As I begin writing this I am sitting in the Dhaka airport, my flight just delayed 3 hours (they don’t tell you until after the departure time of course), but hopefully I’ll be back in Bangkok tonight. By the time I finish I surely be at home in Bangkok. I always try to write while my memories are fresh, since I know I’ll forget the small details.
Everyday throughout this trip I’ve written a summary of the day, with some observations here and there. This trip has been fascinating and eye-opening in many ways. It certainly didnt go as planned, but I’ve learned a lot from this trip. The downsides of the trip were money being stolen from my card at the ATM, being drugged by a group of people trying to rob me, talking to a woman at my hotel a lot and later realizing she was a drug dealer and all our conversations were recorded, protests and strikes happening during my travels which limited when and where I could go, and lastly nearly running out of money after having to pay for my friend and his girlfriend during our travels (after my bank account was locked and therefore I had limited funds to travel with).
The positive sides of this trip far outweighed those issues. While it wasn’t the most comfortable trip, often times the best things come when I push my comfort zone. From this trip, I’ve been able to further understand the culture, which was my main objective. Being empathatic to different cultures has been my goal of traveling for quite sometime, and it continually blows my mind. While I did spend a fair amount of time in a hotel in Dhaka, I was able to explore the area quite a lot, spend lots of time with my Bengali friend and his friends/family, and I was able to travel to the tea fields in the north near Sylhet. I also made a business contact in the garmet industry, which is something I will pursue in the near future. Aside from that, I’ve come much closer to seeing and understanding this part of the world. I’ve long studied it and thought about it, but seeing it first hand and interacting with the people is really the only way to realize the exisitance of such a place. The way the people live in Bangladesh I think is quite representative of how about 1/3 of the world currently lives. It somewhat reminds me of how I imagined the US in the 1800’s, except with a few modern technologies like cars, machinery, and phones, and then of course mass-produced clothing, and food. But most of everyday life is still something that is quite old – mostly handmade food, lots of rice, farming as a main profession, etc.
The other facsinating piece to Bangladesh is that it is known for it population density, which is one of the highest in the world. It is hard to understand how dense it really is until you are part of it for a few days or weeks. It is very very crowded, especially in Dhaka and in the villages/towns throughout. Traffic jams are amplified by the lack of organization – no lanes, no laws being enforced, huge buses crowding tiny roads, poor road quality, and simply the sheer number of people and vehicles on the road. People here travel by bus, car, rickshaw, CNG (small car that runs on compresses natural gas), and walk. All of these means use the same roads and therefore it causes major issues for transport. Rickshaws are everywhere, and a 10 minute ride on one will cost about 10 taka (1/8th of a US dollar or so). The combination of these transportation methods, along with the density makes for a really crowded and unorganized place, and it is quite an experience. People here are used to it, so they don’t know how unique it is, but coming from the West it is very bizzare. I remember one rickshaw driver asking “are there rickshaws in America?”, haha.
I spent about 2 weeks in Bangladesh, arriving in on September 11th, and leaving on the 26th. I was planning on spending more time, but my Bengali friend Jawad suggested 2 weeks was enough. On September 11th, I left Bangkok in the afternoon, had a short layover in Chittagong (didn’t even have to get off the plane), and then landed into Dhaka in the evening. After getting off the plane, I had to get my visa-on-arrival. There was a booth clearly marked to get it, and when I arrived there I requested one. They had to fill out some paperwork, and then pointed to a “bank” like 20 meters behind me and told me to pay. After paying the $50 USD fee there, the guy told me to go back to the booth for visa on arrival. I was the only one on the plane who was doing this, but if there were more than a few people this process would be chaos. After getting the paperwork sorted, a man guided me to customs, opened a new desk for me, and asked me a few more questions. 5 minutes later, I proceeded through customs to the baggage area and went to the Dutch-Bangla ATM (important later on), which was in an area with many other ATMs. Shortly after I met my friend Jawad, who came to pick me up.
Meeting Jawad’s family
He took me to a hotel and checked me in, then we got into his car (in Dhaka people hire drivers to drive since it is very cheap and driving is quite a burnout there) and explored a bit. We went for some Indian food, and he invited a few other friends who joined as well. Afterward we drove to another place (near the Westin hotel) and had some tea, which is common after almost every meal from what I noticed. The tea there is excellent – it has creamer and condensed milk in it, so it is hard not to enjoy. While drinking the tea, poor children with missing limbs were surrounding me asking for money and food – a common sight (perhaps a whole other post on this later).
After dinner and tea, we went to a hangout area on a bridge, where loads of people where dancing to music that a guy had blaring out of the back of his truck. Some people danced, but most just sat there for hours and watched. Since it was a Thursday night, it was the beginning of the weekend (their weekend is Friday and Saturday). It was cool to see, and also cool to hangout and chat with some friends. After a couple hours there, we dropped Jawad’s girlfriend off at her house, and then headed home.
