to navigate based off of a continuous game of chicken, daring the other to see who will swerve first. Our morning van ride is best survived by trying to ignore the near collisions we face from moment to moment. And god forbid you should navigate the masses on foot. Crossing the road is like real life Frogger, except it’s not as fun when you yourself are the frog.

Walking down the street here is a test in multi-tasking and appreciating the beauty along with the hardships. The clutter of colors, smells, people and sounds mix with the oppressive heat to make you all at once uncomfortable and excited. You can only look up momentarily to wonder what all of the exotic sweets in the mishti stands are before turning away to avoid children, garbage and potholes. You pass chickens next to pharmacies and piles of bananas next to carts of sandals. One second you’re holding your nose as you pass by a man sifting through a garbage pile, and the next your trying to take in the smell of the ambiguous food being fried and wondering just how sick you might get if you tried it. Perhaps the most shocking is the presence of a Baskin Robbins and Pizza Hut in the midst of the Bangladeshi madness. They make no sense but we’re all secretly thankful to see some familiarity amongst the chaos. Above all, Chittagong is a series of juxtapositions and contrasts that leave you feeling confused as to whether your entertained or disheartened.

Often, the thrill of adventure is overshadowed by the harsh realities of life here. The level of poverty in Chittagong, one of the more affluent cities in Bangladesh, is something I have always known but never had to encounter. As white, American women we stick out like sore thumbs and attract a constant stream of followers asking for food and money. The beggars here are not only poor and hungry but suffering from diseases, lost limbs, and deformities that make it difficult not to cringe. The hardest to endure are the mothers who hold their children’s diseases in your face.  Even more depressing, is the realization that you will eventually become hardened to them, accepting that there are simply too many to ever help or feed or clothe. Perhaps the trade off is an increase in motivation to find larger, more sustainable solutions. To look at root causes and get out in the community to work with organizations already addressing these issues.

Today, Kassi (our fearless field director) and I ventured into a more peaceful side alley to visit her tailor and explore the smaller lanes of the neighborhood. We were instantly met by a throng of smiling kids greeting us in English. I tried out my new “what’s your name? My name is…” Bangla vocab on them and they giggled while pronouncing that I was learning Bangla “little by little.” As soon as Kassi pulled out her camera the photoshoot was on. More and more kids flocked to us, each one tinier and cuter than the last. They wanted pictures with us both and were ecstatic to glimpse their faces flashing peace signs on the display screen. The simple act of seeing their own picture brought them so much joy. We broke away and continued down the alley, the warm feelings from the exchange slowly subsiding as we passed the tiny, dirty one room shacks that were their homes.

At the end of our walk, sweaty and exhausted from just going around the block, Kassi gave me a nugget of wisdom: in Bangladesh, there is no easy crossing, you just have to become part of the traffic.

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This entry was posted on August 14, 2012 by in Volunteer Related.
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