Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bouncing Around Bangladesh (and Singapore)

Prologue: Freaking Out – 1/14/2013

So I’m going to Bangladesh. Why the crap would anyone do this, you may ask? One of my bestest buddies is stationed there with the State Department, and it’s my God given right to blow a huge wad of cash on a ticket to the armpit of South Asia! Yesterday I spent most of the day packing bags and running to various stores to buy the last minute things, so I had some time to realize that I’m about to start on an adventure…that’ll take TWENTY-FOUR HOURS of travel on planes to begin. Oh dear. Now that it’s actually happening, I’m doing a little bit of freaking out. Not because the journey’s long, but really it boils down to the fact that I’m having to get out of my comfort zone, and not just for an afternoon or even a weekend, but really for two weeks. I’ve gotten past the fact that most people won’t speak my language or understand my customs, but at the end of the day I like being able to go home, unwind with some mindless TV/internet, and reenergize for the next day. Is that going to happen? Stay tuned to find out.

Starting Out – 1/15/2013

I called a local cab company to come pick me up with plenty of time just in case they didn't show. At the very minute I had asked the cab to be there, my cell phone rings saying that my cab's outside waiting for me. After getting settled in the car, the driver asks me where I'm going. When I say Bangladesh, he gets a little quiet, so I just assume he doesn't know where it is. He then says that he was born in Dhaka and couldn't believe that I was to his home country! I took this as a good sign for the trip to come. Getting through the check-in process was incredibly easy, so note-to-self: leave late at night because the airport is so much quieter.

Once I had gotten to my terminal, I still had a few hours before my flight. I had hoped to give myself some time to grab some food and drink before I settled in for the 10-hour flight to Istanbul. I found a bar/restaurant and settled in for a while. My other patrons were taking late-night flights out too, but they were all government contractors going to Afghanistan. Another person at the bar who was also going to the "sand box," but wasn't a contractor in the strictest sense of the word. Instead, she was a two-time American gold medalist in rowing and was going there with a group of athletes to do some sort of USO show for the troops!

Like most international flights these days, our rather new A-340 gave you your own video screen, a game controller-type interaction device, and loads of music and movies to watch/listen to for hours. The new thing I hadn't seen in this kind of entertainment center was the touch screen you could use to interact with all of the menus. While thoroughly entertained by that technology, the best part of the flight was the food (who says that about airplane food??) I was flying Turkish Airways, and because I had flown domestically in the U.S. for far too many years, my opinion of airplane food was quite low. But on Turkish Airways I was pleasantly shocked because you were served Turkish food! Yum!

I had a few hours to kill in Istanbul’s airport, so I wandered around a bit to see what was around. I thought I was going to be in some foreign land, but for the most part the local Turkish population wore European clothes. There were ads featuring Brad Pitt selling Chanel No. 5, Jack Daniels prominently displayed in the duty free stores, and even Michael Bublé's Christmas CD available for purchase! Had I really traveled to the crossroads of Europe and Asia?

It did become more evident, however, that I was about to travel somewhere decidedly not in Europe by who was gathering near our departure gate. You'd expect to see a fair share of short, brown people, but I thought I'd be one of the few white faces on this flight. To my surprise, there was a group of 15 or so white folks coming from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I ultimately had to ask them what their plans were, and I found out they were a group of medical professionals headed to some village to teach a local hospital how to repair cleft palates—just like Project Smile. The other noticeably distinct group (apart from all the Bangladeshis) was the Muslim contingent. Let me be clear, I don't mean Arab. This linen- and abaya-clad group was headed to the "Biswa Ijtema," or the second largest annual Muslim gathering after the Hajj. So my Muslim, Minnesotan, Bangladeshi friends, and I all ultimately got on our second leg of this journey to really let the experience begin.

Day 1: Arriving to Bangladesh – 1/17/2013

The first sentence in my guidebook about Bangladesh says that going here "is not just a journey, but an experience." I took this to mean that you wouldn't be going on vacation so much so as a ride of a lifetime. Landing at the airport seemed harmless enough (multiple friends stateside had warned me that the crowds could be overwhelming). There was a sizable line at passport control, but nothing I couldn't handle...or so I thought. It took at least 90 minutes, maybe even two hours, to get through for no apparent reason. At least I saw my friend, Mikkela, waiting for me past the checkpoint while I was in line, so I knew I wasn't going to have to figure out a way to get to the embassy after I was through. Once I got to Mikkela, it shocked me how relatively organized things were. My flight had come in so long ago there was a baggage porter moving my bags into a pile off the carousel. We collected them and made it out of the airport with ease.

