About Me

maker, creative, living lightly, local, craft, minimalism, and taking joy in the small things

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Bangladesh Jaunt

I've just returned from a 4 1/2 day trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where I went for a friend's wedding. Asif (a Bengali) lived with me in Australia in 2005, and I had been hanging out for the wedding ever since. 2 friends from Australia also came for the trip.

Some Basics about Bangla

Bangladesh is a small country, and only became a nation in 1971. The UN lists it as the most corrupt country in the world, and 80% of the citizens live on less than USD$2 per day. Asif's Dad (Asif being my friend, the Groom) is the District Commissioner of Dhaka. The DC is an unelected position, but is he is one of the highest ranking civil servants in the capital. As a result everything was streamlined, and made very easy for us: immigration, VIP visits to some of the sites and meals with various people. Rules and social norms were broken: foreigners in the airport and I was invited to participate in many parts of the event that are generally reserved for the men

Arriving in Bangladesh

Arriving at midday all I could see were clouds, or what I assumed to be clouds. However, it seems likely that it was really just pollution. In my time in Dhaka I did not see the sky once.

Driving from the airport to Asif's house was an adventure. In fact, every car trip was like driving dodgem' cars. Most roads have no marked lanes, but even where such markings exist they are meaningless. Cars, baby taxis, buses, bikes and rickshaws all jostle for space. The soundtrack is a cacophony of horns - from the deep bellows emanating from the buses and trucks, to the tinny little bells rung by the rickshaw drivers. To further complicate matters pedestrians cross the road wherever, and whenever the feel like.

First Impressions

On the drive from the airport to Asif's house there were 5 things that I kept noticing.

1. Pollution - which later led to headaches, and really sore eyes.
2. Power lines - many of which are illegally connected, tumble across the city.
3. Traffic - the theory in Dhaka seems to be "trust that the other vehicle will stop". To that end, we did only see 1 car crash in our time in Dhaka, and even that was minor, just resulting in a damaged door handle.
4. Staring - normally passengers have to leave the airport building to find their friends or family. This means that hundreds of Bengalis stand behind a long fence 30 metres from the airport doors, looking for their friends. This also meant that there were hundreds of Bengalis staring at me.
5. Poverty - it's very difficult to describe just how poor most people in Bangladesh are. Despite previously traveling in developing countries in South East Asia, I was still shocked. In Bangladesh there appear to be 2 social classes - the dirt poor or the super wealthy. Driving along the road that connects the airport to the city this division is obvious. There are beautifully manicured garden beds along the sides of the road, and these gardens are kept that way from coiled barbed wire preventing people from walking on them. This results in Bengalis walking bare foot, and sometimes shirtless, along what we would call a highway. When the cars stop, or slow, hordes of beggars and hawkers approach the car. It was quite confronting watching my Bengali friends not even notice these beggars, while I found it difficult to look up.

Luxury in Poverty

My friend lives in a mansion, across the street from the Prime Minister. The house was built by the British over 100 years ago. I'm not sure how many rooms were in the house - we were given a tour of the family's living area but I could see more rooms in behind. In the backyard there were at least 7 shacks for the servants to live, and more around the side for the security personnel.

At every meal we were watched over by servants, who would replace the food on our plate as we ate. There was generally 1 servant per 2 people sitting at the table. Also, when we wore traditional dress the servants would descend to help me put on the sari, and then follow me throughout the evening, fixing my clothes.

There were also several children on the property. It was disconcerting to see them running about in old, sometimes torn, clothing, surrounded by the luxury of the house. After a couple of days, using the phrasebook section of our Lonely Planet, we attempted a short conversation with these kids. Although they could tell us their names, they didn't know how old they were, presumably because they had never celebrated their birthdays. However, these kids were far better off than the children we saw begging in the street. Kids missing arms, or legs, would sit on the road, or walk among the cars, begging for a few taka.

Daily reminders that we weren’t immune from the poverty were the power outages. Each time the power went out it meant that there was no water, as electricity was required to pump it around the house. However, the area we stayed in was one of the least affected areas, as it is filled with the houses of high ranking Government Ministers.

Pre Wedding: The Holud

A Muslim Bengali wedding is composed of many parts. Prior to the actual marriage both the Bride and Groom have their own Holud. At each ceremony the betrothed takes a seat on a stage and is surrounded by food. While there are musical performances each guest at the Holud comes and sits with the Bride or Groom, paints their face with tumeric paste and feeds them.

One of Asif’s uncles explained to us that a Muslim wedding is supposed to be boring, for the Bride and Groom. Each ceremony we attended certainly lived up to that explanation. All the ceremonies seemed to consist of the Bride and Groom sitting on stages for hours at a time, and having their photo taken over and over again!

