The other day a Dutch friend of mine and I were having lunch when I mentioned how chaotic I had heard Dhaka airport was now. “Honestly,” she said, “I never notice the airport. I’m always so sad to leave the country.” We continued to chat over our lunch, but my mind lingered on what she had said.
He is a friend who has traveled to Bangladesh for work a few times over the past few years, staying there for a few months at a time. She travels around Dhaka by bus, laguna, rickshaw and boat. She spent the night in a bosti and does not understand why the others are surprised. She finds the simplest places to eat and appreciates the quality of their daal. It suffers, of course, from the traffic and the heat, but the other impressions – the vibrant colors, the flavors of the food, the friendliness of the locals, the lush beauty of the countryside – all seem to have a greater impact.
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We recently attended a wedding together. She had hoped to go to a beauty salon to have experts wrap her saree for her, but the salon in question was closed. She then found an instructional video on YouTube and spent the next 45 minutes cursing Georgette’s slippery sari and the sari instructor, especially when the instructor happily commented that it was easy to fix the creases. .
Of course, as a six-foot-tall blonde woman wearing a beautiful saree, most people didn’t care if she got the pleats right. There, she thoroughly enjoyed the biriyani and borhani as well as the conversations with bright young locals.
I look at it with admiration, but I can’t help but think about how it can be easier for a foreigner to love this city than for locals. Just finished “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk, where he writes about how the locals simultaneously wish to become more western/modernized and yearn for something that makes them uniquely Turkish, and how the prevailing filth and poverty depresses people. Something similar seems to work here, where people are too busy feeling hampered by traffic, dust, dirty air and chaos even to notice the many charms Dhaka has to offer. For so many people, modern means western. Exit the rickshaw, place the private car. Ban street vendors and promote supermarkets. But the final achievement will never be a faithful copy of a Western city, but in the attempts to do so much of what is valuable will be destroyed.
On the way to the restaurant where we had lunch, we had to make several detours because of the overflow of faithful to the Friday offices. We ended up leaving our rickshaw and had to walk further than if we had just walked all the way. Again, we were able to wander through unfamiliar alleyways and alleys and enjoy asking people for directions. We savored their visible pleasure in directing two bideshi. The sun did not reach the alleys; it was noon on Friday so traffic was still light. So both being cycled on the rickshaw and wandering the back streets on foot was actually enjoyable. I commented on how difficult it was to agree with the common assessment that Dhaka is one of the least livable cities in the world.
“I guess it depends on which part of Dhaka,” my friend suggested.
In part, yes, but it also depends on our point of view. Are we dreaming of another place and constantly comparing Dhaka and cataloging its flaws? Or do we really pay attention to what makes the city pleasant and distinctive – its own place rather than another imitation of a tired model that has its own costs and disadvantages?
Strolling by a lake, cruising through quiet streets in a rickshaw, watching small groups gather around a tea stall, savoring tasty street food, hearing the excited cries of children playing outside – all these moments remind me how adorable Dhaka and Bangladesh are. maybe.
But sometimes it takes someone outside to remind us.
Debra Efroymson is the executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing, Bangladesh, and author of “Beyond Apologies: Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing”.