All this talk about emotional toll has me wondering about what my emotional high points have been during this project. One of them has definitely been being able to make a meaningful difference in the life of one family over an extended period of time.
But, believe it or not, something actually edges that out as my emotional high point.
I actually hadn’t talked about it yet because I’m trying to leave as few spoilers on this site as possible for those who mostly follow my work through YouTube. So, if you want to be surprised when you watch my videos – don’t read the rest of this post.
It’s after the jump.
Continue reading ‘What Was My Emotional High Point?’
What great disapointment [sic] Mr Shawn .. All talk and no action
This was actually the fourth message I received from this person (not counting emails). At first it was just a few form letters and forwarded messages. But, eventually, the messages became more and more frequent and less and less professional. I eventually decided to block this person. Who was this person? Believe it or not, this was a founder and chairperson of a small but internationally renowned charity here in Dhaka.
I’d like to say that I got off on the wrong foot with this person… but the fact is I didn’t even have a chance to properly correspond with this person. It’s been increasingly hard to keep up with all the messages and comments people send me via YouTube, email, and Facebook. I try my best to reply to as many as I can. But, what often goes on the backburner are messages that are soliciting me to collaborate on a business (or social business) venture and/or requests to give some of the money that I have recently raised.
I know it’s important to team up with larger organization and like-minded individuals. I try and do so as often as I can. It’s just that with so many new people trying to contact me, it’s hard to keep up. Even my speaking event at the American International School in Dhaka took three months to arrange. I’m just one guy – it’s often hard to juggle everything that’s been going on as this project gains more and more interest. It’s for this reason – and my desire to avoid more messages like those I’ve recently received – that I’d like to mention a few things to any potential solicitor:
- Please realize I can’t possibly reply to every email that I receive.
- Please do not take my lack of response as a rebuke of your work or your idea.
- Please understand that, even if I pursue some options with others and not you, it doesn’t mean your idea/request is not equally as valid or good.
- Please also understand that, even though I am currently in Bangladesh, I fully intend to adhere to both US and Canadian law. This means that I have to be extra cautious when deciding who to team up with and who gets any of the money I’ve raised.
Finally, please keep your correspondence professional. As much as I’ve disappointed some people due to my lack of replies, the greater disappointment is finding out that many people believe that they are the gate-keepers for action and making a difference. Respectfully, even if I don’t pursue anything with you, it doesn’t mean I’m not making a difference.
Human compassion should have no borders. The reason why I came to Bangladesh for this project is because: 1) it was the only place I could financially afford to visit and stay for long periods of time, and 2) because there is so much poverty here. With over 150 million people in Bangladesh there are more people here earning less than $2 a day than there are people in all the countries which normally get media attention. That’s more than South Africa, more than Cambodia, more than Malawi, and more than Sudan (and Darfur) – combined.
There is also a distinction between the kind of poverty you see here in Bangladesh from the kind of poverty you might see in the streets of Toronto, Canada (my hometown). Before I came to Bangladesh, I saw a program on The National about a reporter who tried to help a homeless person on the streets of Toronto. He did his best to help him on his feet – work placement, finding a place to stay, etc,. But, in the end, the homeless person wound up back at the same street corner. The point wasn’t that it was hopeless to help the poor in Canada (it’s not) – it’s just that solving poverty in Canada requires a focus on certain areas of the social support system that are quite often neglected (such as treating drug addiction, counseling for abuse, and support on mental health issues).
The poorest of the poor in the developing world don’t have access to clean water, don’t have access to education, and are malnurished. Solving global third world poverty is such low-lying fruit to solve that it is a crying shame it still exists in 2008. Maybe the fact many people think that focusing on problems within’s one’s borders and worrying about domestic issues first is part of the reason global poverty still exists. But – and I’ve said this a dozen times – making the world a better place for others, makes it a better place for us all.
Once you’ve get settled in Bangladesh, there is no shortage of resources to find information on where to go, what to see, and good places to eat. But what about advice for those just thinking about coming here? Or practical advice for the first few hours in this country?
I’ve talked about my friend Alicia before – a friend of mine from Notre Dame who decided to come to Bangladesh as part of a Fulbright scholarship she earned.
Well, what advice did I give her?
- The Shock Factor: If you’ve never come to a place like this before – prepare to be shocked. The sights, the smells, and people – will all seem alien at first. There isn’t really a way to prepare for this. Just don’t get worried if you find yourself in a bit of shock when you first arrive.
