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