Wednesday, July 18, 2012


At the crack of dawn, I was awoken by my concerned Bengali girlfriend. Using my newly developed Resident Assistant repertoire, I reassured her that our $2.50 per night hostel would be plenty safe, and if it turned out to be dirty, we would move. Her housekeepers set the table with beautiful bowls and plates for us to eat basic breakfast food like milk, cereal, toast, jelly, and peanut butter. Maybe this gesture was out of hospitality for me, their guest, but as a college student, I have become accustomed to plastic bowls and paper cups. Their effort was more than generous.

We managed to make it to the airport with an hour and a half to spare. Per usual, Bangladesh has no formal organization so the airport was absolute chaos. Without organized lines behind the ticket counters, we shoved our way to the front of the line just to find out that we needed to line up at a counter on the other side. Frustratingly, the airport accounts for Bangladesh’s general disorder and allowed all the passengers for the flight to Rome, leaving in 30 minutes, to move to the front of the lines. Four ticket counters and an hour later, we made it through security only to find our flight was delayed two hours: disappointing to wake up at 5:30 am for nothing. A couple minutes later, we noticed that our flight was delayed by another two hours. Moments later, the flight disappeared from the monitor.

We quickly sought a Biman Airlines representative who unhelpfully directed us to the airport cafĂ© “Spices.” After hours of waiting, my Bangladeshi friend, with my full support, raged at the Biman Airlines crew member who spoke of the all too familiar “technical problem.” It took us six hours to finally depart for Kathmandu, Nepal. We essentially lost a day of touring. Normally, I am fine with a delayed flight. What made this situation so miserable was the lack of communication between the airline and its passengers. I would like to think it was a language barrier, but I traveled with a native speaker who was just as frustrated as our British and Australian comrades. They had experienced the same lack of communication in the Dhaka passport office where they obtained their multiple entry/exit visas. This quality even exists in BRAC, where there is no central database where each department of the organization can access common files and information. To collect information for my video project, I had to run around offices within and outside of BRAC. Communication is not one of Bangladesh’s strengths, which probably contributes to its lack of tourism. 

The busy city street. Had I come here before traveling to Dhaka, I would have found this
street overly populated and grimy, but instead I found it energetic and inviting.
A short, one hour flight landed us four ladies in Kathmandu, Nepal. The moderate climate and breathtaking mountains had us jumping in our seats. We couldn’t wait to explore the big city situated in a valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world. When we exited the airport, we were bombarded by sleazy cab drivers, begging us to pay exorbitant prices for service to our hotel. I was intimidated by all the fluent English-speaking, smooth talkers. Suddenly, it became very clear that we had entered a tourist friendly destination. Having lived in Dhaka for five weeks now, I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable being bombarded with business cards, cheap jewelry, and tacky souvenirs. On the flip side, I was enamored by the vibrant streets, lined with colorful shops and people from all over the world.

When we arrived at our hostel, we were impressed by the hospitality of the staff and their eagerness to help us organize an itinerary for the next day. We were not so impressed by the modest accommodations and filthy bathroom. Although the sink spat out brown water, the shower miraculously had warm water. We planned to spend all day on the town anyway, so we sufficed.

Our adventure began exploring the streets of Themal, Kathmandu, the tourist hub of the city. Shopkeepers beckoned us to enter their stores. After a while, we realized most stores sold the same products. Among the heaps of mementos, I managed to find some goodies. Of course, I never paid full price for anything, bargaining my way down to nearly fifty percent of the asking price.

A glimpse inside a temple in the middle of the busy Themal streets.
Chanting monks joined us shortly after this photo was taken.

Fresh fruit juice stand - a novelty when coming from Dhaka.

Momos quickly became our favorite snack in Nepal. They
are basically a pot sticker, but they taste much fresher,
especially at an organic-food restaurant!
Once the stores closed, we suited up in our new apparel and made our way to a lovely little place called “Organic Green Restaurant and Farmers Bar.” One major challenge in Dhaka is eating quality food. While the city has hundreds of restaurants, people are safest eating warm, cooked foods. Fresh produce is often contaminated with pesticides and preservatives harmful to human health. Adventure sports like trekking, bungee jumping, and hang gliding attract outdoorsy tourists. For those of you that do not know, Mount Everest is actually located in Nepal. Naturally, Kathmandu has loads of organic, fresh foods, and we took advantage of this treat. We also took advantage of the predominantly Hindu and Buddhist religions in Nepal and ordered rum punches. The food was absolutely delicious. I even grew a liking for yak products like yak cheese, yak milk, and yak butter.

On the walk home, the girls spotted a shisha (hooka) bar, where we spent the next couple hours relaxing. While I refused to smoke tobacco, I thoroughly enjoyed taking in the starkly different culture surrounding me. To think that just hours ago, I had been in a country where I cannot bare my shoulders and knees, where I am an overwhelming minority, where I can hardly communicate with local people, where alcohol is sold exclusively in a few licensed restaurants and bars. My head was in the clouds as I watched young women in skin tight skirts and tank tops crawl over the low lying tables to order drinks from the bar. I had not seen people take shots since the “No Regrets” party after final exams at college. I felt refreshed, but I could place what exactly caused this feeling of relief. As the third developing country I have visited, I was amazed that I felt safe walking the streets at night and quite welcome. Certainly in Dhaka and Tijuana, one has to take great precautions. By the end of the night, I understood something that I had never really understood before: tourism.

I had known the dictionary definition of tourism, but now I have lived in somewhere without any such industry and visited an even poorer country with an incredibly developed tourism industry. My understanding of this concept has become three-dimensional. A couple of my travel mates were shocked to learn that Nepal is in fact poorer than Bangladesh. Like in Mexico, tourism in Nepal shields visitors from its stark realities. On the other hand, poverty is inescapable in Bangladesh. It is one of the most vivid realities for visitors. Less beggars, less decrepit persons, and loads of tourists left me awe-struck but also aware of the sheath I had discovered. To be continued...

Four happy travelers!

Unrelated announcement: My partner and I won BRAC's Facebook video campaign competition! It has been announced on BRAC's Facebook so you should check it out. Thank you so much for those who voted. 

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