Friday, March 9, 2007

Bangladesh: Dhaka: 13/14 February 2007 (Written 14 February 2007)

Horns, horns, horns. There are so many impressions of this insane city, and my mind is spinning with dozens of them, that I feel at a complete loss for words.

Even while waiting to board the plane in Bangkok, I knew I was stepping into a different world. I was the only person I could distinguish as being a foreigner on the plane – possibly there were others from India or other parts of the region…

Arriving at the airport, I was surprised to find it drizzling outside. Refreshing in a sense, but a bit worrying since it is supposed to be the dry season in this part of the world; the rains are not to begin until May. Inside Dhaka airport was orderly enough. Passing through immigration and getting luggage was surprisingly efficient and smooth. Then came the reality; outside to find a taxi.

On the left side as you exit the airport are the official taxi stands. Micah, who I’m staying with here in Dhaka, had told me the real meter rate would be about 70 taka (approx. 1USD) but they would probably ask for about 250, and he said I should really try and get it down to 150 or less. Well, the guys at the stand insisted that 350 was a fair price. After talking one down to 300, I moved on down to the other end of the fence and they rapidly started yelling at each other, presumably forming an agreement not to lower the price any further. I asked the military guard at the gate if there would be taxis outside, and all of a sudden he no longer spoke any English. I went back under the shelter and sulked for a good 5 minutes, debating what to do: pay the outrageous 300 taka (after all by American or Japanese standards it’s not so much, right?)…call Micah and beg him to come save me, or go out into the street and hope that a normal taxi would pick me up and I could talk the price down??

I decided to go outside. A huge crowd of hungry eyes and searching bodies leaned heavily against the fences between which was the exit. No one, literally, was walking through. Everyone was leaving in taxis or other vehicles. I went determinedly forward, and found the military guard telling me I was not allowed to leave like this, and I would have to take an official taxi. I told him no, and kept walking. I was pretty apprehensive, though. Immediately a swarm of begging children surrounded me, and 4 local taxi men came running. I told them I needed to go to Banani and they all said 300. Finally, one very questionable young man who spoke English arrived on the scene just as I was getting one cab to agree to my price of 150 taka. He insisted that the driver didn’t speak enough English to get me to my destination and said he would join. I told him that I thought it would be fine since I had the address and he insisted – I told him if he wanted to, he could come but I was not, under any circumstances, going to give him any money. At this he took great offense and made some claim about how he was helping me in the name of Allah, and money was not a motivation at all. Sounds like stories I got in West Africa all the time…

Traffic in this city is absolutely mad. The honking is incessant and I have no idea regarding the mechanics of it, but the horns are LOUD; way louder than anywhere else I have been in the world. Traffic, if my memory serves me well, is even worse than Cairo or Bangkok. With gritted teeth and stiffened knuckles, we proceeded through the rainy roads. Along with other taxis, we shared the pavement with colorful rickshaws, CNGs (green caged motorcycles with a passenger compartment behind), jam-packed public buses, also very vocal, and countless other vehicles and pedestrians. The ride that Micah said would take 15 minutes took well over an hour.

The questionable young man made a very crude sexual remark at which I got very indignant and he apologized profusely but I was not impressed. Arriving in Banani neighborhood, we found we were lost, and drove around in repetitive circles all the while Micah trying to explain where we should go (I later found out he had told them to stay where we were and he would just come meet us since we were so close but of course this wasn’t how it worked out). Finally, we met and drove a very short distance home. All of a sudden, the young boy who had been helping me in the name of Allah, after hitting on me, demanded money for his services, to which I replied that I had told him over an hour ago that I wasn’t going to give him any money, and Micah and he had a short (seemingly) heated conversation and inside we went.

Welcome to Dhaka.

The evening was pleasant thereafter, lots of stories, laughs, and a definite refuge feeling from Micah and his flat (thanks thanks thanks). We went in the neighborhood to buy really horrible wine from a Burmese family and it was surreally peaceful, walking through the rain in the quiet evening.

This morning as I awoke, I was filled with dread and reluctance. I knew that there were parts of Dhaka that I would like to see, but I was weary at the prospect of getting there. Tuli, Micah’s maid, went down the street with me so that I could call Rafia Chowdhury, Fareez’s aunt. Fareez was a good friend of mine in high school in Washington, DC, and was my initial contact that sparked my interest in Bangladesh. He had enthusiastically advised me to call his aunt in Dhaka when I told him that I was finally visiting his country.

No one answered the phone, and I headed to the bank, then got in a CNG with the hope of going to Gulshan II circle where Guide Tours was located. My driver spoke no English and a few minutes later, kept saying Korea over and over. I said no, Japan. I’m pretty used to people asking me where I’m from or thinking I’m from other Asian countries so it was nothing noteworthy – until a few minutes later I was sitting in front of the Japanese Embassy. Agh.

More communication difficulties and I finally ended up where I wanted to be. The staff at Guide Tours was exceptionally friendly and I spent a good amount of time in their haven-like office, before heading back out into the crowded noisy street.

I visited the Grand Central Mosque, a big white cavern of a building, and decided to walk all the way back to Banani rather than go through another CNG ordeal.

The streets are so full of life. There are so many people, the women are dressed in beautiful colored robes with eyecatching makeup, and well, people do stare. I saw not one tourist in the whole day (though I think I wasn’t in a very tourist-oriented place if they even exist here). The rickshaws are decorated with bright neons and flower patterns, the crumbling sidewalks interspersed with puddles from the unseasonal rains make people hop and jump from one protruding safe dry foothold to another. The spicy smell of betel lingers in the air, and street stalls with dhal and cha line crowded walkways. I was filled with an intense feeling of hatred and amusement in the same moment; in any case, it is intense, with all senses heightened as it feels like walking 500m down one road is an obstacle course that requires supreme awareness and technique.

I was hungry. I found a place recommended by Lonely Planet, Dhaba, and walked in to see Micah at the first table! A very pleasant surprise. He was with an American friend working for IREX and we sat together and chatted. Given that there are so few tourists here, I really wonder how I would be feeling if I didn’t have a local contact that I am so comfortable with.

I finally got in touch with Rafia and we will meet tomorrow. The next day I go to Bandarban in the Chittagong Hill Tract, which is covered with tribal villages, and also known for political instability, and after 3 nights there I will head back to Dhaka for a day before going to the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarbans also have a reputation for pirates. Hope I don’t see any.

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