Dhaka, Bangladesh

First paragraph is taken from a previous FaceBook post:

Part I: Traveling to Bangladesh was an overwhelmingly eye opening and sense rattling experience that I will never forget. More than any other country I have ever visited, I will forever remember the sights, sounds and smells of the capital city, Dhaka. Being the 8th most populous country in the world, and one of the highest population densities, the destitute, poverty, and filth that piled up in main streets, behind central buildings and country roads, was troubling and incredible all the same. Lacking common societal attributes that we are used to here at home, including street signals, paved roads, flushing toilets, air conditioning, and even clean water meant shock and awe throughout our short time there. But in stark contrast to the unsanitary and polluted environment the people were warm, kind, thoughtful and helpful. We felt equally safe and comforted within the community of people we met and traveled amongst. To communicate our immediate impressions accurately you could say Dhaka as a city was hell on earth but the people, the culture the community itself was the polar opposite.

Starting with the airport, where I slept prior to my excursion into the city the following morning, I was reduced to prisoner status in a room only slightly larger than the lunchroom in a small jail.  It was one of those rooms that had antiquated fluorescent lighting bouncing off the linoleum tiled floor, mismatched benches of varying colors (mostly orange) and old box televisions that hung over head and ran the state political news. In Arabic. Very loudly.  On a loop. In the rear of the terminal was a make-shift mosque, where ongoing prayer services took place. Next to the prayer room, the bathrooms. There was no air conditioning, and in a country that reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit by 10:00am, it wasn’t much less in the jail cell of a terminal.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving the airport, as in walking out the doors separating baggage claim from the country was not much different than doing the same at most US airports, except for the total lack of organization and reason.  Cars and people streamed in and out in different directions. Farm animals were as common as passengers and foot travelers.  Horns sounded. The ground which was paved, one of the few paved roads I came across, was dusty, strewn with papers and neither marked nor controlled.  We excitedly looked for a taxi – being wary of any car posing as a cab that was not white. In our pre-travels reconnaissance we learned that only white taxis were deemed to be safe.  Yellow was okay. Okay meant 50/50 if it was a legitimate cab or a potential criminal endeavor.  And black was bad.  We found a cab, but as we soon discovered, recognizing vehicles, (and forget make, or model) but just color was difficult in of itself.  But what we found inside the cab was the city’s real treasure.

 

Dhaka, a very third world country and potentially fourth world, is one of the most populous in the world.  And dense. Density with regards to population is that notion of taking as many humans as possible and confining them to as small a space as you can find.  Next time you travel in an elevator, try and get in one with at least 20 people (let’s say 19 men and 1 woman in full burka) then blast a heater from overhead, place a bag of tuna fish in the corner and start throwing dust and papers wildly.  That essentially sums up Dhaka, not including the traffic jams, dirt roads, animal carcasses and more traffic jams.

And speaking of traffic jams, well, unless you’ve been in one of those demolition derbies, you can’t appreciate what Dhaka traffic jam really means.  I think this pic sums it up well however.

 

 

 

 

 

But for all of Dhaka’s drawbacks and shortcomings and third worldisms, my experience with the people was just the opposite.  That treasure I mentioned above, that we found in the cab, that was our cab driver. I couldn’t tell you his name.  But I spent  the majority of the day with him.  He didn’t speak one word of English, understandably. So I prepared for my time in Dhaka and with him by default by learning three words of Bengali (“faster”, “please”, “thank you”).  With that our connection and communication was reduced to charades, facial articulations and shouts of expression. It was purposeful and pragmatic and eerily efficient.  In fact, when our time together ended, and after I paid my cab fare and a tip, my new friend did an air-pen-signature gesture. I knew exactly what he meant. So I opened my traveling notepad, ripped out a piece of paper, and wrote down my name, email and mobile phone number.  He did the same. We smiled at one another, hugged it out, waved goodbye and went our separate ways forever.  A hug? Yes, a hug. A man hug. Because anywhere in the world, a hug is a hug. And sometimes moments are more complete with a hug than a handshake or a wave goodbye.  And just like that, my connection with the city and her people was solidified.

It was also in those moments after our goodbye that clarity struck for me. That you can be driving in a car missing key components like rear view mirrors and air conditioning, along a dirt road fraught with pot holes and sewage, lined with garbage and waste and animal carcases, in a country where the average annual income is less than what we might make in a day here at home, and none of that matters. That the only thing that matters is our connections, to ourselves and our communities. That what we might view as poverty and despicable living conditions is nothing more than a backdrop to the movie scene of our or someone else’s life. That such day to day luxuries are just that luxuries. Superfluous. That what makes us is our connections. And that hard work or working hard is just a little bit different here than other parts of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Am I a “better” person for having visited Dhaka? No, probably not. But I am wiser. I am more appreciative. I am more reflective of all things ‘life’. But more than all of that, I am reminded that basic foundational things like happiness and comfort does not derive from anything tangible. Happiness can be found anywhere. In any condition. And that hugs go a long way.

