As of today, we’ve finished a little more than a fortnight. I have been procrastinating writing this post as I find the hotel room uninspiring. It doesn’t matter that the writing table overlooks the canal or that the big French windows give me an unhindered view of the sky, the brick-red rooftop of the American consulate, the multicoloured glass pane of the furniture store from where we bought our beds and side tables and what I think, is my husband’s office building (it makes me feel he’s not too far away from us when he is at work).
A number of friends have been asking me how Dhaka is and it’s pushed me to begin ‘Dhaka diaries’. When I first said I was going to Dhaka, some friends laughed disbelieving; the truth is always the hardest to believe. It didn’t matter whether my husband had been promoted or that Bangladesh was the fastest-growing economy in South Asia. Dhaka, for them, constituted the land from where a majority of the blue-collar workers in Dubai came from – it was from where people crossed over to India in search of better jobs and ended up becoming rickshaw drivers, opening flower shops and Bangladeshis were the people who worked in restaurant kitchens in the UK and the US, whom people mistook to be Indians. Of the others, some, politely wished me well, reserving their personal opinions, for fear of saying something that would only distress me; the others had either lived in Dhaka or knew someone who had, and they had one piece of advice for me, ‘Keep your expectations low.’ I listened to the last group- I came here with zero expectations. I also did not read about Dhaka before getting here. I decided, experiencing it myself, would be the best way to deal with the change. It helps that I can completely zone out things that I feel have the ability to make me feel out of balance. I am also someone who is far more accepting of change than most other people I know.
Anyway, this post is not about me. It’s about Dhaka.
Our journey from Mumbai to Calcutta took us around 3 hours and then from Calcutta to Dhaka took 30 minutes. There are direct flights only from Delhi and Calcutta to Dhaka. There used to be others prior to the pandemic but these have now been cancelled. The airport at Dhaka maybe bigger than airports in small towns but lacks sophistication – white lights and tiles- that’s as far as it gets. Everything at the airport is manual and tedious; makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time.
We landed in Dhaka at around 4 p.m. but reached the hotel around 9 p.m. thanks the time it took to get through immigration and the traffic. The last fortnight has shown me that getting around anywhere in Dhaka is a nightmare. The narrow roads in no way support the exodus of cars- the driver explained that it’s because most homes have two or three cars- one for the children, one for the wife and the other for the husband. In addition to this, the cycle rickshaws, buses, autorickshaws on single lane streets means you can remain in the same spot for any length of time. If you thought Mumbai traffic is bad, I can tell you, Dhaka is worse. This despite the fact that here I have not seen cows, buffaloes or elephants on the roads unlike in India.
My first impression of Dhaka was that the city is busy- like it’s on the run and has no time to waste- all around you see work happening- there is a constant buzz – buildings, bridges and infrastructure projects being built. The city is growing, and fast.
Dhaka - first glimpse
Dusty roads, worn-out buses
Like Dubai, three decades ago,
Turkey, two decades earlier
Sharjah fifteen years past,
The outskirts of Jordan;
Just another city
in its infancy
Growing takes time, is messy
Those early years- when the teeth fall out or grow back crooked
When the gait is uncertain, wobbly even
And the eyes are curious, questioning,
Full of dreams
Awakening to a new world
The sound of prayers envelop the land
And kind faces rimmed with scarves
Or fenced with beards look on
And we, with wide eyes, are taken back to a time-
When cable wires hung in clumps
like a sadhu's unkempt hair
and people had the time to pause a while
The scene on the road, however, changed the moment we entered Gulshan 2- streets lined with trees on either side, tall apartment buildings and a row of walled enclosures, which the driver told us were the embassies of different countries. I had heard of Gulshan before arriving in Dhaka. Its where the expatriates stay in Gulshan other than Baridhara and Banani. On the way to the hotel, we decided to stop at a restaurant to grab a quick bite. The driver stopped at Butlers cafe. You heard right- ‘Butlers’- a franchise of the one in the UK.
