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Disaster Area: I’m Starting To Remember More Details

They say when you see such suffering and devastation first hand, you’re mind goes into shock. I didn’t believe them until I experienced it myself. I kind of feel like a weakling for reacting like this. I mean, I wasn’t harmed by the Cyclone – my family is safe thousands of miles away – what is there for me to be in shock about?

But, here I am just now – reviewing some footage I took during my time in the disaster area – and all of a sudden I vividly remember something I must have blocked out. And, now that I remember it, I kind of remember why I would have wanted to block it out in the first place.

As I mention in the last youtube episode (or see below, after the jump), I spent the third day with Nick Downie with Save the Children. We had to walk among endless rows upon rows of make-shift housing from people displaced by the cyclone. I had forgotten until now, but a group of people raced up to me and asked me in Bengali if I was a television reporter.

They wanted to tell the world how improperly aid was being given in their part of the disaster area. They were explaining to me how they were waiting and some people were getting aid and relief for the second time and they hadn’t received any at all. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule and I was falling behind – we hadn’t even reached the abandoned school yet to test its water. After explaining to them I wasn’t with any Bangladesh TV station – I left them behind. I’m just starting to remember how sad the looks on their faces were.

I also understood why they were complaining about how aid was be distributed. Technically, aid hadn’t fully reached this region yet. My sparse 30 blankets were some of the first aid of its kind in that area. There were also far more pressing concerns. For starters, there was no clean water anywhere in sight. I had brought with me my Notre Dame Nalgene water bottle. In such intense heat, I finished the water in the bottle very quickly. I spent the rest of the day parched. Because, although there were tube wells everywhere we went – the cyclone left them too contaminated to drink from. Water from every tube well was yellow with chunks of dirt in it. Yet, that’s exactly what everyone else was drinking who was stuck there. One day in that area and I was tempted to risk drinking from it.

Imagine having to live there.

[UPDATE 1: Somebody submitted this blog post to digg. I am really flattered. If you want, you can digg it here.]

[UPDATE 2: Welcome to those who came here by Stumbleupon.]

Continue reading ‘Disaster Area: I’m Starting To Remember More Details’

Uncultured Project Inspires Family – Blows My Mind

“So exactly how many blankets did you buy?” asked my uncle on a phone call shortly after I returned from the disaster area. “About 70” I answer. “Uh huh. And how much did this cost?” he asked. “About 14,000 taka [$204 USD]”. “Uh huh” my uncle replied. The phone call pretty much went like that for a few more minutes. He was asking very probing questions like where I bought these blankets from, how did I take them to the disaster area, and where I got the money to buy these blankets from. I answered them in a matter-of-fact manner. After a few more “uh huhs”, he gave me his best wishes, said goodbye, and hung up.

Little did I know that I was about to be upstaged by my uncle. And the best part is – I love it.

This is the same uncle I called while I was in the disaster area with Nick Downie from Save the Children. After my uncle retired from military service, he went into business for himself and has become somewhat of a successful man in the private sector. Less than 24 hours after this very inquisitive phone call, I find out that he, his youngest son, and his daughter-in-law have organized a self-funded family aid operation of their own. This aid operation blows what I’ve been doing right out of the water.

Whereas, I bought 70 blankets to give away for about $200 USD – my uncle and his family has bought two-thousand blankets for over 500,000 taka. That is over $7,000 USD in blankets. Given the fact that these are “family-sized” blankets (where more than one person will be sharing this blanket – sometimes a whole family of four) – this means that anywhere from two to eight thousand people will be sleeping warmly this winter. In addition, my uncle’s daughter-in-law (do I say cousin-in-law or just cousin?) will be giving out cold hard cash on-site so people in the disaster area can cover any emergency expenses they have. Approximately 10,000 taka (over $140 USD) in cash will be given out in the disaster area.

Now, here’s the crazy part: I am going with them to help distribute all this! I leave tomorrow. I’m leaving my computer behind because a lot of the journey will be via speedboat down rivers. I hope to come back after three days and hopefully will have lots of photos and videos to share.

Once more unto the breach.

SxePhil Contest Update

[Update: Since writing this post, the contest has closed. I ranked second with over 900 votes. Feel free to check out my videos on YouTube. Thanks for those who voted. First place went to LuddenMedia. They’re great guys – check em out.]

The contest closes in a few hours, and I’m currently in second place. You can still vote at this link – the poll is on the left side. For some unknown reason, no matter how many friends I get to vote (or how many friends of friends vote), I’m always trailing from the first place by almost exactly 90 votes. It’s almost like magic! 😉

Who is in first place? It’s a YouTube series about a bunch of college kids – some of whom have come from hell (and are demons) and others have come from heaven (and are angels). They are plotting to either save or damn the regular mortals in the dorm. Ummm…. No comment.

I have this friend who went to MIT. Taking a very sterile and logical approach, he said to me quite bluntly “I don’t see how getting ‘Phil’d’ in helps the poor”. It doesn’t? In fact, this whole filming thing doesn’t technically help the poor now does it? If I put the camera down and focused 100% on helping the poor (as people like Mikey Leung do or charities like Save the Children which came to the disaster area without any cameras or camcorders), I’d get more done. It takes time to film, transfer, charge batteries, buy new tape, edit, and upload video you know.

But, then no one would know about many of the things I’ve seen (be it my work or the amazing work done by others). And that would mean that people would have to continue to rely on information mediums which – for people in my generation – may not give much importance to. How many people in my generation watch CNN regularly? Now compare that to how many of us are religiously reading our newsfeeds on Facebook. This doesn’t mean my generation has the wrong priorities. It just means that we absorb information through different ways.