Jawad’s friends were military guys, which makes them quite powerful there. The military seems to have a lot of respect. 1 of the guys was a Swat-like member (intelligence), one was infantry, and one was military police. They were telling me about how they will get deployed into the Congo soon. Very interesting guys. Even more interesting is that even when they aren’t in uniform, they can still use their power on general society. For example, on the way to the bridge a car was just sitting in the middle of the road, so they pulled up to the side and told the guys to move. Apparently it is common for things like this to happen, even though it is impossible for general society to tell who is real military and who isn’t when they aren’t in uniform (and even then you can’t always tell, haha).
Another interesting thing that happened this night and became very normal throughout the trip was the power constantly going in and out. When I was in Myanmar last year, the same thing would happen – power goes out, 30 seconds later a generator kicks on, power comes back on. The same exact thing happened everywhere I went in Bangladesh.
Dancing along the street at midnight
The next day I woke late, around 11am, since I was quite tired and Jawad mentioned he normally sleeps in. We had stayed out quite late the night before, and after a full day of travel I was exhausted. I worked for an hour or so, ate some lunch, and met Jawad at the hotel around 1pm. We took a rickshaw to his house so I could meet his family, and eat lunch. The first thing I noticed was trash everywhere. It is pretty chaotic – people walking, driving, or cycling the rickshaws everywhere. Many of the roads are dirt and bumpy – surprising no one makes an effort to flatten them as it would make everyone faster and more comfortable.
After lunch, we planned to watch a movie, so we drove to the cinema. It literally took like an hour to get there, then another hour to wait to get into the parking garage, then another 30 minutes to find a spot. Once we finally park, we find out tickets are sold out. During this entire time, Jawad is constantly on his phone talking to people, which was common throughout the entire trip. It is probably one reason why it took so long. It is crazy how reliant he was, as were others, on their phones. It is common for people to have more than 1 phone that they use everyday – Jawad had 4 that he used.
After discovering we couldn’t watch the movie, we bought tickets for the following day, waited for 1.5 hours or so so Jawad could get his phone fixed at a shop, then headed to dinner at Nandos. One of Jawads friends who ran the largest DSL provider in Bangladesh came and met us. He was a friendly guy, and bought us all a nice dinner. After dinner, we dropped Jawad’s girlfriend off and I got dropped off at the hotel.
Another thing I noticed about Bangladesh in general is that most people dress quite well – everyone is wearing pants and nice button down shirts. Rickshaw drivers don’t wear pants, but I often saw them wearing pollo or button shirts. I assume the reason for this is two-fold, 1) how you look greatly affects how people see you, much more so than in the West (this is common throughout Asia, but especially common in Bangaldesh), 2) Bangladesh is one of the worlds biggest producers of clothing, so nice clothing is very cheap.
The following day I woke, worked a bit on my laptop, ate lunch, then went to watch Guardians of the Galaxy (3D). Halfway through the movie the screen gets paused and the lights come on. Apparently there is a 10-15 minute break in the middle of most movies there. I’ve watched movies at the cinema in many countries and I’ve never seen this. The movie was good, and it was a good experience to see it in Dhaka. After the movie, we grabbed dinner at a kebab place, and called it a day.
Later that night I checked my online bank account to confirm the ATM withdrawal at the airport, and noticed another few hundred dollars were removed the following day, even though I didn’t go to another ATM. I immediately knew that someone had rigged the ATM since the name of the withdrawal was some Russian or Ukrainian name, so I called my bank immediately. They basically had to lock my card, and I had to file a claim for the lost money. Prior to using the ATM I did check it a bit, and I also always cover my hand when I enter the PIN. The only way for this to happen was if the ATM was rigged, such that they could capture my PIN and swipe the card. Not so surprising considering how unregulated it is there, but bad luck on my end as my primary card for travel was now locked. Luckily I had brought another card (which does have quite steep fees), along with some cash so I was fine for the trip. This was the first piece of bad luck from the trip.
It was common for days to be long, but short. We started late most days, and then we’re stuck in traffic most of the time, and then waiting in line or somewhere else the rest of the time. Because it is so crowded, this is normal in their lives. There is almost no concept of time – we often ate dinner around midnight, and rarely were plans made on a time schedule. Looking back, it is crazy how much time was actually wasted vs. actually used for the purpose. For example, I’d guess a normal day probably included 2-3 hours of actual enjoyment, like watching a movie and eating dinner, and the rest was filled with traveling across the city, waiting in line somewhere, waiting on someone, etc. Since I’ve been all about efficiency and making the most of time for a few years, this was fascinating to see. This was the opposite of that, and as a result, people there are far far less efficient, and therefore output less in much more time.
The following day, September 14th, Jawad, his girlfriend, and I went to Jamura Future Park, a massive mall, which is the 11th largest in the world. Upon entering the parking lot, I saw 2 guys guarding the entrance with guns, which is somewhat of a common site throughout Bangladesh – probably due to the massive poverty. The mall was definitely massive, and the car park was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Most of the mall seemed empty. We were in 1 shop and then I saw a white woman, the first white person I had seen all trip. I then noticed several other white women walking around the same store. After exiting, I noticed lots of guards. Apparently these women were the spouses of some US Generals who were in Dhaka for a conference, and these women were being escorted around with heavy protection. It was definitely a bit over the top, but from what I heard they want to make foreigners feel safe here, which makes sense. After exploring the mall a bit, the group wanted to eat at KFC, so we ate there (I had a late lunch so didn’t really eat). I also had some excellent Bangali dessert at a shop nearby. After that, we called it a day.
