An American Abroad

Bangladesh: Barisal

I disembarked in total AM darkness. The folks who’d slept on the deck were now wrapped up in shawls, sweaters, scarves, hats, rugs, towels, and blankets of pinks, purples and oranges. They moved stiffly and slowly in the dark.

I was here:

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The faint outlines of dockside market stalls led me to the streets of Barisal. I came upon a cafe that was open early. “Coffee?” I asked hopefully. “No. Tea,” said the counterman. Fine. More sweet milky Bangla tea was brought to my table. I sipped and considered my next move.

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Once it was light enough to see, Barisal turned out to be a town with a somewhat relaxed vibe. It’s not on the tourist trail (to the limited extent that such a thing even exists in Bangladesh). I went the whole day and easily passed by tens of thousands of people without seeing another person of obvious European lineage. After seven months in China, where it seems that every building has been put up sometime after 1980, it was refreshing to see older edifices. Some of them dated from the late 19th century.

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The downtown area has several large ponds stocked with fish and surrounded by park benches. And while the riverfront is more commercial than scenic, it has a park where couples come to court and families come to hang out.

My mere presence attracted people. Everywhere I stopped to rest I quickly gathered a crowd. I’d sit down and two minutes later find myself surrounded. At one point I counted 17 people clustered about me. They materialized; they silently condensed out of the river-scented air. They stood close to me, certainly closer than Western ideas of bubble space would deem polite. They stared intently as I did the most mundane things. They tried, with varying degrees of success, to chat with me. Some were seeking money, but most were genuinely curious and friendly. And of course I talked with them, which attracted still more people.

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The first question everyone asked was where I was from. When I told them, the reaction was uniformly positive. Despite my observations about the number of Muslim countries the US has made war on in recent times, American stock still seems very high in Barisal. “How can I come to your country?” and similar inquiries were the most common questions I got.

I quickly noticed something about the people who gathered around me, and about the shopkeepers, the bus drivers, the police officers, the waiters, the rickshaw cyclists, the fruit stand proprietors, and the newspaper vendors. They were all men. Indeed, 98% of the people I saw in the commercial areas of Barisal were men. There were more women out in the residential areas, but not many more. And yet Bangladesh has a female prime minister and a female opposition leader. I tried to make sense of this cultural contradiction: how can a woman become a prime minister but not a shopkeeper? But then again, I can’t think of any culture that is wholly logical.

After walking around town all day, I returned to the docks to await The Rocket back to Dhaka. The men unloading this ship barefoot amazed me. I watched them for two hours carrying baskets full of bricks and sand on their heads.

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  1. People in Bangladesh are very curious about foreigners, as they do not see them much here. But they are very gentle. And unaware about America bombing Muslims. People who asked money are the street beggars, not general people.

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