Christmas in Bangladesh, December 1998

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of stories I wrote on/of past travels.

This trip occurred several months before I started my first Internet account, so few if any of even my friends and family know of this story. I wrote part of this story on a few pieces of paper, which I happened to come across while unpacking my belongings in Shanghai! I will supplement with bits from my most-likely-faulty memories.

Last winter vacation I had planned to meet a friend of mine for a week in Thailand. This arrangement left me a week on my own before meeting her. I considered my options. I considered them a long time. By the time I called a travel agent my options were limited. “Where do you want to go?” the agent asked me (after informing me that many places no longer had flights available). “I don’t know. Anywhere. Bangladesh?”

She heard “Bangladesh” and phoned me a week later to confirm she had reserved my ticket. It hit me. I am going to Bangladesh. What in the world am I going to do there?
My destination of “choice” was met by mixed reactions with those I shared the news. My supervisor laughed and asked “Why do you always go to dirty places?” The Vice Principal laughed and waited for the punch line. Another teacher nervously told me I just should not go. Another asked if it were too late for me to cancel? The more people appeared to try to dissuade me to go, the more determined I became to have myself a fantastic time . Doing what, I was not sure, but I was going to have a grand time doing it in Bangladesh!

The first time through the Lonely Planet guidebook still left me wondering. It was a slim volume and easily half of it seemed to be taken up by the “Dangers and Annoyances” chapter. The things that stuck most in my mind were the deadly floods, cyclones, tigers, snakes, crocodiles and diseases. The second time through though I realized one week was not nearly enough time to scratch the surface of the country.

Bangladesh is hardly a tourist destination. The country has roughly the amount of tourists in a year that Thailand receives in an average week. The former tourism slogan was “See Bangladesh before the Tourists Do.” The country is one-fifth the size of Japan with approximately the same population. It has the highest population density of any country, with the exception of a few small city states. (and remains so today). Crisscrossing the country are three major rivers, the Padma (Ganges), the Jamuna, and the Meghna, which divide the country into four parts. Every year the heavy rains and the melting snow from the Himalayas inundate the rivers until they overflow their banks, making many places resemble a messy Asian Venice.

The country however also boasts the longest beach in the world, “shark-free” to boot (how they manage to keep the sharks away, I am not sure); and about two-thirds of the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world and home to the last Royal Bengal Tigers, is located in Bangladesh. There are cooler hill areas dotted with tea plantations, the most famous being in Syllet. Around the country there are numerous sites of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist ruins as well as the crumbling rajbaris, the elegant homes of former British rulers.

Bangladesh has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, I barely made it out of Dhaka. Having flown a very early morning flight out of Osaka, with a five hour layover in Bangkok, I did not arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as originally intended. My first good view of Bangladesh was Zia International Airport, all four gates, with a fifth a crumbling mess of concrete and steel. I could not tell if it was being knocked down or put up. Then I was robbed at immigration when informed my visa would cost US$45 instead of the US$21 I had expected. (The Chinese tourists in front of me paid US$10 each).

I dislike arriving in a new country late in the afternoon. The crush of people waiting outside the arrivals area was both exciting and intimidating. The taxi driver insisted I could not stay in a hostel in Dhaka, they are only for men. I had read much the same, and at dusk I am too tired to argue. He insists he will take me to a nice place. His brother’s place. Or the place owned by a friend of his brother. Or just a place of a guy he knows he calls his “brother.” I am not sure. I give in. He drives me to the nicer part of town, to a multi-story home converted to a guesthouse, gated and with an armed guard. Maybe this is better than a hostel… It is nice to have my own room and even a television to watch all the best Bengali programming.

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Welcome to Dhaka indeed. Almost makes you want to just stay in the airport.

Much of the rest of my trip I remember in bits and pieces.

What I remember most is it was Ramadan. At least in December the days were mild and the evenings cool. Yet in a country with such a high poverty rate, it felt particularly brutal to have no food or drink all day. I was not fasting of course, but I felt very subconscious when eating. I went to a local fast food chain called Wimpy for lunch and I was the only person in the restaurant. I felt strange even ordering given the staff were likely fasting as well.

One evening I shared the breaking of fast meal with the owners of the guesthouse. I saw a main part of the meal included puffed rice, like Rice Krispies. So another evening I waited around the market until it was dusk, the time to break fast, and bought a large bag (a several gallon sized bag) of puffed rice to give to a group of hungry kids. I thought it would be a nice gesture, but it turned into a feeding frenzy with children and adults grabbing the bag and pulling until it burst and much of the rice fell on the ground. Still, people were scooping it up off the dirt road. Instead of feeling good, I felt horrible. One small, hopeful boy followed me all the way back to the guesthouse, where I gave him some coins for his trouble. My heart hurt.

