The year was 1986 and I was eighteen years old. The country was Bangladesh. My Asian destinations were to be Mount Everest Base Camp followed by the beaches of Thailand. Bangladesh wasn’t a part of my plan, and the airline’s two-day layover in Dhaka seemed like a scheme to profit from the Western tourist trade that otherwise would have passed the country by. I knew nothing about Bangladesh, nothing of their recent independence from Pakistan, military coups and martial law, or of their largely Islamic population.
Arriving at the airport, our small group of tourists were herded together – in an embarrassing fashion given that we were all the sort of seasoned travelers who would normally try to avoid each other so as not to stick out in an exotic country. But there we were huddled together, our pasty skin gleaming with sweat, wearing drab colors, and cameras dangling.
Swarthy locals swarmed the single gate and terminal in an aggressive mass, hollering at one another. They were all men. I realized immediately that my European summer beach clothes, the wrap-around skirt, tank top and sandals exposing my ankles and toes, were not appropriate dress in a Muslim country. My blonde hair flowing freely down my back only added to my predicament.
And so it began: gropes, squeezes, pinches to my ass, small breasts and skinny arms, tugs at my boney wrists. Any exposed skin, however meager, was fair game to pawing as the crowd followed us out to the rickety, exhaust-fuming mini-bus waiting at the curb. I knew then that I couldn’t count on my two traveling companions. They became frightened boys, who pretended not to see hands reaching out of nowhere, like the multitudinous arms of a Hindu god, to feel up their ill-fated female friend. I felt humiliated, and I knew I was on my own.
We were driven to the only Western hotel in Dhaka – its sole function to baby-sit the white tourists during the forced two-day layover. We were ordered, or at least told firmly, not to leave the hotel, which of course I ignored. And yet, I had not been prepared to walk out onto the streets of Dhaka. Bangladesh was poor in a way I had never seen, even during my travels into remote areas of Central America.
Whereas the airport had belonged to men, the streets of Dhaka belonged to women and children, who trudged along muddy, monsoon washed streets laced with animal remains, raw sewage and bloodsucking leeches dropped there by the torrential rains. Everything was filthy, redolent of decay, and the humidity was suffocating. The only sign of gaiety was the vibrant colors of the saris that some of the women wore.
I stepped on a bloated, dead rat and shuddered. Beggars swarmed me, and I had to push through a crowd, as I made my way back to the safe haven of the hotel. There I sat in the dining room eating vegetable curry. Everything covered in a thin film of grease, including myself. The hotel didn’t provide drinking water, so I had cup after cup of hot chai, sipped in the stifling heat.
I hated to admit that I was scared. I also hated to admit that I didn’t like Bangladesh with its groping men and muddy, noisome streets. I wanted to believe I was a world traveler and that I was intrepid. Truthfully, I was relieved when it was time to board the mini-bus that would take us back to the airport.
I sat on the bus and leaned against the half-open window, while we waited for the driver. The engine rattled in neutral. I looked out at the tropical landscape surrounding the hotel, and then I noticed an old woman standing below the window. As we made eye contact, she reached her hand up toward me in that familiar gesture of the beggars. The outstretched hand and her self-conscious smile saddened me. I knew all the good reasons not to give money to beggars; I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed, for myself and for her. She was begging, but I could tell that was not her usual custom.
I examined her more carefully. She appeared ancient, shrunken and pruned, with her silvery hair set in a dignified bun. Her purple sari was worn and faded. She was barefoot and toothless. I was done for; she wasn’t going to leave me alone now that she caught me contemplating her. She nodded, smiled and persisted with the outstretched hand, cupped just beneath the window. I smiled back, shook my head apologetically and squirmed in my seat.
Thoughts ran through my mind: she must think I am a cheap American, who won’t even spare small change for an old lady; she smiles at me, but she really must hate me; maybe she will put some sort of curse on me.
All the while I smiled, nodded and squirmed. Where in the hell was that bus driver?
The driver finally climbed onto the bus. Just before we pulled out, I saw the old woman dash off and she was out of sight. Again, I was relieved. A few minutes later, the engine revved and I could feel the pull and sway of the bus as we began to move. But then something caught my eye. The old woman was slowly running alongside my window, and she reached up and tossed something inside.
It happened in slow motion. Dozens of small, brilliant magenta, yellow and red flowers showered me. Delicate and colorful flowers were everywhere. They stuck to my hair and my blouse. They covered my lap and the seat around me. I had been doused with a brilliance of color and the sweet scent of a garden.
I leaned my head out as we drove away and I saw the old woman smiling and waving joyfully. I waved back. She had blessed me with flowers, and I wasn’t scared anymore.
published 16 April 2014