My apologies for segueing from an article about a travel experience to a brief soap boxing on life and lessons. But when I say experiencing Dhaka was all of those things, I mean it.  Very powerful stuff. In the early moments of my time in the city I wanted nothing more than to be looking at Dhaka from the business class section of a jet flying overhead – in hindsight, my experience would have been incomplete and empty without it.  I realize that now and I appreciate that.

One does not need to go to Dhaka to get the life-check that it gave me. I hope just reading this gives you a moment of reflection on our fortunate and privileged lives. That stripping away all that we rely on and have come to hold as creature comforts and ‘necessities’ are empty without those to share them with.

 

Finally, as part of my experience, I wanted to give something back.  If you’re inclined as well, and enjoyed reading this article and seeing recent coverage of this country, then Global Living is an umbrella of charities that benefit Bangladesh. If one stands out, please make a donation:

http://www.globalgiving.org/dy/v2/content/search.html?q=*&fq=country:Bangladesh

Bangil, Indonesia

When I first saw Bangil, it was from the inside of a slow moving train traveling from Surabaya.  I did not know what to expect and merely assumed it would be a similar landscape, similar environment, similar community to Surabaya. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bangil

Surabaya, Indonesia

Ahhhhh, Surabaya, Indonesia and its wonderful landscape and people.  And heat. And humidity.  So many of the things I’ve heard about Indonesia have revolved around surf trips my friends have embarked on.  Those trips are for the hard core, sleeping on boats out at sea and spending the days paddling for ocean breaking waves.  No land stops except for transportation to and from the airport.  But for me, I only saw water from the plane en route to Jakarta. The landscape from the sky seemed typical of any tropical island – and if you’ve ever traveled to Belize (which I know is unlikely) or any central American coastal country then you already have a clear understanding.  Essentially you can watch an episode of Survivor – any season – and you’ll get the idea.  Or GoogleMaps (Satellite view – then zoom) – it’s all the same.

The first landmark we came across was the Suramadu Bridge – which seemed to span for tens and tens of miles.  In actuality Wikipedia tells me its 5.4km or 3.3m.  Wikipedia wins again.  What was more impressive than the time and distance we traveled was the way the bridge lit up at night in purple, green, red and yellow lights.  It was sort of like that first time you take a Virgin America flight and wonder if you are going to a dance club or an airplane.  Who has the glow sticks? I digress.  The bridge had that trippy, club-by effect is all I’m trying to say.  What I’m saying is that it was really cool, for a bridge.  And I grew up next to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suramadu wins because of the night-lights factor.

En route to the Alun Alun (pronounced A-loon A-loon) and after our hyper-technological bridge experience we passed through multiple villages/towns and saw for the first time the inner economies and communities, away from the capital and away from the main tourist attractions.  This was “real” Indonesia to me. This was the allure of the Race (among others) – immersing myself in cultures off the radar.  Discovering those places that I otherwise would not know, would not travel to or otherwise miss.  “Real” was seeing families of four or five people on one scooter, at night, traveling at high speeds.  Repeatedly.  In fact, more common than not was the entire family on one bike – all seated and facing different directions and often the youngest person (like a baby or toddler) on the handlebars.  We were shocked.  And it all seemed so normal, because, well, it was.  As we would Race through these villages by Taksi at night, we would take in the sites and sounds.  What I recall vividly is the fluorescent lights coming out of each shop, with papers strewn miscellaneously in the street, banners hanging from above store fronts stretched out from shop to shop, and posters of local celebrities and politicos plastering billboards and hanging from street signs.  The drive from the airport in Surabaya to the Alun Alun may have only taken an hour, but the photographic clicks in my mind of each sight, and sound and smell seemed to put that trip into a slow motion time capsule. It was a wonderful disconnect during the Race.

 

