The most densely populated city in the world, travel within and around Bangladesh’s capital lived up to its reputation of being overwhelming in every sense of the word. Another equally off-putting reputation of posing risky conditions for travelers held only partly true. To cure both ailments, locals stepped in to help before I ever knew I was in need.
Upon leaving the airport, rickshaw drivers saw only a light skinned traveler with a halo of money signs floating above her head. Noticing their ill-intentions, K, a young Bengali man who’d studied in England, stepped in and helped me find a bus to my hotel. He spoke quickly with the ticket taker and ensured my safety and comfort. Rucksack still strapped tightly, I sat on the edge of a torn vinyl seat. A metal gate set to keep passengers near the stairs from tumbling down dug into my knees and a slightly irritated older gentleman sat to my right. I looked out the window at the world going slowly by as we crept along the frenzied highway.
A trio of men watching the cricket match play on a mobile phone paused to look up after some time. One of them called out, obviously eager to speak English.
“Hello!” he yelled at a strength much too loud for our close proximity.
“Hello,” I said much quieter, nodding my head out of respect.
With that, several others shook free from their preoccupations and glanced up. Clearly surprised to see a single foreign woman on their crowded bus, no-one immediately said anything. Still, over the next hour’s ride several locals worked up the courage to say Hello, Welcome, and even Thank You.
I replied always with a small smile and gentle nod.
The stern man next to me softened a bit and eventually arrived at his destination, leaving his seat open. It was repeatedly filled by short term passengers, and eventually became the ticket taker’s resting place. He glanced at me several times, clearly wanting to speak but not knowing what to say or, more importantly, how to say it in a language I’d understand. Instead he waited until we reached the place K had denoted as my stop, and held up his fingers to show the fare I’d owe for such a distance: 30 Taka. Half a dollar for over an hour’s ride.
I payed with crumpled bills I’d received at the airport’s exchange counter, and used a map I’d previously downloaded to lead me to my night’s hotel. I’d alerted the owner I’d be arriving around 8pm, knowing the city’s traffic would slow down any speedy delivery attempts I’d be making.
It was after dark, but streets were still bustling with activity. As I walked into a labyrinth of markets and apartments, I stopped several times to clarify I was on the right path and eventually took in the help of three locals speaking English and Bengali to find the apartment.
Knowing full well I was at the correct place, we received an extra bit of assurance from the bellman across the street and another neighbor. However, the door on the ground floor was locked with gate and chain. A number was listed on the gate which we tried to call several times.
We rang the bell of all flats on the top floors of the building several times. We watched lights go on and off in those flats and even saw someone come on to the balcony.
No one looked down or attempted to make contact with us.
Over one hour we stood there, calling, ringing and waiting.
In the end, there were two locals and myself left and it was 9:30 at night. Many hotels do not accept foreigners, and those that do I would need internet to find (not a common thing on the streets of Dhaka).
One of the locals offered me his exceptional assistance, calling friends who called friends and eventually taking a rickshaw with me to central Dhaka to a hotel open after 11pm.
As the words from a letter I was forced to write in the following days reflect:
It is not recommended for women to be out alone late night and arriving at 8pm was still a safe time. However after waiting and giving up, being forced to Dhaka’s streets so late at night, I was put into a very vulnerable position… The kind that makes me want to quit my trip before its even begun. Thank you for your understanding, your prompt actions to correct this issue. I have only just reached internet now to send you this note.
Luckily, the site which I’d booked my stay through was very responsive to the note I wrote them and offered a full refund in addition to covering the cost of transportation within the city and the hotel room which I ended up in that night. They followed up with me several times throughout the rest of my trip to make sure I was feeling safe and taken care of.
I was feeling taken care of, and though this tough traveler’s skin became a few layers thicker as I met a few who couldn’t care less about my well-being and a slew who made my happiness their tip-top priority.
The man who helped me find the hotel that night was married with children, and in a way I found borderline inappropriate, met me the next morning. He’d offered to throw me a party that night, but my plans were leading me to the Sundarbans instead. I was to set sail at 6:30 that evening, and had arranged to keep my rucksack locked in the hotel room for the day while I went out to see the city. I’d asked the front desk (which was really just a table set up on a small stairway landing a few floors above the street) where to exchange money and they pointed me in the right direction. I find it important to keep money matters personal, but on my way there I heard my helper call my name.
