Why going home is hard: it can’t be everything

We just got back from a trip back to Australia, and after two and a half weeks of whirlwind visits to four cities in three states, almost daily partying and celebration with friends and family, a redeye flight to Kuala Lumpur, a 16-hour layover and a couple of days of truly staggering jetlag, I’m taking stock of what it meant to be home.

I won’t lie, it was hard to leave. Sydney harbour glittered in the summer sun, the bush south of Adelaide crackled underfoot and yielded the gorgeous wines of the McLaren Vale, and the beach in my hometown was an endless yellow strip of sand that I had all to myself. I saw my family for the first time in months, saw one of my best friends who is about to become a mum, another who has been living overseas for two years, had a surprise visit from an old bestie and went to a fabulously happy wedding. And not least importantly, everything just felt so easy. I knew which trains to catch, I didn’t have to worry about what I was wearing, I could sit on the grass in a park and know that no one would question why I was there. It was like a festival of the best that home has to offer.

But something was nagging at me while I was there – it wasn’t all falling into place. I had wanted to do so many things and couldn’t fit it all in – for months I’d fantasised about sleeping in, relaxing on the beach, walking through Sydney city, going to the movies, getting up early and going for runs, seeing everyone I missed, hitting the town and having a few white wines, playing with the family dog, going shopping … But it gradually became obvious that it wasn’t possible to do all those things, not least because some of them were mutually exclusive (sleep in and get up early for yoga?). I wanted home to be everything it had ever been to me. Everything I couldn’t have in Bangladesh, all in the space of three weeks.

And that’s how I realised something important: you can’t live somewhere else and have one foot at ‘home’. While you’re away you need to let go of the wonderful things that make up home, and accept that while you’re gaining a new country and all the wonderful experiences it has to offer, you’re also going to lose some things. You’ll miss your sister’s birthday, the best part of summer, and maybe the birth of a nephew. You won’t be physically able to bring back a supply of cheese big enough to keep you happy until next time you’re back. Some things have to stay behind when you leave. With our suitcases packed with olives and wine and our cameras full of pictures of our most beloved people, we try to combat this reality, but there’s nothing we can do: you can’t bring home with you – and you can’t live a whole life in three weeks.

It’s good to be back in the Desh, living the life that I have here. But I’ve learned to think differently about home: those precious weeks back in Aus are important, but they don’t need to span the emotional sea of the intervening months. Between here and there, I live two lives interleaved, not two lives simultaneously. Now I know that, maybe next time going home won’t be so hard.

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It’s beginning to feel a … bit … kinda … like Christmas?

I don’t know how I failed to see it coming, but in case you didn’t know, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. There’s something about being in Dhaka that has deprived me any of the normal cues that would remind me to buy presents, put up a tree, cover my desk in tinsel, stockpile obscene amounts of food or otherwise empty my bank account. The supermarkets aren’t piping out cheesy Bing Crosby carols, the streets full of fairy lights are completely standard Bangladeshi decorations (so nothing out of the ordinary), and I have so far seen only two plastic deer in restaurant foyers. Christmas has come out of nowhere and it’s weird.

Like many people from the southern hemipshere, my idea of Christmas is a bit all over the shop. In theory, Christmas is about sleigh bells, mittens, and other things Julie Andrews likes to sing about, and while the festive seasons of my childhood were filled with the nostalgia of fake snow and pine trees, they were also defined by long days, endless swims at the beach, sunburn and paddlepops, and perfumed by a heady mix of sunscreen, mangos, frangipanis and pine needles.

In Dhaka, without the glaring sunshine and water-based fun of home, or the wintery wonderlandy cliche of Europe, I’m feeling a bit bewildered. What do you mean, it’s Christmas? I’m in a thin cardigan. I’m not remotely prepared to eat my weight in Terry’s chocolate oranges! I don’t even know where to source one!

At least people know that it’s a special time of year for us bideshis. We get a public holiday for “The Merry Christmas” as it’s commonly and adorably called, and my very sweet colleague Marium even gave me a Christmas present of some red and green earrings. A small minority of local people are Christian and celebrate themselves – Johnny, a friendly guy who serves at the counter of our work canteen, invited me to visit his family to celebrate – Bengali hospitality at its finest.

We do already have plans for Christmas day though – in a time-honoured expat tradition, we’re gathering together as each other’s substitute family to eat and drink and make merry. This year, that merriment will take place on a boat, floating about on the Buriganga River, just outside Dhaka. It seems fitting – we might not have all the traditions and trappings of home, but out on the water, sharing a homemade and crowd-sourced picnic, drinking the last of our duty free and wearing the hilariously ugly jumpers we found at the market, it’ll be a perfectly Bangladeshi Christmas.

Later…: Merry Christmas, everyone!

On a boat!

Your Cox’s Bazar

[warning: really long post, but I promise there are pictures]

So the joke goes, ‘Where do you go if you’ve got a strange penis? Cox’s Bazar!’

