DHAKA, BANGLADESH (Nov./Dec. 2016)
Man selling lunghis and pomegranates
I'll confess that part of my impetus to visit Bangladesh was to be a show-off. I'm drawn to places, especially big cities, with bad reputations, and get a certain thrill from learning to love them. I'm happy to get my fix of nature from the Discovery Channel. Pollution, crime, poverty are my magnets, along with good food, lively street life, and overt displays of religious fervor. Having considered myself a big scaredy cat most of my life, I find the role of urban explorer allows my inner tough guy to shine.
My training years were in New York City, arriving at age 19 and living (only briefly--I headed uptown after being mugged twice) in the Lower East Side, on a street, I later learned, that had more known drug addicts than any place in the Manhattan.
My twenty years of exploring and writing about Mexico City have made it easy for me to adjust to broken sidewalks, total lack of zoning restrictions, numbing traffic jams, and crowded metros. Multiple trips to Bangkok, Cairo, Mumbai, Delhi, and Calcutta honed my skills for walking on the wild side.
So what was this thing in the pit of my stomach as I contemplated my arrival in Dhaka?
Did it have anything to do with the New York Times article my friend Vivian sent me just before I left, calling Dhaka "a traffic jam that never ends?" Or was it the one about the terrorist attack in the tourist-friendly café? The collapse of a clothing sweatshop that destroyed a whole city block? Or this article naming Dhaka one of the ten worst tourist destinations in the world?
My knowledge of Bangladesh did not go much beyond a vague memory of a benefit concert organized by Ringo Starr in 1971, the devastating famine that followed a few years later, and scattered reports of overloaded ferries sinking in murky waters.
One thing that living in Mexico City has taught me is that the bad news about a place makes a much stronger impression on most of us than the good news. But it rarely paints a complete picture. So, in spite of arriving in Dhaka and thinking "this has to be the ugliest place on earth," we decided to stick around, ending up spending 8 nights there. Now I dream of going back.
Our taxi ride from the airport confirmed the traffic reports. Moments of stasis alternated with rapid spurts of forward motion, and about 90 minutes later we arrived at our hotel.
I had chosen the Hotel 71 based on its location near to Old Dhaka, which my Lonely Planet guidebook described as 'unrivalled chaos'. We dropped off our bags, headed out into the fray, and immediately felt happy.
One of our first 'sights' was a construction crew, attired in fetching plaid lunghis (wrap around skirts) operating a jerry-rigged water pump on makeshift bamboo scaffolding. Construction became a familiar sight in Dhaka, where it seems that half the streets are being dug up, and buildings in stages of construction or decay seem to outnumber finished ones.
Our encounters with people begin at once, with a mix of blank stares, greetings of Hello, Welcome to Bangladesh, Where are you from? What is your name? It felt like being on a reception line at a wedding as guest of honor. In our eleven days in Bangladesh we only saw four foreigners that we could identify as tourists, so it was easy to understand what made us unusual. Of all the countries I have visited, no place has made me feel so welcome as Bangladesh.
The first few days I walked around astounded at the physical ugliness of the city. Unlike India, where ornate Mughal era buildings interrupt the urban rot, Dhaka has very little that is old. New construction (and there's lots of it) seems to have been designed by whoever finished last in architecture class. Abandoned, half-build construction is found throughout the city, suggesting a boom and bust economy, a tug-of-war between moving forward and collapsing into an exhausted pile (a sensation I often experienced here).
There's a lot of what I would call dystopian architecture, which perhaps once looked slick and glitzy or never quite made it there. After recoiling in horror at the grim and dreary aspect of the city, I started seeing it as a geometric background for the very colorful street theater. Making my way along broken streets became a sport.
We stated in several places in Dhaka--we got an upgrade to a larger room at the Hotel Victory (photo below), which was quite comfortable. Outside chaos reigned.
(American architect Louis Kahn's Government Assembly building is the city's most famous structure, but since Parliament was in session we were not allowed in.)
Sadarghat is the bustling riverside dock with dozens of ferries like this one lined up.
But when my focused changed from the big picture to the details is when it really started to be fun. I began to find beauty in unexpected places, even traffic jams.
Traffic in Dhaka is a form of improvised choreography, jazz on wheels. With tens of thousands of bicycle rickshaws plying the streets, everything slows down to their speed, making it easy for pedestrians to barge right into the mix. The sweet tinkling of their bells and the Muslim call to prayer provide background music, adding an odd element of charm to the inferno. (Click on the image below to see video).
There are no stoplights in Dhaka, although at a few large intersections policemen keep things under strict control with a slight wave of their hand. It remained one of the city's mysteries how and why these barely perceptible hand movements were met with such total obedience. Everywhere else it seemed like a free-for-all.
Although I only saw one small accident--a hefty woman was tilted off her rickshaw by a passing truck--the evidence is clear that driving in the city is a contact sport. Just take a look at the buses.
Dinged, dented, battered and bashed, mangled, scratched and crumpled, the battle scarred public transport buses of Dhaka wear their wounds with pride.
Paintings like this one by German artist Gerhard Richter sell for millions:
The seat of a bicycle rickshaw offers the perfect opportunity to observe fashion--many of the drivers were quite nattily dressed. Most wore lunghis, long wrap around skirts, accessorized with sashes and scarves. Mismatched plaids and vibrant colors were in style. Even though these guys are laboring at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, it looks like they give more than a passing thought to what they are going to wear to work. In the upscale areas of Banani and Gulshan in North Dhaka, where we spent less time, the lunghi is less common--western style has taken over.
Ultimately what makes Dhaka fascinating is the street life. The so-called sights were usually ho-hum, but getting there and back was always an adventure.
The pink Ahsan Manzil, a former nawab's palace, now a museum, is one of the few real tourist sights in town.
You don't see many women on the street compared to the number of men, so I can only assume they're home cooking and cleaning. But it's rare to see a woman in purdah and those you see often seem self-assured and open. This beauty is one of the few who actually started a conversation with us and allowed a photo.
Sign for a dental clinic
Mysterious street scene.
Lakshmi in a Hindu scultpure studio.
Bamboo is used as scaffolding, even on high-rise buildings.
In front of a butcher's shop.
Daily newpapers are pasted to the wall for easy reading.
I met this one-man walking coffee shop and had a cup after lunch one day.
Bicycle rickshaws are the most highly decorative element in Dhaka.