Bangladesh Village Homestay: Becoming One of the Family

This is the story of a homestay experience in rural Bangladesh — and a young woman who hopes to be Prime Minister one day.

Audrey with the Women of Family - Hatiandha, Bangladesh
With three generations of women at our homestay family in Hatiandha, Bangladesh.

There I was in a traditional courtyard kitchen in a village in Bangladesh. Dirt floor, earthen oven. Mrs. Ali, our host mother, stoked the fire and minded several hot pans. It was time to slice the onions and my turn was up.

I held a small one between my hands. To avoid cutting my fingers off with the blade of a curved knife-edge secured between my feet, I’d narrowed my focus. Mrs. Ali and her college-aged daughter, Asmani, were curious. Nervous too. They had good reason to be. I’d cut many an onion before in my life, but never quite in this way.

Slowly, I pushed the onion through the blade, almost to the end. Then I turned it to cut the other way. My fingers remained intact and the onion was sliced — not finely or perfectly, but cut. Mrs. Ali threw the onions into a hot frying pan, added dabs of a few of her spice pastes, and continued to stoke the fire just so.

I think I passed the test; a bowl of okra appeared next for me to cut.

Bangladeshi Cooking at Home Stay in Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Learning to cook Bangladeshi food.

Bangladeshi Village Life: A Taste

Bangladeshi cities may be bustling, crowded, and jammed with activity, but the soul of Bangladesh is in its villages and along its rivers. Villages that surprise with their calm, their order and their relative peace. Sure there’s activity — in the fields, homes, schools, mosques and temples, but there’s a different pace to it all than you’ll find in a Bangladeshi city. In the words of a friend working in development, “When I go to the Bangladesh countryside, it gives me a sense of hope.

Men, Young and Old - Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Meeting people on a late afternoon walk through the village.

Our first afternoon walk through the village of Hatiandha outside of Natore was our initial taste of this: villagers harvesting crops and planting fields anew, flocks of animals gathering, and gaggles of geese scrabbling about . Kids played after school cricket, and families spent time winding up their day. Of course, they took a break to catch a glimpse of the visitors, or even to get a handshake.

Boys Playing Cricket in Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Pickup cricket game in the village after school.

From Stranger to Guest

When we returned to our home stay home for the evening, we got to know our family — and they got to know us — a little better over dinner. The awkwardness of being the center of attention faded as we chatted and asked questions to get closer to understanding one another.

Asmani was studying Political Science at a college in nearby Natore.

She wants to be Prime Minister,” her brother Bappy piped in.

Is it true?” I asked.

She nodded.

Can I have your autograph?” Dan inquired. We all believed in the possibility, really. Asmani blushed.

Dan pushed a piece of paper in front of her. She signed it.

One day, I can say I knew you when…

Dinner was ready. Mrs. Ali had cooked us a multi-course feast. We had been told beforehand that the best Bangladeshi food is in a village home. As I scooped into my mouth the first finger-full of fish curry and spicy vegetable sabzi, I nodded in satisfied agreement.

School Visit

The following morning, we struck further out in the countryside to visit a couple of village schools. At our first school, we were besieged by hundreds of schoolgirls pouring out of their classrooms to greet us in their courtyard. The energy, curiosity and spirit — if only we could bottle it.

Dan with Female Students at School - Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Visiting a rural school in the village of Hatiandha, Bangladesh.

Initially, we felt bad that we were disturbing classes, disrupting learning. But the students’ interest wasn’t to avoid class as much as it was to see and greet someone new, to ask questions. Each student we spoke to made us promise to visit their classroom — there were dozens across the two levels of buildings ringing the courtyard. Doorways and windows burst with anxious onlookers, poised to pull us in as we walked by. Teachers welcomed us, too. It was convenient that half the classes were studying English that day, lending to our visit an educational pretense.

We answered questions, we asked questions. Everyone we met flattered us by thinking we were much younger than we are. We embarrassed them by asking them their names and their favorite subjects in school. We talked cricket and took predictions on who would win the World Cup. Everyone had fun. Very honestly, we could have stayed all day.

Teacher with Classroom of Young Students - Nalbata, Bangladesh
Impromptu English class upon our visit.

Pottery and Puffed Rice: A Lesson

Next up was a pottery village and seeing how puffed rice was made. When we agreed to this side trip, we’d imagined something a la tourist village presentation. Instead, we got another glimpse of ordinary yet fascinating village life whose pace didn’t skip a beat for our visit.

Take the pottery. Throughout our visits to South Asia, we’d become big fans of doi, a sweet curd snack usually served in terra cotta containers, no matter how small the portion. Firm sweet yogurt and its bacteria tucked into little ceramic bowls — a surprisingly delicious blend.

