Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The first few hours

I’ve been in Dhaka for about 34 hours (less time than it took me to get here), but already it’s been incredible. The sights and sounds are different from any I’ve ever experienced. But backing up a bit…

As we descended into Dhaka I was shocked by the smog! I had wondered what the foggy looking icon on my iPhone weather application meant, but once I looked out the window and saw that, it immediately became clear. Imagine flying into LA on a bad smog day, and then multiply that by 10. The pollution and smog here are so incredible that I think it affects visibility on the ground.

We landed. I had been forewarned that getting out of the airport could be chaotic. The passport control lines were long, but thanks to a diplomat I met at the gate in Bangkok, I was able to enter via the exclusive diplomat line (saving a bunch of time!). I let out a big sigh of relief once that part was done. I had previously been worried that, because Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, the agent wouldn’t be all too happy about my recent trip to Israel. To top it off there was no way to avoid that little nugget of information since the Israeli customs agents had stamped my entry and exit stamps right next to my Bangladeshi Visa. Thankfully it was not an issue.

Once through the passport control, we located our baggage carousel and situated ourselves in what I thought was a pretty prime location. But as the crowds descended we all of sudden found ourselves about one or two people away from the edge. The bags took a while to come – although, since my view was obstructed I can’t say how many times they might have gone around before I spotted them. Bags in hand we walked through customs and I met a member of the school’s staff (the first time I’ve been met by someone holding a sign with my name on it).

I climbed in the van and did my best to absorb as much of the scenery as possible on our 30-minute drive to the school. Honking, I quickly came to learn, is sort of like a form of communication on Bangladeshi streets. Between the buses, which are often very crowded and may have people hanging off the sides or sitting on the roofs, the baby taxis (little three-wheeled “cars”), the private cars, pedestrians, and the colorful rickshaws, the streets are packed! Honks seem to communicate questions (can you let me in?), warnings (watch out I’m cutting you off!), outbursts (move!) and, because of their frequency perhaps hellos and goodbyes.

Honking aside, the most incredible thing I saw was people replacing streetlamp light bulb. Rather than a truck with a crane, which is what I am used to seeing, there was a man on a ladder. But not just any ladder – this ladder was the type you might usually lean up against the side of a house (i.e. not an upside down V). However, in order to position himself directly under the light bulb, there were four men each with rope attached to the ladder pulling in opposite directions. This balancing act was made even more precarious due to the fact that some of the men were standing in the middle of the street. With all the commotion they could have easily been hit.

Once I arrived at the school, I was given a tour. Everyone was extremely friendly! Afterward I left with my hosts, Ann and Mike. We stopped of at Mr. Baker for some cake and came to the apartment and had tea. I unpacked the massive amounts of stuff I brought and later we had dinner. I managed to stay up until 9, but fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

At 5:30 AM I was awoken by the morning prayer. The mosque is visible from my room and I had been told that I would probably hear it. But I underestimated the volume! It was so loud it literally sounded as though a man was standing on my balcony with a bullhorn aimed right in my window. Needless to say I was awake and so began my first full day in Bangladesh.

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