- How Safe Do You Want to Be?: If you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience, you will have to take some risks. Riding a rickshaw or CNG is quaint, but there is a chance that something bad can happen. This isn’t just an urban legend. I know friends and family that have been assaulted, robbed, and even kidnapped. The more authentic an experience (live like the locals, etc) you want – the greater the risk.
- You Will Get Sick: Even if you don’t drink the water, avoid suspicious ice cubes, use hand sanitizer every so often – you will get sick sooner or later. Don’t treat it like you’ve somehow failed to take enough precautions. It happens to everyone.
- You Can’t Buy Everything Here – Bring That Stuff With You: Hand Sanitizers, Pepto Bismol, and Spray-On Mosquito Repellent are all things I’ve never been able to buy here. My advice? Bring as much of what you think you will need to use (and a little extra) with you from home before you fly here.
- People will stare. Sorry: The more foreign you look – the more stares you draw. You can sometimes even draw a crowd. No insult is inteded – it’s mostly just curiosity. The exception to this rule are establishments which specifically cater to the rich and foreigners. Those places you’ll probably fit in stare-free.
- Don’t tough it alone at the airport: The cabbies there are highway robbers and will treat you poorly (I’m also looking for a link to a newspaper article that has more info on this). The professional beggars at the airport will harass you for foreign currencies. If you have a friend that is there to meet you and give you a ride – that makes all the difference in the world. Seriously.
So what did we do on the day we met up?
Well, the first important thing was getting her a multi-plug (aka a powerbar) that would fit her US-style three-pronged laptop adapter. I had advised Alicia to NOT bother buying adapters before she left. I had spent a lot of time going to a lot of Radio Shacks to find adapters that work in Bangladesh. Turns out I was wasting my time. In Bangladesh, its very easy to buy powerbars/multi-plugs and adpaters which have a special shape that fits all kinds of plugs. And most modern electronics (like laptop adapters) automatically convert voltage (whether its 110v or 220v). If you have time to spare – spend a day shopping here and buy those adapters here instead of wasting your money in Radio Shack.
The second thing we did was buy her a cellphone. Cellphones are much more common than landlines in Bangladesh. There are a lot of cellphone providers to choose from. I had recommended her GrameenPhone. It’s what I use to connect to the internet – and am using right now to upload this blog post. GrameenPhone has been pretty reliable – it was working despite the nationwide blackout caused by Cyclone Sidr. It also worked in rural villages where there was no power – including the Cyclone Sidr disaster area when power had yet to be restored. As I’ve said in the past – in both reliability and cost of cellphone plans and service – Bangladesh beats Canada.
It’s a bit compliated to sign up for a cellphone here. You need to bring your passport, passport photos, and you also have to give your thumbprint and have a reference contact. I acted as her local contact and had told her ahead of time of what she needed and so she came prepared. We were able to get it all setup in one go.
I tried to take a photo of all the people staring at her – but most people scattered when I tried to take a photo. I guess some don’t mind staring – but don’t like it when you stare back. Ahh well.
Canada maybe a “first world” developed country, but when it comes to cellphone service, it’s got nothing when it comes to Bangladesh. Don’t believe me? Ask Piotr Staniaszek – who recently got a bill for over $85,000 from Bell Mobility. What was his crime? He used his cellphone as a modem so that his computer could get on the internet. He downloaded some high-definition video and transferred a lot of large files which, as the BBC put it resulted in “massive extra charges”.
You know what’s so funny? I do the same thing but it costs me only $20 a month. I seriously give my cellular provider a run for its money. I’ve done over 2 gigabytes of activity in the past few weeks alone. The latest episode of The Uncultured Project on YouTube took me 300 megs alone. But, unlike Canada, the cellphone providers here don’t care how much you use or whether you are using the internet on your phone or connecting your phone to your computer. Plus they have a feature so that prevents you from accidentally incurring excessive charges.
I used to think that Canada, having the status of a “first world” country meant that it did everything better than “the third world”. I guess, when I hear those terms, I imagine it as an analogy of a race. But, whenever I look at my cellphone here – I’m reminded that there are some things Bangladeshis do better than Canucks. I feel sorry for my friends in the Frigid North.
I wrote an article about this on NowPublic.com. It’s after the jump. It’s the same thing that I said here though – just more news-ish sounding.
Continue reading ‘Cellphone Plans and Service: Bangladesh Beats Canada. Period.’
