Bangkok, Thailand – chaotic
Seoul, South Korea – Intense
Mexico City, Mexico – fervid
Kathmandu, Nepal – anarchic
Kolkata, India – helter-skelter
Dhaka, Bangladesh – ???
When Jason and I got on the plane to leave Dhaka, I was left without a single breath in my lungs, without a normally functioning internal compass, without coherent questions or answers and clearly, without words to describe what just happened. I literally couldn’t formulate a sequence of letters to construct a single word, much less a sentence, so we sat next to each other in almost complete silence as we raced across the sky toward Nepal. Never, and I mean never have I experienced anything like that in my travels, ever.
It’s now been about 18 months since the wheels went up on that flight and I still can’t come up with the right word or words. I’ve actually looked in my Lonely Planet books from time to time and while there is no single adjective in there that strikes me as spot-on accurate, there are some brief descriptions that do partial justice:
“It doesn’t matter how many times you experience this city, the sensation of being utterly overwhelmed is always the same” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh
“Dhaka is more than just a city, it is a giant whirlpool that sucks down anything and everyone foolish enough to come within it’s furious grasp” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh
“The fact that there are so few tourists in Bangladesh means that you won’t ever have to contend with crowds at hotspots or with booked-out accommodation, but it also means that the going can be rough” — Lonely Planet, Bangladesh
I’ve written and told friends about the chaos and maddening crush of people in places like Nepal and India and while that’s been very true and always some fun filled recollections, I’ve never been able to get my thoughts around Bangladesh to say much about my experiences there, or at least enough to feel like I could give it a fair and objective turn — until the last couple of weeks.
If you’ve read or listened to any news source at all, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the horrific building collapse in Dhaka where 1,000+ people have been confirmed killed and still hundreds missing. While this heartbreaking catastrophe happened half way around the world and I didn’t personally know a single person involved, I feel a sense of deep sadness for the city and country as a whole, as if it were my own. And to add to that sadness are the insensitive and hateful comments I hear and read related to the tragedy. I’ve read and heard people here say “they deserved it”, “if they’d educate themselves they wouldn’t have to work in those places” and most pathetically “if they weren’t Muslims it wouldn’t have happened”. I’ve even heard some of these things from people I am causally acquainted with. I find these comments personally hurtful.
I admit I was scared while in Bangladesh. I think I can say with all certainty that Jason felt the same. Just like the quotes from the Lonely Planet book, we found Dhaka to be rough, like a giant whirlpool and utterly overwhelming. Justified to be scared? Maybe, possibly, probably? Again, it’s like no place on earth I’ve ever been. The entire country of Bangladesh is roughly the size of Iowa. The estimated population of Bangladesh is 150+ million. That’s half the population of the United States living in a place about half the size of my home state of Colorado…think about that factoid for a few minutes. Those simple statistics put Bangladesh amongst the worlds most densely populated countries so yes, it was unnerving.
Add to that the fact that every question or inquiry we would ask was followed by a committee of 30+ people physically pushing in to discuss the situation. Before you get your answer though, there must be at least 5-15 minutes of animated and ferocious shouting in Bengali amongst the committee, sometime with finger pointing and gentle physically posturing for authority. This can make an already crowded and intense space get a little more claustrophobic. This type of thing happens whether asking for something complicated like a bottle of soda or just asking for a simple “point” to the nearest water closet. So intense.
With our time almost up in Dhaka, Jason and I were sitting at the airport, anxious to get on a plane and leave. Again, we were both emotionally and physically shelled to the core and desperately wanted (maybe “needed”) to escape that mayhem (so of course we were flying off to Kathmandu). Well, despite being close to leaving, the Dhaka airport is an extension of the country itself in that the chaos, deafening volume and complete confusion is the norm.
As we were sitting, this man sitting across from us seemed to be staring. Not in a menacing way, but as a Westerner it was a little uncomfortable given that our culture doesn’t generally do that. However, we were pretty used to it so didn’t take it as a personal affront or attack. After a few minutes the man very abruptly asked where we were from, where we’d been and where we were going. This too was very common and not out of the ordinary. Still, we were pretty much on edge and being approached by anyone was unsettling at that point.
Well, as it turns out the man’s name was Mr. Alim. He was from Dhaka, as was his family and many generations before him. He had children, all of which he had photos in his wallet and was thrilled to dote on them to us, proud beyond description (spectacularly beautiful kids by the way!). Throughout our conversations he asked about our families, our work, our home towns and what we thought about Dhaka. Tricky spot for sure with that last question. We wanted to be honest so we gently explained that we were a little overwhelmed and that we found it hard to be there. He smiled broadly and said that “HE” is overwhelmed by Dhaka! We finally managed our first smile and a small laugh since landing there in Dhaka.
For the next hour or two, we talked and talked and talked. He asked us why we were traveling to Nepal, about our choices of studying Buddhist philosophy and he in return gladly answered all our questions about his Muslim faith — and we had plenty. We had a basic understanding of Islam but this was a wonderful discussion and lesson that both helped explain things I already knew, clarify other things and shed light on things I had no idea about at all. It was a conversation I would be hesitant to have with anyone here in my own country given my eastern beliefs, but incredibly refreshing to be so open and honest with someone I barely knew halfway around the world.
After a while, Mr. Alim said he had to leave to board his flight. We were finally feeling our first hint of being relaxed when Mr. Alim blurted out something that took us aback. Keep in mind that all conversations seem very stern and calculated much of the time so it was oftentimes quite hard to sort out what was going on, especially when we were already on edge. This is how the conversation went down.
Mr. Alim (looking us directly in the eyes): ” I will never call you my friend”
<A very uncomfortable silence, maybe three seconds…then>
Mr. Alim: “I will only call you my brothers”
<Absolute frantic hugging and shaking of hands from Mr. Alim>
Mr. Alim: “I will always welcome you in my home”
Me and Jason: “And you ours”
And with that Mr. Alim walked away and boarded his flight. Jason and I then let out what is likely the longest exhale of our collective lives.
With only minutes remaining for us in Bangladesh, Mr. Alim changed the entire view of our experience. Yes, it was still the most insane, frantic, unnerving, hair-on-fire chaotic and scary place I’ve ever set foot, but I was also reaffirmed of my belief that people are basically caring, compassionate and loving wherever you go. Mr. Alim spoke for his city and his country and accepted us as his brothers, regardless of religious affiliation, nationality, race or colour. That is the world I will continue to believe is out there, the world I’ve experienced time and time and again, and the world I want to help continue to build.
To me, hatred, xenophobia, bigotry and every other form of exclusion or discrimination are the true weapons of mass destruction putting this world at risk. Anyone who has hurtful things to say about my Bengali family or the “families” I’ve acquired in all the places I’ve traveled, both here and abroad, are not my friends and have no place in my world. I truly believe in one love for all.
Thank you again Mr. Alim, you too are my brother.
Climb high, ski hard, pedal far, paddle long, live big