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My Bangladeshi Experience – Grace Valdevitt

In our efforts to rise awareness on the subject of sustainability, environment and child development, we visited the POPI projects in Bahirab last January.  Our special guest was Grace Valdevitt, a Peruvian young girl who is very active in her community, explaining what is global warmming and how we can prevent it from increasing its impacts.  She shared with us her travel experience and gave us an interesting personal reflexion, check it out.

My Bangladeshi Experience – Grace Valdevitt
POPI – People Oriented Program Implementation
January 23rd 2014

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Introduction

My father first presented this experience to me many months ago, while introducing the project that was still being planned and I did not really think that it would be such a life changing experience. When he mentioned that the trip would be to Bangladesh I admit I was rather doubtful, thinking about the present violence due to political unrests and also because of the remarkably poor conditions. In any case, the idea of bringing a present to POPI made me think that it was worth to take the trip.

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The Journey
We left home in Lima, approximately at 9pm as our flight left at midnight. After landing at Miami, New York and London the real experience started as we landed at Doha, Qatar for the first time for both of us.

Doha – Qatar
We landed in Doha at 2am and after more or less 4O hours of travelling. We were already exhausted. To our surprise, at this time Doha International Airport was as busy as any American international airport at noon. The terminals seemed interminable, displaying luxurious stores that were packed with customers. The most expensive stores were there, from Versace to Channel. The display of passengers, clearly demonstrate that Doha airport is an important hub to the middle east, Africa and Asia, we could see a great variety of nationalities, religions and social status. Some were dressed with traditional clothing and seemed to be migrant workers travelling back home while other were carrying an elegant suitcase and probably headed to an international business meeting.

Bangla – Bangladesh airport
When arriving at Bangladesh my first pleasant surprise was to see that the weather was cool and not at all as hot as it had been previously described to me. Next, we had to start with the process to obtain the visa, all foreigners are required a $ 50 USD on arrival visa and paperwork that is done handwritten and the duplication via carbon paper. My father mentioned that it used to be like this when he was a child and copy machines were not around. Lastly, after passing immigrations we started to search for Amirul who we had never met before and who we would not be able to recognize. After crossing the main exit we saw a sea of people crushing their faces against a gate and some military uniformed officers guarding around. After a while a gentleman who saw I suppose a lost look on our faces came closer and asked us if we needed some help, offering his cell phone to call someone if necessary. So we called Amirul who was looking for us at another terminal. He came to pick us up where we were. This was the first act of generosity and warmness that we later saw every hour of our trip through Bangladeshis.

The First Day
After 3 days of continuous trip we arrived to Dhaka not knowing that our trip was far from being over and the real adventure had just started. From the airport we went to the main POPI office. This is where we had lunch, we were shocked as we sat down and saw plates continued arriving to the table. We had a meal of shrimp, beef, fish, vegetables and rice. We later realized that every meal was as generous.

Village schools
On the first day, we headed to two of many of POPI’s village schools. These are ran and taught by local parents and teachers for children that have been working at shoe factories. When I first entered the classroom I was surprised by the age differences between the students. There are two turns for school, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. What most shocked me was when I imagined all these children working in factories. Some of them were very young. We asked one 13 year old boy what he did and he explained he was in charge of cutting the leather and that they worked some days until 4am every day of the week. This is unthinkable even for adults in any western country. We introduced ourselves to the students and they showed us around the school. To finish our visit we gave out a tree to every student for them to plant.

AKI
When entering a classroom, my father asked who was the youngest student: a young girl shyly raised her hand. After this, my father asked her what she would like to be when she grew up, her answer was ‘’a doctor’’. This answer touched me, as even though she had had a rough past, she had a lot of hope and still had a goal and a dream to realize. I sincerely wish her the best of luck and hope she gets to achieve what she wants some day.

The Second Day – Floating School
b3_04The Conga River On the second day, we drove several hours of driving through narrow streets without pavement. We crossed little towns where people rarely saw a car and many came out or just stopped to see us pass by. We arrived to another POPIs offices where we waited for the boat to arrive to the shore. To get to the boat we had the walk through rice paddies, which were a challenge as my dad’s foot had a problem and all there was beneath the paddies, was mud. If we miss a step, we will be muddy the rest of the day. After getting on the boat’s roof we departed for a trip that lasted approximately 3 hours until we reached the floating school. We saw many fishing boats that used huge nets between two boats to fish. Also some very large boats carrying mainly people that crowded the boat. Every inch of space is used.

