A long time ago it seems now, in a normal world in which the threat of the ongoing pandemic was largely unknown, I had the extraordinary delight of discovering Bangladesh.
To date, it has been my ONLY discovery for all of 2020 (for obvious reasons, of course), but what a fitting discovery it was. It was work that led me to Bangladesh, but it was curiosity that caused me to stay: what would I learn in this South Asian country that seems to live perpetually in the shadow of her larger cousin, India? What would I find to detain me in a land written off by most as racked by poverty and pollution and unworthy of a second glance?
In insisting on an extended stay in Bangladesh, I was guided by a single motivating factor: my interactions with Bangladeshis in the Diaspora. Everywhere I have encountered them…in New York, in London; in Rome…they have been warm, welcoming, and decent. Here are my impressions of these mild-mannered people in their own homeland.
I’ll start off by pleading for forgiveness for repeated comparisons to India. But, for the outsider, the easiest way to frame perspective is against that which is already known. For me, then, I found the people in Bangladesh (as compared to those I met in India which I had visited before arriving in Bangladesh) to be extraordinarily homogenous. In nearly every regard…religion, cultural dress, skin tone, and facial expressions…the people of Bangladesh seemed to hail from a single, giant family in a way that is difficult to describe.
Unlike in India where immediate differences amongst the locals immediately suggested themselves to me, where heterogeneity was more the order of the day, the demographic landscape of Bangladesh seemed blurred into a harmonious mass of inseparable oneness.
This should not read like criticism for indeed, it is not. For me, it was a part of the charm. The ‘sameness’ of everyone everywhere I went provided the constant reminder that in spite of the outward similarities to India, Bangladesh is a land apart.
Another part of this charm (which I occasionally found overwhelming) was the supreme deference the locals bestowed on foreigners that, at times, crossed the line into outright reverence. It was enough that I stood out as an obvious foreigner (not hard to imagine…I, a black man, in this uniquely homogenous nation of brown folk) and was, therefore, the object of numerous stares and hollers, but it often went far beyond this.
I’ll never forget walking home one night only to come across a street cordon where pedestrians where being turned away by uniformed policemen. I had made to turn away as well and find an alternate route to my lodgings when a policeman stepped forward and gently walked me through the cordon.
“Sorry, is everything okay?” I had asked in some bemusement.
“Yes, there is no problem. We just want to make the passage for you. You can pass this way.”
“But why do you let me pass when you have turned everyone else away?” I asked.
“Because you are a guest here in Bangladesh. You are our guest. You are welcome,” and that rationale was enough, it seemed. I felt awkward at being placed above the locals, but I was grateful for this unique insight into the Bangladeshi psyche as regards its traditions towards outsiders. Such an occurrence was the norm here so much so that a particularly ebullient display of this ‘militant hospitality’ ironically ended up in near tragedy. I shall tell that story another time.
There is no dish in South Asia greater than Beef Bhuna served lovingly with a pairing of long-grained Basmati rice. Indian cuisine might be all the rage in London and globally accepted as the culinary signature of South Asia, but you cannot claim to have properly eaten your way through this region without sampling the subtle distinction of Bangladeshi cooking.
Its curries came packed with flavour and texture, but consistently manage to deliver without the fussiness of its Indian peers. My basis for comparison is admittedly small, but what I did experience left me with an undying appreciation for Bangladeshi cuisine. If you know any excellent Bangladeshi restaurants in your city where I can sample some authentic Beef Bhuna, I’d love a recommendation!
I should stress that with few exceptions, my time in Bangladesh was restricted to the capital city of Dhaka, a noisy, chaotic, congested metropolis with few worthy sights to detain the casual tourist. A superficial glance would reveal to be true the worst stereotypes about South Asia in general and Bangladesh in particular: a jungle of poverty, chaos, and pollution with not much charm to compensate.
Yet, for the discerning tourist, there is an energy here that transcends the obvious inconveniences and even goes so far as to reveal the trail-blazing ways in which Dhaka is making strides to improve its lot.
For the first time in my life, I encountered an entire city shifting its auto traffic to natural gas fuel in lieu of plain old petrol or diesel. It is more conventional in Dhaka to pull up to a fuel station and open your car bonnet to have your natural gas replenished than it is to yank open the compartment in the rear to have your petrol topped off. I was intrigued when I saw this on my first day and keenly documented the experience (pictured).
Keen to solve the issue of gridlock, Dhaka has made its tuk-tuk so mainstream as to have it metered and allow it access to its international airport as a valid option for passenger pick-up and drop-off. Even Bangkok doesn’t come this close.
Then there is the rickshaw…the cycle-pulled carriage, invariably operated by men dressed in the same sort of traditional wrap-around I saw on men in neighbouring Myanmar. Slow, but cheap, it offers yet another ‘green’ way for getting around this hectic city.
There are vibrant options for nightlife in the upmarket districts of Gulshan and the ‘downmarket’ areas on the fringes of Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka) alike and the university district in Central Dhaka lends a youthful and infectious vibe to it all. It requires a bold soul to step out and explore Dhaka as the noise and bustle and chaos does indeed overwhelm, but your rewards quickly become obvious the moment you begin to interact with the people.
For much of my time in Bangladesh, I remained in awe at the contradictions.
On the one hand was the reality of my interactions with the people here. These were overwhelmingly positive and some of the warmest I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. On the other hand were the cliché impressions one finds in Western media which has somewhat successfully pigeon-holed Bangladesh as oscillating between pitiful privations and breeding grounds for budding terrorists. The 2016 terror attacks in the upmarket Gulshan district of Dhaka certainly did no favours for the country’s reputation. Neither has the budding rise of Islamist sentiment whose role in contemporary society is often exaggerated in media coverage of the country.
It is easy for me the passing visitor to decry how unfair these characterizations are, but the fact remains that I was wholly unable to reconcile these massive contradictions during my time there. Bangladesh offers far more than it has ever been given a chance.
I do not expect to see Bangladesh become a travel hub within South Asia any time soon. It does not possess the requisite infrastructure; neither does it offer the obvious icons by which its cousins…India and Sri Lanka and Nepal…draw in tourists by the millions. What Bangladesh has is the underrated quality of human kindness and unquestioning hospitality that when once you have experienced them leave an indelible imprint that begs you to return. You can also get the experience with the Discover Bangladesh tour package.