the summer of 97

It is the summer of 1997. I am 15 and have just spent the last month in a small village in Bangladesh.

the summer of 97 1

Every morning, I wake up on a thin mattress on the bottom bunk, surrounded by mosquito netting. I shake out my boots, frogs flying everywhere, and grab a roll of toilet paper - running for the squatie in the half-dark, hoping I can make it there in time. Although we eat mostly canned foods and pump our water by hand, everyone is plagued by diahhrea.

We march to our work site, carrying tools and water canteens. Our task is to build a school for children - walls of bamboo, a roof of wood. The children are gaunt, but beautiful - their tortured eyes terrify me.

We take malaria pills and drink grape koolaid with dehydration tablets (it tastes so bad I throw up half of it).

On days of luxury, we take timed showers two-by-two in bamboo rectangles, cold water but we don't care. We wash our laundry in paint buckets with powdered soap and then hang it to dry - our clothes are hard and starchy by the sun.

Five times a day, the loudspeaker calls out the obligatory prayers of Salah. Sometimes, the sound wakes me in my sleep; I am frozen. The sound of anti-freedom.

Mail call is my favorite time of day (either that or when the rains come). Every letter that I receive from home, I read at least fifty times, reminding me of a different place.

On one of our last weeks there, my friend Lauren leans on her shovel, "Do you think you'll ever want to come back here?" I feel guilty about how quickly the words form on my lips, "No. Never."

At the JFK terminal, I cry from sheer joy when I see the American flag. I buy a bagel and a bottle of cranberry juice.

* I spent the summer of 1997 with 20+ teens and 5 leaders on a short-term project with Teen Missions International.

THIS IS PART 1 OF A 3-PART SERIES. Read Part II and Part III

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17 comments on “the summer of 97”

  1. It sounds like I dug up from the pits of too much work just in time! This sounds like an intriguing series... off to read part 2

  2. This was chilling to read, Stephanie. It's very difficult to imagine giving up conveniences and comfort in return for experiences and charitable works. But you did it! And there's something to be said for that even if you admit you wouldn't do it again.

    How long were you there?

    1. I was away from home for a total of approximately six weeks. The first week was spent in Florida at a "boot camp" of sorts that prepared us for cross-cultural travel and taught us basic woodworking skills. A month was spent in the country itself. A final "debrief" week was spent in Germany (such a beautiful country - with the best ice cream!).

  3. I cannot imagine having done that at 15. I would have been too worried about where to plug in my curling iron. I do not admit to this with pride, by the way.

    What do you consider to be the most important take-away from that experience? Is it something you'd let your own daughters do at 15?

    1. Well, I didn't have to worry about a curling iron (you know what my hair is like!), but it was still QUITE the transition for me. No electricity. No make-up. No washing machine. No refrigerator. No jeans. No toilets! PLUS, we didn't have cell phones or computers back then so communication with family & friends was limited to a not-so-reliable mail system.

      Tim & I were just talking about your second question. I certainly hope that I would be brave enough to let my daughters go on a similar trip during their teen years (because it changed my life forever - for good). That said, I don't think Bangladesh would be on the list of countries that I would approve of. The government is too unstable for my comfort level and Islamic countries can be particularly dangerous places for young women.

  4. Wow. I'm not sure I can say that I've ever had an experience where I wouldn't go back... in '98 we went to Costa Rica for 2 weeks and it was not the experience we anticipated, but I don't think I would have come home saying I wouldn't do it again... (although some on our team would). I did end up going back there to school later.

    1. Ah. The nuance of the question. Although it was a very hard month, it was also one of the most defining months of my life. Truth be told, I wouldn't trade it or erase it. On the contrary! I treasure that summer - despite the difficulties.

      I would also add that we were in an extremely unstable country - politically, economically, and socially. Just as an example, the per capita income in Bangladesh is $641US compared to $6,810US in Costa Rica. Also, Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the predominant religions in Costa Rica, while Islam constitutes almost 90% of the population in Bangladesh. These factors, combined with low literacy rates and alarming views about women's roles, create a pretty scary environment.

      When we stayed overnight in Pakistan, there were men riding around in trucks with machine guns. Frightening, to say the least. There isn't exactly an "innocent until proven guilty" court system there either.

      All that to say, I likely would not want to return there even today - especially with my family (in large part because safety would be a primary concern).

      P.S. Tell me more about Costa Rica! How old were you? What were you doing there? What did you learn most from your two weeks in a developing country?

  5. so with 15 years of perspective... do you think you'd go back now? So interesting that you wrote this b/c just this past month a longtime friend of mine returned from 12+ years on the mission field in Bangladesh and she absolutely LOVED it! They are transitioning to Indonesia this year... it's been amazing to visit with her and hear her stories. I am curious who you worked with and if you ever met them - I know it's a big place tho! :)

    1. I'll answer your question in part III.

      It's important to point out that my experience doing a short-term project as a teen is sure to be world's apart from a missionary who has lived in the country for many years.

      If your friend was there 12 years, then I would have missed her by several years (she would have arrived in 2000).

      Bangladesh is also the most densely populated large country in the world, with approximately 150 million people.

      1. oh true you would have missed my friend by 3 years! - I wasn't doing the math on that one! LOL! I know it was a long shot anyway being such a largely populated country, but I wasn't sure if there had been an off chance you were working with the same groups... I can't wait to read more... I did a trip to Uruguay for 3 weeks in '96 - it was an amazing experience (and I loved the country!).

        1. Did you go with a particular organization? Or with your family? I'd love to hear more about your experience in Uruguay!

          After my summer in 1997, I often recommend mission trips to teens because a trip across the world (especially to an impoverished country) is sure to alter your perspective forever. I came back to the USA, changed - more compassionate and content, with a burning desire to make a difference in the world.

          1. It was an "unofficial" college mission trip - the official team was already going somewhere else in S America so two missionary kids from Uruguay formed a secondary group. We did 3 weeks in 3 cities, with a combination youth sports / VBS / musial program in churches, plazas, jails, malls, etc. It did help my experience that nearly everyone on the trip was either a native speaker, or semi-fluent in Spanish, so the culture shock was minimal for most of us... Although I am certain I did not experience the poverty levels you saw, the trip was certainly a transformative life experience and one I would repeat and recommend if/when I can! (I actually would love to go back and LIVE there, that's how much I fell in love with the country and people!).

            1. Do you speak Spanish fluently as well, Julie? If so, are you teaching your son? I'd love to hear more about that.

              1. At the time, I was a Spanish minor and spoke semi-fluently... I was capable of being left alone in a Spanish speaking country. I still think I am today, although my Spanish has grown VERY rusty... While I haven't started teaching my son Spanish, my goal is to do some brushing up myself and then begin introducing it hopefully by next year... :) It's a fun and easy language to learn I think!

    1. It was "a lot" because of the nature of the country. Bangladesh is a very unstable and impoversished place (at least it was in 1997) - I never felt quite safe there.

      That said, we also had a tight-knit team. We had free time to read and write and talk. We went into Dhaka to shop amidst rickshaws and saris. There was plenty of laughter and learning, despite the lack of electricity and the stomach ailments.

      Although at the time I said I wouldn't want to go back, I also would have simultaneously acknowledged that I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. It was eye-opening, intriguing, educational, and transformational.

      After all, most 15-year-olds don't get the opportunity to barter in an open marketplace, to lead worship in "secret" house churches, to eat authentic meals with curry (A LOT of curry!), or to spend the night in a Pakistani hotel. A remarkable opportunity.

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