Musings after a month on the road

Returning from a site visit to Bangladesh is always bittersweet. Setting foot back in the UK with water on tap, hot showers, cutlery, clean crisp sheets and the BBC it's hard not to heave a sigh of relief. Kiss the floor and you won't even get Delhi belly! How lucky to open your eyes and be a British citizen, right? Well, it's not that simple. After a week or so, I start to get the hunger pains for a freedom I can't quite put my finger on.

I’m often asked, isn’t it difficult to work in Bangladesh... as a foreigner... as a woman... in the built environment? Yes, all those labels add a level of difficulty. But they do in the UK too.
(Photo: T. Chowdhury)

(Photo: T. Chowdhury)

Do I get taken seriously? I'm from the school of thought that you will be judged by your actions. Respect your neighbour, do good, be good, say what you really mean and deliver on your promises. If someone chooses to judge at face value, they aren't your tribe.

If I'm visiting a new village in Bangladesh, the first reaction is always of shock. I stick out like a sore thumb. This is closely followed by intrigue. I'm soon surrounded (personal space taken out of the equation) and bombarded by questions. I frantically try to translate them in my head and piece together a suitable response in broken Bangla. Without fail, the most frequently asked question - "Are you married?" Although I'm still pretty sprightly, I'm apparently a little bit past my best. Why am I alone and without a guide?

"Ekon, shami lakbe nah. Pore, pore. Ami besto. Ami kaj."

"Right now, I don't need a husband. Later, later. I'm busy. I'm working."

This is always met by much amusement.

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

(Photo: J. Ashbridge)

Do I have to cover up? Yes, I do my utmost to respect cultural norms. But I don't feel trapped. In fact, most of my days are spent in baggy yoga pants, T-shirts 'borrowed' from dad and my beloved flipflops. For public occasions I'll add a scarf. For weddings I'll push the boat out with a salwar kameez. The reality is I feel far more constrained in UK work attire - shirts that don't breathe during sticky summer days, skinny jeans that need to be unbuttoned if you've had too many office biscuits... and socks, who thought those were a good idea!?

At the age of 30 how can I still bear those 9-hour bus rides (12 if your wheel happens to pop off), living out of a backpack and taking tea at makeshift stalls with goat hides swinging in the wind?

Well, the bus rides don't get any easier. 

Every now and again, a wave of calm will pass through your core. The monsoon rains (which have been finding their way through the cracks in the window) ease and the sun shines on the padi fields, the green so vibrant you forget to take a breath... then ‘Hey Jo’ starts playing in your earphones. Such timing, such serendipity.

How could I be anywhere else?

Living out of a backpack is the worst. Not having a base used to feel liberating. No ties, no constraints. Now, I welcome the periods when I can stay a while in a village, when I can unpack and feel at home with my Bangladeshi family.

But the tea stalls never get old. If you haven't taken tea in Bangladesh, you haven't lived. In fact, it's worth booking a flight for this experience alone. Why are the tea sellers always the funniest men in the village? Bangladeshi Billy Connollys! They love pumping out American rock too... "I've been waiting for a girl like youuuuu."

In a time of uncertainty, a time of conflict between nations and disputes within, I'd like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the people of Bangladesh for welcoming me (and AzuKo) into your country. You open my eyes to new ways of thinking and continue to push my understanding of humanity.

Bangladesh, until we meet again.


Author: J. Ashbridge