Dhaka Day 2 – The Jewel of the City
I woke up at 5 AM. With plenty of time to kill before it became light out or anything relevant opened, I turned on my phone and browsed Facebook. Up popped the story of Avijit Roy, A Bangladeshi-born US citizen who was pulled out of his vehicle and hacked to death with machetes in Dhaka two days ago for championing liberal secular values.* I closed Facebook.
Today I set out to explore Old Dhaka, the center of the old city just south of the center of the modern city. I left my hotel at 8 AM and walked south through the heart of the new city. After fifteen minutes of walking, I hit what seemed to be the border to Old Dhaka. On an eight-lane highway, I was one of the 5% of people going into Old Dhaka, while the rest were flooding out of it. Rickshaws clogged the streets, the sidewalks were covered in not yet open stalls, so the people flooded the edge of the street. I moved through tiny gaps in the crowd to proceed. When I emerged on a less crowded road, I still wasn’t sure if I was actually in Old Dhaka—it just looked like New Dhaka with smaller buildings. Not wanting to wander around back alleys, I took my first rickshaw to the docks at the southern most point of Old Dhaka.
I wanted to see the docks but there was a gate and fee. While I stood around wondering if I could enter without actually riding a boat, a man in a blue uniform approached and did the smile-handshake thing.
“Where are you from?”
“Ohhh, America is number one! Very powerful!”
He asked me if I wanted to see the docks, and after paying the counter 5 Taka (6 cents), I went through the gate. The man and I walked side by side and made small talk while we approached the river. He was a government-employed guard for the docks, but also gave private tours of the city. It didn’t take a travel expert to figure out why he was being so friendly. I figured that as long as I made no commitments, I wouldn’t be suckered into a tour.
Like everything else in Dhaka, the docks are filthy. This was the largest port in the city, and consisted of one wooden walkway, roughly 100 yards long, sticking 30 yards out into the water, and with about twenty rusting ferries moored while I was there. Since the streets of Dhaka are filled with garbage, so is its river. Piles of garbage collected in the space between the wooden walk way and the shore. Some of it floated in the water, while some washed up on shore.
I asked the guard, “Do people fish out of this river?”
“Only very tiny fish. River is too dirty. Used to get big fish. Not anymore.”
So where are the small fish?
The guard took me on board one of the ferries. The ceiling was very low on entry, so the guard instructed me to lower my head: “Bangladeshi people are very small, Europeans are so big!” The ferry itself looked pretty standard aside from its deteriorating and a lack of any seats. The guard told me that everyone just sits on the floor, though most people’s commutes don’t take more than 30 minutes.**
A scrawny old man with a long grey beard approached the ferry on a rowboat. He made some motion towards me and spoke to the guard. The guard told me I could get on the rowboat and see the whole river. I declined.
The guard and I walked up and down the dock for ten more minutes, and then I turned to leave. He stopped me and made a pitch to be my tour guide for the day for 2000 Taka ($25). I thanked him but politely declined. He took it well enough and gave me directions to my next two destinations along the coast.
First I set out for what he called the “spice market,” but that was probably a misnomer. The market was a street lined with some ugly one- or two-story concrete buildings. I at first assumed that the buildings housed the merchants, but they were actually warehouses. The distance between the warehouses on either side of the street is about 20 feet. The merchants then plop themselves on the ground on either side of the street to sell their wares, leaving about ten feet of space for traffic. The problem was that hundreds of people tried to move through the market, along with the occasional insane rickshaw or car driver, so I had to proceed very slowly by squeezing between Bangladeshis and trying to get run over.
In such a poor and crowded area, I drew even more attention to myself than usual. I worried about what a dirt poor Bangladeshi who sold cabbage for a living might do to get my camera, so I got used to taking pictures very quickly before putting my camera back in my pocket.
I eventually broke out of the market and walked briefly on the adjacent beach. There were incoming rowboats filled with food which was then piled up on the beach. Oddly, there didn’t seem to be any organized system to it. The rowboats just came ashore with food, people manually carried the food to giant piles on the beach, eventually transferring it to the warehouses.
