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|Volume 11 |Issue 33| August 17, 2012 ||
Food for Thought
Most people - unless they are jaded business travellers, or suffer from travel sickness or fear of flying (or indeed, are reluctant to leave home for some very specific reason e.g. their small children refuse to recognise them when they return from a trip) - tend to view travel as potentially exciting. I'm no exception. So the opportunity, some time ago, to attend a two-day conference in Thailand seemed like a good chance to enjoy a change of scenery away from my traffic-congested home city, where trying to fight my way from Gulshan Circle 1 to Gulshan Circle 2 can involve a greater sense of long-term commitment and more "adventure" than I would want to handle on any given day. Let's face it, in comparison to navigating one's way from Dhaka South to Dhaka North or vice versa, a relatively short flight to Delhi or Bangkok can actually seem less stressful.
But the fates had planned otherwise for me that day. My adventures began at Dhaka airport, where my attempts to check-in were an unmitigated disaster. The person at the check-in desk told me to stand in any line since all ten queues were checking in all flights by the national carrier (there were certainly no slates hanging overhead to indicate which queue was to check in which flight, nor any information on the electronic screens). But after several minutes standing in line, the airline staff decided that they would not, after all, be checking in anyone other than travellers to Rome in the queue where I had spent quite a bit of time waiting.
Three abortive attempts at queuing followed, involving a further loss of around half an hour, before I finally encountered a compassionate airline staffer who agreed to check me in. Progress! But as it turned out, it wasn't really; because by then the conveyor belt wasn't working. Apparently, despite regular so-called refurbishment at the airport, conveyor belts are not considered to be sufficiently important (or perhaps not exciting or photogenic enough) to merit attention by our policymakers. At least, that was what the person checking me in caustically stated.
As a result, she asserted, breakdowns in the conveyor belt system are fairly common. I couldn't help wondering if perhaps it was worth spending less on strange and colourful light-bulb ornaments (look carefully, and you are likely to notice them as you race towards your designated departure gate after a delayed check-in next time you travel), and invest a little more in boring, black conveyor belts that actually function.
My suitcase joined all the others piled up on the unresponsive conveyor belt. Hoping against hope that it would show some sign of life, I waited for about 20 minutes; but to no avail. Eventually, abandoning my suitcase to its fate, I rushed to the immigration queue - only to encounter a peculiarly Bangladeshi problem. At the time of my travel, there were four sections with corresponding queues in the immigration area. Only one of them was for Bangladeshis. The other three were designated for the use of Foreigners, SAARC Residents, and Foreign Bangladeshis. To the naked eye, it would have appeared that virtually everyone in all the four sections were in fact regular Bangladeshis, with a sprinkling of foreigners and SAARC types smoothly blended in, neither shaken nor stirred. Perhaps that was not altogether unpredictable, given that one might reasonably expect the majority of people travelling from an airport to be ordinary nationals of the country concerned!
And my woes didn't end there. There was another serious hazard to be negotiated that morning. I'm not a morning person. And let's face it: most Bengalis tend to be chatty at anytime of day. To make matters worse, the brand on my forehead was glowing super-bright that morning. You know, the brand that says "If you're lonely, or talkative, or stark raving mad, I'm absolutely the best person for you to spend the next half-hour interacting with".
For most of my life, I have done everything I can to hide this invisible brand; although I should mention that only people falling into the aforementioned categories can see it since most normal people walk past me without a second look. Yet despite my uninviting expression - my friends have informed me that my face is "not friendly in repose" - the oddballs of the world have never been deterred. And if at first they are disinclined to approach me, circumstances will invariably conspire to make them change their minds.
