From Hopelessness to Hospitality

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Monday, March 7, 2005

Flying into Sylhet my hopes were high. I thought surely someone had been able to locate Aktar or Rahman and I felt fairly confident that I'd see them waiting for me when I touched down. I'd already mentally rehearsed what a strangely exciting experience it would be for us all. Who'd have thought that after 10 years of working and getting to know Bangladeshis that I'd actually be in their country? I don't know of any westerners who've been here and the thrill of the unknown and unexplored has always excited me. Even the Bangladeshi tourist campaign posters beckon, "Come to Bangladesh Before the Tourists!" I was looking forward to getting to know firsthand just what Bangladesh was actually like and sampling some of their culture. Staying with a family is the best way to get to know a country and a people and I was lucky to be privy to that side of life here and was ready for the cultural exchange.

After coming out of passport control, which made no sense to me whatsoever since I'd already gone through this last night I headed out. I looked around past the armed soldiers guarding the exit over the heads of the jostling rickshaw drivers salivating for a fare and staring at me like a plate of curried lamb. I walked outside under an overcast sky and looked around amidst the dust and shanty shop stalls and gaudily decorated empty rickshaws. Faces in hues from ebony to amber watched my every move as I searched in vain. Despondent, I clumsily turned my luggage around and headed back inside.

I approached a man in a security officer's uniform and explained my plight. We went into his blank canvas of an office and he dialed the number but to no avail. I asked how much a taxi would cost to the village of Beani Bazaar. "That town is maybe two hours away and a taxi could cost up to 20-something dollars" he said. He looked again at the card that Akar had written and then continued, "So, do you know where his house is in Beani Bazaar?" Of course I didn't know I explained and then it hit me - once I'd gotten to Beani Bazaar how would I find Aktar's house without an exact address? The lack of sleep, the disappointment and mounting frustration were crushing down on me and I thought about returning to Dhaka and leaving. I broke down.

The officer got up and called to two men. It was clear he was explaining the situation and was pointing this way and that. "Do not be upset, madam these gentlemen will take you to Mr. Aktar's house and they will be able to find him." I explained that I needed to check my mail first in case someone had responded to the email I'd sent from Rangoon asking my friends to call around and try to find another number for Aktar. Calmly and firmly he stated, "You will go with these gentlemen and they will take care of you. Please do not worry. You will take my card and call me if there are any problems and if so I can then put on you the flight that you wish to return to Dhaka for a minimum charge."

I followed orders and trailed behind the two men who carried my bag. We crammed into the Bangladeshi version of a tuk-tuk, which are far more festive with their garlands and bright floral upholstery than their Southeast Asian cousins. We went into a multi-level mall up several flights of stairs to an Internet cafe. I checked my email. Nothing. What I didn't know at the time was that my missive asking for help was delayed by the Burmese yunta when I was still in Rangoon so they could read it before allowing it to be sent. The email was received three days later.

As we were decending back onto the street toward the waiting tuk-tuk I remembered something. Aktar had given me another number in New York just in case something was wrong with the Bangladesh number. I frantically fished around in my bag like a oxygen-deprived diver struggling to swim back up to the surface. I breathed in deeply. I had another number. Dodging rickshaw and bus traffic we crossed the narrow street to an office and walked to the back by a crowded desk. "Sit here and we will call the number for you." I complied. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he'd made contact with New York. Papers were swapped across the desk and someone else repeated what the caller was saying, they were all writing down numbers and the man behind the desk began calling on his cell phone. The phone was passed to me. "Hello this is Aktar --where are you? Seriously? In Sylhet? Oh my God. The men you are with will bring you to my house - you go with them. I'll see you."

The men hired a driver and one got in the front seat and another in the back with me. I asked why both men came along when I already had a driver but was told that it was their duty to see me to Akatar's house. It was an anxious defensive drive down tapering roads as we dodged lorries and buses and packs of rickshaws. We stopped to get something to drink along the way and I tried to get out to buy some treats for us but was once again told to, "sit down don't worry". I had just finished my drink when we pulled into a gas station so I thought I'd jump out and throw by bottle in the trash. "Sit down give me your bottle I'm taking care of you" the man in the back seat instructed. I furrowed my brow, cocked my head and complied handing over my bottle. About a quarter of a mile down the road he threw it out the window. I was grateful beyond words that they were going out of their way and above and beyond any form of service I'd ever seen but that was so absurd I just shook my head and chuckled.

A couple of hours later we arrived in the village of Beani Bazaar and were slowly winding around the skinny little tree-lined roads when the driver asked a passing mullah perched stiff in the seat of a rickshaw directions. Without hestation he motioned behind us and smiled. We pulled up to a base of a little hill, the long house obscured mostly by a mound of clay. I reached for the door handle. "You sit here and we will get Mr. Aktar for you." Oh for the love of Allah I was dying to get out of the car but once again I obliged and remain seated. "Now you get out and follow me." I obeyed once more and walked behind him up the path.

