On Being Vulnerable in Bangladesh
Knowing that you know nothing, get out and see the world.
**Originally written in 2008**
I had been told by a couple of people, before I left the comforts of Baridhara (the upper class neighborhood I was staying in), that muggings and bag snatchings are common in the old part of the city. Ruminating on this while riding in the back of the rickshaw, I started to panic and I shoved everything into my socks including money, passport and memory cards. I clutched my bag tight and wondered if I would be able to take my camera out if it’s actually as dangerous as I had been told.
By the time I arrived in the heart of Old Dhaka, I started to loosen up. A festival was going on so there were elaborate floats of dieties and loud music in the street. Hindu Street was a lively, pedestrian street known for its artisans who make delicate bangles out of conch shells right in front of the shops. The street was narrow and the buildings on either side were 3 or 4 stories each in different stages of decay or construction, each very much lived in with fabrics and colored lights hanging from the windows and balconies. The energy on the street felt good, positive, and I no longer worried about getting my bag snatched.
Studying my inadequate paper map torn from a Rough Guide book (this was years before smart phones), I started off toward the river Buriganga. The area was bustling and crowded, small and large boats of cargo and people transferring goods, moving, working. I started across a footbridge to get a better view from outside the chaos. As I walked back the way I came, wondering if I could hire a small boat to get out onto the river, I was stopped by a man dressed in a faded red blazer, somewhat disheveled, feigning distinction. He wanted to chat with me about my thoughts on Bangladesh with the few English words he knew and pieced together. I obliged him.
Then I told him, “I want to take a boat ride on a small boat,” accentuated by gestures and pointing. He very calmly nodded. Other men had gathered around trying out their 2 or 3 words of English on me. He put up a hand to silence them and we walked.
As I stepped off the pavement of the footbridge, towards the water, I realized I was now walking on a massive expanse of garbage. He led me down to the bank of the river among shanties of blue plastic and corrugated metal. I was struck that the ground was completely covered in garbage and yet several people had laid out a blanket atop the trash and were sleeping. The stench was horrid, like urine and rotten food. And I, a young, foreign woman, had attracted a crowd.
The man in the red blazer kept the crowd at bay and tried to find me a boat by shouting and gesturing to some idle boats nearby. The first two boats were much too big and I sent them away trying to tell him I didn’t want a motorboat, just a row boat. Finally he found a suitable wooden boat and negotiated for me a price of 150 taka (about $2) for an hour on the water. I climbed aboard and we took off.
The black wooden boat was long, pointed and tipped up at the ends, wide in the middle- a graceful design. I sat on the floor on a bamboo mat. The driver used a long bamboo pole to punt us along the shallow river.
I don’t know what I was expecting riverine life to be like, but it was not nearly as picturesque as the guidebook, National Geographic or any other western publication made it out to be. It was, in fact, nauseating. The smell of sewage was so strong I nearly choked. The water was black like an oil slick and I could see the rainbow mirror of oil floating on top. Plastic garbage and the kind of waterlily that takes over when a water body is starved of oxygen co-mingled on the surface.
On the concrete banks, people washed their bodies and brushed their teeth, scrubbed clothes and sheets. One stretch was devoted to plastic bag washing where women cleaned the bags, shook them out and lay them to dry in the sun by the thousands.
I gave the boat driver our agreed upon payment and he asked for baksheesh (a tip). I gave him an extra 20 taka and trudged through the garbage up to the street.
I felt shaken, upset at the state of things, poverty the likes of which I’d never witnessed before. Knowing that water is life, the polluted condition of the water and the masses interacting with it disturbed me. I felt a deep sorrow for the people living in squalor, in such an unhealthy, perilous situation. I walked on, dazed.
Parallel to the river was an import market for fruits. Boxes of apples individually wrapped in a plastic foam mesh came from China, grapes and oranges from Pakistan and Egypt. I felt a wave of disappointment. The land in Bangladesh is incredibly fertile- most of the country is essentially a river delta where minerals and nutrients all the way from the Himalayas flow down to be deposited by sedimentation into the soil from the hundreds of rivers and tributaries that flow across the nation. This rich land has been built up over millenia. And yet almost all of the cropland is monoculture: rice and jute- cash crops- while most of the people do not own their own land outright.