The Floating school
be_05As soon as we got to the island, we entered the floating school. This was very interesting, as I had never seen one before. This idea of a school on a boat that is able to provide education for more than one community made me admire POPI’s project even more. We were received by two young students with flowers and immediately entered the classroom. The boat was divided into two floors, which were two classrooms, each one with a capacity of approximately 3O students. As soon as I started my presentation I started to think about how these students were so willing to go to school. I remembered how everyone I know, including myself, was always complaining about having to wake up every morning to go school. In our school, we had air conditioning, nice classrooms with technology and facilities all the time. Here, after 15 minutes I was already sweating and we were in winter, and nevertheless when we asked all these children if they were happy going to school they all answered they were with a big smile on their faces. These are privileged children, who can attend school in a country were not all can. 
My presentation was on global warming that, to my surprise, was a term they were hearing for the first time, even though I could not communicate directly with them, they did learn and got the main concept of causes, effects and things we could do to avoid damaging the environment. The students were very interested and even got to ask me some personal questions . I could see there were curious about me and wanted to get to know me a little better. Finally, the people from the ALGI office brought gifts that we gave to the students. This included a blanket, a pencil case, a notebook and some candies. They were really happy and grateful.

The Welcome into Conga Village
After we finished the presentation and giving out the gifts, we approached a huge crowd that were waiting for us. We did not really know what had been prepared and very soon we found a pleasant surprise. As we started walking, all these students lined up on the sides of our path, started throwing yellow petals at us. This was something we had never experienced before and personally, never expected to experience. I felt very honored as we passed by everyone in the village finally taking a seat on a podium with a leader from the community, POPI’s representative and ALGI staff among others were also there. After some cultural presentations that included students singing, dancing and some natives playing local instruments, the prize giving ceremony started. Many students were awarded for their outstanding merits at school. ALGI staff received some gifts and my father and myself received an award representing POPI’s gratitude towards us.

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My wedding at the Island
be_08In middle of the prize giving ceremony, suddenly two nurses from POPI pulled me aside and took me to the infirmary. I could not understand what was going to happen. They took a beautiful Bangladeshi wedding dress out of a bag and started putting it on me. Not only was the dress beautiful but it has a whole technique to wear it correctly. It is very different from any of our dresses. Besides, their wedding dresses are not white like in Western culture, but red. It is like this all over Asia. After putting the dress on, they pasted a piece of red jewelry on my forehead and took me back to the podium. The nurses later told us that when a Bangladeshi woman got married she had to put the dress on and leave the island on a boat saying farewell to her parents, more or less as I was as I also left by boat. As I left the village everyone followed me to the shore and waved as I got on the boat. It was very emotional as it was a very traditional custom and they were sharing it with me.

Conclusion
This was a great experience all and all . Not only I got to see a different culture but I was the object of inmmense kindness. All those I met were extremely sweet and showed me all they have that was nice, to make me feel welcomed. But more than that, this has been a great learning for me, to see how young kids, even younger than me, have such difficult lives. Working at factories is something kids should not have to do. Even now, those priviledge kids that managed to be accepted into school, they still have difficult lives, with conditions that are uncomfortable and hard for learning. But they still go to school very happy, and appreciating what that means for their future. I hope they all fulfill their dreams and that many people gets to see what POPI does to help and find different ways to support this and other similar projects.

Reflection
In a more reflective way, it has greatly affected me to see how all these children’s lives have changed thanks to this organization. How their lives would be completely different without this help. These children would be working in horrible conditions at such a young age, without being able to have a real childhood and even more importantly, education. Therefore, we can see how these operations are not only affecting the children as individuals but the community as a whole. An example of this is how the teachers that teach in these schools come from the same village so it is auto sustainable creating internal progress. This teaches everyone that visits these places how we can help these people just by giving them opportunities that we all take for granted. This is a lesson that I will continue to nourish as much as I can.