“It probably seems like I’ve got a hate on for Bangladesh. I don’t. I enjoyed my stay, but to say I’m not excited to be leaving would be a lie.”
I’m currently chilling in the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I’ve been all day. It’s official: Bangladesh has the most unreliable airlines ever. My flight from Cox’s Bazar to Dhaka was delayed, then re-delayed countless times until we finally left 8 hours late. No real reason was given because frankly even the staff didn’t seem to know. Currently, my flight from Dhaka to Bangkok was set to leave at 9am. They’re now saying it should leave by 7pm (in fact none of the 6 flights I’ve taken here have been close to leaving on time). Nothing to do but sit and wait and people watch and get watched. In Bangladesh, you are the star; you’re not taking pictures of others so much as fending off photos of yourself. I tell myself I shouldn’t feel annoyed at the endless photos, after all, I take pictures of others while travelling all the time. How is it any different? It’s a good lesson when ‘the tables are turned so to speak.
I wish I could just sit in a quiet part of the airport. I’ve moved about 5 times now, always to an empty area of seats, but it seems my presence somehow draws people to sit around. Of course this is almost surely related to being a foreigner. After a month here I still can’t get fully comfortable with being an attraction. It’s not that you don’t get used to it, it’s just that it doesn’t fit my personality. I prefer to wander around unnoticed in the background, being more of a voyeur, observing others in their daily life, as opposed to being in the centre of a circle of gawkers. Oh well, comes with the territory. I’m greatly looking forward to Thailand, where foreigners aren’t a novelty, and where the food is varied and delicious. I don’t want to be an ass, but you gotta call it how it is: Bangladesh’s “local food” has been a bit of a disappointment. You think they’d take a tip from their neighbours in India who make some of the most delicious dishes on the planet. But no. In all the little local stalls, all they have are about 4 items at any time of day, nearly always deep fried and usually bland (plain naan, parattas, deep fried bread balls, shingaras which are like a low quality version of samosas and bland dhal lentils or chopzie chick peas). To compensate for this there is ubiquitous use of green chillis. If you can’t add flavour, make it spicy seems to be the motto. The best meal I had in Bangladesh was Indian food and it was fucking amazing. Why they don’t adopt more of this style of cooking baffles me.
“Everywhere you go in Bangladesh is a giant sausagefest.”
I’ve probably already started to offend people with this rant, particularly Bengalis. It probably seems like I’ve got a big hate on for Bangladesh. I don’t. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, but to say I’m not excited to be leaving would be a lie. Of course, there are many good things about Bangladesh: the people are uber nice but sometimes overly so and to a fault (once you make a true friend here, they’re loyal and giving like none other. The problem is everyonewants to be your friend); it’s super cheap (especially food, labour and textiles) and once they know you people will be nice by giving you the ‘local price’ aka not overcharging you. The sad thing is that not being grossly overcharged has to be considered a bonus, whereas in many countries it’s accepted that all are charged equally (of course, this can apply to many countries, but here it’s taken to a whole new level).
Equality. This is another sticking point for me. Let’s face it: women are often not treated as equals here. They rarely run shops. You never see them in the local food stands. Everywhere you go it’s a giant sausagefest. They’re kept covered up, or cooped up. Wtf. And yet Bengalese men like to look at women. They like soft core porn, though they’ll never admit it. Yet they repress women, and disrespect them if dressed ‘unmodestly’. There’s a lot of sexual repression and tension here… and for obvious reasons. You can’t have sex until marriage (well legally you can but morally it’s a no-no). Teenage boys don’t really seem to date girls like in other places. In fact, boys don’t seem to even hang out with girls unless they’re still like 7 year olds playing in the street. Men spend most of their waking hours with other men. And surprise surprise, does this lead to males discreetly having relationships with other males? You bet it does, though they will never admit it.
Alcohol is rare and hard to find, and yet Bengalese men want to drink, in fact in my experience some are desperate to drink. We had a waiter come up to us in a fancy restaurant and ask if he could drink our wine (that we brought because obviously they don’t serve it anywhere). We had people we considered friends steal a full bottle of gin at a party we invited them to. It’s conservative here, but many people don’t want to be conservative. They’ll say they do, but their actions speak otherwise. Why don’t people here just give-up the charade, stop being hypocritical, and allow themselves to enjoy the things they want to in life? Accept the fact humans are still animals who like to have sex for pleasure, that being attracted to girls is ok, that sometimes men want to love and fuck each other in the bum and that women are capable and strong individuals? You know why? Religion.
Of course I’ve painted broad brush strokes here. There are many, many Bengalis I met who do not fit the above descriptions. But the majority determines the rules, or so they say.
