Musings, Travel Log

One Last Time

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Long Bien Bridge and Banana Island below

“This is the last time you will be performing this play, probably for the rest of your lives. After all those rehearsals, doing it over and over again,  going scene by scene, for just 30 minutes on that stage…one last time.”

A pep talk from our director that was more grounding than lifting our spirits, but it hit me hard and sank in. Two months of 2+ rehearsals a week, couple hours each, then almost everyday, hours stretched; all for a “Silly Shakespeare Short” rendition of The Tempest. To think of where we started 8 weeks ago– barely knowing each other, barely knowing the script, and morphing each scene into the final interpretation– it’s kind of special all that came out.

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Toil

Then there’s what the director calls “postpartum” after the last fadeout and final bow, when the set gets broken down and the cast say their goodbyes. What do I do nowAll that time and energy pushing for something and then suddenly the weight is gone. Did all that even happen? Thankfully there are pictures to prove it did.

 

Poetically, that dovetails into my last few days in Hanoi–and abroad–before flying back to the States. bitter.sweet. surreal. Now every xe om ride feels like ‘the last time’ I’ll fly through these streets and sights, so I peel my eyes open and crane my neck every which way. Because as much as I want to come back to Vietnam and Hanoi, I truly don’t know if or when it will ever happen. And it certainly won’t the same experience as I’ve had these 12 weeks living in my Ba Dinh bubble with a rooted work schedule. If I come back, it will likely be leisure based, which is entirely different from actually living in a place. The street I’ve lived on constantly shifts to a different one each time I look a little higher or a little closer around. Twelve weeks sounds shorter than three months, and time does a funny dance with memories where yesterday feels like weeks ago but has it already been months since I moved in in September?

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Not only the sights, but obviously the people I’ve met along the way. Soaking in hot tea, toiling away at backstage ‘refugee camp’, a drink after, a smoke, over hot pot, cruising the bay, countless rides to rehearsal, arm-in-arm in Old Quarter, lunch around the office table. Good, great, bad, meh; and it continues to amaze me how we wouldn’t have met under any other circumstances (yes, platitudes platitudes, but that doesn’t mean the sentiments aren’t real).

 

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One of the many nooks and crannies of backpacker haven, Old Quarter

Of course, as I’m writing this, D reminds me:
“Ah that’s wonderful (that I’m blue)! Doesn’t that mean that you had a good time while abroad, and that’s why good byes are so so hard?”

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Pho cocktail. Sums it all up.

Okay, enough of the syrupy stuff. It’s been a ride, Vietnam, and em yêu anh* for it.

 

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Giang Vo Lake after work

 

*If you couldn’t guess, “I love you.”

 

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Travel Log

Field Visit: Son La

Last week, four of us from the office took a trip to the Son La Province for routine financial monitoring for the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project that is being piloted there. The province is situated about 150 km (~3 hours) west of Hanoi and is known for having one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in Vietnam.

Day 1:

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We started from the HKI office at 6AM (crack of consciousnesses for me, but prime time for jazzercize and badminton for the rest of the neighborhood). One breakfast pho pit-stop and 2 hours of snoozing in the back of the van later, I awoke to see that we were surrounded by layers and layers of hills, jutting limestone cliffs, and dipping valleys. Yes it was all very green, but a different kind of green than I experienced in Bangladesh; while Sylhet was lush and dense, here the green was open and dynamic, a more varied landscape and seemingly random patchwork texture (intentional and not) from myriad plants and crops.

It was about 11AM by the time we arrived at the project site and we were greeted by the district deputy. P and Q, the financial team at Hanoi, did most of the talking while T (the other intern, a local) and I sat back. Same goes for the meeting at the local HKI office with people I frankly don’t know about financial matters I frankly don’t know about. I did get to look around the clinic that the office is housed in– a modest but clean facility a couple of examination rooms and a few patient beds, the only one of its kind for surrounding communes– and stare at the landscape while fumbling through conversation with T (thank god for the Notes app).

