Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dhaka, I think, is a mix between Cairo and Mumbai. It's hot, very poor, quite friendly, heavily congested, and like Cairo, I am spending what seems an enormous amount of time in a place most people stay 2 days.

I wandered through the streets of Old Dhaka yesterday, which is absolutely maze-like in its layout. If it werent for the river, locating yourself within it would be next to impossible. Similar to downtown Cairo (but tighter), the streets provide the setting for daily life, where anything and everything take place. Old Dhaka is far from charming, though the cacophony of bells from the rickshaws zooming past you create a somewhat surreal experience, at moments combining into a pleasant racket, especially compared to the consistent car horns you hear on the wider avenues.

Sales of bondo must be outrageous in Dhaka, as every bus and most cars bear the telltale signs of encounters with other automobiles, only to be poorly patched with copious amounts of putty. Dhaka also sports a fine aftermarket bumper industry, with every vehicle, from the lowly econobox to autorickshaws being retrofitted with extra bumpers and grills to protect them from the daily road brawls. I think bumper cars would be a more appropriate way to get around, honestly.

Wandering around yesterday, I met a young Bangladeshi man who apparently delivers cigarettes around the city. He spoke some English and wanted me to follow him around so I kindly obliged. From Old Dhaka, we crossed the river and proceeded through several slums, shipyards where boats were being dismantled and repaired, brickyards where bricks were being broken down by hand into pebble-size aggregate, through football fields and many a cricket match, back across the river on another soaring overpass, and finally to another slum where he and his family lived. Here I met his mother, sister and little brother, and before long, all of the surrounding neighbors, as word got out and soon everyone was clamoring for a view of my bewildered face.

After 20 or so minutes of pleasant staring, my guide decided to help me back to my hotel. But, only after we visited several more of his friends in the neighborhood, whom decided to come along with us. I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable at that point, as I was being led around by 3 young Bangladeshi men, through areas of the city I had no knowledge of. When it was just myself and my "guide", I was less worried as I comically kept repeating to myself that I could take him (mostly because I was so much taller). While still the tallest, I was now outnumbered, so I was feeling a bit more wary.

I started to feel pretty guilty about my original assumptions after spending some time wandering around with them (as they also didnt know where my hotel was) because they seemed only interested in helping me get back, refusing to let me pay for the rickshaw and trying to buy me drinks and snacks along the way. When we finally reached my hotel, they refused to let me pay for their rickshaw back and didnt seem to expect anything from me, further compounding my guilt. I imagine not many would-be muggers introduce you to their whole family (and neighborhood) before appropriating your valuables, but you never know. I am left to assume that my company was the only payment sought.

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