Apparently, Dhaka has some pretty cool international restaurant chains that do not exist even in India. Butlers proved to be a good first meal in the new country. We ordered a cappuccino; instead of a cookie on the side as some cafes serve (most just give you the drink), Butlers gives you chocolates. What better way to tempt a chocolate lover than good, old cocoa? The chicken sandwich was also delicious and so was the chocolate milkshake that my daughter had. Dhaka had managed to wow us.
The hotel we were to stay in, upgraded us to a Royal suite for some reason- the toilet seat was totally automated with sensors (which was pretty spooky at first, as it opened and closed on its own), temperature controlled, the bathroom came with a jacuzzi and a shower panel and the room overlooked the canal. None of it mattered though on our first night. We were just glad to have finally landed in the country after two months of madness- packing, discarding and sorting through stuff to ensure we did not have excess luggage, meeting people, traveling to see family,closing shop- we had been literally on a roller-coaster ride until we landed.
When I woke up the next day the sun had already risen. The sun rises pretty early here. I have yet to catch a sunrise in the country despite the fact that I’ve been waking up by 5.40 a.m.
We’ve not been resting since we landed here. It was the only way to ensure we could get out of the hotel and move into our home as soon as possible. As we’ve only come here with clothes and other memorabilia, we needed to buy everything : furniture, cutlery, electrical appliances and every possible thing you need in a house. What we already had, was an apartment that my husband had shortlisted. I wasn’t too hopeful about getting the things I liked because I had been warned that while the woodwork is excellent in Bangladesh, the styles may not be as pee our liking. And if we wished to get custom-made furniture, it would take longer to move in.
So, after breakfast at the hotel (which is not worth talking about), we went shopping for furniture and for the first time it actually hit me that I was in a different country! We were visiting stores with rows and rows of furniture – not arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way to make customers want to buy it- no aircon – not even a fan- like one big warehouse through which you have to sift to find a piece you like. I had never thought furniture shopping could be a chore until that day.
The highlight of the day was lunch, which we had at Fish and Co. It was a pleasant surprise. I am not exaggerating but the fish – both grilled and baked were mouthwatering. It came with a little rice or french fries and vegetables on the side. The portion size is bigger in Dhaka than it is in most countries I have visited (which includes the Middle East, Europe and Asia) and makes up for being a little overpriced.
Although we didn’t get furniture that day, we returned to the hotel satisfied.
That night we ordered dinner at the hotel through Food Panda. While Amazon does not exist in Dhaka, Food Panda does, and it’s a lifesaver. We ordered shawarma – I can vouch for it being better than the one I’ve had in India and close to the ones served in the Middle East, Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. With this ended our first day in Dhaka.
On day 2, we decided to go electronic shopping. It proved to be a more productive day than day 1. Shopping for electronics afterall required no creativity- you know what you need; you know the brand; you pick it up. The prices in Dhaka are much higher than in most places because of the high import duty and VAT. So, you need to decide what you need and what is nice-to-have, if you’re on a budget. That day, we had lunch at another restaurant called Bistro E- the ambience in the restaurant took us by surprise and so did the food. However, after spending eighteen days here, I’ve come to realize that the cuisine in Dhaka is pretty great. With expatriates from so many different countries concentrated in a small area (because of the embassies and because of Dhaka being a manufacturing hub for leading brands like Ikea, Zara, H&M, American Eagle and many, many others), you get the flavor of each country- not a range of choices, but you get atleast one restaurant from each country serving authentic cuisine.
Day 3 we went furniture shopping again. The roads were empty because it was a Friday. It’s the best day to go around in Dhaka.
The weekend in Bangladesh is Friday and Saturday. That needs getting used to after a Saturday- Sunday weekend in India. It’s only that day I realized that every place we went to, on the previous two days was in walking distance. The second time around, we were luckier with furniture shopping than we were on the first day. Apparently, one of the two stores we chanced upon had opened only towards the end of 2019 and the other was relatively new too. That is why those I had spoken to had been unaware of it. But, both Isho (a local brand) and Ashley (a North American brand) had the kind of furniture we were looking for – functional and minimalistic. Day 3 we had lunch at Farmhouse. We are not a family that enjoys burgers but these were fresh, juicy and delicious. In case you’re wondering why I’m talking about food in this post, it’s because I want to show you the truth about Dhaka so, you no longer think of it as…whatever you were thinking of it until now.
