#1 Bangladesh, Jan. 11, 2009

Dear Everybody,

Here I am in Dhaka, Bangladesh–after nearly two days of travel. The brand new, most luxurious air terminal in Dubai (a seven hour layover) was most interesting, both because of my becoming acquainted with Rina, a Bangladeshi woman who has lived in the UK for 30 years, and for the hundreds of youngish men lining up to return to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or other places.

In the United Arab Emirates, only 20% of the people who live there are citizens; the other 80% are foreigners or ‘guest workers’ who do all the work—manual labor, but they also import hotel clerks, bank tellers, physicians—everybody. My flight from Dubai to Bangladesh had about 400 passengers of which 95% were single, youngish, Bangladeshi men who were going home after working. The two that I sat with had been working in the UAE for about six years—one in air conditioning and one as a driver and they would now spend three months at home before returning again. The 3:45 AM flight was probably timed for cheaper airport rates, allowing them a cheaper flight. My “Cheapo” ticket (yes, that really was the name of the consolidator) no doubt took advantage of the low rate, too.

Rina, visiting her family in Dhaka, was clearly upper class, and while she admired my traveling skills, she thought it was plumb nuts to take city buses or to even go to Old Dhaka, for that matter. Her ‘Western-raised’ Bangladeshi husband is a nuclear physicist in the UK. Worried for my safety, she gave me her brother’s phone number in Dhaka, “just in case!”

As I exited the Dhaka airport that same ‘atmosphere’ hit me as I had experienced years ago in Madras, India—dusty, smoggy, humid air with a few whiffs of incense. I walked out to the main road and after asking several people, managed to get a broken down bus that was going to Gulistan station in Old Dhaka where I would check out a couple of hotels.

The traffic was mind-blowing not so much for the numbers of vehicles (yes, that, too) but for the diversity; a sea of gaily decorated bicycle rickshaws pedaled by thin, lungi-clad, wiry men; buzzing tuk tuks; buses of all stripes; some horse-drawn carts; honking cars (well everybody was honking) plus a myriad of pedestrians causing total confusion and over the top decibels.

The bus finally arrived at Gulistan Station where the ticket taker grabbed my backpack and deposited it into a waiting bicycle rickshaw. I climbed up and told the driver the name and address of a hotel which turned out to be satisfactory so I registered.

The card required me to give my age along with lots of other information. Later, the proprietor, who gave me a ‘New Year’s gift’ of a ball-point pen, called to me as I waited for the elevator (yes, there actually is one with a male operator), “Hey young lady, your card says that you are 73 years old!” then smiled and gave me a thumbs up sign. A dozen people smiled and nodded their congratulations to me. There aren’t many western tourists in Bangladesh and I am a big attraction and sideshow, but usually in a nice way.

This is the first poor Asian country where I have found it difficult to locate internet facilities. They’re apparently too poor here even for that. And the facilities that I eventually found were old, slow, and don’t work very well, so you may not hear from me as regularly as usual.

I took a long walk to the Buriganga River that runs through Dhaka and much of Bangladesh. In the city it is a filthy, oily cesspool with boats of all shapes and sizes—many huge ones on shore undergoing repairs or painting. I hired a small boat with an oarsman pulling and guiding with a single oar. I sat flat on the clean wooden deck that covered the boat. It seemed just a little dangerous since there is lots of motorized boat traffic, and the little boats like mine have to ‘steer clear,’ which the oarsman managed to do.

I followed this with a long walk through Old Dhaka where every scene is exotic, colorful, dirty and busy. I was definitely the interesting sight of their morning with lots of pointing, staring, and calling “Hello!” In my three days of sightseeing, I haven’t seen another tourist.

One day I walked a couple of miles to the University and was having difficulty finding the historic buildings that I wanted to see. I couldn’t read the signs—no English, but for that matter, no signs! I decided I’d better engage a bicycle rickshaw. Just as I was getting on, ‘my’ driver showed up—the one I had used the day before. He had approached me that morning but I had told him that I wanted to walk. I gathered he had been following me, anticipating that I would give up the walking pretty soon, and he was right.

So he took me around to the buildings that I wanted to see and then to the National Museum, a huge building but artifacts were scarce. I suppose most significant objects are either in Delhi or in Pakistan since Bangladesh has only been a country since 1971. There were some great blackstone Buddhas from the 12th century, though.

Later I had a nice lunch at the restaurant Al Razzeque where I was seated in one of the ‘cabins’ off the main dining room reserved for women. It had a curtain for privacy—this is a Muslim country after all. Very few women cover their faces but some use a burkha. None of the women, and very few of the men, wear blue jeans; and there is NO alcohol served in restaurants—I understand it is available at the Sheraton. I am also awakened each morning at 5:30 by a very loud muzzeim in a very near mosque. The ‘weekend’ is Friday  and Saturday—pretty much everything is closed on Friday.

Mahmud, whom I met on the Lonely Planet Internet site stopped in at my hotel this morning. He is a self-appointed helper of all the tourists who come here and a font of information. He invited me to his home in a couple of days to meet his wife and son.

Today I went for my morning walk but walking in Old Dhaka is quite difficult since the sidewalks are all bazaars covered with clothing, food stands and other things for sale, and the traffic goes every which way. Tomorrow I shall take my walk on the University grounds.

The temperature has been perfect—highs about 76 degrees and lows about 65. The food is good, too. This morning for breakfast I had strong tea with milk and sugar (milk tea) and naan with potato curry and dal.

I hope you’re all fine. Carol

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