Bangladesh: An Interlude

Hello Athena! You’ve probably been wondering why I haven’t posted any educational material in the last two months (and why I haven’t been in the apartment!) I was out of town to visit Dhaka, Bangladesh – two of my close friends got married there. I couldn’t possibly fit everything in a single blog post, but here’s a smattering of photos and impressions.

I spent most of my time in Dhaka City, the capital of Bangladesh. There are about 20 million people in the greater Dhaka area, making it the 14th largest urban area in the world. It’s also by many measures the most densely populated city in the world.

In many ways, Dhaka reminded me of New York City, with tall buildings and tiny shops lining the streets and smog and very assertive drivers. Dhaka has an impressive collection of universities and a stunning botanical garden. You can be stuck in hours-long traffic jams, and the streets are filled with all manner of vehicles – buses, cars, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, CNGs (compressed natural gas vehicles, which look like tiny open-window three-wheeled cars) – as well as pedestrians and livestock and stray dogs. As in New York, one of my proudest accomplishments while in Dhaka was figuring out the public transportation!

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I found people in Dhaka City to be overwhelmingly friendly. While Bangla† is most commonly spoken, English is one of the national languages so people typically study it in school. But it’s fairly rare to see someone who speaks English as a first language. I sometimes found myself surrounded by groups of friendly people, wanting to take selfies or practice English with me or help me get wherever I was going.

Most of Bangladesh is near sea level, so water travel is an important feature of the Bangladeshi economy. For this reason, the port of Sadarghat, where Dhaka City meets the Buriganga River, gets a lot of traffic.

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My friend’s family brought me and a few other wedding guests to see Rajbary, a town a half day’s drive outside Dhaka. In that area, we saw the home of Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali folk singer/philosopher Lalon. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my phone for those, but pictures wouldn’t have done justice to Tagore’s art and poetry or Lalon’s music anyway.

We spent a morning visiting Sonargaon, capital of the Bengal empire during the Moghul period (13th-17th centuries). It’s about an hour’s drive southeast of Dhaka City.

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Near Sonargaon is Panem City, a hub of trade during the Moghul period. Visitors are free to walk through the fifty-two buildings. A kind archaeologist showed us around, and it was incredibly cool to stand in the unrestored ballrooms and bedrooms of a city hundreds of years old. There weren’t many informative signs, and there were a bunch of goats wandering on the periphery. This lack of curation, the past co-mingling with the present, made it one of the more breathtaking encounters with history I’ve ever had.

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Stained glass in a 16th century Moghul building in Panem City.

Later in the week I visited Lalbagh Fort, a Moghul military stronghold and mausoleum, now located in the southwest part of Dhaka. It’s one of the quieter places I found in Dhaka City and appears to be a prime spot to take a date 🙂

Money goes farther in Bangladesh than it does anywhere else I’ve traveled. Near Lalbagh Fort is a wonderful restaurant where I ordered a hearty and delicious vegetable breakfast for 23 Taka (the US equivalent of $0.28). The restaurant staff were super-accommodating, despite the complications presented by my limited Bangla vocabulary.

Bangladesh is majority-Muslim, but in southeast Dhaka you can find the Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection. During the 1700s it was built to benefit the collection of Armenian Christian merchants and traders living in Dhaka City, and after the British colonized Bangladesh they used the church for their own religious services.

I spent one afternoon with a university student I met on the bus – he was worried I was going the wrong way and decided to spend his day off exploring the city with me. He and I swapped details about the governmental structures of our respective countries. Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy, so representation in the government is exclusively related to which political party gets the most votes. He expressed concern that this can sometimes squelch the voices of political minorities.

The university student and I went to the stunningly beautiful Tara Masjid (Star Mosque), but at the time I visited there were prayer services happening and I didn’t want to disrespect the folks who were there to worship by taking a picture. Instead I’ll shamelessly include a photo from the Internet.

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I saw many more amazing sights and met lots of awesome people – if you’re curious, you should definitely ask me for more stories! I’m excited to travel to Bangladesh again some day – hopefully after learning some more Bangla – but for now, Athena, I’m happy to be home with you.

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† Bangla is the sixth most commonly spoken language in the world, the first language of Bangladesh and of several districts in eastern India. It has a rich literary tradition and over forty distinct letters (I think? Nobody could really tell me how many letters are in the Bengali alphabet since several of them are deprecated.)  I had a lot of fun learning words and phrases in Bangla – my friend had tried to teach me some in the US, but I found it a lot easier to learn Bangla after spending time in a context where people regularly speak it.

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