Thursday, 19 February 2009

How self-centred am I?

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.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Raw stuff, Gyppo. I never realised that the coconut was such a deadly projectile. Mmmmm, yes, I can smell Calcutta again!

scarlet-blue said...

Oh, get over yourself Mr Gyppo!
*major PMT alert*
And count yourself lucky to have options. And also count yourself lucky that the coconut didn't hit you on the bonce.

No Good Boyo said...

I'm with Scarlet: Are you trying to earn yourself a regular column in The Independent or something?

The correct reponse was to fire the coconut into the lobby from the mortar launcher that you always carry on your person, with a note attached requiring a begum to split and fill it with Myers's rum jeldi jeldi, then bring it to you in the jacuzzi and perhaps linger doncher know.

For pity's sake man, think of the Regiment!

Mrs Pouncer said...

Yes, do show a bit of backbone, Gyppo. A similar fate can befall one anytime, anywhere. Yesterday, in Waitrose, I saw a narrow escape. A short man over-reached himself in the canned fish aisle and was beaned by a tin of John West Mackerel 'n Mayo. Another inch to the right, and he would've brought down a teetering display of cut-price calamari. Of course, his fellow shoppers laughed gaily, and some fossicked in their bags for their camera phones, dreaming of You Tube notoriety.
I know what you mean about feeling superior in a foreign land, though. In the 1960s (yes, I was a mere schoolgirl) I spent a part of each summer holiday in Karachi; not the most obvious destination, I know, but my aunt and uncle and favourite cousins lived there. It was my particular pleasure to schlep around Saddar as if I owned the place. The Govt offices were based there at the time, so I was never far from family if I needed them. Goodness, but I was a little git! Patronising, smug, pleased with myself. Wouldn't dare do it now btw.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Gyppo, you'd never have survived in the diplomatic service. Feel guilty by all means, old bean, but don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.

Gyppo Byard said...

You're all right, of course - even while I was writing that my inner colonel was shouting "PULL YER BALLY SELF TERGETHER! EK PINK GIN, JELDI-JELDI!"

Somewhere deep down, though, the ghost of my 20-something self - full of misplaced idealism that wearing ethnic-print clothes and playing world music together could achieve global peace and harmony - is sulking at having been so catastrophically wrong. Such is life. But I've now routed him out and thrashed him soundly with m'ridin' crop. Serves him right, the sanctimonious little tick. Onward and upward, eh what?

Mrs P - I trust you *did* manage to video this, and will share the link.

Dapphers - a true story about the diplomatic corps: In the late 1990s I was a 'warden' for the British community in the Indonesian province where I lived, and as the violence got worse I was in daily contact with the embassy in Jakarta. Most of the Brits in my neck of the woods were relatively crusty long-term residents who spoke the language, and we despised all the company-placemen in Jakarta who were running for the evacuation flights.

One of my best phone conversations ran like this:
FCO-type: Our current advice is to sit tight, and avoid university campuses.
Me: Oh.
FCO-type: What do you do?
Me: I'm a university lecturer.
FCO-type: Ah. Might be a bit sticky in your case. Tell yer what - why don't you toddle off and have a gin and tonic?
Me: Right away sah!
FCO-type: That's the ticket!

After it all calmed down, they decided it might be a good idea to draw up a proper evacuation plan, hence the GPS incident which I recently related on Boyo's blog.