Saturday, 13 November 2010

New Zealand?

Sheep, Anchor butter, Lord of the Rings, stunning landscapes, low population density, high quality-of-life. These are things I associate with New Zealand, although not necessarily in that order. My limited knowledge is clearly not something to be proud of, but it’s a place that I’ve never been, and somewhere that feels very far away from where I am now.

The 'New Zealand' in the Hills

There is, however, another ‘New Zealand’. One I can clearly picture, one that I have beautiful memories of, and one that is very close to where I currently sit.

This New Zealand is Khagrachari’s own: an area of rice paddies, ringed by hills. An area so green in the midst of rainy season that the colours look like they must be chemically-enhanced. Home to a path cutting through its middle - popular for evening walks , motorbike drives and teenage lounging - and more recently to the 'New Zealand Cafe', an almost beach bar-esque oasis in its middle (minus the beach and bar of course). This New Zealand is a real Khagrachari hotspot.

I have recently moved to a house close to this New Zealand, and I now get glimpses of it as I walk to and from work. It is spaces like this that have made me come to love the rural life, something I took some adjusting to at the beginning. But with its masses of fireflies flashing above the paddy in the evenings, its technicolour green in the monsoon, shifting now to a shiny gold as winter sets in, this New Zealand is hard to resist.

And the Return to London?

I recently have been told by a few friends, after they saw photos of these hills I live in, that I shouldn't return to London as it's just 'too beautiful' here. As I prepare to leave Bangladesh, with a return to London planned in a few months time, I am more and more excited about the opportunities and amenities it offers. I'm looking forward to its restaurants, parks, museums, libraries, cinemas, music, art, pubs, clubs, functioning transportation system, markets with fresh bread and olives. I can't wait to see all the friends and family it houses.

London doesn't have a New Zealand though. And although I may not agree with my friends completely (it is most definitely 'too beautiful' here, but my English home is calling nonetheless), their sentiments do make me wonder. I once loved London's concrete and buildings and urban skyline. After two years of rural living, will I really become a devotee to big city life once again?



Glimpses of 'New Zealand' on my walk to work: now, as winter approaches, and the post-rainy season green of a few weeks ago.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

On Leaving

I stopped at the tea-stall today, on my way home from work. I don’t do this often; visits to tea stalls are communal things in my mind, to be done with friends and colleagues when mid-morning tiredness or sugar cravings kick in. Today however, ready to leave the office, but not quite ready to return home, I stopped, sat, and drank a cup of tea.

Said tea-stall is around the corner from the new building I have recently moved into. It’s on a quiet road, opposite an expanse of rice paddies, which in daytime still sport the luminous green tones of the rainy season. It was getting dark when I was there, the kind of pinky-orangey-greyish twilight I will always associate with these hills.

With my quiet sipping, the soothing effects of the hot, sugary liquid, and my view of green paddy and fading light in front, the setting was perfect for some end-of-the-day musings. And currently, my post-work musings focus on one topic, and its many permutations: my soon-to-come departure from Bangladesh.

The Musings

I am going to miss this place.

I know that. I’ve had times of wanting to be somewhere different, yes. There’s been days I’ve craved the friends, family and familiarity of England, and homesickness has hit me low down in my stomach. There’s been occasions I’ve longed to be somewhere entirely new, to move on and have those thrills of first discoveries and completely different sights, sounds, smells and tastes again. There’s been moments I’ve wanted to escape the challenges, to be somewhere easier, less complicated and more understandable. There are some things I am going to be happy to leave behind.

But, despite those times and despite those things, I am really going to miss this place. That thought is a constant right now, floating in my head in and amongst masses of mental to-do lists and dreams of post-departure plans. And like homesickness, it too is not only in my head. It is lying there, somewhere deep inside me, and makes me clench my stomach, breathe deeply, and swallow hard.

My Bangladeshi Anniversary

I recently celebrated my second Bangladeshi ‘anniversary’. It’s now been more than two years since I first arrived in this country, which has welcomed me, amazed me, angered me, and so much more. The place which has enveloped me for all those moments since I stepped off that plane, and will continue to shape the steps to come.

Despite the arbitrary nature of the date, I did celebrate my Bangladeshi anniversary. Amongst all the continuing self-questioning that goes along with my time here, and my negotiations of the puzzles and pathways of cultures, places and work, there is a sense of achievement. I’ve made it.

I’ve been in Bangladesh now double the amount of time originally planned. If I did it again, of course there are things I would do differently. The ups have been incredible and the downs have been hard, but I’ve got here, I’ve done what I can, and I’m taking away so much more than I came with. It’s too soon for me to even be able to begin to identify all the things I’ve learned, to understand the impacts of the experiences I’ve had, or to really fathom life away from the people and places now so important to me. While some of it will be left behind by choice or necessity, and some will fade with time, some will always remain. My Bangladeshi baggage is not something I’m going to give up easily.

The Places and Sights

In my first few months I wrote about the range of images flickering in my head, all so new. And now with only six weeks until I’m leaving, the same is happening again. As I think about the last two years, the faces and views and familiar sights I know I’m going to miss drift in and out. All the memories I don’t want to let go of.