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After lunch at the only restaurant in the village, we all attended a cooking demonstration in Diet Village. Today’s lesson was on preparing pork meat and tofu spring rolls with herbal leaf, a nutritious dish that would be palatable to young children. It was encouraging to see how engaged both the facilitator and audience were in the process. The facilitator, an HKI field staff member, pulled some of the mothers to carry out the steps she was explaining, and other family members present asked questions about what was good and bad for children (“Why is MSG bad? We grew up with and we turned out alright.”). Everyone could sample the dish once it was done and most importantly, the children seemed to find it delicious–fried meat roll, who wouldn’t? More good news, a mother we later spoke with showed interest in being a facilitator herself for the next demo!

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We traveled to three more villages after that, winding through narrow mud tracks on foot/motorbike/van and through vast open fields bathed in the golden late afternoon sun. I’m sure I looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help walk around wide-eyed and mouth agape, in awe of each painting unfolding before my eyes and gratitude for the opportunity to experience it all. I am sap personified.

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According to Q, things were carrying on rather smoothly and with impressive progress since the check-up in July. Not everyone was experiencing the same success with the project, though, as we saw when we visited to the poorest household in one of the villages. Atop a hill, a family of five lives in a sparse one-room wooden shack, virtually empty save the cups of tea the wife, Thi E. laid out on the floor for us. Her twin sons, quiet and slight for 3 year olds, eagerly sucked down the sugary orange drink P handed to them. A pig stays in a tiny pen and a couple ducks waddle around out front, but this is barely enough to sustain the family. As the wife put it, they cannot afford to plan beyond today and tomorrow. While they are dedicated to project activities, some families such as Thi E.’s are still struggling to climb out of poverty.

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View from Thi E.’s home. I swear that’s not a painted backdrop.

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Our hotel was 25 km away from the sites, and on a side of town that was basically a ghost town of vague buildings and empty streets. We found one restaurant that was still open and ordered boiled duck. As we sat in this warehouse we had to ourselves, save the owners, we talked about breakups and true love. I joined P and Q in teasing T about having just gone through a break up and who kicked whose ass*. Now, the ladies at HKI are friendly and chatty, but they are some years older than T and I, married, with kids, so I wasn’t expecting that we’d all be getting along quite like this. T, one of two guys in the office and always the gentleman (pulls out chairs, puts food on my plate, etc.), generally shy and reserved, was laughing and dishing out dirt right back; P told us about marrying her first and only love; Q explained her more… efficient method for deciding on her now-husband; I even opened up some about my take on love. Away from our office desks and family obligations, we were more like a few friends on retreat.

We walked off some of the duck strolling around a micro amusement park nearby that only fit in to make the ghost town feel even more eerie. Luckily, my coworkers craved sweets as much as I did and we ordered che from a small cart. Che is basically a sundae made of crushed ice, milk, and a variety of mix-ins; mine had pomelo, red beans, peanuts, and what looked like rolled oats: surprising, refreshing, satisfying.

Day 2:

Sharing is caring

Sharing is caring

Day 1 covered more ground than expected, so we were expecting to wrap up and head back to Hanoi by lunch. First up, attending an early morning in a village where a VMF farmer from a different village was instructing residents on how to plant the right seedlings for the approaching winter season. I was later told that the residents of this village are predominantly Dou (pronounced zhou), an ethnic group known for its strong communal bonds. When the EHFP project first initiated in this village, it didn’t quite take and participation and individual behavior change was low. Once community members began working on the gardens together and instructions were translated into their dialect, the project gained major traction.

In addition to selling surplus vegetables as encouraged by HKI, we found out that many households were also selling bio-compost to their neighbors for profit. This was a happy surprise because it was completely out of the participants’ own initiatives and a hopeful sign for the project’s long-term sustainability.

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Big boss-level VMF

Last stop was the home of the community leader for the village, a young man in his 30s whose fresh thinking completely turned the community around economically. After studying in Hanoi, he came back to his village and realized that government money granted to the poorest households could be much better utilized by younger people than the elderly who usually received it. So, he designated people like the poorest elderly’s children to receive the money instead (unless they had no children, in which case they keep it), who then invested in farms and other profitable ventures, bringing up the standard of living for the entire village in return. Simple, works.

As planned, we boarded the van around noon and rode back in near silence as the two-days’ exhaustion knocked each of us out. I had trouble falling asleep so I kept my eyes peeled on the rolling landscape outside the windows, trying to stare it into my memory. Besides witnessing the natural beauty and tangible impact the project had on villagers, I would hold on to the genuine camaraderie we four shared and was already starting to miss it as we reached closer to the city. Warm fuzzies remain.

