Life as usual?

There is something to be said about visiting three cities in two weeks. Some would call it ambitious. Some might call it crazy. I call it amazing.

In the past 16 days I have been to Dubai twice, Kathmandu and Dhaka. A week each in Nepal and Bangladesh. A blur. A vapor. Soon to be only memories.

Great memories I may add, including fun with six amazing women. All very accomplished and inspiring because of their passion for the people they help. Newly found friendships that I will cherish.

I am very excited to get home to see my beautiful wife, the puppies and to sleep in my own bed, but…

How do I go back to life as usual when I now know there are millions of people in Nepal without electricity 12 hours out of the day?

How do justify letting the tap water run freely when I have had to brush my teeth using a cup because water is so scarce, let alone clean enough to drink from the tap in both Nepal and Bangladesh?

How do I go into a grocery store and not feel overwhelmed by the choices we are so accustomed to in the United States.
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Are we spoiled? Yes.

Are we ungrateful? Sometimes.

Are we blessed? Always.

I have spoken with so many people that have traveled abroad to under developed countries and they all say the same thing. “Seeing how people survive will change your perspective.” In my heart this trip has change my life.

My greatest fear heading into this trip was the potential exposure to the reality of real poverty. I was afraid of the possible heartache. Once realized, I didn’t realize how deep people could go into a this abyss.

We barely scratched the surface only traveling a couple dozen kilometers outside the capitals of these countries. In both cases running water was not an option. Homes were mere shelters not much bigger than a tent accommodating multiple generations of families.
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Being perfectly honest, I get annoyed by lack of space in my 1,800 square foot home. Not today though. Not after seeing how the majority of the 160 million people live in Bangladesh. Not after seeing homes shared with wild stock in the villages of Nepal. Not after seeing the remnants of a burnt out garment factory where more than a hundred lives were lost.

My prayer is I never forget and that I remember how lucky I am to live in a country that I do not always agree with.

One thing is for sure. We are all blessed to even have creature comforts let alone a bathroom indoors. We do not comprehend what it like to live without heat after dark on cold damp nights.

Thank you Lord for putting me in a place where I can live beyond my means. Please help me stay humble and grounded and content with what you have so freely provided me.

In The Streets

There is very little tourism in Dhaka other than a handful of museums, a couple of memorials and a lot of mosques and temples. The campus of Dhaka University is very nice.

If none of that does it for you then you need to head to the streets. Even with the poverty level so high that begging is expected, the trek is well worth it.

It is not uncommon to have heart breaking mothers, struggling with their kids in tow, to follow you for blocks to gain any morsel. The more affluent you look the more persistently they pursue. Don’t take their picture because they will expect payment from you since they need help so desperately. And once you succumb and dish out even a taka or two (1 taka = 1.26 cents) the other homeless and desperate come out of nowhere.
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The street markets are beautiful with colorful fruits and vegetables, aromatic spices, rice of all types, live fish, freshly slaughtered meat, and live chicken plucked and de-feathered on the spot. (see photos > http://tiny.cc/09nbrw)

The best part is the people. It is a bit disconcerting at first, but you learn to embrace the fact that they will flock around you. Because we are so different from them we stand out.

At first I thought it was just the men gawking at the six beautiful women I am traveling with, but local women were in the crowd just as eager to get a glimpse. Some had phones taking pictures while others playfully jumped in front of the camera.

I then noticed that they were watching me too. It became apparent they were reveling in the fact that we were interested in what they were offering. They loved the fact that we cared about them through our wanting their goods. They loved the fact we were willing to come down to their neighborhood.

At one point I turned to find my party was gone. I figured they had wandered further down the street. I did not see them anywhere. I suddenly felt alone and a bit apprehensive. Almost instantly I saw nearly a half dozen locals waving to me that my party had crossed the street. They did not want me to lose my friends. I then felt completely safe.

Suddenly I was being escorted by two young boys; probably younger teenagers. They cheered and laughed as I started to step into traffic. One of them actually grabbed my arm at one point to save me from a high speed rickshaw.

