The local Bangladeshi community doesn’t see many white expatriates, in the flesh, out of doors, on the street. They see us flash past in minibuses and four-wheel drive SUVs, plastered with the logos of aid organisations, with little steel pennants on the front wing for a flag.
Occasionally they catch a glimpse of MSF expats walking from our team house to the office or buying ice cream from a local shop. Otherwise, they only see expats when they are ill and need to visit our clinics in the camp.
MSF has a strict security policy, restricting where and when we can roam. I often take a morning constitutional around the paddy fields and market area, as this has been designated a safe area.
I like interacting with the locals. Despite speaking only a handful of Bangladeshi (or “Chittagongi” in this area) words, I can get by with pidgin English and lots of sign language. I hadn’t had a proper haircut since July (done by a Pakistani barber in Green Lane Road, Leicester), so when I finished clinic early last week, I went into Ukhiya to look for a barbershop. Unlike Delhi, there aren’t any barbers plying their trade on the pavement. Well, Ukhiya doesn’t actually have any roadside pavement yet. I was given some general directions by a friend so I managed to find the shop easily.
I am quite used to being the object of people’s curiosity. They don’t glance surreptitiously at me; it is a full-on, open-mouthed stare. I engage with the starers, greeting them and they are obliged to interact: “Salaam Alaykum.” “Alaykum Salaam.”
When I walked into the hairdressers, all the clipping stopped for a moment as the barbers noticed a foreigner in their midst. Even the customers were eyeing up my reflection in the mirrors. But the boss ushered me into a seat and within a few seconds, everything went on as before.
There was an old television fixed up high in the corner of the room showing a Banglawood movie. After some sharp words from the boss, a minion came over, picked up the remote and started stabbing at it. He had been told to look for a foreign station. The only one was a sports channel, showing grainy video of a football match. How about that for hospitality?
One of the barbers came over and established I wanted a haircut. He tied a tissue around my neck and draped me with a plastic cape. Now the difficult bit. What kind of cut do I want? Most Bangladeshis have a short back and sides, some with quite elaborate styling on top. My barber, Mr Sharma, had a good style. I pointed at his hair, then at my hair and smiled. No joy.
How much did I want off? I said, “Chota,” which means “a little bit”. “Speak Hindi?” he asked and rattled off a few phrases which I didn’t understand. Then I played my trump card. I knew the Chittagongi/Rohingya word “alpo”, which also means small. “Trim, small, alpo, understand?”
He nodded and set to work with comb and scissors on one side of my head. After five minutes, I came to the conclusion that alpo meant leave a little, rather than cut off a little. We had crossed the Rubicon now, so I let him continue.
Every now and then, the television commentator got excited and instinctively I turned my head towards the TV screen to see who had scored. The barber grabbed my head and repositioned it as he wanted. I suppose the TV is for the benefit of those waiting, rather than those being scalped.
Mr Sharma kept clipping. I now knew his first name, Liton (or maybe Lytton). He could see I was sweating in the sultry heat, so he turned a fan onto me. This made my hair fly up so he sprayed it with water to keep it in place.
I was reassured when he used a new razor blade to shave the edges and clean up my neck down to the shoulder blades. He soothed the razor burn on my neck using a machine like a large shaving brush, which vibrated and showered me with talcum powder.
My rampant eyebrows were trimmed and he dealt with my nostrils and ears. I probably paid extra for the obligatory head, neck and shoulder massage – the full Monty. There was some discussion over the price. Locals pay about 50 taka, 75 if the salon is air-conditioned, and 100 -150 taka in the big city, Cox’s Bazar. I gave Liton 100 and he was happy (about 90p).
The haircut took about 45 minutes, and it was getting dark as I left the shop. Outside, a group of children sitting on a handcart started giggling as I walked past. They had been watching the performance. I didn’t have time to chat, so I walked briskly back to the house, wondering how hilarious my new haircut was. It looked fine in the salon…
Yesterday, I was waiting at the roadside for an ambulance coming from the clinic with a seriously ill patient. It was 7:30am and I attracted a crowd before a man shoo-ed people away. We chatted. He understood why I was there and was able to explain to all the curious bystanders. They were satisfied. He had 100kg of green chillies in four burlap sacks. In the mouth of each sack was stuffed some fresh grass. A goat joined us and kept nibbling on the grass. I wanted to see what would happen if it ate a chilli, but the man waved it away. A little boy dressed in his Friday-best white outfit came over to practise his English. A grizzled old rickshaw driver was also curious. He cycled past a few times, then came over to make my acquaintance. I tried asking him how old he was. He understood my age but didn’t know his own. The frame of his cycle rickshaw said “A Long Life”.
A succession of barrel wallahs passed me. The low sunlight made photography difficult and I should have used video to capture their bouncing gait, in synch with the oscillations of the bamboo pole across their shoulders. The trick is for them to keep moving.
The ambulance arrived and I accompanied the patient to Cox’s Bazar.
PS This piece was written a month ago when I was still working in Bangladesh.