An American Abroad

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

Bangladesh: Photomiscellanea

There are some photos from my recent trip that just didn’t seem to fit logically into my earlier posts.

These three are of the Goaldi Mosque in Sonargaon, which was built in 1519. A trick of sunlight in the second photo makes it seem like there is a face in one of the wall details (there isn’t).

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Nearby is the cutest mosque I’ve ever seen.

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Politics in Bangladesh is vigorously contentious. Elections were held recently and there were still many political posters adorning the walls of Barisal and Dhaka.

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Street food.

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Relaxing by the National Assembly building.

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Dhaka transit.

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Barisal bus.

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Barisal wash day.

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A bit of Toledo in Barisal.

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Bangladesh: Old Dhaka

I spent a day in and around Old Dhaka. Traffic chokes the city so heavily that I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to. Some of the things on my Dhaka wish list will have to await another trip there.

I was here:

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This is some of what I saw:

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Bangladesh: Abbas and His Family

I was thirsty and Dhaka is a mostly-dry town. My guidebook said there was a bar at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon, and so on my second night I decided to do my usual camp-out with a book and a beer. I ducked out of my hotel and started talking to a tuk-tuk driver who was parked there. For some reason, he didn’t want to take me to the Pan Pacific. While I was talking to him, Abbas approached me and offered transportation in his bicycle rickshaw. Why not?

It was my first trip in such a conveyance. Dhaka traffic is quite possibly the worst in the world, and after watching Abbas navigate through it, I was convinced that he has nerves of steel, legs of iron, the observational prowess of Sherlock Holmes, and the cunning of Odysseus. We also talked about my plans to go to Painam Nagar the following day. He clearly knew the area and spoke English pretty well, so I agreed to engage him as my guide there.

This was something of a first for me. I’ve always been able to get around in foreign countries without a guide, but it took just 36 hours in Dhaka to convince me that my usual MO wouldn’t work there–at least not in the five days I had left.

After our visit to Painam Nagar, Abbas invited me to go with him to the Biswa Itjema and also to have dinner with him and his family. I accepted both invitations gratefully.

Abbas picked me up at 6:30 in his rickshaw and took me to a residential district of Dhaka. After being in commercial districts exclusively, it was a pleasant relief to be in the areas where people actually lived. It reminded me of my street in China: lots of little shops lining the streets and a friendly community vibe.

We stopped. Abbas locked up his rickshaw and led me inside a dark concrete hallway. I could see that several doorways entered off of it and for a moment I thought this was all Abbas’s house. But I was wrong.

Abbas, his beautiful (and pregnant) wife and their two sons live in a concrete 12′ x 12′ room, most of which is taken up by a very large bed that I presume the whole family sleeps on. No table, one chair. There is a common kitchen and bathroom off the hallway that is shared by the other tenants.

I sat on the bed while some of the neighbor kids came in and played. Then Abbas’s wife brought in dinner–a bowl of rice, a bowl of chicken curry, and a plate of sliced cucumbers–and set it on the floor. The food was delicious: more proof that you don’t need a gourmet kitchen to make wonderful meals. Abbas and I and his youngest son ate on the bed while his wife and older son sat on the floor. We all ate everything with our fingers, per Bangla custom. I felt honored to be there. I wouldn’t have traded that meal for one at the nicest restaurant in town. It was, however, a sobering look into the lives of millions of people.

This is Abbas, his family, and a neighbor girl in their one-room apartment:

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I spent the next day with Abbas as he toured me through Old Dhaka. That was my last full day in the city, and I was sorry to leave. On the morning of my flight back to China, Abbas came to the hotel and brought me a present:

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This is Bangladeshi rickshaw art, hand-painted tin panels that fasten between the rear wheels. Abbas had seen me admiring them and had apparently gone to a rickshaw maker and gotten them for me. I was touched and offered to pay for them. He refused.

One other thing Abbas did for me was to put me in touch with another American he had spent time with in Dhaka, a writer for the Washington Post. One comment he made about our mutual friend stuck with me. He said if Abbas had been born in the United States, he would probably be an MBA now. I agree. But as it is, I am glad to have someone to look up when and if I return to Bangladesh.

Bangladesh: Biswa Itjema

So how does a secular humanist infidel wind up at the second largest (only the hajj is bigger) congregation of Muslims on the planet?

It’s simple: I was invited.

After spending the whole day with me at Painam Nagar, my rickshaw driver and guide, Abbas, apparently decided I was an allrightnik and invited me to accompany him on the following day.

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We left at 8:00 in the morning and joined the surging tide of humanity that was aimed at a spot north of Dhaka.

The faithful came by boat.

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They came by train.

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And they came on foot, walking along roads and freeways that had been closed to motor traffic to allow the millions to pass.

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Then at 10:00 the muezzin’s call went up and everything stopped as people knelt down wherever they were to pray. We were still far from the main pavilion where the services were being held–and we never did get there. Abbas blamed himself for not starting us out earlier.

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There was a makeshift tower built of bamboo and twine nearby, so I clambered up three stories to get a bird’s eye view and shoot photos.

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I had the platform almost to myself.

It took forever to get back to downtown Dhaka, since three million other people were headed in the same direction. Abbas and I traveled by foot, by tuk-tuk, by multiple bicycle rickshaws, and by one electric rickshaw.

Which, come to think of it, would be a good name for a sixties cover band: Electric Rickshaw.

Bangladesh: Painam Nagar, Part 2

The main street of Painam Nagar looks haunted.