Next stop was the Pink Palace. To get there I had to make my way back through the market and across the docks. I hoped I wouldn’t run into the tour guard again, but he briefly saw me and waved. Then another guy in the same uniform came up to me and did the smile-handshake. After stopping briefly to reciprocate, I continued walking, but he insisted on walking alongside me. He asked where I was from, if I was a student (I said yes, even though I’m not), and where I was going.
It helps to have been “being there” (or here) to understand the ensuing interaction. Reading about it from afar, it might seem easy enough for the reader to think I ought to stay quite or just tell the guy to go away. But it doesn’t work that way in Dhaka.
He was very nice, and spoke English better than any Bangladeshi I had spoken to so far.
“I’m going to the Pink Palace.”
“Great! Very beautiful. I take you there.”
My first thought was to refuse, but I also wasn’t sure if I could find the Pink Palace on my own because the city map I got at the airport was awful. I figured that I hadn’t agreed to anything, and once I got to the Pink Palace I could just thank him and go my own way like I had done with the last guy.
We arrived at the Palace fifteen minutes later. Before I had a chance to say anything, he walked over to the ticket counter and told me it was 100 Taka ($1.28) and 10 Taka (12 cents) for him. This is the dark side of learning about new cultures. Often times you have no idea what local etiquette means and have no idea how to respond to things which you would personally find unsavory. In the U.S., I would never ever buy someone’s entrance ticket to something after having met the person 20 minutes ago. On the other hand, this is Bangladesh, and he’s asking for 12 cents. So I paid.
The Pink Palace, photographed by Mahbub Hossain Shaeed, taken from Wikipedia
The palace was built by some Bangladeshi nobleman in the mid-19th century. It looks like a European capital building, toned down for scale and ornamentation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in it for me to see. The building had been renovated somewhat recently but still looked run down. Inside the palace was a museum with a handful of artifacts (mostly furniture) randomly strewn about. I asked my pseudo-guide some questions about the palace but he didn’t know much more about it than he managed to read off of the descriptive plaques. It was much more interesting to ask him about his life and life in Bangladesh. It turned out that his name was Jewel.
As we were leaving I planned to escape Jewel and go on my own way. He was an extremely nice guy and I had enjoyed our conversations, but I didn’t want to hire a random tour guide for the day. After exiting the gate, I turned to him, but he spoke first.
“Now we go to Hindustan, the only Hindu part of Dhaka, Is five minutes away, short walk.”
Well… Hindustan sounded interesting, and it wasn’t on my map so I probably wouldn’t find it any other way, plus it was only a short walk away.
So we walked to Hindustan at the heart of Old Dhaka (which I’ll describe in more detail later). It didn’t look considerably different from the rest of Old Dhaka, except that there were stores selling Hindu religious items. We found a small Hindu temple. I took off my shoes to leave them outside, but Jewel, remarking on their quality, brought them inside. We sat down on the floor in the temple and he asked if I was Christian.
Again, this is one of those situations where I was out of my cultural depth. I’m an atheist, but considering that someone in this city was hacked to death by machetes mere days ago for speaking out against Islam in favor of atheism and secularism, I didn’t feel like saying that. So I told him I was a Christian.
“Ah yes, most Americans are Christian. But that does not matter. We are all the same. We all bleed the same color.” He made a motion to signify cutting his wrists. “We are all red on the inside. Muslim, Hindu, Christian, we are all one people under the same god. I say ‘praise be to Allah’,” you worship Jesus, but we are all the same.”
I noted that he didn’t include atheists in his talk, but I was still pleased that my pseudo-guide was about as liberal and tolerant as one could expect from the “developing world.” I told him that I greatly respected his religious views. A big smile crossed his face and he shook my hand for the eightieth time.
When we left the temple, I’d decided that enough was enough. He was a super nice guy, and I didn’t want to waste his time forcing him to be an unpaid tour guide.
“Jewel, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me so far, but I will go on my own way now. I wish to pay you for your service. Do you want 200, 300 Taka…?”
“No no no no no no! You no pay me. You are my friend. You come here from America to see Bangladesh and I show you. Then you go home and tell everyone how great Bangladesh. You happy, I happy. You are my friend.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“No no no no no, I show you Bangladesh all day because you are my friend. You happy, I happy.”
