11/23/2008 to 12/28/2008 | Bangladesh

To Dhaka

As I scanned my surroundings I thought of slogan on the poster in lobby of the Bangladesh Embassy in Delhi, “Visit Bangladesh before the tourist come.”  They hadn’t come yet, at least not to Tamabil, the small border outpost in northern Bangladesh that seemed to have twice as many coal trucks as buildings and not another tourist in sight, probably not for a 100 km in any direction.  What I needed first was some taka, the Bangladeshi currency.  With no official place to change money I went into a couple of the shacks that sold the usual array of biscuits, cigarettes, and other odds and ends, asking a rate to change some Indian rupees.  I changed enough to get me through a day or so with the guy who gave me the best rate.  As I sat in another street-side shack eating a few samosas and a tea I met a coal truck driver who spoke the best English of anyone in the area which meant he knew more than just numbers and a few stock phrases.  I’m always a bit cautious with people I meet in border towns as they are often the hangouts of conmen waiting to take advantage of naïve new arrivals.  I lowered my guard a bit on this occasion, considering that a conman working this border was much less likely considering the few potential “victims” who would pass through.  The truck driver offered me a lift to the nearby town of Sylhet where I could get onward transport to Dhaka.  I was close to accepting his offer until I realized that it would take a while until his truck was finished being loaded with coal.  The laborers shoveling the coal into the back of his truck had not made much progress during our 20 minute conversation.  I declined the offer, but in my first of what would be many very helpful encounters with Bangladeshis helped me get on the fastest bus and told the conductor where to drop me off to find a cheap hotel he recommended, all very helpful since I had virtually nothing on Bangladesh.

During my first walk through the chaotic cycle rickshaw jammed streets of Dhaka, I immediately took a liking to the place.  It may not have the sights of Dehli or Kathmandu and there is no backpacker ghetto like Thamel or Paharganj serving up banana pancakes, but the city oozes old world atmosphere.  Its colorful market’s are decorated with equally colorful characters, old men with henna dyed beards and women in bright dress.  It’s a place where it’s nice to just be walking to nowhere, stopping at the invitation friendly locals to have enough cups of sugar leaden cha to induce diabetes.  I had arrived just prior to Bangladesh’s first election in 7 years and coming on the heals of 5 years of state of emergency rule.  The people were optimistic about there future and peaceful but fervent election rallies clogged Dhaka’s already congested streets.  The elections culminated in the most peaceful vote in the country’s short but turbulent history.

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