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Published: April 19th 2013
I've been in Bangladesh only nine days, but there is just so much to write. It's felt like a long continuation of my visa application struggle - a hectic, frustrating, nonsensical but eventually incredibly rewarding roller coaster ride. I'm currently writing from Cox's Bazar, the longest natural beach in the world, but on this blog entry I want to go back to the start of my time in Bangladesh to describe my initial impressions of this unique corner of the subcontinent and perhaps Asia's best kept secret.
Quite inevitably, my first journey in Bangladesh - that from the border with India, into Dhaka - went rather badly. The strikes (hartels) that so often rock the country have been increasing in frequency recently due to the upcoming elections. Rival parties tend to throw their weight around by calling strikes across the board, causing widespread disruption to the workings of the already poverty-stricken country and leaving tourists stranded for days on end. I came into Bangladesh on the end of 7 days of striking (I was told by a Bangladeshi student) and so a week's worth of lorries and buses from India flooded through the border at once. Including mine. The resultant stop-start chaos cost us 6 hours, and we arrived in Dhaka at 3am. With a sickening dread, I took a taxi to the Old Dhaka area to look for a cheap hotel. Of course, they were all closed and it was only after offering the taxi driver a 100 Taka tip that I eventually, after 20 minutes of torment, got a room. I slept awfully.
I was turfed from my room at 8am (not the best start to the day) but soldiered on and had an omelette at the local bus station. It was immediately obvious that I would be the subject of intense scrutiny in my time in Bangladesh: a semi-circle of observers watched my every mouthful and followed me around all day, some dropping off when they got bored, but still more joining to see what all the fuss was about. After a 4 hour sleep, clearly privacy to explore the city was a bit much to ask. Another thing that struck me early on in the day was the heat and pollution. By 9am my t-shirt was a shade darker and I'd been through a litre of water. Black gunge, somehow materialising out of the heavy air, clung to the moisture on my skin and turned that a couple of shades darker, too. It was around 35 degrees and I was baking.
The main attraction Dhaka has to offer is her river, which runs through the old city. I walked down towards it, following the corwds and passing through thick traffic of cycle rickshaws - each with a uniquely bright and colourful design painted on every panel. "Saddurghat" is the main boat ghat of the city, where ferries, launches and smaller rowing boats take locals across the black swirling mass to the markets on the other side. The river was quite something. Tankers moored for repair in the centre of the waterway clank into each other gently, with workers hammering and painting the sides endlessly from their wobbly position on suspended planks. Tug boats push still more huge ships into position; over-laden barges, barely staying afloat, sweep by between the ant-like rowboats which scurry across the water, turned against the flow, and the ugly ferries that weave up- and down-stream, belching out black fumes. Every vessel possible, carrying every conceivable cargo, was caught up in the floating pandemonium. Naturally, I couldn't wait to join in, and hired a rowboat for 100T an hour. It was great fun witnessing the (apparently) organised chaos from the perspective of the smallest boat, until I saw a ferry run over a similar wooden rowboat. Shards of freshly-splintered wood bobbed up in the water, but I'm pretty certain the owner didn't surface. I turned around to see the totally indifferent face of my oarsman, and motioned frantically for him to head back to that ghat.
My bus from Dhaka to Chittagong was again delayed, this time by 5 hours. The journey was between the country's 2 most polluted cities, and my lungs were genuinely complaining a bit by my second day in Chittagong. I stepped of the bus this time at the civilised hour of 2am and am much indebted to a local who found me a hotel for the night. By chance, I was in Bangladesh for their biggest festival - Bengali New Year - which fell on the 14th of April. It's a fun festival which is tied with the Buddhist/tribal "Water Festival" which has also been serving to drench me at regular intervals, even up to the present (I'm currently drying out from the last attack). I happened to pass a parade on the morning of the 14th when I was heading to sort out my permits, and ended up joining in on their march with an umbrella and a horn which I was meant to wave around like a loony. In the name of the festival, I've also danced with policemen by a lake, which was a singularly odd experience!
Sorry this is such a short entry: I'm in a rush because I'm about to get the bus back to Dhaka. More from Bangladesh in the next few days! Feedback much appreciated - keep it coming!
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