Traveler Begins Relationship with Bangladesh

“Bangladesh is like India on steroids,” my wise co-worker told me as I was seeking advice for my first trip abroad with the agency. Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve never actually been to India, the point came through clearly: try as I might, there is no mental preparation for what I was about to experience.

For the past 10 months, I had been learning the ropes at Headquarters in Baltimore, managing grants for our Asia programs from a cubicle on the 4th floor. Though the purpose of this trip is relatively straight forward: to help develop a grant proposal for our disaster response to Cyclone Aila. I knew this experience would challenge each of my newly-formed opinions about the humanitarian work I so enjoy.

After a 30-hour travel extravaganza that took me from Dulles to Dubai to Dhaka, I was met by two delightful staff from Caritas Bangladesh, the partner through whom we do all of our work in this country. We plunged headlong into the teeming, steaming streets of this city that 12 million people call home. Bubbling up all around us is a kaleidoscope of incongruous sites and unfamiliar sounds. The truck competes for every inch of pavement with rickshaws, huge buses, cars in varying states of repair, bamboo carts, buggies and, occasionally, livestock. Very few things are fitting into my mental framework: colorful saris, car horns, debris, piles of unrecognizable exotic fruits, people on top of buses, people on top of speeding antiquated trains, people standing in traffic, people everywhere it seems they shouldn’t be. Adrenaline and antivirals coursing through my veins, I take a deep breath and wait to see what’s next.

The Caritas Bangladesh compound (where CRS has our office) is a veritable oasis with its tranquil courtyard, welcoming guest house and orderly office buildings. It takes me no time at all to understand that this is more than an exercise in proposal writing – this trip is a lesson in partnership. Caritas Bangladesh has thousands of staff – more than the entire global CRS organization. CRS shares lessons learned in programs around the globe, while Caritas Bangladesh shares their extensive project experience and knowledge of every corner of the country. Since the 1970s, these dedicated employees and volunteers have given their time and talent to the better the lives of fellow citizens of their own country – an undertaking that I’m ashamed to admit I have done only minimally in the U.S.

Dr. Snigdha Chakraborty, our multi-talented, many-hatted CRS Bangladesh country manager shepherds me around to meet the team, and I’m able to pass along warm regards that my colleagues back home have sent to the Caritas Bangladesh staff. Members of the finance team are hard at work on Saturday finishing details of a new jointly-managed project. The large disaster team is working intensely on a cyclone response in their office that’s set up like a “situation room.” Taking a group lunch break, I received a lesson on jackfruit, the national fruit of Bangladesh, complete with tasty samples.

Doing good work in any field, in any part of the globe, starts with a relationship. Lesson number one of trip number one is that the combined creative force is the only way to effect real change in this wild wooly world. I reflected on this during my inaugural rickshaw ride back to the hotel after dinner. Just then the first few raindrops of my first monsoon rain ushered in a warm deluge. Jostling through muddy puddles, giggling as my glasses steam up, I think of more than 600,000 Bangladeshis left without homes since the cyclone. There is much to be done.

– Kathleen Merkel, CRS public resource specialist, Asia

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7 Responses to “Traveler Begins Relationship with Bangladesh”

  1. Havaca Johnson Says:

    Very interesting blog post — insightful and interesting. Thanks Kathleen!

  2. Vandana Gupta Says:

    Good initiative to share your experience and show your heart!

  3. Emily Burrows Says:

    Thanks for sharing your first impressions of Bangladesh with us.

  4. Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw Says:

    Kathleen, thanks! I hope we’ll hear more from you. Very pleased you are blogging for us, and nice to get a glimpse of a place I’ve never been. I could not agree more with your conclusion that it is all about our relationships… Stay well!

  5. Sharon Abraham-Gordon Says:

    Kathleen, I love your narration. Thanks for sharing and keep well.

  6. Charu Thapar Says:

    Great to see you are having a good time and enjoying the vastly different climate, culture and people. I admire your courage and wish you good luck in achieveing your goal you set for yourself on this trip. Take care.

  7. Judson Flanagan Says:

    Great blog and thanks for sharing your experience. Sending lots of wishes for challenging and rewarding work and continued sucess.

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