I celebrate today my 11th day in Bangladesh, and in a couple of days I would be celebrating my second year in Dubai. Time flew by for my Dubai stay, but the eleven days I have spent here in the poorest of all nations have been the longest days of my life, of my existence.
Before coming to Bangladesh, I went to every book store in Dubai desperately seeking my usual travel guide, the Lonely Planet. It was nowhere to be found. They told me it was out of stock, I should have figured that it wasn’t really out of stock but more like never in stock because I can’t think of an idiot who would want to come here for a vacation, as a tourist, or as a backpacker when there are so many wonders to see around in the world.
I found an unedited copy of the Lonely Planet guide Bangladesh in a book store that I came across while doing my daily “walks of courage”. I call them walks of courage because, seriously, every time I decide to go for a walk I feel I am preparing to go to war and that after this walk I might come back as a changed woman. Truth be told, every walk I have taken has been an adventure, an experience, a journey.
Coming back to my Lonely Planet guide… I read in one of the chapters that the most common things a traveller might experience are the following (in chronological order):
- stuffy nose
- runny nose
- sore throat
- lung infection
due to the humidity and the extreme pollution in the air. The book was right, I got all of the symptoms in the same order cited in the book. I opted to go to a pharmacy to get some antibiotics because my cough was starting to sound like the cough of an old lady dying of tuberculosis. The pharmacist gave me some antibiotics which I am not sure are real or fake antibiotics made in Bangladesh for the Bengali population, or medicine for cows…. in all cases I really think that once I return to civilization I will have to go through a thorough medical examination.
The last shooting day I attended I spent the day in the van. My white skin, as I had mentioned previously, brings in a lot of attention and makes filming much more of a difficult task. I decided to stay in the van, listen to my music and take some pictures from the van. Even then, a pool of Bengali men gathered around the car to stare and take pictures of me with their mobile phones. The weird thing about this country is that some of these people don’t even have food to eat but still manage to own a mobile phone - they called their friends and had a party looking at me. I felt like the gorilla in the Berlin zoo that I had seen a year ago… I am the gorilla of Bangladesh… I wonder what they do with the picture afterwards. Perhaps it’s better not to wonder so much… Even walking I have the rickshaw guys pulling out their mobile phones and following me…
The worse part of this shooting day was filming in the slums. We drove into to the slums and the director and his assistant stepped out to go and film around. I stayed in the car and all the slummers gathered around and stared at my white ass. It was so hot that day, so hot, the humidity was so extreme that I think I got a heat stroke. Sitting in the car, sweating, feeling cold, sweating, feeling cold… while people stared at me. Then the urge to go to the bathroom struck me like lightning. Problem was that we were in the midst of the slums. I had two choices:
- option 1: go to one of their bathrooms
- option 2: hold my stomach in and pray for the director to come back to the car as soon as possible and ask the driver to take me back to the hotel ASAP!
I though of my options and started to cry. There was no way in the world for me to go and experience a Bengali slum bathroom. I don’t mind doing anything but this… I can’t! I just couldn’t.
I cried and cried and prayed and prayed until the director came back. I begged the driver to hurry back to the hotel… problem is traffic here is impossible. A 1Km ride can take 1 hour due to traffic!
I finally made it to the hotel and slept the rest of the day.
The next day I went for a walk in the afternoon looking for a coffee shop that was mentioned in my guide. Impossible to find it and when you try asking people on the streets for directions they just stare at you.
The young beggar that I had met my first outing in Dhaka emerged from nowhere and followed me around. First time I had seen him and he had asked for money I told him next time. He followed me screaming “next time, next time”. I kept on walking straight like an arrow, trying to lose my thoughts in my music. The young kid didn’t stop following me, so I stopped by a fried chicken fast food joint and bought the kid a meal. The smile on his face was indescribable. I have never seen a kid so happy to have food… and here we are throwing food from our plates, or going on diets, when people have no food here… The kid thanked me and asked me to buy him shoes “next time”. I smiled and walked away.
