Monday, April 11, 2016

Country #101 with a Bang..ladesh

It is fair to say that Dhaka, Bangladesh is not on many "Must-see" lists of tourist destinations and I sort of understand why. It is crowded, insanely so. The greater city alone has a population of 18 million people so finding a moment of peace and quiet is a near impossibility. The traffic...oh, sweet ever-loving Zeus...the traffic is unrelenting. It can (and did) take close to three hours to go the equivalent of five miles. The historic sites, despite the valiant efforts of their caretakers, are in varying states of disrepair. The mosquitos, all 5 kajillion of them, will be first to greet you at the airport en masse. At this moment, every square inch of me that was exposed at landing is more welt than skin. During the day, it is hot, humid and sticky and a true test of the whole "try to stay conservatively dressed in a Muslim country" thing. Bottom line, it is not an easy city to travel in.

Yet here I was in my first post-100 country, hoping to see as such as I could.  Our hotel was close to Mosquito International Airport, which is at the other end of the city from the historic area, a fact that led me to my first lesson in Dhaka 101.  If you think you can head into town anytime after 9am, you are wrong.  I mean, theoretically you could try, but don't expect to, you know, actually move.

I had first seen my hotel bed at 6am and was at the concierge desk four hours later, at 10am, asking our new friend Lasker for advice on what to see.  The only options available to us were to head to the nearby mall or to go back to sleep.  Hatred of shopping closely beat out FOMO and I was back in bed by 10:30am.  Which means that by 5pm, I was awake, antsy and frustrated that I had blown the first day.

Sensing that more sleep was not the answer, Lasker came up with a new game plan.  He got us a tuktuk (or CNG, which stands for what they run on, Compressed Natural Gas) and pointed us in the direction of Gulshan, a higher end neighborhood that is home to a couple of antique shops and art galleries.  Technically, it was still shopping but at least it was interesting shopping.  

As night set and the stores began to close, we found ourselves in need of an ATM and ended up at the Westin, a five star compound full of Western business people, most of whom seemed to know very little about their surroundings.  "We haven't left the hotel" was a sadly common refrain. We heard this repeatedly as we enjoyed the hotel's rooftop bar.  

What a shame for them because they are seriously missing out.  We ended up taking a short rickshaw ride (which is a trip all in itself) to Khazana, the best Indian restaurant I have ever been to.

Day two would be more productive still.  We booked a tour with Lasker, beginning at 7am and taking us into the heart of Old Dhaka.  By virtue of leaving early, it would only take us three hours to get downtown, which sounds pretty extreme but in fact provided us with a front row seat to life in Dhaka. We watched as CNGs, bicycle rickshaws, carts, horse carriages and pedestrians balancing loads of produce on their heads ambled by.

To say it is organized chaos is to imply that there is some order to this disorder.  And there must be because, although every square inch was congested with humanity in all shapes and sizes, no one seemed the least bit fazed by it all.  Cars were bumping into rickshaws.  Pedestrians were narrowly being missed (or not, I saw a cop nearly lose a toe to a rickshaw tire).  Our own van picked up a scratch from an encounter with a CNG. Here was the ultimate recipe for road rage on an epic heretofore unforeseen scale yet everyone took it in stride.  To me, it demonstrated a level of zen and patience that no amount of yoga could hope to reproduce.

All vehicles bear multiple scars from this daily game of bumper cars.

Rickshaws pedal past the oldest movie theater in the city

We eventually made it to our first destination, a wholesale fabrics market.  Whether you are wearing something from Target or from the finest in Gucci couture, the odds are good that it has passed through Bangladesh at some point.  Corporate buyers from all over the world come to purchase fabrics and to avail themselves of the cheap skilled labor that Dhaka offers. Just one look at the list of major companies that were implicated when just one garment industry building collapsed in 2013 gives you an idea of the scale of production.

Fabrics of all kinds are available from $1-2 a yard.
You would think that the sight of six very out-of-place Westerners walking around (and me being the only female in this very male environment) would cause some commotion.  In similar scenarios, I'm used to aggressive salespeople trying to lure you into their shops and beggars coming out of the woodwork but nothing could be further from the truth.  While we understandably drew some curiosity, no one really approached us.  Even later in the day, when I decided to buy a salwar kameez, there was zero hard sell.

Next to the market was the Ahsan Manzil, a former palace where Sheikh Enayet Ullah used to collect beautiful women the way some people now collect shot glasses.  They were not his wives, per se, he would just gather them from different countries and have them parade around the palace grounds dressed in the most opulent finery.

Today, it is a museum featuring photos of the royal family, recreations of several rooms, an assortment of ancient medical instruments (the Sheik saw to it that a hospital was built) and even the skull of his favorite elephant.

While they did not permit cameras in the museum, they did permit our van to enter the grounds to wait for us.  We jumped in eager to get to the next spot.  But you know that saying about the best laid plans...well, it goes double in Bangladesh.  We were only traveling a few blocks to the Liberation Museum but at that same moment, the ex-Prime Minister was scheduled to appear in the nearby courthouse.  As a result of this, they completely shut down all the streets in the vicinity, meaning we went from slow-moving traffic to no-moving traffic. For one hour, we sat in the same spot. No one honked, no one freaked out but sit, we did.  A school bus dislodged all its young passengers, figuring the kids could get further on foot.  A rickshaw driver gently doodled on the dusty blackout windows of our van with his finger.  And we sat.

Until one hour later, when they finally re-opened the roads, and we were finally able to move. We would now have to skip a good portion of our tour in order to get back before the "heavy" traffic caught us on the way back to the hotel.  For this, I desperately hoped that the ex-PM had lost her case.  She hadn't.

The Liberation War Museum, which also did not allow cameras, was exceedingly well-done.  It stems from the collection of one man who wanted to chronicle the atrocities committed during the nine month fight for independence from Pakistan.  The displays, including a stack of human skulls, make it impossible to ignore the genocide that the Pakistanis perpetrated on the Bengali people.  There is even a poster for a benefit for Bangladesh organized by George Harrison.  As for the US involvement,  Nixon was siding with the Pakistanis, which is demonstrated via declassified documents. At the moment, the collection is displayed in the founder's two-story home but plans for a larger museum are underway.

Busts of prominent Bengalis..and Einstein.
Our final stop was Lalbagh Fort, a 17th century Mughal complex that has definitely seen better days. The general and ruler Shaista Khan was in charge of the construction when his daughter, Pari Bibi, passed away.  Her mausoleum sits in the middle of the grounds but her passing was seen as such a bad omen that the rest of the project was never completed.

The grounds contain a small museum and a non-working hammam  but the main attraction is the Persian garden which provide a temporary escape from the calamity that is Dhaka.

And it was that calamity that awaited us, although I must admit that our ride back to the hotel was relatively uneventful.  Either that or in the span of one afternoon, we had become inured to the madness.

Now, that I had a better feel for my surroundings and how to get around, I only wish we could have had more time to finish out that tour.  Rumor has it, I might be returning and although I still don't think I would put it on the list of "Ten Most Romantic Travel Destinations", I honestly look forward to (1) dousing myself head-to-toe in mosquito repellant and (2) jumping on that next rickshaw and seeing what else that Dhaka has in store. 

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