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**Apparently in Vietnamese, when you ask about a break up, you ask if he/she kicked your ass or you kicked theirs. Love it.

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And Now for Something Completely Different…

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Hoan Kiem Lake at night

Hanoi, Vietnam–

I think I’ve taken the familiarity I had with Bangladesh for granted– being able to speak and read language enough to get my bearings, and blending in with the masses. Now? Now I have a full appreciation for the struggles my other fellow expats encountered in Dhaka. Despite the Roman characters, I am utterly lost reading Vietnamese signs and can hardly pick out a word of what’s being spoken as there is very little English shared between me and the locals. Now I get to be giggled at while butchering the few foreign phrases I know. Honestly, it gets tiring: constantly trying to explain via charades and not being understood, trying to understand others through facial expressions and pointing around.

Roadside barbershop

Roadside barbershop

It could be easier, but I wouldn’t trade my (brief) experience so far. I got to explore more familiar territory and witness the nuances of my heritage culture. And now I get to plunge into new waters to see how well I can navigate when left on my own. Each experience lets me appreciate the other and I can’t help but to constantly compare/contrast the two cities: rickshaws are traded for motor bikes (they will be missed), there are more women out and about, stores are still stacked one on top of another while concreteglass buildings share air with fading older facades reminiscent of Old Dhaka, and there are still people coming out of the woodwork from every crevice. Also, the rains seemed to have left Bangladesh and met me here in Hanoi, because I am talking sheets pouring down.

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15 minutes of leapfrog to get through every intersection

Aside: While I sorely miss riding colorful, body-jarring rickshaws, I must say I am feeling the zippy motorbikes. Zooming through narrow alleyways, I feel like I’m in an action movie as we whiz, zigzag, and swerve through neon signs and under touching balconies. Currently 60/40 in favor of getting my own bike.

Cheers to another 2.5 months of getting lost.

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The B-Sides: Part 2

Another girl at BLC also blogs but doesn’t have enough time to compose long posts, so instead she tries to write a single sentence about something, about her day that stuck out to her; an event, a feeling, a realization, anything. Taking up on that idea, an irregular series of snippets from my day-to-day.

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Sunset on the BRAC HQ rooftop. Skyscrapers and slum dwellings.

8/1
Trying to hold on to the feeling of walking through the rain… the absolute downpour that makes any attempt at maintaining dryness–an umbrella, a rain jacket– laughably futile.
I don’t like the idea of getting wet; I like to watch from my bed inside instead of welcoming the rain with open arms.
I finally had to abandon my umbrella when the gusts of wind proved to have more power over it than I did. As I, begrudgingly, stopped fighting the rain, I came to accept it, and then appreciate it. In between blinking to keep my contacts in, the palm(?) trees leaned subordinate to the wind the sky a flat slate gray rain pelted in steady diagonal sheets. My clothes drenched and I laugh to myself at how I was trying to avoid puddles just minutes ago.
Slipping on a dirt path and landing on my tailbone rerouted me home. But the walk back, I resisted the storm just enough to avoid being blown away; otherwise, I was immersing myself into the surroundings and stopped caring about how my clothes and hair were plastered on to me, soaked in what is likely to be acid rain, that I was wet.

I keep looking to the sky, desperately trying to absorb, to observe; find now that I am soaked, it isn’t so bad.

8/4
The mine gets a little emptier as another person leaves

8/7
Last night.
We peaked.

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Babushkas

Partner in crime

Partner in crime

8/8
Goodbyes are a natural fact of life, but this was one of the harder ones. The cheese factor is extreme, but it’s another example of how ‘the universe’ can concoct connections we wouldn’t have come across in other situations.

8/17
They say “be yourself,” but sometimes I feel that’s a lie.

8/21
The happiness of no hangover and feet aching from dancing all night

8/22
Can check “coming home barefoot” off my list

9/2
Finally, the kind of day I’ve been hoping to have during this internship all along: sat down with the supervisor to go over my assignment, promptly received the necessary documents, and had a pleasant chat with a co-worker; overall, feeling like I’m being taken seriously. Too bad it had to come just as I’m about to leave this place.

