Spreading the gospel. That’s how my Dad has always described my jaunts to far flung lands. He’s not talking about religion however. No, he always ensures I pack my large green and white flag, my shirt, and an up to date fixture list.
Saturday, September 21st 1991. Two months shy of my eighth birthday I received my first taste of watching Plymouth Argyle Football Club. In 1959 my Dad had made the same journey with his Dad, and thirty two years on it was my turn. I recall very little of the day, and it wasn’t until I’d been to a few more games that I became enraptured by the sights, sounds, and smells of watching live football, and specifically Argyle. However, that first experience was enough to initiate a relationship that has lasted twenty two years and counting. Incidentally the game ended Plymouth Argyle 1-1 Middlesbrough. I’m sure it wasn’t too long before I witnessed my first defeat.
In the past few years I’ve lived in the Czech Republic, Rwanda, Guyana and Bangladesh – my current home. My flag has been to all. However, I think it has at long last found its final resting place.
At the end of my street there is a modest tea shop that serves the labourers, the rickshaw drivers and other locals from the area. It is an unassuming, simple place. Every day smoke billows from the cave-like kitchen at the rear, and men come and go, never stopping for any great length of time, there are things to do. I found out recently, it is also a place full of great warmth and hospitality.
My flatmate John and I decided to stop by there one morning. We drank tea, ate snacks and conversed with the other tea drinkers using our very limited Banlga skills, and then we came to pay. “No pay. My guests. No pay” was the response from the owner, Mr Golam, who sat at a small desk by the entrance. We smiled and thanked him, and then politely offered our money once again. His response was the same. We left feeling grateful, humbled, and yet a little embarrassed.
Later that week we stopped by again, and when it came to pay his response was as before. “No pay, my guests, you come every day, no pay.” We remonstrated politely again, but were left equally embarrassed and a little frustrated. Two further visits followed, and still no Taka left our wallets. It seemed all attempts to pay were futile, so alternative methods would have to be employed to show our appreciation.
We decided gifts would be our new means of payment, and it didn’t take long to decide on our first offering. The wall of our living room was decorated with two flags. One displaying the green and blue of John’s team, Seattle Sounders FC, and the other the green and white of Plymouth Argyle. We took them down to the tea shop and handed them over to our new friend. His walls were bare, so we hoped he would appreciate the flags. He took them, thanked us, folded and then placed them on the desk in the corner. We left (after not paying once again) wondering if our flags would make it up onto the wall.
A couple of days later we walked past and had a quick glance in. There they were, in all their glory, pinned proudly to the wall of the tiny tea shop. My Argyle flag looked more majestic than it ever had before. It was decided that the pinning of our flags to the wall was an occasion deserving of more tea, so we sat and explained the importance of the new wall decorations to an array of other tea shop proprietors. Spreading the gospel, one step at a time.
The tea shop has now become our ‘regular’, and once or twice a week we stop by and sit for a while. AUW is a wonderful environment to work in, but it can become claustrophobic. We are shuttled from our apartments to the campus early in the morning, and once work is done for the day we are shuttled back home. It often takes a conscious effort to search for interactions outside of this bubble. For us the tea shop is our life outside of AUW and our connection to the real Chittagong.
The Chittagong we have encountered in the tea shop is quite fascinating. The diversity of the clientele has been a source of intrigue as we’ve met local students, rickshawalahs, security guards, and even a former UN peacekeeper in the Congo. The reaction from one and all though has been consistent. We are always welcomed, always looked after, and always thoroughly humbled by the generosity and warmth of our hosts.
Personally I feel significantly more connected and a part of this corner of Chittagong than I ever have before. Faces are familiar, I recognize and exchange greetings with people as I walk the streets, and I have a place to go if I need a reminder of just why I was drawn back to this place . Describing the shop and its owner, one of the students sipping tea told me yesterday, “This isn’t just a tea shop. This man is like a father to us. If we need help, he helps us.” Observing the comings and goings for a while it seemed this applied to many others. Mr Golam is generally a man of few words, but when he speaks you listen, and when he smiles you know the warmth is genuine.
We asked him recently how long the shop has been serving tea to the locals and he replied, “forty years, before me my father.” It is quite difficult to even comprehend this fact, but it also makes sense. In a society where community is often so important, this tea shop plays a pivotal role.
I wonder if my green Argyle flag will adorn the walls of this shop for the next forty years.
All images © John Stanlake