Dec 26th, 2009 - Pretty sure this Christmas will live on in the annuls of my memory. So far I would have to say that Bangladesh's most prized asset is its people. Friendliness is an intricate part of the national psyche especially when dealing with foreigners. There may be (but not always) an expectation of reward but this does not necessarily detract from congenial alacrity with which they assist anyone in need. I met a man on the street by the name of Shaiful (at least I think that is his name) who introduced himself to me and so began a pleasant conversation. I can confidentially say that I understood at least sixty percent of what he said.
He told me of his American friend (Mathias, whose name he had written in his cell phone) and his fondness for befriending foreigners. I informed him that I was interested in learning a bit of Bengali and he mentioned that he would very much like to practice his English. It became slightly uncomfortable when he began speaking of the dire employment situation in Dhaka and how he was currently unemployed. His troubles were compounded I was told by the missing out of a recent employment opportunity due to a prolonged about of Dengue Fever. There was then some ambiguous offer to become my personal assistant. Truth be told it was hard not to warm up to the guy and although I was a bit hesitant we exchanged phone numbers. I told him I would be traveling soon so perhaps we could meet in the future. He then began calling and texting every day for the next three days. I am bit ashamed to say that I dodged his calls, not so much because I did not want to speak to him or even meet up for a language exchange but because I was preoccupied with sorting out the details of my Sundarbans extravaganza.
The above was a bit of background, as is this. A couple of nights before I left Nepal I met an American woman who had been volunteering in Kathmandu. After a brief conversation I discovered that she too was going to go Bangladesh a week after I arrived. An exchange of e-mails ensued along with the promise to hook up once she arrived in Dhaka.
I had given her my cell number and yesterday she gave me a call. So with my English pal Alex in tow we went to meet her. She soon informed me that she had been walking along the street in Dhaka when a gentleman approached her and instigated a conversation. After discovering she was from America he informed her that he had two American friends to include a tall American named Richard. As she had my number she asked to borrow his phone. Imagine her surprise when she saw the number in his phone listed as 'Richard - USA'. This just happened to be the same guy (Shaiful) I had met three days earlier. The thing is when she called me the number came up as 'Shaiful' so I did not answer as I was not in the mood for a difficult explanation on the reasons why I could not meet him on that day. Not two minutes later, from another phone, she again rang. This time I picked up immediately. Now imagine how poor Shaiful might have been feeling when right after receiving no answer from his phone I immediately answer when receiving a call from another number. Oops.I felt like an a-hole.
It was time for lunch so we headed off to a restaurant Alex and I had discovered two days before. As we were walking Shaiful called once again. This time I answered and immediately had to explain why I did not answer my phone previously. That settled he then informed me that he was bored and requested to join us. Sensing the awkward potential of such a meeting I once again engaged in a bit of prevarication by telling him I was preparing for my journey and had not the time to meet him. I did say that we could get together when I returned from my journey. Karma can be a real bitch.
Not two minutes after sitting down in the restaurant guess who happens to pop in. I suspect he was in the area and spotted us entering the restaurant. More awkwardness. He told me that he was meeting a friend there but it was clear that he was employing a bit of subterfuge. He also said something about dropping off his resume somewhere to which I wished him luck in his job search. He then asked for my e-mail and mentioned something about people helping people. After handing him my e-mail he then informed me that he would be forwarding his resume to me. I am not exactly sure what he thinks I will be able to do for him but I guess you never know. In a way it is a bit sad as I wish there was some way I could help. Perhaps, when I return to Dhaka I may be able to assist him in one way or another.
And then came the liquor expedition. My friend Alex and I thought a bit of whiskey might be a nice New Years Eve treat while sitting on a boat in the mangrove waiting for a tiger to pounce on us. Problem is, alcohol is not so easy to come by in Muslim Bangladesh. Options are a bit limited. It is available at premium hotels (like the Sheraton for instance) for an exorbitant sum. There are warehouse type establishments that do sell spirits to those with a foreign passport but it was Friday, their holy day, so that was out. There are clubs established by embassies (British Club, American Club, etc.) but at the very least a temporary membership is required. We had not the time nor the patience for that. So that left us with only one option: the black market. Yippee. Every time I mount a rickshaw I am consistently offered, beer, whiskey, hashish, and a lady. So to the rickshaw driver we went.....for the whiskey. Maybe I can save the hash and lady for Valentine's Day.
What started off as a seemingly simple endeavor slowly degenerated into mind numbing frustration that began at one of those aforementioned warehouses (closed) and ended with me exchanging cash with the friend of a guy who knew another guy and retrieving the contraband from beneath the seat of yet another rickshaw driver. I'm like an alcoholic James Bond. So we (the infidels) ended up dropping close to $60 on a bottle of not so premium whiskey. Although it is not a crime for a foreigner to possess alcohol I am fairly certain it is frowned upon by the more devout elements of Bangladeshi society. And I am fairly certain that I participated in a criminal act, at least as far as my Bangladeshi co-conspirators are concerned. It may not even be a big deal but then again. All this so I could have a sip on New Years. Gosh, I'm awesome. Oh yeah, in the process of all this I also managed to lose my cell phone. Awesome.
We ended the day with a ten hour train ride from Dhaka to Khulna. Not exactly comfort but not too bad as far as local standards go. Once again Valium helped. We arrived in Khulna at around 5 am and made our way to the hotel where we were more than happy to get some sleep. Tomorrow begins are foray into the Sundarbans.
Today I entered the office of a local cell phone network in order to get another phone. Buying a phone here requires a few hoops. I had to fill out a form (name, address, father's name, mother's name, etc.), hand over a copy of my passport, provide two photos, and leave my thumb print in three separate places. I am pretty sure purchasing a hand gun back home requires less. Had I not been so intrigued by the whole thing I might have been slightly annoyed. Just to sweeten the deal I was given two pieces of candy, a free pen, and a generous portion of cotton candy on a stick. And if that was not enough I was also afforded the opportunity to win even more fabulous prizes. Hit the center of a target on the wall with one of three foam balls and I shudder to think what fortune would have befallen me. As it was I came up short. In fact my performance was downright pathetic. I think the pressure got to me. The employee taking pictures of the whole thing threw off my concentration. Perhaps, that was part their diabolical plan all along.
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'Love me or hate me, but spare me your indifference.' -- Libbie Fudim