5 Things to Experience in Dhaka

Posted on January 30, 2012

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Dhaka is not a place that sits at the top of many tourists’ Must-See lists. Even the Bangladeshis seem to struggle to find nice things to say about their capital. And to set an even bleaker scene, in a 2011 survey Dhaka was ranked as the world’s second worst city in the world to live in (the worst, for the record, was Harare in Zimbabwe, while Port Moresby in PNG came in at number 3).

It’s also true that Dhaka is not exceptionally beautiful – most historical buildings have been destroyed, there aren’t many green patches and the waterways are heavily polluted. Couple these things with the fact that public infrastructure is basically non-existent (six hour traffic jams anyone?) and that almost half a million people move from the villages to Dhaka each year and you can begin to see some of the reasons why Dhaka doesn’t get a whole lot of love.

The flat, green, water-logged countryside of  Bangladesh is where this nation’s heart lies. It’s what the poets are inspired by and the city-siders reminisce about. Very few Deshis will admit that they’re from Dhaka, preferring to identify with the village that they were born in or that their parents came from. But while Dhaka may not be the beating heart of this country, it is undeniably the brains of Bangladesh. It is the place where ideas happen, decisions get made, and it is the primary gateway between Bangladesh and the rest of the world.

It is only in Dhaka that you could walk across the city faster than you would do it in a car, or eat spicy puffed rice (jaal moori) from a bag folded with someone’s mid-90’s French exam paper. It is only here that you can feel the city fall into sudden silence at the afternoon call to prayer while on the empty streets women cover their heads with a synchronised swish of their colourful sarees. It is only here that a tailor would refuse payment for a service just rendered while across the other side of the city, a customs official demands ‘baksheesh‘ (gifted money) for a visa stamp. It is only here that a rubbish picker would sing piously as he works or a homeless man by the Lake would play his flute every night just to please himself and those who may still be awake.

Ever since arriving, life has been a roller coaster of high Highs and low Lows. And so it came as something of a surprise when, about three months ago, I felt nostalgia gnawing at the edges of my mind. My head was in the far-off future but my heart was still here, and that was when it dawned on me: I am really going to miss this place.

Having my Mum come to visit reconfirmed this for me. Bangladesh is my home; Dhaka is my city too, now. And for all the problems, I have still fallen in love with it, if only for the way that it makes me feel: alive. Slowly, slowly I have learned to dance to the rhythm of this city and though we still fall out of sync with each other on semi-regular occasions, I’ve also learned to laugh it all off and catch up again as quickly as possible.

So when my Mum arrived in Bangladesh two weeks ago, I was determined to show her something of what made me love this city: a carefully measured recipe of ups, downs, dirt, sweat, adrenalin and cha.

1: Nilkhet

When I first discovered Nilkhet (near Newmarket and Dhaka University) I thought I’d walked into a dream: an entire suburb of markets dedicated to selling second-hand books. The rabbit-warren like layout is mind-bogglingly extensive and it is genuinely possible to get lost in there (I’m sure it was designed this way by some entrepreneurial book-wallahs) but oh, what a delight to be lost among a world made of books.

This is how it works: you have to go there with some idea of what you want, but you can’t be too set on it. Then, at the first store you stop at, you tell the book-wallah what you’re looking for. He will scale the stacks of books surrounding him and re-emerge with two or three choices that might appeal to you. You can keep on playing this game for as long or as little as you’d like, giving book names or genres or authors while the shopkeeper comes forward with slight variations on what you’ve asked for until you find the book you’ve been dreaming of. While many of the books are in Bengali, there are plenty of English choices and the book-buying process leads to an inexhaustible list of new reading possibilities.

I once went there intent on getting a book of poetry. After nearly an hour of searching, a storekeeper came up to me and told me to wait out the front of his shop. He returned almost thirty minutes later with a perfectly kept book of Tagore’s poetry that was somehow exactly what I didn’t know I’d been looking for.

(picture from Daily Star)

2: Art

I have visited more art galleries since I’ve been living in Dhaka than I ever visited when I was living in Sydney. The art scene is thriving here, and most galleries have new exhibitions every 2-3 weeks. My favourites include the Bengal Gallery and DRIK, but there are also places like Cafe Mango in Lalmatia (near the Women’s College) that have regular art installations on the cafe walls. The art is usually politically-charged and very patriotic – after only 40 years of independence, the Bangladeshis are fiercely proud of their nation. One of my favourite exhibitions, held a few weeks ago at the Alliance Francaise, featured sketches of the many beautiful and historic mosques scattered across Bangladesh.

(picture from Alliance Francaise Dhaka)

3: Puran Dhaka

Old Dhaka is a haphazard collection of antique buildings, newly arrived people, choked waterways, alleyways and colour, colour, colour. I could write a thousand words just describing the rich history of this place – inhabited at various points in time by the Mughals, Armenians, Silk Road travellers, Hindus, British and now, the poor. It is in every way the epitome of Dhaka’s best and worst and an absolute feast for the senses on any day of the week.

I have been there on many occasions, and each time has yielded new discoveries. The most overwhelming place to start is on the water with a boat ride around chaotic Sadarghat port negotiating between waterlilies, floating waste and the enormous Rockets (boats). Back on dry land, a wander around the ports reveals ceiling-high piles of onions, garlic and spices ready to be carted away to Dhaka’s many, many markets. The nearby Shakhari Bazaar, the Hindu quarter, is a street of stories and storytellers – many of the families have lived there for several generations making white ivory wedding bangles, stringed musical instruments, or religious statues – religion, art and identity are inseparable here.

4: Dhanmondi Lake People-watching and Fushka

Dhanmondi Lake is at its best at night, especially in these Winter evenings when the fog and the city lights hover just above the water’s surface. The Lake is always a good place for people-watching and street food, especially fushka, which consists of small fried bread cups brimming with lentils, chilli, onion, coriander and tamarind sauce. Fushka is best digested with the help of a cup of cha – black tea and condensed milk.

(picture from Flickr)

5: Rayer Bazaar

Rayer Bazaar sits to the West of Dhanmondi and is in many ways a more residential version of Old Dhaka. Much of the area is a slum, but there are also some newer buildings where families have chosen to stay because of the cheaper rent. I love this place because it is its own little ecosystem of shelters, businesses, markets, colours, smells and lives. One narrow alley leads onto another and people spill from their one-room homes out onto the streets – over there is a man’s lost shoe, this rickshaw road is that child’s backyard, these lady’s ornas are made from the material hanging in that shop window. Life erupts from the rooftops and from the murky sewage water running along the edge of the path. This place is as much a mystery to me as anything else – I know little about its history or its geography, and every attempt I make to find out more leads me deeper into a maze of lost knowledge and uncertain facts. But just one afternoon of being here reminds me of why I do love living in Dhaka: that life is simply miraculous, whether you believe in God or not.

(picture from Flickr)

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Posted in: Photography, Travel