From Hopelessness to Hospitality
Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
71Trip End Apr 22, 2005
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.