Day 1 - Far and Away
Caught up in the frenzied momentum of the Hall of Arrivings in Zia International
Airport, I dodge swarthy policemen whose packed holsters rest on nonchalant hips
and join a bedraggled queue for passport control. Drowning in an all-encompassing
staccato of foreign language, rendered self-conscious by a thousand stares, I expect
delays and confusion, but the bored official takes my landing card, curls his lip
and pronounces, “Foreigners not needing this paper.” He rips it in half, in quarters,
and tosses the pieces high in the air like homemade confetti.
“Lugs? Have lugs?” another uniform barks.
We stare at each other for a long minute. My ears twitch.
“Lugs. Lugs?” he shouts, pointing to a pile of suitcases opportunely passing by on
the elderly head of a lone porter. “Wait lugs. Lugs go,” he orders through a mist
I wait. And I wait a bit more. Luggage grinds around a carousel that breaks down
with hypnotising regularity. I see the stuff other passengers load onto their convoys
of trolleys, and congratulate myself on a single, if vast, rucksack that shudders
into view just as I am confronting the possibility of a night without clean knickers.
I hoist it onto an enormous, compartmentalised cart where it resembles the last egg
in a two-dozen box, and then dawdle towards the glass doors.
The final threads of my security net snap as I emerge onto a film set of that standard,
tele-visual depiction of the Third World. A heavy cloak of heat settles on my shoulders
and a celestial glare belies the sky’s blanket whiteness. Flying in and descending
over the empty, muddy riverbeds slicing through the mustard-coloured bog lands of
the well-advanced dry season, I pondered the whereabouts of Bangladesh’s 140 million
The answer was in front of me.
On the other side of grey and functional prison gates manned by blue-bereted guards
sporting sand-coloured trousers and large rifles, a watchful and abundant crowd pushes
forward, eagerly, volubly scanning the emerging passengers. Men in traditional and
Western clothing predominate. They are ten, fifteen rows deep, a swarming carpet
of locusts grasping the railings, clambering atop one another’s shoulders and shaking
the clattering metal barriers. Without embarrassment, they are hugging new arrivals,
holding hands, weeping with joy. The women, their sleek, dark hair knotted up and
shielded by long scarves—dupattas—are a rainbow of colours. Saris and salwar kameezes,
the loose tunics worn over baggy trousers, come in clashing and contrasting shades:
reds and golds, bright oranges, and purples. Black burkhas equalise spangled finery
and threadbare poverty.
I do note that amongst this heaving, lively, mixed bag of humanity, there appears
to be a surprising scarcity of smiling Salvation Army ladies and plump, jolly nuns
cradling pot-bellied, huge-eyed babies.
The noise is deafening, everyone is shouting. My problem is that nobody appears to
be shouting for me.
“What the hell am I doing here, anyway?” I mutter to myself. “First, my very patient
husband drives me through hours of snow to an all-but-closed airport, and then the
check-in staff has no record of my reservation. Sensible people would take this as
a warning. Me? Oh no, I have to be clever, travel thousands of miles across the world
whilst everyone else I know is sitting around in a post-Christmas lethargy, guzzling
New Year champagne and canapés…”
Leaning on my trolley, trying to look blasé whilst scanning the crowd and waiting
to be found—in this crowd, a pale-faced, blonde-haired Westerner is a beacon—a frowning
policeman accosts me.
“Bangla, na,” I apologise, bemoaning my half-hearted efforts with Bengali tapes and
a phrasebook. We attempt to communicate in sign language since the only English phrase
the policeman can repeat frequently and with a serious smile is unconstructive in
“I love you,” he announces, arms akimbo. “I love you.”
“Thank you,” I say. “But do you love me enough to take me home with you? You see,
I don’t know where I’m going, where I am staying, who is going to meet me, what I
will be doing, or indeed, with whom I will be doing it.”
Gently, he moves me to a quieter spot where more people can easily watch me. Minutes
grind past. Then...
I spy a beige anorak jumping up and down amidst the crowd, a torn cardboard sign
hoist above his head. He is pushing through the throng, and then arguing with a security
guard, and then braving the concrete no-man’s land before me. Is this my saviour
in nylon slacks and Jesus sandals? Sure enough, I decipher a faint biro scribble
on the back of the cereal packet dangling from his arm.
His mouth is moving. “Hey you, salaam walekum. Hello.” I think I lip read. “Salaam.”
“Walekum es-salaam,” I croak, my voice lost in the universal clamour.