When we arrived at the pottery village, we realized where all those doi pots had come from. Every manner of bowl, pot and container, including the very smallest were thrown by hand. This village was home to a unique Hindu caste that specialized in pottery. Master potters are able to churn out hundreds — if not thousands — of yogurt cups, pitchers and water pots in a single day.

Pottery Village - Najirpur, Bangladesh
Understanding the workings of a pottery village.

One man formed and softened the clay, the potter threw it on a wheel, and a woman attached bottoms with sand. Others managed the sun-drying process and organized the finished product from good to trash.

On the way back to our home village, we stopped off at a family courtyard thick in the throes of sorting harvested garlic and making hot puffed rice. How to make puffed rice? Shockingly simple and enlightening. In this courtyard, it happened in two steps.

First, one woman stirred rice kernels with hot sand in a ceramic pot atop a hot fire. When the kernels reached peak temperature and began to pop, she’d pour the sand and kernels into another ceramic container with holes just big enough to let the sand out yet small enough to trap the popped rice inside. As she did this, the remaining rice puffed just so.

Pouring Out Popped Rice and Sand - Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Mixing sand in to make puffed rice. Fascinating.

Ingenious and fascinating. A fine balance. I’d love to know who first discovered this (I’m guessing it’s not the Quaker brand people or the founders of Rice Krispies).

Mehndi (Henna) Night

During our last night in the village, the girls of the house took over and put on a mehndi (henna) party in our room. My hands were soon transformed into a canvas of flowers and designs with the help Asmani and her cousin. Soon, the room was filled with the entire extended family.

The father and son took an interest in learning how to take photos with our camera. At first, they were overwhelmed. Then, they were downright addicted. Grandma, too, took an interest — in convincing Dan to let Asmani mendhi his hands (he finally succumbed to allowing a single pinkytip).

Grandma covered my head with my scarf and joked, “Now you are a Bangladeshi woman.”

Audrey Gets Mehndi (Henna) Decoration on Hands - Hatiandha, Bangladesh
Mehndi (Henna) night with the girls.

An approving smile from grandma: another vote of confidence.

——

Life in a Bangladeshi village. In just a few days, I’d seen family, education, life, agriculture and industry up close.

And I met a young woman from the village who embodies its hope. She believes she can be Prime Minister. That’s her dream.

As she makes her way, I’ll be sure to keep her autograph.

——

Slideshow: Bangladesh Village Homestay

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or want to read the captions, you can view the Bangladesh Village Homestay photo essay.

 

Arranging a Bangladesh Homestay with Eco Connexion

This rural homestay program in Hathiandha in northwestern Bangladesh near the town of Natore is a new program run by Eco Connexion. Although the program is new, the parent NGO (ESDO) has been operating in the village for years and has developed relationships with the community. The goal of the program is to provide an opportunity of exchange between travelers and members of the community, as well as to promote the economic benefits of rural tourism development. Spending time in a Bangladeshi village with a family — to live village life for a few days, to meet people, to observe, to ask questions and to learn — is the one of the best firsthand tools to begin to understand this country.

Eco Connexion is also working with a village outside of Dhaka and has plans for other programs throughout Bangladesh. If you’re planning a trip to Bangladesh, consider arranging a village homestay with Eco Connexion. You won’t be disappointed.

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow–what an incredible post. Now I want to visit Bangladesh and it was not a place I had ever really thought about before. There are so many places and peoples in this world that we never see, even in the media saturated landscape we live in. Thank you for taking me along on your trip through your words and images.

  2. says

    We’ve thought of visiting some schools when we were traveling in Asia, but for a number of reasons we never made it. We did visit a primary school in Fiji and we loved it even if it was just a short visit.

    It looks like you guys had an unforgettable experience there and, by the way, I’m loving this series of Bangladesh posts :) Thanks for sharing Audrey.

  3. Taufique says

    Nicely written. Really glad that you enjoyed Bangladeshi village homestay. I am from Bangladesh and I can say proudly that it’s an amazing experience to spend vacation in village.

    Thanks for the well written article.

  4. says

    @LJCohen: I really appreciate your kind comment. You captured so well one of the reasons why we travel and choose to travel to the places we do — to see for ourself countries that are either not well understood or are only blips on the news when there is a disaster. We hope we can use our firsthand experience and these vignettes to introduce these countries in a different way.

    @Romana: We’ve visited a couple of schools on our travels and they are always a good time. But the kids at these schools were literally bursting with energy and excitement. Loved talking with all the young women who were in their final years of high school.

    Really glad you’re enjoying these posts from Bangladesh. We have a few more coming up in the next weeks :)

    @Claire: You’re right on in that Bangladesh is usually perceived through the lens of negativity and poverty. Traveling through different parts of the country and having experiences like this really brought a new perspective on the country and especially its people. Thank you for your kind comment.

