Books Unbound

Asia, Bangladesh, Sightsee with Sophie

What We Do: We provide informal learning opportunities for marginalized communities

Current Projects: The Rohingya Project in Kutupalong, Bangladesh. We developed a Rohingya Picture Dictionary to provide informal learning opportunities to the Rohingya refugees.

How You Can Help: We are raising money to design and distribute a Bengali Picture Dictionary so we can reach the local community in Cox’s Bazar.

Help us support the kids in Cox’s Bazar |Nihab Rahman|

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Tea Time!

Asia, Bangladesh, Food, Sightsee with Sophie

What time is it? It’s probably tea time. No, it’s definitely tea time. Especially in Cox’s Bazar. I’ve lost count of how many cups of tea a day I drink. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, sure the tea here is drowning in sweetened condensed milk and packed with loads of sugar. But that’s what keeps you going when you’re in Cox’s Bazar. That and my favorite energy drink, Speed! If you haven’t already, check out my tribute to Speed:

Back to the tea! If you spend a week in Cox’s Bazar and don’t drink a single cup of tea, I really question whether you even stepped out of your hotel room. That’s the first thing you should do when you arrive. Walk the streets and look for the finest tea shop around. There really are a plethora to choose from.

You can go for the fancy, luxurious tea-and-saucer in an established restaurant with plastic tablecloths.

You can take the alternative approach and sit in a makeshift tea shop, holding a scolding hot dixie cup of tea. You spend your time paranoid that the water will burn through the plastic. Don’t worry, it rarely does.

The best part about “tea time” is that it can happen any time!

Nihab knows when it’s time for tea: after a long day of filming.

The Perks of Drinking Tea: Making Friends

If you’re chilling outside with a cup of tea, chances are you’ll make a couple friends.

Sometimes you’ll have babies thrown into your lap with no questions asked. Then you sit in a panic as the mother disappears for 20 minutes and you are seriously contemplating whether she just gave you a child or not. This brings up more questions about what to do — Are you ready to raise a child? What name would you give the child? Did this mother really just leave her child for you? Is she ever actually going to return…?

[good news] She returns — after she ran to the market to buy her child a new dress and asks for a photoshoot in the new dress. You breathe a sigh of relief when you realize that you won’t be raising that child after all. You can continue your globetrotting life.

All of that happened over a simple cup of tea. Brilliant.

The Coffee Alternative: SPEED!

Asia, Bangladesh, Food, Sightsee with Sophie

Before we get to talking about the tea in Cox’s Bazar, I just want to acknowledge that, contrary to popular opinion, there is more than just tea to drink in Bangladesh. I was introduced to a drink here that supplemented my coffee addiction while on a tight budget.

That’s right, SPEED. The world’s greatest energy drink. Let me preface by saying that I am strongly against energy drinks. Monsters, Rockstars, BLEEEEH. I would never go out of my way to drink them. I never intended to go out of my way to order Speed. This is how the addiction began:

If you’re unfamiliar with my Rohingya Reunions, you can find it here. It’s basically the reason why I came to Bangladesh in the first place: to find my Rohingya friends. The thing is, I have a lot of Rohingya friends. And every single time I visit their homes, what do they offer me for a beverage? SPEED.

Of course I’m in that awkward spot where I want to be culturally sensitive all the time…so I drink and eat pretty much anything. So if I’m visiting 4 families in one day, I’m averaging 4 – 6 bottles of Speed that day.

As you can imagine, the addiction starts quickly. If you’re in Cox’s Bazar, I recommend trying Speed just for the experience. But chances are you won’t be sitting with Rohingya friends who give you bottles of Speed everyday. So you’ll be fine. One Speed didn’t hurt anyone, right?

I’m not even being sponsored by Speed to advertise. But now I think I should. Let’s let the white girl represent Bangladesh’s #1 Energy Drink.

Food in Cox’s Bazar

Asia, Bangladesh, Food, Sightsee with Sophie

I was going to describe Cox’s Bazar’s food in one word, but then I found a billboard that speaks for me, so here you go:

That’s right. Oil. So much oil that they’ve even got a huge billboard in town to advertise. I wouldn’t recommend coming to Cox’s Bazar if you’re on a strict diet. There’s no way to avoid the oil…but once you embrace the oil, you can embrace the luxuries of Cox’s Bazar cuisine, which includes:

Samosas!

