I arrived in a place that felt like India and Saudia Arabia had collided. As a traveller, I experienced it the same way I experienced Lagos, an overwhelming, chaotic, crowded filth of a poverty stricken, mega city. It was a place where people’s faces were a blend of Indian and South East Asia, all the while still feeling a little middle eastern. I saw some Burmese faces, smelled clove cigarettes, and ate things authentically Bangla that I swore I had eaten in Mumbai. The alphabet had changed from Hindi and all English had been subtly dropped, even the numbers didn’t make sense.
The rickshaws were actually the tricycle pedal bikes, where anyone seated looked like a regal passenger endorsing modern human (paid) slavery. The Indian style rickshaws had been downgraded to dull, green cages. I didn’t understand why until I rode in one, and realised that it was safer to be locked in from the crowded streets and angry pedestrians and over-worked human pack donkeys.
They have Uber here, on motorcycles, and I took an 8 km ride across town as someone’s first ride, breaking in his brand-new passenger helmet. He was nervous, not only because he was new on the job, but because I was the only foreigner for miles, a female, and directing him where to go since he had no idea and hadn’t thought to get a phone holster for his bike to follow directions.
I took a sunset boat ride on the Buriganga river, which was, without exaggerating, as black as tar. Only the setting sun put a twinkle of lightness in the water, which was the top layer of oil and petrol shimmering like a greasy rainbow. I suddenly became hyper aware of the fact that I don’t have black hair, and being brunette with any sun kissed streaks meant I wasn´t local. I was a foreigner, no matter what I wore, and covering my hair wasn´t enough since the tone of tanned skin isn’t the same as having dark skin. I couchsurfed with a much whiter, larger Turkish man, but luckily for me, he had two local Bengali friends to show me around while he worked, and their presence made me feel a little less noticeable.
They have a funny way of peeing, the men do. They squat like a female and wee with their little man out of sight, but I wondered then if they also deal with the same splatter back problem women do when squatting too close to the ground to be discrete. I visited the deserted town of Panam and took another sunset boat trip where we couldnt see the sun and had to row ourselves. That was when I realised two out of four of us were afraid of water and didnt know how to swim. That kind of stuff doesn´t get lost in translation no matter how little we say, but I sort of managed to make everyone relax and laugh about it.
I took Uber motorcycles everywhere I needed to get to in Dhaka, including the zoo where I finally saw a Royal Bengal tiger. Tourists normally need travel permits or militarized escorts to leave the capital, and traveling for run around election time as a foreigner was a big no no, so there wasn´t much chance to try and go trek for one in the wild.
I saw the old part of town and some markets and mosques, but was most impressed by the National Parliament house – it looked like something either from former Yogoslavia´s communist past or out of the future, George Orwell 1984 style, with security around it tight enough to impress the US Embassy. I walked around worried about where I could look, walk and barely mustered up the courage to take a photo, and then realised the satellites and internet signals around the parliament weren´t normal; google maps located me in a totally different part of town and I wasn´t able to order my uber motorcycle to where I was actually standing.
A fun fact about the Bengali language: In English, its simple and all to have just cousins as a word for male and female relatives, and in Icelandic, we don’t even differentiate between an aunty, cousin or niece, they’re just all cousins. In Bangla language, they refer to an aunty from your moms side totally differently than an aunty from your dads side, and same for a paternal or maternal uncle. Mama is the word for your moms brother, which still makes me snicker.
A very useful fact for overland travelers to Bangladesh: visa on arrival from Kolkata to Dhaka thru the Benapole border is not possible during election time, and sometimes possible at other times. I was refused entry, blatantly stamped in my passport, after being told to go there from the Bangla authorities in Kolkata. But the immigration officers at the land border told me I wouldn´t receive the visa on arrival there because of elections, but I could fly from Kolkata to Dhaka and get the VOA at the airport, even though the elections are mainly happening in and around the capital. I took the risk of traveling back to Kolkata Airport and buying a one way flight (my return flight thru Delhi and back to Iceland was from Dhaka so I figured that was a strong argument to have after already landing in Dhaka) to Bangladesh, only to buy toyed for another hour about the difficulties of getting a visa during election time. My couchsurfing host was Turkish, which the authorities didn´t love, but the final yes came from a muslim Bangladeshi man named Salman, named after Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman empire in the 1500´s.