Thursday, June 14, 2012

Putting Dhaka to Rest

A day off of work meant a day of exploring Dhaka. The pre-itinerary began with a divine "Bangladesh style omelet" meaning an omelet filled with chilies - I finished it like a champion. My cheap self proceeded to hand wash my clothes in my hotel bathroom. The first complication was trying to wash my pink pashmina and turning the soapy water pink almost immediately. To make matters worse, the tub also appeared to have some sort of leak in it because the floor was drenched. I could not ring out the pashmina according to the washing instructions so I simply had to let it drip pink all over the bathroom floor until it dried. I managed to wash almost all of my dirty clothes, but I ashamedly left the "do not disturb" sign on my door handle all day so I could spare housekeeping of the mess I made.

After this mess, the itinerary began with a wild goose chase to find an Apple Store to replace one of the intern's fried computer chargers. Next, we met up with two other interns at Gulshan Lake Park, a scenic destination where one can often find joggers. Interesting note - women work out in their shalwar kameezes. In that heat, I was drenched riding a rickshaw; I can't imagine working out in a long shirt, scarf, and pants.

Before entering the park, I purchased my first coconut water in Bangladesh. The coconut water vendors actually take young coconuts, slice the tops off with a sharp machete-like knife, and place a straw in the top. You can't get fresher than that for forty cents.

On the way into the park, a Nigerian student from one of the local universities struck up conversation with one of the interns and myself. Even after we met the two other interns, he did not leave us. He sat with us while we ate a late lunch of biryani, curried vegetables, and a lentil dish that was out of this world delicious.
CNG: a three-wheeled death trap that runs on
compressed natural gas

Since the other two interns had not yet visited Aarong Handicrafts, we ventured there via CNG after unsuccessfully trying to haggle with at least seven rickshaw drivers. We did, however, successfully ditch our stalker. Unfortunately, we decided to get on the road just as rush hour traffic picked up. Waiting at the stop lights was the least of our worries as beggar after beggar stirred our emotions, even causing one of the interns to start crying. We finally made it shopping and met up with another intern, and the five of us did some damage.

We took a short break after shopping to freshen up and meet at an Indian restaurant for dinner. I ate a dish called dosa tonight which is virtually a vegetable (mostly potato) curry wrapped in a sour-dough flavored crepe. Dessert was Movenpick ice cream, a brand from Switzerland that needs to find its way into the United States pronto.

The night culminated with a late-night walk around Dhaka. At this hour, the view from the bridge connecting Banani and Gulshan could have easily been mistaken for a scene in downtown Minneapolis over the Mississippi. We were walking through a rather affluent part of town, the roads were quiet and empty of honking vehicles. The homeless were cozily settled in boats on the river, inviting others to join them. Some were even listening to Bollywood tunes through a small radio on their boat. Other groups were rummaging through trash cans to find dinner. The night almost had a romantic feel like the scene in Slumdog Millionaire where the opera takes place outside the Taj Mahal, and the kids steal from the wallets and purses of audience members. While buildings twinkled on the Banani Lake and the hustle and bustle of Dhaka went to rest, the homeless serenely searched for unclaimed treasures and made themselves a home for the night.

The scene reminded me of a conversation I had with one of the Bangladeshi intern. I asked her opinion about the poverty around her university in Toronto and the poverty in Bangladesh. As a sociology major, she is very in-tune with poverty issues, and I was amazed to hear her answer. She says the main difference in her eyes is the support system the poor have in each country. In Bangladesh, the homeless have a social network. The beggars in certain areas of town know each other and have each other as a support system. In Toronto, the homeless are usually homeless because they do not have anyone: no friends or family to help them escape poverty. They have government programs that serve as their support system. This idea is so interesting to me because I had never thought much about it. When I came to Bangladesh, I had heard the term relative poverty, but I didn't care for it. The poor in Bangladesh certainly looked worse off in my eyes than the American poor. But, my Bangladeshi friend made me think again on this issue and question what's more important: the support of friends and family or the support of one's government?

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