Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tour Guide Tours

I went on another guided tour today to take in more of the sites of Dhaka. Though, this time, the guide was much more interesting than the actual sites. He was a fiery, young college student who was eager to tell me everything about himself. For example: he is in his third year of an economics degree at the national university; his dream is to get an MBA after he graduates and then find a job abroad; his father is a farmer, his mother is a home-maker, his sister is married and pregnant; he is single, having broken up with his past girlfriend; he is 5’9” and 128 pounds, which is considered underweight (apparently even in Bangladesh). His English was decent, though I could not help but chuckle when in answer to my question about the role of the president in Bangladeshi government he replied, “All power are belongs to the Prime Minister” (the younger generation may get that). And I’m not 100% sure about his ability to fully understand English, since the first of many questions on American culture that he asked me was, “I heard from the news that Angelina Jolie, great American actress, is a spy for Russia. Is that true?” I told him I think that is just a role she is playing in a new movie, but he affirmed, “No, but this was from the BBC, I read it in the newspaper.” Another American news story he brought up that had literally made the front page of the Bangladeshi papers the past three days was Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Really?? Is it that important?? The rest of the headlines that day were about workers protesting the minimum wage hike by rampaging and burning cars, the rising price of commodities in the local food markets, the death of two government ministers in a car accident, the Awami Party’s efforts to repeal the 5th Amendment to their constitution, and Chelsea Clinton’s dream wedding.

Anyways, he was clearly curious about American culture, and asked a lot of questions, and I was curious about Bangladeshi culture, so I asked him all the same questions back. I saw this could also be my chance to clear up the confusion about the country’s political history – universities are the center of political activity here, so he would certainly be able to help. However, with a topic as culturally sensitive as the “Father of Our Nation” I was going to wait until the end of the tour, after I got to know him better.

Our first stop on the tour was Lalbagh Fort - a 17th Century Mughal Palace. It was built by Shaista Khan, but never completed. Construction stopped when his daughter died, as it was a sign of bad luck. The main building now holds her tomb.

As we walked around, Jony (the guide) would point out all the young couples walking around, and relate the Bangladeshi dating culture to me. Occasionally, when we passed next to a couple, he would translate their conversation for me. “She just asked him if he would be willing to kill himself for her love….” When the girl in one couple was “liberally” dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he said to me, “For your kind information, I think that girl has relationships with more than one boy…many boys.” I guess she dresses the part….

Next we went to the Pink Palace, a colonial center of government from the 18th Century. Then we visited the Sadarghat boat terminal, where we took a very tippy canoe trip across the river. I can report that the boat traffic is almost as reckless as the car traffic in Dhaka.

Then, after a short lunch, we drove out of the city to Sonargoan, the ancient eastern capital of Bengal from the 13th Century.
In the surrounding village, there were hundreds of years old, falling-down buildings that were still inhabited. In the face of such poverty, no roof goes unused.

As the day went on, my conversations with Jony became more serious. He told me his dream was to find a job abroad after his MBA, and once he was out of Bangladesh, never return. He talked about what he thought was wrong with the country and the government. He said they are narrow-minded, which hampered productive relationships with great powers such as the US and UK. I finally asked him about Sheikh Mujib and the successive political leaders, and he confirmed my thought that each party had rewritten history each time it came to power. I was very interested in learning more from Jony, and he was very interested in learning more from me – including working on his English. So, I told him we could meet again sometime to have more discussions. He was extremely thankful for the offer. I think he will be a good friend to have on my journey deeper into Bangladeshi culture.

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