I have never been a rebellious person. Not as a kid, not as a young adult, not as an adult. At least not in the typical "rebellious" way. I never got in trouble at school, I didn't stay out too late, I didn't drink or do drugs in high school (well, maybe once). I followed the rules that the authority figures laid out for me, in large part due to my fear of being the center of attention. When you got in trouble, everyone looked at you, and I avoided that at all costs.
Even though I have always followed the written rules, I have never wanted to follow the unspoken rules of life. When society or culture tells me to do something a certain way, I usually run the other direction as quickly as possible. I barely ever cave to peer pressure. My earliest recollection of this was during my sophomore year of college, when everyone was deciding if they wanted to study abroad. I remember scanning through the program options and thinking, "Where is the place that I know the least about?"
As far as program options went, that place was Bangladesh. When I announced to my parents that I was going to spend January the following year in the most densely populated country on the planet, my mom's surprise gave way to my dad's confusion. "What? Why would you want to go there? Why can't you just go to Germany or something?" If I had had any reservations before that, my decision was solidified with their reaction. Don't test me, it will only push me more into obscurity.
So in January 2005, I joined 15-odd college students from across Minnesota to embark on a month-long study trip to rural Bangladesh. We would be joined in Dhaka by 6 Bangladeshi peers, also college students, and form research groups that would analyze the effectiveness of different rural development projects. I knew basically nothing about research at that point, and from what I can recall I didn't get high marks on my paper. But in the grand scheme of things, that sh*t doesn't matter at all!
At the risk of sounding cliche, the trip to Bangladesh changed the way that I understood the world. It changed the way that I understood globalization, industrialization, poverty, colonialism, religion, culture...nearly everything. I knew after that trip that I could never un-know what I had learned while there. Travel is so integral in developing a sense of humility and empathy, and this trip set that course early on.
But let's be real- I was also 20 years old. A baby really. I mean, see the photos below, I think there's one in there of me trying to take a selfie before cell phones. More understanding and critical thinking has developed in my brain in the years since that trip than developed during the actual trip. During the trip I just remember hoping to the good Allah above (Bangladesh is the 3rd largest Muslim-majority country in the world) that I would not poop my pants while we were out in the field because of something I ate. No joke: every day someone wouldn't board our student bus to the villages because they were having what we lovingly coined "the crazy Ds" (I'll leave you to guess what the D stood for). But while our weak American stomachs were not made of steel, we persisted.
There are so many flavors and smells I still remember from that trip to this day. Some were terrifying, like the smell of thousands of cow hides stacked on the side of the road after Eid al-Adha, the Islamic sacrificial holiday celebrating the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismael. Or the smell of concentrated humanity and lack of plumbing and running water in some of the world's largest slums. Heartbreaking and ignorance-crushing smells.
More often than not though, the smells were intoxicating. There was the delicious smell of "fancy rice", which we got only once or twice a week from the cooks at our residence. Long grain basmati with aromatics, garlic and shallot. Divine.
There was chotpoti fukcha, which we were introduced to on one of our first days in Dhaka. Our student guides brought us to a local park, and they went promptly to a food stall serving something that looked fried and smelled delicious. "This is the most delicious street food in all of Bangladesh, but maybe you shouldn't eat it," they told us. You can't lead with that type of praise and expect us not to eat it! It was f*cking delicious. Half of us got sick. (For the record: I never got sick in Bangladesh, which was either sheer luck or some impressive work by my microbiome.)
There were syrupy-soaked balls of dough at the market, pan fried doughs to munch on as we walked, grilled meat on sticks, curries and lassis and endless things I had never had before. Our new Bangladeshi friends, whom I still communicate with ages later, were not only excited to show us their country and food- they were thrilled that we loved it.
Perhaps my favorite memory of the trip was our daily after dinner escape. While we stayed in the rural area and did our research, we lived at an army compound. Even though it gave the appearance of security, each night we would scurry out a little side gate and across the road to a tea stand. Because this was outside Dhaka, the tea stand served as a wayside of sorts: a place for drivers to pull over, go to the bathroom, and have a quick shot of tea before getting back on the road. With an assortment of benches scattered around the huge tea-brewing vats, people would sit and chat, play instruments, sing, and have a great time for a few minutes on their journey.
The Bangladeshi students were SO excited that we were staying across from this particular tea stand, which was known for its impressively thick milk skin layer. It was a delicious tea. As is the case throughout South Asia, the tea came in a tiny cup, was super sweet, and was made with super flavorful tea leaves. The difference with these cups was that each one came with a dollop of the slurpable milk skin (called sor সর in Bengali). Kind of like a creamy loogie. Gross, you say? Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, friend. Though it took some of us a couple of tries, by the end of the trip we were slurping the 'ol milk skin tea like pros.
Rules for life: don't call a food gross until you've tried it, and don't follow societal rules.
Photos below: chotpoti at the park, selfie with a kid friend on a rickshaw, little kiddos on a school bus rickshaw, food at the market x3, gals walking home from school, a wedding we were invited to x2, and the tea stand (digital cameras were still coming into their own at this point...)