Third World Treatment to World Class Service
Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
71Trip End Apr 22, 2005
I was shocked when at the Biman Bangladeshi Airlines office the man behind the desk told me that I should get my visa prior to buying my ticket. Then he explained that "often times the embassy demands a letter from a sponsor in Bangladesh and the visa is one-hundred US dollars." I was incredulous and stared at him in disbelief, mouth agape. "You're kidding, right?" No, he wasn't.
I snagged a cab and headed to the embassy fully prepared to give them a piece of my mind. I was thinking, A) I have hired countless Bangladeshis over the years who by the way in turn send money to their families back home and B) one-hundred dollars is the most expensive visa I've ever heard of and C) What the hell are they trying to do -- reduce the glut of tourists trampling about and devouring all the natural resources? What are they afraid of - that we'll turn it into Goa? Katmandu? Kao San Road in Bangkok? Rio-de-Janeiro for God's sakes? Monaco for the love of the of the holy beard of Moses? For Pete's sake it's Bangladesh for crying out loud!
Here's a newsflash for you: No one goes to Bangladesh for fun. No one.I can say now that they should but they don't. Even on the flight over I was talking to two westerners and was asked where I was going. I told them I was going to Dhaka and then to the north of Bangladesh. "Really?" the man next to me uttered in disbelief, "We're just transiting to Delhi and I don't think I've ever met anyone actually going to Bangladesh." Five days later I met a white man on the bus and we ogled each other with suspicion until he asked, "So, are you with an NGO or are you here on business?" This was from a guy who lives here working for the Peace Corps.
My first visit to the embassy wasn't too bad and I was greeted by the pleasant receptionist and a man who was delightful and very inquisitive about America and specifically the working conditions in New York. The first question he asked me however was, "Why do you want to go to Bangladesh?" It seemed a fair enough question I thought and so I explained that I was traveling in the neighborhood and have some coworker friends there and wanted to stop by for a visit en route to the Middle East. He seemed sated then asked to photocopy my passport and told me to stop by the following day and he'd tell me if I was accepted. If I was I accepted he told me I could then fill out the application.
I returned the following day with cash in hand and was told that I'd been accepted. What a shocker. In case they weren't looking I already have a full-page Russian visa stamp -- now that's a tough visa. He then asked to see my plane ticket. I hadn't bought a ticket since I didn't know for certain that I'd be accepted I told him since that is what I was told to do. He sent me on my way to get my ticket said for me to return the following day.
As instructed I bought my ticket and Cameron and I returned as requested. I was standing at the receptionist and Cameron was sitting in the lobby. Keep in mind that this was the only time in all of my visits that anyone other than myself occupied the lounge area. "What are you doing here?" a swaggering thimble-sized man barked at her. She told him that she was waiting for me and that I was applying for a visa. "The man to see for the visa isn't here until 2:30 - you'll have to come back then! 2:30!" I was so taken aback as was Cameron but I explained that I was aware of that and I'd already applied and that I was just... He stormed out slamming the door behind him. "Who was that?" I asked the receptionist who told me, "He's the man who signs your visa." Complete ass. I was told to return.
When I returned I had already decided that if my visa was not ready I would demand my money and passport back and scratch Bangladesh all together. I was told that I should return but I refused and politely explained that I'd wasted enough time and had other things to do. The receptionist walked to a room down the hall and said something and returned. "He will be with you right away, please have a seat." I respectfully declined and remained standing. Five minutes passed and I followed the clack of a keyboard down the hall and ducked my head inside. "I'm sorry to bother you but this is my fourth time here and I have a cab waiting, could I just please have my passport back?" He stopped jabbing at the letters with his index fingers and looked up, pushed his chair back, threw back the door of the cupboard and grabbed my passport. He was deliberately making me wait.
He walked me back to the receptionist and handed me a piece of paper and told me to write down why I did not have an onward ticket. I told him that I prefer to buy them as I go and that I'd be probably flying out of Dhaka in a week or so. "Then write it down" he gruffly responded pushing the paper toward me. "Then you also have to write that you will not be working in Bangladesh and are only going as a tourist." I chuckled but of course was a bit disappointed since I was really planning on bussing tables at a seedy teashop somewhere near a nice little slum by some railroad tracks. What in the name of God are these people thinking? I scribbled what I was told and signed it and asked him, "Are we finally done with this?" He gritted his teeth and jerked his head. I snatched up my passport threw in my purse and smiling I pushed the door open, "You've really been delightful - thank you soooo much."
