Speaking with conviction – it’s not what you say. It’s the way that you say it.
And Ahmed knew just that. So much so... I didn't question him further.
In 2013 one of my many international students invited me to volunteer at one of Bangladesh’s prominent NGOs. I said YES.
On arrival at Dubai International, I had a four-hour transfer for my onward flight to Dhaka. The airport is one of the biggest in the world, and at that time, still under construction. If you go now, you step off the plane and a rail shuttle transports you to the terminal building in minutes. Many years ago, you stepped off the plane into a long wooden shed (to protect you from the sun), and a bus arrived sometime later.
Once in the main terminal, you’ve arrived in the world’s largest department store. Unfortunately, I’m not fond of department stores. The outlets all sold the same branded materials at exorbitant prices, and it seemed like a form of vendor incarceration. I bought a few small gifts for my wife and daughter and then drank a slow cup of coffee. I was tired, and the soporific atmosphere induced lethargy. Finally, I was ready to fly to Dhaka, my final destination.
On arrival, I wilted and waited by the baggage carousel, hypnotised by its churning circular motion. I felt somewhat light-headed in the moist atmosphere. The rowdy crowd thinned out and soon I stood alone. The carousel choked and spluttered to a standstill like a dynosaur's last breath. So did my heart. All I heard next was the echo of panic in my internal dialogue. I’m not easily intimidated, but the silence in that vast space made me feel small, insignificant, and helpless. There was no sign of my case, which contained my laptop and training materials.
I heard footsteps reverberating from the corridor, and shortly after, a young man approached me. He was Asian, with shiny black hair and beautiful glistening teeth, and his voice was silky smooth as if he’d graduated charm school at Windsor.
“Mr Stevenson, I presume.” He held out his hand to welcome me.
“That’s right,” I suddenly felt relieved.
“I’m Ahmed, one of the airport staff. Now we have something of a problem with your case, sir. There was a staffing issue with the baggage handlers in Dubai, it’s an occupational hazard, and for whatever reason, they didn’t transfer your bag, for which I apologise. But you mustn’t worry, Mr Stevenson, pop along with me to the office, fill in a few forms, and I’ll have your baggage sent to your hotel this evening. So leave it all to me, sir.”
We went to the office to fill in the forms. I stayed close to the desk fan which offered a modicum of a cold draft of air. Ahmed brought me a coffee and offered a taxi to my hotel, though my client’s driver was already waiting outside. Ahmed’s communication and organisational skills impressed me. He convinced me that it was all in hand. The long journey had sapped my energy, and I felt uneasy and deflated from the baggage hall experience. However, Ahmed’s calming customer service skills saved the day. The baggage would arrive by 10 pm.
Ahmed walked me to the exit and talked about Devon and Cornwall as if they were his back garden. Finally, we shook hands, and he told me that I was always welcome in Bangladesh.
The hotel was in the Diplomatic District and heavily guarded by soldiers inside and out. They searched all vehicles and checked for the attachment of exploding devices to the chassis. Next month's scheduled elections ruled that out following several bombing incidents filled the international headlines. The reception staff welcomed me and asked me about my baggage. They nodded and smiled their understanding. A bellboy escorted me to my room. I showered and suddenly realised that I had no fresh clothes to change into. I’ll never take clean clothes for granted since. It was 2 pm Saturday, and class began the next day at 9 am.
I contacted my client to explain the situation. Their course centre was one hundred yards down the road. Escorted by two armed soldiers, I made my way to the building, unshaven and still wearing the same underwear from Friday morning. They loaned me a laptop, and I downloaded materials from my emails. I asked if I could go shopping and buy some socks, underpants, shirts and trousers, but they said it was too dangerous for me to leave the hotel's compound. They rang the airport, hoping to speak to Ahmed, but he had magically disappeared.
So when I introduced myself to the class the next day, I told the story, and they laughed empathetically. They had mainly studied in the UK and the US, and some of them chimed in with their own funny travel tales.
My first trip to Asia was a revelation in many ways. Bangladesh is an emerging Islamic nation, and I wondered how they would receive me and my sessions. But no problem, my students were wonderful and welcoming, and they invited me to return on two further occasions.
I still don’t know what happened to Ahmed, but my bags arrived three days later than planned. I’m pretty sure that Ahmed was the real deal. He was convincing, helpful and sincere. But his precise words and recovery plan never matched up to the promise.
That said, putting my laptop and training materials in one case was a mistake. These days I always carry spare underclothes and a toothbrush in my briefcase (on international trips). You can never be too careful. Secondly, I should have been more cautious, less trusting and taken Ahmed’s surname and contact number.
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