Visit Bangladesh – before it becomes a tourist trap
During our first week in Bangladesh, we came across a poster that said – “Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come.” We all thought that it was amusing then, but as this trip is over and I have returned home, I realize the truth the poster holds.
As I reflect on my experience, I am grateful, humbled, excited and a little bit sad that it was so short (yet so long at times). Bangladesh is a developing country. They gained their independence from Pakistan in 1971 – making it less than 40 years old as an independent nation. The Bangladeshi people fought for more than just the right to be their own country – they fought for their language, for their culture, for their lives. They fought to exist. They persevered through massacres by the Pakistani Army to be in their own country. Millions were lost in the Bangladeshi fight for freedom.
As a foreigner in Bangladesh, I had to adapt to many situations which I did not expect: the constant Bangladeshi followers and stares, the rolling blackouts, the impossible (read: impassable) traffic, the child beggars that tap on car windows, the constant heat with little access to air conditioning, squat toilets, half-paved roads, and half-paved and uneven sidewalks.
These are all things that I (we) do not have to live with in the United States. Please do not read this as complaining – I’m not, I accepted these things as part of the trip and learned to adapt, even learned to appreciate. By the end, the heat didn’t bother me so much (but it felt amazing when we walked into a place that had decent a/c), squat toilets were nothing to get upset or be uncomfortable about, the half-paved roads made the van trips more fun, the uneven sidewalks gave you a little bit more exercise and, well, the following and the stares, you just learned to live with – I never felt threatened by people following us, it was just something that happened because they were curious. In fact, we even succumbed to the curiosity when we had lunch one day at a western restaurant and other western people walked in and we stared at them!
The only thing I never really got used to seeing were the children begging in the streets. Begging in Bangladesh is nothing like panhandling in the United States. Americans complain about a man with a sign sitting on the sidewalk, the children on the streets of Dhaka would grab hold of your hand and motion that they want food or in broken English ask for two taka, five taka (that comes to between 3 and 7 cents in the United States). If you are in a car, they come out in traffic and tap on the windows – in moving, fast, dangerous traffic – there are children no older than five or six running in the streets barefoot with only a pair of shorts on, begging at cars, CNGs, rickshaws, vans, bikes, hoping to get a few taka to take home to their families. I can’t imagine this being acceptable in the United States or in another western country.
But I wouldn’t trade these experiences, because as we drove down the half-paved road back to Dhaka from Sylhet, I realized that in ten years, when the westerners realize the untapped beauty of Bangladesh, that that single lane road with beautiful farm land of rice, jute, bamboo, pineapple and tea will be a four lane highway with a McDonalds, Holiday Inn Express and Starbucks on the corners. The little family-owned shops that line the street in the center of town will not be constructed out of bamboo and tin but of brick and mortar with proper doors and air conditioning – all catering to the tourists.
In the city, the children begging in the streets would not be visible and would likely be run off by security guards or police. In general there is an acceptance of beggars in the street and a general idea of helping others out by providing what little taka they could or food, or whatever they can to help the beggar. There was some running off of beggars at the few touristy areas of Dhaka, but in general, no one ran the beggars off.
All of these western amenities will take away some of the beauty of Bangladesh. On the six hour drives through the country, there were only once or twice that I pulled out my iPod and book, because the scenery was far too beautiful to miss. I went a month without seeing a McDonalds, Starbucks or Holiday Inn.
Tourism is a good industry for Bangladesh and will help them develop further, but at what cost? Will it become so hyper-westernized that traveling to Bangladesh will be like traveling to Europe? Will the charm, beauty and simplicity of the village be lost? Will the Bangladeshi countryside be missed because tourists will not be able to see beyond the western implants?
I hope that the Bangladeshi countryside will still be accessible and alive well into the future. Agriculture is what the Bangladeshi economy today is built on, it is what sustains families, homes, lives – and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
So as I close out this blog, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bangladesh, do it. But do it with an open mind, an open heart and have the adventurous spirit to move past the touristy areas and into the vast beautiful countryside. Embrace the people, the culture, the language (as best as you can). Soak up the simplicity of the village life, the tragedy of the poverty, the perseverance of the people.