The first thing I did on arriving in Dhaka was throw up against a wall. Considering I’ve been wanting to visit this city for eight years, it wasn’t really the entrance I was expecting to make. The bus from Kuakata had taken eleven hours, and we had travelled through the night. It was a great journey. All of the stars were out. ‘The Plough’ - that great saucepan of the sky - was the most prominent (quite appropriate for the subcontinent, I think.) The headlights lit up the endless rows of bushy trees, which appeared bright green momentarily then whooshed out of sight. Big grasshoppers kept jumping in through the window and landing on me. I know they bite (a bad experience in Agra four years back…) so I always just wait for them to move. We had to cross at least six rivers on night time ferries. On one of these, the longest crossing, we were parked right next to a huge lorry full of chickens. This chicken stink is unique to Asia in my experience thus far. People coop so many of them close together, and they’re surrounded by their own filth, and in the warmth and humidity a
stench builds up which (although a pun) is foul.
When you travel by bus in Bangladesh, you feel quite close to death. Half the time the road is only just wide enough for the vehicle, and when in motion, the bus is not quite so much moving as it is careening. When (every few minutes) the driver has a near miss when passing another vehicle, a strange sense of hilarity ripples through the passengers and the driver, feeling this high, speeds up instead of slowing down. It’s like some mad game in which you try to run as many cycle rickshaws and pedestrians as possible off the road. You never ever see a bus in Bangladesh that doesn’t have a smash or crack on its front windscreen. You also frequently pass the scenes of recent crashes. We passed one bus that was face down in a paddy field with its back end sticking into the road. A bunch of depressed looking passengers were stood next to it. So this Kuakata to Dhaka bus was our sixth, and at this point we knew the drill and were pretty much resigned to our fate. Mentally, it just becomes a case of ‘if we make it to Dhaka’ rather than ‘when.’
So that brings us back to me throwing up against a wall in Bangladesh’s capital. When I was done, we continued on, in an auto, to Old Dhaka, where we checked into a basic hotel. As soon as we’d put down our bags, I was in the bathroom throwing up in the sink. I was burning hot and felt I was going to faint. Then my gut packed up on me and I was racing into the bathroom for an even worse reason. In this kind of situation, when you know you are going to spend the whole day in bed, you hope to at least be in a decent hotel. I was unlucky. There were small cockroaches in the bathroom and insects living under our mattresses. The room was shoebox small, with rock solid beds and hardly any natural light. The one window we did have was smashed and had been patched up with brown tape. The toilet didn’t flush unless you poured great buckets of water into the latrine and someone had left a bottle of milk in the fridge for what looked like a month. It had turned yellow, and solid, and it made the place stink. As I lay feverishly in this environment for the whole day, the awfulness of the situation was almost amusing, even to me. (Or was that the delirium?) After tending to me sweetly, as I lay shivering under a blanket despite the 35 degree heat, Seth explored the markets of Old Dhaka with his camera. I lay in bed, falling into and out of sleep. The street noise coming in from outside was so loud. The tringing of the bells on the cycle rickshaws went straight into my brain and drilled at my skull. But somehow to hear all the shouting down there was encouraging - there were real, healthy people out there! I wanted to be one of them! I started thinking of the bad food we’d had in the past two days, since heading into Barisal division. There were so many suspects in the quest for the food poisoning culprit. The rice pancakes from the roadside stall which tasted like dirt… the fish and cold rice that we had sadly selected from a cupboard in Kuakata… Nothing ever seemed to be fresh. It was hard to believe, since we were so close to the sea, but Kuakata had been hit by hard times since Hurricane Sidr and was operating at a very basic, scant level, despite still attracting Bangladeshi tourists. I remembered the restaurant so awful we had to walk out of it, gagging, where food from the previous day had been kept over night in a cupboard and was being served for breakfast; there were so many flies around it and it was sweltering in the warmth. The owner slammed a bowl of cold beef in strange juices in front of us, and said, ‘cow’s meat.’ I looked at the bowl and could practically see the tapeworms waving at me. Thinking about all this as I lay in bed, I had to reach for the bucket again…
Come nightfall, and Seth’s return from his adventures, I wanted to feel better. Optimistically, we planned to head out to Gulshan, in North Dhaka, for some Western food. I wasn’t hungry, and felt weak but wanted to get into Dhaka. As we left the room, I instantly felt apprehensive. Like, Uh-Oh, I’m not up to this. But we left anyway. The streets outside were crazy. I found my coordination was bad and I was sure I was going to get run over by a rickshaw. As we waited to hail an auto, a big crowd gathered around us - of course - and I was starting to feel dizzy. We were stood on the muddy edge of the road, in the dark, by some skips full of stinking trash. I said to Seth, ‘I think I’m going to faint.’
The next thing I remember is lots of voices (Bengali language), and the awareness that I was on the ground. Well not the ground specifically - I was sat on Seth’s feet! He had angled me there as I collapsed so that I wouldn’t fall flat in the gutter. My legs and hands had been less lucky and were covered in black filth. My water bottle and bag, also filthy, were retrieved by members of the crowd and handed to Seth. As he pulled me up, there were supportive hands on my shoulder and arms, as people helped ferry me onto a cycle rickshaw. I tried to thank people but wasn’t really with it and spoke in Hindi, not Bengali. Seth took me back to the hotel and put me in bed, after I had washed of the dirt. I slept for about thirteen hours. The situation was quite depressing, but I do find it quite funny when I faint. It’s so uncharacteristically feminine of me. The last time had been in 2004, when I fainted by the roadside in Laos, into the arms of a German paramedic (lucky to be having a conversation with such a person at the time, don’t you think?) That swoon had been quite Catherine from ‘Wuthering Heights.’ This Dhaka one, I felt, was more Scarlett O’Hara ‘Gone with the Wind.’
As Seth headed out for a lonely dinner, I had one question on my mind: With only one day left in Dhaka, was I actually going to be able to see any of it?
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