My walk to work, and the bamboo fences that line the winding streets. The glimpses of tube-wells and wooden fires and washing and cooking and weaving and life behind the woven bark. The giant green banana leaves overhanging small streams, signs that the jungle is never far away, even in the town. The chickens clucking at the edges of the paths, the tiny chicks stepping out in front of me. The motorbikes and battery-powered auto-rickshaws speeding through, disrupting the peace. Being amazed by the balance of goods and people on trucks and cycle-rickshaws. The chatter of different languages and the diversity of appearances, side-by-side. Hearing, and understanding, Bangla and Chakma phrases, and sharing my own.

I’m going to miss the women I see, and miss being able to recognise their community from what they wear. I’m going to miss the children, the ones who I know and who know me, not because we’ve ever been introduced, but because we cross each other on the path and exchange the same conversation over and over again: the lilting, laughter-ridden ‘how are you?’ ‘I am fine’ that goes back and forth everyday. The little girl who salutes me when she says hello, the toddler in the house in front of my office who calls ‘beshi-di’ as I walk past, too young to have quite figured out the syllables of ‘bideshi’.

I’m going to miss watching the many seasons change. And, as I have been able to this year, recognising the changing cycle: the shifting shades of the rice paddies, the evolving patterns of the day, the foods that are in the market.

The market. I’m going to miss it here too. Buying food grown a mere few kilometres from where it's grown. Its shopkeepers, like the Marma girl who sells me mobile phone credit, who know me and greet me and ask me how I am. My didis selling their fruit and vegetables, encouraging me to buy pithas and papayas and bananas. Searching through the vegetables, discussing them with the vendors, and then, at home, figuring out how to cook the unfamiliar: the bamboo shoots, the range of courgette-like things common during the monsoon, and the varied collections of green and red leaves that I still struggle to remember all the different names for. Knowing which aubergines are likely to be ‘local’, and which ones have been trucked in, and so are more likely to have bits of black amongst their pale green flesh.

I’m going to miss the bananas. They’re so good in the hills, and one of my staples. Sweet, small, and with so many different kinds: pale yellow and cloudy yellow and green-but-still-sweet and the special red ones which just have to be bought, needed or not. And all the other fruit, so exotic in England, and so common here. Bought fresh and in season, eaten at home or in groups at the office, sitting together as juice drips down our chins and over our fingers.

The chanting from the local temples in the evenings, and the amusement I still get at seeing monks on motorbikes, their robes drawn up around their legs. Like seeing a monk answer his mobile phone while delivering public Buddhist teachings during a religious ceremony yesterday, there’s something about this juxtaposition between the apparent ‘old’ and ‘new’ that never fails to fascinate me.

Weddings, festivals and celebrations. Still being able to be surprised by sights and by interactions. Tea stalls. Being able to wear bright colours and clashing patterns and take fabrics and designs to the lovely Marma tailors. The dance of fireflies, filling green spaces, and the occasional one that flies through the window into my home. Spices. The sucking noise people make when eating chilli-filled dishes, a sign that that the food must be good. On occasion, it may even be possible that I miss the pungent smell of dried fish.

The People I Know

And that’s only the beginning. As much as the sights and sounds and random encounters, it’s the people that I’m really going to miss. Friends, colleagues, neighbours: their names and faces are in my head too, far too many to describe here. It is these thoughts that are already beginning to pull at me.

The people who I’ve met and got to know. Who I’ve laughed with, talked to, learned from. Who have been kind to me: invited me to their homes, looked after me when I’ve been sick, helped me to discover this place that was once so new and unfamiliar. The random conversations we’ve had. The ways in which we’ve figured each other out: how to communicate, combining our languages and gestures and manners of speech, working through our differences to find the commonalities.

The Hills

While every place has its wonders, I can’t help but feel that these hills are extra-special. So little known outside of, and even within, the country, and with their complicated mixtures of peoples and landscapes and problems, they’ve been an incredible place to have been thrown into. There have been hard times, absolutely, and even challenges that continue. I’ve got so much I’m looking forward to in my time beyond Bangladesh. It's right to be moving on. But still I know.

Oh yes, I'm definitely going to miss it here.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Day Thirty: Fresh Guavas in the Morning (12 July)

Picked from the tree in front of my house, where the branches have been heavy with fruit for days. Enough to occupy a shelf of my fridge, and to give away two full bags to friends. They’re sweet, perfectly ripe, and full of vitamins. A perfect accompaniment to my breakfast, and to build up my immune system, worn down by Bangladeshi bacteria. An excellent start to the day.

Today is also the end of my month of positivity. There have been other positives too: overdue Skypes and phone calls and emails with much loved friends and family, several trips to the tailors to get those holiday dresses back, jokes in the office and lunches with Khagrachari friends. And the processes of identifying and of writing about them has helped to remind me of so many of the good things of my time in the Desh, at a time when – for a variety of reasons – such reminders really were necessary.

As I post this, two months after the date itself, I am looking back over the – now quite extended - month. The intended daily updates weren’t there, but as I have said previously, it would not have been representative of my time in Bangladesh if my carefully-chosen plans and timelines were actually followed. But all the positives were thought about and decided upon on their respective dates, and while they may seem silly or strange or overly-sentimental, they do indeed make up much of my Bangladeshi days.