Thursday, July 29, 2010

Welcome to Dhaka

What a day. This is gonna be a long one, but hang in there, it gets interesting. I had a crazy afternoon… but let me start with morning. The manager of my new guesthouse came to pick me up, and we fought our way through Dhaka traffic to get back to the hotel. The new neighborhood is completely different. It’s much more residential and surrounded by embassies. And the hotel is much smaller - bare bones. It only has 15 guest rooms. Though, it is equipped with a fitness center that is “life changing” to say the least.

The room is also small, but it has a bed, a bathroom, and A/C, so perhaps it will suffice. On the plus(?) side, living here will force me to really get out of the hotel and get to know Dhaka. No room service or hotel dining here!

As this realization hit me within minutes of putting my bag down, I decided I may as well head out and find something to do with my afternoon. Since the hotel is walking distance to the US Embassy, I would start there, and go fill out a traveler registration form. I ended up walking past the embassy since it was somewhat inconspicuously marked (go figure), and I had been expecting to see Marine guards, but when I stopped to look at my map, a rickshaw driver pulled up and asked if he could take me. I told him I was just going to the embassy, which was somewhere on that block, but he insisted, and I thought why not, it can’t be more than a 10tk ride, and it’s a long block…. We pull up to the embassy and I go to pay him, but he says no – he’ll wait outside, and I can pay him later. Ok. I go inside, and when I come out, he’s right there waiting. I was planning on crossing the bridge to grab lunch/walk around Gulshan (which is the main dining/shopping district of Dhaka) so I supposed taking a rickshaw there would save me a little time, effort, and confused stares. I told him a place that was listed in Lonely Planet, and he knew right where it was. His English was pretty broken, but at least he seemed to be able to understand the names of places I needed to go.

We get to the restaurant and, again, he says he will wait outside. I feel kind of bad having him sit out there while I eat, especially since he is stick (or rather twig) thin. So, I invite him in to eat with me. This is my first meal at a “local” place with “local” prices. I figured it would be a kind gesture. He is, of course, surprised, but accepts the offer and finds a place to lock up his rickshaw. He helps with the ordering, and we each get a chicken platter and naan. I pull out my hand sanitizer, and give him a few sprays, as well. That may have been another first for him, even though most Bangladeshis eat with their hands (or at least one, but that’s another story). I tried to make conversation by asking him questions. The situation was a little awkward - more so because, as the place was crowded for lunchtime, we were sharing the table with a professional looking man, who would probably never otherwise be sitting at the same table as a rickshaw-walla. Clearly he thought I was a naïve westerner. Perhaps true. He did not look pleased.

Finally, the food came, and the other man left, so at least we could shift our attention to eating. As a sign of gratitude, the rickshaw-walla gave me half of his chicken. Yes, with his hand. And while I was now super-glad I had given him that hand sanitizer, I was thinking my immune system is not quite ready for that just yet. I left it on the side and tried to politely offer it back to him after I had eaten my own portion, motioning that I was already full, but he refused. I paid the bill, which was 300tk, or about $4.30. As we walked out a beggar came up and asked for some money. Standing there, with the driver, having just bought him lunch, I thought “Isn’t that enough?” But then felt guilty, especially with the driver standing there watching, so I gave him 10tk. Then another beggar came, having seen me just give money, and this one was a woman with a baby. My refusal didn’t work. I gave her 10tk. I thought, “If this is gonna be a trend I better get more small change.” So, I went back inside the restaurant and got more “10s”. Another woman was waiting when I came back out, but this time I got on the rickshaw and we left. I could tell the driver understood. He said, “If you give to one, they all will come.”

I wasn’t sure where to go from there - my plan had just been to walk around. He said he could take me to a shopping complex. On the way there a car passed with two women in back. He pointed and exclaimed, “Girls!” I laughed and said, “I’m from America, I’m used to seeing girls on the street.” Then he said, “Bangladeshi girls…very good at sex.” I wasn’t quite expecting that, but I feigned approval, so as not to create tension. He was certainly feeling familiar after that lunch. A moment later, he took a turn into a dead-end alley. “Uhoh,” I thought. He knocked on a closed gate. I started to worry this could become one of those tourist kidnap/mugging situations. The gate opened, and there is armed military guard on the other side. “What is this?” I asked him. “Girls!” he replies. OH, he is trying to take me to a Bangladeshi brothel – and a high-end one at that if it gets its own military guard - not to mention, the side of the building was marked “Embassy Security Area”. This must be where all the government officials go for…recreation. I politely tell him “No, thanks.” And he replies, “Ok, shopping first.” Don’t worry, mom. I will not be visiting any brothels here, or anywhere else.

We continued on and he brought me to a shopping complex that just looked like a dirty mall. I didn’t intend to buy anything, so instead of going in I just had the driver bring me around Gulshan and Banani. He seemed to know where all the ex-pat hangouts are. After touring around a while, he said I should buy a rickshaw and hire him fulltime. This seems to be a somewhat common practice from what I’ve read. I told him I would think about it. While it would be pretty convenient to have a personal driver, I’m not sure if Grameen Bank is too far for a rickshaw. I guess I’ll find out Sunday. He kept asking when he could pick me up next. I told him I have plans Friday and Saturday, but he is very persistent… so he is picking me up for dinner in an hour.


  1. LOL!!!!! That story was totally worth the read. I want updates on how your dinner with the rickshaw walla went.

  2. Wow! Glad I get to live vicariously through your adventures in Bangladesh as somehow I don't think I would get the same experiences there as a female! Keep the stories coming....

  3. He has picked me up for dinner the past two nights, but he did not actually eat with me those times. Though, I did buy him a cup of soup because he said he caught a cold from riding around in the rain all day.

  4. What a nice guy Chris. I'm sure he'll remember your company long after you've left :)