I’m happy to report that we woke up the next morning in our comfortable beds, and were able to set off on our journey towards Dhaka without many more misadventures.
Reaching Dhaka is itself an experience, as the outskirts of the city begin well before any buildings are in sight. The houses begin to crowd together, women wearing purple, gold, orange and green spill out of the market stalls, carrying vegetables and their children and men in lungis and american-themed tshirts wade into the water to catch fish with their huge, delicate fishing nets held aloft over the water by bamboo poles. (My favorite, spotted by my housemate, was the macho Bangladeshi man in a lungi and a black tshirt that read: America’s Next Top Model”
As you get closer, the signs for myriad international schools begin to overtake the walls of large buildings and billboards advertising mobile companies and skin lightening cream and fashionable clothing for women loom above you. One of the best is a bright red sign above a brick building that advertises: “Yale International School – Playgroup to A Levels.” I’m not sure Yale is aware of its international counterpart in Dhaka…
We spent our days in Dhaka attending meetings, eating fun dinners and exploring handicraft stores. Our first dinner was in a Szechuan restaurant for a “hot pot.” It was described to me aptly as a yin-yang shaped bowl, with the red, evil, bubbling sear-your-tongue spicyness on one side, and the mild, white, brothy, angelic side on the other. We loaded it up with vegetables and all kinds of fish, black mushrooms (which you must order ahead of time by asking to reserve “fungus” for your dinner). Then we spooned it out into a bowl, combining the angelic and evil sides into one simmering delight and ate up. Unfortunately, if you had the wrong balance of evil to good (heavy on the evil), you might find yourself suddenly getting red in the face, your throat lit on fire. I looked around and noticed that there were beads of sweat dripping down the foreheads of those who had been most ambitious in spooning the chilis into their plates. At some point, we would look up, realize we had consumed far too much without a break and desperately look around for something, anything to wash the fire away…lime soda, beer, water, the guy’s coconut milk from the next table….
The meal was delicious though. Although the slight ache in our stomachs convinced us that our next course should be gelato. Ferraro Rocher gelato at that!
The next few days passed without too much craze. Driving around Dhaka, however, I realized a couple of things.
1. The city was not planned for more than 16 cars, 30 bicycle rickshaws and 5 autorickshaws to be traveling anywhere at once. Unfortunately, it is more like 16^300 cars 30^500 bicycle rickshaws and 5^200 autorickshaws on any one street at a time. It takes an hour to go 2 miles. An hour. When you’re driving in one direction and the traffic starts to lighten, you only feel more depressed because you realize that the other side of the road is at a standstill, and that’s the only way home….
2. There is a man on every public bus whose sole job it is to stuff just one more person onto the bus. Oh, right. The buses. Imagine giving about 50 large men with anger-management issues mallets and sledgehammers, and putting them in the same room as a giant metal sheet. Now take the results of that experiment and multiply by 4. Now put them together and add wheels. Now you have a public bus on the Dhaka streets. There will be a man, generally in a blue button down shirt and dark trousers, nonchalantly hanging off of the lower step of the bus as it rolls through the streets, never stopping, always at a pace that is fast enough that you have to jog to catch up, but slow enough that there is a constant stream of people jumping onto and off of the step. Men with portfolios and laptops, women in saris, people smoking cigarettes. They will run up to the step, catch hold of the handle, swing themselves up, and be stuffed into the fray by the bottom-step man, until their faces are pressed up against the grimy glass windows like goldfish in a scummy bowl. The same process is repeated, in reverse, when you get off. If you are really lucky (and a man, as I’ve never seen a woman do this), you will swing yourself all the way up to the luggage compartment on the roof, and join 15 or 100 other men sprawled on their high metal perch, surveying the traffic around them.
3. People come out to march for the national political parties with a ferver and pride whose only parallel in the US is with the Subway Series or a Big 10 game or March Madness. The brightly colored headbands, signs, tshirts, foghorns, entire villages out lining the streets yelling slogans and chanting fight songs…politics in the US does not inspire this kind of feeling and devotion. We see this only with sports. On the positive side, in the US, any aggression or violent behavior is tempered and expressed through team rivalry, rather than street protests that become deadly. But it also seems like we are so much less engaged in the national debate, for lack of passion, thoughts of futility, or maybe just an idea that our opinions don’t matter to what plays out in Washington. Of course, it’s not as though the daily activities of the government are transparent here in Bangladesh, but the grassroots support creates such a visible difference. There are designated national days for these marches. I think the closest that we got to this in the recent past – this boisterous community support of government – was Obama’s inauguration. I wonder if we can get back there…