16 February 2008


Dhaka is weird for two reasons: there aren't five internet cafes on every corner like in most developing countries (ten in Peru) and it's impossible to get around. So I was not able to wish you all a Happy Valentine's Day, which pains me, my friends, my loyal readers, because I have so much love for all of you. Incidentally, I heard the Saudis banned red roses in Riyadh. Yeah, (sarcasm alert) there's going to be an east-west cultural detente some time reeeeeeeeeeeal soon. Now, in a city of 20 gajillion people, you'd think transportation would be no problem. In most places I've been, I've had to beat the taxi drivers away with a light saber. In Cairo, it required the entire Death Star. Here, they don't even want to take me! Neither do the rickshaw drivers; neither do the baby taxi/tuk tuk drivers. Apparently, there is so much traffic in Dhaka, these guys don't want to go anywhere unless it's really far away (cha-ching) if they want to go anywhere at all. Last night, my host Himmu had to threaten a driver to call the traffic police if he wouldn't take us (my suggestion). And two nights ago, when I was alone quite late, I couldn't even find a taxi in the upscale expat embassy district. Well, one guy was willing, at 4x the usual price. So I started walking, got lost, and was waylaid by an MP with the intelligence of a dead jellyfish. He asked to see my passport (I told him I didn't have it), asked for my address in Dhaka (I told him I didn't know it), asked for my phone number (I told him I didn't have one), and asked to be my friend (I told him absolutely!). He didn't really speak English, mind you: all this was communicated to me through grunting. But I am truly grateful that Nazrid (or whatever) offered me his friendship. Where would we be in strange places without the kindness of strangers? To prove this point, when I was still lost after this encounter, and had grown too tired to continue my stubborn male charade of pretending I could eventually find the way, I asked a laundry owner for help. He phoned Himmu, negotiated with a rickshaw driver to take me home, and even bought me a mango juice.

Travel tip: always lie to military police (unless it's an officer)

So that was Dhaka day one. Day two involved a long walk from Himmu's abode (I mentioned that Himmu's aunt, Sultana, graciously offered to let me stay with them?) to Old Dhaka. Sounds like a place no doubt imbued with some sort of historic, colonial charm and riddled by endearing maziness, eh? Well, it's not! It's shite! Sorry, Bangladeshi friends, if you come to read this. I am reluctant to say anything negative about your country (a side effect of travel, for the integrity of my blog, I had not anticipated), but I must be honest, however much it ruins my future shot at winning the Iowa caucus: Old Dhaka is shite. And I don't mean that metaphorically--it's lying all over the place, amidst the squatting farmers creating more of it; verily, the place seems to be built from it. It's so difficult, isn't it, to be one of those "I love everything on its own terms" tolerant relativist multiculturalist weenies (guilty) when confronted with a mess like Old Dhaka. According to my travel guide, it's a place you will come to fall in love with, which convinces me that the Lonely Planet corporation is run by coke-snorting hippies (according to them, everything on Earth is wonderful--must be a better inducement to purchase their guides). I am going to produce a rival series of guides: The Cynical Asshole's Guide. The entry for Dhaka in The Cynical Asshole's Guide to Bangladesh will look like this:

Dhaka (pop. 20 gajillion)
Don't miss the bus station ticket counter, where you can arrange transport out of Dhaka. Try to stay with Himmu. Old Dhaka is shite.

People, you know I was born to do this.

Anyway, my Dhaka experience has by no means been negative. Himmu, his uncle, and his older brother have been wonderful hosts. The brother works for BBC and not only gave me a cool BBC T-shirt with devanagari writing on it, but he's going to procure for me that most precious of commodities in this Islamic land: beer. Last night, Himmu and his friend accompanied me while I unsuccessfully attempted to hunt down the same. Failing that, I ended up purchasing a bunch of DVDs for less than a dollar each at the Sheraton Hotel gift shop (since it was the Sheraton, I am sure they are legal...). I intend to watch these for the next two days rather than venture outside again and have to breathe more of Dhaka's allergy-inducing air. While in the DVD shop, a South African guy entered, acting like a distracted, attention-addicted celebrity. It turns out he was a celebrity, though not one any of you are likely to know since he's a cricket player. The South African team, in all its overmuscled burliness, is in Bangladesh for a "match." A number of children were around, and they kept asking permission to take his photo. He told me I should buy some Tiger Balm. He asked the shop owner if they stocked pornos.

That day, I also bought a little Muslim hat and a Quran. The opening of the Quran is a bit confused and hasn't grabbed my attention the way the book of Genesis, with its vivid anthropomorphism and special effects, or even the Book of Mormon, with its satirical take on the life of Jesus, do. But I'm sure it gets better. According to Wikipedia, there are between 1.3 and 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Surely, they must have some collective sense of literary propriety and aesthetics. And I like the hat.

Today, I booked my trip to the Sunderbans. Once again, I urge everyone to read "Midnight's Children," at least the bit set in the Sundarbans, to get some idea of why I am drawn there. I have decided, sadly, to skip St. Martin's Island, Cox's Bazaar, and that whole beach-walking project. Hopefully, though, I can still take the paddle steamer to Khulna. The Sundarbans tour leaves when it leaves, and I couldn't choose the date. Neither can I do everything there is to do, see everything there is to see in every country I visit. Even if I try, I tend always to want to move on. The road beckons! And I get bored pretty quickly. My father, I'm sure, can attest to that.

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