Saturday, April 21, 2012

Days 3 and 4 - Thumbs Up and Other Non-Native Species

We can now verify that Bangladesh--despite its astounding population density--is largely an open, rural country. It has been about 210 km of mottled shade and sun patterns on country roads, pastoral islands of palms and farm shanties linked by a network of sandy footpaths cutting across a sea of green, and countless bridges over waterways choked with the soft purple blooms of water hyacinth. In fact, the only indication of a looming mega-city came as a distant cloud of smog on the horizon that steadily grew in density across the outlying plain of rice paddies. Then with the smog came the first roadside slums. They were a shocking contrast to the wide-open countryside our heroes had run through (I think it's not unfair to say that in their tiny roadside hovels, these people live worse than the stray dogs, who at least have the freedom to roam, find food, and a natural coat to protect them from harsh weather)...

So Dhaka steadily crawled in around us on Day 4, and Chris and Marc ran the last kilometer together, celebrating a strong finish on the China-Bangladesh Friendship Bridge high above the inky Buriganga. And once urban Bangladesh sets in, the rural dream one passes through is just that--a dream that, like all good dreams, seems irrecoverable once you've awoken to reality. Even in the smaller town centers, urban life seems to be sheer madness. It is the congested conglomeration of the same spirit that frequently interrupts the bliss of the countryside: the frantic spirit embodied by the Bangladeshi public bus. Like wild rusty bullets, the buses speed violently from town to town. Though all manner of humanity protrudes from the windows and is sometimes perched among the luggage on top and is therefore the source of his income, the driver pays no heed to human life along the road. He just blows and blows and blows his horn. He slows for nothing except speed bumps, and this only because no horn, however deafening, could rouse the asphalt bump and make it scatter to the edge like a chicken along with everything else.

But amidst it all, in the urban chaos or pastoral calm, the people of Bangladesh spurred our runners on with a well-known gesture: the "thumbs up". At first, Chris was using it as a game to distract him from the heat during their 64 km stretch from Gopalganj Junction to the Mawa ferry. He figured he would give an exuberant thumbs up to all passersby and see how many returned the gesture. We were surprised to find, however, that many offered the gesture unsolicited.

According to Wikipedia, perhaps the first use of the gesture was in Roman times to determine the fate of a gladiator: up meant live, down meant die. Now it can mean different things in different countries (not always positive); it's also the name of the best-selling cola of India (without the "b"). But my point here is that it is certainly not of Bangladeshi origin. As the signal of exuberant affirmation we know it to be, it must be originally a Western thing. But these past two days it seemed to be thriving in a foreign land. In terms of the Bangla-Dash, it's interesting to think what the thumbs-uppers might have meant by it. "Exercising is good for you--keep it up!" or "Wow, you're white as a cloud, tall as a palm, and as fit as an ox: you are looking very beautiful!" or, as we heard several times, "It so good to see you!" Regardless of exact meaning, it was a familiar gesture in an unfamiliar land that spurred our runners on toward their goal.
Marc crosses a canal covered with water hyacinth.

The water hyacinth we saw blooming by the thousands in light lavender across western Bangladesh is another non-native--a foreigner that happens to thrive. A tourist guide on the Meghna River once told me that they are an invasive plant from Latin America that was first introduced when a powerful woman in colonial times thought they were pretty and had them brought to northern India. Now, though beautiful, they are ubiquitous and a nuisance to the native species and agriculture of Bangladesh. As negative as they might be, the people of Bangladesh know how to use them for their benefit. They dry the long tangled fibers in the sun and use it for fire fodder. On the rivers they corral it with bamboo fencing to form shade where fish like to gather and are easier to catch. The hyacinth is foreign, but no one would ever know it. Just like the thumbs up.

I'm not sure how the thumbs up gesture reached Bangladesh, but things like this evolve and spread silently, almost secretly it seems, over long periods of time and then, almost suddenly, we notice that they just are. I don't know who dropped the first hyacinth stem into a river in India, and I don't know how the thumbs up went from "Live, you valiant gladiator!" in Rome to "Go, you crazy white men running through our country!" in Bangladesh. I do know that big things start in small, very specific times and places. So from discrete, impoverished corners of Bangladesh, quality education can spread quietly and steadily across generations for the betterment of our entire world... Chris and Marc have completed the run and over $20,000 has been generously given, but now it's time for what might be the more difficult work: converting money, passion, commitment, and goodwill into something tangible. But for now, let's give these extremely non-native looking men (and Mofiz, The Man) a hearty thumbs up.

Memorable quotes from the last two days:

Chris (in the predawn): "Is that a child or a monkey or a dog?"

Marc: "You feel the van approach. You think it must be time. And then you just wait. Wait for the sound of the sliding van door opening. The pop of the latch and then the smooth sliding sound. It's like opening a beer can--and just as welcoming."

Chris at the finish, staring into the black murk of the Buriganga: "Hey Marc, I'll give you $20,000 if you jump into that right now."

No comments:

Post a Comment