On my 4th day in Dhaka, my friend told me he wanted to take the day off, and I didn’t want to waste a day so I had his driver take me around. Right after picking me up, we waited for 30 minutes at the petrol station (normal in Dhaka) to buy $5 worth of gas. After, his plan was to take me around Dhaka to various places that my friend had told him. We didn’t reach the first stop, Sonargoan, for about 4 hours, because of traffic. It took way longer than expected, but during the drive I was able to observe a lot of Dhaka, which was interesting, and something I wanted to do. Upon arriving at Sonargoan, I had to pay 100 taka to get in ($1.20 or so), and then I went in to explore. It was basically just a gated area with a museum at the back, and a statue of some leader. There were lots of students hanging out there. As I got closer to the museum, 2 girls (both dressed in their Muslim garb) approached me and tried to have a conversation, which is normal. They don’t see white people here often so they try to ask what your name is, and where you are from since that is practically all the English they know. 1 of the 2 girls spoke much better English than most, and she offered to show me around the museum.
Statue – Sonargaon, Dhaka
After about 30 minutes there, they wanted my phone number, my Facebook, they took pictures with me, and all was well. They then gave me a new bottle of mango juice, sealed and all, and out of respect I took it. I had 1 tiny sip just to be polite. Shortly after they all said they had to go, and said goodbye. I explored the museum for another 20 minutes, and then left the museum and headed outside. Once I left, about 20 people surrounded me asking questions, taking pictures, some asking for money, etc. It was clear that few white people travel here, and the ones that do probably give money, add that along with Hollywood portraying rich white people, and the result is white people as walking ATMs.
After exiting, I walked to the car, which was oddly parked 100m in the back corner of a field nearby, and I told the driver I was ready to go, though he didn’t speak a word of English. After leaving the field, a group of kids stopped the car and asked for 100 taka, and I asked them why. It was clearly them trying to get money for “parking” because I was white, when it clearly wasn’t a parking lot. I sat and argued with them for a bit, and finally about 2 minutes I gave them 50 taka and we left. I’m quite sure the driver and those guys setup this scheme while I was inside the museum. While the money they were asking is nothing, I don’t support the racisism there, and by simply paying out means they will continually do it to any other white person that comes in the future. It is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and generally I react on principle and not dollar amount, as I realized long ago actions and ideas aren’t based on money, they are principle. And if you have any principles but don’t live by them, what is the purpose of them?
After leaving Sonargoan, we drove another couple hours past the massive parliament buildings (some of the largest complexes in the world), and then another hour or so to the main National Monument (there are many national monuments around, but this was the main one). I vividly remember something while we were driving past the parliament that I won’t forget – there was a baby, maybe 1 year old, sitting on the side of the road completely alone, literally on the pavement, with cars driving by within 3-4 feet of the baby, and it didn’t even phase the people or drivers. No one seemed to care, since it was normal. It was shocking to see.
The main National Monument in Dhaka
After arriving at the National Monument, I gave the driver some money for lunch, and then went and explored the National Monument alone. Just like in other places, there was constantly a group of people around me looking, asking questions, following me, and wanting pictures. I sat down and had probably 10 people wanting to take pictures. If I started talking, more people would come, and because more people came, more would. At one time probably 50 people were surrounding me wanting to hear me talk. I’m quite sure this monument very few foreigners go to, and the ones that do probably aren’t alone nor young. These people were absolutely fascinated.
After spending maybe 45 minutes there, I went back to the car, met up with the driver, and it took another 1.5-2 hours to get home. I got back to the hotel around 5:30pm. It was a big learning day, as I saw and experienced so much in a short time, but it was also draining to be in the car for so long. Remember the 2 Muslim girls and the drink? Well about 2 hours after getting home I started getting bad stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever, and feeling like vomiting. I asked a few people and they all said those girls were trying to drug me, which is somewhat common there. I got very lucky that nothing happened, but more importantly I learned a big lesson. That night I didn’t sleep well, but drank lots of water, took some pills, and tried to relax as much as I could. One small sip made me feel awful, very lucky I didn’t have more.
I woke late again the next day, something that I normally don’t do. When I’m away from home, I try to make the most of everyday by getting up early and exploring. It is easy to waste the entire day to a hangover or to “relaxing on a vacation”, which a lot of people enjoy, but I can relax at home so I prefer to push myself to explore while my time is limited. However, Dhaka isn’t an easy place to get around. Traffic is horrendous, few people speak English, and from what I’ve seen the transportation isn’t totally reliable. After waking, I explored the area around the hotel, which is quite an interesting area. It is part of Uttara, which is considered a wealthier area of Dhaka, even though it is still very run down by western standards. I saw people eating the sugar cane branches, and pressing them through a machine to squeeze out the sugar, I saw a lot of vendors selling different kinds of fruits, and then inside the malls there are countless knockoff movies, clothing, leather boots and bags, etc. After a couple hours of doing this, Jawad and I headed to a hangout area for some tea. We sat there and talked for an hour or so, and then Jawad’s driver came and picked us up. He dropped me off at the hotel and Jawad went on his way.
