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I went out into Dhaka today for the first time outside of the confines of an a/c car today. I kinda fell in love, kinda. There are certainly distinct neighbourhoods of Dhaka. I went to the wealthy, embassy area which was whatever, standard fare, I ate lunch at El Toro, described in the Lonely Planet as ‘certainly the best Mexican food in the sub-continent’ and it was pretty good, i guess. I don’t have much to compare it to as I’m such a novice with Mexican food. Then I kinda did my own thing, in the way I do things my way when I travel alone, and I had some pretty random experiences. Armed with the Lonely Planet map, I walked to this major road and jumped on a bus heading south into Central Dhaka, my destination was the Liberation War Museum (commemorating the struggles for independence from the Brits and from the Pakis).
So there was this cool scene on the bus, and I was surreptitiously taking photos of people with my camera, looking the other way and resting it on my knee and clicking on the button with the underside of my knuckle, not my fingertip. Anyway the guy across from me noticed and was glaring at me the whole time and then accused me of being a government spy, and I’m like “no!” and he just didn’t like me but that was the end of it. And then I got off and this guy got off with me and asked if i was a photo-journalist, and I said.. “well, I guess I am, yeah” and so he told me he worked for a magazine and wanted me to come see his office, so i said sure, why not, and we walked through some streets and then a long the rail line, which was lined with slums, really horrible slums (much worse depravity than you see in Mumbai, real squalor, shitty, polluted, filth and the people didn’t have the same sparkle in their eye as those in Mumbai seemed to). So that was really eye-opening. I took some photos which I’ll upload, I might go back there.
Then we get to his office and he shows me the magazine and its this really low-grade small thing in Bengali with virtually no pictures, and they serve me tea and are being very polite and this guy has a really bad stutter and not great English so communicating was really awkward, the whole thing was kinda awkward, and I’m like, so I don’t know Bengali, and your newspaper doesn’t have pictures… and hes like… ummm yeah… and anyway I put some photos from some natural areas of Bangladesh (waterfall, forest and whatnot) on his computer which he says he might use, but he didn’t seem very interested, and then as we walked out he said that he wanted me to come back again, for friendship. Even though we could barely communicate and the situation was palpably awkward, this guy just wanted to be my friend, or maybe he wanted the status of a white friend.
Anyway, then I take a bicycle rickshaw to the museum, which is a scary ride. The experience of bicycle rickshaws on Dhaka streets is an experience which requires pages of writing, in the same way as Mumbai’s Western Railway does (although the trains in Mumbai probably require three times as much writing). These bicycle rickshaws are totally ubiquitous, are decorated in such a stunning and wondrous way, and the etiquette of their weaving through traffic is fascinating. Once I get more experience I’ll try to describe it better. Anyway, get to the War Museum, which is actually really inspiring and emotive and well done, with posters saying things like “a world of peace, tolerance and respect is possible if people work towards it. And it will start with me.” stuff like that. There are also the horrifying pictures of mass graves and starving people and heads blown off, really unnerving stuff, yet it all has a positive spin as they won their liberation and emerged heroic victors (so different from the Jewish experience, made me feel quite weird but don’t want to get into it here).
Anyway, that closed at 6. on the way out a woman working there stopped me for the usual “which country?” but she was really warm and natural around me, and had good English, and then said “my house is nearby, I will take you” so I went with it. She bought me a coconut on the way home and took me to her father’s home. They gave me tea and biscuits and the usual banter with an overly-educated Indian trying to impress you with his English vocabularly and knowledge (getting a kick out of beating you at your own game kinda) proceeded and then the woman took me down to the street and walked me to a rickshaw wallah, and we were talking, and we found out we had the same birthday, and as we were crossing roads she would hold my arm by the wrist which was really nice, and I just connected with her even though she was some 32-year old Bangladeshi woman. She started telling me how she’s looking for a husband, and that she’s on couchsurfing, and she then took the rickshaw with me cos it was dark. Anyway, i told her about my plans to be in a dhollywood movie, and she said she would work it out, cos she knew someone who made films. so we have plans to meet on Sunday and watch a dhollywood movie (dhaka-hollywood a la bollywood) and then try to get me into a movie somehow. Hope it works out.
