Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The (Very) Long Journey Home

Last half day in Bangladesh.
Rustin and I sit at the big table in the main community room for our last breakfast. The guesthouse staff are getting ready to bring out our white bread toast, but I peak my head into the kitchen. Despite my tummy’s mumbling, I ask them if we could have some Bangladeshi breakfast. They get really excited at this request and run outside to bring us some. We break our fasts with warm flakey flat bread and curried vegetables.

Sonet arrives at 10:30am. I have my checklist of things to do this morning before our flight: 1. Drive a rickshaw and 2. Eat a guava.

The morning streets are hustling with restless energy
of another workday. Sonet hails a rickshaw and explains to the driver my bizarre request to borrow his rickshaw. The driver is willing at no cost and hops in the back. I take my position at the front and hop onto the pedals. Lots to remember: drive on left side of the road, look for oncoming traffic, pedal, don’t crash.

But it’s a lot harder than it looks. Not hard, but different from a bicycle. Once I start turning, it was hard to stop. Within seconds, I found myself veering uncontrollably towards the sidewalk. The driver quickly hops down and prevents a small accident. He insists that I take a seat in the back, but I’m not done yet.

Back on the street, I set off again. Steady steady… No sudden turns or movements. Look for traffic. Pedal. Oh no! Turning turning!! TURNING! Crash. Right into a pole.

Ok. One more shot. Turn the corner and follow the winding riverside road. I almost hit the cameraman, Rustin, causing a small traffic jam. An oncoming car stops to allow me to get back to my side of the road. Meanwhile, EVERYONE stops and stares at the crazy foreigner who can’t drive a rickshaw. I just smile, wave, and continue on my way.

By the third block, I have the swing of it. Going over speed bumps is a breeze. I turn my head in time to see a chicken slaughter on the side of the road. I smile at all the curious looks I’m getting.

When I’ve had enough, I hand the driver 20 taka with an onig onig doh noh baad. He looks like he regrets the whole ordeal. But now I can check that off of my to-do list.

Next up: eat a guava. Apparently you can’t buy just one guava. They come by the kilo. Reluctantly I buy the whole kilo. As I munch down on the first one, it is hard, crunchy and tart. The vendor pulled a fast one and gave me all unripe guavas. I grudgingly check that one off my list.

Gulandaz meets us at the
bEARN office. We have some tea and a dessert made with cardamom. We’re supposed to meet the students at the airport at 5:30pm for our 9:30pm flight. That’s 4 hours early! But we get calls as early as 3 saying the students are starting to arrive. So we take one last picture and head out.

On the ride to the airport we take one last look at Dhaka. I tried and failed to get the perfect photo, so you’ll have to settle for this one.

At the airport, we started to meet the students. And their parents. And their extended family.

“Hi, I’m so-and-so’s mother. You will take care of my baby won’t you?”
“Hello, can you remind my son to take his medicine. He forgets sometime. It’s very important.”

“Can you change my daughter’s home stay location? To New York? Or DC?”
“Let my son buy a digital camera in the Dubai airport!”
“What do we write for this line on the custom’s card?”

“What do you mean you’re not in charge of placing the students in their host families’ house?!”
“Remember, his medicine is very important!”
“What’s the weather in Washington DC right now?”

“How long is the flight from Washington DC to Kansas?”

“We are handing our daughter over to you”

“So, you have a lot of responsibility!”

And so it went for two hours. Introductions. Questions. More questions. Irrelevant questions. Questions I didn’t know the answers to. Rhetorical questions. Tearful questions. Persistent questions.

I breathed a sigh of relief
when it was time to start checking in. We passed through the first wave of security. I jotted down the attendance, acquainting myself with the students. The overall feeling was excitement, but a little nervous. For many of the students it was their first time in an airplane.

They opened up a check-in counter just for our group. 29 students lined up with their bags. We handed out luggage tags and I entertained them with silly jokes. Rustin and I gathered them for another attendance before customs. One girl was missing. Already?!

Rustin and I got through customs just fine, but then waited for the students, “my kids,” I called them.
Finally when we had everyone through customs, we took a quick attendance and we were off. Somehow a sneaky few parents had somehow managed to get inside all the security and customs. They waved to their children through the glass.

