#2 Bangladesh, Jan. 18, 2009

Dear Everybody,

Old Dhaka is: 200,000 bicycle rickshaws carrying not only people but stuff; totally snarled traffic jams where 99% of the vehicles are bicycle rickshaws; feeling fairly vulnerable perched up high on a slidy seat with no seatbelt and nothing really to hang on to; at certain moments on certain streets or intersections sandwiched in between buses hoping not to be flattened like a pancake.

Old Dhaka is: zillions of people going about their business—selling rice, carrying goods, barbering, cooking, dodging others carrying goods, shouting, and calling ‘hello’ to me, laughing, pointing, carrying children.

Old Dhaka is: noisy, chaotic, colorful, crowded, moving, messy, mixed-up, jaunty, jumping, and after four hours of bicycle rickshaw sightseeing, I needed a nap. Now I see why Rina thought it a mistake to stay in Old Dhaka, but I think that’s one reason why one comes to Bangladesh—to experience Old Dhaka.

During one sightseeing stop (a Mughal building from 1644) there was a TV crew and, catching sight of me, they did an impromptu interview. I told you there aren’t any/many tourists here!

About 10 people each day ask me, “Your country?”—while I’m walking, or eating, or in the hotel elevator, or on a bicycle rickshaw at a stoplight or anyplace! And when I answer, “America,” the response is often “Big Country!” said with admiration. While walking in the park near my hotel, a group of women who were waiting while their husbands exercised approached me. We had a friendly, pleasant (limited English) exchange. How nice.

A whole morning was spent on a wild goose chase. I had tried several times to telephone Bengal Tours to arrange a trip to the Sundarbans—a watery, mangrove and wildlife preserve, but no answer. A tour is the only way one can see this place. So my bicycle rickshaw driver took me a loooong way to their office. The traffic was horrendous—especially the many buses—and when we finally got there, we searched and searched and asked and asked but couldn’t find it. Their address numbering system seems to be a mystery not only to me, but to locals, too. So I gave up and contacted them on the internet. That didn’t work either so I called Mahmud, my Lonely Planet friend, who sent his younger brother to rescue me. After a long morning going hither and yon, I finally got my tour booked and a bus ticket to Khulna.

More sightseeing, more mosques, Hindu temples, an 18th C. Mughal house, and the Lalbagh Fort from 1677 which was huge, beautiful, and tranquil, right in the middle of Old Dhaka, a stone’s throw away from the walled prison.

I asked my driver why I saw or heard no feral dogs; he said that two years ago the police were ordered to kill them all. I suppose they were too much competition for food.

I visited the Liberation War Museum, which describes events with news clippings and photos of the 1971 war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s emergence as a new nation. Senator Ted Kennedy was pictured with Indira Ghandi from India as “two international leaders who stood up for Bangladesh.” There were skulls and bones labeled with people’s names and descriptions of their lives who were killed in the 1971 war. I kind of hate going to these kinds of museums.

Rina invited me to lunch, along with her brother, his wife and another sister-in-law. Lovely people and lovely buffet lunch at the Pink City Shopping Mall restaurant in Gulshan.

On the way there as the tuk tuk stopped for red lights, young men were selling Barack Obama’s two books plus two other books about him, in English! Knockoffs??

On the way back the tuk tuk stopped for gas. I had been wondering why the tuk tuks didn’t stink (two-cycle engines with oil in the gas) as they usually do. Well, I got the answer—here they run on natural gas! How good!

That evening I was invited to my rickshaw driver’s house for dinner. He lives with his wife, two boys, his parents, and his brother and family. They were cordial but their living conditions are pretty basic. The cooking was done over a burner on the kitchen floor but the food was fine—chicken curry over rice, cukes, tomatoes and I brought some sweets.

Friday I took Mahmud, his wife, son, sister-in-law and brother to a buffet lunch of wonderful Bengali food. Mahmud cordially invited me to a family gathering for dinner that night with his parents and other relatives, but I demurred as I had an early morning following, and the trip to their house would have been a very long way; I thought I’d be too tired the next morning.

Rina had invited me to go on a day excursion to her brother’s ‘Garden Home’—a small lovely cottage in the middle of rice farming land. They raise rice, vegetables, geese, fruit trees, lobsters, talapia fish, etc. The day was fine and the air was so clear compared to Dhaka.

Rina and her sister-in-law went fishing in their pool where they raise talapia.  The ‘boy’ baited the hook and took the fish off.

 

 

 

 

On the way back we stopped at the ‘Garden Home’ of Rina’s brother’s daughter’s inlaws. It turns out that he is THE leading industrialist in Bangladesh and his ‘Garden Home’ resembled the Hearst Castle! They were most hospitable and we received a tour of the house and some of the grounds followed by a small supper on one of the four verandahs.

 

Today I had an all day bus ride to Khulna, which included a one-hour ferry ride. There’s so much water in Bangladesh that many bus rides include a ferry.

We came upon a bridge construction site that had absolutely no earth moving equipment. One man would fill a wide, flat basket with dirt and help another man lift it onto his head. He carried it about 100 feet (uphill!) and dumped it where it needed to go. I could see all the little clumps of dirt still with their basket impressions. A small backhoe would have had this task done in a half hour—this will take them a week!

Tuesday (day after tomorrow) Jan. 20th, is the BIG DAY! My room here in Khulna has a TV with a few American channels so I should be able to see it. It will happen in the middle of the night, though, as there is an 11 hour time difference. I’m sure lots of Bangladeshis will watch, too—they’re VERY interested!

Carol

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