Writing about Bangladesh was so concurrently confounding and exhilarating that I almost gave up. My experiences both arriving and departing the country offer insight into the contradictory emotions I felt.
I had been assured by many knowledgeable people that obtaining a visa on arrival was simple, normally taking about twenty minutes. Likewise, the trip from the airport to the hotel where my travel companions and I were staying was ordinarily about half an hour.
Processing our visas took almost three long hours, during much of which it felt as though we would be turned back. The authorities feared we might be election observers rather than tourists.
Once we finally had our visas, the half-hour trip to our hotel took twice that, as we drove through a busy and invigorated city. The streets were lit to an incredible colorful brightness in celebration of Bangladesh’s day of freedom from Pakistan—December 16, 1971.
Two weeks later—December 30—marked both the end of our trip and election day in the country. It took 11 minutes to drive back to the airport. In further contrast with what we experienced on arrival, now the city was devoid of both vehicles and humans. Almost all motorized transport was banned from the streets. Internet traffic was shut down. The police were out en masse. The government had carefully orchestrated its own reelection, and was now “protecting” the people from possible turmoil by the effectively silenced opposition.
There was no major turmoil. The prime minister had run unopposed and—unsurprisingly—won. Of 300 congressional seats, only three went to the opposition.
The election had all of the hallmarks of a totalitarian dictatorship. After much consideration, discussion, and debate, however, I would say the Bangladeshi people live in relative freedom under a government whose leadership they mostly support.
Near the end of my trip, a three-hour conversation with a man whose entire extended family supports the opposition helped shed light on the situation. According to him, the incumbents and the opposition vary little in their objectives, and the country is experiencing economic success that has almost eliminated its well-documented days of hunger and abject poverty.
Protection from Islamic extremism also plays a role here.
Between my arrival and departure I experienced a largely Muslim population living in a secular land—an environment almost unique in today’s world. I observed Christian, Hindu, Sufi, and Islamic places of worship. I learned of the titanic and tiresome battle between two female national leaders. I saw more election posters than my mind could handle, watched thousands march in areas so remote as to defy the possibility, and filmed an island of fishermen embark on a voting expedition. I posed for pictures with border police and riot police, and met three newly promoted female Air Force officers. I saw almost no other foreign tourists, and drew as many stares as a Martian might in my home country.
A few weeks earlier, in India, I wanted to acquire a holy Hindu necklace made of basil-tree seeds. It was not until Christmas Day, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, that I found a tiny shop that sold the necklaces. By then, I was no longer surprised at the apparent contradiction of finding my Hindu keepsake in a mostly Muslim land.
I am quite certain it was not the $.59 she earned from the sale that elicited the joy expressed by the shop owner. And mine could not have been caused by those tiny seeds. It was the glow of our shared exhilaration at connecting with someone at once so foreign and so alike. Our love for humanity broke all barriers between us.
It was a Christmas gift from Bangladesh that I will always cherish.