It seemed the entire crowd was cheering as I finally made it across. My two young escorts cheered the loudest and received my high five of thanks. Others in the crowd patted me on the back with congratulations as I joined up with my traveling companions.

For me, this experience on the streets assured me that the Bangali people cared for me. They loved seeing me succeed. In turn, I now find myself cheering for them hoping they succeed through all their political challenges and economic struggles.

Thank you my friends in the streets of Dhaka. Thanks for welcoming me into your world.

Our First Day in Bangladesh

The Legislative Fellows begin our journey today in Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh. It feels a little strange to me already because today is Sunday. The work week starts on Sunday in Bangladesh and will end on Thursday.
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Our local guide is Jamil Ahmed. He is the Chief Executive at JATRI which is the Journalism Training & Research Initiative for all of Bangladesh. He is very well connected. Our first stop is to meet him at his office which is a couple of miles away. With the traffic in Dhaka it could take as much as an hour. We are lucky and get there in thirty minutes.

After seeing the JATRI facilities with everything from a computer lab to recording studios we set off to meet a very large group with the Khan Foundation. The event is bringing together many of their partners from all over the country to meet us. The Khan Foundation was founded by Former Minister of the Government of Bangladesh, Dr. Abdul Moyeen Khan and his wife, Advocate Roshsana Khondker. This was a very productive meeting including hearing stories from women elected as representatives in one of the 450 areas of Bangladesh. There are nine wards within each of these areas along with three overlaying wards. Women are now represented in nearly 2,000 of these wards.

Dr. Khan laid out these main points for us today.
> The local government structure has been in place for nearly 100 years.
> Bangladesh is not a Muslim county. Even with 95% of the population being Muslim, religion is confined to the individual.
> Women became voters in Bangladesh long before the Suffrage movement in the United States.
> People can perform far better than the government. Bangladesh has averaged above 6% GDP for a number of years.
> The people can transform the country.
> The Central government feels they can control the local government level. If they succeed, democracy is ruined.
After this great discussion, The Khan’s hosted a lunch for us. The chicken was rough, but the prawns with curry were really good. Overall, I feel we made some friends.

The afternoon was slated for a cultural tour, but with Jamil’s desire to build relationships we stopped in for a visit with Barrister Kayser Kamal. Interesting gentlemen with a jovial nature and a sinister smile. He is an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh working human rights cases. The Barrister offered us tea, local sweets and snacks. It became obvious that he’d be offended if we didn’t partake, so we obliged. Our discussions surrounded the air of the controlling party and the struggles of the opposition party.

It is apparent that the Prime Minister (http://tiny.cc/ls67qw) and the Opposition do not speak with each other. Bangladesh is a government dominated culture. (49% of the people have no voice) The Prime Minister is the ruler of the country. She assigned the current President (http://tiny.cc/hg77qw) who is viewed as an ornamental position.

The Cake Festival
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We did make it to the Dhaka Cake Festival which had music and bakers from various districts of Dhaka demonstrating and selling their tasty treats. (See photos > http://tiny.cc/v867qw) This was a lot of fun, especially when the crowds started to gather. I thought initially it was the local men gawking at six American women, but it became clear the people were intrigued by our interest in their local customs. A reporter from the largest newspaper in Dhaka, The Daily Star, was there and interviewed me and one of the ladies. It is possibly going to print in tomorrow’s edition.

Our work day ended with a visit to The Daily Star which proved to be another opportunity for tea and sweets and yes… snacks.

Elizabeth Has A Birthday

Most of the Legislative Fellows gathered for a birthday get together for Elizabeth Gomez who turned %$ today. Secretly a couple of our colleagues got a small tart (since we have had enough sweets already today to make Londoner Keith Martin want a break) and a boat load of candles, plus a postcard we all scrambled to sign. It was sweet.

Celebrating over poorly made Tom Collins and Heinekens from the can, the local band played “Happy Birthday” on their gubgubas and odd looking accordion in a wooden box. Very cool. (To be posted at a later date since YouTube is banned in Bangladesh due to interviews of villagers that were posted causing mayhem.)

What’s Up For Tomorrow?