This boy loved getting his picture taken while we drank some tea
I did some online work at the hotel, and then headed for dinner. The restaurant at the hotel had some great food. While there, a group of like 10 older western people (sounded like from southern US, maybe Texas) came in and ate dinner. They were guided by a Bengali man, and based off what I heard it sounded like they were part of a church doing some work in Bangladesh for a couple weeks. They were the first group of white people I had seen at the hotel, so it was interesting. One of the funny memories from overhearing their conversation was that they couldn’t pick something off the menu. They wanted some steak or something, but they couldn’t decide. The Bengali guide finally says “I think it would be easier if we just ordered a large amount of something, maybe some rice and some toast”. The entire group just went silent until one older man said something like “I’d rather take some time and get steak than eat toast”. haha, I was trying my best not to laugh, but it was hilarious.
The plan for the next day was for Jawad to meet me at the hotel at noon, so I woke at 11am, got ready, and started working. Before I knew it, it was 2pm and still didn’t hear from him. I decided to plan out more of my trip, as I was ready to leave Dhaka. I generally dislike hotels – they provide little culture (which is my objective when traveling), there is little social scene, and they are generally boring. Since I had my laptop I could work and be productive, but since I was in Bangladesh I wanted to make the most of it. From a person I talked to from Couchsurfing, I was recommended to contact a tour operator.
I googled a recommended tour operator, their website looked nice, and had some excellent tours that I was interested in. I emailed the guy, and tried to set it up, but come to find out the whole website was wrong, and none of the tours on the site were even offered. The man offered an alternative, so I set that up for the following day. The rest of the day I just ate delicious Bengali food, and worked. I didn’t hear from Jawad.
The following day I woke planning to go do the tour, so I call the guy and confirm it. He basically says “there are protests now, and then again on Sunday, so it isn’t safe for you to travel”. Damn, this means I’m stuck in Dhaka another day. As I go eat at the restaurant, everyone there also mentions that it isn’t safe. Basically the story is that during the Liberation War in 1971 when Bangladesh split off of Pakistan, one of the leaders, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, did some really brutal war crimes, like mass genocide of the people, raping women in the war, etc. He was sentenced to death in 2013, and his verdict was supposed to be not long after, but it was delayed. While, as bad luck has it, the verdict came out while I was in Dhaka. The leader was going to be hanged to death, but they decided to sentence him to life in prison. As a result, people were protesting and lighting stuff on fire. Because of this, people said it wasn’t a good idea to leave the hotel. This somewhat goes back to the time thing I wrote about earlier – people aren’t really on schedules so wasting a day because of the protests to them was normal.
Because of this, I wasn’t able to explore much for a couple days, and during this time didn’t really hear from my friend Jawad, so I basically just read and worked in the hotel, trying as hard as I could to plan out a trip outside of Dhaka. It got to the point where I decided to actually change my flight home and leave, because I couldn’t travel, I wasn’t hanging out with my friend, and many things had gone sour. I went to the airport to try to do it, but all economy seats were full and there was a ridiculous fee to switch. I decided to just push out the rest of the trip, and try to convince Jawad to show me some more places or recommend things. I was in a position where I couldn’t really travel alone – everyone recommended getting someone else to travel with, but no one was around.
2 armed guards outside the Dhaka Airport
Around this time, Jawad told me that in order to use the car, I’d need to pay approximately $35/day, plus pay for petrol, tip the driver, and pay for the drivers food. I found this quite odd since $35/day is a huge amount in Dhaka, and the car wasn’t anything luxurious. I felt like it was way overpriced. I expressed my concern and he said it was rented from his company and that was the cheapest it could be. He then calculated how many days I would be around for and wanted me to pay 50% up front. I was skeptical to say the least.
There was a woman, call her Nove, staying at the same hotel as me who I met at the restaurant. She was an older woman, with an English accent, but also spoke Bengali. I talked to her a bit and she said she lived in London for 25 years, but was in Bangladesh getting some medicine. Over the course of a few days, I probably talked with her for 5 hours. I asked her if the $35/day for a car was the going rate, and she said that while cars are expensive, that was overpriced and that he seemed to be stealing from me.
The following day, one of Jawads awesome friends, Masood, who was in the Bengali military, offered to show me around old Dhaka. So Masood, Jawad, his girlfriend, and I had the driver take us to old Dhaka (which Jawad told me I had to pay around $35/day for). Once there, we grabbed some snacks, walked through the very densely crowded roads into a dock where massive ships were coming and going. Masood, having a military ID, was able to get us onto a boat without buying tickets so we could look around from the top, and then after we headed out to the bottom. There were many smaller canoe-like boats that took people just across the water. So the 4 of us got on one, and crossed the river, headed along the opposite bank, and then crossed back over to visit Ahsan Manzil, a former palace of the royal family. By this time it was nearly dark, and the 4 of us walked around the palace. We had to buy tickets to get in, but only Masood and I walked through since Jawad had a bag they wouldn’t let him in with. Afterward we took a rickshaw back toward where the car was, and we waited awhile there while talking about what we had just seen. After the car arrived, he drove us to an area near the university, and another National Monument, and we had some snacks, took some pictures, and relaxed there.
