Wednesday, October 02, 2013


'This may surprise you, but I really like this place.'

This was how I began this essay a few days ago when I started it.  And I still hold to that judgment.  But read on...

Let's start at the beginning: Being the only non-Bengali on the flight from Dubai turned out to be a blessing, since there was no line to buy the visa and then no line to be stamped into the country.  Knowing that I would be brain-deprived when I arrived from another all night flight, I had arranged for a pickup from my hotel.  But no one was there when I walked out of the door of 'Terminal 2'.  Another driver helpfully pointed out that my hotel always picked up at 'Terminal 1', which was the other door about 100 yards away.  Problem solved.

After a very slow drive in, I checked in, got to my room, and conked out for a couple of hours.  When I came to, I was eager to check out center city Dhaka.

It was Friday afternoon, which is Sunday afternoon in Islamic countries.  (Saturday is Saturday,, and Sunday is Monday.)  But it would turn out to be not terribly unbusier than the rest of the week.  And that would be, much to my surprise, to be not nearly as chaotic and out of control as I had imagined it would be.

First, virtually no beggars, and certainly nobody looking like they were starving.  Second, and this is expecially important for a Westerner who has been to India, absolutely no hassle.  In fact, people actually stopped on the street and said 'hello', with no ulterior motive.  Lide Pakistan, there was still some of that Colonial era graciousness.  And also real gratitude that someone would be nice enough to come be a tourist.

The city was poor, that's for certain.  But it wasn't miserable.  Very little garbage.  No chaos.  In fact, it was in much better shape than Haiti, West Africa, or even Madagascar.  While nothing looks remotely Uptown, still way more tall buildings than you would expect.

I was going to try to walk all the way to the riverfront, but I only made it about two-thirds before I gave up and got a bicycle rickshaw.  One doesn't have to hail one, because they just permeate the place, outnumbering the auto-rickshaws by at least twenty to one.  Partially my feet were a little tired, partially I was concerned that I might get lost, and partially it was the heat and humidity.  But, really, although my t-shirt was a bit wet, the heat and humidity weren't nearly as bad as in Nashville, let alone Memphis or Houston.  And the bike rickshaw only cost sixty cents.

The river front, what with its ferries, old tankers, and tiny boats all darting about, is the main tourist draw in Dhaka.  And a little tout, the only one I have yet to encounter, attached himself to me.  But he was pretty harmless.  Anyway, I had only wanted a quick look, since the day was drawing short.

Back to my hotel room.  My first impression had been that it was a lot crappier than advertised.  But now, having seen the rest of Dhaka, it came across as pretty classy.  Sure, the sink leaked and it was almost impossible to unlock the door, but the water was scalding hot, the a/c was nice and cold, the cable TV had about ten English channels, and the restaurant's food was quite decent.  Moreover, the entire staff was so ridiculously nice that I think that even Maureen would get a little tired of smiling back so much.

Saturday I had breakfast, went back to the room, lay down, and.. could... not... get...  up.   It was almost four in the afternoon until I was fully awake again.  Either all the backed up travel stress was finally taking its toll, or those street felafels in Duhok--though kept in check by Immodium--had been more dangerous than I had allowed.  Maybe both.

So I only had time to take a 1 km walk over to a city park.  Workers were using 100,000 bamboo poles to construct bleachers for some national holidar or political event.  Dhakans of all ages were strolling about.  The park itself wasn't up to Western standards, but it did have greenery, big trees, and some mighty big birds.

No park benches, but still peaceful enough to reflect.  And I'm not proselytizing here (although, truth be told, who wouldn't want four wives?).  But in general Islamic countries are more peaceful and law abiding than Christian ones.  Definitely way, way, way more so than Hindu India.  When imams say that no real Muslim would be a terrorist, they are absolutely correct.

With that deep thought thunk, it was back to the hotel.

Almost all of flat Bangladesh lives on the water.  And most of the ferries travel to the various cities at night.  But while researching, I had come upon a new service which went during the daytime.  So my goal on Sunday was to get a first class ticket on that ferry, take it to Barisal, spend the night, and then come back to Dhaka the next morning.  This way I would get to see a little of rural Bangladesh.  However, when my hotel manager tracked down the service, and then finally got a hold of someone on Sunday morning, it turned out that said service had only lasted one month before the owners had got to squabbling.

Back to my room.  Lie down again.  This time only a two hour conk out.  Okay, third possibility: Stop eating spicy Bengali breakfast of curry vegetable mash.

I still wanted my river adventure, though.  So I headed back to the waterfront in search of the Gabtoli ferry.

It wasn't at the main ghat.  And virtually no one speaks any English.  But a policeman talked to one of the little sikara guys, and he said that he would take me to the ferry for seventy cents.  Okay, I lowered myself into his skiff.

