For the first time in months I was eager to leave a country. The dizzying traffic, oil soaked street-food, and the lethargic lifestyle of rickshawing around Dhaka city had snowballed to a critical mass. I’d begun to cancel plans because I couldn’t stomach more than one two-hour commute per day. My teeth stung from the excessive chai I choked down as an excuse to avoid the midday heat. Even when I did manage to escape the city, its annoyances continued to haunt me: Bangladeshi infrastructure is built in a way so that all roads lead back to Dhaka. The sticky capital was the hangover at the end of each weekend away.
One evening, Marguerite and I sat on her balcony over-looking the smoky bazaar and discussed what made the city so unbearable. I complained about beggars; I’d witnessed extreme poverty before and had long ago established a set of personal ethics on when to and when not to give out food or money. But without the obvious scams present in well-touristed countries my regular barrier of apathy seemed harder than ever to erect. One week earlier, while I waited for an over-priced Americano in the affluent neighbourhood of Gulshan, a young boy approached me and peeled back the bandage on his foot to expose nest of bones and puss. Immediately, I knew I had to get out.
“Well,” Marguerite said, matter of factly. “If it makes you
feel any better, by now he’s probably dead.”
The first time I saw a dead body I was 22 years old. I was 10 minutes from my apartment near the gentrified end of Nairobi's Kibera slum when I came across him, sprawled across the roadside. The skin on his face looked like velvet rubbed raw.
My first reaction was that something needed to be done. But as commuters poured past, stepping around the body as nonplussed as though it were a crack in the sidewalk, I knew nothing would be. My reaction was more out of place in that street than the body. Try not to stand out, I remembered the advice of a man who’d hired me a few weeks earlier, and did my best to match the flow of traffic. I was clumsily conscious of the height to which I needed to raise my leg as I stepped over the corpse, arms stretched full length above its head. It was as if this man’s final instinct were to make himself as large as possible in the face of death.
Prior to Nairobi, death existed in my life only as an abstraction. I recognized the occasional name in the obituaries, had lost three of four grandparents to old age, and distributed hugs when those around me suffered a similar loss. Death felt strange in what it represented—permanent and mysterious—but never the world-shattering event people made it out to be. While managing a retirement home for five years, my biggest fear was walking in on a dead body. But that reaction had more to do with the thought of delivering the news to the resident’s family than anything else. So why was it that the man in the streets of Nairobi had such an overwhelming effect?
“I’m surprised how little you’ve changed,” Marguerite said when I first arrived in Bangladesh. We sat on a ship-deck in Khulna harbour, dawn burning through the mist. It had only been eight months since we'd last seen each other but long-term travel comes wrapped in expectations. After my trip to Africa, I'd had a similar conversation with a man who grew up smuggling money across boarders for his drug-dealing father before a stint of homelessness in Montreal.
“Those experiences must have been life changing."
“I think every second of your life is, provided you’re actually living it.”
I do agree that travel inevitably causes us to rethink our priorities. It's once we step away from home that we realize how heavily our moral compass is culturally defined. And although I’d occasionally had my needle sent spinning—four months in Mediterranean Europe caused me to renounce aspects of North American materialism, a few weeks in the Philippines made me fall in love with the minimalism of life on the road—I’d never completely realign my Canadian sensibilities. In truth, I’d never found anything wrong with them. Like life-long fears or language skills, I believe certain things are instilled in us very firmly from a young age. And while I was forced to continually examine my world view as I ricocheted between Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian households, I only developed a firmer sense of comfort in certain values I'd been blessed with. The more I was forced to entertain new perspectives the more I realized how trans-cultural the really important things—empathy, trust, self-identity, and confidence—really are. The rest takes a bit more time.
They say you never really get over things, you only get used to them. Unnatural death, as I'd witnessed it countless times since that day in Nairobi was something I was still getting used to. Crippling poverty, another. Although I’d chosen to let objectivity guide my charity, every sorry was still a struggle.
Around the same time I decided to start calling myself a writer I underwent a substantial perspective shift. As my experience became something to be mined for narratives, I realized how much I witnessed day to day. I became aware of how every decision I made—how I reacted in all those situations—had a larger impact in those narratives' arcs. Conscientiousness and retrospection are key to making sense of the story we call life. Five weeks sweltering through the Bangladeshi streets had provided me with the former. But in order to fully process it I needed time.
I’d meant for my next destination to be Cairo. I bought a
ticket but a coup d’état occurred on the day of my scheduled departure so I
searched a flight to Vancouver that coincided with my mom’s birthday and
punched in my credit card number before someone had the chance to change my mind. For
the first time, I stayed up for the entire trans-Pacific flight. Seven months
of perspective kicked around the back of my head, excitement butting heads
with regret. As our airbus sliced through the belly of the clouds, it looked as though we were flying toward the edge of the world.