I’ve never seen a greater disparity between rich and poor than here. You want to see poverty? Come on down! People drinking sewage water, bruising their teeth with it, working their asses off for pennies, combing thru street garbage with the cows and chickens. Bangladesh could greatly improve its lot in life, and on its own even, it seems. But the government is so corrupt and inept. It’s like they don’t really care about their own people. Most foreigners I met work for some sort of NGO or international humanitarian organisation. Ask them about their interactions with the government. Southern Bangladesh is home to hundreds of thousands of Myanmar refugees living in two camps. Many organizations work to improve living conditions for these displaced people. But when they do too good of a job, the Bangladesh government steps in and bans/prevents them from continuing the good work, or kicks them out completely. The gov’t is also unwilling to let these Bhuddist peoples integrate into society, even though they’re historically the same in terms of customs, religion, language and ethnicity as those of southern Bangladesh. How crazy is that, they are the same people!!, but are not allowed to actually be the same anymore. In other words, the Bengali gov’t purposely wants them to have a shitty life, and takes actions towards this. It’s amazing to see such intolerance from a country populated by a people whom many were themselves refugees in the 1970’s during their war for independence. What are some of the factors could contribute to this? I’ll give you a hint. Starts with ‘R’, ends with ‘eligion’. Here’s a cool story I heard ‘through the grapevine’: Government to NGO: “If we find out you have a Jew working for you we are going to shut you down.” Wow.
And of course why would they want to effectively deal with health issues? If they effectively solved problems like AIDS then there would be no more need for aid organizations to be there and the money would stop flowing. It’s much better to halfheartedly try to solve health problems (aka ignore advice and do things ‘your way’) and therefore continue to live off the relatively ‘big money’ that these foreign aid groups bring in. That is corruption, and that is how they roll here. Don’t believe it? Talk to the foreigners working with the aid groups trying to help people here and see what they have to say about their experiences.
But fuck me, it appears I’ve just made one of the longest, most negative posts ever. I apologize. It’s not like me to be like this. But after a month of these blatant things staring me in the face (literally at times) I guess I just had to rant.
“I did nothing to deserve such a radically better life than these people. I was simply born in the right place at the right time.”
At the end of the day, I can sit up here in my high horse and preach, but what do I really know. I’m just a transient wanderer passing through. In one month I can’t really understand any place or its people’s lives that fully. My viewpoint is extremely one-sided at best, but it’s my viewpoint nonetheless. I will say one thing with surety however: that visiting here, more than anywhere, has made me more grateful than words can describe about my lot in life. The word lucky doesn’t even come close. I did NOTHING to deserve such a radically better life than some of these people. I was simply born in the right place at the right time, and because of this was afforded opportunities, as well as exposure to ways of thinking and ideas that most here are not. By far the greatest gift travel has given me is gratitude.
Bangladesh is beautiful and quite magical in it’s own way. There’s always a big, round, orange to blood-red sun setting each day over the Bay of Bengal, or over the flat, flooded rice fields. It fills the dusty air with a golden-bronze hue. I love it and I love the feeling it gives me. There really is a magical feeling to the place here, it’s palpable. But let’s be honest: there’s a reason it’s not an international tourist destination. I’ve seen a few tropical paradises by now, and as enthusiastic as the locals are for Cox’s Bazar, by no stretch of the imagination does it come even close to the beauty of the beaches of the Mentawais, Lombok or Sumbawa, Australia, or even other South East Asian countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. Compare them for yourself.
A lot of people here are asking me when I’m coming back. I polltely say ‘I don’t know’ when the real answer might be closer to ‘probably never’. It might seem like I hate it here, but that’s not the case at all. It’s just that, after being to 16 different countries, I know there are soo many amazing places that B-desh just doesn’t match up to, and if I’m gonna choose to spend my finite time and money somewhere, I’d rather go someplace more beautiful, cleaner, less crowded and more relaxing. Wouldn’t you?
For a great photojournalistic piece on child labour in Bangladesh/Dhaka circa 2009, see the following:
Oh ya, and that plane I was waiting for? It got cancelled. But only after we waited until 6pm (i.e. 9 hours after it was originally supposed to depart). Did they think of announcing this cancellation? Nope. It took some passengers to walk up to the desk and ask WTF to find out. So they rescheduled us to the next day’s flight, leaving at the same time, 9am. Then they said it would be instead leaving at 5pm. I triple check my facts with several airline employees who assure me showing up at 2pm is more than ok. Fast-forward to the next day, 12:30 pm: I get a frantic call saying I need to be at the airport ASAP as my flight is now boarding. Apparently they changed the departure time AGAIN, now to 1pm. You gotta be fucking kidding me! I’m at best 30 min away. I bust ass there, and in a rare and unlikely moment of efficiency I’m whisked thru check-in by a waiting employee, only get caught up in super slow customs with the tail end of the passengers from the previous day (our VISA situation complicated by the technical leaving of the country the day before). According to the latest ephemeral departure time the flight leaves only 30 min late… I just laugh.