The house was just as Aktar had told me when we were still at Aquagrill in New York last December. It was a long one story home with several bedrooms and bathrooms - ten to be precise and they were laid out motel style. Each bedroom was large and featured its own living room and bath and ceiling fan and everything was spotless. I was escorted to what would be my room and we all sat being entertained by Aktar's charming cousin visiting from Dubai.

A servant came in with a tray of tea, bananas and cookies and then Aktar arrived and my escorts left to head back to Sylhet. It was a great reunion and it seemed we both couldn't believe that I was actually there in his home finally. After chatting a bit he showed me around his property from the rice paddy to the fish hatchery to the bamboo and vegetable gardens and then I got to meet all the farm animals and pets. There were two cows, six cats, a flock of pigeons, roosters, hens, ducks and my favourite the goat whom I was thrilled to learn is a pet and not a future dinner.

I was so drained that I took a bit of a catnap then freshened up and went to the dining room where dinner was already on the table waiting. I met Akar's brother Alom and his beautiful wife and two children and several more people who'd stopped by. A young girl in a sari was in the kitchen cooking over a wood burning alcove stove while stoking the flames with kindling. We sat down to a delicious dinner of several fresh vegetable dishes, chicken and two different kinds of rice followed by mango yoghurt and sweet pastries in rose syrup. During dinner a young man stood by with a switch scurrying away the cats that crept under the table and at one point two birds flew right over our table. This was clearly not staff meal at the Aquagrill.

The men and I headed into the town after dinner. In a country dominated politically by women the fairer sex are surely nowhere to be found in the streets after dark. Beani Bazaar and I'm certain all of Bangladesh is strictly a manly affair and the women stay at home and visit with one another and take care of the family. To my western eyes it seemed odd at first until I reminded myself that this is not my world and it is not my culture. I thought of Thanksgiving in any home in America. Women and men in social situations naturally break off and go their separate ways. I was happy two days later to be among women who spoke enough English to literally and figuratively let their hair down behind closed doors. We had a terrific time communicating as best we could and they were excited to show me their kitchen and they applied lipstick and brushed their hair and we laughed and bonded.

Nonetheless seeing a town devoid of women for the first time was alarming to me. I went with the flow, however and was excited to be an honored guest privy to a world most other women will never see. Being an American guest of one of the most respected men in the community certainly elevated my status. We walked the streets that looked like an old set from a John Wayne western if it'd been filmed in South Asia. During one of the frequent blackouts we passed wooden shops with their shutters open aglow with candlelight and small glass oil lamps. A steady flow of crowding rickshaws creaked by, their kerosene lanterns underneath rocking from side to side. Grey muttonchop'd men in long crisp Punjabi shirts and matching white pants with pillbox hats passed disheveled youths in their tee-shirts and traditional cerulean plaid lungis.

I was introduced to more people in more shops than I recall and at each one I was asked if I'd visit and was offered something to drink. Seeing as how this is a Muslim country and therefore a dry society that meant of course no hooch whatsoever. I accepted most offers of tea and sweets and noodles and soft drinks and coffee and water and whatever else was graciously offered. I was as much of a deeply honored guest as much as I was clearly a curiosity. When another former coworker, Rahman arrived revving up on his motorcycle we went into a sweet shop and were chatting away excited to see each other on the other side of the world. Then Rahman pointed over my shoulder and asked me, "Hey, are you hiring busboys? Can you please give them an application?" I looked over and saw about twenty males ranging in age from eight to eighty -- some were smiling and others had their mouths open but all were staring. I took a picture of them and showed it to the crowd much to their amusement.

In one shop I asked if they'd ever seen a white person and was told, "Yes, maybe 15 years ago I had two Canadians come to my home." I also met several people who are Bangladeshi expats living in New York and one man stopped me on the street because he remembered seeing me at Aquagrill when he was working just a block away. In between introductions and visits with the local townsfolk I was entertained by the cousin from Dubai while Aktar when to mosque for prayers as he does everyday five times a day.

It had been a whirlwind day filled with so many warm and smiling faces, unparalleled hospitality and sincere kindness. Around 9:00 we headed back home and I took a shower, brushed my teeth and collapsed across the bed. At 10:30 I heard a knock on my door.

It was Aktar, "You coming for dinner?"
"Didn't we already eat dinner at 5:00?"
"No, that was lunch. You come and eat dinner now."

I did as I was told. Yet another cultural difference - eating four delicious home-cooked meals a day. Now, that I could get used to. Just don't ask me to start gathering firewood for the stove.

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bath mate on

nice story. thanks for sharing it with us.


Nick Matyas on

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andrewjerome on

Great insight into Bangladesh

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