Wifey has gone off to teach in Jessore for the week leaving me in my jadu ghor, my little museum apartment, to entertain myself for a few days.
I’m well prepared. I still have the books I’d hoped to read in the airport before the invasion of the blood suckers. Furthermore I have already arranged to meet friends – former students from my days teaching at LAMB – and catch up on two years of gossip.
Bangladesh continues to be a strange mixture of old and modern, of changed and unchanged. The first thing I notice is that I’m talking to all these young people exclusively using the Internet. I haven’t sent or received a single text nor phone call, yet I’m chatting and making arrangements every hour of the day. Of course, when I step outside I will be alone. I have no Bangla SIM card and have been using the wireless modem here in the apartment. But that’s ok – I know what I am doing out there.
Hands are tied a little though with the recent attacks on foreigners. We are ‘under orders’ to only take CNG baby taxis. No walking. No rickshaws. This seems ok for the journeys I’ll be taking are longer ones and need the motorised vehicles anyway.
I’ve been told that the CNGs are now obliged by the government to use the meters. I don’t believe it until I try to barter a price with one driver to get me to Dhanmondi. “We’ll use the meter,” he offers without my first insisting and I’m blown away. Never in ten years have I known a CNG driver willingly offer to go by meter. Good reason too. The money I give him turns out to be just two taka (1-2 pence) more than my original stupidly low price I gave in response to his ridiculous high “he’s a bideshi” price. It’s a miracle these drivers aren’t starving to death.
Dhaka continues to be a city permanently under construction. Every single block has at least one Tower of Babel stretching up into the sky and held together, it seems, by the flimsiest of bamboo poles. Construction doesn’t stop, day or night, as my sleep patterns attest. There’s no peaceful night’s rest in Dhaka.
As towering monstrosities vie with one another for supremacy of the sky, so the battle for the underworld seems to also be underway. It feels like every road is being dug up. Not just small contained holes, but whole valleys which stretch across roads blocking access except for the small wooden boards precariously balanced, offered to pedestrians at their peril and looking as well as feeling like a cross between a castle’s drawbridge over a moat and a pirate’s plank.
What’s left of the streets continues to overflow with sewage and mud. I have to remind myself that I’m in the ‘posh’ part of Dhaka as I hold my breath from the reek of piss and shit and tiptoe through the least muddy parts I can find.
I go see a dear friend and her sister. I have forgotten just how much I love ‘my people’ here and she is definitely one of mine. She cooks my first Bangla meal of the visit (the chef where I’m staying is brilliant but trained for western tastes so I’m eating bideshi all the time there) and her sister makes the best Bangla cha. When it comes to time to leave I find it hard to tear myself away. Somehow, for all the nightmare which is Dhaka, it is still home; still the place my heart feels at rest and comfortable. It can’t just be my friends here – I have people I love in the UK too – it’s the whole package. If you took away everyone I know in this land I’d still come back and make new friends. Yet I stand at the doorway of these two young angels and know I don’t want to be anywhere else – not even in Dhaka. So it’s not just the country either. Bangladesh and its people continue to defy comprehension and explanation.
It’s dark when I leave after the guards for the apartment block have failed to locate a CNG for me. I go searching for myself and after a few minutes I find one. Is he going? I ask. He is. I want Banani masjid, I tell him. He tells me his meter is broken. It’s fairly obvious it isn’t but the price he asks is ok so I let it ride. It isn’t taking long for the drivers to find ways around the rules.
The journey back is uneventful until, in true Bangladesh style, the last moment where he takes a slightly different route back and gets stuck in traffic.
“Go round the corner,” he says, “and the masjid is just a few minutes away. But if I try to take you in this jam it will be another hour.”
I’m wary because I don’t really recognise where I am which is odd as I know most of Banani. But I pay him and get out and follow the directions he gave. Soon I realise I’m now on Airport Road – the major road which feeds into Banani – but no idea at which part. I head into the area and soon realise I recognise nothing. I later figure out he’s dropped me right at the south end which just happens to be the part I know least of all.
I wander street after street desperately trying to find somewhere I recognise or at least a main road. I find neither. Now I’m in the dark streets at night with my white skin shining like a Belisha beacon. Under normal circumstances I would have hopped on a rickshaw long ago and had the wallah take me to the masjid. But I’m not allowed, for my own personal safety, so I don’t. I have no way of knowing I will actually wander these streets for nearly an hour.
Finally, I recognise a road and something on it. Not the shop, but the shop front. All the shops have changed here in two years but I recognise the shop design. We used to bring our children here for ice creams long ago back when they were little, what now feels to my tired legs and frayed nerves like a lifetime ago. I finally have my bearings.
The road I take is a back road. It is dark, unlit and muddy. At one point, unable to see properly, I wade through what I hope is just muddy water. I hope, but also doubt. My shoes are ruined. No matter, I intended to buy sandals while here anyway. I find my apartment block and go in, tired, a little pissed but mostly just grateful to be back.
That night, after a great meal from the chef, I lie in bed and muse over the day. I was nervous in the dark, there’s no denying, but I was also excited. That’s the power this country has over me. I’ve known bideshis go through less and say “never again” leaving to never return. But my overwhelming feeling is “this is home” and I wonder just what would have to happen to me, how bad it would have to be, to change my mind. In a country where that question could so easily be answered I hope I never find out.