Where did the proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ originate from? I’d love to know. Anyway, here is a little story that began in 2015 in Bangladesh, and came full circle in Australia, via Timor-Leste and the Great Tonic Water Drought of 2018.
Normal is a relative term that recalibrates frequently. At first glance, my normal life when I’m away is basically the same as my normal life at home
Embassies are odd places, each have a distinct character, with similarities – separate spaces serve different purposes behind the walls, gates and guards.
I cringed as I saw him take another photo of a destitute man, without interacting or even making eye contact with him. This time, an old man, was not treated as a person, but as an ‘interesting picture’. The man’s situation was exploited, without consent, without acknowledgment.
And so I’m home again. Enjoying life, loving Melbourne, yet I’ve been unable to write. I have a document of false starts and half written pieces.
It’s a relief to be here, with this new lightness that I am still getting used to. The lightness that comes with expectation of good things, and with the knowledge that whilst quantities of grit have been developed, things are getting easier, brighter, happier.
I recognised that my materialistic life was devoid of any tangible meaning. I chased money and pleasure and expensive handbags. That day in Varanasi, I saw myself and I saw my life, and I was not satisfied.
It’s been such a long time since I’ve written. I feel like I’ve been through a cycle of sorts, and have just settled at the end of some mysterious process.
Where did I leave off? Brussels.
So much has happened since then. I’ll do my best to catch up.
Shacks operate behind curtains, selling hot tea and sometimes food. Men gather to smoke and hide from Ramadan. I’m often greeted with startled looks, as I take a place on a bench and ask for tea. Always the only woman.
I’m a sexualised piece of meat, irrespective of what I wear, or how I conduct myself. I am nothing more than a uterus that some man has let out of his house.
The urge to follow the lead of so many women and girls here, and throw a big black sheet over my head is palpable. Just have my eyes exposed. Just make it stop.
Sitting under a tree with sixty policemen. As I sit, he pulls his boots back on, and adjusts his rifle. I am grateful for the occasional gritty, soggy breeze.
I’m in a bubble – beggars, pervs and the curious are kept away.
The man sitting beside me purchases two small bags of peanuts. They are diligently weighed out on an ancient hand-held scale.
As he passes me a bag, the ice is broken.
Charging through the jungle, following the sound of many hoolock gibbons. Clambering up and down dense undergrowth, slippery and wet underfoot. Bamboo, and spiky things whipping my face and legs. We are running. Flat out, pounding through the jungle after a family of gibbons.
Gah, spiderwebs. And worse – orb spiders the size of elephants. Cunningly positioned at face height.
Passing a soda bottle between friends, that may contain whisky, not soda. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not soda.
Lulled by the rocking, the noise of the wheels on the track, warm air gushing through the window, the warm, close night.
Leaning out of the window into the darkness to have a cigarette as we pass over a bridge.
When I arrived in Dhaka, I purchased a few salwar kameez and I gratefully received some appropriate clothes from other Australians who were leaving – I had them altered, and have been living in them ever since. (Thanks Viv).
I have sweated through my clothes to the point of disintegration, so in an effort to keep myself nice, I have had to update my Sub-Continental Uniforms For Ladies.
After a day of vagueing out in the heat, my friend and I drag ourselves out to a French house party.
On my way home at 1:00am – sweat dripping off my face and getting in my eyes.
The street is silent and empty – no cigarette vendors squatting in the dirt, no traffic, rickshaws, or chai sellers. The stray dogs are silent.
It’s been six months, and I have learnt a lot. This experience helps me see my life in sharper focus, and I am grateful for so many things.
The rickshaws in this town are not built for 5’10” ladies – with the canopy up to protect from the rain or the blazing sun or the continual sexual harassment has my head, tilted to fit, smashing into the metal frame.
Hair covered, body completely shrouded, I’m the object of comment, random suggestive noises, and hostile stares from the men as I pass by.
Today, Dhaka knew what I needed before I did. And gave it to me without reservation.
