gratitude

So long, 2015

2015 has been an incredible year for me.

On New Year’s Eve 2014, I stood on the brink of a four-month voluntary placement in Bangladesh and I had no idea what the year would have in store or how things would work out.  And here we are, a year later, and somehow I’ve managed to achieve what I set out to do when I left the RAF fifteen months ago!

I just want to say thank you to everyone who has helped me reach my goals this year.  It hasn’t been easy and it definitely wasn’t always graceful but, with your love and support, I have ended up achieving more this year than I hoped for.  I’m definitely ending 2015 on a high 🙂

I also have to apologize for complete neglecting the blog over the past few months.  For those in the know, it’s largely down to me starting an amazing – but very challenging – job.  I have some great ideas for 2016 so please keep checking in and I promise you’ll be hearing more from me soon.

In the meantime – to paraphrase a new podcast I came across recently – I hope something wonderful happens to you today and every day in 2016.

Happy New Year!

happy new year

 

choice, text, definition, dictionary

Making hard choices…and loving it

This week marked my first anniversary of life as a civilian.  It has been a whole year since I formally left the military and embarked on a whole new way of life.  And what a year it’s been!  There have been a whole lot of ups and my fair share of low points but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

It’s easy to look to back with the benefit of hindsight and see all the dots joining up.  But I’ve had to make some really difficult choices along the way to get here – to a point where it feels like life is working itself out.  Ironically, one of the reasons I left the military was to have more choices, to be able to make my own choices for a change; having made what I thought would be the hard decision – the decision to leave a successful ten-year career with no real plan, to be honest – I’ve been a little surprised at how difficult these choices can be sometimes.

In my RAF days...

In my RAF days…

I met with one of my career advisers this week, a woman who I now consider a friend, who reminded me of the dilemma I thought I faced when I was offered the opportunity to go and volunteer in Bangladesh with VSO.  I don’t really remember that now; almost as soon as I had decided to go, it felt like exactly the right decision.  And I guess that’s how you know you’re making the right call.  You sleep on it and when you wake up, it just feels right.

I’d love to give you all some sage words of wisdom about how to tackle your own tough choices.  But I’m really not sure I’ve figured it out, if I’m honest.  I generally feel like I’m bumbling along, just trying to put one foot in front of the other and hoping – believing – that it will all fall into place.  If you want some good advice, I strongly recommend you head over here and check out Ruth Chang’s TED Talk.  As for me, I suppose I would just say a couple of things.

Opportunities don’t just come along.  You have to create them for yourself.  But when you do, don’t take them for granted.  Seize them with both hands and squeeze absolutely everything you can from them.

Every choice has an opportunity cost; by going down one path, by definition, you can’t go down another.  It’s really difficult to weigh up the pros and cons of different options but, as a rule, favour ‘sure things’ over ‘may bes’.

Talk to people.  Don’t keep going round and round the same thoughts in your head.  But don’t abdicate responsibility either.  It’s your choice: you have to live with it so you have to make it.

If in doubt, do it.  I firmly believe that you only live to regret the things you don’t do in life.  Better to be able to look int he mirror and say ‘I tried’ than ‘if only I had…’.  Yes, it’s scary (see my post on The Fear from a couple of weeks ago) but it’s also invigorating and exciting.

The principle I try to live by at the moment is that I want to have stories to tell when I’m an old lady; I am going to bore the pants of the other residents of my nursing home one day!  What will be important to you when you’re ninety?

Just some of the memories that have made the last year so special 🙂

I can, hand on heart, say that making that decision to leave the military was one of the best I’ve ever made.  I still have no idea where I’m going to end up but I am loving the ride!

excited, little girl, roller-skates, black and white, 1940s

Not actually me but pretty much sums up how I feel about life right now!

You Are Amazing

After I published a post a couple of weeks ago, talking about The Fear, I have had lots of beautiful messages from my friends and family.  Partly, I think, out of concern – don’t worry, I really am kicking life’s ass at the moment!  That post wasn’t meant to be negative at all; I just wanted to be honest about how scary life can seem sometimes because I don’t think we admit to being human enough.  But I was so touched by the messages I got from all sorts of people.  There was one from a dear Bangladeshi friend, who’s words were so poetic and heartfelt that they made well up.  There was the little message from a former colleague just letting me know he enjoyed the blog.  Or the reassuring comments from old friends: you’ll be fine, chick.

Why am I telling you all this?

To remind you how amazing it feels when somebody takes the time to reach out and say “well done”, “good work”, “you’re pretty awesome”.  Especially for me blogging, when it feels like you are putting all this energy out into the world, to get an acknowledgement or a compliment makes it all worthwhile.  But it doesn’t just have to be the big stuff or even people you know: how good does it feel to get a compliment on your outfit from a stranger on the tube?!

As this gets published, I will be at a festival with two of the most gorgeous women I know – gorgeous is all aspects of the word, just beautiful people – and I’m going to make sure I tell them that.  So here’s my challenge to you: pick up the phone and call/text/What’sApp/tweet/Facebook etc somebody and just say something lovely.  It doesn’t need to be huge but I guarantee everybody has The Fear every now and again and maybe all they need is a little reassurance from a friend.