9/12

Some chill after a full two days of endless drinking and movement. Spent quality down time with certain people and we wonder, why couldn’t this have happen anytime before in these 3 months? Departure time keeps getting pushed back, but I’m not complaining.

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Somewhere near 5 am from a porch near Srimongal. Site of jaw drops, laughing too loud, and the finale of nearly 36 sleepless hours.

9/13

The last sunrise in Bangladesh, and by far, the best. Revelations, reflections, and beauty beauty beauty, through endless shisha on the porch amongst the forest…I couldn’t ask for a better, more appropriate end to my time here.

Oh My Dhaka…and all your contradictions. I will miss you more than I could have imagined.

Fin

A last note: I keep catching myself with the realization that identifying myself with the native culture has caused me to be less forgiving of said culture and the people, more than I would be in a setting more alien to me. For example, I find it so irritating when locals pepper expats for pictures; but don’t I also take pictures of people and scenes that find different and fascinating? I feel embarrassed if someone says or does something silly or tacky, feel a need to apologize on their behalf because I see it as a blow to my image…when that is unfair to both parties. They are an individual in their own context and conduct, just as I am my own, even if we share a similar heritage; shame or discomfort is a product of context that isn’t always shared.

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Old Dhaka Revisited

Eid in Bangladesh essentially shuts the country down for 4-5 days; and I mean shut down. The roads are virtually vacant and most shops and restaurants are closed as hundreds of people go back to their hometowns or just relax during the few government holidays available. While it offers a much welcomed break from work, it can also be hard to find ways to fill in the free time when there’s hardly anything open. This Monday was the last official vacation day for half of the BLC (housing) group that stayed in Dhaka for Eid and, being disappointed by a closed bakery the day before, I was hopeful but weary that today would be more fruitful. So we ventured into Old Dhaka to explore its narrow alleyways as that part of the city is kind of in ruins itself. Honestly, I thought I saw whatever there was to see the first time some of the girls and I took a small tour of the area and wasn’t sure of what to expect. Happy to say that I was proved wrong.

Ahsan Manzil aka Barbie's Bangladeshi Beach House

Ahsan Manzil aka Barbie’s Bangladeshi Beach House

Ahsan Manzil (aka the “Pink Palace”) was used as the point of reference for the CNGs, but to our surprise, the site was actually open (we failed once before and it was expected that Eid closures were still in effect). The structure was built in the late 19th century and was home to the Nawabs, or rulers, of Dhaka, at one point the center of trade and political power in East Bengal and Assam province. It’s hard to say just how pink the palace used to be, but more recent renovations have rendered the building a subtly striking pinkish coral color that really stands out from the old beige of the surrounding streets, more so against the gray sky that threatened rain all day. Inside is a museum providing the history of the home and reconstructed rooms where one can imagine local royalty from the colonial area dining around the elaborately set long table, or entertaining guests with tea and chatting on plush cushions in the formal living room. Luckily, the rain decided to pour while we were inside, and we could watch it fall looking out of the wrought iron windows. It all emphasized how closed the active chapter of the palace’s history was.

It's raining, it's pouring, nanabhai is snoring

It’s raining, it’s pouring, nanabhai is snoring

The view from the front of the building includes the Buriganga river so we made our way closer to it. Once there, we saw row boats willing to take visitors around the water and agreed on taking a ride. I couldn’t contain my excitement; this was something I’ve been wanting to do since I got to Bangladesh and after one of the guys did so already. For almost half an hour, we sat peacefully on a shallow wooden nouka (“boat”) as a gentleman gently rowed us past the palace we explored moments ago. You can imagine what life must have been like in the Manzil’s hey-day: strolling around the palace grounds, watching the fishermen and tradesmen row across the river, maybe taking a ride yourself. 

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Then, an improvised adventure letting random alleyways take us where they will. And somehow, they took us to church. An Armenian church, or rather, the Armenian Church featured in almost every tourism guidebook. It is a medium-sized gold-embroidered white building with what reminded me of Spanish-influenced missionary architecture. After the initial shock of what we stumbled upon, we walked to the entrance where a man welcomed us inside even though we were technically past normal visiting hours. Right as you enter, there is an open courtyard riddled with tombstones–many with uniform white crosses, others with personalized marble plaques honoring the deceased. Beyond that lies a garden and the house where the caretaker and his family live. According to Mr. Ghosh, the incredibly warm and talkative caretaker, this church, built in 1781, has been under his family’s care for almost 80 years, even though they themselves are Hindu. From what Savannah and I gathered, the family has had a very close relationship to the Armenians who settled here years ago (garment factory owners?), but most of the Armenians have since moved away.

