If cows are sacred in Delhi, they appear a scourge on Dhaka. We have arrived via a near-empty flight from Kolkata into the capital of Bangladesh during Eid-al-Adha, the “Festival of Sacrifice.” No matter where we drive, walk, or tuk-tuk, cows are being slaughtered and skinned in the streets. The asphalt and drainage ditches alike run red, and at multiple points my father and I are wading through unavoidable streams of blood. Regardless, I am happy to be back in a Muslim country where people seem kind and pious, and where citizens strive for tidy, clean neighborhoods. The streets, aside from the streams of blood, are spotless and it is clear that Dhaka struggles much less with trash management than India’s mega-capital.
What’s more, in Delhi I had a target on my back for anyone looking for, well, anything. In the block outside my hostel, I was frequently bombarded with offers for tuk-tuk rides, prostitutes, and drugs. One particularly persistent drug dealer offered an incredibly well-rehearsed monologue, which I enclose here with minimal alterations if only to put his impressive salesmanship on display for aspiring drug dealers who want to learn how to not take a hint:
“Sir! Hello sir! How are you tonight? I am sorry sir. I realize that it is not typical in your country for someone to bother you on the street when you’re out walking. Forgive me. Where are you going? Are you shopping? Shopping is for ladies. Perhaps you are shopping for a lady? No? You are going back to your hotel? Where are you staying? Perhaps you’d like to party? You want a little hashish? It is the best you will find. Truly amazing. Really great for a party. You look like you enjoy the party. I tell you what, I will give you a free sample now, and tomorrow you come by and buy more, master? Yes? No I insist. Absolutely free of charge!”
(He fiddles in what looks like a baseball card wrapper; I gravitate away from him as I am looking for my hostel, which is virtually indistinguishable when I come from this direction. I say goodnight)
(He reaches his hand out for a shake, and without thinking I return it, only to find he has palmed me a few grams of lumpy hash, the rough consistency of drying cookie dough. Not wanting to get convicted of possession on a street where a bunch of cops have no doubt been watching this whole thing, I drop the hash and duck into the hostel.)
In Bangladesh, I will not be dealt drugs, as the sentence for drug offenses can be as serious as death. I have also found that in Muslim-majority countries citizens hold themselves to higher moral standards, and I am less likely to be scammed or harassed. In the night, my dad and I wander the streets trying to find a restaurant open on Eid al-Adha, and find little more than a rooftop Indian restaurant popular with businessmen. We order tandoori chicken and biryani, and admire the view of the Baitul Mukaram Mosque and National Stadium. After dinner, we admire the former’s giant green neon “allahu akbar" (“God is greater”) sign from the darkness of the street and head back to the hotel, stopping to watch a late-night street cricket match.
Dhaka for the Day
Rising early, an Uber brings us to Dhaka’s river port where ancient ferries and rowboats shuttle people and goods up and down the muddy brown Buriganga. In Dhaka, textiles and clothes are big business, but you probably knew that already, as a lot of your clothing, like mine, is likely made here. I hope to find a pair of cheap, off-brand shoes to last the rest of my wanderings after losing my last pair in Delhi, but all the shoe shops are closed for the festival of sacrifice, and so I am doomed to walk in sandals amidst the cow innards. We stop first at Ahsan Manzil, a pretty pink building housing a national museum, and move northward when we learn it doesn’t open for another couple hours.
Next, we stop by a captivating Armenian church from 1781, where a cheery caretaker shows us around the grounds, and we marvel at the gravestones written in Armenian in the middle of Bangladesh. The congregation isn’t spectacular, but it sits in a yard of its own in a city with mosques every few blocks. We even come across a mosque built into an overpass, but this centuries-old orthodox church remains despite the Muslim majority.
Before we return to the hotel for my dad’s siesta, we visit Lalbagh Fort, an unfinished Mughal fortress in a similar rose-tinted hue to Ahsan Manzil. There, it begins to rain so we hide in the museum where a group of kids in their early teens elect their friend with the best English skills to give us a tour. He is halfway the weapons exhibit, through pointing to things and saying “gun” and “sword” when the actual curator of the museum pushes him to the side and begins giving us his tour. Before we leave, Bangladeshi kids swarm around us to take selfies as if we are Academy Award-winning actors.
Eid al-Adha apparently means that bakeries are buzzing and pastries are flying out the door. We buy two of the prettiest pastries on the shelves, and quickly learn that Bangladesh knows their sweets. It has always been a theory of mine that certain things are best in Muslim countries, like desserts and “alcohol-free cocktails. As you are likely aware, Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol and so juices, sodas, and other mixed drinks are abundant. On my trip to Algeria a couple of months ago, I was treated to some of the best lemonades and cherry-lime juices, and I seriously considered giving up alcohol myself for such perfectly-crafted ‘mocktails.’
After pastries, we drop into a fast-food fried chicken joint and gorge on chicken and fries as if we were sentenced to death inside a KFC and this was our final meal. Did I mention that chicken is another thing Muslims make incredibly well? The Colonel could almost certainly take a lesson as the chicken sandwiches here are juicy, flaky, and crispy and have absolutely no asphalt in them, as the hamburgers almost certainly do. We leave the place full and without regret. During this slaughter of cows and goats, chickens are off the chopping block so this week my conscience remains clean.
That afternoon, we visit a Hindu Mandir, where a cow is being guarded by four camo-clad men with shotguns as if to suggest Eid-celebrators are lurking just over the wall to ring in the holiday with a sacred Hindu steak. Perhaps the community is fearful, or perhaps several days of seeing God chopped, skinned, and bled into the streets disheartens the Hindus of the city, because dozens and dozens of them brush off the rain to watch the maximum-security cow chomp away at the grass.
Dhaka Pub Crawl
An early dinner makes my dad restless, and we scour the net for nightlife in Dhaka. Alcohol is not prohibited in the country, but it can be rather expensive leaving Bangladeshi bars few and far between. I locate one “Nightingale Bar” on Google Maps and we catch a tuk-tuk there as the rain pours outside (and a little bit inside, too). At the bar, we receive salutes from each of the four armed guards in front,and are welcomed upstairs into the smoky, poorly-lit lounge where no one’s faces can be discerned, except those of the Bollywood actors on a small flat screen in the corner. Beers cost 3 or 4 dollars, and are served warm in the 10-ounce can. It doesn’t take long to finish our drinks and move on from the creepy haunted speakeasy vibe.
In Bangladesh, it becomes clear that only the men go out to drink in bars, as the next bar is also dubbed a “gentleman’s club.” The energy there is less tense, as there are no armed guards, and a band sings Bengali songs in the front for the crowd’s pleasure. If they are pleased, though, they don’t show it. We have another drink here, next to an older man with a fanny pack and a much younger phone-fiddling woman, and witness local music with all the singers’ incomprehensible warblings.
In the morning we catch a cab to the airport, but admiring the buses as we pass. The likely decades-old vehicles have been fixed so many times that they no longer have rear lights, and instead have taped pieces of metal paneling that make it look as if they never had lights at all. The buses of Bangladesh were born into the world like us: unable to see anything behind us, with nothing but hope for what lies ahead, and--of course--incapable of communicating to those close to us that we are about to make a left turn, a right turn, or throw a temper tantrum at any given moment. When these troubled chariots back up from a parking space, often a young teenager will hop out of the front then stand near the rear wheel, slamming his hand on the fender in a particular pattern of the driver should continue backing up, and banging another pattern if the driver is about to hit something. No rear lights, brake lights, or turn signals, but the city hums along fine.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.