Last of the Europeans

Last Friday I went with Luke, the other English guy in the region to ‘Dreamland’. Luke took nearly all of Kobir’s family (mum, dad, eight children) along too so it was a nice day out. Dreamland is small with a little roller-coaster, a little ferris wheel, merry-go-round etc, but it was good to see and a different experience to go somewhere landscaped and reasonably clean.

The biggest attraction was the dodgems, which I couldn’t understand because people drive like that normally. But then I realised that the difference with the dodgems is that they have no horn. You could almost see people shaking with trepidation in the queue as they contemplated the prospect of getting in to a car and not being able to clear a path using sound, ‘oooohhh, a car with no horn, how will we survive?’ The idea of using your eyes and brake and not wanting to kill everyone has never really been passed on to Bangladeshi drivers.

The day was slightly tarnished though by being constantly harassed and stared at. I’m beginning to realise what it must be like to be a really famous footballer or film-star, because everywhere I go the whole street turns it head and watches me, whether I’m cycling, eating, being ripped off in the market, picking my nose. In Srimangal a few months ago me and Georgia got followed on our bikes by six kids for almost two miles. We thought we’d try and bore them out, so stopped by the side of the road and just stood and said nothing for two minutes. They all stopped about a metre away from us and peered at us for two minutes as well. I get asked ‘Hi how are you? Your country? Your name? What you doing Bangladesh?’ about 20 times a day – genuinely – and so in Sylhet when me and Luke are out together the sight is rarer than a driver giving way.

In Dreamland there was no escape, and I had to pose for photos four times with people. The fifth time I got fed up, but the group following me found a British Bengali who told me in an East London accent that I should ‘give the time for a few snaps, because they don’t see your people here often’. I told him that I’d already done photos, and besides, I wasn’t one of the bloody rides, but I now can appreciate a bit more why big celebrities get shops closed just for them and things like that. At least celebrities are rich.

I was close to really losing it when I was stuck on a pedalo, which had been designed by a moron so that the cyclist sits on their own on one side of the boat which means that only one of the crappy paddles was properly in the water, and therefore you could only really go in a circle. I had four of Kobir’s younger siblings in the front screaming at me to go faster, I couldn’t turn away from the bank, and then a grown-up man, wearing a smart suit, jumped over the fence, jogged ten yards down the bank, and leant over to ask where I’m from. I can’t read the Bangla papers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the next day’s main local rag splashed ‘Visitor from Urfukinasmait comes to Dreamland’ across the front page.

The main reason for going to Dreamland though was to have a little farewell party for Luke. He was going to get another six-month working visa to stay here, before going to America to work there in July, but totally unexpectedly, his visa wasn’t renewed and he had to leave Bangladesh on Monday. This now means that I’m the only non-Asian person and native English-speaker in an area of at least 12,600 sq km, probably more, and thus will now be even more famous in Sylhet, where tourists can now come and see a white man. There are two Japanese development workers here until May, but as far as I know, that’s it. Everyone else who permanently lives here is ethnically Bengali.

When I was organising my VSO placement, the one thing I specifically said to my placement advisor was that wherever I was going, I didn’t care how beautiful it was, I didn’t want to be on my own. Now I’m in a town which is the urban equivalent of Bernard Manning’s arse, and am now totally on my own. Far from ideal.

In our global world 21st century world though, I’m aware that this is an anthropological privilege to be able to be somewhere that still hasn’t been distorted and or ruined by ‘Western’ culture and standards of living. That doesn’t mean that I like it, because I enjoy sharing experiences with people face to face, not just in writing, but I certainly appreciate it and am going to try and make the best of what is a rare situation. I’ve no choice, after all.


1 Response to “Last of the Europeans”

  1. 1 Sarah Henderson July 1, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I am doing YFD this year and I have just been offered a placement in Bangladesh for September and this post summed up a lot of my nervousness – I am going to be pretty isolated I believe, probably the only white woman in the south west of Bangladesh and have no idea what my job involves due to my employers poor English.
    I would love to hear your thoughts on Bangladesh and the work you did with VSO.

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