I wake up. Everything hurts. I feel like I’ve only slept for an hour. The snoring from my four roommates kept me awake despite my lack of sleep. When you’re sharing a very small room – we’re talking ten square metres or so – between five people, there’s a limit to what you can accomplish with earplugs.
The bed feels as if it’s made of stone. I’ve probably got the wooden board and lack of a mattress to thank for that. I’m also desperate for the loo – have been the whole night, in fact, but I’m unwilling to risk it, as there’s no electricity and the nights here are pitch black. The toilet – by which I mean the shed with a hole in the floor where you attend to the call of nature – is outside, and not particularly inviting even in daylight. In the dark you wouldn’t see so many details, of course, but I’m not sure whether that’s really more of a disadvantage.
As I’m on the toilet, I sense that peeing while crouching down is altogether too taxing for me. My thighs hurt, and there’s nothing to hold on to. The stench, the flies and my fear of anything that might suddenly start crawling over me as I hang over the hole, my trousers around my ankles, don’t do anything to facilitate the procedure.
The others are still asleep. I don’t know what time it is. I lie back down on my wooden bench-slash-bed, which actually belongs to a mother and child; they vacated the double bed especially for us. We try to silence our guilty consciences. There’s not much we could have done about it anyway: turning down a gesture of hospitality like that would have been taken as an insult.
The bed where we slept
The clock isn’t working at the moment.
The blue wooden house.
There’s a bed on the veranda.
The house is made of simple materials: wood and corrugated iron.
These ten square metres constitute the family’s whole house: mud walls covered in corrugated iron and straw, no windows. There’s another single bed in the room. It’s probably where Bobby’s aunt usually sleeps, but it’s currently home to one of his friends. All the family’s belongings are stored under the beds. Dishes, kitchen utensils, blankets and clothes.
They cook outside on the veranda, with a gas flame. There’s a third bed out there, where Bobby and another friend are sleeping. I wonder what happens when there’s a monsoon – doesn’t the mud house just dissolve?
Johannes wakes up.
‘We live in a palace’ are the first words I say to his ‘good morning’.
At home in Berlin we share eighty square metres between two people: three main rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and guest toilet. Electricity, warm running water, heating, plumbing – everything that for us is completely normal and here would be a real luxury.
I’ve become incredibly fond of the children of the family, even though communication is absolutely impossible.
I don’t speak any Bangladeshi, and they don’t speak any English.
He simply refused to believe that I didn’t speak any Bangladeshi, however, and rattled off a stream of questions.
We stole our bed from this adorable baby.
Despite numerous attempts, I never understood the how all the children were related to each other.
The blue wooden house is somewhat larger, but accommodates at least fifteen people. There’s no concept here of personal space or the comfort of your own bed. Blankets are laid down on the floor in the evenings, providing space for as many people as need it. I wonder how anybody manages to conceive children, given that no-one has any privacy.
Water they get from their fish farm next door. The children plunge their toothbrushes into the murky water without hesitation. ‘Oh my god, no!’ I want to scream, but I suppress my intuitive reflex. It’s normal here.
Normal – what a relative term that is, though it’s supposed to mean a universal commonality.
Clearly every society and every country has its own customs, its own normality. The way Bobby’s family lives is perfectly normal here.
The only permanent private house in the area belongs to a family friend. He owns numerous fish farms, also breeding crabs and shrimp. The business is doing well. He’s got a two-storey house and a large vegetable and flower garden, with an ornamental pond and lots of coconut trees.
We’re given an extensive tour of the house, with its kitchen, toilet and bathroom. Johannes accompanies the man of the house and I the lady, so that no misunderstandings arise – the furnished bedroom on the upper floor will also be proudly presented. There’s no running water yet, but there are solitary light bulbs hanging from the ceiling on the ground floor.
Fish masala and as much fresh coconut water as we like are provided as a snack.
The family invested all their money into building the house; nothing’s been kept back for tough times, Bobby tells us. You’d never know it to look at them that they starve sometimes, when the farm doesn’t produce enough fish.
The head of the household with his son and a coconut specially fetched for me from the tree, though I tried vehemently to make it clear that it really wasn’t necessary.
Fish masala. The verdict: delicious and spicy.
Me with the lady of the house
and her mother. It’s common in Bangladesh to live with your parents.
Curious onlookers and Bobby (far right). Here people proceed quite happily on the principle that everyone photographs everyone else.
We head off towards Khulna, back into the city. Our three days in the countryside are over – somehow it all went very quickly, yet I’ve come back with more intense impressions than almost ever before.
From our comfortable armchairs in the West, we tend to condemn the Bangladeshis for wiping out the tigers in the Sundarbans, without engaging with the reality of the situation for people living here. My encounter with them has shown me once more that every topic has two sides, both of which need to be taken seriously. Only a holistic approach, like the one taken by Wildteam with their ‘Mother Sundarbans’ project, can lead to a satisfactory solution.
I’m happy. I had an exhausting but wonderful time with Bobby’s family, who even ended up inviting us back for Christmas. I was actually a little drawn to the idea, because here it’s about spending time together, with no lengthy discussions about food, gifts or decorations. Still, we wouldn’t really be able to relax and enjoy it, as we’d be getting in the family’s way over the holidays. I’m quite sure, even though they haven’t let it show, that they’re all looking forward to having their beds back.
Just as I’m looking forward to being back in a hotel, lying on a comfy bed, sitting on a toilet and taking the most wonderful shower of my life.
I’ve never valued hot running water more highly.
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Translation by Caroline Waight