Bangladesh: How to Recognize a Country That Gets Few Tourists
1. You’re in what a regional city calls a five-star hotel and at the breakfast buffet that comes with the hotel fare the only choice you have for a juice is watermelon juice saturated with sugar; and, best of all, instant coffee—you scoop some coffee from a small white bowl and then pour some hot water into it and, presto, you have your morning coffee. The big payoff here is that you can return to the buffet table six or eight or as many times as you want to prepare your own instant coffee. And in the absence of orange or mango juice get some watermelon juice that gives watermelon an undeservedly bad name.
2. There’s a bathroom scale near the sink in your room where you can see how your weight is changing, and if you are used to thinking in terms of pounds don’t worry, the scale is also calibrated in kilograms. The locals are thinking ahead to a market they don’t yet have and may never have.
3. A five-star hotel advertises that one of the amenities it provides is free bottled water in your room. Free bottled water, in a bottle so small you’re not sure that there are three gulps in it. Of course, there are certain countries in the world, and Bangladesh is most certainly one of them, where no one in his or her right mind would dream of drinking anything but bottled water. All half respectable risk takers never give brushing their teeth with tap water a second thought; but then my guess is that these risk takers have such healthy gums that they’ve not seen blood after a brushing in years.
4. You are provided with two tooth brushes, no doubt on the assumption that if you get a double bed as I did you will have a wife with you. After all, this is a Muslim country through and through and the last thing that a devout Muslim will ever do is share his tooth brush with a wife whose teeth he cannot ever remember seeing.
5. You can’t get far into any list without mentioning that the great universal language, a sine qua non of any three-star hotel and above anywhere in the world where there is an expectation of spoken English, and above average spoken English, will be a rather scarce phenomenon, even in the very best hotels. Actually, this is not true; it will be largely non-existent, except when paying the bill when checking out. A five-letter word in English called money is universal in a way that everyday four-letter words in any and all languages are not.
6. The people in the hotel business are insecure about their own countrymen, and probably for very good reason. They believe that at heart all of their countrymen are a bunch of no-good conniving thieves and never give a moment’s thought to getting a hand or foot cut off if caught stealing (in a Muslim country of course); because every time you ask the hotel to get you a taxi or rickshaw or any other means of transportation, they get the name and license number of the person who will take you someplace. This is actually quite a good idea when you think about it, for it means that at least your next of kin will, in fairly short order, know the name and license plate number of the thief and killer even if the thief or killer is never caught (highly probable), and if he is caught he’s going to walk because he’s got enough money in his pocket; and if he’s really a poor thief then they’re simply going to take him out behind the police building and put a couple of bullets in his head and then write you a letter of apology saying that they caught the thief and he died of mysterious circumstances—what else do you want to know?
7. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, at a station that supplies compressed natural gas to cars and little green three-wheel bugs that scare the fuck out of you just thinking of riding in them, and you have to take a pee, so you ask about and you’redirected to a small cement block structure on the edge of a field with so much garbage that you think that you’re looking at a newfangled compost heap that another cockeyed Jackson Pollock aficionado will call art and sell for fifteen million dollars; and when you get to the back side of the shit and piss house there’s a line of four young men in front of you, all of them at least six inches shorter than you, and all of them the color of dark chocolate with black spots around their noses. They smile and you smile and one of them lets you know in some arcane sign language that you are to go to the front of the line. You do so without apology and presently you push in a steel door with a slide bar latch on it, and once inside you see the familiar hole in the ground surrounded by an oval-shaped piece of porcelain. You have a soul satisfying pee, never wondering of course whether there’s anything remotely like a sink to wash your hands in (never necessary anyway unless in the habit of peeing on your hands, which Western men just can’t seem to understand, social convention being such a lock on their small minds), but momentarily wondering what would happen if you had had to take a shit. Well, for sure there isn’t going to be anything remotely like toilet paper or even a newspaper about (at least in Cuba there are newspapers on the floor with Castro’s face all over them); but at least there’s a gallon can about a quarter full and there’s some water dripping into it from a broken faucet, maybe enough water you think to more or less clean your ass using your hand and the water, if and only if it was one of the small tight perfect shits that are rarer than gold plated faucets when traveling in this part of the world.
8. You’re wandering down the street of beggars and homeless people who live like bony corpses with their backs against broken cement walls covered with graffiti and tattered political posters, and you remember that you’ve never had a problem sticking your camera in anyone’s face after more than a week of taking street photos, and this takes into account all those times when you just had to take a photo of three brothers holding hands and four street children making faces and hugging like little lost teddy bears, and egg vendors giving you all teeth of the sort that aren’t really called teeth where you come from. And then you get your camera aimed at this skinny guy in shorts and festooned in gold bracelets and silver and pink bangles and he’s throwing water from a tin cup onto his head. So you take two or three photos of him and then suddenly he’s running at you and waving his cup and you’re thinking: GET me the fuck out of here, this is not going to be nice in about two more minutes….
