So we've finally made it to the capital city, where the air is as thick, hot and unpleasant as warm sewage.
It's a public holiday, so perhaps a little quieter than usual, which isn't really very quiet. We take a horrendous hotel room, which reeks of urine, has a colony of roaches in residence and is strategically placed above one of the noisiest intersections in Dhaka!
Appropriately, the room has a picture of the Titanic on the wall with the words 'O Lord carry us across the ocean of life'. Not a particularly positive omen! For lunch we end up in a canteen where we sit in the 'women's booth' which is a curtained off area where you can escape the starers. Shame the place only serves suspicious looking meat, as it's a good escape! We attempt to find some dinner that night, but only make it to the nearby corner where we are faced with a long line of policemen decked out in riot gear, causing us to beat a hasty retreat. As I drop off to sleep I hear some explosions and can't tell if they're fireworks or something more devious. Needless to say we move to a hotel in the business district the next day.
We decide to do a cycle rickshaw tour
of the town on our second day and for a small fee are taken under the wing of an English-speaking rickshaw wallah who plies his trade out the front of our hotel. Our negotiations for hiring the guy are observed by most people in the street (who stand around us in a circle) and the hotel security guard offers to act as witness to the amount the rickshaw wallah agrees to! The rickshaw wallah is about as skinny as he could possibly be, but has just purchased a brand new cycle rickshaw (for US$200 he proudly tells us), so he surely can't be starving. It is predicted that there are some 600,000 cycle rickshaws in the city, so it's a pretty competitive business to be in. His rickshaw is the most beautiful one we've seen with candle holders on the handlebars, and trails of brightly covered plastic trailing from here and there. We don't fit inside the canopy, so he supplies us with an umbrella to protect us from the searing sun.
As we get going our guy tells us that he knows we were staying in the hotel in Old Dhaka the previous night - how word spreads in a city of 12 million people! It's a novelty to see women in these narrow streets crowded with men going about their business. The light is blocked out by the heavy pollution and the thick tangles of wires running along either side of the street. We visit some busy market streets, mosques
(one where the decorative tiles inside weirdly depict Mount Fuji in Japan), a palace
, an Armenian church and the old fort. It's quite an experience and we end the day visiting an enormous bazaar where I buy myself a locally made salwar kameez (long top, baggy trousers and scarf suit) in an attempt to fit in a little better. Our poor man must be exhausted after cycling us around all day, but it's certainly the only way to get around in this town.
On our second day of sightseeing we head out of Dhaka to a village called Mograpara. Unfortunately the trip involves another dreaded Bangladeshi bus. Each bus has a lad or 'bus wallah' whose job it is to loudly declare the bus destination to potential passengers as the driver urgently inches the bus forward. He bundles takers onto the bus with force and inevitably the bus then sits there for at least another 15 minutes. When the bus does get going it generally stops about 100m down the road for fuel. When the bus finally gets going (at dangerously high speeds) these guys spend the rest of their time hanging perilously from the side of the bus. They have a complex series of knocks (delivered to the side of the bus) that enables them to communicate with the driver (you generally can't hear much else over the chugging engines). Some even has metal batons with which they zealously attack other buses that get too close. Believe me, this happens often and I've never seen such beaten up old wrecks in any other country - the buses are more bog than metal! Mind you, this is in the county where bottled water proudly declares on the label 'Arsenic Free!'. Hmmm... reassuring.
After suffering a terrifying journey along the atrociously polluted main highway, with the obligatory stares of all and sundry on the bus, we disembark not too far from the village. We literally step down of the bus and straight into yet another cycle rickshaw and off we go through the very pretty countryside. The museum, housed inside an old palace, is closed and nobody speaks English, so we head of further to see the remains of the other mansion houses which originally belonged to wealthy Hindu merchants who have long since abandoned them.
The main street is lovely and has the air of a ghost town with mansions crumbling on either side, mainly held together by twisting vines.
On our last day in Old Dhaka we headed off with our rickshaw wallah for another tour. We visit the Baldha Gardens (also known, we're told, as 'Lover's Garden). Inside are many couples canoodling in a very respectable way, despite the fact that they are scandalously engaging in 'love matches', as opposed to arranged marriages. It seems hilarious, but Tim and I have been asked numerous times whether our relationship was a 'love' or 'arranged' match!! We have a quick trip along the chaotic waterfront market area - the location of a newsworthy incident we read about the next day in the newspaper - 'AT LEAST FIVE DEAD AS PICNICKERS GO BESERK!' Glad we avoided that one. Our next stop is to visit one of Dhaka's famous artists who specialises in 'rickshaw art'. His name is Ahmed and once we have got him out of bed (!) he shows us his artwork, all of which is painted on sheets of metal. His designs range from traditional river scenes to folk designs, and our personal favourite, the Bangla movie posters. These ones are awesomely gruesome and he can actually custom make them with your image as one of the stars if you give him photographs.
We're not in Dhaka long enough to organise this, but make sure we get Ahmed's details so we can order one later. He shows us about every business card he has ever been given, as well as publications and photos of shows he has had, including 'Traffic Art' at the British Museum in London and a show in Japan. If anyone is interested in this artist his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
On the train journey from Rajshahi to Dhaka we spot the first Westerners. They are an older couple who have been living in Bangladesh for many years and teach at the University in Rajshahi. They say the only see tourists once in a blue moon and that it's usually friends or family that they have invited! We make friends with a couple of very friendly businessmen who are sitting opposite us and spend a good 5 hours chatting with them. We cross the enormous Jamuna river (about 3km wide) on the one and only bridge and are soon pulling into our final destination, which is some way out of Dhaka. The train pulling out of the station as we pull in is absolutely rammed with people - hanging out the doors and windows and balancing precariously on the roof. Our new friends direct us into a taxi then onto a bus before saying goodbye. They pay all the fares for us, but won't accept any money. They have given us their phone numbers and insist we call them if we need any help at all while we're in Dhaka. We've never experienced such profound hospitality before!