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.

Bye Bye Bangladesh

Feb 16th, 2010 - So I've left Bangladesh and returned to Himalaya Land (Nepal). My return was not without its tribulations. My flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu was scheduled for 12:45 pm. I arrived at 10:30 am. I took off at 9 pm. I arrived early because, well, I was in Bangladesh. I stared at the departure screen for about an hour waiting for the blank area next to my flight number to read 'Check In' status. I waited near the counter to observe the GMG staff manning their positions. I waited in vain. As my departure time drew closer I began to become suspicious. I heard another gentleman on my flight discussing GMG with an airport employee. He was directed to an office. After about ten minutes I decided to follow. I met him coming down the stairs at which time I learned that our flight had been delayed……for six hours and fifteen minutes. Uh-huh. I too went to the office and began an inquiry. I was told that the flight had been 'delayed' until 7 pm. Superb. I returned to the terminal and my new friend and I had a bitch fest. He had given the airline his contact info and cursed GMG for not notifying him. I did not have that excuse but when I see a departure time on a computer screen I tend to think a flight will leave. Stupid bastard.

I was told there was another office in the terminal. Why not have two, just to be safe? When I inquired within I was told that the decision had been made the night before, not this morning (according to the other office). I was happy. I asked if it were possible to check in so I could enter the gate area and enjoy the luxury of internet. They agreed to do so. I spent my time in the executive lounge (I'm worth it) watching television and surfing the web. Pure heaven. My flight was later delayed for another half hour (which in Bengali translates as two hours). This time I was told that a VIP (President?) was leaving the airport and all runways were shut down until the VIP departed. So my one and a half hour flight turned into a ten and a half hour extravaganza.

I leave Bangladesh behind, perhaps never to return (then again..). To say that it was an experience would be putting it mildly. But exactly what kind of 'experience'? How do I encapsulate my adventure in a land almost impossible to accurately describe succinctly. I suppose this is true of any place but Bangladesh has more of a tendency to obfuscate its true nature, if such a thing even exists. Bangladesh is tragedy, paradox, irony, contradiction, despair, adamantine pride, enigma, and hope all rolled into one. Think you can get a handle on it? Think again. 

The country's birth was a baptism by fire and included some of the most heinous atrocities human beings have ever perpetrated on one another. And most people outside this area of the subcontinent no nothing of it. I certainly did not. But that is Bangladesh. 

Hardship is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Cyclones, floods, arsenic contaminated ground water, global warming, civil unrest, abject poverty, government corruption, so on and so forth. Many go about their days in a sort of subdued desperation although most don't seem to know they are desperate. That is one of the most remarkable things. A Bangladeshi could be standing on a mound of garbage while expounding the virtues of the nation and its natural beauty.

Education is held in high esteem and many people appear to have attended one form of higher educational institution or another of varying degrees of quality. As a visitor one of the first questions you will be asked (in addition to 'Where is your motherland?' and 'Are you married?') is 'What is your certification' (i.e. level of education). This is as true in Dhaka as it is in the countryside. They value knowledge and learning and most folks I met are acutely aware of their violent history and the struggle for independence. They love their country. Of course, the eastern hill tribes might not share that enthusiasm. That is because these folks do not have a country. Being marginalized in the developed world is one thing but imagine being disenfranchised in a globally disenfranchised state?

Walking the streets and village roads of Bangladesh will most likely leave you in a state of stupefaction. The warmth of everyday people will warm your heart and make you laugh out loud, the state of slum dwellers and street sleepers will bring tears to your eyes, the sanitation levels will result in a do or die battle with your vomit reflex, a ride in an auto rickshaw will leave you disoriented and covered in dust, a local bus ride will test your patience in ways you have not envisioned. You could laugh, cry, become angry, be amazed and disappointed all in the same day, perhaps in the same hour. On more than one occasion I came very close to changing my flight and getting the hell out. That would have been a mistake.

Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Muslim but not obnoxiously or 'militantly' so. I may have been questioned as to my religious denomination but not once did anyone attempt to convert me or even espouse the virtues of Islam. They are devout but most (as far as I can tell) do not have that pernicious fundamentalist flavor that infects places like Pakistan. I am sure there are areas of such but I did not run into any of it. On the contrary after a while I no longer dreaded traveling alone as there was always someone willing to assist me. Conversations would more often than not lead to a cup of tea. The level of friendliness I experienced took me by surprise and, at first, aroused heighten levels of suspicion. But as it turns out most are exceedingly curious about foreigners and genuinely seem to appreciate your taking the time to visit.

