These are my observations, and may or may not be accurate. It may or may not reflect my opinion of the country as a whole. Take it with a grain of salt as need be.
Some of this is just rambling – my apologies!
Being a woman in Bangladesh is a bit of a complicated thing, but it is mostly dictated by Muslim law and Muslim culture. On one hand, women here play a big role in politics, being in the front lines of protests and having played a pivotal role during the Liberation War. On the other hand, women are not usually seen in the public eye much. Unlike in South East Asia, they do not tend shops or restaurants. Stores and markets are devoid of women, save for a few shoppers. On the street, you see them, but it’s always hard to figure out what they are doing.
All women here wear some sort of shape-confusing clothing. It ranges from the traditional Indian sari, to the local salwar kameez dress. Some wear the long Muslim dress of more conservative countries. Some wear loose scarves over their heads, other wear a hijab, other a veil. Rarely, you see a full on veil, with not even a slit for the eyes.
There is a surprising amount of women living on the street with their children – usually you see them more than you see men, but perhaps they are off working somewhere.
As a Western woman here, I was expecting something similar to Indonesia, where I was what I like to call “invisible”. It’s being there, but not ever being addressed. Well, here I get pretty much that, although sometimes people will call me out as “sister” if trying to get my attention to, say, go inside a store. Otherwise though, I don’t get asked for my order. Or my opinion. People ask Travis for that. I’ll be right there, and someone will turn to Travis and ask what I think. Before a hike, Travis was asked if I had shoes (I was wearing sandals) – I was standing right there. It’s like I can’t think for myself.
At a restaurant in Srimangal Travis and I put down our bags, and Travis went out to look for a hotel. Because the people working there had seen Travis with me, no one would approach me or look at me. For over 30 minutes, I couldn’t get any waiter to take my order. I had to wait until Travis arrived, and then finally I could eat.
Hardly any women are seen eating in restaurants. I think I saw 3 in all…
On the streets, people stare because I’m white. But aside from that, I’m invisible and get no respect. No one ever gets out of my way if walking down the street. Men here will rather push you off the sidewalk rather than move out of the way of a woman.
Genders get confused, as it does often in SE Asia and ESL people. I get addressed as “sir” sometimes. In Dhaka a man asked Travis, looking at me, “and who is this fine gentleman?”
I try to not let it get to me. I just let Travis do all of the talking and hard work while I take a back seat. It can be frustrating at times, but other times it makes for a great escape. I don’t need to participate in any conversation. I don’t need to entertain the crowds.
Sometimes though you just get the plain offensive comments, even with Travis being nearby. A man at the ship yards asked if we had children, and we said not yet. As soon as Travis turned his attention to someone else, the guy looked at me and said: “Why no babies? No loving? No jiggy jiggy?”
Because women here are so sheltered away, and men are so outgoing, my interactions with women are my favorites. Every time a girl waves a hello, or smiles are exchanged, it warms my heart. Some of them, usually students, have the guts to shout hello or come up to us and ask a question. And I love taking their pictures. Every time a woman’s picture is way more rewarding than a man’s, hands down. There is a connection, a bond. A smile exchanged feels like something deeper, like an acknowledgment of a shared bond in our “somewhat” oppression. But also that as women, no matter how different we are, we are also similar.
On the environment:
Yes, Bangladesh is polluted. It has some serious exhaust issues, and you can’t leave the hotel without your nose filling with black junk. There are some serious smells in this country, and every gutter is like a cesspool. Gray liquids. Dark goo. Dumpsters on the street, overflowing. It’s a surprise that we haven’t seen street rats.
Trash gets thrown out outside, especially so in smaller places. You try to be mindful and throw things out in the garbage, only to turn around and see the garbage you just used is being emptied out in a field or over the railing of a boat.