One day I decided to try to have lunch at the American Club so I would not be sitting alone in an empty restaurant feeling shameful. I had a bicycle rickshaw drop me off at the gate. I recall it being blue, but cannot be sure. There was a small sliding opening in the solid gate, which made me think of the main gate to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. I must have knocked or rung a doorbell as a woman came to open the slit and asked me what I wanted. “I just want to have lunch”. Much to my surprise I was told no. I said, “But I’m an American,” and showed her my passport. The woman told me, “I can bring you a menu and you can order off of it and take it to eat elsewhere, but you cannot eat here.” So much for my first experience at the American Club. I will never forget being turned away.

Another day, returning from a tour along a busy, dusty road into Dhaka, I noted at a stop that there were no sellers in the road. At first I thought this so strange. Every other developing country I had been had roadside sellers who wander through traffic selling gum, snacks, water, single cigarettes, and the like. Then I remembered it was Ramadan. It was then that I could swear I saw the dead body of a woman lying by the side of the road, her bright sari wrapped around her very thin body. People walked around her as if she were not there. We drove on.

I recall I wanted to get out and see a market to buy something “Bangladeshi.” The guesthouse owner flagged down and spoke firmly with a passing auto-rickshaw driver. The owner assured me this driver knew where we were going. About 30 minutes later, it was clear to me that the driver had NO IDEA where we were going. He had driven onto a very narrow road, which barely fit two auto rickshaws side by side. He could speak no English and I no Bengali. I hopelessly blah-blah-blahed the name of the market to to him as he stared at me blankly. Suddenly, a young man approached us, a university student, who spoke English. He spoke with both of us and we were soon on our way to the market. Once there the driver apparently wanted more money than had been initially agreed upon at the guesthouse (where the owner had counseled me to pay a certain amount and NO MORE). I tried to give him the agreed upon price and he refused. He shouted and gestured at me. I blah-blah-blahed back. I put the money on the driver’s seat as he would not take it from my hands. He kept yelling at me as I started to back away. A group of five girls swept up to the vehicle, chattering in broken English, “Miss, Miss, you shopping?” and whisked me away with them. The market was a wash as there were no Bangladeshi handicrafts to speak of and the stall the girls took me to was full of t-shirts sporting Titanic and Michael Jordan themes. But I remember the girls.

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My rescuers at the market.

In Dhaka I visited a beautiful old mosque surrounded by a large bathing pool. The only visitors to this mosque, besides me, were men. Walking down the street to the mosque I was surrounded by a shuffling circle of men. They kept a respectful distance from me; the circle started three to four feet out from me, but moved as I moved. I also visited Ahsan Manzil, a former palace and now the National Museum. Though I do remember there were informative English displays inside, it was sitting out on the grass by the banks of the river and chatting with a local family that really sticks in my mind. At the beautiful Lalbagh fort, which made me think of the Taj Mahal (before I visited the real thing), I remember the incredibly beautiful saris of the strolling women and being stalked by a University student “practicing English,” who insisted that at my age I should be married and that he just might be the right guy for me. I searched everywhere for what I think was the Baldha Garden, listed in my guide as a beautiful, hidden must see gem. After probably an hour with an auto rickshaw, and about to give up, I finally located it, only to be rather disappointed. The buildings around the park had built up roughshod above the walls, with laundry and other detritus of life hanging unsightly through the trees. A film of dust lay on all the plants, muting the green. Young Bangladeshi couples giggled amongst the foliage and a mongoose scampered along the path. The mongoose though was worth the trip.

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Cleansing outside a beautiful mosque somewhere in Dhaka.

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Lalbagh Fort, where I met the love of my life (only I didn’t know it)

To get outside of Dhaka I found a travel group to take me on three trips: Sonargaon, the medieval capital of Eastern Bengal, a tour upriver to see jute production and a former Zamindar’s palace now a university, and also a half day river cruise on the Padma.
Though the buildings of Sonargaon were crumbling, which did make me feel melancholy because such a cultural and historic place should be preserved and cherished, I remember the colors so vibrantly and how good it felt to get out of the capital. The university at Murapara did not much impress me, though I liked the goats I found wandering across the campus. Far more interesting was the tour of the jute mill. Bangladesh is the world’s second largest producer of jute, a vegetable fiber, which, like cotton and hemp, can be spun and woven, and in the 19th century, many British made their fortunes as jute barons in Bengal. On the Padma river cruise I remember most that my travel companions were a Foreign Service family, husband, wife, and young son and that we did get to see two of the Gangetic pink river dolphins.

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A stroll in Sonargaon

Bangladesh was an unexpected vacation, yet it lingers in my mind as one that delivered more than anticipated. There were some clear hardships for most of the local people that were impossible to ignore and which made my heart ache, and yet the vast majority of the people I came across greeted me with kindness and brilliant smiles. I would like to visit again and see more of the country.

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