The most peaceful graveyard I've ever visited

The most peaceful graveyard I’ve ever visited

He opened up the inside of the church and turned on the lights to reveal an aisle of pews leading up to an altar of lamps and paintings of Jesus, all below a high-vaulted ceiling from which small fans and lamps hung down. Mr. Ghosh continued chatting with Savannah and showed the baptism room to the left while Stephen leafed through one of the Bibles. I joined Carly and Dorothy sitting in the pews and tried to absorb the feeling of the church: it was beautiful in its well-crafted simplicity, decorated but not gaudy, a sense of open space yet smallness that asked for quiet observation. Apparently service is only held on special occasions as there isn’t a large enough Christian population around for regular use.

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Space and solitude

We stayed at the church for some time, and as it grew darker outside, Mr. Ghosh offered to walk us to a mosque nearby. Maghrib time was minutes away when we arrived so we decided not to disturb the prayer and looked on from afar. Finally, it was time to head home. The ride back was pretty quiet from what seemed like exhaustion given the jam-packed day we had. I am content.

Alouise said, and I readily agree, that you don’t need to go outside (Old) Dhaka to enjoy a vacation. It deserves a second, third, fourth visit, with historical sites I was unaware were so close to home. While I desperately hoped to get out of here for the few days we got off, I am grateful to explore a side of the the city that I had not appreciated before.

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The B-sides: Part 1

Another girl at BLC also blogs but doesn’t have enough time to compose long posts, so instead she tries to write a single sentence about something, about her day that stuck out to her; an event, a feeling, a realization, anything. Taking up on that idea, an irregular series of snippets from my day-to-day.

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Commute home

6/14
The scarf is cursed. Threads get stuck on everything and I tripped twice…not on the scarf itself, but still. I blame it.

6/15
A co-worker’s dilemma: a car is headed towards you but just then, you see a lady wearing sky blue– do you run out of the way, or stare in place at the lady in blue?

6/16
What I say: “What format did you use for process documentation?”
What he hears: “Tell me about your education and/or philosophy on Bangladesh society”

6/23
Turns out we are “very bad” at karom board– the other players were gracious enough to give us dozens of extra “chances”…oh banana tree (kola gaach)

6/24
I love D’s eternal optimism. All of her words seem to carry an air of “why not?” Her stories of travelling alone and relying on strangers makes me want to try to do the same. Her entire reason for even being here seems random.
“We’re here, talking, isn’t that crazy?”


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7/2
Fuchka, ginger tea & live music enclosed in a ‘room’ made of patchwork sheets on a rooftop, lanterns hanging above while we sit on cushions on the ground.
It was easy to be absorbed by the female singer’s smooth, milk-tea voice set against the guitars and hand drums. The lyrics are beyond my Bangla capabilities, but you could effortlessly get pulled into the yearning drawn out notes of loss or sadness, get lifted by the more joyful beats.
It’s got expat catering written all over it, but I can appreciate good music & food in a sweet space any day.

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The BLC mine

7/4
A very multicultural Fourth of July, which is duly appropriate: a bunch of Americans (plus Spanish girl) in Dhaka, partaking in Mauritius and Peruvian alcohol, on rooftops.
This weekend was a particularly hard one to let go. After almost a month, the BLC group’s finally been able to go out all together, and they’re really a lovely, eclectic bunch. Only a few short weeks before people start leaving…

7/5
Spoke to “H,” a security guard downstairs on the night shift. So nice how one simple question can lead to longer conversations you didn’t intend on having. I learned he has a brother working on his PhD in China, and I told him what it’s like to get around in America.
Pleasant, happenstance, a small connection formed.
And my Bangla is understandable and somewhat good! Validation.
It was also a lesson in listening to what the other person is saying instead of thinking what you’ll say (Hemmingway). I liked it. I’ll try it more often.

7/6
Touched by kindness in the form of unordered begunis and rooh afzha to accompany my quesadilla iftar. Ramadan mubarak y’all.

