One of the most densely populated countries in the world. A country whose population increased by over 1 million people as Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar and flooded across the border into Bangladesh seeking refuge. What was once East Pakistan, Bangladesh emerged in 1971 following a war and independence movement that split the country from Pakistan. A young country still trying to find its footing on the world stage, yet a dynamic place rich in beauty and culture.
It was a country that was not yet on my radar in terms of travel. It was not on my list of places to see. Until August, when the refugee crisis broke out and I was called into the middle of it to go and provide healthcare services to a population in desperate need. I accepted the assignment without hesitation and before I knew it I was on my way to the other side of the world, where I found myself on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma), tucked along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.
I traveled to Cox’s Bazar via Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. The further east you go, the more things begin to change. The pace of life changes. Things are a little less structured, a little less uniform. The stringent constructs we navigate in the Western world loosen and fall away. Things become chaotic, but there is a method to the madness and life moves forward in an interesting way. It never takes long to settle into the flow of life in the dustier corners of the world and it usually begins the moment you step off of one plane and onto another. The next one meant to take you even further from the familiar – and deeper into the unknown.
I sat in the terminal of Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, waiting for the gate to open for my flight to Cox’s Bazar. The process was easy. Security was non-existent. The lines were messy and people moved hurriedly in every direction. Despite the disarray, the same crowd that sprawled across the terminal managed to organize neatly into the small plane that was waiting to fly us to Cox’s Bazar. The flight time was estimated to be about one hour. The airline was US-Bangla and their motto was, “Fly Fast, Fly Safe” and I remember the phrase catching my eye and shifting me into a moment of skepticism.
When you fly often, you learn the sounds of the aircraft and the feel of the plane at different points. If you are anything like me, you may tend to hyper focus on a new sound, or a new shake or bump like, “Huh, that’s new.” Or when you feel the plane suddenly decelerate like, “We never slow down at this point in the flight, why are we doing that?” Or what quickly became my new favorite on that particular flight, “Planes don’t usually do this side-wobble-shake-and-jerk when taxing to the runway… I have literally never experienced this before” and apparently neither had the pilot, because as we were speeding up for take-off, we suddenly slowed down, and I am over here like, “Yep, we definitely don’t usually do this…” and the captain comes over the intercom and announces that there is a mechanical issue and the plane is not safe to fly.
Right. Wow. I am glad this was figured out approximately 30 seconds before our front end was about to lift off the ground and catapult us into the sky. Better late than never. So we turn around and taxi back to the tarmac, where we are evacuated from the plane. We pile into a convoy of shuttle buses that proceed to drive us in a giant circle around the perimeter of the tarmac before returning to the same exact plane and began re-boarding as if nothing had just happened.
Once back on the plane, the flight crew moved up and down the aisles counting heads and making notes. Again, and again, and again. We later learn that 161 people had evacuated the aircraft and now there were 162 passengers on board. Eventually they stopped counting and we proceeded to take off with apparently one extra person stowed away onboard. The 1 hour flight was reduced to 30 minutes (Fly Fast), and as we were beginning our initial descent into Cox’s Bazar, the pilot announces that there is only enough room at this airport for one Boeing-747 aircraft, so we were going to circle the airport for a few minutes while we wait for the Regent Air flight on the ground to depart. A “few minutes” really meant more than 30 minutes of non-stop “Fly Fast” circles that took us over the longest beach in the world, then banked a hard right and floated us over the dense jungle before banking another hard right and continuing up the longest beach in the world again, and again, and again.
By the time were finally landed and exited the aircraft, we were all walking sideways trying desperately not to succumb to the extreme dizziness of the Fly Fast circles we just completed. We were ushered into a tiny room where we filled out customs forms, which were actually just blank sheets of printer paper that we were instructed to write down our names, address in Bangladesh, country of origin, and passport numbers. We scribbled out the details, turned in our papers, and were ushered through another door that led back out to the tarmac. The baggage cart unloaded the luggage from the aircraft and came to a stop in front of the crowd of passengers. The driver motioned to the cart and the crowd moved forward to claim their bags from the stacks. There was no baggage claim. There were no conveyor belts. No flashing, beeping sirens alerting passengers their luggage was on the way. Nothing more than a simplified process that you can get away with in airports like these, in a country like this.
I carried my bag through a small gate that separated the tarmac from the outside world and found a man holding a sign with my name scribbled on it, half in English and half in Bangali. It looked more like a piece of art that was waiting to be completed. And I loved it. I followed him into a Tom-Tom and out into the world of Bangladesh as we seamlessly merged into the heavy traffic and incessant honking that would lead us from where we were and into the jungle and the camps that brought me here.
Bangladesh, you were beautiful and tragically real. Heartbreaking and healing. In so many ways. There are so many experiences and so many stories that I have yet to put into words, that I have yet to make tangible and release into this world. It is never easy to walk away from a crisis, especially one of this magnitude, and effortlessly return to the ease of the life you temporarily leave behind. There is always an adjustment, sometimes it happens quietly and subtly, and other times it is a full rebellion against anything and everything. There is so much work left to be done and such a significant need for continued support. Shortly after the New Year I will board another plane that will take me back to that corner of the world where I plan to spend more time providing healthcare services and midwifery support to the people and the midwives who need it the most. Until then it is a practice of being present with where I am and who I am with. It is an effort and intent on ‘being’ instead of ‘doing.’