Which is why I’d like to win this contest. Sxephil is just a regular YouTube member like me – but with a large audience (with over 49,000 subscribers). If, through his YouTube channel, people can be exposed to important issues, views, and topics they might not have been exposed to in their normal routine than maybe – just maybe – they might be interested in learning more or maybe even be inspired to do something about it. But people have to know that such work exists in order to have that choice.

So, with all due respect to my MIT (instead of Irish) educated friend – getting “Phil’D in” does help the poor.

Helping Kids with Save the Children

On the third day, I teamed up with Save the Children to try and make a difference in the remote region of the Cyclone Disaster Area. Why am I uploading a video about Day 3 first? Well, this was one of the most profound days of my life. I wanted to share this first. I also wanted to try and have a video that ends on a somewhat positive note. This video features both freshly laid graves and clapping children – so it’s quite a wide gamut of emotions in this episode.

YouTube has a ten-minute limit on its videos, so this is really just a snapshot of what happened that day. Here are some things that I wasn’t able to mention in the video:

  • The first kid you see to receive a blanket lost his mother from the Cyclone.
  • As we approached the coastline, Nick Downie was warning me “careful what you film – we don’t want to anger the military”. I quickly call my uncle (ex-Colonel in the Bangladesh army) asking him what regiment he used to be in – just in case I need to drop his name in the event the military harass us. “Don’t worry,” my uncle replied, “the relationship between Bangladesh and Save the Children is as old as Bangladesh itself – you’ll be fine,”. But then he added, “if you do get into trouble – give me a call,”.
  • We found a lot more graves of small children along the way – I just couldn’t bear to include them all in the video. Some were buried so shallow you could basically see an outline of the body.
  • At one point I ask Nick Downie (Save the Children), “is that smell the dead bodies or the dirty water?”. He replies “a bit of both”. The stench really was that bad. But, I didn’t want to disgust my viewers more than I already had – so I cut that out.
  • I got scratched by a rusty nail along my journey to the abandoned school. I also banged up my ankles a bit as I tripped in a few spots. The paths were far more treacherous than they look on camera.
  • Some of the most dangerous paths to the abandoned school couldn’t be filmed – like walking on a stick of bamboo over a pond. Bamboo is officially miracle wood in my books. Anything that can support my weight with just a stick has to be magical.

The worst was when I was distributing the blankets. I know that should be the high point – and it does look good on video. But, in reality, my stomach was turning. I only had 30 blankets – and the room must had far more kids than that. For every kid that was happy to get a blanket, I saw another right next to him or her with this anxious look on their face. It’s the kind of look that says “Will I get one? Will I be called next?”. It killed me. After all my 30 blankets had been assigned for distribution, a little girl came up to me and asked in Bengali “Can I have a blanket too?”. I can’t even type that without chocking up.

Click the jump for some photos that supplement this latest episode. Continue reading ‘Helping Kids with Save the Children’

Recovering from the Field

I came back from the field with two things: 1) a fever, and 2) a better understanding of the kind of suffering that people in the disaster area are facing.

I was in the field for only three days and was using hand sanitizer every 30 minutes. Yet, despite that, I ended up getting some sort of respiratory bug that has left me coughing a lot, with a bit of a fever, and pretty weak. This gets me thinking – if I had it this bad after three days – imagine living there.

I’m recovering pretty quickly – but that’s because I have luxuries that those over there don’t. I can get rest, can have plenty of fluids, and take regular showers and have Tylenol to keep my fever down. These are luxuries that most in the disaster area don’t have.

One thing I remember I distinctly remember was the intense heat. I had spent my last day in the disaster area with Save the Children where we examined remote areas where aid had not completely arrived. The cyclone had destroyed any roads that could have been used to get there. Now, you could only get there by boat or by foot. The only clean water for miles was the water bottles we carried from basecamp.

There were rows of graves right next to rows of make shift homes. Children all over the place. Many of them, no doubt, probably caught the same bug I did (or caught something worse). But, most of them won’t have any Tylenol for their fever, clean water to rehydrate, and definitely no place to shower to clean up.

Apologies if I have been reticent with this blog in recent days. I hope to be up to speed again in a few days time. Been trying to get a lot of rest since coming back.

Why I Am Here

Boy Near a Bosti

This kid is why I am here in Bangladesh. I took this photo six years and one month ago and his face has been stuck in my head ever since. 149 children, out of every 1,000, who are under five years of age die each year in Bangladesh (this number has since lowered to 73 out of a thousand) (source). When I think about that, I wonder, is this kid still alive? Dengue Fever and typhoid – easily (and cheaply) treatable diseases – are big killers in Bangladesh (especially in the cities, where this photo was taken). This kid lived in a slum (aka a “bosti”) surrounded by pools of stagnant water, trash and mosquitoes – all of which raises the odds of contracting such diseases.

Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, author of the book “The End of Poverty”, argues that extreme poverty like the kind faced by this kid can be eliminated in our lifetime. Dr. Sachs was the one who inspired me to put grad school on hold and come to Bangladesh to try and make a difference. But it’s this kid – who happened to walk up to me because he was curious about my camera – who taught me how I can make this difference. This isn’t about ending global poverty, making a statement, or changing the world. If I can make a significant difference in the life of just one person – that’s good enough for me.

As I move around Dhaka during this time of curfews and civil unrest – with photo ID in my pocket, hoping I don’t attract the attention of a soldier at a checkpoint – it’s this kid and others like him that remind me why I’m here.