Driving on the main road connecting the airport to downtown Dhaka was my first taste of local culture. Like inside the airport, I was surprised to see cars moving and road construction. Don't get me wrong, this was no ordered movement, but the cars generally stayed on the inside of something like a four-lane road weaving anywhere to get ahead, the CNGs (tuk tuks, so called because they run on Compressed Natural Gas) generally stayed on the outside of the cars and trucks, and human-powered rickshaws generally stayed on the outside edge to try their best to not get plowed over. On the edges of the road, small animals like goats and wild dogs freely roamed, and whatever free sidewalk space was consumed by shops and booths generally selling goods. While the level of commerce wasn't particularly impressive, it was amazing to see that an economy was bustling and that somehow all of these people were doing it together.

We arrived at Mikkela's building in no time at all, which was a good thing because I was bone tired. The plan was Mikkela was going to leave me to pass out for a few hours while she finished up some things at work. Just as I laying down in her guestroom, the afternoon azan, or call to prayer, sounded. I was in no mood to have someone wailing into a loudspeaker how great God/Allah is, but by the third or fourth day it was beautiful to hear all lf the mosques calling the faithful to prayer. You could hear multiple mosques from Mikkela's guestroom each having their own style. It reminded me of being on a rooftop and being able to see multiple communities' fireworks shows on the 4th of July.

That night there was a going-away house party for one of Mikkela's colleagues. Still more than a little unsure of what time zone I was in, I went to my first diplomatic party and really had a good time. Everyone was engaging, intelligent, and sympathetic to fact I had gotten on a plane from a 24-hour journey just a short time prior. The flow of conversation and the level of aptitude toward international affairs that you'd expect from a group of diplomats really got my intellectual juices flowing. Meeting Mikkela's boss, who was convinced that this trip was a catalyst for the beginning of my own journey into the Foreign Service, really had me thinking about my future plans. Another thing that struck me about this group of people was how easily I fit in. I feel that in most groups of people anywhere I don’t really fit in, in the sense that I don’t have a “home.” This group knew both my North Carolina “home,” as well as my DC “home.” I met GW alumni, as well as people who had gone through Ft. Bragg during their tours. Because Germany is my first frame of reference to foreign cultures, it holds a soft spot in my heart. The hosts of this party had spent time in Garmisch during their military days. I really felt at home with these people, even though I had no idea where I was.

Day 2: Shopping in Dhaka – 1/18/2013

On my first full day in country, Mikkela had already lined up a full day of events. Starting at a brand new restaurant that was still in the process of opening called Istanbul (more Turkish food!) we ran into some of her colleagues and feasted on a huge spread of tasty salads, sides, and soups. This was my first venture into eating on the economy, so I repeatedly asked Mikkela about food safety (don't need to get a stomach bug your first day, eh?) I quickly learned that the restaurants Mikkela would be taking me to were very much geared toward the expat community and didn't want to get anyone sick. As long as we were careful about drinking nothing but bottled or distilled water, we'd be fine.
After our Turkish brunch, it was off to go shopping. Not really sure of what I may need, we stopped at the apartment of one of Mikkela's colleagues who had exquisite (read: expensive) tastes, and she showed us the things she had collected so far from being posted here. Some of the items included an intricately carved teak box, about three feet wide, that would traditionally hold a family's valuables, and these fantastic wooden stamps, about three inches square, used to stamp colored dyes onto a cloth into an intricate pattern.

Textiles are one of the things that Bangladesh is known for. The country is situated on a river delta, so sediment is constantly flowing downstream depositing nutrients in the soil. Their agricultural sector is vibrant and so is their ability to grow cotton for fabric and other fibrous reeds. One such reed is called jute and it's well known in the textile industry. Once it's woven into any sort of product—from rugs to bags to shawls—it initially has the feel of burlap or canvas, but it softens substantially with use. Jute area rugs are quite popular and I picked one up with fantastic colors and patterns. I’m not really sure what I'll do with it once I'm home, but hey, that’s part of the adventure of seeing new things and buying souvenirs when traveling in far-off lands.  

