Saalam Bangladesh

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Bangladesh  ,
Monday, March 14, 2005

Let's get one thing out of the way right now and not sugar-coat it: Dhaka is a brimming squat toilet. Seriously, it's got some valiant attempts at beautification, i.e. parks, sculptures in roundabouts, etc. but let's face it the place is a sewer.

To be fair I only spent two days here but I'm pretty damn sure that anymore time here and I'd have lost my mind. I'd been here no longer than 30 minutes when I thought that I should have stayed in Beani Bazaar another day. Before I do anything in a new place I like to walk around and get my bearings and soak in the feel of a place before I head out to do any sightseeing. An hour later and I was content to waste the rest of the day in an Internet café updating the travelogue and responding to a tremendous amount of emails that went unanswered while I was under the watchful eyes of the Burmese junta.

The next day I felt I should see some things so I hired a rickshaw and asked him to take me to see some sites and then drop me off at a large bazaar. Along the way he showed me some nice places that were worth photographing but not necessarily interesting enough to actually have him slow down. As we approached the market I noticed a man hike up his lungi and squat in the sewer-flooded gutter. I paid my fare and navigating a place to step over the urine filled gorge I covered my mouth and gagged. If ever in my life I needed a nosegay this was it but I'd have settled for two whittled corks to shove up my nostrils and toilet bowl crystal to chew on. Sometimes when walking down the street here or in a rickshaw or cab a vile odor from the bowels of Dhaka wafts up a stench of blood, rotten fish and soured milk. It's so hideous that I've actually held my breath hoping it would blow away or that I'd be able to escape.

Later I went to a former palace, which had it been better organized and faithful to the period and had some extensive renovations it would have been very interesting. That said if the money needed to make it a terrific museum had been spent I have said it should have been to fix the sewers and give proper housing to the homeless. Nonetheless it would turn out to be an excellent excursion as Bangladesh's greatest attraction presented itself once more: Bangladeshi hospitality. I was trailed for about five minutes by seven curious teenage boys who finally worked up the nerve to ask me the requisite queries, "Where are you from?" and "How do you like out country?" As they continued to shadow me they put on their sunglass and spoke in English loudly in a patent yet endearing attempt to impress me. Later they all lined up and introduced themselves as though I were a visiting dignitary. When we'd reached the last room I said goodbye to them and walked back to the cloakroom to retrieve my bag when one of them came up from behind me. "Madam", he stuttered, "Will you please accept this gift from us and please continue to love our country?" He held out his hand and gave me a pack of gum. With my right hand on my chest I lowered my head and accepted it as graciously as it was offered.

Two days ago while traveling down to Dhaka on a surprisingly nice bus on shockingly smooth well-paved roads we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. In the ladies room another woman and I were trying to wash our hands but the faucets weren't working so I gave her a handiwipe and that got us talking about her relatives in New York and my travel plans. We decided to have lunch together and in the process had terrific conversation and then when the bill came I reached for my bag but I learned that she'd already taken care of it. I begged her to let me pay for it but she insisted, "You are a guest in our country - it is my pleasure" she intoned in an educated upper class accent.

Last night at the Internet café while typing up the latest entry a sneaky though charming interlocutor noticed that I had typed not only the name of his country but also of his birthplace, Sylhet. He asked if I'd been there and when I told him that I had we chatted a bit and I gave him my web address for my travelogue and we said goodnight. An hour later when I got up to pay the bill I learned that he'd already taken care of it.

At the airport today I met a woman who was moving to London to go to school on a scholarship she was awarded from a division of UNICEF. It was her first time leaving the country and she would be all alone in the UK until her husband arrives in three months time and I was helping her as much as she was helping me. We ended up sitting next to each on the flight to Abu Dhabi before we split to catch our connecting flights. "Christina, I'm scared", she confessed, "I don't know how to use this toilet on the plane." I answered her questions and gave advice and an anecdote about how when I went to India I didn't understand how to use a squat toilet and had to ask. When we arrived in the capital of the United Arab Emirates' swishy airport we had some time to kill. We went to a little café and I bought us some cakes and coffee and bottles of water and then I figured out her gate and walked her to the boarding area. When she tried to thank me I shushed her, "Do you have any idea the depth of gratitude I owe the people of Bangladesh? It'll take a lifetime to pay it all back and I'm happy to start now."

When I was in Sylhet we were walking to the bus station when I asked Aktar's friend about a concrete statue we'd passed. He told me the stylized flower was "a lotus blossom -- it's the national flower of Bangladesh."

I thought about that again today as we were taxiing for takeoff. From the depths of mud it stems above stagnant ponds, its blossom proud and beautiful and its scent sweetly fragrant.

How fitting.

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Ashik on

A great article depicting the deep contrast of bangladeshi society

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