844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Wandering (Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Dec 21st, 2009 - Making your way around Dhaka takes a fair degree of mental fortitude. Patience is an invaluable commodity, a dearth of which might put a serious dent in your sanity. I decided to go for a stroll through Old Dhaka so after breakfast I hailed a taxi (a baby taxi or 'CNG' to be precise). Although these three wheeled circus taxis have meters I’ve discovered that few drivers have any desire whatsoever to use them, especially with foreign interlopers. I guess if they have to maneuver through traffic all the way to the old city (30-40 minutes) they need some incentive. I considered taking a rickshaw but they appeared to want an exorbitant sum. Now I understand why. In addition to the distance, riding a rickshaw across the city would be borderline suicidal as the route takes you through the lion’s den of motorized traffic.

The day after my arrival I spoke with a policeman who told me that the streets were ‘empty’ due to a holiday. Friday begins the weekend here as in other Muslim countries. Empty? The definition of empty is apparently defined by a lack of chaotic insanity. Want fun? Stuff yourself into a caged Bangladeshi baby taxi and let the good times roll. Claustrophobia would not be an asset. Through the caged doorways you can catch glimpses of the festival outside. Buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and baby taxis swerving every which way while jockeying for position. Negative space is anathema. Fill it all. And, like always, gratuitous use of your horn is mandatory regardless of utility. Every bus you see resembles a recent contestant in a demolition derby as dents, chips, scratches, and missing chunks are a permanent part of the ornamentation. I’ve read that the accident rate here is the statistical equivalent of “not if but when”, especially on buses. Combine that with the palpable nature of the air and you have a very pleasant, if not unique, experience.

How about a leisurely stroll? Nuh-uh. Sidewalks are not in the best of condition, assuming there is one. More often than not you find yourself walking in the road weaving in between vehicles and rickshaws. Only some sort of magician could manage to walk in a straight line. Rickshaw drivers love to pull up right in front of you thereby impeding your lie of progress and exclaim, “Rickshaw?” You either maneuver around them or give them the “It’s your move Skippy” penetrating glance usually to no avail.

Old Dhaka is no exception, just a rather fine example of compact chaos due to much narrower streets. Swarming with people and rickshaws you really have to set your Spidey Sense to high alert. I was sideswiped by more than one rickshaw. Luckily, they were merely glancing blows. If that was not enough the streets are not well marked and I’ve turned not having a clue into a science. My outdated version of the Lonely Planet is often inadequate to assist. So I wander around trying not to look to out of place. Impossible. I might as well be wearing a green sequin dress and a sombrero. As I plod through the chaos everyone pauses to consider this tall white mutant that wanders aimlessly through their streets. If someone were to poke me with their finger in order to verify my existence I would not be the least surprised. Folks will approach, say hello, ask me where I am from, thank me and then walk away. It feels a bit like someone dared them to approach the freak just to see what would happen.

The following is a typical encounter between me and a stranger (typically male) on the street:
Bangladeshi: “Hello. How are you?”

Me: “I’m fine. How are you?”

Bangladeshi: “I’m fine. What is your motherland?”

Me: “America. USA.”

Bangladeshi: “Why you [something unintelligible] Dhaka?”

Me: “Uhhhhh….just going for a walk?”

Bangladeshi: “Sorry. I don’t understand your response.”

Me: “Ummmm….sorry what was the question?”

Bangladeshi: “Why you in Dhaka?”

Me: “Oh, I am tourist.”

Bangladeshi: “Thank you.” They then point their gaze forward and continue walking.

Conversation over.

There are variations on this of course but that about sums it up. You are approached, asked for a few details, and then dismissed. It is all benign and friendly. I assume that their curiosity extends only so far as their English ability. I do not want to offend so I often find myself stifling laughter. Whenever I have that ‘where the hell am I’ look (which is frequently) someone is always offering to assist. And many, especially children ask to have their photo taken, often without any expectation of reward. Cute and hilarious.