Vendors along the river by the palace.
In the evening, Jawad’s family invited his friends for dinner. It was me, Masood, Mufrad, Jawad’s girlfriend, and then Jawad’s family. It was odd at first, as they served the 4 of us dinner, and I was waiting to eat and they said to start eating. So we started, and him and his family just stood around filling up drinks and talking. I asked if they were going to eat with us, and they said it was culture to let guests eat first. Interesting part of the culture – I wonder why it is like that.
I woke the next day, September 20th, a bit frustrated that I still had been stuck in Dhaka, and along with all the other events. After getting ready, I met Jawad and he took me shopping. He took me to a clothing store called Astorian, which basically sold name brand clothing at a fraction of the cost. Apparently if a factory produces some clothing for say, Nike, and Nike complains, they remake everything, and all the clothes they already made gets given away or sold at stores like this. I was able to pick up $80 pants for $15, and some nice shirts at a similar price. I generally don’t shop much or buy clothes, but Jawad convinced me to buy some new pants and shirts, so I did.
In the evening, we had plans to eat at the Westin, what they call a “5 star hotel in Dhaka”. Jawad’s girlfriend worked there, so was able to get a 50% discount on food at the restaurant there. One of thing to note about Dhaka was that the hotels seemed to be the “nicest places” in Dhaka. They were some of the only buildings that were modern and clean, and also where white people stay. Everyone I talked to would keep mentioning the hotels as places to visit in the city (almost as if they were landmarks or something), which I found funny. Prior to this night, I had only seen maybe 5 white people the entire trip, but at the Westin, almost everyone was white. The hotel was heavily guarded, and inside it was quite modern, something you’d see in the US. We went to the top floor and had dinner at a window table, which was very nice. We splurged and had appetizers, along with a few main courses. After dinner, we went down a few floors to a buffet area and watched some Spanish dancing for an hour or so, before calling it a night.
To backtrack a bit, on the drive to the Westin, Jawad and I are sitting the backseat of the car. He gets a phone call, seems quite serious, talks for maybe 10 minutes, and then hangs up. He then turns to me and starts basically reciting the conversation I had with Nove, the Bengali woman from the UK. He said that she was a known drug dealer and all our conversations were tapped. He said that she had been smuggling heroin and cocaine, but not yet busted, and he said I shouldn’t talk to her. It was quite scary, and made me wonder if the whole hotel was run by drug dealers, as a few things seemed suspicious. Either way, after hearing this I wanted to check out, so after dinner I would stay 1 more night and checkout first thing in the morning.
The next morning I was looking forward to checking out. I generally hate spending time in hotels, but this situation I was more or less driven into so I didn’t have much choice. Jawad offered to let me stay at his house for the night, as I would leave Dhaka the following day to travel north. After checking out, I took a rickshaw for about 15 minutes to Georges Cafe, a nice little cafe in Uttara that had excellent sandwiches and brownies. I pulled out my laptop, and read/worked for a few hours. In the afternoon Jawad and Mufrad came by and chilled there for another hour. Mufrad was leaving to Saudi Arabia to go to Mecca for the Hajj, and his flight out was the night before mine (back to Bangkok). Mufrad was such a generous and caring guy – it was great hanging out with him.
Excellent Bengali food served on the bed at midnight.
In the evening I stayed at Jawad’s house, and watched the Eagles vs. Redskins NFL game. Afterward music videos played for hours until 3am or so, while Jawad talked on the phone to his girlfriend. I slept well, and it was very generous of his family to host me for the night. The food was incredible, and his 2 maids were very kind.
We woke Sept 22 at like 1pm, which seemed somewhat normal for him. He told me that we wouldn’t be able to travel due to the political situation, so I would need to spend another night in Dhaka, and that I was welcome to stay at his house. During midday I woke and then just sat around, and in the evening we watched some live music and grabbed dinner. We also bought the bus tickets toward Sylet for the next morning, which was relieving to me since it finally ensured I would be able to get outside of Dhaka. Jawad insisted that I’d have to pay for his ticket as well, which I did, along with buying him dinner. After all of this, we went back to his house, I watched the UFC while he chatted on his phone for hours to his girlfriend. It was quite surprising how much he used the phone – he had 4 phones, and there was rarely a set of 15 minutes where he didn’t use it the entire trip. He was constantly talking or making phone calls, texting, or browsing the internet.
