Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Bangladesh trip is chance
to share blessings

This Thanksgiving, I am acutely aware of my many blessings because I spent the last two weeks working at a medical clinic in Bangladesh. Most people in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, have no clean water, too little food and almost no health care.

But even though life is hard for almost everyone in this giant river-delta country, the atmosphere throughout is one of cheerful acceptance. Bangladesh's peaceful Muslim people believe that God put them in these circumstances for a reason, and it's their job to make the best of it.

And that they do. As one local doctor so elegantly put it, "We Bangladeshis may be poor in the pocket, but we are rich in the heart."

This was my sixth trip to Bangladesh. I go each year because I love my friends and patients there and also because I want to share some of the blessings that come of being born an American. And here's a bonus: The aquatic wildlife there is fantastic.

Wildlife may one of the last images that comes to mind at the mention of Bangladesh, but that's a mistake. It is there that I have had several of the most thrilling animal encounters of my life. This trip was no exception.

Last Saturday, our hosts rented a large powerboat to cruise a branch of the Mehgna River, one of the country's major arteries. This enormous river runs through the southeastern part of Bangladesh, ending in the Bay of Bengal.

Since Bangladesh lies at about the same latitude as Hawaii, November hosts similar comfortable temperatures. And so on a beautiful sunny morning, kids, doctors, a patient and members of our host's extended family boarded the boat, and off we went.

The river just outside of the teeming capital city of Dhaka was interesting but not what you'd call idyllic.

First, silt naturally clouds the water a dull grayish-brown. Such sediment, however, is not a negative here because it provides essential nutrients to the soil. As a result, Bangladesh's paddies and fields can produce the billions of tons of rice and vegetables needed to feed the country's 120 million people.

Silt may muddy the water in Bangladesh, but pollution, in every size, shape and substance, is the country's real enemy.

Smokestacks lining the banks of our river spewed black smoke into the blue sky, while boats big and little huffed and honked with gusto from bank to bank.

Bangladeshis don't have the luxury of debating the pros and cons of secondary or tertiary waste-water treatment: Sewage pipes and ditches dump their contents directly into streams, ponds and rivers. And, of course, the plastic trash that plagues the world's oceans plagues Bangladesh's waters, too.

The river's sights, sounds and smells mesmerized me as I stood at that boat's rail. And then magic occurred: A dolphin leaped from the water. My eyes nearly popped from my head as I watched a small pod of Ganges River dolphins frolic along the river's bank.

Seeing dolphins thriving in this noisy, polluted water thrilled me to my toes. But the thrill involved more than just spotting an uncommon species. These dolphins, to me, mirrored the spirit of the Bangladeshi people, who, in spite of incredible hardship, thrive with an infectious love of life. That they share this spirit with me is one of the greatest gifts of my life. For that I am truly thankful.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at

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