Friday, June 22, 2012

Weekend Warrior

Where do I begin describing the last 24 hours. They have been the most shocking and exciting since arriving in Bangladesh. At this time yesterday, I was in route to exchange keys and move into my new apartment. My new roommate and I made it just in time before the previous tenant left for the airport. Simultaneously, my Brazilian buddy from College, just arrived safely at his hotel. Like any average person, the traffic left him dumbstruck as he experienced six near-death experiences on the 11 km journey. He did not believe me when I told him the best way to get from his hotel to my apartment was via rickshaw.

On his way to the new apartment, I met the co-tenants who stay in the other bedroom: a young, eccentric Spanish couple. They appreciate the origins of my name, and I have spoken a little Spanish with them. I managed to set up some sort of internet access (still cannot access my school email or blog; I had to upload this remotely). Interestingly, my American phone found cell service. Our friendly co-tenants also gave us the low down on the party that we would attend that evening.

Last week, the Australian intern did a bit of research on the expatriate clubs in Dhaka. She found out when all the parties are, particularly those which do not require membership. Every Thursday, the Nordic Club hosts a dance party so the BRAC interns decided that we must go. Sure enough, the DJ for the night was an Italian friend of our co-tenants. 

When we arrived at the club, I experienced a second wave of culture shock. Firstly, I had not been surrounded by that many Caucasians since being home. Secondly, I had never been surrounded by so many blondes in my life. If I had spontaneously developed amnesia last night, I would not have believed that I was in Bangladesh. As more and more people arrived, the crowd became increasingly diverse. The craziest event of the night was running into a fellow Claremont McKenna College student (CMC-er). Interning at Grameen Bank, another microfinance and development organization, we enjoyed exchanging our experiences working at our respective organizations. The night was a remarkable display of the forces that bring people together. I could not believe how Bangladesh, this country the size of Iowa, had connected all of us from far corners of the world. 

The drive home at 2:30 am was less than pleasurable, as the barren streets and eerie atmosphere left us all quite spooked. Luckily we had a safe mode of transportation, but it made me hyper aware of the limitations men and especially women have in enjoying their home city. Any woman without the luxuries of a driver can kiss the night life goodbye. 

Awesome boat tour! Best part of the day in Old Dhaka.
Fast forward five hours later to my alarm clock, alerting me to wake up for a 9:00 am walking tour of Old Dhaka. About 7 km south of BRAC Center is Old Dhaka, the more historical and central area of Dhaka city. It houses many old and beautiful places of worship and ruins that date back to the Mughal Empire (early 1600s). This part of Dhaka itself dates back to the 7th century, and the people exhibit these traditional roots. Normally during the call to prayer, people continue about their daily routine, but in Old Dhaka, we saw people congregate and all worship in unison outside of mosques. 

When the tour guide approached this super creepy, hole in
the wall,  I could not believe he expected us to enter. He
led us through a maze of small caverns which were
apparently used to host overseas travelers centuries ago.
As you can see, these made for very cozy accommodations.
Being a foreigner became very apparent in this part of town. The lack of large companies in Old Dhaka means less frequent foreign visitors. Needless to say, our tour group expanded gradually throughout the day with gawkers. The most exciting part of the tour was riding boats along the river. Kids excitedly waved at our group and swam up to the boat to greet us. On the scenic (depending on how you look at it) boat ride, I thought about how welcoming the Bangladeshis were toward us. Although their friendliness could be interpreted as creepy and invasive, I find it endearing and inspirational. On numerous accounts, Bangladeshis have referred to their country has poor. The sight of foreigners in their country excites them; they are thankful to see that people care about their country and appreciate its beauty. 

At the Nordic Club, one of the Bangladeshis I met responded to my positive remarks about Bangladesh saying, “Go home and tell all your friends about how great Bangladesh is. Tell them to come and see this beauty of this country.” Like me, this boy has immense pride for his country.  The difference is that the Bangladeshis welcome foreigners with enthusiasm. In its commencement, the United States did just this, helping to create the melting pot it is today. The reputation we have gained has caused us to take our desirability for granted. Instead of welcoming foreigners like we used to, we are tightening our borders, making it harder for others to enjoy the beauty we have created. I hope that the United States can regress to its welcoming attitude. Instead of simply applauding diversity, I hope Americans can embrace foreign thought, culture, and people the same way Bangladesh welcomes its foreign visitors.

This picture started off with just the boy in the yellow shirt and myself. Within a matter of seconds, a crowd formed, cameras ready.

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