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Robert Altman Week

Wednesday
Sep072011

« In Which We Destroy The Myth Of Living Abroad »

Live Tigers

by DAYNA EVANS

We were trying to find a place called Fairy Hill, but no one knew where it was. I bought six hangers from a man on the street, who was standing next to several other men also selling hangers in groups of six. I paid roughly 75 cents for six hangers and was acutely aware that I was being ripped off. After I had stuffed the hangers into my bag, we carried onward in the direction we thought would take us to Fairy Hill. Several hundred yards later, we held a meeting in the street.

"Are we sure we’re going the right way?" I asked my friend, keeper of the guidebook.

"I think so. I can’t tell if we were supposed to turn back there or not."

"That didn't look like it'd take us anywhere."

"We could keep walking."

I have a friend at the grocery store now. His name is Abloo (though this is questionable as I still have trouble with his accent). We have met three days in a row because on each of those days, I was bored enough with my own company to walk to the grocery store and buy more food. I bought a broom from Abloo and it was broken so I went back to ask for a new one. Instead, we talked about Sri Lanka.

"The people there, they are very fat."

"Is that so?” I asked. "You didn't like it there."

"No, the people are too fat. But you, you are very slim."

"Thanks," I said. I thought about the nine pounds of chicken biryani I had eaten the night before. I grabbed an operable broom from the shelf and he swung it like a light saber.

A man wearing a dark gray t-shirt, dress pants and leather slip-on sandals, and carrying a black leather briefcase came up to us and asked if we needed help.

"We're trying to find Fairy Hill. Do you know it?" my friend asked the man.

"The hill? Which hill? Near? Is it near?"

I gestured for her to show the man our map. He began reading about Fairy Hill. "Fairy Hill is said to be named for the fairies and genies that were believed to occupy it when the Sufi saint Badar Shah first came to Chittagong. Legend says that he made a number of requests . . .”

We found his desire to impress us with his English charming at first. But he continued.

". . . to the fairies before they would allow him to build a place of worship. It's behind the main post office and New Market — climb the path leading off Jubilee Road just north of the pedestrian bridge near New Market. Ask directions for the High Court, the building on top of the hill. Fairy Hill was the common name during the Raj era and is rapidly being forgotten."

When the man had reached the end of the Lonely Planet description, we’d amassed a crowd, a common occurrence for us in Chittagong. To my right was an elderly, toothless man with a threadbare cloth covering the bottom half of his body. He had his hand held out to me and was mumbling. Behind and beyond our group of five girls were rickshaw drivers pausing mid-pedal as they watched.

One adolescent boy stood near, but not too near, regarding us with an obvious genuine interest that betrayed his attempt to seem aloof. Our guide didn’t say anything when he finished reading. Instead, he intently studied the book’s tiny and poorly labeled map.

"So . . . do you know where that is?" my friend asked, slightly impatient now.

"Ah, it is near D.C. Hill. I live there. Near D.C. Hill." The man then began to read the section on D.C. Hill. The five of us exchanged tired glances. "I take you, I know where it is. It is near where I live." We followed.

When friends complain about my lack of blog posts, I send them photos. Here. This is me with a funny-looking sign. And look, a photo of a poorly translated menu item. Finally, some friends and I sitting on a roof at sunset.

My apartment has a large window at its south end and it looks out over a trash pit with wild dogs and one goat. There is also a cliff where several cows graze perilously. I went to the roof of my apartment building to see how close they get to the edge. I determined that they get really close, reminding me of the time my brother’s dog walked into our pool. Cows aren't very smart. Neither are dogs.

The walk ended up being much longer than we had anticipated, and several times my friends and I looked at one another with discontent. Should we be following a strange man to a strange hill in a strange city? Not to mention, the teenage boy from earlier who’d pretended to not care had been trailing us since our map conference, staring intently at each of our faces for prolonged portions of the walk. We tried to speak to him to garner information about where we were.

“How old are you?”

Coy smile.

“Do you know where we are going?”

“Fairy Hill.”

“Is that man your dad?”

Coy smile.

We were told by the man leading us that the hill to our right was D.C. Hill and that Fairy Hill was coming up.

"No, no, that’s okay, we’ll just check this out instead." We had all telepathically decided to get out now. Despite his pleas to allow him to take us farther, we were avoiding potentially getting ourselves into trouble by disembarking then. The man walked off, while the teenager lingered. All six of us stood in front of D.C. Hill, our second choice for hill visits in the city of Chittagong.

There was an ice cream seller, several homeless men, and an armed guard. There were some scattered leaves and a pile of garbage. We tried to walk to the top of the hill, but the armed guard turned us away. My head hurt.

