The Dhaka rally

TV is evil. TV made me stay up to watch The Simpsons until after 2am. As such, I wasn’t as well-rested as I’d hoped by 8am when we had to get up. A rapid wash and pack were done before we dropped our bags in reception to be looked after.

A work colleague of Mahmud’s arrived shortly after 9:00 to show us around the city on a whistle-stop tour. First stop, however, was for breakfast. My stomach was much better but still not 100% so I only pinched a quarter of Hans’ spicy chicken pizza to settle myself before we hopped onto a rickshaw and were pedalled towards the Sadarghat (port). You can get three adults on a rickshaw fairly easily. I would recommend, though, that one of them doesn’t have a digestive disorder at the time.

Rickshaws aren’t the most comfortable way to travel but they’re fairly swift, convenient and incredibly environmentally friendly. Their only by-product is carbon dioxide from the guy pedalling and the stench of fear from the passenger. Compared to the deafening honking in most of India where cars, buses and autorickshaws compete for space in a “who’s horn is the loudest” competition, Dakha in places sounds more like a minature campanologists’ convention. *dring dring* *tinkle* *crunch* Oh, yes. Rickshaws don’t stop gracefully. It’s standard procedure to just thump into the one in front to ensure you’re as closely packed as possible.

We also encountered a silly money problem when trying to pay the rickshaw driver. The fare was 20 Taka. The smallest note we had was 100 and, of course, he didn’t have change. This is a really common issue in many countries, so as a rule try and get a bunch of small change as soon as you can. I’ve added this to the tips page. Fortunately, Mahmud’s friend paid (we ran a tally for the day and paid him back later) and we walked down to the riverside.

A small flotilla of equally small boats awaited us. Each manned by a single sailor with a single oar, these boats are used to ferry people and goods from side to side, or from larger ships to the portside. We boarded our chosen vessel, panicked, wobbled, sat, prayed, wobbled some more and let the oarsman take us out into the water. We were taken a fair distance up and downstream on the Buriganga watching river life take place. Huge boats moved up and down virtually submerged in the weight of their cargo, vessels akin to paddle steamers without the paddles battled to get to the dockside, families and random businessmen passed by. Workers shaped things or sat and played cards, women on the riverside laid plastic bags out to dry (I assume for recycling) and so on.

Something I’ve not encountered before but which Hans has is to be the centre of attention in another country. Simply, nobody travels to Bangladesh as a tourist much as they didn’t to Vietnam seven years ago when Hans was there. As such, a white guy and a (historic) Korean sat on a small boat makes for something to gawp at for the locals. We had a lot of people waving at us and smiling for photos so it became a challenge to get any non-posed shots unless we snuck up on them from the side.

The time passed pleasantly enough as we talked to our guide about his family, Bangladesh, cricket and football. After an hour or so, we returned to the water’s edge and paid the ferryman. It was slightly less than two pieces of silver – only 110Tk.

We had been dropped off a little further downstream than where we’d boarded. Our guide walked us through a busy dockside warehouse to the Ahsan Manzil or Pink Palace. This is a late 19th century palace now partially open as a museum. Entrance is a ludicrously small 2Tk (There are 140Tk to the pound!) though there is not a huge amount to see inside. One thing to note with Bangladesh is that, unlike India, it seems that foreigners pay the same as locals for the tourist attractions. Let’s see how long this lasts if more people start visiting!

Our next mode of transport was a horse and carriage. We sat for ages as it seems these vehicles only set off when they’re fully laden. Eventually, we set off. Then stopped. Moved a few yards. And stopped again. The traffic in Dhaka isn’t the best in the world, even though most of it is quite small and maneuverable! The carriage only took us partway to where we wanted to go, so again we did the 3-men-in-a-rickshaw trick and set off towards the university campus.

Dhaka University is famed for it’s Business Administration course (our guide had recently passed this) and has some interesting statues on the grounds.

Round the back of the university is the National Museum with the inviting entrance fee of 5Tk. Our guide had o get back to the office, so left us there with instructions on how to return to our hotel. I will try to get his name before I post this, but we’re both hugely grateful for his time regardless.

