Bringing In the Rain: My Arrival in Dhaka

Friday, June 1, 2012

Last week, we landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an independent country to the east of India where my family originates from. It was a full 24 hours in transit - passing from Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Abu Dhabi (UAE), and finally to Dhaka, which I must admit leaves you feeling a bit like you've stepped out of a time capsule. It is also, however, a very effective way to mark the transition from everyday life to summer. It is especially rejuvenating to be in a place that is semi-familiar, but also wholly different from my everyday experience in the United States. But, rather than talk about it from the outside, I'd like to instead share what I first wrote when I arrived here, a little personal essay about bringing in the rain:

There hasn't been rain all month, they said.

In a country where the rainy season marks the true summer, where the humidity builds enough during the day to moisten these pages, this is a big disaster. Climate change, we all agree, is the culprit. As we drink dud-cha (milk tea) and listen to the fan whir above our heads, we lament the changes wrought on our home country. Some believe that the changes are imperceptible or coming far into the future, but farmers and local people here know first-hand.

The conversation turns to the subject of a snake that has taken up residence in the kitchen at our village home, several hours away from where we're staying in the capital city. In Bangladesh, problems are different, my father quips. It sounds like a universal truth, with the reverse being as true as the statement itself. We're all trying to figure out what's the best way to protect our homes.

Traveling here makes me wonder about just how different our lived experiences are. Our flight path always takes us through the ritzy corners of the Middle East - places like Qatar with its flashy new-money airport or Abu Dhabi and its refined dome architecture. Each time, I feel encouraged to learn Arabic, so I can understand their opening prayer (a section of the Qur'an is read every time we take off, a practice that would draw wide eyes in the West). I look at the international brigade of flight attendants, ranging from Thai to African to European, staffing our Etihad flight. It's always a white blue-eyed European gracing the advertisements, however, with perhaps a pretty looking black African thrown into the background. So much for international multiculturalism. Perhaps they believe that tourists will feel most comfortable with white hosts.

The European passengers themselves dwindle out as we pass from Chicago on to Abu Dhabi, becoming mostly a mix of South Asians and Arabs making their ways home or on tour. On the flight into Dhaka, only two men are of visibly non-Bengali origins. Many of them are migrant laborers, catching their flight home after months of working jobs in the Middle East that no Arab wants; they earn good money to send back, but are never really integrated into society whether they want to be or not. Hence the company-sponsored tickets home. Many cannot speak English or Arabic and irk the flight attendants by not complying with instructions like "fasten your seatbelt."

Arriving on the ground in Dhaka airport is familiar enough, though I have been here only once before; even as I try to describe it, however, I feel like the experience is too unique to be well-imagined in the mind's eye of an outside reader. I try not to pine for the things I cannot have (my cell phone, cold cereal, air conditioner...) since I already feel like a foreigner with my poor language skills and pharmacy stock of medications. What was that about problems being all too different? I repeat to myself that it can only get easier as we settle down to drink tea. Brishti!, I hear, Rain!. And so it begins.

If you enjoyed this essay, you can browse more of my writing and thoughts about Bangladesh.