Over the last fortnight, we’ve been busy deciding the paint color for the walls, the curtains, buying utensils, getting the pest control done, house cleaning and finally doing the house warming puja (prayer) which we did on the 27th of October, a day after Diwali.
While there were a few minor hiccups, at the end of our first fortnight here, I can say this much about Dhaka – things get done pretty quickly out here. I have friends in Canada who complain about the service there, and in the UK, who feel the service in India is better than in the UK. Dhaka, for us, fell a notch higher in terms of receptiveness of the people- the curtain guys went home atleast thrice to take measurements because I kept changing my mind about which curtain and which blinds I wanted for the various rooms, the mattress people went to the furniture store to take the measurement of the beds as we had no idea other than that we had ordered queen-size cots for the rooms, the painter patiently waited for me to decide on the paints and even ordered a particular paint in the nick of time just before the day’s closing, and finally, every piece of furniture we ordered was delivered on the date promised.
And yet, despite, all the good things, this is how I felt a few days ago and shared it on Fb. I realized it does not represent Dhaka in anyway. Hence this post.
Reflections in a foreign land
Blue-grey skies, green lake
Goad me awake
Wisps of white cloud
Beckon me aloud
'Come, take a walk'
Unmoving, I lie still; as a rock
I dare not venture on my own
In this foreign land, so near, yet, so far from home
Where unknown tongues and silent stares meet my eye
My heart lets out a silent sigh
All this beauty around me
Yet, I feel caged within me
And after Diwali which was celebrated on the 24th of October, I wrote this:
Did not get a chance to light a diya this Diwali. Did not hear from the publishers yet. Have not moved into my house yet. Have not painted since a long, long time. Too many ‘have nots’ and ‘did nots’. It’s so easy to complain.
But, things could be worse. So, I’m saying,’Thank you God for everything.’
This country maybe conservative, may not have Amazon, great malls and brands, but, there’s a lot of good things too. Will need to tweak my life a little but, that’s nothing compared to those suffering from the drought in Somalia, the lack of freedom in Iran, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the dreadful war in Ukraine and the attacks in Nablus.
I’m here and I’m good. So, thank you God for everything.
I was speaking to my sister this morning and she said, I sounded miserable in Dhaka (her opinion was based on the above writing) .
She asked me if it was the place and the more we discussed why I was feeling the way I did, I realized, it wasn’t so much the place as my current situation. First, it’s been a month since I’ve been living in hotels ( 2 days in Mumbai, 10 days in Dubai, 18 in Dhaka) and I’m tired; I want to go home. Second, my lack of understanding of the language, the need to be escorted by my husband every time I step out for a walk and the constant awareness that the country is conservative and you cannot walk out wearing a knee-length dress or shorts or anything they may think as revealing, is a big shift and can get claustrophobic until one gets used to it. Third and probably the most important, the thought of my younger one leaving to Uni in two months time has been on my mind. I’m very grateful she could be here with me during the move; she has promised to settle me down before leaving. But, I cannot forget that soon, it will be just my husband and me and l. This has nothing to do with Dhaka; I would have probably felt the same in any new country. Only, there, I might have known the language and had the freedom to go around on my own without fear.
So, to set the record straight, it’s not Dhaka, but, me, being here, at this point in time in life. Going through so many changes all at once is probably what’s weighing me down. It’s a passing phase or just a phase of life which I’m sure, will pass. It’s too early to say, I like the city, but I’m hoping I do. Adjusting to any change takes time and I will have to give it time and have an open mind.
So, this, in a nutshell, is my first impression of Dhaka. I hope you enjoyed reading the first in the series of Dhaka diaries. Over the coming days, months and years, I will continue to take you on my journey in Dhaka. Hopefully, you stay. If you do, I will let you know what this country surrounded by India on three sides and the ocean on the fourth, is like.
Copyright@smithavishwanathsblog.com. All Rights Reserved.
Leave a Reply. I love comments.