A couple of weekends ago we flew down to the world’s longest beach to find out for ourselves what all the fuss and puns were about. Near the Myanmar border, Cox’s is a fishing town at the north end of a beach that runs all the way down the pointy bit of Bangladesh’s eastern tip.

down here

Down here.

We flew United. Even my Bangladeshi colleagues pulled concerned faces when I told them which airline we were going with – I quickly learned that when you’re told ‘it’s not that bad’ by a Bengali you should prepare yourself for certain doom.

After work, and a few beers down at the American club, one Canadian friend recounted a horror story about his experiences with United: ‘There was no air conditioning. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I had a hangover, but I actually passed out from the heat.’ Another friend chimed in to say that when he had flown United, they hadn’t shut the door – but they didn’t fly too high, so the air pressure wasn’t affected. ‘It was OK. I thought we were going to die at first, but really it was fine.’

Mother of God.

I was relieved to find when we got on the plane that there was a large yellow pipe pumping delicious, cool air conditioning into the cabin. No such terrible luck here. Now we just needed to keep the doors shut and everything would be fine.

Of course, I shouldn’t have counted my chickens – when we were all seated, the yellow umbilical cord to survival was ripped away from us and we started to slowly braise in our own sweat. The sense of impending disaster wasn’t helped when we were handed our in-flight snacks, which advertised opportunities for pilot training, no questions asked.

United Airways, Bangladesh

‘Fly your own Airline’? Thank you, but I’d really rather someone qualified was steering this thing

One hour and 376km later, we stumbled out onto the tarmac and caught a tuk-tuk to the Mermaid Resort (battery-powered tuk-tuks are more popular here than the usually ubiquitous CNGs). While our friends booked out the Mermaid Beach resort, we checked into the Mermaid Eco resort, dumped our bags and attempted to relax, despite being walking pools of sweat.

Taking it easy... but in 40 degree heat

Taking it easy… in 40 degree heat

The Mermaid is exactly what you would expect to happen if you described resort-quality beachside cabins and a laid-back surfer lifestyle to someone who had never experienced neither. The result: bamboo huts with names like ‘awesome cucumber’ and ‘liquid elephant’.

Liquid Elephant

Our hut’s name. Concerned about the local elephantine population’s bowel movements.

But there was a certain charm.

Eco Mermaid Resort

Not bad, Bangladesh, not bad.

smoothie bar.

smoothie bar. Just don’t ask for  smoothie, things get complicated when you do that.

Cute details.

Cute details.

The ‘beach’ is actually the ‘high-tide’ edge of a 2-km stretch of very flat, tidal sand, meaning that at low tide we couldn’t actually see the ocean…

drinks on the beach

low tide: drinks on the beach

gin gin gin

gin gin gin

The curly, local fishing boats sit in the river at low-tide.

Local fishing boats

Local fishing boats

Going fishing.

Going fishing.

We caught a smaller river boat (like the ones above) across to a different beach to go for a swim. Fully clad (leggings, long t-shirt), I was still a novelty, and as we walked down the beach past a small village, several pairs of watchful, cautious eyes followed us. The kids, on the other hand, who were having a great time using chunks of polystyrene as boogie boards, were very friendly and seemed completely thrilled to bits when we managed to squeeze out our meagre Bangla: ‘Salam alykum! Kemon achen?’ (Not sure our Bangla teacher would be so thrilled as this was all we could muster).

No pictures of the lovely kids, I’m afraid – I didn’t have my camera with me and as they were naked I could hardly post them here anyway!

Back on our side of the river, we walked down over the (very wide) beach to look for crabs. They were super shy but I managed to chase one away from the safety of available crab-holes and down the beach:

Crab hunting: Sebastien is real.

Crab hunting: Sebastien is real.

A few fishing shacks lined the beach:

love shack

love shack

At night we found these little pools of light along the beach, where people were panning through metal tubs of seawater the same way you’d look for gold. One of our friends had better Bangla than the rest of us and translated their conversation: apparently he was panning for tiny baby prawns, which they ship inland to be raised in prawn farms for 4 months before maturing and becoming delicious garlic-lime prawn snacks.

panning for prawns

panning for prawns

A group of 24 bideshis  was bound to attract a bit of attention, and more than once we wondered if the resort staff were actually following us around. We weren’t sure until we got home and someone noticed new photos going up on the Mermaid Beach Resort Facebook page, which conclusively proved the paparazzi activity:

stalker cam

Stalker cam 1

stalker cam 2

Stalker cam 2

stalker cam 3

Stalker cam 3

It’s hard to love a beach pretty much anywhere when you’re from Australia. We have all been spoilt for beaches, for wide open spaces and peace and quiet. But as far as a quick weekend away from the hectic chaos of Dhaka goes, Cox’s made a nice escape. Weird penises and all.