Of course, it is not all peaches and sunshine. There are still those that aim to squeeze every last penny out of you and some that treat you with indifference afforded a stray dog (especially in the east). And then you have to remember that I am a man (although sometimes I wonder). I have no doubt that a woman traveling solo would have a much more difficult time as a female traveling by herself in this country is almost unheard of. Most local women are escorted by family members. Females in general are very much in the background and the status of woman in this country is nothing to brag about. Not so many years ago it finally became a illegal to throw acid at a female. Much of the subjugation is rooted in Islam (full burkas are not uncommon). Things are changing as the more affluent females appear to be shunning the traditional ways more and more. And then there is the prime minister. This position has been held by one of two females for the last ten years. Did I mention the contradictions?

The population of Bangladesh is staggering and when you dismiss the city-states of Malta, Monaco, and Singapore it becomes the most densely populated country on the planet. Imagine the environmental impact? Mind-boggling. Yet the use of natural gas is widespread and plastic bags have been banned. There might be sewage running through the streets of Dhaka but plastic bags are illegal. I'm not really sure what that means. But that is Bangladesh.

Speaking of the environment, keep your eye on the tigers. The tigers hold the key, not in and of themselves but as a symbol. For now the tigers of the magical mangrove known of the Sundarbans play a part in their own protection. They do this by scaring the shit out of the population. Their elusive nature and the isolation of the mangrove swamp also contribute to their protection. The efforts of the Sundarbans Tiger Project have gone a long way to preserve one of the most beautiful creatures on this planet but their battle is an uphill one. Human encroachment, prey depletion due to poaching, and a legendary fear of the striped marauders have taken its toll. On Jan 22nd of this year a tigress was clubbed to death in a village in the Sundarbans after seeking refuge in a village hut. I'd heard that the killing was retaliation for the death of a villager and that the tiger was placed on the roof of the dead man's home as a signal to other tigers to stay away.

Staying optimistic is not such an easy task but if, by some measure, the tigers can be saved and their habitat protected then maybe there is hope for the rest of the country. Save the tigers and perhaps Bangladesh can save itself from itself. Not that they should have to do it on their own. In fact outside assistance is essential but will it materialize in time and in quantities large enough to turn the tide? I hope so because this is not just Bangladesh's fight. If this country can be rescued from the depths of despair and desolation then perhaps humanity has a chance to atone for the damage already done. Save Bangladesh and maybe we find a way to save everyone.

So can I recommend Bangladesh as a travel destination? I am not sure 'recommend' would be the correct word. I believe everyone should visit Bangladesh. This is not a plug and I am not stumping for the government's tourism ministry. A visit here would not be a vacation. It would be a lesson of sorts. Tourism does not really exist here. I am not a diplomat and I cannot guarantee a positive (depending on how you define 'positive') experience if you were to come. Don't worry. I am not going to start down the hackneyed road of 'you don't know how good you have it' or 'empty your plate cause people in Bangladesh are starving' cliché. I am not Sally Struthers (not that she should not be applauded for her charity work). My purpose is different and incredibly difficult for me to externalize. Want to know what I mean? Well, come to Bangladesh.

I cannot adequately describe how I feel because I do not really understand my own emotions when it comes to this place. For the most part it will not make you feel good about the world or yourself for that matter, but I suppose that is the point. You can find all that is wrong with the world, all that is wrong with humanity. I suppose this is true of any country but there is something especially poignant about Bangladesh (let us keep in mind I still have many countries to visit). And no, it is not all bad for even in all the negativity, all the things that make you want to puke, cry, scream, and run away is the kernel of eternal hope that I would like to believe lies at the essence of human possibility.

Ever wonder what it would be like to cruise the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh at night in an auto rickshaw? Wonder no more.  


1 comment:

  1. Hmm, nice. I'm a Bangladeshi and quenching my thirst of traveling this country by reading a bit your writing. What does that mean? I couldn't afford to cross over this tiny country and visit those highest mountains in Nepal, so close yet so far. I guess you understand that- have fun.

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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim