As we flew south of the most magnificent mountain range on earth, Everest and its neighbors peaking above the clouds but beneath the height of our Air Emirates Triple-7 (as the pilot called it), it became clear that we were about as far away from Oklahoma – home to our group of traveling media professionals – as we could be.
Only when we dipped beneath the clouds upon descent into our approach to the Dhaka International Airport did I begin to realize the starkness of difference that awaited us in the city below.
The start of the rainy season had just dumped torrential rain on the outlying areas, flooding the plots and villages we could see from our windows. Yet flooding is something we in the U.S. can relate to. When we walked off our luxurious plane into the crowded and steamy airport, we began to experience the people who mark the hope of Bangladesh.
Smiles. Smiles from the blue and green khaki’d military police. Smiles from the families and children in traditional dress. Smiles from our drivers who greeted us and, at the Pan Pacific Hotel, smiles from our hosts from BRAC University, Afsana Chowdhury and Shamin Haque.
Our first full day allowed us to be tourists in a strange land of more than 161 million people, in a city of more than 12 million connected by streets and highways teaming with seemingly as many rickshaws (bicycle propelled), Baby Taxis (made by Vespa, we were told), hand drawn carts, cars and buses packed to the seams. Crisscrossing in a maze unlike anything found in even the best Hollywood chase scenes, we quickly developed a stomach for close calls, horns and chaos. Yet like molecules swirling around to make up the cells of the human body, somehow, some way, the streets moved, the traffic flowed, the people made their way at whatever pace they were intended to travel.
And we made it to the 19th century colonial mansion Ahsan Manzil, a relic of a building housing memories of a rich colonial past, bordered by poverty on the neighboring Buriganga River. I compared it to a walk through the governor’s mansion in Oklahoma or any other state – removed by a century of neglect from the days of glory enjoyed by its rich and apparently generous inhabitants. We were not allowed to take photos of the displayed historical artifacts in the museum – but outside were free to snap photos of the living, breathing treasures of Dhaka. Its people. Children who simply waned to meet these strange foreigners, not asking for handouts or the such, simply wanting to sense a share of what type of life the Americans brought with them from far away, whatever that might be.
We saw a river polluted beyond imagination, streets teaming with life – and chaos – but did not, I assure you, leave that first day’s journey with anything other than hope for the Bengali people. Hope that they can, in a fast world of modern growth and civilization, somehow catch up to a new world. Theirs is, after all, a very young democracy, one evolving in just the past few decades, and one constantly facing challenges no American can relate to.
NEXT AND STILL TO COME: We meet government officials, eat at a food court not exactly like home, and begin our media tours throughout the capital of the 8th most populated city in the world and home to the second largest garment economy on the planet.