Dhaka has a reputation of being one of the most congested and polluted cities in the world. Congested by some 300,000 cycle rickshaws and enough auto-rickshaws to thicken the air with black two-stroke exhaust. Most foreigners—our hosts included—tend to sequester themselves in spacious and climate-controlled residences clustered together along with most of the embassies in Baridhara—well north of downtown.
Leased cars come with drivers to shuttle expats between home and office and around the city on errands. Such an arrangement minimizes one's exposure to the unhealthy air of Dhaka—the number one concern of many of Dhaka's foreign residents. When not at home or at the office, and for unemployed spouses, there are the clubs—the American Club, the Dutch Club. Within the confines of the American Club one could be anywhere. Except for the appearance of the workers, there isn't a trace of Bangladesh. Well kept lawns, tennis courts, a swimming pool. The breakfast menu includes pork sausage and a video rental shop offers the typical selection you'd find in the States.
Joe and Tara—our hosts—offered up more luxury than we have back home. Needless to say this was in sharp contrast to our previous nine months backpacking through West Africa, the Middle East, and India. We had our own bedroom with attached bathroom, CNN on a big color TV, a stereo system on which to play newly purchased tapes of Bengali music (as well as Portishead CDs from their collection), and maid service for our dirty laundry. Evelyn made ample use of the large modern kitchen (in contrast with the single burner on which she cooked in Jordan) and meals were complimented by beer and wine (difficult to come by in Bangladesh), and followed by Baci chocolates brought back from Joe and Tara's recent visit to the States.
Seeing Dhaka through the eyes of expatriates gave us a very different view than we otherwise would have had. But this wasn't the only factor that colored our impressions. Eid—the Muslim holiday—lasts for three days. This year the first day fell on a Saturday, the second day of the Muslim weekend. So Sunday and Monday were holidays and most Dhakaians decided to make a week of it. The city was virtually deserted for much of our stay. Only during our last few days had the downtown markets reopened and the narrow streets of the old part of town returned to normal. Dhaka came alive.
Rickshaws packed the roads and the ferry terminal was bustling. The air was thick with exhaust. During the previous week's lull, an editorial writer in the local newspaper had gushed about how pleasant it was in a Dhaka devoid of traffic. The writer called for strict traffic control measures to be in place to greet Dhaka's residents when they returned to the workplace. This advice seemed to be heeded. Barriers had been erected to prevent illegal U-turns and traffic cops were to be seen at most intersections, armed not with a whistle but rather a stick used for hitting vehicles or even sometimes offending drivers.