Take the elderly bearded man and the two elderly burkha-clad ladies (accompanied by an even more elderly gentleman), who were standing in front of me in the immigration queue. Ignoring my polite smile, for whatever reason they gave me a decidedly wide berth. The irony of this became obvious when a sudden emergency was created by the fact that none of them had filled in their immigration cards departure. The immigration officer was extremely irritated, and threatened to send them to the back of the queue. Suddenly, I was not only good enough to be spoken to, I was in fact told - not asked, mind you - by the gentleman leading this small posse, to fill out all four of their immigration cards for them!
Believe it or not I did try to help him, but he made it clear that he just wanted me to do it for him. He wasn't even willing to try to fill up the second card while I attempted the first one. Luckily for him, my parents have done a good enough job of bringing me up to make it impossible for me to be actively rude to elderly people. So I caved in and filled out one of the forms, showing him each step. The other three people accompanying him just looked catatonic, poor things –they flatly refused to take responsibility for any of it. I suddenly realised to my horror that my plane was supposed to be boarding, so after finishing the first card I asked the girl in the queue behind me, who had been talking my ear off for the (nearly) one hour we had spent waiting in the queue, to fill out one more card for them. She reluctantly agreed. I advised the older gentleman to ask the next two people to do one card each, as I raced off to catch my flight, which was supposed to take off in 10 minutes.
Of course it didn't. It ended up being more than an hour late. Not that they told us this. Or even put it on the overhead screens. In the meantime, I met my second social conservative of the (early) morning. This gentleman gave me a hard look, followed by one word "Indian". I was unsure whether he was asking me if I was going there or if I was from there. Turned out, it was the latter. Perhaps it was my casual travel clothing - chosen for comfort rather than style, and most likely the cause of his initial disapproval - that had led him to the wrong conclusion about my nationality.
I can't say that it came as a complete surprise. This has been a recurrent theme in my life. Like the time that a Balinese immigration officer asked me why I had a Bangladeshi passport. He refused to believe that I had no Indonesian parents or grandparents, and in fact advised me to discuss the matter with my parents since "There is something they are not telling you, madam" (!). On this morning, I had already had five other people play the 'where are you from' game with me – all during our long wait the immigration queue. This included two people from a GOB delegation, one of whom actually blamed her mistake on my “outlook” which is apparently not Bengali enough. She may have a point, but I think she was actually referring to my appearance.
The same error was made by two of my fellow countrymen who were working in a restaurant in Rome, and were travelling back there together. One of them was so deeply embarrassed by the mistake he had made - he thought I was East Asian - that he tried to make up for his gaffe by suggesting that the fact that I'm from Tangail (which is near Modhurpurer Gor) means that I might be expected to look like some of the indigenous people living in the area. I wasn't sure about his logic, but I assured him that I have no problem being thought of as a Modhupur forest dweller.
When that failed to effectively banish his embarrassment (he began to stutter in his attempts to justify why he thought I was a non-Bengali i.e. my “cheharar cut”), his friend stepped in gallantly and tried to cover up by saying consolingly that when we live for a long time in a foreign country, we do begin to look like the people of that country. The only flaw in that logic, of course,being the fact that I was going on a two-day trip and therefore could not claim any legitimate reason to look non-Bengali! Nor did either of them look particularly Italian to me, I might add.
Anyway, the conversational gymnastics aside, judicious observation and my policy of hounding the airport staff at regular intervals finally paid off, revealing the sudden information that our flight was boarding at the farthest gate. That information, I must confess, was never provided to the passengers through the overhead screens as one might have expected. It was a secret, perhaps? The messages on the PA system were genuinely incomprehensible – random strangers stood around, asking each other in panicked tones what the announcer was saying - so that in no way helped any of us.
But in the end, it was all okay. We got on the flight – and who cares if it was over an hour late? I was just happy that the toilet seats in the departure area were dry for a change. And there was toilet paper! Though you did have to search through the various stalls to find one, while a bored-looking cleaner watched your every movement. But therein, perhaps, lies one of the most important strategies to surviving some of the challenges of everyday life in Dhaka: remembering to laugh whenever possible, and taking pleasure in the simple things...
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