Sunday, February 9, 2014

The cultural noises of Dhaka.

After leaving the Moncton airport at 4:15pm on Thursday Feb 6th, my uncle Trent and I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh at 5:50 am (Bangla time) on Saturday, Feb 8th. With the 10 hr time difference, we travelled ~27hrs, but covered ~37 hrs of time... essentially skipping one night and going right into the next day.

Saturday the 8th, my cousin Holly (my Uncle Trent's daughter) and her husband Jon, met us at the airport and took us through the downtown streets of Dhaka to our guest house, leased by the missions organization AOB (Association of Baptists).

The traffic of the downtown streets was most definitely as insanely chaotic as I remember Lynn describing the streets of India. The onslaught of smells and sounds and vibrant use of colors, with large billboards and signs everywhere, was enough to create the sensation of being in a whirlwind or on a really fast roller coaster. It was exhilarating and wonderful, with the added sense of anxiety that our lives were in terrible danger as the Guri (van) made its way through the busy streets and intersections of town with no apparent caution or adherence to structural guidelines. :)

We rested for a little while at the guest house, ate an Bangladeshi lunch, and eventually hit the streets. (We only have a couple of days here before we continue travelling south, eventually arriving at the Mulumghat Hospital and mission compound.)

The streets of Dhaka, are in some ways, like any other city. But in other ways, the eccentricity of the culture, the loud noises with ongoing (obnoxiously loud) honking and shouting on into the night, the ethereal broadcast of the Muslim prayer call ringing out over the city five times a day, (though no one on the street seems to stop and notice...), the dust and dirt hanging in the air, (a by-product of Bangladesh's dry season), cultural architecture set in the context of poverty, filth, and... a pretty bad smell, etc... certainly provide for an initially unique experience.

I had the privilege of owning a few outfits appropriate to the culture, ones that Lynn had brought me back from India in 2010??, and had changed in Istanbul in order to arrive "ready" in Dhaka :). It is quite an experience being a white woman in this very different, male dominated culture. Even with my scarf, I feel exposed to the leering and jeering of local males. The streets are male dominated, with many of the local woman typically staying indoors. The men hang around the streets, literally FILL the streets, and who knows what on earth they are doing?!?!? :) They are bold with their looks and I sometimes, already, have had to force myself to stay calm and hold my head up. In their culture, it is less likely for a woman to look another man in the eye, for example, in passing on the street, but as a white woman, there is an automatic "rise in status", that seems to allow my independence to some degree, but also leaves me feeling vulnerable to the "power" that these men project... (Hmmmm... Too much info for a blog?!?!?!?)

As we've already spent hours maneuvering in and around the local streets, I have marveled at Jon's bravery and skill. It requires a particular set of strengths to adequately secure a driver for either a rickshaw or CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), and Jon seems to THRIVE in the bargaining and negotiating with these opportunistic locals. :) The drivers automatically see white people as an opportunity for exploitation and are quite determined to take advantage. Jon, however, is EQUALLY or MORE SO determined not to allow for such advantage to be taken :) which in turn secures his respect and allows him to offer generosity by keeping the upper hand... It is amazing to watch him move so naturally through situations that would have me flustered in an instant.

During these times, though, or when we are walking, we are often met with persistent beggars who  follow and try and take hold of our arms... One woman followed me for quite some time with a baby in her arms (which I guess is sometimes a "ploy") and it near broke my heart. Other groups of children, dirty and no shoes, quickly move in and around you, trying to gain advantage, block your way, force you to stop and give them something... Even though they are children, it is like sport. It's hard to tell where the real need is, because everyone is so opportunistic and competitive with each other... A group of young boys followed us for a while, but it was more like a gang culture than one of shared need?? They poked at Holly and I inappropriately and laughed, jeered, and even hung on to the backs of our rickshaws as we pulled away...

This being only the beginning of my experience thus far, on this amazing trip to Bangladesh, leaves me fascinated and hopeful for all I will gain and experience in the days ahead. I am excited to arrive in the southern part of the country, experience the hill tribal country, and see the more rural culture up close and personal. (This noisy city is already wearing on me!) I so value being alongside my cousin, being a support to her in her work here, and I cherish the moments we've already had of sharing together.

In the days/weeks ahead, I plan to immerse myself in one of the most fascinating cultures I have always wanted to get to know... the culture lived in and experienced by Muslim women. It stimulates my passion and engages my intellect as one of the most complex of cultures/circumstances in which to live, to know God, to honor both God and men, and to find freedom... It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

As I sit here, in my room in the guest house in Dhaka, writing at this desk that looks out over a veranda with artistic screening and growing vines (albeit dry!), I am confident that my memories of this place will be predominately "heard" and not felt, as the noises continue to rise from the streets with overwhelming fortitude... WOW, it's LOUD!!!!! :)


  1. I was reading your blog to David and Matthew and then looking at your cousin's pictures...Matthew says "Aunti-acho must be having a great adventure"
    we hope you are.
    We're praying for you :D

  2. It sounds so much like Ethiopia! So happy that you had a chance to see what Holly and Jon are doing, and looking forward to chatting with you about it!