The first thing that hits you arriving in Pairabondh from Dhaka is the sheer sense of space. Where Dhaka is congested and populated, Pairabondh is in the middle of a sea of green fields, stretching off into the horizon. As a result, it feels incredibly peaceful here; at night, the dark is impenetrable and the only noises are the occasional dog bark.
Pairabondh is a community of around 5,000 people in the north-west district of Rangpur. It is actually two villages connected by a small bazaar along a single partly paved road. We travelled here by air from Dhaka to Saidpur on a small twin-prop aircraft – the first flight for many of our Bangladeshi volunteers. The trip from the airport was long and rather uncomfortable; it’s only about 40km but on a little easy-bike, with a max speed of about 20km per hour, getting a face full of dusty air and feeling every vibration from the road, it took over two hours. It’s quite an experience seeing the city fade away to lush fields of rice, potatoes and yellow mustard plants, the little three-wheeled bikes teetering alarmingly every time a bus or lorry swoops past. But the excitement builds as we turn off the highway and down the track towards the village, where we were greeted warmly by the community, complete with little bouquets of flowers.
It is truly beautiful here. From the little tin shacks of the bazaar, to the pale green of the rice paddies, there are photo opportunities everywhere! But the poverty is stark. Most of the homes are made from corrugated tin, without electricity or running water. Children run around shoeless with faded, worn clothes and dirty faces. More than a third of the people here are unemployed; nearly all the rest work seasonally in agriculture, toiling away in the sun-streaked fields. The main road through the villages is paved, at least it was once but large areas are worn away leaving potholes you could swim in. Off the main road, the tracks and paths are all dirt; at the moment, in the dry season, they are dusty but you can imagine the mudbath they must become when the rains come.
But after just a week of living here, you almost start to not notice, especially with so many smiling faces around you. In sharp contrast to life back home, people here have very little but seem to be much more content with what they do have. I am learning a lot about gratitude and living in the moment; it’s the simplest things that make a difference.I had an absolute treat last week – hot water to wash! Words cannot describe how good it felt to pour warm water over my body – sheer bliss. We normally wash at lunchtime when the sun has had a chance to warm the water in the pipes a little and the air temperature is at its warmest but it’s definitely still a chilly experience.
I don’t think I have ever smiled so much. Yes, people stare out of curiosity at the pale, blonde girl but, unlike London, it’s perfectly acceptable to smile at strangers! The little children call out in broken English as you pass by, little cries of “hello, how are you!” ring out everywhere. The women smile shyly when you greet them in Bangla, while the old men beam with pride to hear you speak in their language, albeit broken. On Friday, we spent the afternoon visiting the houses of some our local volunteers, receiving warm welcomes from extended family members and several offers of small glasses of sweet tea.
My Bangla is improving, mostly from necessity as my host-family doesn’t speak any English and we don’t have one of the Bangladeshi volunteers staying with us. Cue a lot of sign-language and time with the dictionary! But I can make myself understood, which means the food is no longer laced with chilli, although I’m still being served way more food than I need. Our host-family, by village standards, is wealthy; the house is predominantly brick-built, although the corrugated tin roof doesn’t quite match the tops of the walls, with concrete floors and metal shutters over the open windows. The house is organised around a central courtyard, where the extended family congregate. At least, I think it’s extended family – people seem to come and go and I have very little idea who any of them are, which makes it interesting, then, when they come and stand in the doorway of our room and just watch us! In the centre of the courtyard is the ‘stove’, which is a small hole in the ground for a fire with a raised lip for the pots to go on – it reminds of a little volcano. As a result, all the food here is either boiled or fried with plenty of salt; it’s pretty tasty but I’m worried about what my cholesterol is going to be like when I get home!
It has surprised me how cold it gets overnight. With the room somewhat open to the elements, I am really grateful for the thick duvet and fleece blanket but still end up sleeping with socks and sweatshirt on and the blankets pulled right up to my chin. I can see my breath in the air as I clean my teeth at the only sink outside in the mornings. It’s hitting the mid-twenties during the day, which is very pleasant. Spring officially starts here on 13 February so it will start to get hotter soon.
Here are just a few pictures….
In other news from Bangladesh, the political situation remains tense. The opposition party has called two 72-hour general strikes in the last two weeks and I get the sense that it’s crippling the country. Last week, students were protesting about the strikes affecting their exams; here in the village, the potato harvest has taken place in the last few days and the villagers are worried that they won’t be able to sell them in the city, which means that they won’t have money to purchase rice seeds to plant. It’s hard to get news here but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the situation improving. It doesn’t affect us here in the village and we can carry on with our work, but it’s hard not to be a little concerned.