I call them sikaras, because that's what they're called in Kashmir.  What they are, are tiny long flat bottomed pieces of floating wood with about six inches of clearance.  I sat cross-legged in the middle, prepared for the possiblity of my body (and my camera) taking a dunking.

Off we went, first crossing the river in a dance with countless other sikaras, not to mention motorized boats and the occasional incredibly rusted out small cargo ship.  Then up the river for about a half a mile, kind of gondola like, with him just pushing one paddle at the end.  Finally back across the river and bumped into a ratty old ferry, which was the one for Gabtoli.

It was now 2:15, and the ferry left at 3:00.  I walked the gangplank on shore and found a soda pop to drink.  Back to the boat, and we took off promptly on the hour.  A couple of stops, but mostly chugging up the river.  Dhaka finally gave way, but the scenery was more really cheap industrial rather than rural.  A sparse forest of brick kiln chimneys, with one every few acres.  An area of ant-like processions of men taking sand and/or gravel onto or off of boats.  Then an hour and twenty minutes later, the tiny ghat at Gaptoli.

I was betting/hoping that the ferry would turn around for one last trip to Dhaka before it got dark.  Otherwise I would have been pretty screwed.  Fortunately, my betting/hoping was correct.  Although, on my five minute walk around Gaptoli, I was hit with a two minute burst of the dying monsoon.

Back in Dhaka after dark, there was now a steady, medium rain.  I found myself in a long, small alley of about a hundred printing shops, with everything being done the old way.  I finally got to a slightly wider place where there were some rickshaws, but good luck trying to get someone to understand my hotel's business card.  After many attempts, I finally found someone who could explain directions to a driver, and off we started.

By now the rain was pretty heavy.  Besides the little rickshaw hood being extended, I was handed a blue plastic sheet to cover my legs.  The driver just got drenched.  And the alleys we were going through were pretty much jammed up with other rickshaws.  But although Dhaka might well have the worst traffic in the world, there is none of the frenzied insanity which is Indian traffic, where every forward inch is viewed as the most desperate of zero sum games.  Instead here there are relatively polite rules of the game, and despite the forced interactions of hundreds of wheeled contrivances, for me, at least, the whole dance seems pretty peaceful.

It was also pretty damn wet.  But the driver was pretty grateful when I gave him triple the going rate.  It's kind of fun to be the big spender when you don't have to deal with the constant effrontery of people trying to rip you off.

Monday was my last day.  Paper under the door.  Warm milk on my cornflakes for breakfast.  Uniformed attendant in the small elevator.  The desk staff being almost disturbingly over-gracious as I checked out.

But the flight, again, would be at night.  So for my last afternoon here I decided to check out Dhaka's remaining tourist sights.  Leave my baggage at the front desk, and down the eleven floors to the street.  Find a rickshaw driver who can find someone who can explain to him where I want to go.

Now you need to understand that, before Britain, in its final sore loser attempt to screw over Gandhi, created East and West Pakistan, Dhaka was a nothing town.  Calcutta had always been the capital of Bengal.  So it's not surprising that Dhaka (not to mention the rest of flat, waterlogged Bangladesh) would be a little short on tourist attractions.

Try totally short.  In fact, it took forever long for me to find a rickshaw driver who took forever long to ask around about what was supposed to be the second biggest tourist attraction building in the city.  The Tara Mosque. 

After winding through endless dirt poor alleyways, and asking several more times, we finally came to... the Armenian Church.  Okay, I knew that the mosque was only 300 m north of that, and the church guy said something to my driver.  Off we went, and voila!  There it was.

It wasn't much.  Kind of cute, but almost a miniature doll house mosque.  And white and clean, but totally hemmed in by the slums that are all of gigantic central Dhaka. 

Well, let's try for the number one tourist attraction building, the Lalbagh Fort.  My driver did know where that was, so off we pedaled.  This was suitably old and Moghul, and very well kept by Bangladeshi standards, but whereas the Delhi, Agra, and Lahore Forts are monstrous affairs, this one was only three or four acres in size.  And most of that was grass and walkways, with only three small buildings.  Once again, totally hemmed in by the quiet squalor of the rest of Dhaka.

So that was it.  Nothing left to see except endless crowded alleyways.  We went through some more of them, then a surprising stretch of pleasant tree-lined roadway.  Then back to the hotel.  Up to the 19th floor rooftop restaurant for a final meal.  Get a gracious farewell from every single hotel employee (and there seem to be ten for each guest).  Waste a little time at the computer in their 'business center'.

My flight was at 9:30.  It had taken 50 minutes, with a lot of traffic jam, to come in from the airport.  Front desk said to allow for two hours to play it safe.  So leaving at 5:30 should cover every eventuality, right?  And what could be more unexciting that taking a taxi to the airport?