On September 23rd, just a couple days before my flight back to Bangkok, we woke early, grabbed some breakfast, and waited for the delayed bus north to Sylet. Because of how poor traffic is, along with the poorly conditioned roads, it took us around 7 hours. We actually got dropped off before Sylet, as we had someone waiting to pick us up there who would take us to our accommodation on a tea plantation. The 7 hour bus journey could have taken maybe 1-2 hours if the roads were decently kept, but similar to many places in Southeast Asia, the horrible roads become gridlocked and therefore a short journey takes forever. Aside from that, I think most westerns would be blown away by how dangerously they drive. Buses and trucks are the kings of the road, and if they are going down the road every other vehicle gets to the side. It was very common for the bus to pass traffic going into oncoming traffic, and because it was a bus, all cars and CNG’s would nearly come to a stop on the side of the road to let it pass. If there was another bus oncoming, they would be slightly more cautious, but we still had many very close head on collisions. I’m not sure what the data says, but I imagine the accident rate is very high, and much of it probably goes unreported.
People carrying wood and greens on the way to Sylet.
The tea plantation was owned by Mufrad’s family, and he let us stay in one of the small houses on the plantation, which they normally rent out to tourists. The house was right in the middle in all of the tea forests (if you can call it that), and maybe a 10 minute walk from the tea factory. In addition to the tea, they owned land which had many rubber trees, and about a 20 minute walk away they had a rubber “factory” – which was a small area where they processed the rubber trees. The place itself was called “Amtali Nature Resort”, and was near Sreemangal Upzaila, near Sylet, Bangladesh.
After arriving at the house around 3-4pm, we ate some food, and relaxed as the sun went down. Jawad and his girlfriend spent much of the evening in their room, and I sat out on the porch and played chess on my phone. It was quite relaxing, aside from the massive beetles that would land on me every 10 minutes. Not only that, the power would go out every half hour and a generator would kick on. Around 9pm, we had dinner and called it a night. I still find it interesting how tiring it is to ride in a bus. Even though you’re sitting on the bus not really straining any muscles, it really wears the body and mind out, and after that 7 hour trip I was burned out.
The following day Jawad said to be up and ready by 8. So I woke at 7:30am, got ready and waited for him and his girlfriend. It was nearly 9:30am by the time they got ready, and once they got ready we had breakfast. The driver came and picked us up, and drove us to the Grand Sulton Hotel, which Jawad’s girlfriend wanted to see. It was “5-start hotel”, literally gated on the side of a village. It seemed very out of place. There were tennis courts, basketball courts, pools, a golf course, a helicopter landing pad, several restaurants, and more. When we entered, it was dead empty. Jawad lied to the manager and said he was a military General, and the people believed him so we got a grand tour of the place. It was somewhat entertaining.
Afterward we went and got bus tickets. Jawad insisted I pay for his ticket as well, so I gave him money to get the tickets for the next day. By the time we got tickets, it was already around 1pm. We had to stop for 30 minutes or so because Jawad’s girlfriend had to fix her ripped shirt, so I took the opportunity to take some photos of the area. Once that was sorted, the driver took us back to our accommodation so we could eat lunch. The food was excellent, and well prepared. I wish I could eat more of it outside of Bangladesh.
Beautiful tea forests
By the time we finished lunch it was 3pm or so, and together we all walked to the tea factory, which was about 10 minutes away. The factory itself was fascinating – we walked the entire production line, and I took pictures. As we were leaving, all the people who picked the tea leaves were arriving. Surprisingly, they were all women, ranging from very young, like 10 years ago, up to quite old, probably 65 years or so. They were all carrying bags on their heads, and they queued up right in front of me, where a man brought out a big scale, and sat down next to it with a notebook. Each woman then weighed their bag, then walked to the bin nearby and dumped the bag, and then left. Within the 15 minutes or so we were standing there, probably 50+ women were dumping their bags, as it was the end of the day, probably 5pm or so. I was told that they get paid around 65 taka (about $1) for 23kg of leaves, or approx. 3 taka per kilogram, and 1.5 taka per kilogram after 20kg (which doesn’t make sense, the more you pick the less you make?). It was quite moving to see this, as these women would pick an entire day and make maybe $2.
After the leaves are dumped, they run down the line and at the end get bagged into these massive tea bags, probably 50kg or so. I was told they are sold at auction for around 250 taka per kilogram, and this factory is the 3rd best tea in Bangladesh. The #1 and #2 best are sold for around 350 taka per kilogram, and bought almost entirely by foreign companies.
After viewing the factory, we headed back to the accommodation, relaxed for a bit, and then drove about 10 minutes away to a small village, where they produced rubber. The family that owns the tea factory has a total of 1,200 acres, with 350 acres of rubber trees and the rest being tea. I had never known how rubber was made, but have always wondered. From what I understood, they cut the tree, drain the liquid from the train, put it into a big bin and mix some other things into it. They then put crates in, almost like the wooden boxes that bee hives form in. They let it sit a bit, then press the slabs through a machine, and then let the pieces hang dry. I think this produces the most basic form of latex, as these white slabs were hanging all over the trees.
