To truly understand and get under the skin of a country, you need to immerse yourself; getting to know the people, culture, religion and customs. Spending only one day somewhere can leave you with false impressions that last a lifetime.
Some years ago I took a Bangladesh Airways flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu which included a one night stopover in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. This was not like a normal stopover whereby you enter the country and are free to explore. My passport was confiscated at the airport and I was given strict instructions not to leave the hotel until the following morning, at which point I’d be taken back to the airport to board my connecting flight to Nepal.
As I don’t like being told I can’t do something and always like to explore a destination, this was an invitation to get out see what makes Dhaka tick. But first I had to escape the hotel. The first attempt was to simply walk out the front door, but this was thwarted by a burly security guard who thrust his right hand out stopping my progress. Not giving in, I tried the back door. There I was met by another guard. This one, however, seemed very pleased to accept the $5 I waved in his general direction. He even opened the door for me.
The hotel was located on the fringe of the thriving city. My sense of caution overrode my sense of adventure and I decided I didn’t want to stray too far so opted for a stroll around the surrounding streets.
Wandering the streets I encountered a number of homeless families, judging by the state of their dirty clothes they were obviously very poor. On several occasions families would run up to me wanting their photo taken. Each time I raised the camera to my eye they rather curiously pulled Karate poses. I wonder if saying ‘Cheese’ then wafting your hand in chopping motions is the standard photo etiquette in Bangladesh.
I continued my walk only to be accosted by two men gesturing for me to buy live chickens from baskets precariously balanced on their heads. Having already eaten on the flight I politely declined and headed back in the direction of the hotel.
Dhaka is one of the most populous cities in the world and has around half a million cycle rickshaws. Even on the outskirts rickshaws circled the streets like worker ants straying from the mound in search of the perfect leaf.
I soon was approached by rickshaw drivers gesturing me for business. Sure, why not? I thought, and went to sit in the back of one but he started protesting and pointing to the saddle. I quickly realized what he was implying. He wanted me to pedal him around! It was a fun half hour working up a sweat in the humid evening. We passed some of his pals sitting outside a café smoking and jeering at the peculiar sight. We stopped not too far from where we started. He refused to take any money from me.
Tired from travelling and with these bizarre experiences and the humidity taking its toll, I figured I had better return to the hotel before someone realised I was missing.
After spending just one afternoon and night in Dhaka, I came away concluding the Bangladesh capital was chaotic, full of crazy individuals and a touch bizarre. Is this so? Or have I taken away a false impression based on my one brief visit?
by Si Salter