Working my way through the airport I heard someone call my name. I spun around and it was the man from the Biman office downtown. He was dressed in a fancy uniform and doing double duty when the flights come in by working the counters, as well. He directed me where to go and jokingly said he'd personally take me all the way to Sylhet to my friend's house on piggy-back. When I was boarding the plane he was there again welcoming everyone and wishing us all an enjoyable flight.
The plane itself had surely seen better decades but it was a large French Airbus and after four propeller planes in the past two months I was thrilled to fly on a large jet again. The flight attendants in their beautiful saris greeted us and told us to sit wherever we liked so I opted for first class but was asked to sit a bit further back. The screens dropped down as we began to taxi and a flag appeared on the screen followed by Arabic calligraphy. A voiceover of a man's booming baritone crackled out something and I read the subtitles, "Allah is Great! Allah is Great!" The rest of this segment was a four minute prayer about safe travels that frankly I found a bit ominous and there was a hint of finality that was a bit unsettling. I looked at the Biman airlines magazine and on the back was a collection of their old covers and at the top was a shot of the World Trade Center. I felt sick.
We touched down in Dhaka safely and I proceeded to the chaos of Biman's "In Transit" counter along with maybe fifty other people, several screaming children and some very angry men slapping their passports around. My flight in the morning up to Sylhet included a free hotel stay, airport transfer, dinner and breakfast and I since I was still marveling at how low my ticket price was I didn't feel the need to be as pushy. I waited patiently as the befuddled though polite man behind the counter tried to grasp that my transfer the next morning was a domestic flight and that I was actually staying in Bangladesh. Once he finally understood he handed me a hotel token and told me to follow a man who was calling out, "This way for transfers!" There was a line at immigration of over a hundred people under a sign for transfers and perhaps thirty people in the Bangladeshi passport holders' line and then was just me as the only foreigner actually staying in Bangladesh.
I stood outside of the mid-century modern airport a bit shocked as to how chic it was and waited for the shuttle to the hotel. A nice local couple, he in suite and tie and she in black hijab covering all but her face asked about my travel plans and welcomed me to Bangladesh and made suggestions for my trip. It was a short ride to the hotel, which wasn't nearly as depressing as I thought it'd be and the staff was extremely welcoming. After I put my bag in my room and washed up I was shown to a little dining area upstairs and was brought some spicy curried vegetables and rice and a cup of hot tea and someone turned on the BBC for me. They folded my napkin and suggested another more comfortable place for me to sit and made polite small talk.
When I booked my ticket several days ago I called my former coworker, Aktar in Sylhet several times but I was never able to get through. While he had an idea that I was coming neither he nor I knew the dates when I last spoke with him in December. Now here I was in Bangladesh and heading in his direction in the morning and I didn't even have his actual address and his phone number wasn't working. The front desk clerks worked tirelessly calling his line and text messaging his phone and offering advice on how to get to Aktar's village after I landed in Sylhet. They even tried to get their antiquated behemoth of a computer up and running so that I could check my email but two hours later we gave up and I went to bed.
I'd barely slept a wink when five hours after I'd tucked in I was back in the dining room eating breakfast. The clerk rushed over smiling and told me that the computer was up and that he'd just signed on to the Internet for me. He'd been trying all night long. I guzzled my last cup of coffee and followed him downstairs. The computer was working but the connection was lost. He was determined and twenty minutes later when I told him not to worry about it he still insisted on getting me on line.
He finally gave up when the airport bus pulled up and was honking its horn. He jumped up and grabbed my suitcase and pressed speed dial on his phone. Escorting me to the bus he told me he tried calling Aktar for me all night but he hadn't been able to get through. I was genuinely grateful and I thanked him profusely for his tenacity and kindness. "It is my duty to help you -you are a guest in my country" he insisted. He put my luggage on the bus and when I tried to tip him he refused and waved and said, "Welcome to Bangladesh, Madame. I hope you enjoy your stay in our country."
It seems the real Bangladeshi ambassadors don't work at any embassy at all.