When we arrived at the Alun Alun it was dark. And hot. And humid. It was a park that was split between large fenced in fields, and an open market. A market that even functioned, loosely, so late at night.  And like those moments where I witnessed entire families traveling on one scooter, another Real experience checked me.  It was hearing the music from the local mosques. Arabic, deep hymns.  It had a profound effect on my senses. It was my first time in any Muslim country.  It was eerie in the sense that Ozawa conducts Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique 5th Movement is eerie in the film “Sleeping With the Enemy.”  Maybe it’s that I am a Jew and the thousands of years of Jewish vs Muslim strife and the knowledge that goes along with that conflict, but I felt very uncomfortable in those moments and in truth very unsafe when the prayers were being chanted and broadcasted. And it didn’t just last for a few minutes. It carried on for what seemed like hours. And the sound emanated from loud speakers that distorted the prayers and gave the rhythmic Arabic sounds an even more ominous tune.  What made the entire sequence all the more vivid was the fact that the sound carried effortlessly in the Bangkalan village and that multiple mosques chanted prayers simultaneously.   It was a full bore assault that led my mind to wander about safety and religion and all of those things that you never have to worry about or so much think about living in sunny southern California.  But it was a very Real moment and one that caused deep reflection and discussion.  This was an element to the Race I never examined or prepared for.  Having to sort through emotions caused by a religious practice that takes place in every corner of the world, yet was brand new to me. I felt alone and vulnerable. I didn’t share that with Abbie, the producers, the other racers, or even security. I signed up for this experience and I resigned myself to the outcomes, both on the Race and the surrounding circumstances.

The next day was a splash of refreshment complete with new colors and sounds, vivid smells and smiling faces of kids and locals.  The bull races in the Alun Alun were fast paced and totally foreign. I had studied one semester of law school in Spain, living outside of Madrid and part of my time there included attending multiple bull fights.  I even ran with the bulls in Pamplona and so my ‘bull’ experience I thought was complete.  Prior to racing the bulls in the Alun Alun, we were certain we would have to be perform the jockeying of the bulls during the racing.  It seemed dangerous and precarious, but I chalked that up to being on the Race.  When it was revealed we were riding shotgun on a moped I was a little disappointed.  I thought a task like racing bulls would certainly separate teams either because some wouldn’t have the wherewithal to actually attempt it, or by default someone would be horrifically injured.  In either case, I liked our chances.  Really, that’s what the Race is about, chances and odds.  So I thought our odds were good that we would a) compete and b) complete. In the end, it was just an active route marker and another picture for the memory bank.

Making our way to the balloons roadblock was a more colorful and well-lit experience in contrast to the night before.  Those same families that traveled in four and five-somes on their mopeds the night before continued just the same during the day – only there was more traffic.  The fields we drove past were open and green and lush with island scents.  Palm trees blew in the breeze and as we raced from the Alun Alun in our Taksi the stagnant, heavy, humid air evolved into a broken air conditioner unit of light breezes when we raced at speeds of 65-85mph.  We wanted to roll all the windows down because of the heat, but as we soon found out, there was a very fine line between sound quality (we need closed windows) and camera lens condensation (we need open windows).  It was an ongoing battle and cameras always win over Racers comfort. Always.

When we arrived at the small park with the kids and balloons and odong-odong we got to see and experience for the first time the vast wealth of kindness and interest the locals displayed in us and our activities.  Sure blowing up balloon animals was fun for the kids, at least most of them, but the parents were equally excited.  Some chanted names of some of the Racers while others clapped and shouted words of encouragement to the teams.  The sounds of the kids laughing and mostly the look of bewilderment in their eyes as all this activity was taking place at such a fervent speed was equally charming.  I had a chance to take it all in and unfortunately Abbie was so focused she didn’t get to enjoy most of it.   That’s another wonderful aspect to running the Race, the ability to watch it all back on video.  Seeing yourself do or say things you don’t recall. Seeing other people do or say things you never knew about.  Think about your most fond travel experience. Is it documented? Probably with photos I imagine. But what if those photos could talk? What if those photos could share stories for hours at a time.  That’s what watching the Race back each Sunday night has meant to us.

Leaving the odong-odong balloons we made our way to Wijaya motors.  There we were handed our next clue – Ice or Fish.  Ice, duh. It wasn’t even a discussion.  Allow me a moment to send out some love. I would just like to take the time now to thank our taxi driver. If you’re reading this or you follow me on twitter (@ryandanz), thank you for not getting lost. Thank you for finding the right Wijaya motors, and conversely the ice factory. All on the first attempt.  Much love. *No, I dont’ really believe the taksi driver is either reading my blog or following me on twitter. But what if I told you there’s a kid in Surabaya that’s following me on Facebook, that says he has pictures of Abbie and me getting into the cab after the balloons and that the taksi driver that day is his uncle?  That’s some real Kevin Bacon-6 degrees of separation type of crazy that can only happen with the perfect storm of social media and television. So yes, there’s a weird chance that guy reads this.  Just sayin’.