You know they’re good when they’re served in the newspaper and plastic bags and are still burning hot with oil seeping through. Be sure to grab them in the morning when they’re freshly made! There are usually several other snack options if samosas aren’t your thing. Definitely a go-to snack to carry with you before you end up stuck in traffic for 3 hours on your way out of town.

Here’s another popular street food to try. I always ask for extra chillies for that extra spunk — but I have an insanely high spice tolerance. So don’t try this at home. Side note, if you’re really lucky, they’ll even package your snack with recycled condom packages. That’s called being resourceful.

Speaking of being resourceful, don’t forget to throw away your trash at one of the several garbage locations in Cox’s Bazar. You can’t miss them. They’re open-mouthed penguins with a sign that says, “Use Me” to which you proceed to “use” the penguin by dumping your trash in its mouth. Definitely my favorite part of Cox’s Bazar.

But now let’s talk about the real food. Roti. Naan. Paratha. All the bread. So so good.

I recommend you just take a stroll around Cox’s Bazar in the morning to find the best roti stalls. You can’t go wrong.

Cox’s Bazar main road

But if you’re really searching for really good stuff, it’s better to head out of the city and into the villages. That’s where the magic is. And you can enjoy the sunset as well. Bonus!

But here’s the real advice. If you truly want some good, good food, you better find a way to get invited to a local’s house for dinner. Homemade Bangla food is absolutely incredible. Let’s hope you’re not a vegetarian, because the chicken curry is always amazing. You can’t walk away without 2 full plates of rice. Really, you can’t. They will make you eat it all.

And if you make a request, you might able to receive roti-making lessons. Apparently I’m not that skilled in making roti. It was rated 4 out of 10. The shape of my roti was compared to the continent of Australia. If you can try making a less Australia-like roti, then you’re already 10 steps ahead of me.

But yeah, we have a lot of food here. A lot.

Most of it includes potatoes and oil, which isn’t bad for a time. Just find that healthy balance. Go out and find some mangos.

They have mangos everywhere. Big mangos, little mangos (seriously, I almost died when I found these baby mangos). Don’t worry, not all mangos are this small. I just don’t happen to have many photos of mangos.

Now we have to talk about how to complement all of this lovely food with some fun drinks! Check out my Drinks post!

Bangla Music Video: Ahare

Asia, Bangladesh, Sightsee with Sophie, Videos

Yes, I make the occasional Bangla music videos here and there. It’s a great way to share the incredible footage of the area and inspire you to come visit! I’m currently taking requests for new Bangla songs…

Cover song of “Ahare” by Minar

Location of filming: Cox’s Bazar

Filmed and edited by: Nihab Rahman

The Salt Flats

Asia, Bangladesh, Places, Sightsee with Sophie, Videos

One of the best photography spots around — the salt flats in Cox’s Bazar. Located outside of the city, you have to navigate through some local villages to find your way there. The best mode of transportation to get there is a tomtom. You can find a tomtom driver in Cox’s Bazar to take you around the salt flats area. Just be ready to bargain. You probably will want to go with a local who can show you around the area — it’s a little bit off the beaten path.

As you pass through the local fishing villages, you can stop by and grab some tea at any of the tea shops around.

The pictures speak for themselves. The salt flats are such a beautiful part of Cox’s Bazar. Prime photography opportunities right here! Also a great chance to find some local villagers and hang out with them over a cup of tea.

Perfect to watch the sunset as well. My top advice when in Cox’s Bazar: never miss a sunset. You’ll regret it.

The World’s Longest Beach

Asia, Bangladesh, Places, Sightsee with Sophie

One would think that after you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all. Some beaches are obviously more beautiful than others. But they’re fairly straightforward. They have sand, water, and the occasional waves and rays of sunshine. The essentials. So when you say, “Let’s go to the beach!” that’s generally what you would expect.

For Cox’s Bazar, it might be a different story. Known as the World’s Longest Beach, there’s far more than meets the eye. Not only is it a beach, but it’s also:

A highway.

When there’s road construction in town, this is the only solution. I say highway so you know it’s not a road with a crosswalk. The CNG drivers won’t stop, especially if you’re trying to enjoy a nice sunset walk. 10 points for whoever can take out the white girl walking along the beach.