My driver needed a wee wee break

The gentleman at the right with the blue-white checkered sari had just emerged from the hole at the bottom. He had to completely submerge himself in what I can only presume to be some of the most foul smelling nastiness imaginable. I believe he was attempting to unclog the sewer drain.

I’d planned to wander the streets of Old Dhaka for some time but fate had other ideas. A man approached, introduced himself, and started to lead me….somewhere. I’ve actually forgotten where the hell I was headed at the time. I mentioned something about a palace and the river but I forget where we were actually going. It did not matter because at one point I was intercepted by a few students from Jagannath University. They were quite intrigued with me and wanted desperately to show me their campus. I hadn’t the heart to say no so I followed. As it turned out we were standing right in front of the school so it was quite a short walk. One of the gentlemen was a journalism student and was dying to show me his office. Along the way two other students tagged along. Due to the language barrier I was never quite sure what was occurring but it all seemed harmless enough so I just went with the flow. Besides, I too was intrigued.

So there I sat in this campus office trying to field a fusillade of questions about, well, everything. My head is still spinning a bit. Photos were snapped, business cards handed out, and phone numbers exchanged. At one point I was adorned with a ‘Victory Day” headband. They had recently celebrated their victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war for independence (December 16th). It makes a suitable fashion accessory and I look damn good with it on.

We discussed many things but to be honest I remember hardly anything. Torun (the journalism student) had work to do but his two cohorts offered to take me to the Ahsan Mazil (Pink Palace). It was built by a wealthy landowner in 1872. Although not particularly stimulating it was worth the trip just to speak with my new friends. After we took a short excursion inside we adjourned to the grassy area in front for a chat. This is a popular pastime for the younger folks and ‘lovers’ as my new friend put it. They asked about my family, my age, and all the normal facets of a person’s background. It even got political and I found myself trying to explain the US’s position in Afghanistan and Iraq in broken English. That was not awkward at all.

As always people were staring and girls were smiling. Groups would frequently beckon me over for some light conversation (my new friends helped translate). One of my new comrades was constantly putting me on the spot with utterances like “Do you have question for them?” or “Ask him question?” while pointing directly at an individual I’d just met. My friend’s way of describing someone uneducated was to refer to them as ‘illiterate’. One of the ‘illiterates’ challenged me to a game of pool (somewhere nearby I presume) but my friend advised against it. We moved on.

The encounter ended with a fond farewell and the offer to assist me in the future should the need arise. All I have to do is call. I thanked them profusely but was a little relived when I found myself in the baby taxi amusement park ride headed back to my hotel. Encounters like that, although extremely gratifying, can be as equally draining since you are always trying to figure out what is happenning and respond accordingly.

Roaming the streets of Dhaka can be trying for another reason. I’ve seen extreme poverty before but for some reason it has hit me particularly hard here. As I walked along the sidewalk near a park I encountered a few individuals living on it. All of their belongings were spread along the wall that separated the sidewalk from the park. One particular individual lounged on his card board mat as if he did not have a care in the world. He asked me to take his picture so I obliged. After showing him his visage on the small LCD and eliciting a fervent smile I continued on.

But just as I was walking away I noticed a very small child covered with a blanket lying on the sidewalk. The child was sleeping. I really hope the child was sleeping. Its eyes were closed and it was covered with flies continually buzzing about . I took about 30 steps and paused. It felt like I’d hit with an emotional Mack Truck. I stood there staring at the sky attempting to hold back tears. I was surprised by the intensity of my reaction. I realized that it was not just the pathetic scene I’d just encountered but the also the futility intrinsic to the circumstances. What should I do? I could have turned around and given one of the men money. I seriously considered it. And it was not the loss of a few bucks that stopped me from doing so. It had more to do with the consequences of my actions and how much that would really help. Would that money even benefit that child? Whose child was it exactly? Who should I give the money to? Futility. So I kept walking haunted by the encounter. It is not an easy situation to face, especially when you consider that the value of my shoes and my camera could probably feed a family of four for six months.

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