Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday, July 1st

I’m feeling very domestic right now. I finally went to Lavender (the super market) again this afternoon to stock up on groceries, and I just spent the evening cooking up a bunch of chicken to freeze and keep handy for a quick meal, so I’ll stop living on Indian takeout and cereal like I basically have been. I’m working on becoming more of a real human being that actually lives here, instead of a dazed and confused lost girl in Dhaka.  I definitely feel settled in now—I am 100% comfortable getting around on my own (if I know where I'm going…otherwise, rickshaws and I still don’t speak the same language…), and I am very happy with what I’m able to find at the grocery store and with the fact that I’ve joined a gym by my house. So, life is starting to feel somewhat normal. I can’t believe it’s July, and I’m halfway through my stay here. It sort of feels like I just got here, but then I think back to everything I’ve done and realize okay, I’ve been here for a month.

This weekend was eventful. Well, Friday we ended up not exploring. It was rainy and also 1pm by the time the guys got up and moving. Instead, we went out to a delicious Indian restaurant for lunch and then just sort of hung around, watched a movie, had a good and enjoyable, lazy, rainy day. For dinner, we went out with a group from the office to a Thai restaurant—us three and then three others. It was a pretty upscale with really nice décor. We just ordered a bunch of different dishes for the table and shared it all, which is the way I like to do. Also, I don’t know what I’m ordering at a lot of these ethnic restaurants, so it’s nice to leave the ordering in someone else’s more experienced hands.  I have yet to really have a bad food experience here (knock on wood). Honestly, everywhere I’ve been the food has been delicious. It’s been such a pleasant surprise. Also, a lot of the restaurants are nice, like they have good atmospheres and good service and are just nice places to sit down and enjoy yourself and a meal. I think eating out is a big form of entertainment here, since there are limited options of things to do. So the city really has its variety of restaurants and does a good job with them. 

Saturday, we decided we would be more ambitious with our time. We woke up relatively early and headed to Old Dhaka, which was what I had mentioned we were thinking of doing on Friday. It’s the area Dhaka first started in and still is a relatively nice part of the city. It’s where most of the historical sites of the city are, so a popular tourist destination. Traffic wasn’t too bad, and we got there pretty quickly (i.e. less than an hour). But three people in a CNG is cozy, and it was pouring rain, so we rolled down the tarp pieces they keep to cover the caged walls for when it’s rainy, which is nice because you stay dry, but make it so, so stuffy and sort of claustrophobic.

Our first stop was the boat terminal of Old Dhaka. Old Dhaka is in the southern most part of the city, and is right up against a river that spans the country. People take boats from here to various parts of the country, both south and north. During Eid—the festival at the end of Ramadan—this terminal is packed with people heading home to their villages for the holiday. We got to the terminal and it was hectic. Shanties lined the streets selling basic goods and food. We walked towards the entrance of the terminal and we were stopped by a man offering to take us out on a boat. We had heard this is something you can do—get a guy to take you out in his boat to see the area from the water—so we agreed.

We followed him along the dock and jumped onto a VERY large boat that seemed to be carrying pineapples and coconuts. It was a giant shipping boat. I was a little confused what we were doing on this random boat that was bustling with people working, but then we walked through and off to the side and saw the rowboat attached and climbed in. I call it a rowboat, but they have a different official name. They are longer and narrower and shallower than what you would imagine a rowboat to be. Also, one man stands in the back with a single oar that both propels and steers the boat. It was nice to go out on the water and see all the boats. And although the water was crowded, it was peaceful compared to the chaos that ensues on land. There were large rocket boats that take people on overnight trips to different cities in the country. And there were even large freight ships, some of which were on shore and getting built in a shipyard we passed. There were also boats just slightly bigger than ours carrying different goods across the river. But what we saw the most of were other boats exactly like the one we were in. Dozens and dozens of these filled with people were going back and forth across the river. Our impromptu guide who spoke some basic English told us they were sort of like water taxis. On one side of the river is where most of the people live; while on the other side is the area most people work in, so the boats take them back and forth. It was very neat to see from right inside of it all.

