All the curtains have been taken down, the walls emptied of their decorations. My packed suitcases are waiting for a few more items- clothes, pillows and small last-minute purchases- until they’ll be zipped and locked, ready for the never-ending Friday. Traveling across the globe with the sun will allow me to arrive in San Antonio in time for dinner on the same day I leave Dhaka- but only some 35 or so hours later. My eyes are so tired that I’m seeing double and want to flop down on the couch that has been my bed since my shipment was packed out last week. The fans whirr… I’ve always been amazed how quiet my apartment can be- such that the major noise I hear is the ceiling fans. My apartment has been an abundantly large refuge from the clanking of rickshaw bells, honking car horns, calls of street vendors and streaming masses of people that characterize so much of Dhaka. Its still purple walls make me smile in comfort through my weariness.
Dhaka. You’ll miss it Priya tells me. I know. I will- and I won’t. I won’t miss the poverty that is so fiercely juxtaposed with my opulent lifestyle of hired help and world traveling financial freedom. Images crowbar themselves into my brain. A woman walking down the street on all fours: She looked like an overgrown teddy bear pushed over from its forever seated position and wrapped in a salwar kameez, her stiff limbs sticking out at seemingly useless angles. A child’s toy pushed hobbling into life.
My life as morphed into a series of to-do lists; growing as I check off, scratch out, crumble up and toss out. Tomorrow- my last day in Dhaka- I’ll check out of my classroom and officially finish my two year teaching contract at a most wonderful oasis tucked into the bustling capital of a challenged nation. Figure out how to remove the mezuzot from my many, many door frames. Say good-bye to Morshida, the wonderful and cheerful woman who has blessed me with her kind dedication- to break these last two stable years for her. And finally, decide what to do with my ziplock of partially used batteries.
I’ve been bemoaning this choice for weeks. In the States, I would have dealt with them in small quantities, placing the then useless batteries on my counter top for a few weeks or a month or so. I would look at them, knowing I should figure out where to drop them for recycling. Then I’d weary of batteries rolling around on my cooking space and I would, with a slight twinge of guilt, lazily toss them into the rubbish bin. (Which I used to call a trashcan but I’ve been converted… I’m actually waiting for the day I can used the phrase “rubbish lorry” in conversation.) I would ignore catchy phrases such as, “Live simply so that others can simply live.” I would think green, close my eyes tight, and plop the batteries in the bin, to leak slowly into the earth, buried in some dump.
But a presentation at school last month by a gifted Bangladeshi photographer Shehzad Noorani forced me to stop. I wouldn’t be throwing my batteries and all their polluting chemical components into the earth- I would be throwing them into people.
Two and a half years ago I sat at my neighbors’ kitchen table to use their landline for my job interview. One of the last questions I asked my now boss was about recycling. (I like to think I’m green, even if it’s not so.) His response was honest- recycling happens- just not the way I think of it. Every morsel of garbage in Bangladesh is rustled through by the poorest of the poor in order to find anything of value. Everything is reused. It’s recycling by the most crass definition possible. Now when I toss out food I think it too old to eat, I wonder about the starving child who will pass through that segment of rubbish and find it.
And now, I’m wondering about batteries. Shehzad's photography is moving, powerful and gut wrenching. For years he has gone to the community of the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. The water of the river is slimy and black. The community’s industry? – battery recycling. Without a shred of protective gear, the children and women break open the batteries and separate them into their components. Shehzad calls them the children of the black dust. I feel my words can do no justice to the images. Please take the time to look at them, study them, go to his flickr site to read the stories with each photo.
So. I have a bag of partially used batteries. My first impulse was to lug them out of the country and find a proper battery-recycling center in the States. When told my plan to Ashley, a NGO worker here, she said that by taking the batteries away, I was actually robbing these women and children of their livelihood. Without the batteries, they have no jobs. Shehzad himself suggested throwing the batteries away in a plastic bag so they would be easier for the children scavengers to find them among all the other discarded waste. So, I could throw them into my rubbish bin, knowing full well I was contributing both to the black dust that covers their skin and enters into their lungs- and also to the 20 taka (30 US cents) a day that these workers earn to survive (if one could call it that).
So, I have my bag of partially used batteries. I need to make my choice tomorrow. I wonder how much that choice will depend on convenience- the same factor that won over my good battery -recycling impulse in the States. This time it won’t be the whereabouts of a recycling center but rather the space left in my luggage.
No, I won’t miss abrupt confrontation with poverty every time I step outside into the muggy air. But I am grateful for the way I have been forced to reevaluate my choices.