As a tourist, or more accurately, a recent architecture graduate on a travel grant, I knew little about the country I was visiting. I had read as much as I could find about the water, the ownership of land by land barons, the precarious daily life on the shifting river network, the present and future of losing land to rising sea levels, and the destruction of protective mangrove forests. I had opinions about the global markets and I supported a turn towards more local economies. But there was so much I did not know about this place, and would never understand the nuances of how things worked.
Though I was entranced by the life on the street, and could easily just wander all day, I was also sightseeing, so I tried asking a few police officers how to get to Sitara Mosque. Almost immediately, about 20 people crowded around to listen in. I felt foolish for not even learning a few words of Bangla, but somehow, after about 5 minutes of looking at my map, everyone on the street giving their opinion and lots of good healthy shouting to make sure I got the pronunciation right, they got me on a bicycle rickshaw, negotiated a price of 20 taka for me and sent me on my way.
We rode through the streets until we were forced to stop down one incredibly narrow street. A single traffic line of a couple dozen bicycle rickshaws was stopped dead next to a single line of pedestrians pushing past. After waiting for the traffic to ease up, I offered to walk the rest of the way 3 times but the driver insisted I stay put. After 10 minutes of sitting I insisted and got off, paid him the 20 taka, and walked to see what the hold up was. At the end of the block was an intersection so jammed with bicycles, rickshaws and wooden carts that I literally had to climb over to get to the other side. A cop was standing up on someone’s cart in the middle of the madness shouting and pointing with his bamboo lathi trying to untangle the knot of people-powered vehicles.
While asking for directions to Sitara Mosque again, I met a man who spoke some English. We chatted and he offered to take me to his mosque nearby. The 3-domed building was covered in broken glass mosaic in white and primary colors. The walls were open on two sides. Half of the mosque was a school for children and on the other side, men were praying on floor mats. My new friend, Alif explained to me that women were typically not allowed in, but he would try, and after a few minutes of talking to the other men, they reluctantly let me in and unlocked a gate to the most decorated area. They were proud of their mosque and encouraged me to take photos. As I did so, my scarf slipped off my head and a few men came running over to tell me I must keep my head covered. I realized I had made a grave error and felt ashamed for it.
Alif and I walked to his home and he asked me to come meet his family. We ducked in through a 4 foot tall metal door off the street into a narrow courtyard which opened to a slightly wider space at the end. On the left was his home, one room, about 9' x 12' with a queen size bed for himself, his wife and his 14 year old daughter. One wall was a mural of a Bangladeshi countryside, the others were teal green. I surveyed the room, noting the few articles of possession giving clues into his life and values. There was a metal wardrobe cabinet with clothes, purses, bangles and shoes, a small green refrigerator, some tea cups, dishes and a few instruments for cooking; on the wall were many postcards, a framed photo of the Taj Mahal and two calendars from a cell phone company that he told me he had worked for. He must have noticed me looking around and nearly shouted, “I’m a very poor man!” looking abashed. My own embarrassment consumed me and I muttered, “no, no, please”.
He pulled out a photo album and asked me to sit on a wooden folding chair. He had photos of every one of his daughter’s 14 birthdays, and of family trips to an amusement park, Chittagong, the Taj Mahal and Qatar. He brought his wife and daughter in and I took a photo of them inside the home. None of them smiled, but stood straight and tall. I asked him to write his address down in my notebook so I could mail him a print of the photo.
The courtyard between several homes was shared by the extended family. Alif’s mother, three sisters, their husbands and children lived in the makeshift complex. Each family had a one room home that opened to the courtyard and had no windows otherwise. Cooking and washing was performed in the courtyard and there was one toilet at the end of the narrow space for all. At the families’ request, I took photos of the children playing and posing with big smiles, teasing each other, and I promised to mail them. They offered me rice and dal, but I declined.
Alif and I walked to the main road and I bought us sweet dumplings made of rice flour, filled with coconut, sugar and milk, which we ate as we walked. I admired the street food bags made from old newspaper, folded carefully and stapled.
Alif had spent over an hour with me, and had brought me to several places in his neighborhood, including an Armenian church which he had to ask around on the street to find someone with a key to let us in the gate. I suddenly wondered if I should offer him some baksheesh for his time, and I waited to see if he would ask. I had had such a nice time walking around and chatting with him, for some reason I didn’t want to spoil our friendliness with an offer of payment, though in hindsight, I regret this and wish I had just given him something.
He found me a rickshaw and worked on a good price for me and sent me off with just a tilt of his head and a smile.