The Blog is Back: First Impressions of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Generally south-facing panoramic shot across the Buriganga River

Taking a break and going back to school for the last two years has been such a wonderful opportunity! But then again, writing, reading, doing photography, simply because I want to, and not because I’ve got an assignment due…well, I’ve kind of missed that. So here’s our first installment from the latest phase. Adventure is calling!

Fate has landed us a half a world away–literally–from Berkeley, California. Jet-lagged, and cranky, two each well-traveled cats and dogs in tow, we landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh in late June. The adventure began soon after we hit the ground: luggage and pets were loaded aboard two SUVs at the airport and we started the 45-minute trek through heavy traffic to our new home. Within minutes of exiting the airport parking lot, the vehicle we were in throws a fan belt and pulls over to the side. Fifteen minutes later, there’s a bang and a cloud of steam as a radiator hose blows. We grab the cat carrier holding one of our cats and take a seat on a cement block on the side of the road to wait for a replacement vehicle…as the rest of our merry crew continues on its way.

But this ain’t our first rodeo. Everything turned out just fine, and while the traffic, noise and chaos of a city of 21 million can be overwhelming at times, our reception here has been nothing but positive. The food is great, the people are inquisitive about who we are and eager to engage in conversation, and the smiles are universal. We’ve generally been able to find the products we are used to, and the occasional substitutions we’ve had to make (kitty litter, for example) have worked out surprisingly well.

Once caught up a little on sleep, we were eager to head out into the streets to explore. We already had a virtual handshake on buying someone’s car, and though it’s not available for transfer until August, she was out of town the first two weeks of July and encouraged us to use it until her return. We hired a driver (trust me, wise decision) and pointed him toward our first destination: Old Dhaka.

It’s early morning and we’ve packed our cameras and some bottled water. We reach the south part of the city in about 40 minutes. Old Dhaka is full of museums, forts and palaces; our driver drops us in front of one of the most iconic: the Ahsan Manzil Museum, the former palace of the Dhaka Nawabs–dating from 1800 and painted entirely pink! We learn the museum won’t open for another 2.5 hours, and entry fees are paid beforehand online. So instead, we head for a walk along the Buriganga River, to get a feel of the place.

Unloading bananas for sale

It’s only 8 am, but the river and the road lining it are already bustling with activity. It’s warm and humid. Huge riverboats waiting to ferry passengers to the southern reaches of Bangladesh are parked along the piers; and hundreds of tiny wooden boats dot the river, ferrying as many as six or seven passengers at a time across the river, or loaded with goods – mostly fruits and vegetables – that will be loaded aboard trucks or carried to the shops and stalls lining the river. As we walk, we are constantly asked, “country name?” by smiling shopkeepers. Initially, I worry about their response, but the responses to “America” seem to be universally positive. One merchant insists we try one of the small fruits he is selling – in bunches, like grapes, but slightly larger and yellow, with a smooth rind. He peels back the rind and encourages us to take one of the four sections inside. It tastes a bit like apple, and we learn it’s a “lotkon,” also known as the Burmese grape. We smile and continue on our way.

The far (south) side of the Buriganga. pc: Anne Daugherty

We eventually reach a part of the river where the huge passenger ferries have given way to a small inlet where flat-bottomed, wide wooden ferries are bunched up waiting for passengers. Several boat operators encourage us to take a ride on their boats, but we’re unsure about price, duration–or whether we’ll end up across the river. Eventually someone speaks to us in English and tells us for 300 takas – about $3 – he will take us out on the water for about 45 minutes and then bring us back. Cautiously, we agree and he leads us to his boat.

Arrivals and departures on Buriganga River ferries. pc: Anne Daugherty

We set off and it feels a bit chaotic as we head out onto the open river, surrounded by other small boats criss-crossing, but also much larger ones moving much more quickly and in all directions, through the mass of bobbing ferries. They blow loud horns to warn other boat operators, but nobody else seems very concerned, so we try to settle in and enjoy the ride.

Boat passengers peer out at the odd Western couple on the boat. pc: Anne Daugherty

A constant metallic tapping fills the air, and we are told we that across the river is a shipyard. Men suspended on platforms along the hull of an old river trawler are using hammers to chip away the paint bubbles that have formed over growing pockets of rust.

Shipyard workers expose rust so it can be removed. pc: Anne Daugherty

As we head back to shore, our boat operator offers us a deal to double our time on the water. But it’s starting to heat up, and we’re starting to sweat as we have been sitting in the open sun on the river He laughs as we decline and I point to the sweat soaking through my shirt.

As we climb back onto solid ground, activity along the narrow road has stepped up quite a bit. We decide to make our way back to the car, but we’re competing for space with an endless stream of bicycle rickshaws, small trucks, shoppers, and men carrying goods on their heads. But we push on.

It’s only 10:30 am but I’m ready to head back home – enough adventure for our first outing! As our driver picks his way through traffic, we quietly look out the window at all the activity in one of the world’s fastest growing megacities.

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One Response to The Blog is Back: First Impressions of Dhaka, Bangladesh

  1. Lynn Daniels-Anderson says:

    Glad to see the blog back up. I’m looking forward to hearing just everything about Bangladesh. The photos are stunning!

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