Friday, June 26, 2009

The War on Bugs

As I lay sprawled naked and facedown on the bathroom floor, I realized that our war on bugs wasn’t going quite as well as I had hoped. I had just finished my morning shower and was feeling refreshed after another humid night of restless sleep. My rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” had almost been in tune, so I counted it a good morning. As with practically all of the bathrooms in Bangladesh, the entire room acts as the shower stall; there is no tub or enclosed area to contain it. The water flies everywhere during the shower and tends to collect on the tiled floor, so Kristel and I use a squeegee mop to push the water to the drain in the corner in an effort to dry the room a bit faster. Grabbing the squeegee, I made a swipe at the floor and out of the squeegee jumped a spider. Not a hairy tarantula or black widow, mind you. Just an ordinary house spider. Regardless of its small size, I jumped back out of instinct, completely forgetting for a moment that the floor was currently a skating rink. One foot went up in the air, soon to be joined by the other. Anyone watching me might have thought I was clicking my heels in joy. I timbered to the floor, somehow managing to avoid impaling myself on the squeegee or bashing my head on the sink on the way down. Even more miraculously, I avoided landing on the spider, which seemed remarkably unperturbed by the commotion. It crawled slowly away from the crash site, unprovoked by the four-letter words that I was hurling in its direction. Hearing the ruckus, Kristel arrived at the doorway and said, “Oh, fuckyducky.”, which I thought summed things up nicely. She peeled me off the floor and I checked to make sure all of my limbs were in working order. My right shoulder and hip took the worst of the fall and would be a purple and yellow mess in a few hours, but otherwise, all was fine. I picked up the squeegee and put it back in its corner, but not before using it to send the itsy-bitsy spider to join Charlotte in arachnid heaven.

Our apartment in Chittagong is a nice two-bedroom flat located across the street from the YPSA office. Having seen the small flats occupied by our colleagues and their families, we recognize that our apartment has an embarrassing amount of space for the two of us and count ourselves lucky. Soon after arriving, we christened it the “Maple Mill”, a name representing the combination of our Canadian and Dutch heritages in our new home. Located on the main level of the YPSA Guesthouse, we enjoy the benefits and deal with the challenges of being on the ground floor. One of the latter has certainly been the invasion of critters that pay us a visit on a daily basis.

Of our unwanted guests, the least objectionable have been the lizards. They race up and down the walls and provide a surprise that replaces coffee as our morning wake-up jolt. Generally no longer than five centimeters or so, they usually appear and vanish before we can get a good look at them. Often, they’re much smaller, and one has to almost touch one’s nose to the wall to get a good look at them. For a couple of weeks, one of them had taken up residency somewhere near the head of our bed, and it often serenaded Kristel and me with its series of clicks and trills. Despite the fact that they’re a bit of a nuisance and likely causing more destruction than we know, I’m still amused by them and can’t bring myself to kill any of them, especially the tiny ones. In the pantheon of pests, they are able to chalk up enough cuteness points to merit preservation.

As you might have gathered from the opening tale, spiders haven’t earned the same degree of consideration from me. Actually, with the exception of satisfying my need for revenge, I tend to be a compassionate host, though this kindness is driven more by self-interest than any real sense of benevolence toward my fellow creatures. My reasoning is that spiders catch and kill the more annoying bugs that we must endure, such as mosquitoes, so if given the choice, I’ll turn a blind eye or shoo them out of sight before Kristel sees them. She tends to be less accommodating when it comes to our eight-legged friends. I think it may have been the gigantic one that crawled up from under our stove top that was the last straw for her. When she told me about it later on, I actually felt some regret. Not over her killing it, but that I didn’t get to see the monster before she reduced it to a bad memory.

