Dhaka Day 1 – Getting Taken for a Ride*
[For background, read this.]
I am currently fighting off severe jet lag so I cannot vouch for the coherence of this piece. As of typing this sentence, it is 6:14 PM and I hope to make it till 10 PM before passing out. I’ll probably settle for 9. There is so much to recount after a mere half a day here that I’m not sure I’m up to the task. Bangladesh is big, bizarre, filthy, and completely overwhelming. I’ll start with my arrival, which, like the rest of my trip up until that point, went pretty horribly.
Welcome to Dhaka!
I got off the crowded plane after listening to a rather solid line up of pop hits and entered Dhaka International Airport. By American standards, it was a shit-hole barely the size of my local Westchester airport but far dirtier (and filled with mosquitos, for some reason). I had no trouble buying a visa with my Irish passport and got through customs within 20 minutes. After messing about with the rinky-dink tourist office and getting my checked bag, I had to figure out how to get to my hotel.
The most obvious way was to go to the taxi stands in the airport–little plastic stalls filled with obnoxious men who yell “taxi!” at the top of their lungs to every person who walks by. This option had “scam” written all over; airport taxis always over charge. I asked how much it would cost to take me to my hotel: $14. Forget it. I searched for alternative means of transportation.
But what were my options? I saw Bangladesh’s equivalent to took-tooks outside (they had metal cages on the back). In retrospect, I should have taken my chances with one of them. Instead I went to the help desk and asked if the airport ran any shuttles or busses to the city center. It did not, but the attendant helpfully offered to help me get a taxi. I assumed he meant a taxi outside, so I took him up on his offer. No, he meant the scammers. Weakened from two days in transit and not feeling the desire to continue to bum around a Bangladeshi airport, I paid the outrageous fee.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the friendly attendant then turned to me and unironically asked me for a tip. He’d walked about 100 feet with me and showed me information I already knew. And let’s not forget that this guy works at an info desk at an airport and therefore it is his entire job to help people. For the same reasons I listed above, I tossed him the equivalent of $1.50.
I ended up waiting for an upsetting 30 minutes during which time I reflected upon the long series of failures that had constituted the past two days. Finally, my car arrived. It wasn’t a taxi: it was just some random guy’s car. I had been scammed by an Uber knock off.
That’s when the depressing portion of my time in Dhaka ended and the terrifying part began. I’ve experienced crazy driving before. I’ve experienced Italian drivers who fling themselves recklessly up narrow cliffside roads. I’ve experienced Turkish drivers who drive 90 mph in their tiny sub-European cars on the pseudo-highways of Turkey. I’ve experienced Chinese drivers for whom the rules of lane passing do not apply. But none of that could have prepared me for a drive in Dhaka.
To be fair, at this point I’m not entirely sure if all Bangladeshi drivers are mad men, or if my driver was an ex-Formula 1 get-away driver. What I do know is that this guy drove like a highly competent lunatic. I cannot even begin to describe the maneuvers he pulled off. If there was the slightest gap in the legions of buses, cars, took tooks (motorized rickshaws), and bikes in front of us, he would find it. And he wouldn’t just find it, he would power through it with reckless abandon, often with only inches to spare on either side of the vehicle. If no gap was present, he would slam on the gas anyway and just sort of hope a gap would appear by the time he reached the solid row of vehicles in front of us.
Forget about using the shoulder; my driver passed cars in their own lanes. He furiously honked at any cars with the gall who failed to part like the Red Sea before his divine driving skills. He nearly hit at least four pedestrians while trying to get around a truck at an intersection. Red lights did not apply to him. He drove like I had told him that I had twenty minutes to live and I really needed to get to my hotel to recover my multi-million dollar lottery ticket. Alternatively, he drove like a Terminator-esque time traveler who had already been though this same exact driving route thousands of time sand already knew which way to turn and when to slow down at every juncture.
He was cool as ice for the duration–a lanky Indian guy with a mustache, but when he drove, Ryan Gosling-like calm seemed to come over him. Even as he brought us to the edge of death for the ninth time, he remained placid and focused.
After twenty minutes of the most exilaratingly terrifying rides of my life, I arrived at my hotel. I was so dazed that I forgot to think about the tip, and barely noticed when he (rather rudely) asked me for one. I gave him an absurdly large amount, equivalent to well over $5.
Dhaka the Dickensian
Now onto Dhaka itself. It’s a bit difficult to write a general description of the city after spending just four hours exploring a small part of it. My general description will surely grow over the next few days and I’ll try to write a capstone summary at some point.
Dhaka is dirty. It is filthier than any city I’ve ever been in.** I guess I’ve been to cities in China, Southeast Asia, and Turkey which are as dirty in part, but I’ve not encountered any city anywhere that is so consistently rancid. The trash is ubiquitous. I have no idea why. Do people litter constantly? Is there no garbage service at all? The huge, steaming piles of garbage suggest that there might be a garbage service of some kind. It just doesn’t ever seem to work.
