Saturday, August 2, 2008

NYC to Dhaka: 30 Awesome Hours of Airplanes and Airports

Narrow unpaved alleyways. Colorful saris. Huge lush trees with massive leaves. Barefoot women. Mangos pineapples papaya and some fruits I’ve never seen before. Rickshaws everywhere! Dhaka is culturally rich and teeming with energy. I love it.
Ok. Hold on. Start over. Where am I? How did I get here? And why aren’t I in New York?

A month and a half ago, I was told of this amazing opportunity. Because of earlier complications involving pretty severe international security issues, two people with American passports were needed to escort 28 Bangladeshi high school students to the US to study. What’s the catch? Hmm… I haven’t found one yet.

I quickly volunteered. I have never been to Bangladesh before. In fact, I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that I know practically nothing about the country. But why would I pass up an all-expenses-paid trip? Well, I wouldn’t.

Less than a week after arriving in New York from my cross-country adventure with Nate “I walk up walls” Conroy, I was on my way to the airport. The flight schedule was daunting. Three separate flights. Two layovers. And a whole lotta air time.

To start things off right, our first flight was delayed. First 15 min. Then 25 minutes. Then 35 minutes. Once aboard the plane, we wait. 30 more minutes roll by. The woman to my left snap snap SNAPS her gum. The person behind me slams the traytable consistently at 5-second intervals. Whack… Whack… Wh-

But my main concern is whether or not we’ll make our connecting flight from Atlanta to Dubai. That’s a big flight. Rustin, the person actually affiliated with the exchange program who I’m assisting, says there’s only one of those flights per day. If we miss this one, we wait a full 24 hours for the next flight. Which means that our flight to Dhaka will be postponed. And Rustin’s checked bag will be lonesome in Dhaka.

As we take off, my nose is already furiously buried in my book. I am reading, and rereading, and thinking, and rerereading, and writing. And then I hear a noise through my earplugs. It turns out the gum snapper to my left also likes to sing. So there she is sitting next to me on the plane singing loud enough to be heard through my earplugs. It’s going to be a long flight.

Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t so long of a flight. Maybe a few hours. We scurry across Atlanta’s airport and barely make our connecting flight. Whew. Dubai here we come.

Rustin and I pool our intellectual resources and tear into the crossword puzzle in the seatback in front of us. Dinner. I start watching Ironman, but my eyelids droop. I twist and turn and shiver and put my leg on the seat and then on the arm rest and then into pretzel-like positions and then put my head on the window and then rest it on my hand and then…. I didn’t sleep very well.

I woke up to pizza. For breakfast?! Or was it lunch? Possibly dinner. My internal clock had gone haywire. Being in a confined space, we have no idea what time of day or even what day it is. We are cutting across time zones and, as we do that, it’s like we’re fast-forwarding time.

It was a 14 hour flight. That’s an awful long time.

Dubai is extreme in all dimensions. We walk out of the airplane and into a glass bubble. Inside we are confronted with bright lights, tall ceilings, indoor palm trees, fake torches lining the walls, and extraterrestrial vehicles suspended from the ceiling. We race down the stairs, passing everyone on the escalators, until the ground floor. That’s where we encounter the world’s longest corridor. As a reward for surviving the corridor a friendly accordian bug greets us.

I, driven by a mad desire to acquire large quantities of passport stamps, convince Rustin to go on a stamp binge with me. We decide to exit and re-enter the airport for the sole purpose of getting the UAE stamp. The customs woman laughs at us.

We leave the airport and step into the Dubai night. WHAAAM! We hit a wall of concrete humidity. The impact nearly knocked the wind out of me. Every breath I took felt like solid bricks inside my lungs. Thank Goddess for air conditioning.

We fumble over to departures. Security. Ticketing. Security again. Longest corridor ever. Escalator. Suddenly we’re dumped back into the frantic mess of duty free shops. People are everywhere and they are buying everything they see. Our cameras make periodic appearances as we try to capture the over-the-top-ness that characterizes the country that is also home to indoor skiing and the artificially-made islands in the shape of a palm tree. Shrug. “Only in Dubai,” we'd say.

We have a 7 hour layover. I grab some coffee and we settle in for the wait. All around us, weary travelers are sprawled out in chairs and on the floor. Some play cards. Others typity type on their computers. I chose to people-watch.