Friends forever

Friends forever

I always welcome feedback on the blog, good and bad, so please leave a comment below or get in touch!

Favourites this Friday

This week, I officially completed the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme.  That will confuse some of you because I got back from my placement in Bangladesh a couple of months ago, but this week I finally submitted my Action at Home report, detailing how I have continued to advocate for women’s rights around the world and promote volunteering.  So as I join the prestigious ICS Alumni, I thought I would share some my favourite photographs from my placement.  I love these pictures; I love looking at them because they instantly take me back to my host-family, to my wonderful team of volunteers, to the friends I made, and a time when I felt like I was really making a difference.  These are memories, and photographs, that I’ll treasure for ever.

It’s the Little Things

It feels like such a long time since I last blogged.  To be honest, I’ve just been taking some out since my return from Bangladesh a couple of weeks ago.  Things have been pretty busy with moving house (apparently one of the most stressful things you can do), looking for a new job and attending my Returned Volunteer weekend with VSO.

The RV weekend was a really good opportunity to reflect on the ICS experience and to think about how to use the experience going forward, both with work and for our Action at Home projects.  More about Action at Home in a future post (once I have actually decided what I’m going to do – I’ve got some many ideas and I’m not quite sure where to start at the moment!).

So in the spirit of the RV weekend, I thought I would share some reflections on how it feels to be home.

The Little Things I Love About Being Home

Hot showers – I literally cried with happiness during my first one!

Being able to make a cup of tea whenever I want

The washing machine…it’s just so easy to have clean clothes now

Seeing friends and family (alright, not a little thing but important nonetheless)

Having some privacy and personal space

The sheer variety of food…no rice for 3 weeks now 🙂

The Little Things I Miss About Bangladesh

Saying hello to people on the street

Chai

My host-sister

My counterpart, who I’m hoping to see again in the new year at his wedding

Feeling part of something important and purposeful

Sunshine (summer will start soon, right?)

My team, seen here on our last day in Dhaka

ICS Team, volunteers, ICSE, VSO

The team on our last day all together

Living and working with my team in Bangladesh has got to be one of the most challenging and rewarding things I have done.  I have got some amazing memories which I will treasure for a long, long time.  But I’m glad to be home.  Having been away for about 12 months in the last 18, it feels like it’s time to put some roots down and invest in my life in London…for a while at least.  I’m taking bets on how long it will be before the travel bug bites again!

Six Weeks In

I can’t quite believe that I’ve been in Bangladesh for six weeks already and the halfway point is fast approaching; in fact, in less than a week, we will be heading back to Dhaka for a couple of days and our Mid-Phase Review.  In some respects, the time has just flown by; in others, life in England feels like another lifetime ago.  With the temperature and humidity starting to rise here, it’s hard to imagine London in the cold February rain.

The six-week point is an odd one.  The novelty factor has definitely worn off but, at the same time, I feel very settled now; the rhythms of life here now feel very natural.  The drumbeat of each day marches me gently through each week.

It is very easy to live life one day at a time.  There is just so little to worry about: no cares about the latest fashions or trends, no comparisons with friends or strangers, no pressure to be ‘seen’ doing exciting things or in the right places.  The only plans I really have or care about are those around the project but, even then, there is only so much planning one can do in Bangladesh!

I’m also learning to practice gratitude and mindfulness in a way that I always struggled with back home.  When there are so few comforts in daily life, you become incredibly grateful for the small things.  You really appreciate the small kindnesses people show you, the feeling of clean feet after walking in the dust all day, hearing from friends and family back home.

I don’t know how I feel about the reality that people here face every day of their lives.  I suppose they don’t know any different but it’s hard not to feel bad that I get to leave after three months and go back to my comfortable life in England.  Because life in such a poor, rural community can be really hard and it’s funny the things you miss.  I miss choice and variety, especially around food – 84 meals involving rice so far!  I miss the conveniences of modern life – I can’t tell you how much you suddenly start to appreciate washing machines when you’re working up a sweat washing bed-sheets and towels.  There are times when I miss being able to walk down the street anonymously or sit at home without a crowd of people staring at me as if I were an alien or an animal in a zoo.  I try to take it all in my stride – I know I will miss being able to smile at strangers or say hello to old ladies or play outside with children when I go home – but I guess there are some things you never quite get used to in such a different culture.

But when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  It’s just the reality of life in Bangladesh, in a developing country, where nearly forty per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.  This is, hands down, the most rewarding and satisfying experience I have ever had.  Making the decision to volunteer overseas wasn’t easy but my being here almost feels like destiny, like this is completely the right place for me to be right now.  And that feeling is simply indescribable.

