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.
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: