When I was on the plane descending down into Dhaka it occurred to me that I hadn’t really thought about the place too much. I have this experience surprisingly often. I figured that Bangladesh would be a slightly more depressed, more natural disaster ravaged version of India. I figured that the culture would be basically the same — a little more Muslim, a lot less Hindu, same, same South Asia. After all, not too long ago they were part of the same country.
However, after I stepped off the plane it did not take long before it became apparent that comparing Bangladesh to India was like comparing Germany to France. Sure, globally speaking they’re relatively similar — the countries are nearby, they share a border, have an overlapping history, the people look and dress kind of the same, eat similar foods . . . but for anyone who’s ever actually been there, the similarities quickly give way to the differences.
There is a real good feel in Bangladesh. The country is an absolute mess, the cities are perpetual salvage projects — the people cram all in together because the traffic is too bad for them to viably spread apart (otherwise it would take all day just to get to work), there are giant holes in the sidewalks revealing deep drops into treacherous storm sewers below, the police are in the business of bribes, but there is just this feeling of engagement that you really become aware of when you walk around here.
By engagement I mean it is easy to connect with other people, that you’re a part of the cityscape, that you’re — for lack of a better way of putting it — in touch.
In some cities of the world people just don’t really look at you as you move through the streets; your presence doesn’t seem to register in their consciousness. You can move through these places as though you’re watching them in a movie, that you’re not really there — and you may as well not be for all anyone cares. Social engagement becomes a challenge, and the fruits of travel are more difficult to obtain.
While in some other cities you feel hunted — hunted by touts, scammers, people trying to sell you shit, and others who have no qualms about sacrificing all semblance of self-respect because you ultimately don’t matter. You’re just a customer, and these places are more or less giant shops.
Bangladesh is right in the middle, right in that sweet spot that could be called genuine.
Nobody really bothers you in Dhaka. People look at you — a foreigner — but they often do so while smiling. People make eye contact when you pass in the streets, smiles and head nods are reciprocated, and sometimes strangers offer a polite hello. This place is, to put it simply, cool. Even in the central inferno of the capital city, Bangladesh walks slow.
There is no real tourism industry to speak of here, so you’re not demoted to money on legs. You’re just a person, and you’re treated like it. You can stop at a tea stall on a street corner, get a cup from the kid selling it there, and have a chat with the people who are hanging out. They don’t expect anything from you other than conversation. This anecdote, really, is the definition of good travel.
That said, the horrid state of traffic in Dhaka meant that I walked everywhere I could, and I quickly found that the benefit of this wasn’t just because it was faster. There is good action everywhere here: colors, a melee of architecture, age-layered buildings, a kaleidoscope of faces, unexpected findings, and probably more memory-searing, WTF? kind of scenery per kilometer than almost anywhere else in the world.
“We get a lot of photographers here,” a friend in Dhaka told me. “Apparently, the word got out that you can point a camera at anything here and it will be a good picture.”
I like this place.