Back in Bangladesh, with Borat no Beadle

I’ve now come back to Sylhet, after a month away, and have this strange sensation like I’ve come back home. I’m not quite sure if the classic adage of “you’ve got to leave a place before you can appreciate it” is true in my case, because I can’t say lying in a hammock on the beach in Cambodia, drinking beer, made me realise how great Sylhet is.

But I did feel, as I arrived at Dhaka, that I was coming back to a culture I was at home in; that this was where I was supposed to be going to, and not some incredibly long special edition of Beadle’s About. And then I got bitten by three mosquitoes whilst waiting for my bag to come through; absolutely robbed by my taxi driver, and when I finally got back to the flat there was a power cut. So it’s nice that Bangladesh was equally pleased to see me, and had provided the traditional welcome.

After a few days of sorting things out in Dhaka I got back to Sylhet on Friday, and was back to work on Saturday, as well as dealing with the usual things of restocking the fridge, fumigating kitchen etc. Someone has been living in my house while I was away, which I didn’t know about or agree to, but none of my stuff was tampered with so I’m not that fussed, although whoever it was has moved the tv and messed up my cable reception.

On my little estate, the baby goslings that had hatched before I left are now much bigger and noisier; we seem to have acquired another rooster, and the guard dog is well pleased to see me again, and keeps on trying to engage my right leg in a marathon sex session.

Otherwise things are pretty much the same. What’s made me realise that I’ve acclimatised to a certain extent was watching the new Borat film (Not as great as I’d hoped, but still had me in stitches at points. A bit laboured though. 7/10). In the beginning you see him in his village in Kazakhstan, which presumably is intended to be one big joke because it’s such a filthy impoverished backward shithole. And I was watching it thinking “that’s not so bad. Good quality shack there. Decent roads. Smartly dressed people. What’s so funny?”

So – a few conclusions can be made:

Either – I’ve been in Bangladesh so long that I’ve adjusted to how absurdly awful and impoverished the country is, and just don’t notice it anymore.

Or – we in the West have ridiculous and completely unnecessary standards of living and consumption, and are so stupid and culturally blind and arrogant that we see as comedic what a large proportion of the world views as normal – so the joke’s on us. Fully automatic garage doors – fat idiots.

I don’t think either statement is quite applicable, but I’d lean towards the second one being truer than the first.

Going to Cambodia made me realise a few things about Bangladesh though. Cambodia is almost as poor as Bangladesh, suffers from extreme weather conditions, an unstable political climate, is recovering from an even more recent and arguably more debilitating genocide, and is also swarming with NGOs and development workers. But unlike Bangladesh, Cambodia also has tourists, tens of thousands of them, from all over the world, and all ages.

You would either have to be very brave, very curious, or very lost to be a tourist in Bangladesh, and consequently there are virtually none. It’s a shame because parts of the landscape are stunningly beautiful, and I had a fantastic five day trip through the Sundarbans jungle over New Years (I’ll write that up very soon). But compared to other countries, Bangladesh doesn’t have that much to offer in terms of instantaneous travelling gratification; and because there’s no market in accommodating western indulgences, there are very few places for a westerner to indulge their desires. In a country of nearly 150 million people, I’d be surprised if there are more than about 10 coffee-shops, for example.

This creates a rich, intensely homogenous environment which is fascinating to experience, increasingly unique in our globalised world but also (I find) very hard. In Cambodia everywhere I went I saw people from all over the world, here in Sylhet District, an area about 100 square miles, Luke and I and two Japanese are the only permanent non South-Asians. And of course, tourists also bring there money – I certainly left a lot in Cambodia, a sizeable wedge in their national brewing industry alone.

Too much tourism can hugely damage a country, but I have no problem with people travelling to another country to learn about it, admire and respect it, because that process works both ways; the hosts can learn something about other countries and cultures too.

At the moment, when the Bangladeshi’s I spoken to think about England, they think that we’re all racist and we’ve got a rubbish cricket team. I can’t save the cricket team, but it is frustrating that the biggest exposure to England we have at the moment is Celebrity Big Brother, which possibly showcases the very dregs, the absolute rock-bottom of British culture. It makes me feel ashamed to be British, and I’m not being elitist (one of my favourite shows is Hot Tub Ranking), I just recognise lazy crap tv, made by idiots, starring idiots, for idiots. So I’m going around trying to explain to people that very few people in the UK are racist, but quite a few are really stupid.

So coming back to Bangladesh has taught me a few things – firstly, that I like it more than I thought I did, because I feel quite settled in this lifestyle. And secondly, Bangladesh needs more people from around the world to come and visit. We shouldn’t be the butt of jokes in Borat. Bangladesh doesn’t have much to offer, but it can give you some valuable lessons, and we can give some lessons back, just by being here. Jade Goody should probably wait a bit though.


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