Whenever I meet people in Bangladesh who are not locals and tell them this is my first trip overseas, they generally raise their eyebrows and pat me on the shoulder while delivering some sarcastic line about how I chose “quite the location” to begin my traveling. As one of the world’s most impoverished and least developed countries, it’s not much of a draw for tourists looking to see and experience South Asia comfortably. It’s crowded and chaotic and once used the unsuccessful (or would it be successful?) slogan “Visit Bangladesh before tourists come.”
Yet, I am feeling quite lucky this is where my passport has taken me.
Though the movement of this place has made an impression with its rickshaws, pedestrians and cars that play a perpetual game of chicken on the streets, it is the mood of Bangladesh that will stay with me long after I leave. Ask anyone who has ever had the chance to stumble into this unique territory what they remember most about their time here, and I’m willing to bet my stomach-saving bottled water that it’s the people.
A few years ago, British economist Richard Layard did a happiness survey with the London School of Economics that turned into a book. The study found Bangladesh was the happiest nation in the world in spite of also being one of the poorest. Most of the richer countries, like the United States, Japan, Canada and Britain, ranked much lower on the list. While these results quickly conjure up the old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness,” I think there’s actually more to these findings. It’s not that the people of Bangladesh have learned to be happy by living with so little. It’s that they give so much of themselves to those they meet… whatever they can afford to part with, impart and more.
In an instant, they invite you into their home and offer you a cup of cha (tea), or haul a wooden chair to the middle of the village for you to sit in while they stand and answer any questions you might have of them in intense heat. They pour themselves into their work and families and conversations. They listen instead of just waiting to speak. They wish you well on your journey. They value community. In fact, the microfinance movement of enabling low-income people to lift themselves out of poverty through small loans began in Bangladesh — not the deep-pocketed divisions of our globe that actually had the means.
Tomorrow, my Thanksgiving may not include the traditional trimmings of marshmallow-laden sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce and dressing, but I’ll certainly bring a better understanding of what it means to give to the table thanks to this greatly underestimated country.