With a small travel bag and Orhan Pamuk's ‘The Naïve and the Sensitive Novelist’, I started my first ever solo trip (inside the country) towards Cox's Bazar for official training. I was thrilled, scared and amused. Since I had not thought of going anywhere amid the coronavirus pandemic, Cox's Bazar felt like a blow of fresh air.
No wonder, everything there was 'normal' in Cox's Bazar as it is in Dhaka, in literally no time at all after lockdown. The city was in full of party mood-- weekends were full of tourists, everyone was enjoying their time beside the beach, having ice-cream, crab fries, posing to capture the memory of travel amid the 2020 pandemic to show their grandchildren that they did not give a damn of coronavirus, playing football besides the beach, chilling and drinking coconut water and the list goes on.
Meanwhile, half of the road in the city was blocked for construction work and the better half was stuck in traffic-- exactly like Dhaka. According to a local friend's justification—“We are tired of lockdown and maintaining distance. Now we will fight, whatever happens, enough is enough!”
Social distancing was a blessing in disguise for introverts like me. The anxiety that I got rid of (almost) amid COVID-19 is that people would not come too close or touch me in a friendly or unfriendly way in the middle of a conversation. As a woman, I have always lived with layers of fear (do not dare to roll your eyes here and ask why). I, therefore, felt free (almost) from my fear of getting touched. Then happened Cox's Bazar.
As I was wearing gloves, mask, face shield. No one else in the locality (no one means no one) had any personal protective equipment. I understood the true meaning of "people are strange when you are stranger."
The silsila of feeling strange started immediately before my flight from Dhaka airport. After crossing all the 'strict' airport security measurements, when I was about to board, I noticed a small hassle over a family who took a four-years-old almost inside the plane without any boarding pass. How come they reached that far is a wonder though. The airport security system maybe was in a queue for its morning coffee. It is hard to wake up before a coffee kick, I believe.
Yet I was happy seeing an empty seat beside mine. Alas! Happiness does not last long. In a minute, another young mother-son duo invades that empty sit. She was not comfortable in her seat because a stranger who happens to be a man was sitting next to her. Of course! What have men done to gain our trust! Whatever.
Coming back to the duo—the lady was covered head to toe but forgot (I assumed) wearing a face mask herself, let alone the kid. The kid was even barefoot. On top of that, he was chewing chocolate and running from east to west inside the plane.
Being generous or abiding by the sense of hospitality, the flight attendant asked if I would like to change my seat to continue reading my book comfortably. Before could she finish her sentence I said "yes". The woman beside me happily said, "Apa, apni onno kothay jeye boshle amra ma-chele ektu aaram kore boshte partam." (Sister, if you could sit somewhere else, my son and I would sit comfortably.)
Five minutes after changing my seat, a feminist inside me saw a subtle manipulation here. I could have asked them to change their seat. Sigh, it was easy to be wise after the event!
Finally, when I reached the sea, it was already evening. I was amazed by the changing colour of the sky. People were enjoying bathing in the sea after the lockdown. The sand became a mirror after the golden sky reflected on it. Just like all the other women in the world, I never miss a chance to see my face in the mirror. There I saw my face, the dubious one without a face mask, who was criticising others in her mind for not wearing a face mask. As per Pamuk's analogy, I found myself ‘sentimental’ while judging others, but in my case, I was ‘naïve’ (defence mechanism). I thought, I practice what I preach, silly me!
However, my epiphanic journey could have ended here, but it did not. It was full of irony too. While my journey was upon free will, my fate did not allow me to roam the city, taste seaside fish barbecue, crab fries, Salt's coffee, Sayeman's red wine, Mermaid's breakfast with five different fresh juices! The Ted Mosby of Cox's Bazar, planned all these for the Robin from Dhaka, who went to quarantine immediately after she arrived in the city. A surprise, indeed!
P.S: What makes me not to travel inside my country alone? Well, it's fear. I do not feel safe. Why? You can open any Bangladeshi newspaper and see, women here are not safe, not even with a husband. I understand, we live in Bangladesh.
The writer is Communication and Advocacy Manager, Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), and, trying to cope up with the irony of fate!