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.


Anonymous said...

Very funny addition to your blog but also somewhat sad. B sounds like the very poorest and most backward of your travels. I contine to envy you for all your experiences around the world. gb in csh

Kristen Himelein said...

I hope I didn't give that impression too much... Bangladesh is certainly poor, though not anywhere near as poor as most of West Africa, and traditional, though I don't think I would say backwards. You should come visit and see what you think. Quick! Come before the tourists get here!

Carly said...

Hi Kristen, I've been following your blog for a while now, it's great! I lived in Bangers for a year (though in the south) and felt a bit of nostalgia reading about the craziness of Dhaka...but I'm very glad that year is in the past! I've not seen a tourist slogan as fitting since "come before the tourists..."

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