Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bangladesh was a wake-up call from the beauty and sweetness of Sri Lanka.  It sucker punches you and reminds you in an instant that you are no longer in a reasonable place, and your comfort, patience, and cleanliness are no longer things you can take for granted.  Since I generally like my countries how I like my blue cheese - as intense and pungent as possible - I think I found a real winner here.   But with three times the population density of India (I didn’t know that was even possible), and half its GDP per capita (Also unfathomable) I suppose everything is exactly as you would expect.  It’s poor, beyond description.  And people are everywhere.  Everywhere.  Actually, aside from city-state countries like Singapore or Hong Kong, Bangladesh has the highest population density of any country in the world.  So much for personal space.

Before arriving in Bangladesh, I had naively assumed that India was the top of the food chain when it came to countries that would confound, amaze, and test your limits at the same time.  But Bangladesh is certainly a new contender.  And I’m not sure exactly why, but it never really occurred to me that Bangladesh should be on my travel radar.  When I think of visiting this part of the world I think of India, it’s charming neighbor in the North, Nepal; or that perfectly sized island I just departed in the South, Sri Lanka.  For some reason Bangladesh never occurred to me, hiding in plain sight.  And it seems like I’m not the only one who has this oversight.  So while Bangladesh has all of India’s intensity, it has none of its tourists.  There were only two other Caucasian faces on my entire flight, and they were both dressed in suits…

The first thing I noticed when I exited the Dhaka airport is that all of the vehicles waiting beyond an unreasonably large crowd of people looked broken.  Like each car, bus, and rickshaw had all at some point been completely disassembled, each individual piece beaten with hammers, then reassembled by 10-year-olds, and painted by toddlers.  As I got in a warped rickshaw, enclosed with a bent cage, an airport traffic guard started smashing the top of the rickshaw, indicating that it was time for us to go.  He carried an official, and well-used looking bat for this purpose.  Okay.  Then we start driving, but it’s like high speed bumper cars in a continuous smash up derby.  After almost reaching highway speed, traffic stops dead.  We wedge our little rickshaw between two busses, but get rear-ended in the process, and with considerable force.  My driver doesn’t even look in his mirror.   I guess that wasn’t a big deal?  Since this first trip I have been rear-eneded in a cycle rickshaw, two busses, and a taxi.  This is just how you drive, apparently.  In terms of ridiculous driving conditions, I honestly thought I had seen it all, but this tops everything.  And near-continuous honking is nothing new, but here people install special sirens and car alarms they turn on while driving.  This way you don’t have to tire your hand by holding down your horn.  Really??

And Dhaka is full.  Completely full.  Every bus is bursting, and every inch of road is full of bursting busses.  The remaining slivers of space are fought over fiercely by countless bicycle rickshaws, and then everyone else.  Being outside is like being in the front row of a mosh pit.  Like walking to your car after the Superbowl.  But it never stops.  I could see into an apartment building through the window of my guesthouse, and each little apartment was so full it looked like they were all hosting a Christmas dinner.  They were all packed.  No room to spare anywhere.

But despite all of this, the people are somehow so warm and hospitable it’s impossible to understand.  Within minutes of leaving my guesthouse, I always seem to attract an unofficial guide.  This is common in other countries as well, but it’s often just a trick to guilt tourists into paying the pretend guide for their service, or visiting their ‘brothers’ souvenir shop.  Bangladesh is the only place I’ve been where it seems like this attention is always genuine.  My first day exploring Dhaka, I ended up being taken on a boat tour across the river to meet my ‘guides’ uncle and see where he worked.  Then his uncle invited me up to his impossibly small crumbling apartment to share a lunch of mutton curry his wife made especially for me.  At the end of the day, my hosts had teary eyes as they said their goodbyes, and insisted that I come back again as soon as possible. Unreal.  While negotiating rickshaw fares, I often unwittingly attract an English speaking local who ensures I’m getting a fair price, often yelling at the driver about how I should be treated as a guest.   It’s so bewildering to find hospitality unlike I have ever experienced in a city that consistently makes the short-list for rankings of the most un-livable city in the world.  What a place.