Bangladesh is far from being a tourist hot spot.
The first couple of days I stayed in the hotel, a guarded castle in a guarded area of Dhaka called Gulsham. I went out a couple of times with the crew to do some filming. On our first shooting day we went to the Bihari camp. I stepped out of the car for the first time and my feet stepped right into a puddle of shit. The smell was atrocious. I smell feces, urine, puke. You can try to pretend that the smell is not here but it is so intense that whether you want it or not it infiltrates every pore in your body. The best technique is to breathe from the nose – and for that you want to make sure that your nose is not stuffed like mine!
We walked through the camp, walked through mini pini stands with food being cooked, masses of people that are unwashed, kids naked running around all staring at me with no shame. I felt white like I have never felt before. I thought, good thing I am not wearing sandals, good thing I am not wearing shorts, good thing that my arms and legs are covered. I never felt so good about being covered :)
The humidity here beats any type of humidity I might have encountered in my life. You think Dubai is humid, think again. We spent two hours in the camp before getting kicked out as we upset a political party in the camp. In these two hours I sweat like I have never sweat in my life before. We got back to our van where the driver for some reason insists on putting the air condition on the strongest level possible. We go from super hot and humid to freezing cold. No wonder my throat is itching all the time!
Traffic here is impossible. Everybody drives like they are alone on the jam packed streets. The mirrors in the car are used as decoration. You will find that most cars have their side mirrors pointed towards the driver and the retroviseur also pointed towards the driver. The streets are packed with cars, vans, overloaded buses, rickshaws - with really skinny Bangladeshi guys pulling a caravan with their bikes putting all their efforts to pull a fat man/woman comfortably sitting on a carosse, you have tuck tucks and people. People like I have never seen before.
Masses of people walking the streets, crossing the streets. Men, women, children, old ladies, old men…. beggars, crippled, scary looking… I forgot to mention sound pollution. Everybody and their mother honks. You hear different kinds of honks, the big cars honk, the bicycle honk, the truck honk, the people crossing honk. And smells….I am grateful that my sense of smell is not super acute, although I am getting close to my PMS, because the things I have smelled I dont think i can describe to anyone, you would have to experience it yourself to know what I am talking about it, or maybe not flush your bathroom for a month, have all your neighbors use it and hang out there for a couple of hours – this might be too descriptive but it’s the only way I can explain it to you! I was not even walking on the street, but behind the car window and I could still feel, hear and smell the stress in the city of Dhaka.
Today, I decided that the backpacker in me needed to get out and walk around the city. The director went to film a manifestation that I could not attend being white, as white here attracts attention. I woke up early, had my daily nescafe, smoked my cigarettes, packed my backpack and headed out to explore the city of Dhaka and get out the guarded neighborhood of Gulsham to experience the reality of the place. The reality is far from being something you can dream about.
Today is Friday, so there is much less traffic on the streets, but much more traffic on the road. I walked around and my head drifted to Thailand. For some reason I felt much safer in Thailand, I could connect much more to the streets, the people. Here I walk and avoid all eye contact because people stare at you, and frankly I dont feel super comfortable at them looking at me like a piece of meat in Somalia. Men and women, they all stare.
A small street kid followed me around begging, then I was hassled by a bunch of kids… if you look in their eyes you can see how their innocence and their childhood has been ripped off from them. They are all naked, skinny, smelly, so young, but with no innocence in their eyes… it’s really awful. When you think how kids in the Middle East, North America and Europe are spoiled and take things for granted and how these kids have to be adults at such a young age you kind of wonder where is the justice in the world….
I walked walked walked for some hours before feeling that the blisters on my feet were killing me. I found a supermarket and for those who know me know how much of fetiche I have in discovering local supermarkets and find out what kind of local products they have. I was a bit disappointed because the supermarket here had the same exact feel as a any supermarket you could find in Dubai. Nothing really exotic about it. I checked out their sodas, and found the local coca cola called MOJO. Bought it and left. Mojo is coca cola with cardamon. They probably take a coca cola bottle and add some cardamon to it and sell it in the local market for 1/10 of the price of a regular coke.
As I walked around I saw different kinds of pastries/samosas being fried. Usually in any different country I would have ventured and tried out the local flavor, but for some reason here in Bangladesh, I am not super inspired to try out the exotic flavors. My phobia of getting sick is overtaking my usual sense of adventure.
It then started to rain massively, pouring rain. At first I was eager to keep on walking. I refuse to be driven by a tuck tuck, rickshaw, as I always feel that I end up having to bargain with them for hours and always get jipped! I trust my legs, I don’t have to bargain with them and they don’t jipp me… I hadn’t however taken into account that rain in Dhaka is not like rain in Dubai, not like rain in Montreal, not like rain on any kind of place in the world. Rain in Dhaka means shit flowing on the streets, means getting wet like taking a shower with your clothes and shoes on. So I opted for a rickshaw. This really skinny Bangladeshi guy drove me back to the hotel on his bike. I felt super bad sitting like a princess on a caravan while this unfed guy drenched in water pulled this carriage on his bike. I thought he must think of me as a fat white cow! Although I am shedding some kilos off here! I am surviving on coca-cola, coffee, beer and cigarettes. The healthiest of all diets!
Last night I woke up at 11pm feeling super hungry, I was dreaming of eating all kinds of food that I love, which really means chocolate and peanuts. I decided that sleeping on an empty stomach might not be the wisest thing to do and dreaming of food might be a sign that my stomach needs to be fed. I ordered a soup to feed this hungry heart of mine. I thought with a soup I cant go wrong. Thai soup, a reminiscence of my Thai days…. THAI SOUP. Wrong choice. I spent the night in the bathroom. I guess I will go back to my healthy diet.
One thing is sure: when I get back to Dubai I will have a feast on my arrival!
Kisses from Dhaka!
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LEAH MANASSEH is a film producer and director, currently based in the United Arab Emirates. She is the owner of production company The Traveling Shoe and founder of the website MyDubaiMyCity.com, a video guide to the city of Dubai. Leah is also a traveler, having visited many countries around the world, for film projects and leisure.