Having traveled all night by slow ferry from Patuakali, my buddy Todd and I woke about 5AM hearing sound outside. We seemed in the very early light to be reaching the outskirts of Dhaka. Off of our little balcony, we could hear the faint sound of early morning call to prayer, it was
misty and rather cold. We tried to open the door of our room and 4 of the guys who work on this boat were sleeping right outside. We roused them so we could move.
Coming into Dhaka at sunrise, I will never forget it. Staring off our ferry at the awakening sea of humanity: cargo boats, huge ferries, little passenger boats, mostly rowed and steered by hand. We had arrived, this place I have in certain ways dreaded, everything I have read said that it was polluted, chaotic. I decided that I was going to discover the magic of it, coming in by river helped the town of Dhaka unfold for me in a wonderful way.
I had a plan to stay in the old part of Dhaka, called Shakhari Bazaar. This a mostly Hindu area a half mile walk or so from the port. Todd
and I walked through mobs of smiling people, took a look at the little place I wanted to stay, Kalpana Boarding House. I had been told that the people
there weren't the friendliest and probably wouldn't let a foreigner stay. Todd and I made note of where the place was, stopped in a charming little Hindu temple in Shakhari Bazaar. The main street of this bazaar is too skinny for cars, bicycle rickshaws honk their horns and pass by. It is primarily Hindu people here, living and working, as they have for many centuries. Quite a few Muslim people pass through too. The sights and smells are intoxicating. There are drum makers, jewelry carvers, shop keepers, religious material stores, barbershops, tea on the street.
Todd and I went to look for the internet, ran into hordes of helpful policemen and policewomen.
We walked into an educational center which was focused on teaching English. Despite our pleas to use the internet and continuing to say that Todd had to go to the airport, The people in this center of course wanted to visit, share information, practice English, ask us what we
thought of Bangladesh. Finally, Todd had to run to
a rickshaw. I waved goodbye and he was off.
I wandered over by the High Court area and found internet near a place called Luxmi Bazaar. Up three flights of stairs in a tiny room, I met the nicest man who had this internet shop. After bringing me (you guessed it) tea, I got on his surprisingly good internet connection and was thrilled to find that I had an email waiting from Rashel, the Dhaka guy I had met in Mongla at the other side of the country before the Sunderbans trip. We made plans to connect later.
I still didn't have a room and it was getting to be about noon. I walked back to the Old Town, found Kalpana Boarding house. I walked up, smiled at the front desk manager, gave him a "namaste". He somehow took a liking to me, told me many stories about his travels and living in
Germany for 6 years. He spoke fondly of this time, he was in his golden years and the memories were strong, just like these will be for me someday. He found me a room, the best $8 AC room in all of Dhaka. A little
dark, end of the hall. Not perfect, but perfect for me. I was
right in the old town in the only place here, in a room that was dripping with character.
I took a bundle of dirty travel clothes downstairs in the boarding house, hoping I could find someone to wash them for me. A bright-eyed twelve year old boy who worked downstairs motioned for me to come with him. He almost ran across the street, me following him the best I could. We went down alleyways I didn't even know existed, people were very surprised to see me but greeted me with smiles everywhere. We finally got to the laundry place, they were closed. The young boy grabbed my hand, dodging rickshaws and traffic, found a shop that sold detergent. He told me in broken English that he wanted to wash my clothes in my room for me.
It was amazing, he had so much confidence, a great work ethic. He actually reminded me of myself hunting for lawn mowing jobs at a young age. He washed the clothes thoroughly and hung them for me in my room. I showed him how to squeeze the water out
of them, I don't think this is normal work that he does. I gave him a nice tip, he loved it.
It had been a whirlwind journey. I was weary but ready to muster all I had and see this vibrant place. I had good travels with my mate but it was great to be alone again. About 4PM after a nap in my little room, I wandered downstairs and through the little mazes of the Bazar. Commerce was in full steam, lots of little food vendors had set up on the street. I bushwhacked my way down to Saderghat by the river, the sun was getting lower in the sky. Everywhere I went, people put their hands on me, begged me to stop and talk. I finally pushed on through the masses, got down to the river and hopped on a tiny passenger boat holding about 10 people. I rode to the other side, got out, strolled around markets for a bit, turned back to the river and my ride home just in time for an amazing sunset.
