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Seeking Some Reprieve

I can now wrench my hand away from a doe-eyed child miming hunger and clinging to me without losing my stride. One’s brain, as well as one’s bowels, are not always all right in Bangladesh.

Barsha, the rainy season, is upon Bangladesh. Two weeks ago I lived through a Saturday morning as hot as any I’ve had in Dhaka, or so it felt. I went out for a walk in my raincoat and prespired my morning’s litre of water into its folds. Somewhere around New Market, a sprawling bazaar near my home, I tramped 'til I could barely find my way back. My restlessness had little to do with the weather and more to do with wearing down the paths I’ve grown too comfortable with. Although it seemed a big challenge two months ago, my route to work, circling round Dhanmondi Lake and over two bridges, is no longer an exciting commute, but just part of the daily routine.

Maybe I’m experiencing the expatriate’s version of the seven year itch, six years and 10 months early. Now, even the dreadful scenes of poverty in Dhaka don’t seem to have a proper impact on my moral conscience, anymore. I can wrench my hand away from a doe-eyed child miming hunger and clinging to me without losing my stride. On Friday mornings I can walk past the street people who gather at the mosque to beg, who feature every deformity peculiar to humans: those with missing or engorged limbs, those with scar tissue warping their faces, those who are stick-thin and ailing from nameless diseases and are pushed around in carts by relatives, and one man in particular who has bumps like hard bee stings all over his body.

I learned the other day that babies who are ‘hired out’ to women to add pathos to their begging are drugged to remain quiet during their hours of their infant-level labour in the thick heat. I remember the story of homeless teenaged girls who consent to sex with a doctor in exchange for the drugs that will keep them unconscious during rapes on the street.

To these stories I can say, “How terrible!” and still, inconceivably, feel remote from them, even though I am, clearly, walking in the thick of them. It's not so different, now, as when at home in Australia and I would hear such stories and think, “How terrible!”, then, “Bangladesh is so far away.” Yet here in Dhaka, I hold my breath as I walk past the sour-smelling piles of rubbish on Satmasjid Road, and at the same time shut out the images of people pawing through them. I breathe carefully until the air carries the scent of blossom from the flowering trees and gratefully continue on my way.

After returning home from my walk on Saturday, I had once again retreated into a comfortable state of mental blockage. It’s the way I'm able to indulge in a torrent of discontent, thinking of all my limitations as I live and work in in this country, without thinking of anyone else's discontent. Here, I thought, I’m a dumb and illiterate professional communicator, a vegetarian suffering from dahl and omelette overdose, an upstanding young representative of Australia beginning to have strange turns of mood and indulging in dangerous behaviour (by this I mean crossing the road blindly and waiting for the traffic to avoid me, and seriously contemplating taking up smoking).

I'm a Westerner beginning to chafe at the never-varying sameness of my retreats from local life, like the Australian Club, where we seem to rehearse and practise the same conversations about illness and clothing and work each week. I’m a feminist constricted by a culture that has many ways to end the sentence ‘Women must not…’; a freedom fanatic who is limited by long trousers, dresses, and scarfs on hot days; hindered by high temperatures and uneven footpaths when I attempt a morning jog; annoyed by the dumbstruck stares of ‘admirers’ who can be suspicious and hostile as well as bloody great nuisances. Most of all, I am limited by the danger of feeling too much, and the danger of feeling too little, about what I see, hear, and smell around me. One’s brain, as well as one’s bowels, are not always all right in Bangladesh.

Immersion must be followed by withdrawal; if you have the luxury, it is one of the secrets to survival. What followed that Saturday morning was an afternoon out of Dhaka. With a little help from my friend Jo, within a few hours we arrived at a town called Tongi, just north of the city. Our objective was to find a boat that could take us part-way down the river, any river, for an adventure, any adventure.

At first it seemed Tongi was just an extension of Dhaka. It was bright and bare in the sun, with very few trees and a peculiar white dirt that covered everything with a dull sheen. Dominating the town was Tongi Bridge, a concrete structure with high traffic dividers down the middle and an obligatory policeman in a green uniform waving his hands idly in the heat. On either side of the bridge, the Sitalakhya River, warm and polluted, moved thickly underneath the air.

We were dropped off by the driver of our CNG (autorickshaw) at what he thought was the western side of the bridge, and made our way over its apex, dodging some typical Bangla obstacles: men holding bunches of chickens by their feet, as nonchalantly as though they were just squawking flowers; blankets spread with multi-coloured metallic bangles to match every pattern of dress; children belonging to no one in particular coming up and smiling the charming smiles of embryonic con men; a collection of squashy vegetables beginning to smell in the heat; foaming globs of spit on the ground.

Jo, whose command of Bangla is impressive, asked directions of a policeman and we walked the path he had pointed out, wondering if we could trust it. We couldn’t, as it turned out, and should have taken the traffic accident we passed on the way -- a bus had fallen over the sloping bank of the river and couldn’t get its back wheels back on flat land -- as an omen. We caught a rickshaw down to a place on the river where we could at least see boats. At the river, we got out and slide down the bank, gathering a passel of children along the way. When we reached the dock we were told by a group of women that the boats didn’t carry passengers, so we climbed back up to the road and into another rickshaw. Some of the children stayed with us as stowaways on the back of the rickshaw seat and repaid the rickshawallah (driver) for the extra weight by helping to push us back over the curve of the bridge on our way to the eastern bank.

