After being sick with fever for the past few days, I sit on the beach at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh when a little boy of about 12 walks over to my parasol and ducks his head beneath the canopy holding a thermos of tea. He’s barefoot with dirty jeans rolled up just below the knee, an old collared tee-shirt, jet black hair and matching dark eyes. A warm wind is blowing, and for the first time this entire trip, it is quiet. In front of me is a powdery sun the color of a nectarine hanging two fingers above the horizon. Fishing boats shaped like elf-shoes are just off the shore languidly floating in the Bay of Bengal.
This is the first time in days I’ve done anything other than writhe in bed. I’m sitting here knowing that at some point a group of locals will be watching me. All of them will want to know where I’m from and I’ll tell them England or Norway. I won’t tell them Antarctica because I’m not feeling cheeky today. I definitely won’t tell them the truthâthat I’m Americanâbecause on my first day in Dhaka, the capital city, I watched buses burn and columns of black smoke twist into the sky as military personnel deployed flash-bang grenades and shot rioting Islamic activists (Jamaat e Islami) with rubber bullets outside my hotel window.
Old wounds leftover from a vicious war of independence with Pakistan. One in which America is still seen as complicit with the enemy. As the riots raged I decided I didn’t want my American-ness spreading to those who feel honor-bound to kill me.
It would seem as though I’ve crossed some invisible line that exists somewhere in and around Indonesia. In Bangladesh I feel like I’m under the gaze of Mecca. The Muslims here are less attenuated by the diluting mysticism of the Southeast that seems to blunt the edge of Islam’s saber. If lying about my nationality makes me a coward, so be it.
I spent my days in Dhaka searching for an analogue, some sort of connection with things I had seen in my past. The choking traffic reminded me of Manila, but it lacked that Filipino glue-sniffing destitution. Perhaps Medan, in Sumatra, with it’s ostensible piety might bear a resemblance, but Dhaka is differentâI’ve never experienced a place so loud. It is utter madness, a boiling hive of humanity where everyone is doing everything all the time. Dark-skinned, leathery men chipping away at gravestones, rickshaws rickshawing, buses honking, children naked from the waist down sifting through piles of urban rubbish, legless beggars navigating the broken landscape at my feet… It shouldn’t work, it is simply too crowded, but somehow a chaotic inertia keeps it from having a full blown and colossally bleak seizure.
Here on the beach, famed for being a 125-km stretch of unbroken white sand, it is inevitable that I’ll be surrounded by inquisitive Bangladeshis. Some will film me with their camera phones, some will beg, some will peddle, but most will be happy to simply watch me watching something. They’ll just watch. If I adjust my hat, or cough, or smile, it will highlight the episode.
It has been constant for three weeks. Outside of one’s hotel room there is no solitude, no stopping to take it all in. There are two gears: moving or being surrounded. On the train from Khulna to Rajshahi, no fewer than 40 grown men watched me drink a 7-Up. If they come to watch me today, feeling like I’m feeling, like I’ve walked out of a dark movie theatre into daylight, post fever lassitude and all, I’ll go back to my room and watch one of the Twilight movies.
So, I’m sitting here and it’s a beautiful day and I’m… melancholy. Three weeks in Bangladeshâthe warmth of the people, the bracing poverty, the disfigured, but most of all the deafening bedlam of 150 million souls clamoring for space has shaken me. Then this little boy with bare feet and dirty jeans holding a thermos of tea dips his head beneath the canopy, raises the thermos and asks: You enjoy tea?
No thanks, I say.
And he turns and leaves with no added ceremony, no extra push, no bargaining, nothing. I’m all by myself, and I almost start to cry. That was the kid I wanted to buy tea from. I watch him go and it’s windy and warm and silent and I can only hear the sound of the surf detonate on shore.
Check out an amazing photo essay from Bangladesh by Will Jackson