I walked and walked looking for the damn coffee place, until one guy proposed to take me there and I accepted. He told me in his poor English that he was in the army and had gone to Africa. We walked together for hours until we arrived to a coffee shop and I invited him for a cup of coffee. He then asked to take my picture on his phone and asked if he could be my brother. I told him I already had a brother but he insisted, he really wanted to be my brother. Fine, I said. He started calling me sister and insisted of walking me back to my hotel. I tried to lose him half way and at one point had to explain to him that I needed alone time because I really wanted to listen to my music – the lamest of all excuses!
Walking back alone as the sun was setting, the streets hustled with people, beggars, crippled, all staring, all asking for me… and this one guy tried to grope me, which made me go hysterical on him!
From that day on I decided not to go to the shoot to sit in the van, not to go for walks, but stay in the hotel.
I have become a prisoner in this hotel. Entrapped between four walls. I watched an episode about prisons in the USA and this prisoner was sentenced to solitary time for 90 days, he lost his mind after day 30… I watched this and connected to the prisoner. Tears ran down my cheeks as I saw the guy losing his mind.
Another TV experience that I had while sitting in my dungeon, was watching the Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon). I could feel with the character, trapped in his body, filled with life and thoughts but unable to get them out. I feel the same but my body is a room. I try to make conversations at times with the people from the hotel who have become my ” friends”: Mr. .Reagan, the hotel manager, Mr. Musharaf the PR manager and Amik the room service manager. I teach them English at times, they offer me lemon tea, ask me why I am not married, compliment me on my “young figure” and propose me to meet their brothers… experience Bengali love… that would be an experience and might make my time in the hotel more enjoyable. But come to think of it again, I am not sure I really really want to venture in this field….
Thank God for Skype, MSN, Yahoo, I can sometimes chat with people, making me feel a bit more sane… I guess that puts me in a much better situation then the American prisoner. He didn’t have access to internet or chatting applications!
Today was my third day in the hotel room, my third day in solitary mode. The mind does go crazy when you are alone, and mostly when you are someone as talkative as I am…. I talk to myself, dance in the room, exercise in the room… and sleep crazy hours to escape and live exciting weird adventures in my dreams!
Today, I decided to step out of my cage and put my army shoes on and head to war.
I walked for hours and tried to get lost in the city of Dhaka. My headphones plugged in my ears help me disconnect from the crazy stares as I walk. There was less humidity but the sun was harsher then ever. Friday though seems like a more relaxing day in Dhaka, there is much less traffic, much less people on the streets and much less sound pollution.
I walked and walked on main roads then decided to venture in the small side roads. People still staring and kids still begging. I gave some kid a piece of gum then saw an army of kids hustle around me screaming for a piece of gum. I gave all I had and kept walking. I ended up in this local market where they sell all sorts of items, from food to phones… I’ve been filming a bit with my mini camera, hoping to be able to have some sort of footage that I can put together.
In this market kids hovered all over me. I went into a store and bought them some cookies. I gave the kids cookies and war started amongst them. The kids started beating each other, pulling each others hair to have a piece of cookie. Had I known this I would have handed the cookies one by one, but my phobia of them touching me with their dirty hands is sometimes stronger then my human side. The sight of them fighting over food made me so sad… I cannot understand that in the 21st century there are still people dying of hunger, while in the same world that we are living some people are dying of obesity.
I walked back to my dungeon and decided to stop for an ice-cream from this fast food joint. I bought the ice cream and started to eat it on my way back home. Two old ladies followed me and stared at me eating. I though I would probably choke as their stares where so intense. I couldn’t finish the ice-cream and gave it to them.
Every walk that I have makes me wonder about the world that we are living in. Being here I am touched by all that I am seeing but the sad truth about this is that I will go back home, have a nice cold shower, and a nice meal with my family, talk about what I have seen and what I have experienced. Then, as days will pass, this will only become a distant memory written in a journal….
I cant wait to go back home though and live some happy times.
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LEAH MANASSEH is a film producer and director, currently based in the United Arab Emirates. She is the owner of production company The Traveling Shoe and founder of the website MyDubaiMyCity.com, a video guide to the city of Dubai. Leah is also a traveler, having visited many countries around the world, for film projects and leisure.