After our boat ride, we headed to the nearest tourist destination, the “Pink Palace” as it is known to foreigners (I forget the official Bangla name…those Bangla words get me every time). While I expected a coherent, important-sounding story and history behind the big palace, there really wasn’t one. It had been passed around by Bangladeshi elite, with one family primarily having it through the 1800s and 1900s, and it was where Indian and British officials would stay when visiting. Also, at one point in the 1900s, it was just overrun by squatters and had become completely dilapidated. They finally renovated it a few decades ago, and it has now been restored to a bright coral-ly pink color and with the inside restored for the most part (some areas they were still working on). It was neat walking through and seeing some of the rooms set up like they were in the 1800s. Overall, though, it was really nothing too exciting. But we felt like good tourists for seeing it.

 Afterwards, we were hungry, so we decided to go track down Haaji Biryani, which is a very well known biryani restaurant in Old Dhaka. Restaurant is a strong word, though, and while everyone could point us in the right direction, we ended up passing the place before turning back and finding it. It was about two shanty-stores wide—so tiny—and had no sign. We just asked the man stationed at the big pot outside if this was Haaji Biryani and he told us yes. And it was completely open on the street side. It had about five small tables and right outside sat the man who directed us in with the largest pot I had every seen (I could easily have fit inside) of biryani. And that was the restaurant. You told them how many plates you wanted and they brought you whatever biryani they had that day. Saturday, it was mutton. And, wow, was the biryani DELICIOUS—definitely the best I had had in Dhaka. And it was welcome after a pretty long morning getting down to Old Dhaka and then wondering around Pink Palace in the heat. The heat just makes everything a little harder. Lime is a big thing, and people eat it on most of their meals. I have sort of picked up doing this with my rice-based meals at the office and biryani. It really does taste good with the flavors they have already put into the rice.

Oh, also, on our way to finding Haaji Biryani we stopped at a little street shop to try the pastries they were making. The streets of Old Dhaka are tiny and narrow and wind this way and that for what seems like forever. It was easy to get lost in the narrow little streets and finding a way out and onto a main road with cars was a challenge. The only vehicles on these streets are rickshaws (and LOTS of them) and motorcycles. We saw endless traffic jams of rickshaws, with people just stopped and waiting for as far as you could see. But anyway, on our way to Haaji Biryani, we found these men making pastries with dough that they were forming into flat disks and then putting on the walls of an open oven set in the ground. We bought a couple to try and oh my god they were the best things I’ve had in Bangladesh so far. AMAZING. They are sweet and buttery and flaky and just so delicious you have no idea. We found out they are called Bakha Kani and are an Old Dhaka tradition. They also have unsweetened ones, which we tried later, that are savory and buttery and delicious. They are made with layers of ghee (clarified butter) spread between layers of dough so obviously they are super, super healthy and low fat. Ah, they are too good; I am going to have to travel back down to Old Dhaka again before I leave just to get some more.

After Haaji Biryani, we decided to go to Lalberg Fort, probably the biggest tourist destination of Old Dhaka. Finding a rickshaw or CNG that would take us was a nightmare. First, getting out of the tiny, narrow streets of the area to one of the very few main roads with CNGs was a challenge. Once we managed that, we probably waited on the side of the loud, honking, bustling, hot road for a good hour until we gave up on finding a CNG and all climbed onto a rickshaw who was willing to take us even though it was very far away. We did three on a rickshaw--what a scene. Kishan sat up on the back of the seat, while Prabhat and I sat up front. It was cozy to say the least. And thus we started our hour and a half (maybe 2 hour?) rickshaw ride to Lalberg Fort, part of which was in the rain. What took so long was getting stuck on these little streets. The lines of stopped rickshaw go on and on endlessly. You stop for five minutes, and then move ten feet up and stop again. It probably would’ve been faster to walk, but we didn’t know where we were going and we were pretty tired. Also, we kept thinking we were close because our driver said we were, but obviously every time he said that we weren’t close…so, basically, most of this hour and half was spent stopped. It wasn’t so bad; we people watched and just hung out on the rickshaw entertaining ourselves. It was nice to see such a different area than the one we live in. People, especially kids, were curious to see us and waved and said hello. After our very long and slow crawl, we finally, finally made it to Lalberg Fort and headed in.