The village here had a Hindu temple, and the manager was a half Indian hindu. It was interesting to see, as 85%+ of the country are Muslim. While there, it got dark, and the group was just chatting (in Bengali so I didn’t understand anything). I was constantly asking if Jawad or his girlfriend could translate for me, but neither really cared to. Some guy brought over some excellent tea for us, which I really enjoyed. Around this time, many of the women who were picking tea were herded into a massive dirt truck almost like cattle or buffalo. They were all starring a me. After abot 5 minutes, the truck started and some man started shouting at the women. They were literally packed into the back of the truck like animals, and they were all women. It was difficult to tell if this was slavery or not, but it was clearly a common thing. I expressed my concern to Jawad and he immediately said “no, they want to do this”. He then started telling the others in the group how I suspected it was slavery.
What I drew from this experience was either that a) it is slavery, these women are forced to do it and it has been that way forever, or b) they aren’t “forced”, but because it is part of the culture, they are used to it. There is no doubt in Bangladesh and many Islamic countries that women are at a severely lower social class, and this case was very very clear. It was sad to see – just another reminded of some of the crazy things religion makes people do.
Tea leaves drying about to be produced.
After finishing our tea there, we drove back to our accommodation, and relaxed. We ate dinner, played some board games, and called it a night.
I woke the next morning at 7:30am, packed, and waited for Jawad and his girlfriend to get ready. We had an excellent breakfast, and then we had to pay the bills. Because of the generosity of Mufrad, we only had to pay for food, which was definitely worth it. The bill came out to something like $60, and Jawad insisted that I pay for 80% of it while him and his girlfriend pay a total of 20%. After that, the driver took us to the bus stop about 20 minutes away, and we waited for the bus. As soon as I got out of the car I got swarmed by people begging for money. Even when I sat down inside tons of people sat 3 feet away staring and asking for money. You get used to it after awhile, but it seriously reminded me of animals in a forest – never feed a bear in the woods because they’ll always want more. Same exact thing here. I’d love to help them out, but if I do, every other white person that comes is now a target, and every person that didn’t receive help will beg for more. As a result, no one gets any help. It’s the sad truth.
We got on the bus around 9:30am. The ride back to Dhaka was similar to the ride from Dhaka. We didn’t arrive back to Dhaka until near 4pm. Traffic was once again a stalemate for a lot of the way, and we were dead stopped for over 30 minutes due to a massive truck full of bananas that tipped over. The roads are so narrow that people drive slanted in the gutters along the roads. As in this case, the truck went too far into the gutter and just tipped. I’m sure this is a common occurrence, and it is a wonder that no one makes an effort to widen the roads. The result would be so much better for everyone. During the ride back home, at a checkpoint, the bus got stopped and some normal dressed guy came onto the bus. He started opening the bins above our seats and just digging through them. He would firstly look at a person, and then dig. He dug into mine, then looked at me and I said it was mine and he immediately stopped. It seemed quite clear they he would target certain individuals based on how they looked. He didn’t find anything, and about 5 minutes got off and we went on our way. That has corruption written all over it.
Women weighing their tea leaves.
After getting back, I dropped my bags at Jawad’s house with his family, and we went out and did a bit of souvenir shopping. On the way back we stopped for Fukshka (Bengali snack that I loved) one last time, which was excellent. Once back at Jawad’s, the maids prepared some excellent food which I thoroughly enjoyed and was very grateful for.
In the morning, I was about ready to leave when Jawad’s mom insisted that I eat. So they prepared one last quick Bengali meal, which was ever so delicious. Jawad then took a rickshaw with me to find a CNG, where he dropped me. It cost around $1 for them to take me to the airport 10 minutes away. My flight was scheduled to leave at noon. I arrived a bit early, so was just listening to music. Around 11:50am or so I see a Malaysian Airline flight pull into the gate that I was sitting, so I ask around. They say the flight will be delayed. So I wait until 20 minutes or so, and they then announce that the flight won’t leave until 3pm. I found it odd that they didn’t announce the delay until after the scheduled time, when surely they would have known it was delayed for many hours.
One interesting thing at the airport that I hadn’t seen before was a stray dog near the runway. One of the guys directing planes into the gates was trying to chase it off. I’d imagine in the west animals on the runway are strictly prohibited due to them possibly interfering with the flight takeoff/landing, but here I imagine it is quite common.
After the delay, I went to the gate where they said it would be, which was moved, and just sat and read for a couple hours. I arrived into Bangkok in the evening.
I wrote down lots of observations throughout the trip into my phone and scribbled on paper. It is hard to fit them all into a report nicely, so I’ve just went through and listed them all here:
- People are less caring for each other (outside of family). Families are close, but communities are apart, such as cutting people off everywhere, not caring for the poor, etc. We took a rickshaw for 10 minutes, and the guy wanted $0.20 instead of $0.17, and Jawad argued over it. Not only this but car drivers and maids were treated like second class citizens.
- There is a restaurant called “Subpoint” that looks just like Subway and sells sandwiches.
- Upon entering the biggest mall in Dhaka, there were guys with big guns standing around. Found out it was the spouses of some 4-star generals from the US.
- They know America as USA, which is different than say Thailand, where they know the USA as America. If you say USA in parts of Thailand, people don’t know. Similarly, in Bangladesh many people didn’t know America, but they knew USA.
