The Voice in the Crowd

A chance encounter in Chittagong changes a writer's perception of Bangladesh for good.

By / December 2011

“Why are you here?” asked the hotel clerk in Chittagong.

A common-enough query whenever one travels to out-of-the-way places, the question was uttered on this occasion with a heightened tone of bewilderment, as if the man were afraid for my well-being, and when I replied that I was only passing through, his bewilderment turned into outright alarm.

“If you go out, leave your passport at the hotel,” he warned, reluctantly handing over the keys to my room. “If anyone asks, tell them that you are Canadian. Sometimes Americans are not so popular here.”

With this dubious beginning to my stay in Bangladesh’s second largest city, I hauled my bags upstairs and tried to work up enough courage to venture into town. Had I not needed to buy bus tickets to Cox’s Bazar—a small, coastal city to the south where I was headed for five days—I might have called it a night, but suppressing my trepidation as best I could, I collected my things. As the hotel door closed behind me, I heard the hotel clerk holler, “Canadian.” The words echoed in my ears as I stepped into the crowded streets of Chittagong.

Dusk had begun to fall. I was already out of sorts, having been unable to make heads or tails of my city map, when a surly Bengali approached me from a dark doorway.

“Where do you come from?” he shouted, grabbing my arm. I panicked but remembered the hotel clerk’s caution.

“Canada!” I hollered, with as much conviction as I could muster.

He looked at me skeptically then released my arm and hurried away. The sun was setting. Fed up and desperate to beat the darkness, I hailed a rickshaw and asked the driver to take me to the bus station. Ten minutes later, he dropped me among a swarm of sweating men, each of them waving a paper over his head.

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