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I could never wrap my head around why my grandparents preferred living in Bangladesh over Canada. I mean, come on, Canada has maple syrup, poutine and hockey! Meanwhile, Bangladesh has … what? What’s the appeal? But hey, to each their own, I guess. Maybe they just really like humidity, dust and mosquitoes.
My first memory of travelling to Bangladesh came when I was 6, I gazed out the airplane window and saw a thick, eerie haze hovering over the entire country. It was clouds of dust, but not like any dust I’d seen before. But, that’s not even the craziest part. As I strolled down the streets of Bangladesh, I found myself surrounded by a sea of humanity – thousands upon thousands of people going on about their day. And, where there are people, there is noise; the incessant ringing of rickshaw bells, the constant honking of car horns and the shuffling of feet on the pavement. It never stopped and kept me awake at night.
I had just arrived from my quiet and peaceful neighbourhood in Ottawa, and Bangladesh was everything Ottawa is not: loud, noisy, dusty and busy.
However, on a more recent trip to Bangladesh, something just felt … different. Maybe it was because I was finally old enough to enjoy the thrill of the adventure.
I was amazed by the way in which people completed their daily tasks. I saw locals carrying huge, heavy pots, about knee height, on their heads. I can only imagine the exceptional balancing skills that would require – something beyond my capabilities.
But now I’m 14, and on a recent trip I was able to see the country from a new perspective. Discovering the delights of the Bangladesh streets on foot with my family was a surreal experience. It was like a never-ending carnival, where every street corner was a stage with cars honking, blaring music and the scents of street food mingling in the air. Every night, we ventured out, eating in restaurants and bakeries. As we made our way around Dhaka, the country’s capital, vendors beckoned us to sample their street food or check out their tiny, cramped shops lining the roadside. Amidst the adventure, I even witnessed someone riding a full-sized elephant, casually strolling alongside cars and pedestrians in the street. Now, that’s not a sight you see every day – certainly not in Ottawa!
Spending quality time with my grandparents was also a priority. I joined my grandpa on the couch while he watched his TV shows, cracking jokes and bonding over our mutual love for cheesy comedies. Afterward, I lent a hand to my grandma in the kitchen, helping her whip up delicious meals including Bangladesh’s national dish, shorshe ilish (which is hilsa fish covered in mustard curry), as well as beef kala bhuna (a beef curry). Nothing beats my grandma’s cooking!
I also spent lots of time with my aunt and cousin, who live in the same apartment building as my grandparents. My aunt uses a wheelchair, and I was able to help her exercise. We sometimes spent hours chatting, joking around and going shopping together, something unfamiliar to my aunt, who typically spends most of her day sitting at home playing games on her phone or watching TV.
I met my 103-year-old great-grandmother. Though she uses a cane, she’s still strutting around, and I’m pretty sure she could outrun me in a race.
My family also visited a village where distant relatives reside. It was a stark contrast from the jam-packed streets in the city, with coconut and banana trees dotting the landscape and children playing barefoot in the mud amidst lush greenery.
On that trip to Bangladesh I was determined to cherish every moment. My heart ached because I knew that my time was limited. Unlike previous visits, my anxiety grew as my departure drew near.
The thought of embracing my grandparents for the last time made my throat tighten with sorrow. I could already envision my grandma’s tear-streaked face, as she clung to me, pleading for us to stay. Oh, how I longed either to continue my stay or take my grandparents back to Canada with me. But – as always – my grandma shook her head, smiling. She wasn’t going anywhere.
And for the first time, I understood. She couldn’t leave behind the country where she grew up, the memories it held, and, most importantly, her experiences and the people.
Despite having visited Bangladesh eight times previously, my latest two-week visit was a game changer. During this short period, my perception of the country underwent a drastic transformation, and I finally saw Bangladesh through my grandparents’ eyes. Despite the absence of familiar Canadian foods and customs, I embraced new delights, the tantalizing aromas of street food wafting through the air and the rush of adrenaline from the sheer excitement of a new adventure set my heart racing faster than the final minute of play in a hockey game.
Above all, what truly mattered was being surrounded by my loved ones. I understand now that nothing in the world could ever replace the warmth and joy of being with my family. I have a new appreciation for Bangladesh and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.
Arisha Islam lives in Ottawa.