"Can we go home?"

"Yeah." So much for hills.

None of the clothes fit me in Bangladesh. My friend said it was because "you have a large chest." I didn’t like hearing that very much, so I walked away, leaving her near the saris while I went to buy a mug.

The myth of living abroad, particularly in a developing country, is that you must show the impact the country is having on you and impact you are having on the country. Last night I watched four episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and made a cucumber salad.

From the moment I arrived in Chittagong, there was the notion among my loved ones that what I am doing at any given moment is far more interesting than what they are doing. They perceive that I am living the life of an intrepid traveler, that I sleep in my hiking boots and drink water out of a Camelbak or anorak or whatever the hell gallant adventurers drink water out of (a gourd?). The truth is that I don’t own hiking boots and I drink water from a glass. I don't like granola. I feel that I have little to report.

When we travel, we’re predisposed to feel unusual and to like it. We want to find the newness in everything because we know that our warm beds and close friends are waiting at home for us with cold beers and their undivided attentions. It is living that I am getting used to. That is what causes me to feel so empty-handed in my correspondence — living is an entirely different monster. Even in the things that are different and strange, I look for similarity and comfort. It would exhaust me to feel genuinely shocked by every new cultural element. I want the neighborhood Shwapno to be my new 7-11. I want to convince myself that rice is bread, rickshaws are taxis.

We saw the Bay of Bengal. We had taken a short trip down to Patenga Beach, where they sell puka shell necklaces at beachside stands, just like at the Jersey shore.

G.E.C. Circle is a roundabout in the center of Chittagong, where crossing the street is more dangerous than triple bypass heart surgery performed by a randomly selected attendee at a Hannah Montana concert. There are no traffic lights and the crosswalks are a joke played on any tourist who takes them seriously. CNGs and buses will barrel confidently ahead despite seeing a crowd of ten or more people about to be decimated at their hands. At night, a bizarre metal fountain structure is lit with green lights and sprays thin lines of water into the air while the madness carries on around it; billboards and signs are illuminated in neon colors, as well. I’ve taken to calling this area Times Square, but even that isn’t an accurate representation of its life-threatening insanity.

We found an ice cream parlor on G.E.C. Circle recently, which seems like a relatively benign discovery unless you’re in a group of twelve women with a dangerous need for satiation and shelter. Everything about the parlor felt familiar, from the selections (cookies 'n' cream, pistachio) to the highly decadent sundae options. There was even soft serve. It was disgusting how quickly we found indescribable joy in what was in front of us. We had, in so many ways, walked through a warped door to our old worlds where frozen yogurt and chocolate syrup were as available as Netflix and H&M. When we were inside, eating ice cream silently around a little table, we forgot what madness existed outside of the doors. We were working on raising our life expectancy rates by staying within the parlor.

At the table next to us were three late-20s men in business suits. It was nearing six o’clock — they must have come straight from work. They were socializing loudly and playing around on their smartphones. They had ordered multi-layer sundaes with syrups, nuts, the whole bit. Before I could even stop myself from thinking it, my brain was translating this activity from a casual post-work treat to Bangladeshi happy hour. Attempting to live in a new culture on my old culture’s terms was proving to be occasionally inadequate.

Tonight we gather together at a friend's apartment. We will walk home a few hours later with our heads covered and our wits about us. Tomorrow we will be visiting Jobra, the village birthplace of the Grameen Bank. Our Bangladeshi friend is taking us fabric shopping this weekend so that we might get our own shalwar kameezs tailored. This is happy news for my large chest. In the future there are plans for visiting Dhaka (the capital), the Sundarbans (where live tigers crush skulls), and the tea plantations of Sylhet. We have trips on the horizon to Nepal, India and Thailand, most of which are as yet unplanned and complicated. I have asked if I will have to drink out of a gourd while hiking in Nepal. The answer is no.

Dayna Evans is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Bangladesh. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air.

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Reader Comments (3)

what is with This Recording and white girls in new places with people of colour?
September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterohblah
I quite enjoyed this. The chaotic, death-defying nature of every day living in a 3rd country was pretty well captured, I thought. The 3rd world country visits I've been on were for visiting relatives, but I was still treated like a foreigner, and I thought pretty much everything the author thought. Except I think rice is rice, and bread is rice.
September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereurasian
At first glance, I thought, "Why would anyone live in Bangladesh by choice?" What are the redeeming features and experiences? If there's nothing special to write home about, why make the move, unless one is simply trying to cut back on expenses?
September 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

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