I’ve started this blog so that I can tell you the best (and worst) bits about my extended stay in Bangladesh. After two weeks of travelling and a spot of freelancing, I’ll start a six month internship at The Daily Star, an English language daily national newspaper based in Dhaka.
Let’s get started then…
October 19: arrive Dhaka from London
Total journey time: 35 hours
Sleepy time: 3 hours
When I landed at the airport, bleary-eyed and sweating, an official pointed something at my head that looked remarkably like a gun. It had a trigger, and he pulled it with a click. I saw a small red light flash underneath its shaft, which meant that I didn’t have a swine flu fever and I was free to pass go. I was the only person to have a passport stamped at the foreign counter, and I was one of two females on the flight (excluding hostesses).
I made my first venture out into chaotic Dhaka in the cloistered backseat of an auto-rickshaw. I could peer out just enough to see, but not to be seen (pretty much). I wasn’t ready for that just yet. The first thing that struck me was the enterprise at intersections. The following is a (non-comprehensive) list of items I could have purchased at a (loooooong) red light:
• Sticker books
• Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope”
• Safety pins
• My conscience
The last item refers to how I might have felt if I’d given in to the dozens of requests from beggars, whose outstretched hands crept into the rickshaw to tap at my arm. Many are maimed and disfigured; often they are children, or the sun-worn aged. The old women struck me the most. Their saris are gaping rags and their hair is so matted that a bird looking for a nest would need not make any alterations. A couple of them had exposed breasts. To commit such a taboo in this conservative society and not care a jot (so I assumed) made me wonder what their past had done to them.
I did give a few takka to one man who looked about forty. I made the split decision after he swung his shoulder towards me in order to show me an arm that was long enough, but not wide enough. A sapling may have been thicker than what he had to work with. But on the other occasions I just sat there, my gaze averted, wondering what the driver thought of someone who could very easily give but didn’t.
A few days later I took a train to Rajshahi in western Bangladesh. I love trains and I was excited about my first trip. I also knew from past experiences as a solo female traveller that if there was any harrassment to be had, it would be had on the train (or bus – what is it about these ‘romantic’ settings?)
And sure enough, a Don Juan behind me struck up a conversation that almost immediately involved discerning the whereabouts of my boyfriend (he is, er, called, um David… which in the past has been mimicked back as “Um-David”). He moved to sit beside me.
I remembered the advice of my Bible, a.k.a. Lonely Planet: “A woman who is politely assertive can ask for space and usually gets it.”
So I asked for it, and I got it. He moved back to his seat. A couple of women who were watching giggled.
About an hour later, he broke the reverie of my iPod miming by pushing this note through the seats:
We are the man that is true. We should not hate each other. I have three sisters. When I saw you first, I was surprised that I got another sister.
Actually, I treat you as my sister. As up to now I did not mind, because you don’t know who am I. But I can tell you I am honest and would like to help people.
My father is a Deputy Director. I am MSC holder person.
So I know how to honour people.
I felt like a bit of a hard-arse.
It was a six hour journey, so, being me, I was starving half-way through it. Food wallahs had kept shoving fried chicken literally onto my elbow, so naturally that was what I went for.
That evil chicken was my unravelling. And of course it was – it was a hot day and meat goes off in the sun. I had all that night and the following day to writhe around in bed, cursing my stupidity for biting off more than I should have chewed. I also watched a lot of Al Jazeera reports, the Muppets Christmas Special, a documentary on the great white shark, and ‘Lil Champs’, an Indian young talent contest (awe-inspiring singing by kids who are probably too young to tie a shoelace).
Four days later, and I’ve had my first full meal. It was mouth-wateringly good, and I was pleased with myself for abandoning the spoon in favour of my right hand, as per custom. I had dhal, a vegetable dish , a chicken dish, steamed rice, milky tea and a two litre bottle of water. Guess how much? Lower. Lower. 80 pence.
I took the public bus to visit the villages of Puthia and Natore from Rajshahi. I was over the moon to photograph the stunning Hindu temples, crumbling Raj-era palaces, and the friendly and interesting faces. There were no tourists and no ticket booths – in Puthia, someone found the caretaker and he unlocked the gates, temple by temple. I signed the guestbook on his bed, in a tiny room that also contained a stove and hanging clothes. Earlier in the day, a local boy led me to his village and a pretty older woman with betel-stained teeth lent me her daughter’s sari so that I could swim with her in a bright orange pond. She scrubbed the sweat off me with a bar of soap and a stick of loofah. Afterwards she brushed my hair and her daughter painted the soles of my feet a deep claret red.
So far I’ve encountered nothing but kindness and hyper-courtesy from Bangladeshis. At first I found the staring a bit unnerving, particularly when large groups gathered to watch with fascination as I drank a cup of tea. But I’ve realised that it’s a novelty for me to be a novelty, and that I should try to enjoy the attention while it lasts. I feel sorry for the likes of Angelina Jolie, cos she’ll never be able to do a low-key cuppa again…
And here’s a few more pictures…