    @Naomi: Yes, there is a special kind of beauty and rhythm in that part of the world. Now, if only I could pull off the same bright colors as local women can do with their saris…

    @Alex: Thank! Glad you enjoyed them!

    @Taufique: I can definitely understand how spending your vacation in the village is a great experience. There’s a calm and peace that you don’t find in the cities. Fantastic home cooked food, too :)

    Thank you for commenting and sharing your perspective as a Bangladeshi!

  5. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Agree with all the posters above. Lovely, lovely post. The food would have been awesome given how fresh the ingredients (including the spices) were. I have the slicer that you are talking about at home. It is more stable (imho) than a knife because the slicer itself is under your foot. You just need to know where to place your fingers so that the slices are as thin as you want them but also your fingers are safe. I have seen my mother and grandmother slicing at a rapid pace using a slicer like that.

    This is why I love ‘uncornered market’: the stories are almost always about people, not monuments or temples or mosques that people built long ago. It gives a real idea about people and places you could visit.

  6. says

    @Samuel: Not many people have been to Bangladesh, but they usually remark that it’s one of the countries that sticks with them…especially because of the friendliness of people.

    @Siddhartha: Thanks so much for stopping by and your kind words about this story and the photos. Hope you continue to enjoy our stories from Bangladesh and the rest of the world.

    @Sutapa: The food really was excellent, not only for the freshness of ingredients but that the mother would grind up the spices to make these intense, fresh pastes. Really flavorful and a different approach to the popped spices often found in Indian food.

    I imagine that with practice, the knife held with one’s feet is more secure. The mother was a champ with it – cutting super fine and quickly. But as a first time attempt it just felt opposite.

    And thank you for perfectly capturing what we try to do at Uncornered Market – share stories of people and provide a personal look to a place.

    @Kristin: Thank you – so glad you enjoyed this piece and learned something more about Bangladesh.

  7. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey – eventually, when I have a little flat in Calcutta, I’d like to invite you to my home there. We Bengalis do use ground spices like that, not popped spices. My ancestors are from Bangladesh, but it is done in West Bengal as well. For example, we don’t use turmeric powder but grind fresh turmeric .

    I promise you and Dan a nice home-cooked meal, kind of like what you had at Hatianda. But perhaps, at Hatianda, the meals are more delicious because of the localness (sp?) of the produce and catch of the day from the river. It looks so delicious and it makes me so homesick.

    In any case, I have no idea when I’ll have a little flat in India. One can only dream. I’ll keep you posted! :)

    Also, don’t stop travelling and writing about it.

  8. says

    @Sutapa: What a kind offer – we would love to take you up on it when you have your cozy flat in Calcutta! We spent a week there a few years ago, but would love to return.

    River fish is actually preferred to sea fish in Bangladesh – it’s one of the defining features of the cuisine. The ground spice and root pastes really add flavor to the meals and we were told that the food used to be even spicier (hot), but that now people are using fewer peppers for health reasons.

    We’ll try to keep traveling and writing about it and we hope to meet you in Calcutta one day!

    @Jordan: We actually have a pretty good collection of photos of Bangladeshi men with impressive beards :)

    @Anna: Thanks – glad you enjoyed this post! And hope you get to Bangladesh so you can experience it for yourself!

  9. says

    I really don’t see poverty in this place. I see wonderful culture with wonderful people willing to meet and greet new individuals in their place. It was so obvious they really are glad to meet you. Plus, they shared their beliefs and traditions. Your smile says it all.

  10. says

    @Arif: Thank you – we enjoyed our time in your country.

    @Xights: Usually poverty is associated with material wealth, but as this example shows there are other things in life that bring happiness. And yes, this family and community shared of themselves and we shared of ourselves. That’s the best kind of exchange and experience.

  11. Ehsan khan says

    Folks, we started a similar volunteer program in 2010 in the south of Bangladesh. We would love to share some of the experiences and challenges of this volunteer program and need volunteers urgently.

    Please send your reqests ad inquiries and I will get back to you all. Ehsan

  12. says

    @Ehsan: That’s great there are other homestay programs developing throughout Bangladesh. It’s an important experience for visitors to better understand the country. And, it can help the local community as well.

    To find volunteers for your program, you may want to look into posting about your organization and what sort volunteers it’s looking for on voluntourism websites, Idealist.org, Lonely Planet Thorntree, etc. There are many travelers looking for fulfilling volunteer experiences so the challenge is to figure out where these travelers look for such volunteer positions. Good luck!