Well, OK then. If some super-friendly Bangladeshi guy wants to show me around town for free, I wouldn’t say no. Yes, it was in the back of my mind that he could be leading me some place to machete me to death, so I made a note to stay in public, crowded places, which isn’t difficult to do in Dhaka.*
Over the course of hours of conversations, I got to know Jewel pretty well. Though he spoke English better than any other Bangladeshi, it was still broken and I constantly had to ask for clarification.
Jewel is tall for a Bangladeshi at about 5 feet, 10 inches. He is 40 years old. He was born and raised in Dhaka not far from where I first met him. When he was in the Bangladeshi equivalent of high school, he fell in love with a girl who lived three buildings away from him. Three weeks after they met, they asked their parents if they could get married. The parents refused. For two years they did the Bangladeshi equivalent of dating. Without Jewel’s knowledge, the two sets of parents eventually met and decided that they should marry. Jewel told me his marriage had always been blissful, though he didn’t like that the (two sets of) parents had control over things. He predicted that in the coming years, parents would lose control over that aspect of their children’s life in Bangladesh.
Jewel has two sons, one twelve year old and one eighteen year old. The older of the two studies business at the University of Dhaka, the best school in Bangladesh. Jewel noted that his son needs to make money and therefore couldn’t study “science or art.” After his son graduates, Jewel will find him a good business job. Jewel made it explicitly clear that he would decide where his son works.
Like the other guard I talked to, Jewel’s day job was guarding the docks, and his side job was being a tour guide, mostly for wealthy Europeans. He had learned English in school and had been using to giving tours for ten years. I asked if government jobs were the best form of employment. He said yes, because they were the most secure and the government was considered to be far more reliable than the private sector. He also said that I was the first person under 30 to whom he’d given a tour. I assumed that that’s why he was doing it for free.
Jewel spoke at length about good and bad culture in Bangladesh. Good culture, of which he was a part, consisted of honesty, respect, tolerance, and charity. For instance, it was “good culture” of me to tip a waiter. Bad culture was dishonesty, thievery, and begging. It was “bad culture” for a beggar to grab my arm and pull it until Jewel yelled at him. Jewel considered himself to be an upstanding example of good culture. He’d had plenty of experience with foreigners and knew how locals liked to take advantage of them, but he had always maintained honest and friendly relations with them. He even showed me a picture of a Japanese tourist he’d invited into his home for dinner.
According to Jewel, bad culture would make traveling in Dhaka very difficult. Every store and rickshaw would overcharge me, which meant that I needed Jewel to get the local price. I believed him. The rickshaw drivers didn’t speak a word of English, leaving me without means of communication or negotiation with them. The best I could do was to take a ride and then accept that I would be over charged, though usually by only 50 cents or so. Despite being excruciatingly polite to me, Jewel was oddly curt (arguably rude) to other Bangladeshis.
I spent the rest of the day traveling around the city with Jewel. We first met at about 10:30 AM, and our day ended at 6:30 PM.
The next stop was back to the markets, but this time he took me down another avenue. We walked down some sketchy back alleys (there were plenty of people around***) until we turned into the bottom floor of a concrete building. It was a Bangladeshi meat market. I had seen strips of beef and chicken laid out in the open before, but I had never seen so much in such a claustrophobic environment. The stench was unbearable. Jewel assured me that as long as he was there, I could take pictures of anything I wanted. So I got some photos of smiling butchers next to their meat of choice. A few them even posed for me in mid-meat chop.
Next was Lal Bagh Fort, built by the Mughals in the mid-nineteenth century. It was the first place I had been to in Dhaka which could be described as “pretty.” It was, essentially, a giant courtyard with a handful of Mughal buildings and ruins speckled throughout it. Jewel informed me that it was a popular hangout place for romantic couples, and indeed I saw dozens of couples laying in the grass or resting in the ruins.
Lal Bagh Fort, photographed by S. Faisal 2005, taken from Wikipedia
At one corner of the fort were maybe fifteen college-aged Bangladeshi students. After looking at me from afar and whispering to each other, they approached and asked if I could take a picture with them. I looked to Jewel to see if he had a problem with it, but he said it was fine. A few pictures later, I shook all of their hands and they invited me to visit some college in another city. When one of them shook my hand, he shouted with a big smile “You are so tall!” I thanked them for their kindness and went on my way.