7/9
Things I miss: dressing up. mixing and matching pieces from my wardrobe until I create an outfit that makes me happy; miniskirt with sheer tights, tank and long cardigan, red lips and black hat.

7/13
Bengali barbie, shady Korean bar of men and beer, delicious woodear, Ferraro Rocher gelato

7/14
Today is one of those days where I question what I’m doing with my life.

7/19
An otherwise uneventful day ends up having one of the most profound, opening conversations I’ve ever witnessed; discovering experiences with how mechanisms of the universe can work in our lives.

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Sylhet: A Break from the Noise

Tea gardens

Tea gardens in Sylhet

Color: Green
Word: Lush
Mood: Peaceful
Sound: Rain

If it wasn’t clear enough from my last post, Dhaka is rather… rambunctious. Don’t get me wrong, I really am enjoying my stay here and all the activity around definitely keeps you on your toes. But you realize just how loud it is when you take a trip a few hours (or a 30 minute plane ride) north to Sylhet. Think of it as Dhaka’s more reserved, naturally prettier countryside sister. The most distinguishing features are the acres upon acres of beautiful tea gardens sourcing the country’s tea addiction.

Both my parents– and the majority of British Bangladeshis, as Lonely Planet is quick to point out– hail from this district, so it’s a requisite stop for any trip to the motherland. The intense pride of being Sylheti can be akin to considering oneself (me) Texan first and American second for a lot of people and the dialect is quicker, sharper on the tongue (and, I think, more fun) than “proper” shuddho Bangla.

The overall contrast of the place is clear as soon as you step out of the plane: the runway is essentially a dirt road surrounded by, like everything else there, forests. Driving to your house, the worst traffic ‘jam’ here beats most good days driving through Dhaka.

I had a leisurely five-day getaway during which my mother and I mostly stayed home with my aunt and cousin. Each day consisted of the four of us waking up for sehri* around 3 AM, waking up a few hours later and reading or watching TV if the satellite dish worked, until it was time to go out for the day. I was usually awake before everyone else so I’d have a few quiet moments to myself, watching the rest of the neighborhood slowly wake up, too. Monsoon season was still in full swing so sheets of rain would fall almost like clockwork throughout the day. The windows and doors are always open, letting the outside air roam around the apartment. No WiFi, no problem. I’ll admit I tapped into my data a few times for email and Facebook, but otherwise it was a pleasantly tech-free zone. Nice and quiet.

The first site to visit was my maternal grandparents’ home in Kanishiel, a village about 45 minutes outside Sylhet town. The trip took us through narrow dirt roads that kept getting narrower–but still allowed two-way traffic for CNGs and wide-load trucks alike–flanked by trees on either side to create a canopy of leaves overhead. Sylhet as a whole can be considered rather rural, but this place was even more so. Long stretches of green fields dotted with homes and local mosques. I’ll save the details of this trip for another post.

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The hills are alive…with the smell of cha-a-a

Of course tea gardens were on my must-see list so we visited three on the third day. The gardens are comprised of rolling hills carpeted with tea plants, with stick thin trees shooting up sporadically. I’m at a loss to describe the scene other than green, green, and more lush green. A few women tea collectors were working the fields and made it very clear they didn’t want their picture taken, so I got their hats instead.

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Accidentally snuck a glimpse at another collector. Can you spot her?

Where's Wahida

Where’s Wahida

Nearby the last garden was an eco-park. Right upon entering the park is a playground where–mother and daughter, adult and young adult–we all transformed into giddy six year olds. Raisa and I jumped onto the oversized swing while my aunt and mom hopped up and down the see-saw. It was a hilariously happy sight.

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You’re as young as you feel. Pictured: 6 years old.

The rest of the trip was mainly spent visiting relatives and shopping. We had developed a cozy, carefree little routine in Sylhet. I’d miss taking our meals together, walking around town with Raisa, our moms reading the newspaper at the table together. It was hard to say goodbye to my khala and Raisa not knowing the next time I’d get to see them when my mom and I finally had to leave. An hour later, we were back in the chaotic grind of Dhaka. To anyone who is in, or thinking of travelling to, Bangladesh, you do not want to miss Sylhet. Here are a couple more pictures to round it out.

This guy likes it here

This guy likes it here

In Kanishiel near my grandfather's home

In Kanishiel near my grandfather’s home

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