Monday we will go to the U.S. Embassy for a briefing. We do not know if Ambassador Mozena will meet with us or not. We will meet with two members of Parliament and tour the National Parliament. The day will end with dinner in the home of a former Legislative Fellow from Bangladesh.

Check out all of the photos of our journey at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and read about what we are doing on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.

The People Are Nepal

The past few days have been a blur. We have been very busy meeting with our U.S. Ambassador of Nepal (Peter Bodde) to ceremonies with members of a small village, visiting Co-ops to Non-Government Organizations.

Everywhere we have been this week discussions have been held on how the Maoists are reluctant to give up control, how the Parliament is no longer in place, there are numerous political parties unable to find common ground, yet the Nepalese people still prevail.

The spirit of this country is amazing. They do not currently have a constitution and it appears they will not come to consensus any time soon, but the spirit of the people is compelling. Their love for each other and their pride is moving. You get a very strong sense of hope from them even when their government has failed them to the point of near collapse.

Everywhere we have been we have been received by people moved to help their fellow man and women. Programs designed to share their wealth through co-ops utilizing microfinance. Visiting services to help widows regain their voice when their community has blamed them for their husbands’ untimely death. Human rights groups fighting for refugees they don’t even know. Child advocates and shelter workers.

All the while, the people of Nepal celebrate their history of failed democracies and turn a blind eye to other nation’s views of them as a failed state.

This week has stirred me. It has drawn up emotions in me for a people I just met and barely know. A people I want to see succeed. A nation I am proud and blessed to have been able to participate in. Even for just a little while.

Tomorrow our Legislative Fellows Program moves on to Bangladesh. I am excited about what the next week has for us, but it is going to be very hard for my heart to completely leave Nepal. Forever I will cherish my time here.

Day 4 Nepali Politics & Culture

Today was a very interesting day here in Kathmandu. Our tour guides (Samudaik & Siraha) joined us at 8:15 AM for a full day of talks and site seeing.

Our first stop was a meeting with Sanubhai Sunar, District President of the democratic Madheshee People’s Rights Forum. He shared his efforts in promoting dialogue with the two other political parties in an effort to meet consensus on a constitution (and ultimately on an election process). Currently the extreme left (Maoist/Communist) are in power and have no interest in an election. There currently is no Parliament. The other party is the extreme right (liberal Democrats). The Madheshee party presents themselves as in between these two and the only party where the people are not marginalized. The economy is in crisis with high unemployment and there is no law and order.

Our next meeting was a very quick visit with the People’s Rural Development & Awareness Programme Service (PRDAPS). They are a non-government organization (NGO) devoted for implementation of integrated community development for vulnerable and disadvantaged people of Nepal.

We then met with Professor Parsuran Kharel, retired Professor Prem Khatri and retired President of the Nepal Press institute Mr. Gokul Pokharel over lunch. We had some very interesting discussions on a number of fronts regarding political transition and culture in Nepal. All seemed somewhat frustrated by the Country’s lack of any form of unified leadership. The Caste System is utilized in this region only adding to their challenges.
(See more > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India)

Gender discrimination with clearly defined roles for women is common place. The logic they hold is that the women work very hard in the home and they do not have time for education or politics. The literacy rate for women in all of Nepal is 1%.

Swayambhunath Temple

The Swayambhunath Temple is the largest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. People travel from all over the world to come see it. Lots of vibrant colors and amazing faces (see photos > http://on.fb.me/TWJ4Z0)

Durbar Square

We spent the last few hours of daylight in or around Durbar Square. The streets are filled with colorful vendors, cows walking the streets, and more temples for numerous god s and goddesses, including one for the Kumari, or Goddess of Virginity.
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The Napali tradition holds that a young girl (4 or 5 years old) be selected. Once the girl has been selected she is brought to the temple to live without her family. She is educated and looked after. She is then put on display for visitors when she is expected to sit in the middle window with all of her makeup and traditional wardrobe. The crowd then publicly worships her and pays a donation on their way out. She is kept there until she matures at which point she is considered unclean. It is at this point she is welcome to move back with her family or go it alone. (See more > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumari_(children))

What’s up for tomorrow?

