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It’s 107 degrees and the sun’s hot rays are beating down on a family trekking through the busy streets of Dhaka. People, rickshaws, and goats alike are all rushing off to reach their respective destinations. As the parents of the family encourage their two daughters through the maze of bodies, the younger of the two whines for an ice cold mango lassee to alleviate the unbearable heat. They finally reach the car, breathing a sigh of relief as they enter the refreshingly cool vehicle, and as they begin to talk about their plans for the day, a traffic jam forms ahead of them. But of course, being in Bangladesh on vacation, this is no ordinary traffic jam; it starts because a rickshaw swerves into a jeep in order to avoid hitting a family of chickens crossing the road. With the entire street covered in debris from the crash, people impatiently honk from their cars to get an ambulance there faster. Half an hour passes by and it still has not arrived, and the little girl is still craving a mango lassee. Begrudgingly, her father agrees to go buy her one. They leave the car and the mother is left with her older daughter. As they sit in the car, the girl begins to drift off to sleep…when she is suddenly startled by a rapping knock on her window. Her head snaps around, and her jaw drops at the sight outside of the car.
Seeing that I was only ten years old, it is understandable that I screamed when I saw what stood outside my window that day in Bangladesh. Immediately, just from looking at them, I knew that the two men standing there begging for spare change were unlike every other person I had ever seen doing the same thing. For starters, one was perched on the others shoulders; strange, but at second glance, I realized that it was because he had no legs. The other man? He had no arms. Both were wearing ragged clothing and were truly all skin and bones, with their shoulder bones sharply jutting out of their bodies.
I leaped into my mother’s arms and instantly felt guilty, for the looks of utter misery on the men’s faces drooped even lower. Never had I ever felt a stronger need to give a person some sort of compensation, because it was in plain sight that these people truly needed it. Begging my mother for permission to give them some spare change, she allowed me to do so. I opened my tiny clasp purse my grandmother had made me and looked into my modest collection of Bangladeshi coins I had collected thus far on our vacation. At that point in my life, I had been collecting foreign coins for many years, and coveted every single one that went into my collection. I thought hard about what was more important; expanding my already extensive assortment of coins, or giving these men a few dollars to buy themselves some source of strongly needed nourishment.
When we returned back home to America later that summer and I told my best friend all about my vacation, she was astounded that I had decided to give my coins to two complete strangers. My other friends agreed, that they would have just kept it for themselves, and told the men to ask someone else. They all asked why I had made such a decision, and at the time, I told them that I simply felt it was the right thing to do. However, it was the plain fact that I had physically encountered poverty, right in front of my face, that had driven me to make that choice.
In my life, I constantly hear of impoverished people from third world countries who go hungry for days, live in scant housing, and are more prone to disease than any average person living in America. I’ve seen programs on television that show such people who are much less fortunate than me, and naturally, it saddens me to know that they will never have the opportunities that I am privileged to have in my own life. However, despite the fact that I know that these kinds of situations exist in the world, it never really hit me until that day that was I on vacation with my family in Bangladesh, at the young age of ten. I knew, when we first arrived in the Dhaka airport, that this would not be like any other vacation we had been on.
My family has traveled quite a bit in the past, and Bangladesh was unlike any of the other countries we’ve been to, because the extremes were plainly manifested right in front of our eyes. We visited the villages, where sheep and cows roamed the streets, and the thick air smelled of ghee and straw bales. And we spent time in the city, in which the crowded, pebbly streets were occupied by people walking, bustling along in rickshaws, and rumbling by in cars. In both of these parts of the country, the poor were everywhere. It was impossible to not encounter a beggar on the side of the street every five minutes, and it was equally impossible to not be shocked at the extreme poverty-stricken conditions that you saw them living in. Children with enormous tumors protruding from their bodies played on the streets, people missing limbs – like the two men – made their way around with no assistance from passersby, and elderly citizens took their time limping through the maze of bodies in the packed, sweltering city. I had always known that poverty existed, and I knew that it was awful; but to see it right in front of my very eyes? That really hit home. And it made me realize just how terrible some people have it, making me feel guilty for all of the blessings that I have in my own life. Constant running water, food, shelter, clothes. All of these things that I had taken for granted my entire life, suddenly became privileges that other people would give anything to have in the smallest amounts.
That day, I rolled down my window slowly and reached my tiny, plump hand out to the man perched on the other’s shoulders. He spread out his bony, wrinkled fingers with his palm out, and in it I placed one, two, three shiny dollars coins. I looked up to him and when our eyes finally met, his thin lips curled into a grin I would never have imagined would have fit on his thin, hollowed out face. Giving both men a genuine smile in return, it was ironic that the emptiness in my little purse was the complete opposite of the gratifying feeling that was growing inside of me, expanding until I couldn’t stop smiling.
Since that experience, I have been a strong believer of the idea that being physically exposed to a concept is far more effective than simply being told of it, or watching it on the other side of a television screen. I’ve incorporated this philosophy into all aspects of my life; when I work in the summers at a day camp on a local farm, I constantly use animal and plant encounters as learning opportunities for the children, instead of simply having discussions about them or reading a book. I now stop and appreciate moments that make me love the life I’ve been given, instead of disregarding them as nothing special. I’ve learned to appreciate life as it comes, because I now realize that once-in-a-lifetime experiences are given to us a lot more often than we think they do.
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