An American in Bangladesh

After a few incredible days of exploring Myanmar, it was to time depart from the capital city of Yangon. The flight was bound for Bangladesh, a place I never imagined I would be going. I was boarding the plane when a man behind me asked “You are going to Bangladesh??”
I answered yes and he looked surprised. With a grin he said “Oh well, welcome to my country!” Once I was seated on the plane I glanced around at the fellow passengers to find it was about 90% middle aged men. I gulped down hefty cup of complimentary straight whiskey and watched out the window as the sun set over the countryside; endless rivers snaked through reflective fields of rice.

It was around 10 pm when we began our descent into Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. Looking over the city from the night sky was not what I anticipated. The dotted lights were sparse… There were as many lights as you would expect to see from a small city accompanied by massive streams of headlights.

Acquiring a visa-upon-arrival in Bangladesh as a US citizen was just as straightforward as anywhere else in the world. I don’t know why I thought it might be more complicated, this mindset was probably because I was a little intimidated to be traveling to this country in the first place. The process only took 20 minutes and the fee was $51 USD. Once I got out of immigration, my hotel arranged for someone to meet me with a sign. He escorted me through the airport to the driver that would take me to my hotel. While waiting for the transfer I saw a very unique rickshaws with intricate body paint and metal cages with locks fashioned around the doors. There was also a thick metal barricade with dozens of men peaking their faces through to get a look at the arriving passengers. I was not left alone for one minute since I left customs.

Once arriving at the Best Western Dhaka I was welcomed outside by a fleet of security guards packing AK 47s. You know you’re somewhere risky when you have to walk through a metal detector and X-ray your bags before entering the lobby of a western hotel. The other guests in the hotel were corporate business men and women. A German man sparked up a conversation and told me a drive that would normally take only 15 minutes would take over two hours here. He also said that they have to be back at the hotel by 4 pm every day before it gets dark. No one leaves the hotel once it gets dark. The city of Dhaka officially has the worst traffic of any Asian country. There are days where traffic is at a stand still for 7 hours. The traffic is so influential that it cuts into the overall productivity of the country because of how many working hours are wasted. The country is one of the most crowed places on Earth.

Here’s some fast facts:

  • More than half of the population in Bangladesh are farmers.
  • Over 30% of the population live below the poverty line of $2 USD per day.
  • The national animal is the Bengal Tiger which is quickly going extinct.
  • The country has one of the most extensive garment industries in the world.
  • There are more than 2,000 periodicals and daily newspapers published in Bangladesh. However, the country’s average constant readership is only 15%.
  • Bangladesh is home to the world’s largest river delta and the world’s largest mangrove.

When the time came to return to the airport, we passed through multiple security checkpoints and swerved around barriers that were in place so no one could drive straight into the departures building. When we were dropped off at the curb I immediately noticed the military presence. There were many officers standing around with sawed off shot guns and compact machine guns slung over their shoulders. This place is no joke; which is completely warranted because of ISIS’s open threats of attacking the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport with the intention of killing foreigners. From checking in at the counter to sitting in my seat on the plane I went through 5 different security checks. Women were patted down in little private rooms with curtains rather than in public. I’ve never had security specifically rummage through every part of my baggage, leaving no shirt unturned. To say they were thorough would be an understatement. I found comfort in their paranoia because there is absolutely no way you could smuggle something onto that plane.

I met a young man at the airport who was born in Dhaka. We ended up traveling to the same destination so we had a few hours to get to know each other. It was his first time on an airplane and his nervousness was adorable. We had a lot in common, watched the same TV shows and laughed at the same jokes. He told me that he will be getting married at the end of the year to a woman he has never met. I didn’t realize that arranged marriages are still a reality for many people and its such an influential part of their culture. He didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it and went on to talk all about how unrealistic online dating is because you can’t be affectionate with the person in the way you would be naturally. This conversation made me realize how lucky I am to have the freedom to choose who I want to spend the rest of my life with. Now I have a deeper appreciation for the privilege to date/marry for love rather than economic and societal gains.

Regardless of the intimidating aspects of this country, I was treated with nothing but respect and kindness by every person I encountered during my time there. They take proper security precautions because they want to keep everyone safe. The Bangladeshi people spoke better English than most other Asian countries I’ve traveled to. Their eyes and smiles radiated genuine friendliness and they simply wanted to know more about me. My new friend reminded me how easy it is to make friends anywhere in the world if you live with an open mind. Nothing will make you more grateful (and aware) of what you have than seeing life through the eyes of another.

This is my favorite photo of Bangladeshi women taken by the talented Simon Urwin. For an incredibly stunning photo set click here.