9. You walk seven or eight blocks and past twenty taka fruit and vegetable vendors and men repairing shoes that look hopelessly beyond repair and a fat man with a large orange beard holding three live chickens by their feet and a helter-skelter platform of twenty kinds of men’s cologne and twenty cent perfumes for men and not a can or stick of underarm deodorant in sight, and everybody, everybody is staring at you, and no one asks you to buy a single thing, not once. All they want to do is ask you one question, and one question only: Where are you from? You say, America, and you know beyond all reasonable doubt that everyone within hearing distance isn’t going to go home and say I saw a gigantic American with a funny looking beard and a shaved head, they’re going to say: I scored an American!
10. You find a restaurant and go in and see three or four dark-skinned people sitting about at tables, and there’s a couple where the man and the woman are both fiddling with their cell phone or i-Pads or whatever they are, and you sit and have two bottles of water and a Coke and a plate of sliced cucumbers and sliced carrots and a hot dish of mixed potatoes and carrots and beans and a whole curried fish and a plate of rice that’s enough for three meals, and the bill comes to just over three dollars, and on leaving the restaurant you feel generous, really generous, and shove a rolled up ten taka note, twelve cents, at the waiter who waited on you. He smiles like you will be in his dreams for the next week, the tip equal to, more or less, his daily wage, about this you can be certain.
11. You come into a hotel in this faraway city that only Japanese and American men who come on a two day trip to exploit the local labor use and you get a hotel room for nine dollars and some pennies and on entering and exiting the hotel two security guards smile at you and salute and you think, What the fuck is this all about, the only rank I have is, well, again, the color of my skin. Skin color, the right skin color, traffics the world better than dollars or euros. And most certainly better than the RNB.
12. You’re running through all of these TV channels in the hotel room and all you want is a five minute peek at either BBC or CNN but the only thing you can find beside soaps and sing-a-long shows in Bangla is Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in another dumb fucking movie, and you’re thinking, Jesus, that jaw of hers needs a lift and soon, and can’t they at least have the National Geographic channel in English instead of in German when you’re this far from home?
13. This attractive young kid comes into your room to bring you a bar of soap and you ask him if he’s got another tiny packet of green tooth paste because your arm-sized tube of Colgate for those wishing to keep their white teeth white is just about in the squeezed to death dead zone, and he says, Sorry the hotel’s all out. It’s all out of Coke and Sprite on the menu too you took note earlier, and they were out of the ingredients for a dish you ordered yesterday, and now that you think about it you might be able to get a beer, if you drink it in your room, just one, but the management is going to have to be consulted, you understand, don’t you?
14. You’re in three different top end hotel restaurants and the food is great, fabulous, memorable, and it costs less than two beers at the ratbag bar back home that you like to show your face at from time to time, and each time you begin eating alone these great and fabulous and memorable meals you find yourself eating alone in a restaurant with enough tables for fifty couples.
15. You decide to do what you have done many times and that’s go to the airport and buy a ticket for any airline that will get you on to another destination, and you go to the counter before one good looking flight and country is leaving in three hours and you’re told you cannot get a ticket at the counter, and then told you cannot get one in the airport either and you’re going to have to return to the city and to your own travel agent to get one, even if you don’t have a travel agent. And then you’re told, the merry-go-round starting to pick up speed, that maybe you can and maybe you can’t get a ticket to leave today from this airline that flies everywhere in this part of the world if you go to the end of the airport and take an elevator to this office without a name. Okay, maybe, maybe not, no one seems to know fuck all about anything in a place where all that happens is that planes fly in and out and people fly in and out. You wander around the airport thinking I can’t fucking believe this and finally you find yourself in the elevator and through the locked frosted glass door of an airline office talking to a guy with a beautiful head of black hair tinted red who you are certain is as queer as a three and a half dollar bill, and he says, No, we cannot sell you a ticket, you have to go into the city. Then you beg with your eyes and smile sweetly and use that trump card where you call yourself an American, and this three and a half dollar queer says maybe he can make a phone call and sell you a ticket but only at premium prices, not at the discounted rate, not now for sure you do understand don’t you? So you flash him your blue eyes which sell in some quarters at a higher price than even your white skin and now he says maybe he can make another call and get a ticket for you if you can pay with a credit card, at which point you tell him that all you have are dollars and some of the local currency and you are not crazy enough to carry a credit card, crazy as you are at other times. Nope, dollars won’t do, have to have the local currency. But he might be able to make a call and get you that discount, if you are willing to pass him your American passport so he can Xerox it and show it to his superior in another office. Twenty minutes later you have exchanged some of your precious dollars for the local currency and he has made three copies of your passport and you’ve got a forty percent discount on the ticket to go where you want to go. And now he explains all the taxes on the ticket which you are certain he is going to pocket because there’s something funny about the numbers of the paper he shoves at you, but you don’t give a shit because you want to be on that flight, and as you take leave of him and thank him with your very precious blue eyes and yet another sweet smile, you think: that dude is queer, I mean queer queer. But a ladyboy he’s not…are you sure?
Very nice report and I think I prefer to take the virtual Korski tour of Bangladesh than see it with my own eyes!