Bangladesh and the beauty within

A Bangladeshi family stands near the road near Shariakandi, Bangladesh. Unemployment in Bangladesh hovers around 40 percent and 48 percent of all bangladeshi children are underweight for their age.

A Bangladeshi family stands near the road near Shariakandi, Bangladesh. Unemployment in Bangladesh hovers around 40 percent and 48 percent of all bangladeshi children are underweight for their age.

I was nothing.

A nobody. Visible to all, yet familiar to none.

A gangly, white madman, pedaling with sweaty determination across India's subcontinental delta lands.

With nothing to think of but time, and nothing but time to think, I was thumbing through the chapters of my life, when I noticed a pattern. Cyclical periods of time when everything about me, and my life felt wrong.

Usually triggered by some meaningless setback, or delusional self-interpretation, many had been the time when I'd stripped myself of all things worthy, only to plunge, naked and cold, into an infinite sea of hopelessness.

But then, usually as I'd concluded all was lost, I'd watch as something bigger intervened. Some inexplicable experience, observation, or interpersonal connection that re-revealed the beauty of self, and those shimmering rays of inner light that illuminate the world from the inside out.

While many would be quick to label this experience: God, love, fate or transcendence, this time around I'd call it simply: Bangladesh.

Rolling with palpable expectancy across Bangladesh's northern border, I was instantly engulfed by its limitless spans of rice, golden waves of grain framed by coconut, banana and bamboo.

Near the outer edges of the crops, villages appeared in clusters, thatched-roof dwellings built of grass, mud and tin. In the spaces in between, children danced, laughed, and played.

Men and oxen worked the fields, joined by women in brightly colored saris. All of them nurturing the soil as they had for a millennia.

And while those back home browsed the aisles of Safeways, Costcos and Wal-Marts, 63 percent of all Bangladeshis still fed themselves directly from the earth.

But for however hard they worked, the villagers were never too busy to stop, smile or wave. And although their skin took the tone of rich dark chocolate, inside they were golden.

Whenever I stopped, they gathered in droves.

The simple truth was, most had never seen a foreigner, let alone a 6-foot, 6-inch white man. Using my stopwatch, I calculated that my presence attracted an average of 60-80 gawkers per minute. Triple that in cities.

That said, it was not unusual to have 30 to 50 people standing around me at any given time, staring in astonishment as I ate an apple, picked my nose, or took a sip of water.

All of it came to a head that first afternoon as I was relieving myself behind a tree. When I zipped up my fly, I turned to discover a crowd of nearly 100.

Their curious stares locked on me like laser beams.

That's when I developed a new strategy about stopping - not to. Or, if I absolutely had to, to perform whatever task I needed: eating, drinking, photographing or peeing, in 30 seconds or less.

Needless to say, I made record time to the first city of Patgram.

Enjoying my first moments of privacy in a small hotel, I laid my head to rest.

There, above the rhythmic threshing of rice, I heard my first evening prayers from a mosque.

With them, came a flood of thought.

Having long since dropped the fears of Islam sweeping my homeland, I cringed when I thought of those who still gathered their impressions of the Islamic world from a slew of post-9/11 pop-novels and 10-second sound bytes that overrepresented the religious fringe.

Reports that all but ignored the vast majority of decent, kind-hearted, family-oriented Muslims. If there was one thing that this journey had taught me, it was that out of the 17 countries I had visited, the Muslim states were undoubtedly the friendlies, and the most welcoming.

I awoke the next day, and loaded my bike in the hotel lobby. In the moments that it took, I drew a crowd of 30. I held my breath, pushed my bike through the doorway, then pedaled out into the crowd. As I did, it sent waves of excitement through the mass, causing them to point, hoot, and howl.

I bolted quickly toward the countryside, to a quiet dirt road, where I was startled by a voice from behind.

"Hey! Bondhu (friend)! Where are you going?"

I turned my head to meet the eyes of a 9-year-old boy, dressed sharply and riding on an oversized Indian bicycle.

"Huh?" I returned.

"Where are you going?" he repeated.

"Oh, Shariakandi," I replied.

"What is your name, bondhu?"

"Rick," I replied.

"Hello, Mr. Reek! My name is Milton," he said proudly, and we rode together for the next few miles.

During that time, he asked me all the questions he could muster.

"Reek," he asked finally, "Would you like to come to my village and see my house?"

I hesitated for a moment, then said, "Yes, Milton, of course I would."

We turned from the street, then down a twisted footpath dissected a row of crops, through a group of trees, until we reached the doorstep of his small village dwelling.

Constructed of dirt, mud and straw, the simple structure had a tin roof, no windows and a half-dozen chickens, clucking around the yard. Sitting in front was an elderly woman. As I reached for her hand, I noticed her skin.

Her entire body covered in dark bumps and sores. When my eyes met hers, I could see the life light slowly dimming inside her.

"This is my mother!" Milton smiled, looking through the disease with a single vision of love.

"Come!" he shouted, "I want to show you the inside of my house!"

There upon a bed, above the smooth, dirt floor, a man lay sleeping.

He opened his eyes.

"This is my brother!" Milton said, blinding me again with the gleam of his smile.

Returning outside after mere seconds, I came to find the entire village, a crowd of perhaps 50, standing, staring, curiously ogling the tall, white stranger.

Milton looked at the growing crowd, then back at me.

His smile burned with the brilliance of a million suns.

"This is my village," he announced, as if his latest show-and-tell project had just earned him village kid of the year.

I leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Sorry, Milton, but I gotta go."

"OK, Mr. Reek," he said, flashing another of his stellar smiles.

I placed my hand in his.

"Thank you, Milton."

"Goodbye, Mr. Reek."

A few miles later, as I'd returned to the silence of the countryside, the magnitude of that simplistic experience crept from within. However simple it seemed, the truth was, two people from opposite ends of the planet had transcended race, religion, culture and creed. And if only for a moment, became one.

And with that, it felt as if some long-forgotten seed had been watered within, as if my life regained purpose after a long, dark winter.

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHEN: Nov. 24-Dec. 12, 2006

MILEAGE LOG: 12,410-12,798

ELEVATION: 6,540-147 feet

WHERE: India - Darjeeling, Siliguri; Bangladesh - Patgram, Rangpur, Bogra, Jamalpur, Myemsingh, Dhaka

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