Bangladesh 2020

I have visited most east Asian countries, but not Bangladesh. Dhaka, the capital, is the most crowded, busy, and poor place I have ever been to. The old town is a maze of winding alleys, packed with colorful rickshaws and crowds of people. It was so crowded in some places that I could not move, and since I am taller than most here, I kept getting hit in the face by baskets carried by people on their heads. The Buriganga river that winds through the city is wide, busy, and regrettably rather smelly. Dhaka had the distinction of having the most polluted air in the world at the time.

An especially interesting place is Sonargaon outside Dhaka. It used to be an affluent merchant town, but all the Indian merchants fled when Muslim Bangladesh – named East Pakistan at the time but later became independent in a bloody civil war – was split off from mostly Hindu India. Today, Sonargaon is a crumbling town of partially collapsed palaces, yet still showing their former grandeur. I got stopped every few minutes by local visitors, mostly groups of veiled women, who wanted selfies with me. Very friendly people!

But the reason for my visit to Bangladesh was not Dhaka but the Sundarban national park, a huge mangrove forest that covers much of the Ganges delta. To get there, I managed to get a ticket for the Rocket Steamer, a century-old wooden paddlewheel steamer, completely original. Third class was just blankets on deck; first class had cabins and a viewing deck in front. I felt like an Agatha Christie protagonist, lazily traveling down on the Buriganga, watching the busy river traffic.

The Sundarbans are a maze of small rivers, dark and untouched by humans – although they do have problems with pirates here, so we had a guard armed with a huge ancient gun. Mangrove roots stick out of the ground everywhere, and there are many kingfisher birds and animals in the jungle. There are tigers here, although we didn’t see one.

My plan was to travel from the Sundarbans to Calcutta and from there to the Andaman islands. Regrettably, a mostly ignored local health crisis that would later be called Covid-19 suddenly exploded internationally, and India closed its borders. I had a very hard time leaving Bangladesh, buying three airplane tickets until one actually worked and I got out before the airports closed. (Hint: do not fly with Turkish Airlines!)






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