So it’s worth it.  Every cold shower.  Every mosquito bite.  Every plate of rice.  They are all worth the opportunity to work with a wonderful team of volunteers, to help shape their experience and their futures.  They’re all worth it to be part of the global fight against poverty, to have the chance to help some of the world’s poorest people, to create job opportunities in a community where more than a third of the people have no regular source of income.  Nobody said volunteering overseas would be easy.  It isn’t.  But I am so glad I’m doing it.

Village Life

The first thing that hits you arriving in Pairabondh from Dhaka is the sheer sense of space. Where Dhaka is congested and populated, Pairabondh is in the middle of a sea of green fields, stretching off into the horizon. As a result, it feels incredibly peaceful here; at night, the dark is impenetrable and the only noises are the occasional dog bark.

Pairabondh is a community of around 5,000 people in the north-west district of Rangpur. It is actually two villages connected by a small bazaar along a single partly paved road. We travelled here by air from Dhaka to Saidpur on a small twin-prop aircraft – the first flight for many of our Bangladeshi volunteers. The trip from the airport was long and rather uncomfortable; it’s only about 40km but on a little easy-bike, with a max speed of about 20km per hour, getting a face full of dusty air and feeling every vibration from the road, it took over two hours. It’s quite an experience seeing the city fade away to lush fields of rice, potatoes and yellow mustard plants, the little three-wheeled bikes teetering alarmingly every time a bus or lorry swoops past. But the excitement builds as we turn off the highway and down the track towards the village, where we were greeted warmly by the community, complete with little bouquets of flowers.

It is truly beautiful here. From the little tin shacks of the bazaar, to the pale green of the rice paddies, there are photo opportunities everywhere! But the poverty is stark. Most of the homes are made from corrugated tin, without electricity or running water. Children run around shoeless with faded, worn clothes and dirty faces. More than a third of the people here are unemployed; nearly all the rest work seasonally in agriculture, toiling away in the sun-streaked fields. The main road through the villages is paved, at least it was once but large areas are worn away leaving potholes you could swim in. Off the main road, the tracks and paths are all dirt; at the moment, in the dry season, they are dusty but you can imagine the mudbath they must become when the rains come.

But after just a week of living here, you almost start to not notice, especially with so many smiling faces around you. In sharp contrast to life back home, people here have very little but seem to be much more content with what they do have. I am learning a lot about gratitude and living in the moment; it’s the simplest things that make a difference.I had an absolute treat last week – hot water to wash! Words cannot describe how good it felt to pour warm water over my body – sheer bliss. We normally wash at lunchtime when the sun has had a chance to warm the water in the pipes a little and the air temperature is at its warmest but it’s definitely still a chilly experience.

I don’t think I have ever smiled so much. Yes, people stare out of curiosity at the pale, blonde girl but, unlike London, it’s perfectly acceptable to smile at strangers! The little children call out in broken English as you pass by, little cries of “hello, how are you!” ring out everywhere. The women smile shyly when you greet them in Bangla, while the old men beam with pride to hear you speak in their language, albeit broken. On Friday, we spent the afternoon visiting the houses of some our local volunteers, receiving warm welcomes from extended family members and several offers of small glasses of sweet tea.

My Bangla is improving, mostly from necessity as my host-family doesn’t speak any English and we don’t have one of the Bangladeshi volunteers staying with us. Cue a lot of sign-language and time with the dictionary! But I can make myself understood, which means the food is no longer laced with chilli, although I’m still being served way more food than I need. Our host-family, by village standards, is wealthy; the house is predominantly brick-built, although the corrugated tin roof doesn’t quite match the tops of the walls, with concrete floors and metal shutters over the open windows. The house is organised around a central courtyard, where the extended family congregate. At least, I think it’s extended family – people seem to come and go and I have very little idea who any of them are, which makes it interesting, then, when they come and stand in the doorway of our room and just watch us! In the centre of the courtyard is the ‘stove’, which is a small hole in the ground for a fire with a raised lip for the pots to go on – it reminds of a little volcano. As a result, all the food here is either boiled or fried with plenty of salt; it’s pretty tasty but I’m worried about what my cholesterol is going to be like when I get home!

It has surprised me how cold it gets overnight. With the room somewhat open to the elements, I am really grateful for the thick duvet and fleece blanket but still end up sleeping with socks and sweatshirt on and the blankets pulled right up to my chin. I can see my breath in the air as I clean my teeth at the only sink outside in the mornings. It’s hitting the mid-twenties during the day, which is very pleasant. Spring officially starts here on 13 February so it will start to get hotter soon.

Here are just a few pictures….


In other news from Bangladesh, the political situation remains tense. The opposition party has called two 72-hour general strikes in the last two weeks and I get the sense that it’s crippling the country. Last week, students were protesting about the strikes affecting their exams; here in the village, the potato harvest has taken place in the last few days and the villagers are worried that they won’t be able to sell them in the city, which means that they won’t have money to purchase rice seeds to plant. It’s hard to get news here but there doesn’t seem to be any sign of the situation improving. It doesn’t affect us here in the village and we can carry on with our work, but it’s hard not to be a little concerned.