Here we are three years later, packing, getting ready to leave Bangladesh. When you are the spouse of a diplomat, this is your fate. To come and go.
My husband and I arrived in Dhaka in February 2015. I had taken early retirement to be with my husband on his last UN assignment. When I worked for the UN, I remember sending correspondence via diplomatic pouch to Dhaka, and Bangladesh seemed so far, far away. Not that I didn't know anything about it. When I was a student in England, in my late teens, I remember walking in the streets of London and seeing in the front page of a newspaper, the photo of a child with his hand cut off, a victim of the War of Independence. That picture haunted me for a long time. But Bangladesh still seemed so far away.
We were in Canada, when my husband told me that he was being considered for a position in Dhaka. “Oh, but it is 11 time zones away!” I exclaimed. But he was enthusiastic about coming back to Asia, where he had travelled as a young man. I quit my job, and here we were in Dhaka, renting an apartment, looking for furniture, buying curtains… We felt as if we were getting married and setting house for the first time.
My first impression of Dhaka, after landing, was seeing a rickshaw for the first time. It was something that I had seen only in documentaries, or in programmes of National Geographic. “A rickshaw!!” I exclaimed, feeling terribly excited.
As time went by, we became familiar with Bangladeshi life: how to protect ourselves from the inclement heat and humidity, the terrific traffic jams and the waves of mosquitoes (my husband considers himself Bangladeshi because he had a bout of dengue fever).
I was lucky that I was able to travel with him to Khulna, the Sundarbans, Jessore, Sylhet, to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hills, Cox's Bazar and to Teknaf to take the ferry to St Martin's Island.
I can say that during my short stay I was lucky that I was able to travel around and got to know the landscapes and people of Bangladesh.
When we travelled to Sylhet, it was autumn and I fully understood the poem of Tagore:
In Autumn, Oh mother mine,
in the full-blossomed paddy fields,
I have seen spread all over - sweet smiles!
Ah, what beauty, what shades, what an affection
and what tenderness!
And here is what I would like to say in this goodbye. It is said that you don't walk a path without being influenced for the rest of your life by what you encounter in that path. What I found in that path was the enormous resilience of Bangladeshis. They work and toil from sunup to sundown to gain the bread for themselves and their families. They are always busy. If you walk in Gulshan Road, you never see anyone just standing. Everybody is busying themselves from here to there. Bangladeshis do not expect anyone to take care of them. They can fend for themselves with courage and fearlessness and without self-pity.
One day I came to our apartment, and I found a young man repairing our air conditioner unit, sitting on top of it, without any safety equipment, with eight floors of open space below him. I was horrified and asked him to come inside immediately, and he did so, but not before he had finished his job.
I saw from the window of the hotel we stayed in when we arrived, a couple, husband and wife, probably in their late 50s. He was a bricklayer, and worked on the 7th floor, standing with sandals in a flimsy bamboo scaffolding, while his wife would bring bricks tied up with a piece of cloth to her back. I was so moved by this—by their courage and what seemed to be a true husband/wife partnership.
I loved to watch the terraces of the buildings around our apartment. At sundown, all the children go out to play in the roofs, and in some of the faraway terraces you could see some people walking back and forth, doing exercise. Maybe they cannot afford to go to a gym, but being in the roof at sundown is better than a gym. My favourite memory of watching terraces in Dhaka was one morning when I saw a young girl dancing in her terrace. Probably she thought no one was watching her, and she must have been happy and she made me happy, too.
It was wonderful to go out in the evening with my husband and see Gulshan transformed into a sort of fairyland with all the twinkling little lights adorning trees and buildings in anticipation of a wedding. Dhaka is a city that can be daunting during the day, but at night it transforms itself.
And then Bangladesh makes me think of the light of the stars. It takes many years for the light of the stars to reach earth, and what you see has passed a long time ago. Whenever I see a rickshaw, I think that I am watching something that will be seen only in museums many years from now. This colourful means of transportation, in the form that it is now in Bangladesh, will disappear very soon, replaced by the modern rickshaws I have already seen in the streets of Paris, Geneva and New York. What you see now in Bangladesh is a genuine culture that slowly will pass away. The world is like that, and advancement is inevitable.
So, I say goodbye, to all and each one of you that I have come into contact with in Bangladesh. It was nice to have met you. I will take from you your resilience and your goodwill.
Martha Isabel Alvarado Watkins is the wife of the outgoing Resident Coordinator of the United Nations, Robert Watkins, and has worked with the United Nations in New York and Geneva with the UN Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.