Sitting on a Fendi couch – green tea in exquisite china – a private collection of Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, Dali, Mr Brainwash, and so many others.
I barely knew where I was. I’m talking quietly about modern art and other wondrous things.
Surely this isn’t Dhaka? It can’t be.
Two and a half hours into a meeting that is running late. Clever things are being said, lightly peppering the waves of noise blaring out of people who must be heard.
Thirty frustrated people. And a couple of angry ones. And a State Minister who is very much asleep.
It’s 7:45 pm and it is divine outside.
This morning, the first thunderstorm came, leaving small lakes, clearing the air, and dropping the temperature.
For several hours this evening, the sky was heavy and filled with promise.
And then the deluge came.
Spend an hour cruising around the alleys of Uttar Badda in Mitu’s rickshaw, completely lost and surrounded by dug up roads. There is a nice vibe in these little local areas, all of the world is in the dirt alleys that are too narrow for cars – vegetable sellers, chai wallahs, barefoot construction labourers, and a bazillion people asking themselves if a white woman really did just go past on a rickshaw.
A lovely aspect of the Holi festival, is that gender, age, status, caste and nationality do not apply – it’s a free for all. If ever a rickshaw wallah wants to shoot a white lady with a super-soaker filled with dye, today is the day.
On any other day, this would be a grave no-no.
I couldn’t help but scamper into the kitchen, and was delighted to meet the cooks. The men were working barefoot over large pots, balanced over fires.
The ladies were in the back of the kitchen, sitting in a circle, industriously cutting up vegetables. They invited me to sit with them.
They mentioned Hari Krishna quite a bit.
Last month, I was targeted by miscreants with small explosives. The media always refers to such types as miscreants. The word has really caught on. I digress – a miscreant threw a small explosive device at the rickshaw I was travelling in – it exploded underneath me, and really scared me. The rickshaw puller and I were unhurt.
Better luck next time, buddy.
The rickshaw puller was just amazing – We both leap out of the rickshaw.
‘Enough’, he said. ‘It’s enough. Shesh’ (finish).
We have been told to keep a supply of food and water in our flat to see us out for seven days. There is a mass evacuation plan in place, should the need arise. No one really thinks it will come to this, but it is in the back of my mind.
It makes you stop and ask yourself what you really value. – And if I left, would I be able to smuggle Barry The Bathroom Lizard out with me too? We have really bonded.
Bangladesh has had a week of strikes (hartals), blockades, a few bombs and the occasional riot. It’s the anniversary of last year’s elections, and rival political groups have been going head to head. One group refer to 5 January as ‘Victory for Democracy Day’ while the other group insists it is actually ‘Democracy Killing Day’. There have been a few people killed by the police, and lots of busses burnt. I’ve been fortunate to not really be impacted by it directly – working from home most days and avoiding the tricky areas.
Instead of hearing the noise of the slums at night, I now lie in my own bed and hear the rickshaw wallahs’ bells as they navigate the broken road in the dark. No street lights, bits of paved road under the dirt, piles of crushed brick for the continual construction, breaks in the sewage covers exposing things I really don’t want to know about. And occasionally, a dusty cat.
The city settles while the residents of the masses of tin shacks crouched around the lake and over the hill are very much awake. While the city is quiet, the noise of the slums is continual – alternating between impassioned speeches or sermons and singing. This is not the best sound quality I have ever heard, but the volume is impressive.
The air is poisonous, the water is poisonous and the fruit and vegetables have been injected with formaldehyde. The mosquitoes that bite during the day can carry dengue fever, and the mosquitoes biting at night can be carrying malaria.
The call to prayer wakes this enormous city of 20 million people up, and then closes the day in the evening. Faith is ingrained into this life, and in some way I find it humbling.
I’m getting used to this: right now I feel like I am between two worlds.
I’m on the home stretch now-
I’m already feeling lighter with fewer possessions.
I have two more sleeps at home, and then I will be creating a new space for myself in a town I have never been to, to do a job that daunts me. This will be great!