To finish off the day I had dinner with Khurrum’s extended family. He has about 50 cousins. Anyway, one cousin works for the World Bank (pretty awesome) and invited Khurrum and I to go to the office and that we could check out one of the NGO’s doing development work that they are funding. Pretty sweet. I have all this opportunity in Dhaka and so much I want to do, photography, writing articles, being in films, witnessing NGOs, seeing the sights, that I want to spend another 5 days here easily but aren’t sure if I have the time. So all in all it was an interesting day in Dhaka which gave me a taste which I really liked and would love to spend more time here, but alas I am heading up north in an a/c car seeing Bangladesh through a window (nothing at all to complain about, trust me).
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To catch you up to speed, I left Bombay, tearful, and took a flight to Calcutta, where I got my visa to Bangladesh and hung out for 2 days, then took a 12 hour bus to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Here the story shall begin:
After a too short bus ride through the gorgeous Bangladeshi countryside, I have arrived in Dhaka. I left Calcutta at the tasty hour of 5am (involving a 4:22 alarm clock and 4:23 reminder with alarm), I semi-consciously rocked on my overly air-conditioned seat through some of the greenest and wettest countryside i’ve ever seen, grudgingly falling in and out of sleep. The kaffafle at the border crossing was what was to be expected: being hurried into different offices and queues which all appeared the same, where some babu (beaurocrat) would check my Bangladeshi visa and my photo/ID page, and then look through all the other pages, seemingly to check if they were all there, and then return to my Bangladeshi visa, and repeat said process until someone else interrupted them by barking a question in Bengali. But I was still dazed from my 3 hours of sleep that it all just passed through me without too much concern.
I spent the bus trip gawking out the window and actively “appreciating” (entertaining thoughts such as “you are so lucky and privileged to see such scenes – appreciate this!, this will not come again, you are young and will only appreciate this in the future, do appreciate this” etc.), reading through a book called ‘Lajja’ (Shame) about the attacks on the Hindu community in Bangladesh following the destruction of that mosque in UP in Dec 92 (which has since been banned in Bangladesh, i picked it up at a bookstore in Cal) and being annoyed at myself for not having the energy to reach into my bag to take out my camera and shoot as much as I should, as I was so debilitated and tired.
Got into Dhaka and was somewhat underwhelmed by what Lonely Planet described as “one of the most frenetic places on the planet” but maybe that will eventuate. The first thing I noticed that distinguished it from the standard Asian bustling boom-town was cycle rickshaws, which easily account for 70% of all vehicles on the tightly packed roads of the city. These guys are kinda cute (about the same cuteness as bombay’s auto-rickshaws) and kinda annoying, but you have to find them endearing as they are just so elaborately coloured in such an unbridled, child-like way. They have a big crown at the back, where the passenger sits, which always reminds me of a Styracosaurus, and when there are so many together (which is like, always), they look almost like a collection of blooming flowers of different colours. So the scene is this slow moving stream of variegated flowers, punctuated by overbearing and ruthless trucks and buses, and the odd 4WD of one of the elite (which there are also no shortage of in the most corrupt country on the planet). The slums aren’t as apparent as in Bombay, and there isn’t as much English signing, but other than that it is your usual. It does feel a bit more ‘Asian’ though as more people are wearing longyis, there is more wood around, and people look slightly more Asian.
So I arrive at the bus station, and call Khurrum, my contact in Dhaka who Jocelyn set me up with, she knew him from her undergrad days at Brandeis. He decides that he will send me a car to pick me up. 45 mins later, while I am enjoying the cool humidity and the sprinkling of rain through the window and furtively reading this contraband polemic novel, I am greeted by this dude, who asks “Benzi?” I greet him with a wide smile and I am helped outside to a 4wd with automatic windows and even an automatic rear window, and we skittle through the traffic, out of Dhaka proper, and into the wealthy new development where Khurrum lives.
After a hearty dinner at Khurrum’s uncle and aunty’s place, the next morning I slept in till 10, had breakfast (a repeat of dinner, fried egg, buttery paratha, some aluu), read the economist, and writing emails. Khurrum is planning all these trips for me around Bangladesh. In 45 mins we are driving up to the northern border with India (i think its Manipur or Nagaland, one of the North-East states), so we can see the mountains there. Then on Saturday we are going to Sylhet, a big tea-producing region, and around that area. I’ll be very happy to be in the lush, tropical countryside, taking photos.
More updates to come.
I’m sure you are sick of hearing me say this by now, but you can check out photos from my trip at www.flickr.com/photos/benjiholzman .
All my love,
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