But Bangladesh has some great things that would put any Western country to shame. Some may be out of poverty, perhaps, but some are from great government initiatives. Here are some examples:
– Plastic bags are banned. Yes, there are still some around, of course, but they are few and far in between. Compared to SE Asia, this is a huge difference. Items purchased are placed in paper bags or mesh bags. Food is placed in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Snack food is placed into home-made paper bags made of recycled homework assignments or school notes, or old newspapers. In some restaurants napkins are newspaper cutouts.
– Paper used to make photocopies, or to make notes, are usually reused sheets with information on the back of them. Other times, papers used to make photocopies are the smallest size needed as possible.
– Chittagong and a few other cities had baby taxis (tuk tuk) that were battery-powered.
– Ethnic villages use solar power.
– Larger vehicles and baby taxis in most city use CNG fuel instead of regular gas.
– Everything is reused or fixed. There is a lot of ingenuity around.
– A fresh coat of paint makes everything new and avoids having to replace something. We saw people painting barbwire fences silver to make them look new again.
On paving the way:
There are very little Western tourists in Bangladesh. Outside of very specific “high-end” hotels outside of the big cities, we haven’t seen any other tourists. It gets to a point where we get as excited as the locals do when we spot a white person. In all, thus far, we have crossed path with less than a dozen white people across the whole country.
If you want to know what it feels like to be a star, and you are of a very visible minority (compared to the locals), then come to Bangladesh. Everywhere you go you will be met with curious eyes, dropped jaws and excitement. People will want to know where you are from, and what you think of their country. People will say, over and over, “Welcome to Bangladesh”. People will want their photo taken with you, and otherwise you will be taken in photo on countless cellphones. People will want to shake your hand. People will thank you for just exchanging a few words with them, or even for taking their picture.
Because tourists are such a rarity, it’s important to remember that you are paving the tourism path and how you act will greatly influence people’s perspective of Westerners. Remember to be kind, patient and open. Don’t be afraid to interact with people: it makes their day. Remember to dress modestly and to refrain from displays of public affection. Try to pay fair prices, but not pay extra or tip all of the time. Remember to not (always) give money to beggars or sweets, as they would eventually start to see white people as walking ATM. Usually a handshake is enough to make them happy. Remember that what you do now will influence the experience of future tourists.
The best thing in Bangladesh is not the sightseeing. There are by far prettier places around. The strongest point of the country is the people: They are the nicest, kindest, warmest, proudest people I’ve ever met. I know without a doubt that when I’ll look back at Bangladesh years from now, my fondest memories will be the people.
Food is Bangladesh is good, cheap and tasty. Great stewed meats, freshly cooked flat breads. Fruits. Curries. It gets repetitive though. It can get tiring to always eat similar things, with similar flavours. At times you are dying for anything different or a meal that you don’t eat with your hands.
There is Chinese food almost everywhere in Bangladesh. It doesn’t really taste Chinese, but one can see where the inspiration came from. It’s usually “expensive” and not as good as local food. Other than that, Western food is near impossible to find.
Chinese food is always served with ketchup. I’ve even seen people put it in their soup. Weird.
Bangladesh is cheap: there is a reason why Lonely Planet voted it as #1 cheapest destination around for 2011. Because we want to be comfortable, we have been paying a lot more for room and transport than usual. Our room prices vary from $13 to $30 a night. On the other hand, food is so cheap that it’s near impossible to spend more than $5 on it a day. As such, staying on budget has been very easy, even though we have been treating ourselves all around.
While we may be going “high-end” all the way, it never really feels that fancy out here. For younger people with a sense of adventure (read: a higher tolerance for shitty hotel rooms), one could easily spend less than $10 a day in this country.
Other random observations:
Handicaps here seem to be looked at as fully functioning members of society. There appears to be less stigma towards them. It is very moving and inspiring.
People protest everything they dislike. They are not afraid to criticize or take to the streets to voice their opinions. Often it has a bit of a barbaric outcome, but the underlying freedom of speech, of crowd, of expression here is commendable.