I had been wondering throughout the day how Jewel possibly had the time to escort a random foreigner around the city for fun. I asked if he was busy with work; he told me that he usually had tours prepared but “had no tours today” so he would just see the city with me.
We visited the national Hindu temple of Bangladesh. The only thing remarkable about it was how lackluster it was for a “national temple.” As we left, Jewel asked for 10 Taka (12 cents) so he could buy a single cigarette.
At 2 PM we broke for lunch. Jewel took me to an upscale (by Bangladeshi standards) restaurant for authentic Bangladeshi food. We washed our hands thoroughly and Jewel specifically ordered me some relatively spice-free food based on his experience with foreigners like myself who couldn’t handle the native spices. Jewel ate his rice and chicken meal with his bare hands. I used a fork.
By this point I had accepted an unspoken, informal arrangement with Jewel that in return for his guidance, I would be paying for everything we did together, including the rickshaw rides, entrance fees, and now lunch. Of course everything was dirt cheap. Up to that point I had spent less than $10 dollars to see numerous major landmarks of Dhaka, and the price was further depressed by Jewel’s access to the “local prices.” Yet, even still, it was a bit odd for Jewel to be ordering food for me and for himself without asking my approval, and then expecting me to pay for it.
The waiter came over with the check. The total cost was 340 Taka ($4.37). I handed him a 1000 Taka bill and got my change back. The waiter didn’t leave. I looked at the waiter and then over to Jewel.
“Uhhh… How much?”
“… What’s customary?”
“Your decision, it is up to you.”
“I just don’t know what people usually do here…”
“Your decision. You must decide.”
I gave the waiter 50 Taka (64 cents). Jewel said it was a good tip.
I wasn’t clear about our next stop. Jewel tried to explain that it was some sort of Muslim meeting place, but not a mosque. It turned out to be the second pretty location in Bangladesh. It was a Muslim-style building within a clearing with some nice trees and a dirty, yet still pleasant, artificial pond. We had to take off our shoes before entering, and yet again, Jewel hid them within the building rather than leave them outside.
After milling around for five minutes, an old lady, about five feet tall, walked over to us and started saying something aggressive-sounding to Jewel while looking at me. For five minutes she continued on while Jewel responded defensively. The lady would not stop looking me over. I heard Jewel say, “American.”
Eventually we left and I asked Jewel what she was saying. She though that because I was white, I was wealthy, and therefore I should donate to the Muslim community to help the poor. Jewel defended me by saying that I was a student and didn’t have much money. She didn’t seem satisfied with his response.
We went to the Bangladesh National Museum, which I found to be a surprisingly strong and interesting indicator of the country’s poverty, since even a government-run museum which is supposed to represent the entire country and its history managed to look like shit. There was no order to the displays. Random artifacts were tossed in white boxes behind glass display panels with one word descriptions. The museum would not have passed muster in a tiny backwater town in the U.S., but it was the best Bangladesh had to offer.
The Bangladesh National Museum, downloaded from Wikipedia, Licensed under CC BY 2.5
The only fairly well-made exhibition in the museum was on the Bangladesh Independence War. I know next to nothing about Bangladeshi history, and there wasn’t much actual info in the museum to enlighten me, but there were some powerful photographs of the build-up to and the actual conflict. One poster gleefully showed a boy of about ten years old holding an AK-47 with a caption reading “Child Soldier Freedom Fighter.” Another portion of the exhibit documented the war crimes of the Pakistani army with photographs of mass graves and executed civilians. Having visited Vietnam and Cambodia not long ago, I’d basically had my fill of that.
Our final stops were the University of Dhaka to see some colonial buildings which had been refurbished as classrooms and finally, the train station. At the latter, people packed themselves into rusty, heavy cars, while others jumped on top of the train for presumably a free ride. It was the first train station I had ever seen where people ran across the tracks: I’m guessing that the trains aren’t electric. I asked Jewel when the station was built; he said 200 or 300 years ago. Not exactly plausible, but I let it go.