And speaking of fabrics, guess where a huge portion of your clothes are now made. If you said Bangladesh, you're right! On our shopping adventure, Mikkela took me to a shop called "Artisan." My ever-so-logical brain thought it'd be a shop of artisanal crafts, but oh no! The interior of the store looked more like a TJ Maxx than anything else. It was all western clothes that had been deemed not fit for sale. In the guy's section, jeans, slacks, and button-down dress shirts seemed to be the most popular things. Button-down dress shirts are very often worn in a western or with the traditional lungi, a kind of tubular skirt tied at the waist allowing for ventilation, comfort, and all-around utility. Also available within this store were sweaters and hoodies that wouldn't look out of place at a Gap or American Eagle, but were here because it's the dead of winter and the Bangladeshis are legitimately cold (even though it's usually something like 80 degrees during the day).

For dinner that night, Mikkela took me to a local favorite called Barbeque Tonight, which is a Pakistani kabob chain. We were in a part of town right near one of the big universities, so away from the very high end restaurants we had been going to. No, this was local, which normally meant eating with your [right] hand, which poses a problem for this left-handed boy. You can use your left in the meal, to tear apart bread for example, but bringing food to your mouth should be done only with your right hand. Since this place served us basically flat bread, skewers of meat, and lassis, it didn't really cause any issue.

That evening's entertainment was a shared birthday celebration between a local Bangladeshi boy, an embassy staffer, and me. Beyond all having birthdays near one another, we were all also gay. A week or so before my leaving on this trip, I got a Facebook event invite to a "pink" party. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Everyone was supposed to wear pink, so Mikkela brought her beautiful, pink sari she had bought for a wedding, for me to have tied and tucked into. The sari wasn't for her, but rather for me. The host of the party, a local guy that worked a couple doors down from Mikkela, was going to wrap me in this thing, but only from the waist down in something called a dhuti. All night long, little drunk Bangladeshi boys kept coming up to me and saying they loved my dhuti. But I digress. Walking into this house party, it seemed like the smoke machine had been turned on full blast for hours. You couldn’t see what was happening immediately, but you sure could hear the dance music. Once we had gotten a round of cocktails for everyone, I noticed that all of the furniture had been moved out of the dining room to make dance floor. Upon said dance floor were 20-30 young Bangladeshi boys dancing and grinding on one another. Honestly, it was a beautiful thing to see that these boys actually had an outlet to be with one another and have a community. It was hard enough for me to come during college a (G)ay (W)hite University, but I can't even imagine how hard it's got to be for these boys. Some traditional drag queens were there, and at some point they danced for us. Incidentally, like the western notion of drag, two of them introduced themselves as drag mother and daughter. Another amusing event during this party was seeing two boys cuddling on a bed in another room. They weren't making out, just cuddling. Then you notice this must be some child's room because the sheets on the bed were very obviously Disney princess themed! The little queens were lying on top of little queens! It was truly a birthday celebration I won't ever forget.

Day 3: International Day – 1/19/2013

While traveling abroad, you have to be flexible in your plans because you never know what events will be happening locally. Case in point: in Dhaka right now is an international trade fair with goods coming from all over the world for sale. This was going to be my first real foray into a large group of Bangladeshis, so I was both excited and nervous. We got up relatively early to get there before the hordes arrived, and I was impressed with what I saw. Think of something like a fairground with permanent structures and massive tents selling anything from Turkish lamps to Iranian jewelry, and yes, to jute rugs and handbags. The people watching at a place like this was phenomenal, though I was rather shy when it came to taking pictures of people. Mikkela's thought here are that if the locals blatantly stare and take pictures of you, why can't that be true from the opposite perspective? At any rate, I took some great pictures, bought some colorful jute bags that I'll keep in my car for groceries, and found a great deal on a bedspread that I'll use as a wall hanging. It's just great to see commerce flourishing much more than I expected and with nations that the American government designates as the "bad guys."

For lunch we went to a rather lovely Chinese restaurant. The foreign community is quite amusing in Bangladesh because they comprise the upper crust of economic power, but it's not just the Americans. Our Chinese meal started with a lovely cup of lightly brothed tofu soup. Since tofu isn't generally available in the commercial centers of Dhaka, there's an underground market for tofu for those who just have to have it. The vegetables we had served--mustard greens and some sort celery-style green--were rather yummy. While I recognize that this restaurant is on the very high end of the city's food scene, I'm just impressed that it's here at all.

One of the first things I had heard about diplomatic life in Dhaka was that there was an American club, or the ARA (American Recreation Association). Mikkela got me in to see the facilities and I really enjoyed it. The club is right within the diplomatic enclave, has a pool and tennis courts, and an outside cabana/cantine. The thing to get there is a freshly squeezed lime soda that they serve with a small pourer of simple syrup to sweeten it to your liking (apparently Bangladeshis like things very sweet).