A Place to Gallop on Horseback

Cox’s Bazar |Nihab Rahman|

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. You might be able to race those CNG drivers.

A Place for Cheap, Good Coconuts

Less than $1 for an incredibly refreshing coconut. After you finish the juice, be sure to ask the Coconut Man to crack it open for you so you can eat the flesh. Get the best bang for your buck!

Breeding Ground for Dogs

Beware of the dogs. One of the biggest mistakes that tourists make is they assume that dogs in other countries are same as the ones in their country. They’re not. They will bite. But the good news: The dogs don’t like water. So if you do end up getting attacked, just run into the waves. They’ll leave you in no time, especially if you have a tripod to hit them. And the local fishermen will help you escape. Tried and tested by Sophie herself.

The Sunset

Hands down, Cox’s Bazar has some killer sunsets. This beach is a photographer’s dream. You won’t want to miss it. The best time to catch the sunset is around 5:15pm.

Have you visited the World’s Longest Beach? Got any recommendations to share? Reach out to me — I’d love to hear more!

My Story with Cox’s Bazar

Asia, Bangladesh, Sightsee with Sophie

Why I Went

What led me to Cox’s Bazar was the Rohingya refugee crisis. Cox’s Bazar is one of the closer towns to Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp. Tons of NGOs flooded in to serve the Rohingya people after the crisis in August 2017.

When I wasn’t working in the refugee camps, I went on village excursions with Nihab Rahman. We discovered all the hot spots for photography and I quickly fell in love with the area. If you’re an avid photographer, you can’t miss a week or two in Cox’s Bazar.

What I Did

This is the birthplace of Books Unbound, my nonprofit that provides informal learning materials to marginalized communities. We started with the Rohingya refugees in April 2019. I was based out of Cox’s Bazar. My first time in Cox’s Bazar was filled with back-to-back meetings with NGOs, visits to the refugee camps, and photography excursions to local villages with Nihab.

Who Should Visit

Photographers, backpackers, aid workers. Travelers who have graduated from the mainstream Southeast Asia adventures (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) and are ready to jump into something less mainstream. If you enjoy riding rickshaws, avoiding angsty cows, eating roti, drinking tea, and catching the World’s Best Sunset on the World’s Longest Beach, check out Cox’s Bazar.

The One Day Plan vs. The Five Year Plan

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What are your plans for next year? When are you going to college? What degree are you going to get? How will you find a job? What are you doing with your life? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Ten years? Twenty years?!

AHHH STOP!

The “five year plan” questions. The “what is your future” questions. The “tell me how you will become an adult” questions.

This is a shout out to all students and recent graduates. We’re all familiar with the classic “five year plan” questions. It seems to be the only topic of conversation anywhere we go. When we make it to the job interview, when we attend family reunions, even when we sit next to that stranger on the bus.

My freshman year in high school was when all the questions started to flood in. From there, I knew it was a downward spiral into the land of perpetual “future” questions. That’s just the way it is in our society. We are constantly asking the same question:

What’s next?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking that question. It’s always good to plan for the next thing, to anticipate what is to come, to try and sort out your life. But what I’ve discovered in my experience is that no matter how much you plan or how much you talk about your plans, it’s never going to go the way you anticipate.

If my organized life had gone according to plan, I would be studying in my second year of university, attending my dream school on a generous scholarship with plans to study abroad next semester.

Instead, I’m sitting in a small apartment in Thailand, eating fish paste with my Burmese friends, teaching English over 10 hours a day, and trying to dodge the Burmese pythons that cross the road as I’m riding my motorbike.

I guess you could say nothing goes according to plan.

But that’s the beauty of it all, isn’t it? We can try as hard as we can to plan our futures, but in reality, life gets in the way. It’s good to have reality slap us in the face from time to time. If we lived our whole lives in a dream, always planning the next thing, we wouldn’t actually be living. We’d be dreaming. We can’t be dreaming forever. Eventually we will need to wake up.

My experiences in Thailand have taught me to spend less time dreaming and more time living. After living in a transient community where everyone migrates when they find a new job, I’ve learned to appreciate the people that surround me today. They might not be there tomorrow.

After living in a constant state of confusion, I’ve learned that life is unpredictable and I need to go with the flow.

After living in a country so vastly different from my own, I’ve learned that there are ways to easily adapt to new surroundings. You can’t do that through planning. You have to do that in the moment.