The ice factory was my first time at such a place. I don’t typically like to speak for others, but I am guessing here (objection calls for speculation; overruled) that it was everyone’s first time. And probably my last. And theirs too.  The locals were friendly enough, the instructions were clear enough. Gather 10 blocks of ice, carry it to the truck. Take the truck to market.  Load a 20lb bicycle with a box on the front with 650lbs of ice and deliver it to the appropriate person/location.  Obviously there shouldn’t be an issue with any of that (sarcasm).  Only since I barely got a passing grade in Physics senior year I clearly didn’t understand the concept of weight, balance and tipping points.  Plus the curb/ramp up into the market was hidden by dirty, sewage fish waster.  So needless to say the second we pushed the cart over the curb/ramp, the front tire didn’t go anywhere, the back tire went up end over end and 650lbs of ice crashed into the dirty, sewage fish water. And nearly de-footed Abbie who tried her darnedest to keep the ice in the cart. And even though I called her “Katniss” on the Race, even she couldn’t stop nearly half a ton from smashing into the dirty, sewage fish water.  We froze. We looked at each other. $2,000,000 flashed through my mind.  All I could think about was figuring out how long it would take to go back to the ice factory, and start over.  Luckily we were able to complete the task on the spot, and move on to the pit stop.

I’ve mentioned before about ‘those’ moments on the Race when reality hits and the Race exits.  The run from the ice delivery to the pit stop was another one of those moments.  Abbie took the lead on that portion of the leg and guided us exactly to the finish line.  The route we found ourselves running was from one end of the spice market to the other.  I remember not being able to see outside the other end of the market (the 200 or so yards the market seemed to stretch) and therefore giving up on trying to help Abbie locate Phil.  Instead I remember looking at the burlap sacks on the ground filled with beans, and spices. Overflowing into the narrow aisle ways. I remember the bright colors of the market, overhanging bougainvillea flooding the screen roof. Was it really bougainvillea? I’m not sure, but that proud purple color permeated from every direction.  And the smells of the spices flooded across the aisle ways.  I even recall Abbie blurting out “Ry, this is amazing, this place is incredible” as she jumped over those burlap sacks and dodged in and out of women and children who were cheering for us.  I wanted so desperately to reach the pit stop immediately, uncertain of where we stood after our ice accident, but in those moments racing through the spice market I remember saying to myself “I am so lucky” and cherishing those sights and smells and sounds.  The cheering was deafening as we got closer to the exit.  Those people of Indonesia at the market that did, some who didn’t even have shoes on their feet, and many missing many of their teeth, gave ME a gift, one I will always cherish.  A memory of a lifetime.  A moment in time that I will remember forever.

I was certain we arrived at the mat in at least 6th place, if not worse.  The balloons were difficult for Abbie and after arriving 3rd or 4th, and leaving 6th or later, on top of the ice debacle, I was certain we were at the back of the pack.  But hearing Phil say “How does 4th sound?” was an exhilarating and comforting moment.   It was then that I realized that in our worse moment, our first what we perceived to be “failure” we a) didn’t give up b) we didn’t break down and c) most importantly we empowered each other to adapt.  You see, Abbie and I don’t have years of shared experiences. Our intimate relationship goes back only a year and a half.  We didn’t have a lifetime of experiences together like twin sisters Nadiya/Natalie, or even Daniel and Amy who had been dating for over 10 years. We had nothing in our past to guide our future experiences.  We tried preparing for the Race in ways you would or could never imagine, but nothing will replicate the concept and pressure of $2,000,000 on the line – along with the fact that millions of people, including your friends, family, and business partners and vendors are all watching you perform.  But those pressures paled in comparison to the internal pressure I placed on myself (and by default Abbie) to be great.  I was outspoken and dedicated in my desire to not only win the Race but to beat the record that Rachel & Dave had set the previous season (AR20). I was almost so obsessed with wanting to be the Greatest Team that Ever Raced that potentially being eliminated second sent nausea through my body that day in Surabaya.  When you’re as big a fan of the Race as I am, you actually think about these moments as you prepare — the moments when you are sure to misread a clue, sure to lose a piece of your costume, sure to be a moment you physically cannot complete a task.  But nothing would prepare me for being eliminated that day in Surabaya, especially if I caused our demise due to a mental mistake of pushing a busted old bike into a chuckhole and having the ice shatter everywhere.

This is most definitely a television show and to the millions of people that watch each Sunday, it’s a wonderful way to see parts of the world that are otherwise hidden treasures.  But when you’re Racing (speaking for myself), and you’re a fan of show, it’s history of locations and tasks, and the Racers that came before you and you have the intricate knowledge of who’s done what where, in which season, it becomes part of your Being during that time 0n the Race.

I know only former (and current Racers) will be able to understand what these moments mean, but I hope this entry at least passes along some semblance of what they meant to me. I was encapsulated in the moment with the bigger picture. I knew our bike flipping and ice crashing was a ‘made for tv moment’ as it unfolded, but I also knew our success depended on how we responded.  It was a trippy experience to be watching the show in real time in my mind that day.  But I loved it.

I love The Amazing Race. I love that I had the opportunity to experience one of the most incredible concepts I have ever known.  I am truly a lucky person. And I cannot wait to continue to share this journey with all of you.