The first week we arrived in Bangladesh, a friend told me “you may cry when you land in Dhaka but you’ll cry harder when you leave.” For us, his comment was prophetic.
In 2012, Danielle and I received job offers from two international schools, one in Dhaka and one in Kabul. We chose (wisely I think) to move to Dhaka completely ignorant of what we were getting ourselves into. I knew Bangladesh was east of India and that Dhaka was an impoverished, densely packed city but I naively believed my previous experience in South-East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East had prepared me for anything the developing world could throw at me. As I enthusiastically planned lessons for school, said my goodbyes and packed for the move, I was oblivious to what awaited me.
Arriving in Dhaka was a smack in the face. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer wall of humidity and humanity that awaited me. The traffic was worse than my wildest nightmares; the constant auditory barrage of horns and Bengali-screams was disorienting and the garbage-strewn roads and open sewers added an overpowering stench to the mix. Danielle and I were chased by aggressive packs of beggars as we wandered our neighborhood, assaulted by mosquitoes at night and struggled to find simple things like grocery stores or ATMs in the congested maze of Dhaka’s streets. I was utterly and entirely overwhelmed.
Our first few days were filled with tears of frustration, stress and an intense feeling of helplessness. Instead of the fun-filled adventure we anticipated, we feared that Dhaka would end up being the worst decision of our lives.
Over the next several months however, Dhaka slowly began to grow on us. As we learned our way around the city, made close friends and finally received air conditioning for our apartment, we began to feel at home. Some things continued to drive us into occasional rampaging sessions of anger (commonly classified as “Dhaka Rage” amongst expats) but Dhaka didn’t seem half as bad as when we first arrived.
Dani and I learned to love eating burn-your-face-off biryani with our hands, sipping sweet chaa from chipped glasses at tea stalls and gorging ourselves on aloo chaat. We learned to appreciate the warm smiles, friendliness and genuine curiosity of the Bengali people, even if it was overwhelming and invasive at times. We perched at our windows like excited children during thunderstorms, eagerly waiting for the next bolt of lightning to strike. We learned to cling for dear life with a strange mix of glee and terror as our rickshaw wallah expertly weaved in and out of traffic, missing incoming buses by mere inches. We learned to enjoy the riotous colours of the shalwar kameeze worn by Bengali women walking to or from work at the garment factories each morning. We learned how shut our nasal passages to the smells of the garbage heaps, dead animals and open sewers...and continue breathing! EVERYTHING about Dhaka was different but it became familiar. Bangladesh became home.
And then we had to leave. Job opportunities elsewhere pulled us away but as the plane lifted off and I watched the shabby grey buildings and green fields disappear under the clouds for the last time, a tear or two…may have rolled down my cheek.
When Danielle and I think back on Dhaka, the frustrations and fears of our first few months fade into the background. What stands out for us more and more as the weeks and months go by is the friends we made, the colourful experiences we had and the fact that we managed to face and conquer the challenges of Bangladesh together.
Tom Stoppard, one of my favorite playwrights, wrote in one of his absurdist dramas that “every exit is an entry somewhere else.” That rings true for me now. We left Dhaka for a new adventure in Asuncion. Who knows where we’ll end up next? Whenever Danielle and I move to a new country, we will fondly remember the first-time challenges of Dhaka. We may have cried when we arrived but we also cried when we left.