We leave the house at 9:20 am with some trepidation it must be said. The two Things cope with the goodbyes stoically. No tears. No tantrums. This is a done deal that their parents are going back to the heartland, back to the country which belongs to all of us, without them.
We drive through the winding roads of Cumbria and, ironically, see the first real flurries of snow fall as we head to Manchester. It always seems to happen this way, when we leave for Bangladesh. It snows as we leave.
The journey goes well until we hit the outskirts of Manchester. I’ve not made allowances for the traffic moving at the speed of drying paint and I realise that we’re going to be an hour late for our lunch date with friends. But it’s ok. They are bangadeshis – they will be laid back and not be worrying.
I’m wrong. My phone rings.
“Ken Bhai are you coming?”
“Yes Apa, I’m so sorry. We got stuck in traffic. We are just a few miles away.”
“No problem Ken Bhai,” she tells me. And I know it’s true.
We arrive and it is good to see our friends. It has been too long since last we saw them. The irony being that last time was in a favourite cafe in Dhaka – where we’re headed to. And now here we are in their home in Manchester – where we’re leaving from.
The lunch is Bangla and delicious. So good I forget to take a picture. We eat with our right hand too – good preparation for the days ahead. My stomach is full and our minds are calming. That is until we realise through our friends that Wifey and I are flying from different terminals at the airport. What to do? We have separate flights and separate arrival times, even separate change-over airports. We’d hoped at least to spend the three hours before flying together.
Our friends drop us at terminal two -my terminal – because I’m taking the luggage for both of us. We’re travelling light because shalwa kameezes are awaiting Wifey in Dhaka so she has brought little in the way of clothes. We check me in and the luggage is packed off to the plane. Then we walk to terminal one to check her in too. Once that is done we spend some time together before saying our goodbyes and I head back to my terminal. It’s not much but it has at least given us a little more time together.
The next two hours go past slowly but without incident. Then, I’m on the plane and bound for Doha. Qatar flights, I will discover, are variable. This first plane has little choice in films to watch and even less room to stretch. The food is…palatable. It’s night time now and maybe I’m grumpy after twelve hours of travel but I’m not impressed.
Three hours waiting for my connecting flight in Doha does little to improve my mood though I’m impressed that there are no security checks. I just walk from my plane to the departure gate and wait to board. Once checked in and sitting in the holding room waiting to be allowed entrance to the plane, I realise I am the only white person there. The room is full of bangladeshis and, with a smirk, I know what’s coming next and sit back to watch the comedy.
Despite four clearly designated ‘zones’, when zone one is called for, the entire room stands up as one and rushes at the doors. The Qatar staff are clearly inexperienced and overwhelmed in an instant. Not one of them speaks Bangla and obviously have no idea that this is a country of people that don’t know how to queue. There is no logic to rushing to get on board – no one flies until the last person is on board! – yet still they swamp the staff and attempt to push past.
“Please!” one beleaguered young woman begs in a voice barely audible in the noise. “Just zone one. If you’re not zone one please sit down.”
Many minutes later and some have returned to the seats. Then the staff call for zone one again and, sure enough, everyone stands and rushes at the staff again. This is going to take a long time, I think to myself. I’m right.
When the plane finally takes off I’m aware of a fear within me. What if I don’t get in? What if my wife doesn’t get in? What if Bangladesh is different? What if it no longer feels like home? Where do I live then? Where is my heart?
I am distracted by the meal being served. This flight is better. More films, better food too. But it is the Bangladeshi sat behind me who is the entertainment. The cabin crew speak no Bangla either and the meals have not accounted for another Bangla cultural truth.
“Sir, would you like the chicken or fish option?”
“Oh! Yes. Pleeze. Chicken. Wid rice.”
“I’m afraid these meals don’t come with rice today. It is salad and potatoes.”
“Oh sorry, sorry. I have fish then, thank you. Wid rice.”
The air hostess does her best to keep her cool.
“I’m sorry sir but our options today are not served with rice. Would you like the chicken or the fish?”
This continues a little longer until eventually it seems to get through. Chicken is chosen. As the lady walks away to the next person I hear the man mumble “wid rice” one more time quietly to himself.
It doesn’t matter how much you eat, or how delicious the meal might be. If you’ve not had rice, you haven’t eaten.
Four hours later and we begin the descent into Dhaka. My heart is pounding and I feel sick. Then we break through the clouds and I see my first foggy glimpses of my Bangladesh. My heart breaks and I feel tears welling in my eyes. There is no doubt now. I still feel the same way even after two years apart.
We land and I walk into the airport. The smell hasn’t changed either. What has changed, and has been the source of our worry, is the option to have visa on arrival rather than apply to the Bangladesh High Commission as we have always done in the past. It’s much cheaper this way but none of our friends have ever dared to try it.
Apart from the usual farce of not knowing where to queue to get the form and pay for the application (I discover there that it isn’t $50 as all the websites say but $50 plus tax – but he lets me off the one dollar extra I don’t have), I simply go to the immigration desk to have the visa granted. That’s it. I walk out to the baggage area in half the time it would usually and at a fraction of the visa cost.
I pick up the bags and sit opposite the immigration desks ready for my four hour wait for my other half to arrive. I’ve brought plenty of books to read so I’m all prepared. Alas, I haven’t allowed for company.
Within ten minutes I have shut my book and look up to see myself in a swarm of mosquitos. They seem equally interested in my luggage as me and so I abandon my bags where I can keep them in sight and begin walking around the walkway next to the immigration desk. Four hours later I’m still doing it, trying to out walk the mozzies and mostly succeeding but still needing to lash out and crush the odd persistent one. The floor is littered with their bodies but they are too small to notice.
I discover that airport life is deadly dull when planes haven’t landed and people aren’t rushing en masse to immigration. So about a dozen staff watch a mad foreigner go round and round in circles for four hours for no apparently good reason. They have nothing better to do I guess. I’ve done nothing to improve perceptions of the British however.
Eventually Wifey appears and she too has her visa accepted on arrival (though she is made to pay the extra tax amount). We find our driver outside and begin the slow journey to the flat in Banani which will be home for this week.
Nothing has changed. The traffic is still chaotic. The people are still too much. And even though we’re barely out of winter it is already hot. The traffic lurches from dangerously fast and out of control to total standstill often within seconds of each other, but eventually we come to our building, grab our bags from the car and we’re taken to our flat.
It is a beautiful place, full of ornate furniture and ornaments. I feel like I am to sleep in a museum. But right now that’s fine by me. I’m ready to drop. The last surprise is to see our bed which I later discover belonged to a Vietnamese princess. We feel majestic. We feel like death.
It has been almost exactly 36 hours since we left Cumbria and we quickly fall asleep, knowing little until the call to prayer from the local mosque at 5 am the next morning. It doesn’t matter. We’re home.