On the Dhaka side of the river, I turned left and strolled the riverbank. Little boys were playing cricket
down by the water among piles of rubbish. I heard their laughing and joy, walked on to the Ahsan Manzil, the Pink Palace that used to house a British Governor in the 1800s. I was surrounded by a group of about 20 young men everywhere I went, two of them poked me and gestured across the street. It was so rare to see a Westerner, about 50 meters away there was a middle aged couple from Spain. I had a laugh with them, spoke mostly Spanish. They lived in Madrid, were very good friends with a Bangladeshi restaurant and bar owner there. They had come back with him to see his family and country.
I needed to get back soon to my room, my buddy Rashel was coming to grab me soon. I kept getting distracted, bought a very unusual musical instrument that made haunting sounds when the shopkeeper played it. I also bought some beautiful carved conch shell bracelets. The conch shells are shipped from Sri Lanka, carved here, often filled with gold in the grooves. They are very important in Hinduism, related to marriage i think. The air quality felt very bad, my eyes were burning and
watering, better with some breeze over by the river.
I got back, Rashel was waiting for me. He had left his business and found some serious traffic to get down to me. It was amazing to think that I had met him in Mongla before the Sunderbans trip 8 days earlier, so much had happened since them. He had a huge grin on his face, he said "let's go". We hopped in a rickshaw, he knew I was dying to try the famous biryani rice classic dish of Dhaka. We rode over to a very well known place called Hajj Biryani, he told me that we would be very lucky to get in the door. In this city of 22 million, it is very well known. Incredible, we got a table. The spices, the flavors were subtle and delicious. We had tea of course, what a great meal.
We took the rickshaw a bit more and pulled over to the side of the road as we cleared the maze of the old town. We hopped in his car, not a fancy one but Rashel has a driver. This would be considered a huge rare luxury in the States,
I guess more common here. We stopped to pick up his awesome buddy Billah and headed by a craft market to get a few thing I had asked about. There were many refined art pieces made out of clay, delicately carved. We found another musical instrument, I cracked them up by attempting to play it and sing at the same time.
Rashel and BIllah knew I was interested in Baul culture, the mystical, often long haired, musical gypsies in Bangladesh. It was maybe 9PM, we wandered through this peaceful park that was fairly quiet after my crazy day in Dhaka. We were so lucky to find a group of Baul people having an impromptu jam session in a little corner of the park, seated under a little shelter. One guy had a flute, one was playing tablas drum, one was singing, playing tambourine and chanting in a beautiful way and one guy playing an organ/accordion instrument. It was incredible, if you ever have the chance to pull it up online and listen, Baul music is beautiful and hypnotic. I sat next to the musicians, closed my eyes and listened for about 30 minutes.
I could have stayed all
night but was exhausted. Rashal and Billah took me by a very old Shia Muslim building with quite lovely tile work. Even though it was midnight, the curator opened the gates and let me walk around. We drove back to the old town, got the car badly stuck in an alley with very narrow streets. After doing about 15 minutes of trying to get the car free, we finally escaped. I was home to bed and after a cold shower, about 12:30A collapsed under a cool paddle fan and slept happily through the night.
The next morning I woke, all alone in my little room with the paddle fan zooming around. I just lay there for a while, listening to sounds, looking at all my little accumulated treasures from my trip, clicking through pictures on my camera. The fan had completely dried my washed clothes during the night, I packed a bit knowing I was leaving at 11PM tonight. One last day, time to make the best of it.
Down to vibrant Shakhari Bazar and a few people I was starting to know on the street. The air seemed better this day. I had my dudh cha and
some food. I went back for a quick internet check, planned to hook up with Rashal again later and was able to reach him. I was learning to walk in the streets and flow with the rickshaws, the best way to make progress. This takes decisiveness and just a way of becoming one with what is happening around you. When you can do that, the chaos becomes more like a dance.
