Tonight I finally managed to grab mum on Skype and pass on my impressions from the first few days of Dhaka 101. It was good to chat to her but I was left with the sense of something incomplete, something left undone.
The other phone call would have been to you. Actually by now you would have called me, worried and cursing me for not calling sooner, entirely disregarding my instructions about my phone bill and roaming charges, as usual.
It seems strange now to think that there was a time when there was a price I wouldn’t pay to hear your voice.
Now you have gone all quiet but Dhaka rings with noise and fills my ears. I am learning to translate the noises: the ping of bells summoning servants, the bubble of angry words that seem to teeter just on the edge of a fight, the floating rise of the mosques’ call to prayer, the roar of the planes criss crossing up above. Birds tweet, horns honk, children beg; I think there are more sounds than I have space for in my head and I am just getting started.
I am assaulted by colours. The powder pink palace, the turquoise-tangerine plaid that seems to be the height of masculine hip, the bright green matt of the water hyacinths which make fields of rivers.
The rickshaws literally riot with pictures; gods, girls, screen idols. Hyper-colour makes all equal till they pale and peel off in the sun.
Here I feel a little drunk just looking around. Only few days in Dhaka has me thinking orange looks great with purple (and you know how much I hate orange), convinced that any four different patterns can blend quite together harmoniously. This may not be a good a thing for my sense of style. I may come home looking like a rainbow vomitted on me….
The women out on the streets are like bright exotic birds trailling tails of colourful plummage. They really make it work as they heave and heft and sweat themselves through days of hard graft. It takes real poise to shine when you’re dirty and sweating, but many do. Strength is always beautiful and women here certainly need to be strong. Poverty is never an easy master.
Of course tired eyes can still sparkle. I am careful to extend a smile to the women and the children first, letting my eyes skip over the husbands just a touch too quickly, and that usually gets me a grin.
I must look at little odd anyway. It made me laugh to turn from the photo I was taking discreetly, to see a photo being discreetly taken of me!
The city has not paused since I arrived. I have the sense that all the world’s stories are written here if only I understood the language the streets speak, or could read the signs peeling from the walls.
I have never seen traffic this crazy and that is saying something. The buses are so bashed up they look like they’re made of crushed coke cans and rally-race to destruction every night. Tuk-tuks and rickshaws race past, inches from disaster. Crossing the road takes courage and travelling in the city tests your nerve. Even cocooned in a comfortable car, I had to consciously loosen my tense tight fingers as we ‘dogemed’ down the street to the howl of sirens and the screech of breaks. It look two and a half hours to travel less than ten kilometres…
The clouds overhead are heavy, gloomy, desperate for release. The rainy season is over but they don’t seem to know. The humidity is a warm breath of sky-spit that leaves me dirtier, stickier, gleaming with grime.
You are often in my thoughts; when I found the shop full of just the kind of old tat you like, when I drop you into a conversation just to have you close, when I want to skip whole months because they won’t be special without you in them.
But today it occurred to me, I will never again have this day, this moment. I will never again see these things for the first time. I will never again see that little boy’s smile. And yet I am letting myself miss this by missing you.
I am here, doing this, seeing the city dirty, vivid and bright. But is is easy to be split apart, to be part elsewhere. Living with half a heart has got to be a habit and there is more of me I could be giving.
I am trying to remember how to live fully, now, even when the grief is coming and going like clouds. I know you would approve. In fact you’d tell me to grab life by the balls with both hands and give it a vigorous shake!
The importance of living with my whole heart right now, seems to be a lesson I come back to again and again. It is easier to think and learn than do.
I don’t think it’s just me. Life is not something we’re much good at – it is hard to keep its value right under our noses, to live each day joyfully peering into an abyss, so we shuffle in and out of making the moments matter. We okey-cokey in and out.
As I write I can imagine how you’d look listening. Fingers steepled, leaning forward, old eyes on mine, looking for the signs of what I might not be saying. It was always hard to wriggle round that look.
You’d say ”keep on at it”… I guess sometimes it really is that simple.