Sunday, 23 January 2011

Well, that was different: Bangladesh

I went to Bangladesh in July 2009 to visit my friend Lyrian, who spent a year there as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development. I was there at the same time as Sally, Lyrian’s best friend and a good friend of mine, too.

I’ve been trying for to write cohesively about my trip to Bangladesh for almost 18 months now. Then I decided that cohesion (and structure, and narrative, and order, and control) and Bangladesh were un-mixy things.

But I still wanted to write about my trip to Bangladesh. Firstly, because, well, really, I went to Bangladesh and I want some travel-blogger-credibility for it, thank you very much.

Secondly, Bangladesh is impressive. It should be written about.

On a map Bangladesh looks like it’s held in a protective embrace by Grandmother India. Or slowly smothered. Depending on your perspective. It is a small land area (and ever-diminishing, thank you global warming/rising sea levels/crazy weather) filled with a large (and ever-increasing, thank you, um, reproductive activities) number of people.

And all those people, so crowded together, live in a pressing, dirty heat, dressed in life-affirming Crayola colours. Like Melbourne through the looking glass.

So, rather than an actual composition (with a rational beginning, middle and end), you’re getting a list. In no particular order, a list of things I can’t forget about Bangladesh:

1. Getting on an overnight bus from Rangpur (in the north) to Dhaka (kind of in the middle), and being video-taped before the bus set off so they could identify our bodies if we crashed.
Bangladeshi highways are narrow, lined with pedestrians, cluttered with rickshaws and other slow moving vehicles and just terrifying. Bangladeshi bus drivers are very young man who don’t own X-Boxes/ Wiis/ Sega Master Systems IIs and as such must unleash their aggressive speed and overtaking urges in an un-simulated environment. Un-simulated environment in this context meaning my bloody real life when they are responsible for my very mortal flesh and blood body.

2. Learning to love squat toilets. Learning to love the amazing healing powers of Gastrolyte. Learning to accept that some food is going to treat your digestive tract like a nightclub dance floor.
Bangladesh: the country that made me finally open my travel medicine kit.

3. Having a rikshaw driver turn around and stare at Lyrian and I (his passengers) for an entire unblinking minute.
I've been told that most Bangladeshis go through life without ever seeing a white person in the pale, veiny, freckly flesh. I suspect they only see a scattered few on screens and in print – there’s still far more concern about everyone living in rural areas having access to clean drinking water, rather than access to broadband internet.

I’d probably stare (and take photos, and exclaim, and point and laugh) too. I get it. If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other (almost as poignant as Groove Armada's other great social observation, "I see you baby/shaking that ass").

And at first, I sort of enjoyed being nominated as special. I’ve always been a bit of an attention whore. I remember leaving Dhaka airport in a crush of men, all clambering for our attention, and giggling at how absurd it was.

And then, after about a day, I began to feel like a different kind of whore. The rickshaw driver is the incident that stays with me; we were quite vulnerable, and he was so close.

In retrospect, the catcalls on the street and the groping on the buses were actually no worse than you’d get in King’s Cross on a Saturday night. The difference is that on Sunday morning in Sydney you walk through the Cross and no one makes eye contact with you or even acknowledges you and you get to hide in the bliss of anonymity.

I did find the unrelenting attention difficult to deal with. Leaving the house was sometimes a bit of an effort.

But leaving the house was always worth the effort. And our novelty factor was also a door opener. We were let into museums outside of opening hours and mosques that aren’t actually ever open for visitors. We were taken into a Hindu temple that had been built within the root system of an ancient tree. We wandered into an enclave of houses after tramping across muddy shipyards (cooler than they sound, actually) and my feet were covered in gunk and a woman gave me her soap and instructed me to use the village’s one clean water pump to clean them and her kindness was probably more confronting then all the staring put together.

4. Visiting Little Bangladesh, a selection of Bangladesh’s tourist attractions, duplicated as miniatures, and collected in one handy location.
Those of you familiar with Leyland Brother’s World will understand the concept. Little Bangladesh negates any need to travel around Bangladesh, and thus avoid unsettling bus trips as described in Item 1.

Ironically, the thing that stays with me about Little Bangladesh was the sense of space and freedom – we were there on a very quiet weekday, and it was the only place we were able to run around and not be stared at too intensely. You can’t really see Bangladesh for the Bangladeshis. Who, of course, are Bangladesh. It's all very confusing. Where's your philosophy now, Groove Armada? Huh?

5. Squashing into a local bus, perching on the back of a flatbed bicycle taxi and lazing on a ferry raft in order to visit an extremely isolated temple.
Feeling quite proud of ourselves for being such extreme tourists, when two coach loads of Indian teenagers turn up, obviously bored out of their iPods on a school excursion.

6. Having a better latte than I’ve ever had in the UK at a new café in Dhaka called Barista.
It is hard to explain exactly how out of place a café in Dhaka is. Dhaka does not have a Starbucks. Dhaka does not have gutters or footpaths.

It is difficult to buy Diet Coke in Dhaka. It can be difficult to buy bread in Dhaka.

I still keep the cafe owner’s business card in my wallet, because his enthusiasm and optimism impressed me so much. I cannot imagine what he went through, importing everything, sourcing the location, training the staff... Apparently, no matter where I am on Earth, I'll always be the daughter of small business owners.

Obviously there’s a leeedle bit of cultural homogenisation at work here, but I say embrace it. I like my coffee like I like my healthcare – universal.

7. Speaking of healthcare, passing a hospital with an open sewer at its entrance.
I asked the ex-pats at the Australian and US Embassies what they do if they get really sick. The answer is “hop a flight to Bangkok or KL”.

Life in Bangladesh is hard. Which is a woefully inadequate thing to say, but, yeah.

8. Visiting the Australian, US and some typically immaculate and well-organised Northern European Embassies.
Walled-in compounds with swimming pools, tennis courts and margaritas. It was all a bit Rudyard Kipling.

9. Leaving Bangladesh
I love airports. I love that they’re full of book stores and food outlets, and that you’re not allowed to do anything other than read and eat and sit-around. It’s enforced slothfulness, and it’s awesome.

But arriving back at Dhaka airport, ready to leave Bangladesh, I realised I also love airports because I love rules and regulations and systems and the reliable environments they create. Like the dozens of other airports I’ve been to around the world, at Dhaka airport I had to line up and check-in and pass security and it was so comforting and predictable after all the curliness and squeezing-five-people-on-a-rickshaw-designed-for- two of Bangladesh.

Not that I wanted to leave Bangladesh desperately – I loved the clothes and the kofta and how sharing a toilet and weak western stomachs made Sal, Lyrian and I that much closer as friends (there is nothing too gross between us anymore. Nothing.).

And I loved that Bangladesh is like a Jackson Pollack painting – at first you’re all confronted and confused by the colours and the mess and the noise, but you keep looking and you start to feel less trapped and you see more and you see differently, and it makes you look at every other painting in the gallery and every bit of graffiti on the train differently.

So I guess why I was really excited to leave Bangladesh was so I could begin seeing every other city and country differently.

And also, so I could buy some more Gastrolyte at the pharmacy at KL Airport. Seriously, that stuff is manna from heaven.