Tuesday we go to the U.S. Embassy in Nepal to talk about conducting elections. For this I get to wear a tie. Oh my! In the afternoon we will meet with an NGO to talk about coping with violence against women in Nepal.

Check out today’s photos at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and join me again tomorrow for another installment on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.

Day 3 Headed to Kathmandu

Wow! Dubai was spectacular. Rich, vibrant and alive. Loved the people and the sites. The night life made me feel like we were back in the glamour days of the 50’s in Hollywood. People dressed up and smoking was a very common reality. Visiting men in suits. Women with minks .

The local Muslim men wore robes and white head wear. It is tradition. White cloths reflect sun light, black cloth does not. Sun light produces heat. So, to keep themselves safe from HEAT of the SUN in the deserts, Arabs wear white cloth over their head.

The local Muslim women wore robes and head wear covering everything but their eyes and hands. “Hijab” is a word that indicates several conditions for the women’s Islamic dress. (http://islam.about.com/od/dress/tp/clothing-glossary.htm)
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Here are some of the conditions:
1. Clothing must cover the entire body, only the hands and face may remain visible.
2. The material must not be so thin that one can see through it.
3. The clothing must hang loose so that the shape of the body is not apparent.
4. The female clothing must not resemble the man’s clothing.
5. The design of the clothing must not resemble the clothing of the non-believing women.
6. The design must not consist of bold designs which attract attention.
7. Clothing should not be worn for the sole purpose of gaining reputation or increasing one’s status in society.

The reason for this strictness is so that the woman is protected from the lustful gaze of men. She should not attract attention to herself in any way. It is permissible for a man to catch the eye of a woman; however it is unlawful for a man to look twice as this encourages lustful thoughts.

Traveling to Kathmandu

The journey to Kathmandu has been eye opening to me. It is very apparent that women are viewed as second class citizens in this region. An afterthought almost. Possessions to be beckoned.

The Dubai International Airport waiting area clarified this for me. There was a room set aside for women. A local man told me it was for their privacy, but my perception was it was clear they were set aside; out of view. It appeared that only men sat in the open waiting areas. The only women you saw in the open were Westerners or non-Muslim women.

It has been very interesting thus far observing how men do gaze at women. I find myself doing it. The Napali men on the plane took this to another level. Creepy really. And walking the Kathmandu streets tonight was deserted by women. I found myself purposely walking behind my colleagues as a protector. My seven sisters instilled “the protector” in me at an early age, but this was different. My awareness was definitely heightened.

The lesson of the day for me is respect for women is more than chivalry guys. It is standing up for them. Defending them. Protecting them. Not looking at them with thoughts of physical pleasures, but honoring them. Help them feel safe. Empowering them to be all that God have designed for them.

What’s on tap for tomorrow?

Our first meeting of the trip is at 9AM to talk about the Status of Party Politics in Nepal and then on to an Introduction To Political Transition and Culture in Nepal. This should be interesting in light of the fact that the county of Nepal does not have a constitution and they do not appear to have a consensus as to how to get there.

Tomorrow afternoon we have a cultural tour of Kathmandu including a visit to Swayambhunnath (also known as the Monkey Temple). It is an ancient religious complex atop a hill in the Kathmandu Valley just west of the city. We all are hoping to see some monkeys.

Check out today’s photos at http://www.facebook.com/MikeSextonNC and join me again tomorrow for another installment on http://MikeSextonNC.wordpress.com.

The Dubai Fountain

Video

This water fountain was designed by the same gentleman that designed the one at The Belagio in Las Vegas. The entire pond is nearly 30 acres. The fountain is know to shoot as high as 50 feet. (More about the fountain > http://tiny.cc/ilgtqw)

This is just a sample from a pretty bad vantage point, but it does capture its impact.

A little while later we were able to watch it and hear the music playing from our dinner table in a resturant nearby.

There are more photos of our day in Dubai on Facebook at http://tiny.cc/zugtqw and on FlickR at http://tiny.cc/0ahtqw.