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Empty decaying old buildings, spooky beckoning doorways–the whole street looked like a horror movie set.

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Later, when I found my way into one of the buildings, the few people who were around yelled to me to come out because the building was, in fact, haunted. Or maybe they were saying it was structurally unsound. I’m not quite adjusted to the Bengali accent yet.

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I really wanted to get inside these grand old mansions, but padlocks, chains, and boarded-up windows and doors discouraged me. Then I had an idea: ask the local children. Kids always know how to get into abandoned buildings.

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I consulted the appendix to the Lonely Planet, which consists of five pages of useful Bengali phrases. Amazingly, “Can you help me break into this building?” is not one of them. (I will have to alert the LP editors to this obvious oversight.) So using gestures and pantomime, I managed to convey to the gaggle of kids that always seems to condense around me here what I wanted. Ten taka helped seal the deal, and soon I was wandering around inside (and on top of) these magnificent ruins.

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My day in Painam Nagar was the highlight of my trip to Bangladesh.

(Back to Painam Nagar, Part 1)

Bangladesh: Painam Nagar, Part 1

According to the Lonely Planet guide to Bangladesh, Painam Nagar was

[c]onstructed almost entirely between 1895 and 1905 on a small segment of the ancient capital city [of Sonargaon]. . . . [I]t now consists of a single street, lined with around 50 (now dilapidated) mansions built by wealthy Hindu merchants. At the time of Partition, many owners fled to India, leaving their elegant homes in the care of poor tenants, who did nothing to maintain them. Most of the remaining owners pulled out during the anti-Hindu riots of 1964, which led to the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. Despite the rot, a few people continue to live in some of the houses . . . .

At 9:30 in the morning, I met up with Andreas (a German optronics consultant who was staying in my hotel), Abbas (a bicycle rickshaw driver, tour guide, money changer, fixer, factotum, friend, and all-around good guy) and a driver. We headed east out of Dhaka city through the usual nigh-impossible traffic and stopped less than an hour later at the brickyard. Then we continued on another half hour to Painam Nagar. I was here:

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Our first stop was a government- and corporate-sponsored restoration project involving two of the grandest mansions. In America, of course, the buildings would be closed, or at least heavily restricted during such work, lest some careless workman on a scaffold drop a brick on someone’s head. There don’t seem to be any such restrictions here. I wandered in and climbed up, down and around the buildings. As with everyplace I’ve been in Bangladesh, people stopped what they’re doing and came to talk to me. Pretty soon the restoration workers and the head architect came over to chat.

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After a walk around the grounds (which are now a national park), we headed a short distance away to see the mansions outside the park that were most definitely NOT being restored.

(On to Painam Nagar, Part 2)

Bangladesh: The Brickyard

It wasn’t my idea to stop at a brickyard outside of Dhaka, but I’m glad I saw what I saw. Which was this: whole families of mothers, fathers, young children, and teenagers living and working together in what in the U.S. would be considered a hazardous industrial environment. I’m still trying to sort out the conclusions that I should draw. In a place where the choices are hard, some things that seem indefensible by Western standards can seem a lot less pernicious.

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Bangladesh: Aboard the P.S. Mahsud

The P.S. Mahsud is old, stately, and steeped in British colonial charm. It’s plied the Ganges River delta since it was built in Calcutta, India in 1928. Two paddle wheels located amidships, one to port and one to starboard, have propelled it upriver and downriver for 86 years.

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Originally steam powered, it’s been diesel-driven since its refit in the 1990s.

My first class cabin is richly paneled in walnut and contained a small sink, a luggage rack, windows shaded by wooden louvers, and elegant fixtures.

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It opens onto a large common room with an epically long dining table dressed in white linen. The steward wears livery. And though the cabin is marred by an ass-ugly TV, the white linens are ketchup-stained, and the steward is just a little too demanding of baksheesh, those things only serve to remind me that this is not a museum or a replica or a restoration–this is a working, living piece of history.

“I’ve been to nineteen Asian countries,” said Alex, a young American financial journalist who’s lived in Shanghai for the last four years, “and Bangladesh is the most rugged place I’ve been.” He’s the only other American on the boat, according to the steward, and we have a lot in common: both small college grads (he went to Kenyon), both with Massachusetts roots, both living in China. We ate dinner together and chatted. Alex had just returned from a trip to the Sundarbans in the southeast part of the country, an area with large national parks where Bengal Tigers still roam.

After dinner, we stepped out onto the foredeck. Though there’s a mist rising off the river, the sky is clear. And out on the Ganges delta on a moonless night, away from cities and their light, the sky is breathtaking. I haven’t seen the Milky Way in several years, but there it was. The heavens were so bright and clear I could count the individual stars of the Pleiades without a scope. If I’d had a good sleeping bag, I would have gladly foregone the comforts of my first class cabin for the privilege of laying on the deck all night and looking at the sky.

Instead, I went back to my cabin and reflected on the day. I liked Alex’s choice of adjectives to describe Bangladesh: rugged. It fit my impressions so far. The country has little tourist infrastructure. There are few, if any, street signs, and few signs of any sort that are transliterated into the Roman alphabet. Even numbers are written in Bengali, which makes even figuring out how much money you have in your wallet difficult. Traffic is heavy, unruly and unregulated. Streets are pocked with holes and ruts and many are unpaved. It’s a tragically poor country and the going is hard.

I slept very well, waking only when we were within sight of Dhaka.

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When we docked, I went down to the engine room, where many of the people in “deck class” spent the night.

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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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