  13. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    Audrey,
    I visited the EcoConnexion website. Did you really fill up a form and did really someone contact you? Did they email you? Just wondering…also did you guys make the 3 day stay or did you stay more/less? Also, where did they put you up for the night? Curious about this…

  14. says

    @Sutapa: Good questions you’re asking!

    We did not fill out the form – we actually learned of ESDO (parent NGO) and Eco Connexion when we were in Dhaka. We went and had a meeting at their Dhaka office to learn more about the program and its objectives. Then when we were traveling around the country, we got in touch with them when we knew the exact dates we could visit Hatiandha and they arranged everything with a few days notice.

    I agree that the booking form on the website is not very good (I’ve given feedback on this), but you can use this email address to get information: info@esdo.org

    We stayed 2 nights/2.5 days and slept in a room at the house of the family you see above. It was quite a large, comfortable room with a double bed, mosquito nets, fan, etc. We also visited another family that was preparing to become a homestay family and they had two rooms available so that families or groups traveling together could stay. Eco Connexion takes care to ensure that every homestay family has good facilities and some training.

    The group of people on the board of Eco Connexion are from the NGO, traditional tourism industry and rural development specialists. They really want to make the program sustainable and beneficial to everyone.

  15. Faruque Hasan says

    Sutopa, you are welcome to Bangladesh – the land of your ancestors. You will like the country. Last month three young ladies from India (one of them is now a US citizen) visited Bangladesh without any male companions. They searched and found out the villages in Sylhet (a northeastern district in Bangladesh) where their parents used to live before 1947. Perhaps you know about Srya Ghoshal, now a renowned Hindi playback singer; last year she visited her ancestral village near Dhaka with his father.

  16. says

    @Faruque: It seems in the last few weeks I’ve heard of several people returning to Bangladesh to find family roots. Interesting to learn about the population and migration movements from this area. And, that’s great that the three Indian women were able to travel well throughout the country without any male companions.

    @Shivya: Thank you for your kind comment. There are still many places like this in the world, but it takes more work and effort on the part of the traveler to find them and to find an appropriate way to visit that also benefits the local community.

  17. says

    Hi, I read your experiences visiting Bangladesh and I really enjoyed a lot. couple of years before, I have a friend called Ragnhild Beosta in Norway visited Bangladesh, I took her to my village Barisal, she enjoyed a lot, still she write from Norway remembering those village days. she saw, after Sidr how quickly villagers manage to recover the damage without any helps from outside.

    She told me that when she planned to visit Bangladesh her well-wishers told to her not to visit Bangladesh because Bangladesh is full of disasters and odds happened, she don’t change her plan, and take out is, Bangladeshis are very friendly, poor but happy, very brave and can Fight back natural disasters very well.

    Some bad people puts bad pictures in google to get donations from outside and it cause a bad image for Bangladesh all over the world, I will tell the world “please visit Bangladesh, happiness happens here.” see happiest people from a close look and enjoy there hospitality.

  18. says

    @Golam: Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Many people thought we were crazy to visit Bangladesh and only thought of it as a place for natural disasters and poverty, but we knew there was a completely different country and culture to explore. What we found really left its mark on us – a people who were so incredibly welcoming and giving, even though many had very little themselves. And, as you also wrote, that Bangladeshis are very resilient and resourceful – they know how to create and do so much with very little. This is something we can learn from them.

    We hope that our stories about Bangladesh do encourage others to visit. It’s a fascinating country.

  19. Rizwana Akhter says

    Dear Audrey and Dan,
    I am following your blog since last year. I came across your blog when I was researching on travelling Central Asia and Kashgarh. I never thought of among the 75 countries you have visited so far included Bangladesh too! Being a Development professional in CARE and currently in BRAC, I traveled extensively in Bangladesh. Natore one of the districts of 64 districts of Bangladesh are very pretty. Though I born and brought up in Dhaka and my parents hailed from South Eastern part of Bangladesh, but I love Northern Part of Bangladesh because of its greenery, hardworking people and plenty of wild lives especially birds. Thank you for your nice post on Bangladesh. You have accurately caught the vibe and spirit of rural Bangladesh that keeps us going in the middle of all natural and man-made disasters such as political blockade and strikes. Despite of all negative aspects of Bangladesh, just because of our people in countryside, our farmers, potters, our expatriate citizens and women garment’s workers made us become one of the rising economies in South Asia. I hope our political leaders will stop their destructive political mayhem and allow our hard working people to enjoy their hard earn economic and social development.
    Thanks and best regards/Rizwana

  20. says

    @Rizwana: Thanks so much for your comment and adding your perspective from experience traveling and working in Bangladesh with CARE and Brac. We’re also so glad that this piece did justice to the spirit and and hard work of rural Bangladeshis and life in the village. And we also hope that these areas do get the economic and social development that comes through education, hard work and supportive political decisions. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>