He had traveled an hour to my hotel that morning with an intent to meet me before I’d left for the day. Knowing where I was headed and that he was the man who’d brought me there the night before, the receptionists told my new friend where I was going and he sprinted his way through Dhaka’s streets to my side. For the rest of the day, he accompanied me around town. On one hand, I was happy to have the company of someone who spoke both English and Bengali, someone who was knowledgeable, kind, and willing to answer every question thrown his way.
On the other, I was put off by his persistence and his insisting to go everywhere I went. What was I to do? He’d been a saint, going hours out of his way and keeping me from sleeping on the streets the night before. As we went throughout town that afternoon, I made sure to make contact with others around us as much as possible to break the divide between ‘us’ and them. It was a skill I’ve used before and one any solo traveler should practice.
Trying to break free for his own good as much as mine, I told him I’d like to return to the hotel to rest. He agreed that was a fine idea, and happily escorted me back. Outside, I said goodbye. He walked with me to the lobby. In the lobby, I said goodbye again and thanked him calmly. I was past the point of smiling but wanted to leave him feeling as though he had done something good, because in reality, he had.
He told me he would wait for me in the lobby for as long as I’d like to rest.
I replied that it made me feel uncomfortable because I was inconveniencing him and he was wasting his own time. You and I both know it made me feel uncomfortable for so many more reasons than that. As if on cue, it started raining just then and he immediately had a second reason to stay in the hotel’s dry lobby.
I went to my room, triple locked the door, and alternated between writing and dancing for the next two hours as a way to release negativities and amp up the endorphins.
Two hours later, I returned to the lobby with my rucksack. Of course, he was still there, but I was feeling better knowing our time was about to come to a close.
It was no shock when he insisted that he help me get to Sadarghat and on to my boat. As he could speak with everyone, I was again teetering between feeling grateful and agitated when talked his way on to the boat with me. I’d intentionally arrived over an hour early to escape from my (yes, still hesitantly admitting it) helpful shadow. Instead, he followed me on board and made sure everything was okay.
“Had you told me earlier, I would have come with you.” he kept saying.
“You can take your wife some day. She would enjoy it as much as you,” I replied as a subtle reminder of his status and of the cultural taboos associated with the acquaintanceship he was now forcing. He sat down at the boat’s only communal table and ordered a cup of tea.
Trying to see the situation from his point of view, I respected his excitement of having made a foreign friend, of being able to practice English, and of having a break from daily routine. I suggested he tour the boat after finishing his tea. I then told him he would need to leave because the boat would be taking off in twenty minutes. He talked to the crew in Bengali and managed to stay until just five minutes before departure time.
The moment he got off the boat, I watched him walk out of sight and ran up to my single bed room, calmly closing the door behind me. Not a minute later, there was a knock. After a moment’s hesitation, I opened it a crack to peak outside. Believing my helpful shadow had returned, I was shocked instead to see members of the boat crew standing in the door frame. One of them gave the door a heavy push open and stooped down to look under my bed. There wasn’t much space, but he made sure I was the only one occupying it.
For that, I was thankful.
Confirming all passengers were on board and no extra passengers had joined, we pushed off the dock and began our journey to the Sundarbans.
When I don’t take photographs, there is something wrong.
That day in Dhaka, I took three : all from the balcony of my hotel when I was alone.
Immediately when we pushed off and I knew again I was alone, I grabbed my camera from my bag, went onto the boat’s deck, and over the next week took over 2500 pictures.
As a solo female traveler in Dhaka, my greatest obstacles were not fear nor risk of harm. Instead, it was to be taken care of – Perhaps a little too well!
I’d love to hear – what would you have done in any of these situations? I feel vulnerable for having told you this story and ungrateful for the amount of effort he put forth. What do you think? Please do tell in the comments below!
And get ready for more stories from Bangladesh – this is only the beginning!