Thanks to my failed visa attempt, I haven’t made it to India yet, but I would venture a guess that Bangladesh is a friendlier, less intense version of that country — without all the yoga. Well, at least here in Jessore (pronounced Jeshore), where I’m living.
Sometimes Bangladesh reminds me of some other third-world countries I’ve visited. Nicaragua with its power outages — and the oppressive heat that results from a lack of air conditioning. The simple village life of Laos. The tropical agriculture and chaotic roads of Cambodia. Yet, despite these glimpses of other countries, Bangladesh is unlike anyplace I’ve traveled so far.
First of all, this country is drier than Utah, which means you can’t buy alcohol of any kind anywhere. Well, I’ve heard you can get drinks in Dhaka, but there’s nothing but alcohol-free beer on the shelves in Jessore. One of the local men who works with me thought it was possible to get some wine or something at a nearby hotel, but when he checked into it, he decided it was too risky. Sort of like smoking pot in Korea. When I decided to move here, I had no idea I wouldn’t be able to hang out and relax with a nice, cold beer once in awhile. It’s a good thing I got all my drinking out of the way when I was younger.
The second thing, which has been the biggest adjustment for me, is the ultra conservative attire for women. I’m now living in a Muslim country, and in order to respect their culture, I’m adopting their way of dressing. That means my legs and shoulders must always be covered and I must wear a scarf, called an orna, to conceal my chest. Now, this wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t SO HOT.
In cooler temperatures, or even in an air-conditioned room, I would love wearing the colorful salwar kameez I’ve already purchased.
But you have no idea how badly I wish I could wear cool, comfortable summer clothes that leave my legs and shoulders bare. Every time I see a photo on Facebook of a friend at the beach in a swimsuit or sundress, I cry a little inside. Ah, to go downstairs in a tank top and shorts. What freedom that would be!
I’m not exaggerating. The heat really is oppressive. Before I came to Bangladesh, I never would have imagined that taking a cool shower would be the highlight of my day or that I would prefer to stand wet and naked in front of a fan than to use a towel. Or how upset I could get when the power goes out and the fans don’t work.
Anyway, the third big difference is the absence of foreigners. Right now, four students from Cornell University are doing their summer internships here. My boss is American, too, so that makes six foreigners in town. I haven’t seen anyone else. Based on the reactions I get and the crowds I draw, I’m pretty sure I’m the only blonde person in a city of more than a million people. Last week, we went shopping in the borro bajar (big market) to buy some local clothing. I had to go to the bathroom, so I asked if there was a toilet. There wasn’t. No big deal. It wasn’t an emergency. About five minutes later, the English-speaking Bangladeshi man who was helping us told me to follow him. He escorted me upstairs to the landlord’s apartment so I could use their bathroom. (Just one example of how helpful people are here.) I walked into the tiny, dark home and was met by a woman and her little boy. I flashed my friendliest smile and said hello with a happy wave. The toddler looked up at me, paused, then suddenly burst into tears like a kid who’s terrified of Santa. Yep, they don’t see many people like me around here.
Lastly, the friendliness and generosity of the local people has been truly surprising. On our second or third day in town, the interns and I went shopping for some Bangladeshi clothes. A lovely little sales girl hovered nearby being generally helpful and sweet. She showed me how to wear the orna, how to tie the pants, complimented me in her limited English. When I went to the register to purchase my items, she stood next to me, practically doting, and said, “Your eyes. Pretty.”
I thanked her and returned the compliment, “I like your earrings. Very beautiful.”
Before I knew it, she was taking the earrings out of her ears and putting them into mine. I tried to protest. I suddenly remembered reading about a country where you weren’t supposed to compliment a material possession because it meant you wanted the item and its owner had to give it to you. I panicked. Was that Bangladesh? I continued my protests. Those earrings were the last thing I wanted. I don’t even wear earrings anymore. My lobes have become too sensitive, so the holes are almost closed up. I felt terrible that she was giving me something special that I wouldn’t ever wear. But she insisted, even as she struggled to break through the skin in my ear. So awkward yet so endearing.
In a few more months, I’m sure all of this will seem normal, but for now, I’m still adjusting.