But the worst of our visitors have been the cockroaches. I know it’s not their fault that they were born creepy, but oooo-waaaa-gehhh. The mere sight of one of them skittering across the floor releases some primal urge to destroy. Or, in my case, to flee, especially when the roach seems to show a suicidal lack of direction and heads straight for my bare feet, at which point I do a dance step like I was auditioning for A Chorus Line. One night, after we had turned off the lights and started to drift off to sleep, my voyage to the land of Nod was interrupted by a bite on my foot. And this was no mosquito nibble. I jumped up and counted toes to make sure all my little piggies were still there. “Whassyoudoingsszzzz”, said Kristel. “Something just bit me!” I yelled, as though I had just suffered a shark attack, and we both grabbed for our flashlights at the same time, spraying spotlights over the inside of our mosquito net. Sure enough, a cockroach scurried up the side of the net closest to my head. Kristel and I looked at each other and thought the exact same thing: “Abandon Bed!” We dove through the net to safety and checked to see whether we were carrying any passengers. Standing on the outside of our formerly cozy bed, we weighed our options and decided that surrendering the bed to the little bastard for the night was not on the list. So, we shook the net and pulled it up to make sure the roach was really gone before we finally tucked the net back in and returned to bed, both of us careful not to put our heads too close to the net. Sleep returned slowly that night, as the slightest touch either of us received from the other was mistaken for the cockroach’s return and given a reflexive jump.

With the monsoon season now officially here, though not yet underway, we expect the number of visitors will rise as they head for the nearest dry ground. On the bright side, we’ve yet to see any sign of the rats or scorpions that were infrequent guests at our homes in Nigeria. But maybe we’re just not looking hard enough. In any event, we’ve reluctantly grown accustomed to sharing the Maple Mill with the local creatures and understand that they probably regard us as the unwelcome pests to be endured. I’m sure there will be a creepy-crawly celebration held on the day we finally pack our bags and leave them to enjoy their home in peace.

P.S. As this will be my last post before July 1st, a very happy Canada Day to my fellow amuck Canucks back home and abroad! I'll enjoy a Moosehead vicariously through you. Cheers!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Shave and a Haircut, Four Bits

The prospect of getting a haircut in a foreign country is a bit intimidating, especially at my age. Twenty years ago, I could afford to be a bit more cavalier about my choice of barber, secure in the knowledge that a bad haircut would only be a short-term embarrassment. But these days, with my hairline in full retreat and more new growth in my ears than on my head, I’ve become a bit more selective about who comes at me with a pair of scissors. This proved to be a challenge in Nigeria, as the phrase “bature hair” became synonymous with an impossible task for the resident hairdressers. The nature of foreigners’ hair was such a departure from the norm for the local salons that most could only make a best guess as to how to approach it, resulting in horror stories that were very amusing to those not in the barber’s chair. For this reason, I tended to put off my visit to the hairdresser for as long as possible, extending my usual monthly visit to quarterly or beyond. I wish I could say that the moptop that resulted from such a delay made me look like a holdover from Woodstock, but the truth is, the hair piled up only on the back and sides of my head, so I more closely resembled Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining”. Not quite the look I was going for. Eventually, I did manage to find a salon in Abuja that catered to ex-pats, so the results were much more to my liking, but the price of the cut made each appointment an extravagance on a volunteer’s salary, so I still only managed three visits over the course of the year.

So, it was with no lack of trepidation that I faced the same dilemma in Bangladesh. I wisely visited my trusted and true hairdresser in Toronto two days before I left to get a decent haircut and some consolation about the fate awaiting me overseas. His broken English always made him sound a bit like Tarzan, but I understood him well enough. “Yeah, them don’t know what them doing over there. Make you look like shit.” Point taken, King of the Jungle. Following the pattern established in Nigeria, I put off my first trim for as long as possible, but after four months, Kristel had begun to hide the sharp objects in the house and lock me out of the bedroom, so I knew the time had finally come.

One fact provided me with more confidence than I had ever felt in Nigeria. Surveying the heads of my colleagues here, I found their hair to be much more like my own. Only much more luxurious, damn them. Most Bangladeshi men my age boast a head of hair that would rival that of a Hollywood leading man. So, the only real risk might be that a barber accustomed to sturdier follicles would attack my head with his usual zeal and reduce my head to a moonscape. In order to mitigate this hazard, I strategically interviewed those coworkers who were less blessed when it came to dome coverage. No consensus resulted, but most pointed to a small salon around the corner from the office as the most convenient place to go. Steeling my nerve one afternoon at the close of the workday, I set out to meet my destiny.