Except that at 5:40 the front desk guy came to ever so apologetically tell me that, due to bad traffic, there were no taxis available.  At 5:45 he suggested that I could take an auto rickshaw.  Well, it seemed like it was less than ten miles, though I'd be stuffed in back with my luggage.  Maybe, but could you keep trying for the taxi?  By six I was getting nervous and was ready for the rickshaw, but when we got down to street level it turned out that a taxi had shown up.

I immediately sized up the driver as the first creepy guy I had met in Bangladesh.  Still, that's what was available.  I got in and we took off.  Within a block he started saying how he wanted to drive over somewhere and get a second customer.  A firm 'No', 'Airport Only!'  But a block after that the point was moot, because all the traffic had just dead stopped.

I had already seen this myriad times.  Traffic mysteriously stops dead in its tracks for several minutes, then just as mysteriously starts up again.  Except that this time it was ten, twenty, thirty minutes.  While the traffic going the other way was doing just fine.  After a while I got out to stretch my legs, and I made friends with an English speaking Bengali in the next car over.  He said that jams this bad virtually never happened. But after more research on his cell phone he found the cause.  The Prime Minister was returning from the UN General Assembly, so all traffic had been stopped dead in its tracks so that her entourage could go through. 

What were the odds?  And us only 100 feet from where we would have made our turn off of this road.

About an hour and a half in I had another problem: I had to ...go.  Now if this were India I could have simply urinated on the street, like everyone else does.  But Moslems are more modest; pious ones don't even pee standing up.  How about that government building that we have been inching our way past?  Might that have a toilet?  Sometimes you just have to go for it, and I ran over as fast as a full bladder can run.  When I came back out, my luck had held.  The cars had not taken off.

But five minutes later they did.  We got to our turning point, cut through the other lanes, tasted that burst of freedom, and... were back in another motionless traffic jam.

These would last minutes, not hours, with an occasional block or so where you could actually move.  I was stuck here with Bangladesh's one jerk, knowing my odds were shrinking by the minute, and counting up how much this was going to be costing me. 

It seemed like we ended up driving three times the distance from when I came in, but maybe the driver knew some long cuts that were faster roads.  Certainly out here in the 'wealthier' suburbs they did have some of those.  But for mile after mile and minute after minute, no signs whatsoever that we were nearing an airport.  Kind of like a bad dream where you never get where you're going.

When the driver finally reached the airport terminal he started making bullshit payment demands.  I gave him the tip I had planned to and told him to deal with it.  Pulled my stuff out and bulled my way into the terminal.  It was now 9:08,  As expected, check in was deserted, since it was the tiny airline's only flight.  There might be a chance that there would be someone in their upstairs office, but who was I kidding?  Nonetheless, with nothing else to do, I lugged all my stuff up endless flights of stairs in search of said office. 

As expected, it was locked and empty.  But as I had gone by the locked and empty Air Malaysia office, a boing had gone off in my head.  Didn't they have a later flight to KL?  Down all those flights of stairs with my luggage and over to their check in.  Yes indeedy they had one!  I went up to the nice young lady and asked, 'How much is a ticket?' & "Can I buy one?'  She said, '$300' & 'I'll go get the manager'.

The manager bit his lip.  'I can only sell you business class.'  'But this is the second ticket I'm buying for the same flight.  Please sell me an economy.'  'Well, it's 10 pm right now.  Wait until 10:20'. 

At the time an economy seat showed up, and twenty minutes later they had issued me my ticket.  Then a nice policemen whom I had befriended whisked me to the front of the immigration line.  Then after a few minutes of bureaucratic incompetence I was free and clear and on my way to the gate.

Once again I was the only non-Bengali on the fully booked flight.  I was in the middle seat in the back, with a two year old baby in the seat in front of me.  Well, you takes what you can gets.  But then, talk about Bengali hospitality!  A steward comes back and tells me that they are transferring me up to the almost empty Business Class.  Hot damn, the white sahib upgrade!  And I wasn't too politically correct to turn it down, neither.

Although Business Class isn't quite so special at 3 in the morning when everybody is just trying to nod out.  But I was the first off the plane, and although KLIA is a humongous airport, I made the shuttle in good time, sailed through immigration, and my bag was the first off the carousel.  It would have been just possible to run upstairs and barely make the flight to Brunei.  And wouldn't that have been a spectacular end to the story?

Unfortunately Air Asia operates out of a different terminal than does Air Malaysia.  And in this instance 'Terminal 2' is over twenty miles away.  So that by the time I finally got there the flight to Brunei was just taking off.  Over to the Air Asia service desk.  They can send me on their next flight over for an upcharge of 'only' $75.  Great, let's do it.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to stay awake at the airport for another six hours.


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