After so many terrorist plots and bombings, Andrew Cullen and Ryan Rhoades figured they might never be evacuated.
So the two Auburn men – living this March in separate Bangladesh cities – girded themselves and prepared to stay.
“I said to myself, I’m here. Dig in. I’ve got two more years,'” Cullen, 22, recalled.
Then his cell phone rang. His boss with the Peace Corps told him to get to the capital, Dhaka, about 2 hours away. Cullen left beans soaking in a bowl and dirty laundry in a heap on the floor of his tiny apartment. He never returned.
Four days later on March 16, he and Rhoades began their journey home, part of the Peace Corps’ withdrawal from the Asian country.
Rhoades, 24, was ready to come home. He had been there for 18 months.
The poverty, lack of hygiene and smothering curiosity he attracted whenever he left his apartment had taken their toll. So did the terrorists, a small-but-violent Muslim group known as the JMB, the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh.
They had set off explosions, kidnapped people and threatened Peace Corps volunteers.
“I was scared a lot,” Rhoades said.
Neither man saw any terrorist acts. However, not all of the terror came from terrorists.
People got angry easily, said Rhoades, and the attention he drew often felt threatening. Walking home at night, he might easily be surrounded by young men.
“Being nervous all the time wears you out,” Rhoades said.
Focus of attention
The Peace Corps had been sending volunteers to Bangladesh since 1998. Until the March pullout, 117 volunteers were working in the country. Most, like Rhoades and Cullen, taught English in a government-run youth program.
Cullen, who arrived in August 2005, was only beginning to adjust to the work and the lifestyle when the evacuation came.
Like Rhoades, he first had to adjust to the attention all foreigners attract. The first time Cullen walked on the street, he was bombarded with questions:
“What country are you from?”
“Do you have brothers and sisters?
“What’s your religion?”
“You are always the focus of attention,” Cullen said. People sometimes shouted out rude comments in Bangla, the native language. They also shouted greetings. He was instantly popular.
“It was emotionally draining,” he said. It was worse during the early days, when he knew no one and had little skill in the language.
“I had to tough it out for the first month,” he said. Already a vegetarian, his diet consisted mostly of rice and beans.
But he made friends quickly.
Social groups are “incredibly tight-knit,” Cullen said. People there build layer upon layer of relationships, developing a “massive support system.”
In some ways, it felt like high school, Rhoades said. People noticed who you sat with or talked to.
To Cullen, the heightened relationships came with a sense of safety. He said he didn’t share Rhoades’ fear. In some ways, he was looking forward to the national elections in November, a traditionally tumultuous event.
Cullen, who studied photojournalism at Boston University, wanted to witness the changes. Rhoades, who earned an art degree at New York’s Pratt Institute, had no such ambitions.
“I was ready to go,” Rhoades said. “I was really thrilled to come back, to see my family and all the things I love to do.”
Poverty and desperation
The memory of the overwhelming poverty will stay with him.
In the marketplaces, where many people bought their meals, neither the food nor the kitchens were clean. Large families lived in small homes, often no more than shacks, without running water or electricity. Polluted canals ran through overpopulated neighborhoods.
“Poverty was real abstract before,” Rhoades said. “But now I really understand it. There is real desperation to get out, but most people will never leave.”
He misses some things, though. He liked sitting with shop owners, drinking tea and watching the rickshaws roll by.
He also liked the way his western physique stuck out.
“In Bangladesh, I’m a muscle man and very tall,” said Rhoades, who stands a lean 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
When they returned, both men had to adjust to their anonymity on American sidewalks.
“I felt like a ghost,” Rhoades said.”No one talked to you. You had your own personal space bubble.”
Cullen joked with friends, “In Bangladesh, I’m a rock star.”
Rhoades plans to return to school and study cabinetmaking.
“I still want to be an artist,” he said. “I think I can be happy.” Years from now, he may again join the Peace Corps.
“You’re so engaged in every moment of your service,” Rhoades said.
Cullen might serve again, in some other country, as soon as this fall.
“There’s a lot of things I want to see,” he said. “It’s a big world out there.”