- Lots of people called me boss, like the car driver. It was somewhat sad to see these guys think of themselves as a lower social class too.
- I saw police office popping tires of rickshaw bikes because it was parked in a bad spot. These rickshaw guys are very poor, and the police take full control over them.
- Buses often have no lights or blinkers, and even if they do, they don’t use them.
- It is common for 2 guys to be holding hands – shows friendship. It definitely doesn’t show sexual desires as being homosexual is very against their religion. With this said, I met several people during this trip who seemed very homosexual, but couldn’t be open due to religion.
- A car driver (like the one that drove me around) makes 10,000 taka/month, which is about $100. Odd considering Jawad was charging me $35/day to ride with him.
- Traffic is insane – it is difficult to describe by imagine LA with no lanes, on dirt roads with holes, and then added in people walking on roads, CNGs, richshaws, buses, and cars all mixed.
- Generally noticed that their is no thought of plans or time wasted. It is the opposite of the west, and especially me, where I try to plan everything out to get the most out of my time.
- The car driver takes a few taka on gas bill – says it cost 450 taka when it is atually 420. Not a big deal, but annoying that they aren’t honest.
- Fukshka is a delicious snack – it is a Bangali appetizer – beans inside of a small round taco shell. Covered in a lime juice.
- Just after I left was Eid, where people slaughter animals to sacrifice a “valuable” possession. The day I left they were setting up all the cages for the animals.
- Chatpai’s are also delicious, especially with a fried egg and vegatables. So is:
- Paratha (parata) – crepe like thing for breakfast. Can dip in tea or eat with potatos and meat – delicious.
- Lots of women had a nose piercing, such as Jawad’s mom – marriage? religion?
- Jawad said a Prada car costs $187,000 in Dhaka due to import tax. True?
- The maids and drivers like second class people – give orders, yell, treat like shit. They weren’t treated as equal human beings, and that bothered me. Never forget we’re all the same, some are less more aware than others. It doesn’t make one better than another, and you can’t control where you’re born.
- Jawad and his girlfriend would eat food and then take stomach pills as precaution in case it was bad. Not sure if this was common, but it was kind of funny.
- I would you say hello or nod to acknowledge people like maids or drivers or rickshaws, but they aren’t used to being treated as regular class people so it was awkward.
- I saw people welding in bare feet and no glasses – somewhat common in SEA.
- This trip made me more aware that humans like just animals. It’s like the sin of giving – would offer money or food but then would get surrounded, and they would expect it from every foreigner. Similar to feeding a wild bear food.
- Because of money being stolen and needing to unexpectedly stay in a hotel and support Jawad and his girlfriend, I spent more in 2 weeks than what people there make in 2 years. Mind blowing.
- People live like humans did 1,000 years ago, but with cars, phones, and machines. It is a wild combination.
- Petrol queues are huge, like 30-40 minute wait is normal. Some sell gas like in the US, others sell CNG, which is much cheaper (compressed natural gas). Makes me wonder why more cars in the US don’t run on CNG.
- As much as I read and thought I knew what to expect, the trip was vastly different. Makes me more aware that most things you don’t realize until you experience them.
If you want to learn more about Bangladesh, there are many other good reports. I found Joel’s blog great, with good observations and pictures:
The trip overall was a big lesson, and a big eye opener. To start, the whole situation with Jawad was unexpected. While I wanted to help Jawad for helping me, he seemed to be taking advantage of me – charging me for me way more petrol than I used, having me pay for him and his girlfriends food and train tickets, taking money from the car rental, etc. They were subtle, but obvious things when I thought about it. I wish he would have been more honest. It was a mind fuck because his friends and family were so generous, but he seemed to almost constantly be trying to get more money from me. There a few main events, all unexpected that shaped the trip:
– was planning to stay with his family as his suggested, but got put into a hotel for 10 days instead.
– wasn’t planning on having money stolen from the ATM on the first day, nor having to support him and his girlfriend.
– The protests happened at a bad time, which forced me to spend most of the trip in Dhaka, and had to waste a couple days in the hotel, which I very much dislike. Luckily I was able to be quite productive on the work side of things.
Would I go back? Absolutely, like most places I’ve been I’d love to explore more. I didn’t even scratch the service with Bangladesh, and I can’t imagine how beautiful of a country it is from a landscape perspective. I would like to spend more time with the people and understand them more, as hanging out with Jawad I think gave a very biased view – he was western educated, living with a wealthier family, and with his girlfriend, and funnelling money from me.
The trip was well worth it. While it wasn’t the most enjoyable or comfortable at the time, most of the biggest lessons I’ve learned so far in life have come out of the situations like these. I was in enlightened in so many ways during this trip, and I’m a better person because I went. I would highly recommend going, but definitely be ready for some roadbumps, be prepared to push your comfort, and study the country a lot ahead of time. If you do a tour it will be far easier than creating the track yourself, but with the tour you miss out a lot on the true pieces of the country.
Thanks to Jawad’s parents, brothers, maids, drivers, and friends for making a great impression of the people and for their generosity.
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