Welcome to Dhaka!
After a long 25 hours of traveling from Boston — Washington DC — Dubai — Dhaka (whew!) I arrived in Bangladesh! From experience I have learned that from the moment you pass through the security check until you emerge from customs into the sunlight of a new environment, slipping into a state of semi-consciousness is the only way to sanely survive the hours of perpetual movement. The world of airports is very much a parallel universe that obeys no rules of time and space.
Often traveling feels like entering a time machine from the US, moving within a sanitized world of duty free shopping, spirits, coffee, and an endless sea of seats and walkways, and landing into… well, in this case, chaos.
If I may be so cliché as to quote my guidebook (which I recommend all travelers carry with them despite how long they will be somewhere or how familiar they may already be with the environment. I often wonder what new sights I would come across if I picked up a guide book for my own home state…), the first paragraph I read about my temporary home for the next three months, the capital city of Dhaka:
Dhaka is more than just a city; it’s a giant whirlpool that sucks in anything and anyone that comes within its furious grasp. Around and around it sends them, like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. Millions of individual pursuits constantly churn together into a frenzy of collective activity- an urban melting pot forever bubbling over.
I can’t quite decide if the Lonely Planet writers are trying to entice or discourage visitors… either way Bangladesh does not have a bustling tourist industry.
I am staying at a guest house for the first few days, allowing me to adjust to the time difference while enjoying some home cooked meals.
As described above the city of Dhaka is a bustling, chaotic flow of humanity. On top of the constant activity it is monsoon season. Today I decided to walk to a nearby coffee shop and quickly realized that, aside from the constant state of traffic jam, there is lots and lots of mud.
On my afternoon outing I considered taking a rickshaw (once I have a better grasp on the environment and feel more comfortable taking my camera out I can take some photos of the various modes of transportation here… for now you will have to do with Google and the few images I capture here and there with my phone), but for a reason that I still don’t understand decided that walking would give me a better sense of my location. Well, after meandering for about 45 minutes I succumbed to the beckoning of a rickshaw driver. First, note that streets are not marked so the only indication of where you are standing is by the house addresses, luckily clearly marked by placards outside of each gate. Street and house numbers, however, are not ordered and therefore don’t provide a grid to follow to your destination. Therefore, when I say I meandered around, I really was doing just that. While the rickshaw got my feet out of the mud and provided a nice breeze in the balmy, so-humid-it-is-constantly-on-the-brink-of-raining weather, the driver also did not know where I was trying to go. Patience and a smile, after 45 minutes of more meandering, stopping for the driver (cyclist?) to ask security guards directions, more meandering, more stopping, attracting five or six men to give their input as to where we were going, more meandering, gathering another crowd, and ultimately a boy jogging along while the rickshaw followed, finally delivered me to the café where you can find me now. Success! Should I have taken up the offer to call a driver from my office to drive me anywhere I wanted for the afternoon? Nah.
As a side note, for every woman you see approximately 100-200 men. (Remember, this is a country of 165 million people in an area roughly the size of the US state of Georgia) All of the staff in the guest house and restaurants and taxi/rickshaw/car/bus drivers… that I have come across so far are men. There are a few reasons for this and I will have a better, more balanced understanding the longer I am here, but from research over the past few months this public appearance of imbalance is in part due to the culture of purdah. Purdah is the restricted movement of women outside of the house. The practice of purdah is most common in Muslim and South Asian countries (both categories of which Bangladesh belongs to). However, the practice of veiling and/or socially excluding women stemmed from tradition in the Middle East among many religious groups before the founding of Islam. Therefore, purdah was incorporated into Islam based on regional practice versus emerging from Islam.
So I arrived in the country on Wednesday evening and now it is Saturday evening- what have I been doing? Thursday morning and early afternoon I cycled between eating, sleeping, and email. I was rescued from my third nap of the day by my supervisor who brought me to join with her and two other young women I will be working with for coffee. After learning that just a few days prior the budget for the research project I was going to be leading was cut by 90% (just comical, really), we discussed two other ongoing projects that I will work on, including the oversight of research being conducted in the southern province of Chittagong and the mapping of a nutrition program (with my shiny new GIS- geographic information systems- skills, of course with which I had already mapped out my prior research project area and distribution points. Good practice…!). I am looking forward to the work, especially to venture out of the city to see our project sites.
After coffee I met up with a friend of a friend, a Bangladeshi who went to undergraduate in the US, for dinner and a comedy show- a very enjoyable evening (of course outside of being pointed out to provide one of the comedians with 90% of his jokes as I was 1) the only white person in the room, 2) the only American, and 3) had arrived in the country just 26 hours prior– luckily his jokes were hysterical, even to me, and he had plenty of context as he lived in the US for 20 years).
Friday was a busy day; I accompanied two of the women I had coffee with on Thursday to the large city New Market- a market quite comparable to the large indoor/outdoor markets in Thailand and Cambodia, just with 10 times the number of people. It was great to follow them around and get a feel for where to find things (well, no, of course I could never retrace our steps to, for example, the great fabric stall we found tucked away among the thousands of shops in the market).
Remember, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of textiles globally, so you really can find anything in these markets. I also appreciated the keen perception of one of my colleagues in recognizing when, as she so aptly put it, were feeling a bit harried and needed to stop for a drink and snack. After a rousing, sweaty few hours at the market we went over to an upscale clothing shop where I found a few salwar kameez. In Bangladesh, more than anywhere else I have lived, the women wear traditional clothing. Therefore, to best fit in and avoid overheating, both Bangladeshi and foreign women alike wear traditional clothing; luckily, some of them are super cute. Luckily I brought some clothing that will be perfectly appropriate for my time here, but a slight overhaul of my wardrobe for the time being will be necessary. And I have picked out pieces that I can easily pull of wearing back at home with jeans.
After a long day of shopping we made the necessary beeline to one of the girl’s houses to make smoothies and coffee before I headed back to the guest house. Tomorrow, Sunday, is my first day of work (the work week calendar of Sunday through Thursday follows the Muslim prayer calendar).
To leave you with something interesting, the largest NGO (non-governmental organization) in the world is Bangladeshi! www.brac.net