Photo from TheWe.cc

This route took us through the twisting streets of Tongi, passing open shops brimming with diverse merchandise -- plastic bins, modular furniture, wooden bed heads with great expanses of naïve carvings scrolled across them -- little food shops, the equivalent of a deli at home, filled with potato chips and ‘energy biscuits’ and cold or tepid fizzy drinks, bags of sweet bread and buns pegged up around the counters. Closer to the river, the small streets widened and shops gave way to food stalls, with gourds piled high in corners like basketballs, great baskets of lentils and grains, and displays of vegetables were arrayed on wheeled carts and squirted with water at intervals to keep them fresh.

Wherever foreigners go in Bangladesh, crowds usually follow, and when the time came to alight from our rickshaw we had already attracted one. There was Jo, with her long blonde hair and eloquent Bangla, and me, a representative of the silent type, but very possibly the tallest women seen in Tongi for a long time. Back on the river bank, we searched for a tolar (motorboat) for a good rate and thought we had found one. After we walked the plank across to our vessel, whose faded blue prow had once cleaved through younger waters, we had the option of going down into the bowels of the ship, which were dark and smelly, or sitting on the deck. Well, not on the deck precisely but in a sort of hutch made, as I discovered as I crawled in on my hands and knees, for Lilliputians.

Jo and I perched for a minute, with our bums half off a thin wooden bench and our upper spines curved under the low roof, and contemplated our options. Would we be able to stay in here for a two-hour trip to Ulukola, the town where the boat was heading, scheduled to leave in about 40 minutes? We decided we could not, got off the boat, and once more picked our way back up the river bank.

A saviour appeared almost immediately, though, in a nowka, a sort of wide gondola with a curved bamboo roof and a rower at the stern who pushes the single oar with his feet. Our saviour said he would take us up the river for the price of 200T, and that is the story of how he became our captain.

Ten minutes later we were moving upstream away from Dhaka, with grey sky behind us and blue sky up ahead. Everything seemed to be slipping away in steps -- the curious bystanders, the pollution, and even the traffic, although we did see a man and his bike on a boat similar to ours, crossing banks. Water slapped against the sides of the boat and great vibrant clumps of water hyacinth threatened to get tangle in the oar. The sun on the river was cooler and underneath our roof we could stretch out and just have our fingers and toes warmed by the sun.

There was nothing much to do but watch and talk lazily, about things like my phobia of small boats after a rowing accident in high school. We speculated there wouldn’t be one scrap of landscape that didn’t feature at least one human being in it, upon our arrival. Our boat passed a pipe pumping a red substance into the river -- I like to think it was from a cloth factory and the liquid was biodegradable dye. We rowed past a few cows of the untethered variety, seldom seen in Dhaka, taking a dip. We glided by a handful of other boats, wide as sharks with decks dangerously low on the water. There was no noise at all from our captain, who gazed benignly toward the horizon, his blue shirt matching the patch of sky behind him.

The shores of Ulukola appeared two hours later. There was nothing much in the town but jungle and a few rows of simple buildings, some empty, some housing little food shops of the kind seen in Tongi. We stopped to have a cold drink and strolled around, eventually falling in with a bunch of teenaged boys on their way to play cricket. We marched with them through the greenness of Ulukola and feasted on its lushness. We passed palm trees against blue sky, dense, sodden fields, and enormous jackfruit, like the furry eggs of aliens, ripening at their leisure in the shade.

Our new friends led us to a Christian mission in the heart of this largely Muslim country, and left us to take advantage of the best cricket ground in town. We wandered around the mission buildings, under the shade of a verandah so gracious Scarlett O’Hara wouldn’t have looked out of place, there. Everything within the walls was cool and shady, with grotto and gardens lovingly cared for -- an earthly reflection of the paradise its members believed in.

A small Bengali woman in a spotless white habit came out of one of the buildings and invited us in. We sat down in a cool shady room, holy pictures and an autographed photo of the late Pope Jean Paul adorned the walls, and chatted about our respective countries and religions and respective good work over biscuits and lychees and glasses of Tang, mixed with a spoonful of salt to cut the sweetness. We talked for about 15 minutes, then had our photos taken on Jo’s camera under the jackfruit tree, and then we left. The good sister watched us go, standing amongst the trees in the stillness of the hot afternoon, very small and very clean, with her blessings hanging over our heads on our journey back to Dhaka.

Sometimes it’s the simple, aimless journeys that end up being the best adventures, even if you don’t learn anything new or experience anything exciting. Just to look back and say ‘This is where I have been,’ or in my case, ‘This is what I escaped to,’ can be very restful. Our simple, quiet ride down the river got me though another week of stagnation in my office. It got me through another two weeks in Dhaka until I started to feel the city rubbing my nerves raw again; it got me through to my next adventure in Sylhet, where I visited the tea district in north-east Bangladesh.

Yet it was in Sylhet, or just outside of it in Jaflang, when I looked from Bangladesh to the craggy green hills that mark the beginning of India, and realised I needed to put an even greater distance between myself and my new home. As I write, I'm preparing to take leave of the hard, daily life in Dhaka, and explore the spiritual leas of Nepal and Tibet. As with all adventures, I’m not planning to find anything there, but I have the smallest hope that I’ll find a way to unblock my conscience and, upon return to Dhaka, carry on, strong and steady, under the Bengal gaze.

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