Monday, February 7, 2011

An unexpected holiday

What strikes me most about today is the absence of any honking or other traffic noises. Rumors of a hartal were already in the air last week, but until yesterday we were still awaiting confirmation. Hartals are countrywide strikes organized by the opposing political party to protest the actions of the current government. Learn more about today's Hartal. Shops, schools, and businesses close so that they give the appearance of supporting the hartal and thus avoid getting in trouble from those who organized it. As such, I have some extra time on my hands today, during which I’ll share with you the events of this past weekend – from shopping to ex-pat clubs, and rice patties to brick factories, I saw it all.

Friday – Shopping Bengali Style

As the subtitle indicates, the highlight of Friday was shopping. I arrived in Bangladesh with two suitcases and two carry-ons (I’m still not entirely certain how that happened), but very few clothes. I knew that most of what I own and wear back home would not be appropriate here, and so I packed knowing I’d be doing some shopping once I got here.

The drive to the first store, Aarong, was a bumpy one. The street was narrow and made of packed dirt. On my left were the remnants of what had once been a lake, but has, over the years, been filled in to make room for new developments. The scaffolding surrounding these new buildings consists of thick bamboo poles tied together in a manner that makes you question its integrity. Lining the road were small huts made of corrugated metal. People were milling around going about their business and the occasional cow crossed the road.

Off in the distance is a huge glass building. When it’s completed it will be Asia’s largest mall.  Construction began 10 years ago. This doesn’t seem like the place for it. The mall lays in stark opposition to its surroundings. Just a few miles up the road we’d seen a family sitting on a pile of bricks, breaking them up with sledgehammers. Brick making is a huge business in Dhaka (and the reason behind the poor air quality). Because Dhaka, and much of Bangladesh, is built on a river delta there is no naturally occurring rock. Therefore, in order to make the cement for the many construction projects in the area, bricks are made using the river mud and then broken up to create the necessary rocks.

Pulling up in front of the first store, there’s a vendor selling bangles. They sparkle and shimmer in the sun – all different colors and sizes! So much to look at and we haven’t even made it inside. I enter the store. It’s like a warehouse – full of clothes, fabrics, shoes, jewelry, bags, toys, pillows, rugs as far as the eye can see. But clothes, clothes are the reason I’m here. So I turn right. It is the shalwar kameez I’m after, and it’s not difficult to find. A shalwar kameez, which is very popular here, consists of a pair of pants, a long tunic top and a scarf. Back home I tend towards neutral colors, grays, blacks, whites, but there’s no doing that here! I try on several items and walk to the next department with a full basket.

Ann shows me the sari section. Again the colors are out of this world, and I’m excited to learn that there is at least one holiday coming up during which I’ll need to wear one! Next up, the home section, shoes, and bags. I continuously remind myself that I have time and that I don’t need to buy everything now. We go to the register and I make my purchase.

After stopping at another store, this one less extraordinary looking, but enjoyable nonetheless (made even better by its free trade mentality), I come home with: one new skirt, two salwaar kameez, and a tunic top. With what I brought this should get me through a week or two. One of the salwaar kameez I bought consists of turquoise pants with a gold paisley print, and a gold decorated, red top. Very different than what I’m used to, but picture day is on Thursday and I’ve been told to dress up. (Stay tuned for photos.)

That night we had dinner at a different British club, the one for all the people who can’t get in to the one we usually go to. The atmosphere was pleasant. We enjoyed a nice BBQ, we sat outside and could actually see stars! To top the night off there was a little earthquake. From what I heard it was a 6.4 with an epicenter somewhere in Mynmar, and it was definitely the talk of the school on Sunday.

Saturday – Solo Expedition and a Trip Out of Dhaka

Saturday morning Ann had some work to do. So I set out on my first solo adventure. Decked out in my Tibetan pants and the Indian tunic I had gotten in Berkeley before I left, and a scarf that my friend Jessica had brought me from Egypt, I set out. When our driver saw me, he quickly jumped up and offered a ride, but I wanted to walk.

View from the top floor of the Gulshan II Mall
I had a destination – the Guide Tours office. I walked without hesitation down towards Gulshan II circle. It’s in my nature to smile at people, but I was worried that if I did, I might gather a following. Serious expression it was. I made it to the circle without a problem. But once I got there I was overwhelmed by the number of billboards. I could not for the life of me find the Guide Tours Sign. I stopped by pharmacy to ask where the office was, but my question was met by a blank stare. So I stood on the sidewalk gazing up at the buildings trying to look like I knew exactly what I was doing. A few seconds passed and I spotted it. The pedestrian streetlights weren’t working, so in the interest of safety, I crossed the street closely trailing a local Bengali man. Up at the office I secured myself a spot on an upcoming trip to the Sunderban, a UNESCO world heritage site and the largest mangrove forest and Bengal Tiger reserve.

On the way back I j-walked across a busy street (quite the feat) and stopped in the little shopping mall where Mr. Baker is located. I spent some time perusing the shops on the upper level – all of which are filled with metal goods ranging from pots and pans to pearls, and ornate Buddhas and filigreed bangles. I satisfied by quest for adventure and headed back home.

Later that evening we met up with the DOGS (Dhaka Oddballs Golfing Society), of which Mike is a member. This was my first trip out of Dhaka. We were going to Little Italy. The roads there were lined with more corrugated metal houses, shops, and, what looked like, restaurants. I commented on this and one of the ladies riding with us said something along the lines of, “that’s what’s so remarkable about this country. Give the people a box, and they’ll make a shop.” Past the corrugated metal town, we found ourselves surrounded by magnificent kelly green rice paddies. They offered a striking contrast to the dusty, brown dullness of Dhaka. Though I must say that while the city as a whole may be monochromatic, its people, their clothes, their personalities and the rickshaws are anything but. Off in the distance the brick factories loomed. Radiating out around the smoke stacks, rows upon rows of gray bricks lay waiting to be fired. And next to them, neatly stacked, were countless finished red bricks.

We arrived at Little Italy, which, much to my surprise, turned out to be nothing more than a restaurant. The owner, a Bengali, had traveled to Italy, learned the art of Pizza and returned to teach the locals. I must say the pizza was delicious. Since we hadn’t taken our own car, we snagged a ride with someone else at the end of the evening. Riding back through the landscape I just described, in a luxurious, air conditioned, Hummer, while physically comfortable just didn’t seem right. I was happy to be back home, settled under the mosquito net that I resisted bringing, but that my mom said I’d be glad to have (she was right).


  1. LOVING your blog! I'm going to need some more pictures though :-) Miss you!!