January 19th is my birthday, and no Mikkela adventure would be complete without some Korean food. This very high-end Korean restaurant is still in the process of opening because they're training their staff to be sure they can handle the hopeful onslaught that will be coming. When Mikkela and I normally go out for Korean food, I typically defer to her to order because: a) she's more familiar with all the options available, and b) it's rather amusing to watch the Korean server's inability to comprehend why Mikkela doesn't just speak Korean to order our food. That being said, when Mik orders it means we're going to get about three times the amount of food we can eat. And on top of that, because the proprietress of the restaurant is so good to Mikkela, she brought up multiple supplemental dishes for us, including a plate of glass noodles that's meant to symbolize long life for the birthday boy.

Rounding out the evening, we went over to a colleague's house to meet a new tailor. Because labor is so cheap here, a lot of people have custom clothes made. The tailor hadn't arrived yet, but a group of people were in a back room singing karaoke. While Mikkela & co. discussed clothing options, I was belting out a few songs (including Me and Bobby McGee for Janis Joplin, who shared my birthday). Interesting thing here: the tailor didn't arrive in some fancy new outfit he had made, but rather a white cotton outfit a pious Muslim would wear. This is an interesting country.

Day 4: River Boat Cruise – 1/20/2013

One of Mikkela's local contacts arranged a river boat cruise for us, which makes sense because the water is so central to the Bangladeshis and has been for millennia (it's a lot cheaper to move things by water than by building roads and then maintaining them). Water is a pretty crucial element to us all, and even more so to Bangladesh. Seasonal floods require that locals build their houses on stilts in order to survive the major floods every year. It's important to note that probably the two most well known rivers that flow through India, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, also flow through Bangladesh and empty out into the Bay Bengal. I read in my guidebook that together, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra (known locally as the Padma and Jamuna respectively), spit out as much water through Bangladesh--a nation the size of Wisconsin--as all of the river systems in Europe. That's a lot of water! Mikkela and I walked to the American Embassy to meet up with a group of people who would be going on this river cruise with us. There were supposed to be a few American families that were going to join, but they all left us for one reason or another. The group that ended up getting on the bus with us to travel to the river was: three Bangladeshi boys, three Americans, and about fifteen Bhutanese children. I had met the "mother" of the group at our pink party two nights ago. My first interaction with an honest-to-God Bhutanese woman was when she was offering me Bhutanese whiskey. How does my life work like this?? At any rate, we all get on the bus and true to form in Dhaka, we're stuck in traffic for a solid hour not moving. The Bangladeshi boys holler out the window of the bus to grab some snacks from a roadside food stall and I generally amuse myself by taking pictures of city life.

One of the few things I knew about the Ganges is that it starts out pristine in the Himalayan Mountains and then proceeds to get dirtier and dirtier as it rolls along its way. Again, this river system empties out into the Bay of Bengal, so we're seeing the water at its "finest." With that in mind, I made my best efforts not to fall off the gangplank getting onto our boat. Once we were all settled and off on the ride, I quickly became surprised at the amount of traffic on the river. I grew up on the Rhine River, one if not the major rivers going through Western Europe. There, all of the boats are large barges that are big enough to hold a sizable amount of goods, but also small enough to fit into the series of locks that control the height of the river. Here, just like the roads, it's pretty chaotic. There are barges with bays in them carrying what looks like sand, but are just barely keeping their hull above the water line. There are ferry boats of all kinds ranging from gondola-sized craft carrying a handful of people to bigger car-carrying ferries to shuttle people back and forth. There were even tanker-shaped ships used for larger excursions out to the ocean headed for Chittigong, Bangladesh's major international harbor some hours southeast of Dhaka. A member of the crew commented that at Chittigong, it was a place known as a ship graveyard because there they stripped the ships down to their individual parts and sold the material as scrap. Here, however, they actually built the ships. This was just another example of seeing the whole life cycle of a particular product. The most pervasive boat we saw on the river was a smaller type of barge that carried bricks upriver to be used in construction in Dhaka. Bangladesh doesn’t really have any mountains, and by extent doesn't have many resources to make cement for construction purposes. They do have a tremendous supply of clay for brick making. They mold the bricks, let them dry in the sun for a particular amount of time, and send them upstream to be used in the constant stream of buildings being built in the greater capital area. It was fascinating to see the number of these small barges we constantly saw inching their way along.