Once the Holud is complete the bride and groom must stay in their own houses until the groom comes to the bride’s house to be married.

The Wedding

The actual marriage was quite boring. We drove to the bride’s (Zafreen) house, and some segregation of the sexes was attempted. The boys I traveled with sat with the groom and his male relatives while I sat in Zafreen’s bedroom with all the female relatives. First her mother, and mother in law dressed her in mountains of gold jewelry (it took almost half an hour to put it all on), then they veiled her, and the Imam came in with 1 of her uncles, and 2 of Asif’s uncles. The bride had to utter “I’m willing” in the presence of these men, and then sign a contract. At that moment she and Asif were married – and Asif had done nothing! The Imam and the uncles then went to Asif to tell him the good news. Some prayers were sung, and Asif signed the contract.

At this stage the segregation came to a halt, and we all ate dates to celebrate. However, the bride and groom still weren’t allowed to see each other.

We went back to Asif’s house to prepare for the wedding dinner (not the reception though, this was only Thursday and the reception was not until Sunday). I was brought a fancier sari to wear, and an Aunt took me shopping for jewelry. At the Holud I was the most underdressed woman, wearing very western jewelry with my sari, so an Aunt took me to buy some serious bling.

The Wedding Dinner

At 6pm 2 costumed horses (from the Presidential Guard) arrived with their costumed handlers. Once dressed, the groom and his brother mounted the horses and were veiled with garlands of jasmine and roses. We then paraded to the dining hall. A 22 piece military band led the way, followed by the horses and a long convoy of cars. At every intersection police were controlling the traffic to allow us to pass.

At the hall Asif had to pay the bride’s family so we could go in. About $400 was paid, but even then tradition demanded that we physically push the Groom inside.

Still Asif and Zafreen were not allowed to see each other. There were 2 halls, set up identically. There were tables and chairs as far as the eye could see, and a VIP table was set up near the stage. The groom sat in 1 hall, on a chair, on the stage, and the bride did the same in the 2nd hall. For about 2 hours photographs were taken of all the guests with the bride and groom.

At this stage she is meant to continue to look miserable, but the groom is allowed to look smug – he has stolen her from her father!

Once all the individual photos had been taken we all went downstairs. The men, the mothers, the bride and the foreigners ate dinner. Behind us the female guests poured drinks, and in front of us the waiters kept piling food onto our plates.

Finally, it was time for Zafreen and Asif to sit next to one another. She continued to look miserable, though it was clearly a struggle as she was actually happy to get married as this marriage was a ‘love match’ rather than an arranged marriage.

Hours of photo taking ensued, then finally it was time to leave. The procession returned to the groom’s house, and the bride was carried part of the way there in a Bengali version of a sedan chair.

We arrive at the house, and Zafreen stepped into a tray of vermilion dye and onto white cloth leading into the house. This is an old Hindu custom, meant to symbolize the prosperity a new wife brings into the house.

We followed the couple into their bedroom (by we I mean about 50 family members). Then we all took it in turns to sit with them and congratulate them. While we were with them the power went out and the bride had to remove her jewelry by the light of a mobile phone!

Some Sightseeing

Obviously, the reason we went to Bangladesh was for the wedding. However, we still managed to do a little sightseeing, and some shopping.

Much of Dhaka is newly built (though it looks like it will all fall down if you blow too hard). It has been ransacked of many of its treasures over time. Also Bangladesh itself is a very new country. As a result, there is practically no tourist infrastructure, and outside of the airport I saw 1 other foreigner the whole time!

We took a convoy of cars to the Liberation Memorial, Lalbagh Fort and a language memorial. The long drives also gave us a chance to see something of what life is like for regular Bengalis – the markets, the tea stands, the slums. Both the Memorial and the Fort were truly beautiful monuments, set amongst lush greenery.

To visit or not to visit

If it hadn’t been for the wedding, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Bangladesh. Going in as a regular tourist/traveler would not be for the faint of heart. To begin with, the visas are a nightmare to get, Bangladesh is not readily accessible (it took me 30 hours to travel there, because of the waiting times between flights), and once you are there Dhaka seems impenetrable. The Bangladesh Lonely Planet is the only guidebook available, but it does make a self directed trip seem possible.

My whole trip was full of amazing moments. Virtually every second something happened to make me look twice. While the wedding wasn’t exactly what Bollywood movies had led me to believe, it was really spectacular, and I feel very lucky to have experienced it.

1 comment:

Captainowie said...

Holy crap - sounds like an awesome time. I'm sorry I missed out.