The compound it sat on was a large garden and very beautiful. I hadn’t seen this much open space in Dhaka yet, and it was peaceful compared to the streets outside the compound walls. In the center sat a palace-looking structure, to the right was a mosque, and to the left was a structure that housed the living quarters. Along the back was a fort-type structure built into a hill. In the corner were the ruins from when large parts of the fort were destroyed in the Liberation War. We wandered around for a while (in the rain) and went into the buildings that were open. A group of kids all dressed in white were lined up on the back fort singing for what appeared to be some sort of music video, so that was sort of entertaining to watch.

After, we decided to go get a snack, and wandered down the street to a little restaurant whose front was shaped as a ghost and the door was the ghost’s mouth you walk through. Prabhat had heard of a haunted restaurant in Old Dhaka where they scare you while you eat, so we figured this was it. Inside, it was dark and there were green and purple laser lights and posters of ghosts and pumpkins (?) and 80s pop playing. It was a bizarre combination. The place was tiny, with four miniature booths and a table and almost no walking space. After about ten minutes of sitting while the guys got lassies (A yogurt based milkshake-type drink), the lights got even darker and ghoul-ish music started playing. Bright laser lights danced around the room. In the back of the shop, a door open, and a little figure in a black cape and a scary gorilla mask came out. A voice over the music in the back shouted out “I will kill you” and the little gorilla man came up to each of the five tables and sort of creepily stared at us and leaned in. It was mostly uncomfortable, and I didn’t really know what to do with myself…or my face. I guess look scared? The other restaurant guests sort of just looked bored. I was like seriously, no reaction? There is a midget dressed up as a gorilla coming up to your table while deafening music plays and a spooky voice shouts VERY loudly “I will kill you.” They must’ve been regulars… Kishan went in for a picture, which I captured and the gorilla man seemed willing to take. It was probably one of the strangest restaurant experiences I have ever had. Ten minutes later, after a group with three small kids came in, the same thing happened again (I wouldn’t want to spend too much time here with this show on repeat…) but this time a taller man dressed as the gorilla came out. The kids went berserk. And not in a good way. They were crying and screaming and hated it. We left right after this happened, which was just in time.  

Before heading home, we wanted to find more of the Bakha kanis. We knew there was a famous street food market nearby, and we tried to find it. Climbing on some rickshaws because it was pouring rain again, we started heading in one direction for like 20 minutes. When we clarified where we were going and the food we wanted to find, the guy looked exasperated and sort of explained (brokenly) that it was the other way—right where we had come from. Classic. So we turned around and headed back to the area we had started in. We stocked up on some bakha kanis to bring home and then went in search of a CNG. The same rickshaw was nice enough to take us to an area that had CNGs—sort of an impromptu CNG stand. We climbed in one, absolutely exhausted, and started heading home. At this point, there was traffic, and so it took about an hour of starting and stopping to make it back up north to Banani. At this point, we all just wanted to get home! It might not sound like we did a lot, but between the alternating heat and rain, and the exorbitant amount of time and effort it took to get from one place to the next, it was about the most tired I have been yet. I wanted to get home, and shower, and put on clean clothes and have some dinner. The CNG ride felt very, very long when normally I am pretty patient with these things. I was so happy when we finally made it back. There was a political speech going on near our house, so the CNG had to drop us off sort of far away, and nothing was more welcome after that rainy trek after a long, long day then my shower (albeit cold…) and the couch and a bowl of raisin bran for dinner. We all conked out in front of the TV and headed to bed very early.

Overall, it was a pretty successful day, and we were happy we made the adventure. Any attempt to do anything in Dhaka seems to turn into an adventure when it involves traveling. Between rain and road delays, you better expect a long day when doing something like this. But okay, anyway, this post is getting REALLY long, so I’m going to wrap it up. But I’ll write tomorrow about the wedding we went to on Sunday! It was the wedding I mentioned a while ago--a guy’s in the office. It was quite the experience. For now, I’ll keep this post to a weekend overview. Otherwise, things are good here! Like I said, I went grocery shopping today and also to work and the gym—a day that would be regular for me even back home. I’ll post later about the wedding!

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