One week in Dhaka tells me as much about Bangladesh as one week walking around Michigan and Wacker would tell you about the United States - i.e., “not much.” BUT - I’m not extrapolating to the whole country, or even to the whole city of 15 million from the 2-3 km radius I’ve seen, so here’s some of what I’ve learned:
- Never, ever, lose your forward momentum while walking around Dhaka. Slow down when you have to, take stutter steps if you need to, bob and weave, but keep moving forward. Stop for that rickshaw or CNG taxi coming out of a side alley, and regaining your spot in the flow of people will take a while.
- Even if math isn’t your strong suit, learn some base-80 calculations since $1 = 80 taka. A rickshaw ride across town for 35 taka? A hell of a deal. A one day gym pass for 2000 taka? Less good. (Wait, what? $25 bucks to use the gym for one day? In a country where the average daily wage is $1.60? Did I do that math right? Sadly, no, I didn't. Not in time.)
- Be seen going into the wash room before lunch. (And no, that’s not a euphemism, it’s a separate room off the dining room with two sinks and nothing more.) Wash. Sit down to lunch and keep your left hand off the table. At all times. If you have to, you can drink your water with your left hand or pass food with it, but you shouldn’t use it for anything else. Eat with your hands, or, more accurately, with your right hand. Make balls of rice and curry or dal or fish or whatever is on the menu for lunch, and put it into your mouth with your right hand. Some at your table may lick their fingers when they’ve finished – the whole finger. Proceed as you wish. (The wait staff may take pity on you as they see you flailing, trying to eat non-tacky white rice ham-fistedly, and discreetly slip you a fork, but you can’t always count on that.) Be seen going into the wash room after lunch.
- It’s not impolite to stare in this culture. You’re gonna get stared at. Staring back is not considered rude and can lead to a conversation.
- When walking around the city people will stare but people will also ask questions. Usually, in order:
- What country are you from? (“USA” is the quickest way to comprehension, though “UK” and “Canada” also work pretty quickly. I’m egalitarian that way. Saying “United States” draws looks of incomprehension, at first, and “America” does too, which surprised me)
- You married? (which often sounds like “merit”, e.g., “you merit?” – if you want to presume it’s merit and that you are, in fact, meritorious, roll with it),
- How long stay in Bangladesh? (answer in weeks)
- First time in Bangladesh?
- Do you like Bangladesh? (of course you say yes, and if you want to be effusive add some detail, like "good food" or "very friendly people"…)
With the completely disarming young school girls (grade 3 and grade 5, and sisters, I’d say?), who approached me in a narrow side street, still in their uniforms, to practice their English, I had a more extensive conversation – what’s my name, do I like music, how old am I. I was impressed by their willingness to try. They’d walk along next to me, thinking of the next question, preface it with “uncle, uncle…” and then fire away.
- What from a distance at first glance looks like a drug deal isn’t – it’s a passerby slipping alms into a blind beggar's palm.
- What smells like marijuana smoke as you are walking through the tiny, narrow alleys between two main streets is marijuana smoke. Back up, pretending to find something to take a picture of just to make sure, and oh, yeah, there’s no doubt about that. Huhn.
- The slight downward tilt of the head to the left many Bangladeshi males will make as response to questions or statements means “no problem” or “you’re welcome” or “we’ll see.” It depends. It's endearing.
- Tea breaks are part of the cadence of life in Bangladesh. They occur at 10 or 10:30 or so in the morning; lunch is late, at 1:30 or 2, and then tea break will occur again at 4 or so. Morning tea break will come with something savory, like a samosa; afternoon tea break comes with “biscuits” in the British sense of the word. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the coconut ones – really nice.
- Coffee, universally, is instant Nescafé, and is often served along with the tea bags at tea break. “Chai” in Bangla simply means “tea”, not a specific kind of tea. Tea is served with non-dairy creamer and sugar.
- Dinner is often late. Like 9:00 pm late.
- Don’t cross your legs, as you may inadvertently “point” the sole of your foot at someone, and the sole of your foot is unclean. Fair enough given what is on the footpaths of Dhaka. (I’m getting a stronger sense of the degree of insult involved when that journalist threw his shoe at President Bush.) Crossing at your ankles is okay.
- Bloke at the gym walking around in his “Staff” shirt carrying a racket is not, as first thought, making his presence known so that if you fancy a game on the squash court but are tavelling solo, you’ll have a partner. He is pest control – the racket is a portable bug zapper. I’d seen them before, in Thailand, but I had never seen them wielded inside.
- If you want your room cleaned, you leave your key at the front desk. Otherwise, they won’t clean it. Figured that out on day four, when I was really starting to need fresh towels and more bottled water (to drink, yes, but also to brush my teeth).
- Watching Vin Diesel is not diminished when the movie is dubbed into Hindi. His delivery of dialog is not what makes him watchable, it has to be said.
- Blokes walking down the street holding hands – not locked at the elbows, but holding hands – or one with his hand on the other’s forearm, walking very close, are not likely to be lovers. I’m glad staring isn’t considered rude, because, honestly, the first time, I stared. I was so surprised at that (among everything else in a very surprising frenetic and colorful street scape, it was still surprising) I had to make sure I'd seen what I saw. Two guys, Western clothes, late teens, hand in hand. Every time I've seen it since, I’ve been charmed by the facile male intimacy, but not deluded into thinking it portends more than it does. Nice custom, though.
- People on their cell phones do not pay attention to anyone or anything around them. Some things are universal.
Except for #17. You can take that to the bank.