Published: June 23rd 2009June 23rd 2009
Saying goodbye to a place is always a surprising revelation in the way that you feel about your experiences there. As the days leading up to my last trips to Barisal passed (and as my final days in Bangladesh slip through my hands now), I found myself wondering how I would react to the end of my time here.
I arrived in Bangladesh just over a year ago. I stepped off the plane into Dhaka on the morning of June 5th and was on a boat to Barisal that same night, setting a pattern that would define the first few months of my work here. Until we left the country for winter holidays in December 2008, Parendi and I spent as much time in Barisal as we did in Dhaka. Our apartment was in the country’s capital, but in many ways we knew our small coastal town much better. We took morning walks, knew where to get wheat rotis, could identify the only female fruit vendor in town, and knew by heart which restaurants had vegetarian dal and good vegetables.
Although we spend less time here now than we did at first, our trips are actually more frequent and
we look forward to them with the opportunity to leave the big grimy city and be somewhere a little bit more familiar. The Thai Chinese restaurant now has our number on caller ID and our order memorized (“duita papaya salads, jhal kom”). And the last time I stepped on a boat headed to Barisal without Parendi the boat boys, used to seeing us together, asked “Where is the other apu?” I know that I will miss these kinds of interactions—the small and simple relationships that we have built with people who recognize us and with whom we can have predictable exchanges. In Dhaka, I look forward to buying fruit from my fruit man, who usually gives me a free lychee while I pick over the day’s selection; his smile and excitement is somehow contagious, and I always leave the bazaar in a good mood. By contrast, at home in the US I buy my fruit from a large and impersonal grocery store, and I typically leave the store in the same mood I had when I came in (even when I shopped at the Co-op in Sacramento, it took over a year for me and my favorite checker to get
over the pretense that we were complete strangers and admit that we went dancing at the same small club every Tuesday night). To be known and welcomed by the people you see daily in the United States is a much rarer phenomenon than it is here, and in many ways I fear moving to New York precisely because I won’t be able to share lychees with a fruit vendor or talk to the elevator boy in my apartment about his home town.
Given my particular fondness for Barisal and the people I have always looked forward to seeing there, I had to wonder whether my last trip would be full of tears and emotional “last times.” As it turns out, my last days in Barisal lacked the fanfare or drama that I might have expected before my departure. Of course I said my goodbyes—to the waiter at the Thai restaurant, Jewel’s wife, the field staff—ceremoniously transferred my accumulated “field stuff” (water flavor packets, face wipes, and walking shoes) to my replacements, and had the predictable conversations:
Amake bhulben. (You will forget me)
Na. Bhulbo na. (I not will forget you)
Abar ashben Bangladesh? (Will you come to Bangladesh again?)
Jani na, kintu inshallah ashbo. (I don’t know, but god willing I will come back)
Tik ache. Ashen. (OK. Come)
Ha. Ashi. (Yes. I come)
Some of the farewells were less formulaic. In my last ride from the office to the guest house, the Save the Children driver and I exchanged rather sappy but honest pronouncements of how much we enjoyed the other’s company; I told Mamun that Parendi and I had always requested him (he had a goofy grin, a deep chuckle, and a good selection of Hindi and Bangla dance music), and in turn he announced that in his five years of duty, he liked driving us the best. When I said goodbye to Aslam Bhai (one of our POs), I made him promise to send me photos of Atif, his giggling son, and give his wife a final hug for me. But even the more personal farewells were marked with a certain calmness. The most fuss that I raised in my departure was when I told Mozibur, the tall skinny and always smiling tea boy from the Barisal office, how much I appreciated his smile and how it made me happy every time I was in the
office—and the only reason this raised a fuss was because I had to make my confession in front of a small crowd of curious onlookers who had gathered to see why I had made such a big deal of finding the cha boy in the first place.
In my year of working with the KK project I have particularly enjoyed working with Jewel Bhai, and I half expected to tear up when I said goodbye to him. I even spent a considerable amount of mental energy debating whether or not I should hug him, since to me that was an appropriate expression of our friendship, but I knew that it would be a strange thing for a woman to hug a man in Bangladesh. I had decided I’d just hug him anyway (if only for my own sense of a happy ending), but in the end I chickened out and we just took a cheesy photo together before he casually said goodbye (and said he’d probably Skype chat me sometime). Despite my expectations I was just about as emotionally flat-lined as he was, smiling and giving the usual South Asian head nod as I drove off in my car.
Last Safe Space visit
Conveniently, the last SS I visited was located in the very idyllic setting of a shady, breezy orchard.
After some consideration I attribute the anti-climatic quality of “the end” to two factors. On the one hand, I think I am ready to go home. I miss my family. I miss California. I am tired of wearing salwaar kameez, suffering from heat rash, and wiping sweat off my face. In my readiness to go home, I am probably not dwelling entirely on the fact of my imminent departure. But more significantly, I think the casualness is born of a subconscious confidence that I will be back. I surprised myself recently when someone asked me if I would ever return to Bangladesh, and I responded without a moment’s hesitation that if I found a good job in Bangladesh I would come back in a heartbeat. Bangladesh might be on the other side of the world from my hometown, but I have a habit of being in the area. Whether it’s for a job, a wedding, or just a visit, I know I’ll be back soon.
On the way to the launch ghat, leaving Barisal for the last time, my rickshaw rode past men praying in line formation in a mosque whose painted walls glowed green against the dusk.
It was beautiful, but I surprised myself by passing it contentedly. I didn’t feel the need to take a picture, to preserve this memory forever. I didn’t feel an aching—the kind that I usually feel when leaving a place (and the kinds of everyday scenes that make it different and wonderful) behind. Instead I just felt a fleeting awareness of how lucky I am -grateful not only that I have had this year here and seen and learned so much, but also for the fortune to say with confidence that I know I will be back.
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