I see people in all types of attire. There are the long bearded men in flowing white robes. Tourists in shorts. The woman sitting next to me shows only beautifully hennaed hands and a tiny slit for her eyes. Teenagers in tank tops. A little girl walks by with a beautiful pink headscarf that matches her dress. Meanwhile, I’m wearing the same clothes from New York. I wonder how many people are judging me.

Then I practice my Bengali. The script is unfamiliar. The sounds are confusing to read on paper. How will I ever begin to learn this language?

Boarding the plane was quite an experience. There was no sitting room at the gate of course. The voice over the PA system made it clear that we were to board the plane when our zone was called, but as soon as it was announced that business and first class costumers were allowed to board, nearly everyone got up and formed a massive line. There was no regard for order or rules. People did what they wanted. Perhaps an introduction to Dhaka? I just shrugged and patiently waited until the chaos had subsided.

They never called the seating zones. It wouldn’t have made a difference; no one was listening.

The Emirates Airlines had a spectacular entertainment system, so the nearly 5 hour flight didn’t seem so long. But the ~30 hours of total travel time was starting to get to me. My eyes were tired. But Bangladesh was ready and waiting to smack me in the face.

We walked off of the plane and into the airport. The air was moist and earthy. Soldiers with old rifles and ill-fitting blue helmets walked by. Lounging men lined the walls of the terminal. Customs went surprisingly smoothly with soldiers barking orders. The baggage claim was a mess. Chaos.

Somehow we managed to get Rustin’s bag out of the ruckus and headed out to where there should have been a representative from our hotel to pick us up. We looked at the people holding signs: The Westin, Best Western, Sheridan… hmmm…

We couldn’t find anyone who had ever heard of our hotel. We stepped outside into the sticky humidity. There was a huge iron gate all around us and pressed up against that gate were hundreds of people. Meanwhile, honking cars drove by. But we couldn’t find anyone who was holding a sign for us. We had no local currency. We spoke no Bangali. We had no clue where we were or where we were going. It was bad.

We must have looked so lost and helpless that a British couple came over and asked if we needed help. They let us use their cell phone. They gave us advice and some Bangladeshi taka for us to make a phone call with. They were very very sweet.

Just then Rustin saw a man holding a sign just outside of the large gate. He walked over and confirmed that it was for us. I gave the woman her taka back with all the thanks I could muster. Finally the car was allowed through the gates and the boisterous crowd and we were thrusted out of the gate into the swarming madness of Dhaka.

I fell in love with Dhaka the moment I laid my eyes on it. It was teeming with life. There were no road rules or, if there were, no one followed them. The streets were uneven and speedbump prone. Motorcycle rickshaws weaved in and out of cars. Pedestrians crossed the streets where they wanted. Horns blared. Warn out buildings stared back at us from the side of the road. Beggars came up to our car windows with missing arms or babies slung across their chests. People were selling popcorn and bananas. Little boys were peddling huge loads on their bicycles. Everywhere I looked, life looked back at me. It was Cairo times 400.

We found out later that because it was Friday, the streets were relatively empty compared to work days. I find that hard to believe, but I guess I’ll just wait to find out.

The guest house is awesome. There’s a huge garden in the middle of it and plenty of lounge space. My room has two comfy foam beds, a bathroom, TV, internet, an AC and two fans. The hotel staff speak minimal English, which I love because it forces me to use Bengali. I told them d’oh noh baad for their help and I think they found me amusing.

As soon as I set my stuff down, I was ready to explore. Rustin and I set out for the lake and walked along it. I don’t think I’ve ever been stared at so much in my life. Usually I try to fit in, but here I don’t really have a chance in the world. The skin color and clothes say it all. So, I held my head high and avoided most eye contact.

Bridges encompassed by thick trees and young couples. After a bit of walking, I suggested we head inland to the heart of the hustle and bustle. Soon we were emersed in Bangali signs, overcrowded noisy buses that never came to a complete stop, fruit vendors, shoe shiners, rickshaws galore! A friendly man struck up a conversation with us.

We found our way back to the guesthouse without a map and with hardly any backtracking. Success. I don’t know how Rustin put up with me. I was wide-eyed and talking a mile a minute about how awesome everything was!

What would be more awesome is if I spoke more Bengali. I’m working on it.

Back at the hotel, we were famished! The hotel staff asked what we wanted. I said, “Something Bangladeshi.” And so it was. Curried chicken, some delicious unidentifiable vegetables, and rice. Rustin and I dug in and polished everything off. At that point we were so tired that we wanted to pass out. So we did.

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