13 July 2011

Dhaka, Bangladesh

The plane touched down in Dhaka at 4:30am. I was excited to finally see and experience what, some would say, the most chaotic place on Earth is like. As I would soon find out, nothing is easy in Bangladesh. My excitement was short lived as the airport personnel couldn't get the jetway up to the door of the plane. For 20 minutes, I stood jammed in the aisle with 150 Bangladeshis and waited. Then, just when we thought they had it fixed...they didn't...and it was prayer time. The already crowded aisles  now became a giant pushing match as some more devout passengers tried to get to the front or back of the plane to find a patch of open space to pray. Once people started their prayer rituals, the doors opened, the hot air and smells came in...and all hell broke loose.

Welcome to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, formally East Pakistan, is a mostly flat, coastal tropical lowland on the Bay of Bengal sandwiched between India and Myanmar (Burma). It has a population of 160 million people, roughly half as many people as in the United States or Europe...but they are all packed into an area slightly larger then Iowa. It is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and with a per capita income of only $638, it is also one of the poorest.

I came to Bangladesh to visit my friend Matt who is here for a few months working for Grameen Bank. It was an opportunity I could not pass up. When would I have another reason or a chance to see Bangladesh?

After exiting the plane down a set of stairs to the tarmac, I  moved quickly towards the terminal building to beat the crowds at Immigration. I was one of only two Westerners on the plane, so I assumed it would be quick and easy to get my visa. Once again, Bangladesh had a different plan.

The visa office was closed....of course! I went to passport control (which was completely empty, no lines...nothing) and was told to go back to the visa office. I went back to the dark, closed visa office and tried the door...it was open and inside everyone was on the floor sleeping. There were a few awkward moments as I politely woke up the immigration officials I needed to issue me a visa, but after 15 minutes, a bunch of rubber stamping and $150, I had my visa. Back at passport control there were now 15 lines of over 50 people deep and none of the lines were moving. Knowing a bit of how things work in this part of the world, I did what the locals do....I cut one of the lines.

The passport officer scrutinized my passport, visa and landing card, asked a few questions and was already to stamp me in...he just needed my address and phone number in Dhaka. Uh oh....I had Matt's info in my checked bag!...duh, what a rookie mistake. I told the officer I didn't know it and he said it was not possible unless I had it. So, I said, oh now I remember and wrote down an imaginary phone number....good enough...stamp, stamp, stamp...enjoy your stay in Bangladesh.

After waiting 20 more minutes for my rucksack, I exited the terminal where Matt was waiting with a motorcycle taxi, 100 people standing around staring at him and big stupid grin...."Dude, prepare to be Dhaka'd."

Dhaka, the largest city and capital of Bangladesh, is a sprawling city of approximately 14 million people that has experienced an explosion of growth since Bangladeshi independence in 1971. Chaotic does not describe the mayhem that is daily life in the streets of Dhaka.

Once Matt and I got on the road, he filled me in on his job and the neat little place he found to live. Rather than stay at the hotel that was suggested by his employer, he found a room for rent at a local childrens shelter run by a French Non Governmental Organization (NGO). Talk about immersing yourself in the local culture! Matt had arranged a room for me there as well. Just us, a handful of staff,  and 60 Bangladeshi street orphans.

After settling in and touring the shelter, we headed out so Matt could show me the area we were staying. We grabbed a quick bite to eat, I got a shave and shopped for shirts. After a while of just poking around locally in Mirpur (our district) we hopped in a CNG (compressed natural gas motorcycle taxi) and headed down into Old Dhaka. It was Friday, which is the first day of the weekend for Muslims, so with less traffic the trip should have taken 30-45 minutes. Little did we know, our driver (who spoke no English) had no idea where he was going. He pulled over 10 times to ask directions and every time we would end up having a 10 minute conversation with someone new who would then tell him where to go. At one point, a brake cable snapped on the CNG so we had to pull over and wait as he fixed it. In all fairness, it only took 10 minutes, but it was just one more delay. The whole trip was really grueling, not to mention time consuming....then it started to rain. At one point we were parked in the rain..just sitting on the side of the road, because he spoke no English, we spoke no Bangla and there was noone around to ask for directions. Matt and I had a good laugh.

Eventually we got to the area we wanted and the rain let up, but both the Star Mosque and Armenian Church were closed. We rang the bell at the church and a caretaker let us in, so closed schmosed, we're in!

Matt checking out some graves at the Armenian Church in Old Dhaka

After exploring a bit of the area, we hopped in a bicycle rickshaw and went to the soccer stadium for the 4 o'clock game. It only costs 60 taka (60 cents US) to get in so why not? As is usual with most Bangladeshi public events, there were only men in the stadium...and the soccer was not very good, but it was certainly interesting. As foreigners, whenever we are in public people just stare at us. Unlike most places I have been, there are no tourists in Bangladesh. You dont see any Westerners unless you go to the area where most are based, in the Diplomatic area of Gulshan.

After being stared at by several hundred dudes and then being attacked by ants, we decided it was time to move on.  After 8 hours in the Bangladeshi heat and smog, walking in filth, riding in open air motorcycle taxis, and sweating through our clothes several times, we went back to the shelter where I had the most glorious cold shower of my life. The cold water wasn't ice cold, just perfect...amazing.

The plan for dinner was to meet up with Elodie, the French psychologist that works at the shelter, and go to a fairly expensive Korean BBQ Restaurant because they sell beer. Alcohol is illegal in Bangladesh, but foreigners are permitted to purchase and drink it. We struck out after dark in a CNG for the 45 minute ride. At one intersection, there were police shining flashlights into every CNG and rickshaw as they drove by. As luck would have it, one policeman shone his light at us, just as my big white dome was peering out at them. They yelled at us to pull over and came over to question us. They asked us where we were from and questioned the driver, but as it turns out, they were super friendly and probably saw an opportunity to talk to foreigners. They cut us loose after 5 minutes and even made sure our driver knew where he was going.

We got to the restaurant and got a table in a private room with 2 other (empty) tables. To be alone in Bangladesh...ahhh. Plus there was air conditioning and beer....yippppeeeeee!

Making new friends

We had a great dinner, and it was nice getting to know Elodie. We had fried tofu, kimchi, vegetable omelet some bbq's steak (cooked right at the table) and a bunch of beers.

After a while they seated some other people in the room, including two guys behind me. At one point Matt saw one of them drinking Soju, Korean rice liquor, so he asked where they got it. The guy said they bought it at the restaurant you just have to ask for it. To make a long story short, we got a bottle of soju and ended up moving over to the other guys table.

We had just made friends with a guy who apparently runs many things in Dhaka...his name is Happy.

Happy (center) and me (right)...and the ever present bodyguard, Azim, in the background.

Happy said there was a party and he would take us. Matt, without hesitating, said we would all love to go. Ten minutes later, we were packed into the back of Happy's Land Rover bombing down the dark roads of Dhaka.....surreal.

30 minutes later we were walking into the Radisson hotel ball room which was packed with Bengalis of all shapes and sizes...dancing to Western music. Unfortunately the lights went on and it was all over within 15 minutes of us getting there. It was 2am and we were wiped out.  Happy had his driver bring us home, as long as we promised to go out with him the next night.

I got home and passed out...completely Dhaka'd


Tina Haltigan said...

very interesting Chris. Keep the stories coming.

Centro médico Rusiñol en Madrid said...

Interesting and really well written! Most blogs on the web are not that simple and good like this one.

Rainer Ratul said...

I am from Bangladesh