When I first started this blog, I didn’t have much to show for this project. In fact, the day I wrote my first blog post I was stuck in a relatives’ home because all of Bangladesh was under military curfew.
Since then I have a lot to show: I’ve given away two cases of water during the summer flooding season. I’ve given over fifty mosquito nets (including one long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito net called PermaNet) to rural villagers. I’ve given wind-up flashlights to low-income students trying to study without electricity as well as one to a low-income disaster relief volunteer. I’ve helped to pay for a large group of poor children to have a balanced and healthy meal. And, recently, I’ve distributed 70 blankets (30 of which I did with Save the Children, another 30 with Muslim Aid UK, and 10 I gave out one-on-one) to victims of a Cyclone Sidr.
So it’s about time I tweak the look of the site a bit. Gone is the static photo of my Notre Dame hat and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’ book. I’m still using that photo – but the main picture on my site now changes randomly every few minutes (you’ll have to reload manually) to shows some of the things I’ve done and interesting people I’ve met. This change also reflects a decision I’ve made.
When I first came to Bangladesh, I thought I would stay here for a couple of months and then go. But since coming here, I’ve kept changing my departure date. September departures became October departures – and so on. I don’t know when exactly I am going to fly home – but I know I will be here in Bangladesh Christmas and the New Year. For the first time in my life – I’ll be spending Christmas and New Years away from both my Mom and Dad.
It’s not easy staying here. There are bugs, germs, and it’s easy to get sick. I’m far from my friends and I am kind of getting homesick. This has also had a cost on my family (in particular my mother who had contracted Dengue Fever during the time she was accompanying me on this project). But, despite all this difficulty, I have a unique opportunity. I’m doing something no one has ever done before (at least in terms of how I’m sharing my experience and work online with others through Flickr, YouTube, and blogging). And I’m helping others while I do it. How many people can say that?
I also want to share a message and inspire others. It’s hard to do that if I’m just uploading old footage and photos from my home in Canada. Hopefully by staying this project can grow and perhaps inspire others.
I came to Bangladesh with no training and no aid or development experience. My only real assets are my enthusiasm and my compulsion to try and make a difference. Here’s where things are for me now: I have things to give away, but am trying to find a way to get them to those who need it the most:
- A) LifeStraws – portable water purification straws capable of filtering deadly bacteria from any surface water source. Estimated lifetime: 1 year on average use. Number of items: 45 (used to be 50). Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.
- B) ZeroFly – long-lasting insecticide treated sheets. Can be used as roofing for low income housing. It is water proof and it’s insecticide is the same used in insecticide treated mosquito nets (safe for humans). If a mosquito comes into contact with the roof – it will die. Helps protect against malaria during the night and Dengue Fever during the day. Estimated lifetime: 2 years for the insecticide, but the sheets themselves remain waterproof forever. Number of items: 25. Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.
- C) Blankets - locally made, locally purchased. I count that as a two-fold impact because the money goes into the local economy. Number of items: 70. The cost to me was 14,000 taka or over $200 USD.
- D) Water Bottles – ever since I met “Mo” (featured in Episode Three of my YouTube videos), I now know the importance of water bottles in this country. Especially now, water bottles can be used to store purified or boiled water. It can also be given in bulk to an individual because – for many industrious people like Mo – these items are as good as cash.
Not visible but also part of my equipment to give away:
- Two hand-cranked LED-based flashlights – brought from Canada.
- One remaining long-lasting, insecticide treated mosquito net. Donated to me by Vestergaard Frandsen.
I tried distributing items myself and that really only works out when you know the people in the area and can get to an area yourself. When I distributed 50 mosquito nets, I was shocked and angered to find that some rich people (i.e. they own a car, a brick house, and even have servants) came and pretended to be poor to get a free net! They essentially robbed from the poor to help themselves. I only found out a month or so later – when a resident familiar with the area was looking over my footage. Even I gave out water bottles during the floods – I was kind of sad that the 4×4 I was in couldn’t head deeper into the flood zone.
I really do need to partner with an NGO of some kind to make a meaningful difference. The problem is most NGOs laugh when they are talking about such low quantities. “Fifty water purification straws? Ha!” “70 blankets? LOL.” has been pretty much the reaction I have been getting. I know NGOs deal in massive quantities – but the way I see it, these 50 items could save fifty lives and 70 blankets could keep 70 families warm. I’m not capable of saving lives in bulk. But so far, finding a like-minded NGO has been hard – although I am still making inquiries. But I definitely feel the clock ticking on this one.