1/18/2009 to 1/20/2009 | Bangladesh

Jessore & Reflections on Bangladesh

“Obama!” with an enthusiastic smile said the bare-chested man in the lungi as he vigorously shook my hand.  Hardly the welcome I had expected upon declaring myself an American (one of a few Bengali phases I’d mastered) entering this small Muslim village outside of Jessore.  Certainly not the greeting I would have received prior to the recent American election, whose outcome had transformed overnight the stigma of traveling as an American, even in this remote corner of Bangladesh.

Finding myself in Jessore a town in western Bangladesh a day’s journey from Calcutta with little in the way of sights even by Bangladeshi standards, I had decided to spend my last full day in Bangladesh walking about the countryside.  Choosing a direction at random, I started walking until left the chaotic streets of Jessore reaching the serenity of rice patties and tile roofed villages.  With the few foreigners who visit Bangladesh, and the fewer who spend anymore than a night in Jessore traveling between Dhaka and Calcutta, the probability that anyone else had stumbled on to this village was pretty unlikely.  A plastic chair was quickly arranged for me and I was brought a coconut to quench my thirst and a type of sweet to accompany it.  I sat next to what apparently was the village headman the bare-chested man who had greeted me, who now donned a shirt for the occasion of a visit from the “foreign dignitary.”  Very little English was spoken though one of the women in the village seemed speak a fair bit of English she didn’t speak much only when requested to translate, perhaps not want wanting to embarrass the Headman with her superior English.  After an hour of unusual language limited conversation, a lot of staring, and a few pictures I continued my walk.  The landscape was lush and beautiful rice patties separated by stands of trees protecting the villages from the harsh tropical sun.  It was stereotypical Bangladesh, and a fitting way to conclude my stay in a country I had admittedly known very little about before I had decided to visit.

Synonymous with “disaster” to the outside world Bangladesh is much more than the nation that gets flooded every monsoon or flattened by repeated cyclones.  There are of course a large number of poor, but the country has a rising middle class.  It is a surprisingly environmentally aware country, in Dhaka most buses and auto rickshaws are run on cleaner burning natural gas, while bicycle rickshaws are still the primary form of short range transportation in most parts of the country.  Plastic bags, the plague of the third world, are being phased out throughout the country.  It is a strongly Islamic nation but thus far it seems, for the most part, to have resisted the fundamentalist brand of Islam that has been sweeping through many parts of the Muslim world.  The people are generally optimistic about their future and proud of the country.  Perhaps some of that optimism was due the success of the recent election, may of course be tempered with time.  The Bangladeshis are gracious hosts and nowhere else on my travels have I been in a place where so many people went so far out of there way to help me.  It is the least touristed country I’ve been to.  It has nothing in the way of sites specifically unique to Bangladesh.  Cox’s Bazaar aside, the longest uninterrupted sea beach in the world which is the National Pride of all Bangladeshis, and which to the astonishment of the locals I never made it to during my month stay in Bangladesh.  For many Bangladeshis Cox’ Bazaar is the only reason why anyone would want to come to Bangladesh. Right up there with “what is your name, country, and why did you come to Bangladesh?” in the most often asked questions is “Have you been to Cox’s Bazaar?” However at the risk of causing a riot in Bangladesh, it is by international standards a very ordinary beach, all be it a very long one.  There is nothing on its own in Bangladesh you can’t see something elsewhere in neighboring India or Burma which perhaps is perhaps why so few people bother to go.  Nevertheless Bangladesh is a distinctly unique country and a fascinating place and the Bangladesh experience can be had nowhere else than in Bangladesh.  I was often asked will I go back to Bangladesh, and I would, but probably not until they lower there visa fees for Americans, so not anytime soon.

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