Once in the airplane, the students were super excited. They let out a whoop! of excitement as the plane lifted off of the ground. The excitement, however, didn’t die down for the whole flight. They were up and chatting all night. I had to take out my earplugs and remind them to be respectful of the people around them.

We landed in Dubai. There were buses shuttling passengers from the plane to the terminal. Our group got split up. I didn’t know how I would count the students. Rustin arrived on the next shuttle. When we did a headcount we only got 24. Not good enough.

Panicked, I flew past security, picked up some students and took them upstairs past the glittery duty free shops. All in all, I made three trips shuttling students upstairs. Took attendance. They were all there. The students wanted to explore the airport, so we established a meeting place and told them 15 minutes.

However, we misjudged the time because 15 minutes would be cutting it really close to our next flight. So, as they returned from stretching their legs, I led the way and counted the students as they checked in, ushering them onto the plane. I counted all 29, but just in case we had the airline confirm that they all had gotten on.

7.5 hour flight to London. In London, the kids dropped off their bags and I sat down to watch them. The kids dispersed into Heathrow’s Terminal 3. One by one they wandered back asking where they could buy calling cards and complaining that everything was too expensive. Well, welcome to London!

One kid had a different flight than ours into Washington DC. He was nervous, which made me nervous. I gave him my cell phone and told him to turn it on when he got to Washington. We would call him when we arrived and he should wait for us before customs. I walked him way to the end of Terminal 1 for his flight, told him everything would be okay, and then ran back to my Terminal. I must have looked awful suspicious running back and forth through security.

Crisis. The tickets that they had printed for us in Dhaka were no longer good for this flight. We had to get new boarding passes. 30 boarding passes in 30 minutes. The woman working for United Airlines gave me a look that said: you’re kidding, right? Nope. Not kidding.

After a brief panic moment when we couldn't find a student, we found him already on the plane, we were on the final 8 hour stretch. Rustin and I parried and riposted a million questions about immigration forms.

The baggage claim was a mess. One teeny tiny baggage claim for all international flights into Washington DC. I found our luggage in a big mess on the floor. Attendants were shoving bags on the floor because the conveyor belt was too swamped. It took for-e-ver for the students to get through customs. I checked them off the list and told them that they’d meet a YES representative outside.

Crisis. One girl was near tears. She couldn’t find her bag.
One girl couldn’t find her passport. She had checked everywhere, but didn’t have it. She told me she must have handed it to another student to hold. And of course, that student had already left. I bulldozed through security with one thing on my mind: find the passport.

I went up to every one of my Bangladeshi students and frantically asked if they knew who had the passport. Everyone said that someone else had it. Some one else said he didn’t have it. I was at my whit’s end. Finally after running all over the aiport, I located the passport. Triumphantly I walked back through the one-way doors back to the baggage claim.

One security guard tries to stop me. She says I can’t go through. I tell her the situation, but she won’t let me go back. I start walking any way and there she is following me demanding I stop. I get into an argument with her and a police officer gets involved. I am responsible for these students and I won’t let a few uniforms stop me from doing my job! Then I see Rustin in the crowd and I wave the passport at him. I am content with letting the security guard feel important now. I hand it over after they promise that they’ll give it to him.

The adrenaline carries me back through the doors. Half of my students are on a bus to American University. Half are with me. I’m tired and relieved not to be the chaperone figure anymore. I am turning over responsibility to the YES coordinators. My job is done.

We jump on the next bus and are whisked off to the University. At the University, I say goodbye to my kids. What a wonderful group! I’m sure it’ll be an awesome journey full of exploration and discovery!
I wish I could see them in 9 months on their way home.

I hop on the bus, which
will bring me to the metro, which will bring me to Union Station. Soon after I board the train, I’m fast asleep. New York City Penn Station is the last stop and I wipe my eyes and gather my stuff. The subway ride uptown is the last leg of this 40+ hour journey.

Mom is asleep on the couch and I wake her up for a brief hello, then to bed with both of us! What a long day, but it’s good to be home.

1 comment:

qué se yo said...

curioso! entonces seguro que recuerdas el español! hasta pronto! jorge!