Victoria Solbert

international sustainable development professional

Welcome to Dhaka! Now get out of the way

By vicsolbert | May 29, 2014 | 0 Comment

View from the rooftops of Gulshan-1

The first welcome to Dhaka – long slow lines at the airport.

It is the end of my third day in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. From my hotel room I am listening to the azan, the call to prayer. It seems so beautiful and peaceful echoing over the rooftops, despite the punctuations by the honking and beeping of traffic. It is the first night where I feel like my mind is finally (mostly) in synch with my body again, the jet lag of a 13 hour time change starting to wear off after so many days of feeling like all my thoughts and perceptions were coming through a thick fog. Emboldened by my new found clearheadedness, and as it is Thursday night, the start of the weekend here in Bangladesh, I decided to go exploring for my dinner. My hosts at the Winrock International CREL project office have been exceedingly kind in getting me settled. They have settled me into my hotels (I switched after 2 nights to a different hotel which is closer to the office, as even a 2.5km commute in Dhaka traffic can take forever), taken me to the office and introduced me to everyone, fed my wonderful tea, lunches, and snacks. They have taken such good care of me I have not yet done anything on my own outside of my hotel or the office (or really been anywhere other than the hotel or office), so it seemed like time to get out.


A cup of ‘cha’

In every city I have visited, from Paris France, Cusco Peru, to Luang Namtha Laos, my favorite thing to do is just wander on foot until I get mildly lost and then find my way back. To me it seems you can only really get the feel for a place if you walk the streets, and wandering gives you a good sample of the various local flavors. After being driven through the crowded winding streets of Dhaka for a few days I knew aimless wandering probably wasn’t a good idea, so I picked a specific route and destination. First I went to the nearby  Gulshan Ladies Park and strolled around to scope out the location of the American Club. The sun was just starting to get low in the sky, it was a beautiful day, everything so pleasantly green, and all the people relaxing in the streets were also enjoying the day. I decided to go for the slightly extended walk and aim for a restaurant in the downtown Banani district. Leaving the park area, it got more crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, baby taxis, cars, road side stands, and shanty tents. The walk was becoming a bit more stressful, and now the sun was decidedly low in the sky, but my goal was just a couple more blocks away. I stuck close to a group of young men crossing the main thoroughfare, trusting to their traffic dodging experience, and then I actually entered Dhaka….

Chaos, complete and overwhelming chaos. It was all the previous pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, baby taxis, cars, road side stands, and  shanty tents times 10 on roads half as wide. All of the shops and restaurants lining the streets were crammed in so tightly they all only seemed to have floor space 5 feet wide by 2 feet deep. Even if I found the “restaurant” I was looking for it didn’t look like it was going to be a sit down place. Despite the setting sun it was still exceedingly hot and humid, there was mud and puddles and pot holes everywhere to navigate along with the crowds and traffic, and constant honking and beeping and yelling.

I retreated. I retraced my route back towards the hotel as quickly as I could and ducked into what turned out to be an upscale Thai restaurant just off the main road. But it was quiet, and uncrowded, and air-conditioned, so I sat down and tried to un-tense everything. I don’t even have any photos to post yet of all of this because with the traffic dodging, navigating the crooked streets, ignoring lots of stares, and being wary of my bag, having a camera out just felt like one more task than I could handle.

Every person I have met here in Bangladesh has been so wonderfully friendly and helpful, it seems impossible that you could ever feel uncomfortable among them. But the streets – they are just too much for one novice to navigate and still be able to enjoy anything. So my main opinion of Dhaka at the moment, it requires back-up. For the rest of the weekend my exploring will be done along with people from the office. In the meantime, it’s time for some chocolate and a good book.