Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Unicorn on the River

So despite the fact that the great Dhaka metropolitan area has the rough equivalent population of Scandinavia, the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population live in small villages across the vast delta of the Ganges.  (This is the largest delta in the world- trust me, I have gotten it wrong in Trivia Pursuit before.)

It seemed only fair that I should get a rural river experience to compliment the city tour.  Fortunately the friend of a friend who, along with his family, was kind enough to adopt me during my stay in Dhaka, was game to take the unicorn out and show her the river.  We drove about two hours outside the city, or about one hour outside the endless urban sprawl.   (Though once you do finally get past the sprawl, it becomes 100 percent rice paddy rather quick.)  We drove to a town (whose name I forget but won’t be able to pronounce in a million years anyway) and rented a speed boat to take us across the river to a more rural area.  (The starting point already seemed pretty rural to me but what do unicorns know?)

On the way across we stopped on an uninhabited island roughly the size of the neighborhood I grew up in.  It seemed a little odd that in a country where people literally live in baskets in the market that there would be such a big island with nothing on it but a handful of cows and some scrub vegetation.  The answer was that up until the most recent monsoon, the island didn’t exist.  The seasonal rains have a way of reclaiming and redistributing land as the Fates see fit.  (There is actually apparently a law on the books that if your land is washed away by the river, you will be able to reclaim it in roughly 15 years when it finishes materializing on the opposite bank.) 

The river trip itself was interesting as well – even beyond the fact that I just like going fast in motorboats.  All sorts of shit was going on on the river.  (That statement can be taken literally as well I am afraid.)  People fishing, people bathing, people fetching water, little rusting boats going one way, big rusting boats going the other way…  I tried to take some pictures but focus is a little difficult when you are slamming across the various wakes of the aforementioned watercraft.  I am posting the best of the blur.

On the other side of the river, we took a pleasant little rickshaw ride through the corrugated tin houses, the irrigated rice paddies, the NGO schools, the narrow canals…  All in all a quite enjoyable day.  The villagers were a-buzz about the white Muslim lady touring around town with her Bangladeshi husband (a little head scarf goes a long way apparently). Which came in quite handy when my “husband” fainted rather dramatically from dehydration at what turned out to be the conclusion of our outing.  Everyone was very concerned about my potential impending widowhood as they directed me to a place where I could get juice to raise blood sugar and a rickshaw to take us back to the boat.  One green coconut and a mango juice box later, we were back in business.  Crisis averted, phony marriage and day trip saved. 

Then it was back on the boat and back in the car and back to the city and back to work.  Things have been a little nutty at work this week as I am heading (finally) back to DC soon, but I did find time to learn how to fit three full sized adults in a rickshaw, where to buy cheap local pearls, and the ABCs of South Asia vegetarian street food.  All valuable skills I assure you.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Unicorn in Dhaka

It is very rare that I look down at my plane ticket before getting on a flight and think “man, this is going to suck.” But as I stood on the escalator in Dubai, looking down at the teeming mass below me jockeying for a place on line to get on 2 am flight to Bangladesh, that is exactly what I was thinking. I had just wrapped up a week in Tanzania to cap the two in Uganda and was ready to just go home and watch the Yankees. Bangladesh is an impoverished country of just over 55,000 square miles and a population of 150 million people, the highest population density in the world. (To put that in perspective, it is akin to the entire population of the US east of the Mississippi River moving to Illinois.) Almost completely surrounded by India, the nearest major metropolis is Calcutta. India has never been one of my favorites, and the idea that this was condensed crowded poorer version of India was unappealing. And alcohol is illegal.

But I got on the plane anyway and five hours later I was standing bleary eyed in my hotel room, watching through the window as the English Under 19 National Cricket team ran amok in the crystal blue swimming pool. While immediately behind the 10 foot wall, naked children played in a stagnant pool of green sludge. Fabulous.

So me and my little black rain cloud took a shower and went out in search of some culturally appropriate clothing and more reasons to hate on Bangladesh. As I ventured out of the hotel gates, the first thing that I noticed was how traditional this place was. Most men wear lungi skirts and the women saris or baggy trouser-tunics combos with scarves. Full beards and skull caps appear frequently. Even downtown there were thousands of cycle-rickshaws and men carrying huge baskets of produce on their heads. And of course the requisite odd loose piece of livestock in a traffic circle.

The second thing I noticed is that I blend like a unicorn. Bangladesh’s visitor promotion slogan since independence has been “come before the tourists get here.” Safe to say that they don’t need a new one yet. I was the only whitey anywhere. And it is perfectly socially acceptable to cease all activity as gawk like I was a large white horse with a golden horn protruding from my forehead. Just keeps getting better. I got in an auto-rickshaw and promptly got taken to the wrong location and overcharged. Then found another, took it to the right location and was overcharged. Eventually I found the clothing store where I discovered that size XXL was still too tight across my shoulders. Then it took forever to find another rickshaw to take me back to the hotel.

