When you travel a lot you’re often asked the same two questions: What’s your favorite country? and, What’s the worst place you’ve ever been?
I always refuse to answer the first question because I don’t like favorites, but up until recently, I’ve never hesitated to answer the second with the word “Bangladesh.”
I first visited Bangladesh in 1998, sort of by accident. I was doing some random work in India, and my visa was expiring. Simply put, I needed to cross a border, and well, Bangladesh was the closest border to cross. My 23 year old self thought, “why not”.
Together with my traveling partner, the amazing Andrea (who will certainly feature in many more of my 100 stories), I went to the travel agent in Calcutta and shelled out a heap of Rupees for return tickets to Dhaka.
On Dhaka departure day, I woke up to find my friend nearly dying of dysentery. Trouble was she had a visa and I didn’t. My only option was to abandon her in the rat-infested guest house in Calcutta and pray we’d meet up in Bangladesh- somehow. May I remind you that travel in 1998 was without internet, cell phones, and travel bloggers.
Before I left, I traded our Nepal Lonely Planet on the Calcutta street for a Bangladesh guidebook and, as we did back then, picked a meeting place in Dhaka from it’s pages. We chose the lobby of the Dhaka Sheraton with a wager it was the most likely place in the Lonely Planet to still exist.
Bangladesh started out rough- I arrived to find out it was the final days of Ramadan. This mostly meant two things: there was no food in the city, and almost no guest houses open. (I couldn’t actually afford to stay at the Sheraton where we were to meet) . The third thing I learned was that in Bangladesh, there are also mostly no women. Well, there are women, but they keep them hidden out of sight.
Before I even made it from the airport to the city, my boots were stolen from my backpack. The motor rickshaw ride in the dark was long and intimidating, and lodging nearly impossible. After many unsuccessful attempts, I found one local hotel that would take me in. There was a restaurant downstairs where I had to eat behind a curtain, and because of the holiday I was the hotel’s only guest. Creepy men continually knocked on my door through the evening, and I moved the furniture in front of the door to barricade myself in.
My sole mission the next day was to get a visa to return to India. I dressed head to toe to hide all my skin and curves. A rickshaw navigated me across the congested town through billions of bicycles, rickshaws, and men leading around goats and cows to be slaughtered for the Eid celebration. I was literally trapped in a gridlock of goats with men staring through me. I wished I could be invisible. Or at least, just get my passport and get the hell out.
I invented things to do all day, biding time til the magic stamp appeared in my passport entering me rights to re-enter India. Mostly I rode a rickshaw through the streets crowded with soon-to-be-sacrificed farm animals, and pretended to enjoy the “must see” sites of Dhaka while being stared at by hundreds of men- like I was more of a must see than the famous pink palace.
And then, things started to unravel.
I showed up right on time at the Indian Embassy to retrieve my visa, and it was closed- for the next four days. I had completely forgotten that India and Bangladesh liked to show that they were different by refusing to be in the same time zone. Bangladesh time was 15 minutes different, and I was late.
How I left the embassy with the visa is another story. What you need to know for this story, is that to this day, that visa never got stamped, and the day got worse.
I found the Sheraton and sat in its lobby for a good six hours, but Andrea never showed up. I waited and waited and asked the front desk nearly every half hour if anyone called looking for me. When the clock passed midnight I realized she must be dead in Calcutta and I became determined to be on the next plane to find her.
In my panic, I sought counsel of the Sheraton concierge to get a plane ticket that would take me in the morning. He led me to the back of the hotel where a man sat shuffling stacks of paper behind a very high counter ignoring me. Impatiently, I stood on tiptoes to lean over his counter to see his important business, and something unusual and beautiful caught my eye. A small square note with two words on it “Andrea” “Stephanie” and a telephone number.
My friend was alive and in Dhaka. She’d been calling, and the hotel told her no one was waiting. She’d met an American from her hometown on her flight who was doing medical work in Bangladesh and his team was caring for her at a local mission guest house. They agreed to pick me up from the Sheraton in the morning.
Had I not been penniless, clueless and 23, I’d have used my credit card to check myself into the Sheraton until morning, but alas, I was all of these things. I went back to the creepy guest house in the middle of the night, moved my furniture against the door, and slept.
What I didn’t know when I packed my bags the next morning was that this was the day that they were going to slaughter all of the animals who’d been causing the previous day’s traffic jam. It was a long walk to the Sheraton through streets running with rivers of fresh animal blood.
The Bangladeshi’s were celebrating Eid, and I was celebrating reunification and rescue.
With Andrea too sick to go back to India, we spent the next week in Dhaka with our new friends who we were convinced were angels, sent to rescue us from ourselves in Bangladesh.
Eventually we flew directly back to Thailand and I wanted to kiss the streets of Bangkok because after Bangladesh they looked so clean.
Though I’ve vowed in 1998 that I was done with Dhaka after all that, I did travel again to Bangladesh in 2010. Fifteen years has changed some things there, and a lot of things in me too. As I looked around Dhaka, I tried to imagine my 23 year old backpacker self there, and had to laugh. Sure, it’s still crowded, and dirty. Women are still missing from the street scene, and men still line up to watch you. But beneath all the insanity is a deep beauty and rich hospitable people. And, um, some amazing shopping.
My lesson is this. We must never confuse bad experiences with bad places. And we should always believe in angels- because sometimes we’ll need them.