After getting a few excellent videos of the action at Saderghat port, stopped in a little streetside shop and had two more gigantic plates of mutton biryani, fresh veggie slaw and milk tea that the owner ran out to get for me. The owner was quite congenial, had lived in Dubai for 6 years and like many people I met, had dreams of going to America. Most people who are somewhat professional or educated know Bangladeshis living in the US and dream of going.
I left lunch, which actually was more like late breakfast. People as usual were all around me, touching me, hanging on me. I had stopped some time ago being bothered by it and was just enjoying the ride. Rock star status was almost
over, may as well soak it in. I have been treated with complete kindness and welcomed without fail by everyone in this country. This was my last evening in the country, I wondered what my new Dhaka buddies had in store for me.
Back to my room, packed a bit more. I thought Rashal was going to meet me at my place. I got a call from the front desk, it was him on the phone. It seemed the area where I was was hosting a large meeting of the opposition party and traffic and security concerns would be heightened. I guess often, the ruling party will plant agitators at the meetings and things can get violent. He asked me to hop in a moto rickshaw.
I packed up the last of my things, flung on my big pack and said goodbye to the nice folks at my place. This was a throwback place, I absolutely loved it. I hopped a ride, we weaved through some horrid traffic for about 30 minutes, police everywhere. Suddenly, we hit a larger street and things mellowed out. Rashal had asked me to come to Mirpur, a calmer suburb where he lived.
The ride was fun, I'm glad I did it, saw the world famous Louis Khan Parliament building and the National Cricket Stadium. I just had Rashal's number, hadn't established where we would meet.
I had driver drop me at the Dhaka Botanical Gardens, called Rashal from someone's phone. While waiting for him, I had a stroll around the massive and peaceful place. It was surprising that there was litter on the ground, besides that it was very nice. Young couples walked hand in hand. In a conservative society, this is one place people come to have time together. People looked at me shyly, for once wanting to be with the person they were with more than visit with me. Ah, young love.
Broadly smiling Rashal saw me from a distance, great to connect with him again. he showed me some special spots in the gardens, then we walked through the Dhaka Zoo, just next to gardens. Finally, in a cage, I saw the elusive Bengal Tiger. We hopped in his car, went to a lovely river area to have a tea and watch the sun set. There were some massive banyan trees I had to jump up and climb, much to the delight of Rashal.
We stopped by another good buddy's house to hang out and meet his family. Rashal called his friend "Jimson", the name most Bangladeshis think I am saying when I tell them my name. Jimson, who is a naturopathic doctor, works during the day for a pharmaceutical company and in the evenings sees patients in his "chamber", or home clinic. He graciously welcomed me into his home, simple and comfortable with cool concrete floors and photos of loved ones on the walls. I quickly met his wife, mother, sister and a number of kids and friends. Quickly came yummy noodles and tea.
This family seemed very open-minded, loving and free-thinking. The sister, a single mother whose name was Shilpi, shared with me a sad and loving story of losing her husband a few years before during the horrible cyclone Sidr. He had an aneurism and there was no medical care available. He was a well known poet, journalist, musician, philosopher beloved by all. They keep him alive through photos, stories and music. The mother and sister both work in banking, one of the friends who stopped by does textile business work.
We had lots of laughs and nice talk together, just sitting around. I looked at the clock and it was time to go. Rashal, Jimson and his wife Aklima and I all jumped in the car. They surprised me by stopping by a little restaurant that Rashal owns, they bought me a samosa and tea. We zipped to the airport, i found out on the way that they would have made me a huge prawn dinner if I had been able to stay later, too bad. It was amazing to come back to the place I had started over three weeks earlier. As a parting gift, Rashal gave me two traditional Bangladeshi music CDs that i treasure and listen to regularly. Big hugs and long goodbye as I walked into the airport. Great guys, great family, great trip. Until next time.
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