“Come.” The man motions.
I follow him.
The policeman follows me.
Like the Red Sea, the staring crowd parts for our relay passage.
“Stay,” my new escort commands and dashes into the road.
The policeman erects a protective cordon around me. “I love you,” he confirms.
“Then, soon you must let me go,” I tell him. “It’s all right, honestly. That man
is from SCI—did you see his sign? SCI: Service Civil International. Do you know it?”
I raise my eyebrows in hope. “It’s an international charity that arranges cultural
exchange visits for…Oh, never mind.”
“I love you?” he asks.
“I love you too,” I echo, almost truthfully.
The constipated traffic is an aural torture chamber with the tinkle of rickshaw bells,
squealing brakes, and honking hooters. Battered buses and ponderous, primrose-coloured
trucks painted with faded hieroglyphics chug off in a stream of dust. The occasional
shiny limo purrs past, and taxicabs are in transit. All have some prang or bump.
Worse than the centre of Rome, the congestion of Cairo, or the craziness around the
Arc de Triomphe, impotent vehicles strain to speed in every direction. Drivers are
oblivious to the whistles of the traffic police. All appear to be ranting and gesticulating
their right to a piece—any piece—of the road.
While absent-mindedly cuffing a couple of people around the ear, my policeman helps
the SCI representative jam me into a smoky, rattling, three-wheeler auto-rickshaw,
and only then does he mooch back to his station. This so-called “baby taxi” has proportions
suitable for seating one chubby toddler. My escort and I look like premature twins
in the last remaining incubator. There are no doors, just rolled up plastic covers.
Our driver jolts us headlong into the throng, bouncing along a road akin to an unpaved
quarry, and swerves onto the pavement, pausing for petrol to be poured into a hole
just under the steering wheel. Both the driver and the pump attendant lean over cheerfully,
the cigarettes dangling from their mouths by no means impede their abuse of a limbless
beggar who is surprisingly fleet of foot and a gang of children selling dirty bottles
of tap water.
Soon we race down the road until everything blurs. I have one hand on my flight bag—since
my companion mimed it worthy of a possible smash-and-grab routine—the other is gripping
the seat to delay my inevitable slide to the floor. My knee is wedged against my
rucksack, my hair is all over my face, and I am practically sitting on the knee of
a Bangladeshi man whose name I cannot fathom. He starts several conversations with
a lopsided and incredulous grin:
“Er, say that again?”
“Nam? Nam? You nam?”
“Oh, I see. Anne. My name is Anne.”
He has a good laugh, and then jabs himself violently in the chest. “Me nam: Shadow.”
Well, that’s what it sounds like anyway. I smile. There is a long pause.
“Your country—where?” he shouts valiantly, proud of his grasp of English.
Encouraged by his enthusiastic and totally incomprehensible hand gestures, I focus
“It’s Ireland. I’m from Ireland. My country is Ireland,” I respond, like an English
“Ireland?” he repeats. “Hmm.” He smiles again. “Ahh, England,” he says, nodding.
It reminds me of all the people back home who said: “You’re going where? Bangladesh?
Isn’t that in India?”
“Well, they all said that Bangladesh would be an experience. I don’t know about you,
but this is the first time I’ve slept with someone three minutes after meeting them.”
For Anne Hamilton, a three-month winter programme of travel and “cultural exchange”
in a country where the English language, fair hair, and a rice allergy are all extremely
rare was always going to be interesting, challenging, and frustrating. What they
didn’t tell Anne was that it would also be sunny, funny, and the start of a love
affair with this unexplored area of Southeast Asia.
A Blonde Bengali Wife shows the lives beyond the poverty, monsoons, and diarrhoea
of Bangladesh and charts a vibrant and fascinating place where one minute Anne is
levelling a school playing field “fit for the national cricket team,” and then cobbling
together a sparkly outfit for a formal wedding the next. Along with Anne are the
essential ingredients for survival: a travel-savvy Australian sidekick, a heaven-sent
adopted family, and a short, dark, and handsome boy-next-door.
During her adventures zipping among the dusty clamour of the capital Dhaka, the longest
sea beach in the world at Cox’s Bazaar, the verdant Sylhet tea gardens, and the voluntary
health projects of distant villages, Anne amasses a lot of friends, stories...and
even a husband.
A Blonde Bengali Wife is the “unexpected travelogue” that reads like a comedy of
manners to tell the other side of the story of Bangladesh.