The museum is smaller than the Indian equivalent we visited in Calcutta, but is conversely of a slightly better quality – or at least is less dusty! Exhibits include Bangladeshi weaponry, art, animals, agricultural products and a section devoted to the Liberation War of 1971. In fact, there’s a whole separate museum dedicated to this event, but sadly we didn’t have time to visit that as well. This exhibit was the highlight for me, with some very harrowing items on display – including the bloodstained shirt of one freedom fighter who died wearing it.

One thing that hits home about how young Bangladesh is as a country is that the first ever Bangladeshi flag – handmade – is on display in the museum. The country is only two years older than I am! The bad thing is the flag seems to have aged better than me.

Hans and I ended up being exhibits ourselves, or so it felt. I swear more people were staring at the foreigners than were looking at the displays. I should have had a shower and put on my Sunday best.

Stomachs were beginning to gurgle (well, mine continued to gurgle – I made full use of the facilities at the museum while we were there) so we located ourselves a rickshaw and were pedalled speedily back to the hotel. Our rickshaw-wallah was a very honest man. We gave him 100Tk and he handed us back a fifty. Then another ten, when he realised we weren’t going to let him away with it. He was reaching for more notes, when we decided to let him keep the rest. The fare should have been 20Tk, but some people deserve a break.

The hotel helped us sort lunch as the restaurant next door only had a menu in Bangla. I stuck with some simple rice and veg while Hans wolfed down pretty much everything else on the table. Oh, I can’t wait to get my appetite back.

Our last task of the afternoon was to locate a cybercafe. This proved to be a not insignificant quest, but with the help of the hotel management, a keen rickshaw-wallah, several members of the public who happened to speak English and some luck we found one about 15 minutes’ pedalling away. A good connection as well, and they had USB ports. A shame I forgot to copy my blog posts to my USB key before we left the hotel. Gah. Still, I got some money stuff done online and cleared some emails which was the whole point. All for 30Tk per hour. Bargain.

On the rickshaw ride back, we spotted our first riot police of our visit. They were busy reading newspapers and looking bored. I told you all it was fine here since the caretaker government took over!

Bags shouldered, we decided to get two rickshaws to the dock. Hans did try hailing a taxi, but he gave the univeral facial expression for “Hell, no” when we mentioned Sadarghat. Given the traffic we encountered on the way there was bad enough for a three-wheeler, I can’t say I blame him for turning the fare down.

Once we were dropped off, the fun began. The fare to Sadarghat should be 20Tk per rickshaw. Hans had a 50Tk note and was indicating it was for the two drivers to share. Heads were shaken. “Hundred, hundred” they indicated. One hundred each. It was our turn to go “Hell, no!”.

We gathered quite a crowd as the “discussion” progressed. One young boy who spoke English kept trying to raise the price, obviously hoping for a kickback from the drivers if he got them an inflated price. Another local in a blue shirt stood our ground and argued that the going rate was much less and that the foreigner was being generous with 25Tk each.

Eventually Hans shouted “You are bad Muslims! You want 50Tk? Or you want nothing?”

“Eighty!”

Bad move. Money back in wallet, back turned, Hans stormed off.

It’s funny how as soon as the possibility of losing all the cash you’ve already worked for raises its head that you think maybe taking the correct fare isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fairness, there was never any real vitriol. Anyone watching could see the smiles on faces as the haggling went on. Sorry to say, but the Bangladeshis just haven’t got the hang of ripping off tourists yet!

We were at the dock again to catch our mode of transport for the next 24 hours – the rocket boat “Ostrich”. This vessel is to take us all the way to Mangla and we have a first class cabin in which to while away the journey. As we were sat in our comfy little dorm waiting for departure, Mahmud barged in! He had wanted to make sure we were OK, had enjoyed our morning and even brought some delicious savoury biscuits for us to munch on until dinner. I think he made it off the boat before we set sail – he certainly ran fast enough when he realised the engine had started…

The Ostrich is nice enough and the staff are incredibly helpful. Dinner was an option of English or Bengali food – I went for the former and Hans the latter. Both were really good. The beds are comfy and there’s electricity in the room (if you unplug the fan!) so I can get on with laptop work while Hans does his amazing snoozing trick. I swear, he’d sleep twenty hours a day and eat for the other four if he could.

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