Friday, August 22, 2008

Don't try to bullshit me!

A group of us decided to spend a long weekend on the beaches in and around Cox's Bazar in far south Bangladesh near the borders with India and Burma. This is about a distance from Dhaka equivalent to about a three-hour drive in the U.S., but we were told it would take eight hours if we left early before traffic got bad. We settled on a 5:30 a.m. start time.

I was downstairs in the hotel waiting at 5:20. Yes, Rosemary was early; it's true! But as I have always said, punctuality is an overrated virtue from which I've never derived any reward. I was thinking that at 7:20 when I was still not picked up. As it turned out, the place we'd rented a car from had sent over a sedan with no shock absorbers -- not exactly the most comfortable ride for an 8-hour trip and the battle to get a decent SUV took a couple of hours.

Because we were staying overnight at Cox' Bazar, I'd checked out of the hotel, so had no room to return to to wait comfortably. I was stuck sitting in the lobby near the door. An attentive doorman kept checking on me.

It turns out that a whole different crowd frequents the Westin in the early morning -- young people -- locals not tourists -- fresh from bars and nightclubs that are a fact of life despite the country's Muslim background. The Westin puts on a lavish buffet every morning starting at 6:30 that attracts the hung-over and still-awake.

A long-haired youth in tight jeans and many bracelets tripped out of a shiny black SUV, staggered through the front door fiddling with a cell phone and stopped dead in front of me sitting on my couch. "Excuse me, where are you from?" he asked. I told him New York. "Wow, I'm from New York, where about?" I explained upstate and he immediately said, "Oh, you're not from New York" with such dismissive snobbery he convinced me he really was.

"So, what are you?" he then wanted to know, but he was not looking for the answer "journalist" or whatever I am now. He meant heritage, so I told him Italian-American. "You are not," he flatly said. "I'm sorry if I'm bothering there but I'm very drunk (which was true) and I saw you sitting there and you looked so tourist I had to know. I'm sorry." He explained that he was the son of an army man turned local politician-- which explained the expensive car and the swagger -- and had lived most of his life in NYC. He missed it. "So, what are you?" he asked again and I repeated Italian-American. "You're Jewish!" he announced. "I know. Look at the hair!"

No, really not, I said and was overcome by this creepy feeling of deja vu. For years my mother has compared me to Natalie, the character in one of her favorite books, the historical novel Winds of War. Natalie ends up in a concentration camp with her uncle because she won't stop wandering around Europe as the Nazis get more and more powerful, which is ironic because she had never acknowledged her Jewish background because she was so secular. But wait! I really am not Jewish! So how could I feel disloyal denying a phony background he was giving me?! Because Jews are not well-regarded in this Muslim country that identifies with Arabs, maybe?

"Well, if I were, I'd tell you, but I'm not," is the best I could come up, knowing it sounded awfully close to "I'm not prejudiced, really, some of my best friends are!"

I was grateful the doorman was hovering close by and was about to call him over when the kid thrust his cellphone in my face. I thought he'd been trying to connect with some party friends, but no actually he had been looking for a video he wanted me to see.

A sleek Bengal tiger paced across the tiny screen. He'd filmed it at the Brooklyn Zoo, he told me. He'd never seen a tiger in Bangladesh, the native country he and the animal shared, but he'd seen one in New York City. "I love that place," he said, headed unsteadily toward the escalators up to the buffet with a last apology for bothering me.

The doorman shook his head. I was left wondering if there was something wrong with my hair.

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