It’s taken me a while to learn that the One Day Plan can actually be better than the Five Year Plan. Even though I’ve lived here for a year, I still ask the same questions every day:

What am I doing here? What will happen when I go back to the States? Will I ever get a job? Will I ever finish my degree? Was it a good idea to come here? Or am I just a rebellious teen who is escaping the responsibilities of going to college?

I stopped following my traditional Thai One Day Plan and started to fall back to the American Five Year Plan. Coming back to Thailand after my visit in America confused me more than ever. I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision in coming back or in taking a gap year at all.

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But then one day, everything changed.

That single greatest day changed the way I saw everything in my life, putting it all back into perspective.

Of course, the greatest days always seem to begin as the worst days. It was a Monday morning, I was stressed out of my mind from my usual dysfunctional school that seemed to be in utter chaos yet again. Teachers were missing, students were running around screaming my name, news reporters and donors were visiting the school…just a typical day at my Burmese school.

Not to mention this was the day when I decided to run around and catch all of the stray dogs at the school. I sent them to the vet (during my 1 hour of free time) for vaccinations and the removal of certain body parts to stop them from reproducing…

Just as I finished wrapping up my lesson with grade 5 (after the whole dog-catching shindig), I walked out of class, completely disoriented from the heat. I was heading towards my next class when I saw a van pull up to the school. Three men and a woman stepped out of the van, carrying large video equipment. They walked from class to class, pulling out each Rohingya student and interviewing them. I didn’t think much of it, so I continued going about my daily teaching routine. When the interviewers finished, they came into my classroom and asked if they could speak with me privately.

They were from VOA (Voice of America) and were writing a story about the Rohingya refugees in Thailand. The man who translated my students’ interviews was Rohingya. He approached me and said, “I want to thank you, Miss Sophie, for everything.”

“Why? What did I do?”

“I interviewed several Rohingya boys today. They told me their stories. Some of these boys were trafficked and sold into slavery. They were lucky enough to escape onto another boat and come to Thailand. Most of them have lost their parents at a young age. They have never been to school before. When I asked them if they enjoyed living in Thailand, they said that they hated it until they met you, Sophie. All they could talk about was the special English class that you offer for them. They all kept saying, ‘Miss Sophie! The English teacher! She’s so much fun and so friendly.’”

I was shocked at this feedback I got from my students. So I just laughed.

“Really?”

He replied, “Yes. I don’t think you understand what kind of an impact you’ve made on these boys. You’ve shown them love; something they’ve never seen before. These kids have been outcasts their whole life because of their ethnicity and religion. You’re the first person who has accepted them. Thank you so much for what you have done for the Rohingya people. We respect you and admire all the work you have done for us.”

As soon as he finished, all twenty Rohingya boys came running up to me, giving me high fives and screaming, “Miss Sophie!”

In that moment, I realized that my One Day Plan was the cause of all of this. If I hadn’t spontaneously decided (in my one hour of free time) to teach the Rohingya boys some English, maybe none of this would have happened. If I had spent time planning on teaching these boys, I would’ve realized that my schedule is way too chaotic to start an additional English class. But I didn’t care. I was all in the One Day Plan as opposed to the Five Year Plan.

Although I do admit that my One Day Plan has made my teaching days a lot longer and more stressful, in the long run, it has paid off. All the stressful questions of my future have disappeared as I continue to stick with my One Day Plan philosophy. I realize now that there is nowhere else in the world where I am supposed to be. I am finally in the right place.

Today, I'm right where I'm meant to be.

Today, I am right where I’m meant to be.

What’s beautiful about a One Day Plan is that it is what molds one’s Five Year Plan. I know for a fact that my Five Year Plan has changed even from when I met these young Rohingya boys. I know that I want to continue helping these people and working to change their situation.

Sometimes a person's One Day Plan can change someone else's Five Year Plan.

Sometimes a person’s One Day Plan can change someone else’s Five Year Plan.

I only hope that my One Day Plan has influenced and changed the Rohingya boys’ Five Year Plan for the better. I hope they are able to look to their futures and see more glimpses of hope and opportunity. If their lives were touched by me even in the slightest, whether it is having a new friend or learning a new English word, that is proof that sometimes the One Day Plan can be better than the Five Year Plan.