Many streets have little streams of brown sludgy water running right next to the side walk. I took a whiff (several, actually). Judging from the smell, it probably isn’t sewage most of the time, but it most definitely is sewage some of the time. Only in Dhaka have I been merrily walking down the street, to gag and be laid low by the unbearable stench that surrounds me. At one stretch of market stalls as long as the road itself, the merchants were lined up on the side of the street, in front of a ten foot-wide stream of sewer sludge. The merchants themselves stood on a foot-wide path between their stalls and the sludge. Talk about nerve-wracking work conditions: one false move, and you’re literally in the shit.
The city itself looks a lot like the non-central Chinese cities that tourists tend to avoid—except (literally) shittier. The buildings are mostly concrete blocks in various states of disrepair. Almost nothing is painted. The few skyscrapers look dirty and old despite being built in the last decade or two. The streets are all wide to allow for six or eight lanes traffic. Insane traffic constantly clogs these arteries and leaves pedestrians to sprint for cover at a moment’s notice.
A general smell of filth pervades the whole city, which in conjunction with pollution, and omnipresence of the scorching sun, creates an atmosphere of constant physical discomfort. I’m hoping to get used to it. Soon.
The natives: thick description a la Faherty
And then there’s the people–what I’ve been most interested to explore in my time here. It’s clear to me that the scam artists at the airport were anomalies. Bangladeshis are nice. No, extremely nice. While walking around I came up with the analogy: Bangladeshis are to friendliness what the Japanese are to politeness. They epitomize it.
Having spent several months in China, I’m used to the staring, the curiosity, the questions, and so on–but Bangladesh brings it all to a new level. I haven’t been able to put my finger on exactly what’s different, but it definitely different, and more intense.
Everyone stares.*** Every person I walk past on the street. Every vendor. Every police officer. Especially every child. If I fall within a Bangladeshi’s line of sight, they stare. Taking out my camera acts as an additional lighting rod; doing itcauses people to stop whatever they’re doing (walking, cooking, watching the road while driving) to see what I’m doing. The whole thing is pretty stressful, but fortunately all of the Bangladeshi’s are just absurdly nice (see above).
Occasionally someone will walk over, making unblinking eye contact with a giant smile on his face, and say something like, “Hello! What is your homeland?” (It’s always a guy, never a girl.) I smile back and tell him “America.” His eyes light up, his smile gets bigger and he usually tries to shake my hand. But they don’t quite follow the same handshake rules as we do. Their handshakes are always pretty limp-wristed and they hang on for a long time, usually at least thirty seconds.
One of the most surreal experiences in my life: I walked through a horribly filthy public park here in Dhaka, complete with even worse trash than what I encountered on the city streets, and punctuated by a brown, sludgy lake. The park was filled to the brim with young Bangladeshi boys, probably ranging from five to eighteen years old. As I’ve mentioned, young people are especially curious here, and these boys–unlike the ones I encountered on the street–were just playing cricket and soccer, and so, were undistracted by workaday concerns. As I slowly worked my way through the park, the mass of heads turning to stare at me grew ever larger. Eventually, people started following me. It began with a five-ish year old who stood a foot away from me while I was taking a picture and just looked me over. Then it turned into small groups of high school-aged kids who would walk ten or so feet behind me whispering to each other. Eventually one of them would work up the courage to do the hello-handshake thing. One group of soccer players stopped their game so I could take a picture of the whole squad.
All of it was intimidating, but also immensely friendly and harmless. The only time I felt some degree of animosity was when a ten year old on the street called out, “Hey, white!” and made a kissing noise. I’m not sure what to make of that.****
Must-see attractions and advice for tourists
I visited the National Mosque of Bangladesh, the tenth largest mosque in the world. It was kind of a let-down. They clearly went for a “quantity over quality” approach with it, because while it’s massive, it’s all desperately plain. The mosque takes up almost an entire square between major city blocks and features a football field sized courtyard for prayer time. It’s muddy yellow. There are few elaborate Islamic art patterns on the wall, but it’s probably the dirtiest mosque I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a bunch). The filth didn’t stop dozens of people from falling asleep on the floor.
The only other thing of note about the mosque is that it’s the first mosque I’ve been to without a designated location at the entrance to leave your shoes while you enter. Instead, everyone carries their shoes around, and even puts them on the ground while they rest, which kind of defeats the purpose. I’m assuming this is done to avoid theft?
Wikitravel warns travelers to avoid political and labor gatherings because they attract attention. I now understand that sentiment. I passed by a gathering of about a hundred individuals holding communist flags (red with a hammer and sickle). I don’t know what the rally was for, but when I tried to take a picture from across the street, heads turned. When I took a second picture, a quarter of the rally started staring uncomfortably at me, and started to shout. I don’t know what they said, but they didn’t seem happy. I walked away.
Editor’s note: Much more to come from Dhaka and Calcutta, including Matt’s reactions to the recent violence rocking his newly-beloved city. Try not to get hacked to death, Matt. Or hacked at all.
*Editor’s note: Matt’s reactions to Dhaka are usefully compared with David Riesbeck’s earlier discussion here at PoT on cultural difference and offense-giving in Greece.
**Editor’s note: I wonder how Dhaka stacks up against Managua? I’d appreciate comments from readers who’ve been to both cities.
***Editor’s note: Matt is blonde-haired and
blue green eyed. I’ll see if I can post a photo at some point. (Done: see above.)
****Editor’s note: Matt is blonde-haired,
blue green eyed, and by some many all available accounts, quite good looking.