Despite having been in Dhaka for several weeks at this point, I still catch myself fumbling sometimes. I still get lost. Like extremely lost. As in I was in a rickshaw for an hour trying to go somewhere that is maybe ten minutes from where I live. Or taking so long to convince a CNG (basically a little green tin cage attached to the flatbed of a moped) driver to take me where I needed to go that I missed an appointment only to realize it was because I was asking for a driver on the wrong side of the road. My ex-pat friends have told me that Bangladesh is a place of habit, you find your center by establishing your own series of habits to ground you in an otherwise unfamiliar world. However, I have the feeling they were encouraging me to pick a regular cafe to visit, not my daily trips down the back alleys of Gulshan Avenue.
The emotional life of an expat in Dhaka is reminiscent of the pattern of a heart rate monitor; there are these immense peaks followed by these even shapers falls. You have days where you are so incredibly excited and invested in the work you are doing here and there are other days when the culture shock and overwhelming nature of the city makes you afraid to leave the apartment. Never before have I so greatly appreciated the sentiment of Bilbo Baggins’s renown line “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door.”
I used to believe that the hardest journey a person could take was the first step. But I don’t think that’s true. Our first step is the easy one. At that point there’s the momentum and the promise of the journey ahead to carry you through, you haven’t failed yet. I think the hardest steps are two and three, the ones you need to take after you’ve learned that it is indeed possible, and in fact quite likely, that you will fail. But if Dhaka has taught me nothing else, it’s that when you take those second and third steps you find the journey most worth venturing out for.
Dhaka is a challenging place for me to bond with. There is a part of me that wonders how much that would change over time. If I stayed here for another two weeks or months or years, would I ever come to feel more a part of the place? Or is it really possible to be too different, to be so far removed from another group of people, from another way of life, that the bridge can simply never be crossed? I guess that depends on your definition of what it means to cross a bridge. Whether it be London or Dhaka, it is difficult to ever remove the “difference” that all foreigners to a place possess. Is there a moment in time or a certain length of stay when a person can conclusively say “Yes I now belong to this place. I understand the complexities and the nuances of the region, for better or for worse, as if I had been here all my life.” I don’t have the answer to that. But I do believe, in spite any innate differences, any person can come to connect to any place.
Despite the struggles I’ve had with it, this city still manages to put a smile on my face. The other night as I was taking a rickshaw home, I turned to my right to see a herd of cattle being walked down the street. This is the main thoroughfare in my area and there were just a bunch of cows strolling down Main Street in the city. I could not stop laughing at the absurdity and the hilarity of it all.
Today I got caught walking in a downpour, something that seems to have become an intercontinental ritual of mine. And I found myself getting frustrated. Frustrated that I hadn’t prepared for the rain, that I had just stepped in a puddle of god knows what that was now covering my foot, frustrated by all the people blatantly staring me when all I wanted to do was get from point a to point b in peace. I ducked under the awning of a shopping center to try and avoid becoming completely soaked. I stood there for awhile, waiting for the rain to end. But then I stopped waiting and just started looking. And I watched what had been perfectly clear skies before turn into a tumultuous mass of dark grey clouds. I watched the rain pick up speed and density and witnessed for a few brief minutes what the opening moments of all a full blown monsoon might be like. Standing there, watching this rain, I couldn’t help but smile. Because it was beautiful. Just as beautiful has it had ever been in Edinburgh and Beijing.
Bangladesh is so unlike any other place I have ever been and it has been a struggle for me to come to terms with that. It’s not Scotland or China or America. It’s not supposed to be. But it’s still beautiful, nonetheless.
It just took a little bit of rain to finally see that.
(An otherwise dirty roof transforms into something magical after a little rain fall)
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