Coming from peaceful Bhutan, I was totally unprepared for Bangladesh. Cool mountain temperatures turned into 90 degree lowland heat, the 700,000 Buddhist population changed to 7 million Muslims just in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka alone and a slow pace of life became one that was ferocious and relentless. The crush of endless crowds and nonstop traffic was unlike any that I have ever encountered. Overflowing sidewalks forced pedestrians into the muddy and scrungy streets of dirt, sludge and garbage where they (and I) were forced to dodge masses of trucks, buses, delivery carts, wire cage tuk-tuks and 400,000 bicycle rickshaws. Few cars were present because there is a noticeable lack of a middle class. There must be a tiny super upper class of people but that leaves over 99% of the people struggling to survive on a daily basis.
The poor ones were the folks I saw: beggars, peddlers and others toiling away at the most physically demanding tasks that usually consisting of hauling loads of people or goods. I don´t understand where these thin wiry guys, young and old, get the energy to do their work. I was there during the month of Ramadan when they cannot eat or drink anything between sunrise and sunset, it must really have been tough to get through an already grueling day. How they manage to get through the heat and humidity is beyond me. I drank fluids all day long and never almost had to “go” because I perspired so much just by walking around (given the condition of most toilets, this was certainly a blessing). There was no McDonalds to duck into because the one that was in Dhaka closed several years ago. I believe that not enough people could afford to go there.
When Gertrude Stein once famously said, ¨there´s no there there,¨ she could have been talking about Bangladesh. The country has no attractions, natural or otherwise, that would appeal to travelers. There is nothing that resembles a Taj Mahal, a Mt. Everest or a Great Wall. There are no beach resorts either. So it was not surprising that in the five days I spent in Bangladesh, I did not see a single foreigner, western or Asian. I came because of its proximity to Bhutan and because I was curious to see it anyway.
I stood out like a sore thumb and everywhere I went, people were shocked to see me. But my adventurous spirit made me an instant celebrity. Almost every minute of the day, someone would come up to shake my hand, say ¨hello¨ and ask ¨your country?¨ That was the extent of their English and there were always a surprised look when I responded ¨America.¨ Food sellers frequently invited me to sample their wares but sanitary conditions prevented me from taking them up on their offers.
I became a Pied Piper as people followed me around out of curiosity. So many of them asked me to take their picture that after a while, it became a chore instead of a pleasure. Too poor to afford a camera or cellphone, most of these people had never been photographed so I tried to accommodate as many of them as possible. And no one asked for a print; they were just happy to see it on my camera´s LCD. I finally learned the importance of a photo for these people when one man pointed up to the sky and thanked me after I took his picture. Apparently he believed that his captured image ended up in heaven, a most positive omen for him. This certainly differs from cultures that refuse to have their pictures taken because they believe that a snapshot took away a part of their soul. I was glad to learn something new and to be able to make so many people happy.
But five days is more than enough for Bangladesh and I have moved on to India. I am currently in muggy Kolkata (Calcutta) and in two days will fly off to the cool mountains of India´s northwest.