I was not good company when I finally found one. And I was less than amused by the fact that my driver was overjoyed to have a unicorn in the back seat. He started off toward the hotel but halfway there takes a detour. He clearly wants to show me something. I am too hot and dirty to argue at this point, so I just slump lower and wait for it to be over. He takes me to the train tracks as the afternoon train rumbles by, fiercely overcrowded and with children sitting outside on the roof. He points excitedly and yells “Slumdog Millionaire!” Aww. He was so happy to show me that. I even sort of smiled. How can you hate a country like that? And for redeeming his 150 million countrymen, he was rewarded with what was likely the largest tip in the history of Bengali auto-rickshaws.

The next day was Sunday, the start of the work week here. It was also the day I met Liton. Liton is my driver – unenviably tasked with shuttling me back and forth between the hotel, Bank office and bureau of statistics. Officially this mostly involves sitting in dead-stop traffic while leaning on the horn and yelling at the rickshaw divers. But unofficially it involves keeping me out of trouble. And therein lies the rub.

Liton has spent lots of time locking me in the car this week. On Sunday, he dropped me after work at the home of a friend of a friend with whom I would be having dinner. But he kept me locked in the car until the friend came out and personally escorted me. Repeat performance on Thursday at the same place. On Monday I ducked out of work a little early to go shopping so that I would have something to wear out to the villages and Wednesday and Thursday. Shahbag market had been recommended as being near the university and having slightly hipper clothes. But it is a sprawling four story enclosed behemoth of tiny boutiques, leftist bookstores and tea rooms conducive to plotting a revolution. Liton drove up, took one look inside at the fluorescent lighting and milling crowds (and long rows of clothing racks) and promptly put the car back into gear. “No Madame, no clothes here. We go.” I had to all but pull the emergency break to get him to let me out.

And so it went up until yesterday. On Friday I met up with a fellow unicorn also working here, and we set off to see the best sights that Dhaka has to offer. This included the Revolutionary War Museum – a poignant but very graphic look at the struggle for independence first from Britain and then from Pakistan, the university – with uncongested green spaces and fancy architecture – and finally to Old Dhaka – the historic narrow-alleyed part of the city along the Ganges River. Liton brought us to the Sadarghat ferry terminal, which sits at the end of the bazaar on one of the only streets navigable by car. We thanked him and told him that we would be back in a few hours – we were going to explore on foot and by rickshaw. And Liton had a coronary. No. Not happening. Too many Bangladeshis. Too many thieves. Not a place for foreign women. No. He just flatly refused, driving us instead to a commercial area several blocks north before finally unlocking the doors. Leaving us to walk back down to Sadarghat.

(Contrary to Liton’s hysteria, I feel very safe here. I get worried when I am someplace deserted – certainly not a problem here. The equivalent population of Delaware is within earshot at all times. I could fend off an unarmed attacker for long enough for them to raise a militia.)

But back to my walking tour. And, man, if I thought I stood out like a unicorn in New Dhaka, this was a whole different cricket game. Even hiding under our head scarves, people froze and gaped. If we stopped anywhere, chunks of traffic would break off and form concentric circles of gawkers. Occasionally they would take pictures with their cell phones or yell “what country?” But mostly it was a silent wall of eyes, just tracking us like the paintings in a Scooby Doo cartoon. Odd I have to say.

In any case, we hit the sights. Visited the Armenian Church (they were here as a trading class under the British, peaking in the 1850s and fading out as things got nationalized after independence – there is currently only one very old man left), Hindu Street (which was bumpin’ on a Friday when everything else was closed for prayers), Ahsan Manzil (the Pink Palace – which certainly was Pepto-Bismol pink) plus a wide assortment of mosques, markets and bazaars. And a bunch of really narrow streets.

We decided to cap off the day by hiring some guy to row us around the river, the heart and life-blood of old Dhaka, and watch the sunset. This didn’t go quite according to plan. First, as there are no tourists, there are no touts. And we don’t speak Bangla. So we had to loiter around the ferry terminal until someone basically guessed what we might want. Which touched off a fist fight as they figured out we were going to pay an obscene sum of money (little less than $5) to just be rowed around for an hour. Eventually we were put into a low riding wooden boat of decidedly questionable sea-worthiness and shoved off into the Ganges. As there isn’t much in the way of sites on the river – it is more just soaking up the general atmosphere of the place – our river tour consisted of us being rowed around to the rower’s friends’ boats so that they could take pictures of us with their cell phones. But I got some okay pictures of them so I can’t complain.

And in general I can’t complain. Before I came I psyched myself up by thinking that I was getting sent to hell in exchange for the Yankees impending World Series win – a deal that I would have readily made should the devil have shown up in Tanzania with the necessary paperwork. (I followed game 6 from a rural village via text message sent by the only other Western Hemispherian in the World Bank office – a Canadian Yankee fan. When they won, I inadvertently taught a gaggle of child gawkers the happy dance.) But it turned out to be a lot like India but without the hassles. Pleasantly surprised I must say.