An interesting quirk among barbershops in Bangladesh is that most of them prefer to call themselves salons, except that the majority misspell the word, adding an extra “o”. Given the general prohibition of alcohol in the country, it’s very funny to see the abundance of “saloons” open to the public. My saloon was located literally around the corner from our flat, a quick two-minute walk away. A commercial strip of stores has grown up there, but the shops are so small and the strip so short that it feels more cozy than imposing, a neighbourhood of its own. It’s become our drop-in centre when we’re too tired or lazy to do our shopping farther downtown. One of the shopkeepers has made a point of rewarding us with sweets whenever we come by to buy potatoes, onions or toilet paper. As an incentive, it works pretty well on me. We also trade vocabulary lessons with him, although it hasn’t progressed much past learning the words for potatoes, onions and toilet paper. Well, maybe just potatoes and onions. In any event, my focus this day was on something other than vegetables, so I passed his shop with a wave and the briefest of greetings.

Arriving at the salon, I slid the door open and was greeted with the usual shocked stares. The shop was not unlike any of the ones that might be found back home, and I was pleased to see plenty of mirrors so that I could keep tabs on the potential destruction. Taking a seat by the door, I smiled at the barber currently clipping another customer. In the corner, another fellow was enjoying a full facial that seemed to have relaxed him to the point of unconsciousness. A television set near the door occupied the attention of the barber and his customer, a Bollywood movie blaring at full volume. After a couple of minutes, the door slid open and a man entered. Looking at me sitting there, he sized me up and said, “Cut?” I hoped this meant he was another barber and not a travelling surgeon. I nodded and he motioned me to the lone unoccupied chair.

Covering me with layers of sheets to guard against the flying hair, my barber looked me in the eyes and said “Short?”, which is always an interesting question, no matter where the barber is located, since everyone has their own definitions of that word. Deciding that an explanation might cause more grief than a simple agreement, I nodded my head and helpfully gestured with my thumb and forefinger close together, though this really didn’t mean anything to me, either. Settling in to his work, my barber pulled out a pair of scissors that probably could have pulled double duty as hedge clippers. Actually, his approach to my head was not unlike creating a work of topiary, the scissors in constant motion and clacking perilously close to my ears. At certain points, the Bollywood movie would broadcast a particularly compelling moment and his attention would be drawn to the screen, but not at the expense of stopping what he was doing. Visions of my ear doing a van Gogh danced in my head, but I resisted the urge to flinch too much, sensing that any movement of my head might increase the danger. The main cut complete, I looked at the results and admitted that it looked alright. Taking a short break, my barber went to the air conditioner to spray an air freshener into it. Soon, the scent of a citrus rainfall filled the salon. At this point in the cut back home, an electric razor would be produced to provide the final trim, but the power cuts here would make that somewhat useless. So, my barber reached into the drawer for his trusty straight razor instead. “Your name isn’t Sweeney Todd, is it?” I wanted to ask, but I sensed that the joke, even if understood, probably wouldn’t have been appreciated. So, I remained as still as possible while the razor scraped its way around my head.

Signalling the end of the cut, my barber held up a mirror to show me the back of my head and I confirmed that it was still there. Actually, the cut looked as good as any I would have received back home, so I complimented him on his efforts. Finishing me off with a dusting of powder and a good brushing, he swept the fallen hair off me as he cast the cover sheets aside. Asking him the cost of the cut, I was surprised to see him hold up three fingers. Going through the possibilities in my head, I assumed three hundred taka to be too much and three taka to be ridiculous, so I confirmed that he meant thirty taka, and he nodded. Thirty taka for a haircut - the equivalent of about fifty cents in Canada. Haircuts haven’t cost that little since Diefenbaker was in office. I thanked him once again and assured him that I would return again soon, to which he gave his smiling approval. Or maybe he just liked the ending of the Bollywood movie. As first haircuts go, this was a good one and the cost of the service was brilliant. I may even return for a followup before the year is over.