By the end of the train station, it was 6 PM and the sun was beginning to set. We decided to take a rickshaw back to the docks to part ways. Jewel and I were on great terms by that point. We were laughing and joking while he described his family and how much he loved his sons. After a moment of silence, he turned to me.
“OK, you pay me. You decide how much. OK?”
I didn’t have a response ready. “Uhhhhh, I was under the impression that I wasn’t paying you,” I said as respectfully as was possible under the circumstances.
He didn’t seem to understand what I said, “You pay me, OK? You decide how much.”
I immediately felt extremely uncomfortable. The feeling stuck with me as we got stuck in traffic and endured a 30 minute rickshaw ride. He noted that I wasn’t too happy and asked if I was OK. I replied that I was just tired.
We arrived at the docks and he wanted to sit in a restaurant to drink some tea, but by that point I was feeling anxious and just wanted to get out of there.
“OK, my money.” I fished around in my wallet and pulled out a 1000 Taka bill ($12.85). He paused and looked back at me. “My friend, you are my friend. I spent the whole day showing you Dhaka. It is your choice, I no pressure you, but I spent the whole day with you.” I got the obvious signaling. I went back into my wallet, and remembering the other attempted tour guides rates, I took out another 1000 Taka bill. His eyes lit up and a big smile came accross his face. “My friend, you make me so happy.”
After some more good-yes and well wishes, he got me a rickshaw and we parted ways.
Was Jewel a scammer? Probably not, but maybe. It’s entirely possible that he thought I was consenting to him being my tour guide the whole time and that I misunderstood him due to language difficulties. It’s also possible, though far less likely, that he was a ruthless scam artist who misled me for a day to make some money off of a tourist. Finally, it’s possible that the truth is somewhere in between: Jewel is basically a friendly Bangladeshi who would like to hang out with a young American for a day, but he would also like to get paid for doing so, and he knew enough about foreigners to lead and guilt me into paying him.
I wonder what would have happened if I had refused to pay Jewel at all. Would he have become upset? Almost certainly yes. Violent? Probably not. But for all the talk of being my friend, he was unafraid of guilting money out of me in a situation in which I was clearly uncomfortable.
The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. How much of what Jewel said and did today was out of genuine curiosity and getting to know a new person, and how much of it was to get money out of me? This is the danger of immersing yourself in a foreign culture. I don’t know the implicit rules. I can’t gauge the intentions of random people who come up to me. I’m sure the vast majority of individuals who walk up to me for the smile-handshake are genuinely nice and curious, but I don’t really know that. And being in a place I know nothing little about incentivizes me towards caution rather than open trust. My time with Jewel was an exception to that policy.
On the other hand, for about $30 (including tip, entrance fees, and food), I nearly all of the major attractions in Dhaka with a fun and interesting guide. Better yet, I was able to go to places I never would have found otherwise, like the train station, the butcher area, and Hindustan. Right up until he sprang the payment on me, I thought this was one of the best traveling days I’ve ever had.
*Editor’s note: Actually, he was hacked to death for championing atheism, which (considering the revelation that’s to follow in the post) almost makes me reluctant to post this. But Matt’s out of Bangladesh at this point, so hey, let’s throw caution to the winds in the name of blogertainment. Incidentally, this just in: the Prime Minister narrowly escaped assassination in a bomb blast. Luckily, Matt’s not a Prime Minister.
**Editor’s note: Don’t worry, the ferries in Dhaka are perfectly safe. And I’m pretty sure that Matt’s a strong swimmer. Right, Matt?
***Editor’s note: For some reason, Matt is under the impression that you can’t be hacked to death in a crowded place. What does he think that the crowd would do-save him for 500 Taka? Does that include the tip?
Postscript, March 9, 2015 (editor): On a more somber note, this article in Britain’s Daily Mail contains the best coverage I’ve seen of the Avijit Roy murder, along with a link to Roy’s last article, “The Virus of Faith,” which was at the time of his death forthcoming in Free Inquiry magazine’s April/May 2015 issue. I’ve only skimmed the article, so I’m not endorsing it one way or the other, but thought I’d bring it to readers’ attention.
Postscript, March 13, 2015 (editor): An interesting article on the ethics of tipping by Julian Baggini in Aeon (the magazine, not Aeon Skoble the philosopher).