I suffered a major pang of first-world, post-colonial guilt the other night, occasioned by a coconut palm and a jacuzzi. I will leave you speculating on the mechanics of that for a moment while I explain the background:
I wrote in my last post that I was in Bangladesh. This is only partially true: I cross a few hundred yards of Bangladesh twice a day, en route between a five-star hotel and an air-conditioned office. I can see Bangladesh through plate-glass windows. I can hear it teeming, bustling, wailing and honking outside. I can smell its polluted air, its lack of adequate sewage and habits of public urination and defecation as I scurry to and fro; but I am not in it, in any meaningful sense.
And how could I be? I can't speak or read the language, I don't know my way around, I have little idea of what I could be interested in if I cared. And like so many western business travellers, I too easily delude myself that this sterile, cocooned existence counts as experiencing a country.
But I know deep inside that have no excuse. For when I was young and energetic and had more time than money, I travelled properly. I spent years living in a developing country; I spoke its language fluently, socialised entirely with its people and studied its culture to a high degree. I subsisted exclusively on its food and suffered its endemic diseases in all their sweating, puking unpleasantness. I rode its crowded public transport and tramped its chaotic, dusty streets and got to know it intimately well. Ultimately, I married a local girl and made an attempt to settle down; until gun-toting, head-stamping, ethnic-minority-burning chaos reared its ugly head and we decided that moving to the UK would be a better idea in the long-run.
And through all this I self-indulgently allowed myself a fair measure of mixed pity and contempt for well-heeled foreigners who gave it a week or so, sticking grimly to the same coachload of their own kind, staying in luxury hotels, whizzing round sights of interest in a crocodile of clicking cameras and hideous shirts before returning to the luxury hotel for a swim. I really knew the place - I told myself conceitedly - while they did not.
I also vowed to myself that I would never become shallow enough to visit a country whose language I did not speak. And here I am, 20 years down the line, becoming what I despised; though in my half-hearted defence I am here to work and not to travel per se; and the work is going well.
The night before last, I returned from the office feeling somewhat rumpled and went for a swim in the hotel pool before dinner. From over the wall I could hear and smell Bangladesh, but inside the hotel compound all was carefully manicured luxury - coconut palms waved serenely over the surrounding gardens, stars shone in the blackness of a clear sky overhead, and a bat flittered manically over the pool scooping up as many whirring insects as it could manage.
I had the pool to myself; everyone else presumably having enough sense not to expose their pasty skin to the evening shift of mosquitoes. On a dais next to the pool stood an open-air jacuzzi, bubbling away invitingly; so I climbed out of the pool and started towards it, at which point a coconut detached itself from the tree and fell 5 metres or so onto the slabs, missing me by a worryingly small margin. (I used to think that the statistics showing that 'falling coconuts' are the major cause of untimely death on some Pacific Islands were funny - right up until the day that I was nearly hit by one. Those things are lethal, since they fall from such a great height - and the coconut per se is only the stone inside a much larger fruit with an aerodynamically sharp bottom edge...)
Should I complain? Should I point out the potential danger? "Good Lord man - never mind the millions of your compatriots living in grinding poverty and the daily body count caused by unsafe transport (that day a truckload of people rammed on an open level crossing; the next a river ferry capsizing with over 100 on board), have heed of that dangerous coconut palm next to the jacuzzi! Get your priorities straight!"
I said nothing, and was unable to sleep that night.