It was also fascinating just to see the teeming vibrancy of river life. Like any country's capital, you have to get out of the city to see what the real people look like and how they live. I had been very impressed with how modern and seemingly functional Dhaka appeared on the surface, but getting out of the city really did show me the image that I was expecting to see. I don't imagine that a lot of people think about Bangladesh, but before this trip what I knew was that it was a developing country with A LOT of people and relied on the river to fish, bathe, and generally stay alive. This was the Bangladesh that can be seen here, anything from people shuttling from place to place, to people bathing outright at the water's edge, to groups of kids scurrying along the shore just to see something out of the ordinary (a group of tourists) floating by. On one of our stops along the way, we had what seemed like made an impromptu stop so that people could jump in the water and swim around. I've already mentioned the state of the water here, so I had no interest in getting in. Because the Bangladeshi boys didn't know any different and the Bhutanese boys were just so damn happy, they all jumped in. God help us all. In the meantime, the Bhutanese "mother" wanted to go trample along the riverbank because there were numerous fields growing produce right around us. She must be something of the gardener because she was pointing out tomato, pepper, pumpkin, and mustard plants even in their infancy. I didn't think of this, but because all of the sediment that flows down the various river systems into Bangladesh, the country is amazingly fertile. This is really the only way so many people can be fed in such a small place. Walking around the plots reminded me of gardening with my Dad as a child because I saw cucumber and tomato plants when they were small. Just another reminder of how very similar we all are.

Day 5: Inside a U.S. Embassy – 1/21/2013

Mikkela was taking off a big chunk of time while I was here, so one morning we decided to go into the embassy for a quick second so that she could check on a few things and pop right back out. That was the plan, but because everyone loves her so much, a 20-minute jaunt took multiple hours. I didn't mind because she plopped me in the cantine right around lunch time and all the people I had met so far seemed to filter through. After she had finished up, she showed me around. Let me back up: in order to get into the embassy, Mikkela's driver had to turn off the car and have the security staff inspect that we weren't carrying any bombs, even though Mikkela had her embassy badge and the car had diplomatic plates. Hey, better safe than sorry, right? Once you get into the building, we had to talk to a Marine guard who pointed us to a sign-in desk. After getting a visitor's badge, we were allowed through what looked like a bank vault door and we were in. Mikkela showed me each of the different sections of the embassy: consular (where locals come to apply for a visa), political/economic (where FSOs monitor the daily happenings in-country), and management (Mikkela's section, where she has her hands in anything ranging from housing to motorpool to any kind of special project). The consular section was of particular interest to me because that's the part everyone thinks of when you think about an embassy abroad. It was such a small section! Inside the consular section, there's also a department that handles American services abroad (if you've lost your passport, things like that). One of Mikkela's friends who works there told me that a lot of the issues she had heard about were Bangladeshi-American dual-nationals coming over to Bangladesh under the auspices of seeing family but then being forced to marry someone locally. That didn't sound too fun.

Visiting one of Mikkela's friend's apartments on my first day in country, I saw that she had these framed, wooden blocks that looked rather intriguing. The blocks, I was told, were stamps used to place a certain patterns onto a garment for decoration. The Bangladeshis love all sorts of colors and patterns, and consequently there were all sorts of block patterns available. I decided I wanted to buy some of these blocks and have them framed because the labor cost here is so cheap. We went to one of the shopping centers, something more akin to a strip mall in the U.S., and easily found a wide variety of blocks. Once my blocks had been selected, Mikkela knew of a high-end framer that would make the job look fantastic. I didn't really know what I was doing, but when we got to this guy's shop, he showed us frames and matting, and we eventually settled on a color and block combination that I liked. He said it would take a week or so for the job to be completed, but I knew it was going to be a fabulous piece once it was all said and done. My first piece of art that I'd have for the rest of my life and be able to show to people and talk about my adventures in Bangladesh, really.

That evening's events were somewhat low-key, but quite enjoyable. Mikkela had her housekeeper make some Bangladeshi food for me to try, which included some chicken biriyani, curried vegetables, and dal. Mikkela's not a big fan, but I could have that food multiple times a week. Again, because the land is so fertile, vegetables and rice are ever-present. Add some lentils and what else do you need? We invited one of Mikkela's local friends over for food and also to show me how to tie a lungi. Lungis are the traditional dress in this part of the world, and by this part of the world I mean the greater northern Indian Ocean, and is a kind of skirt the men wear that's tied around the waist. It can be as long as ankle-length or it can be tied up to make a sort of shorts/diaper-type situation, depending on the region and what you need to be doing in it. Not having to wear pants is a pretty exciting prospect to me, so I was all about learning how to wear one of these suckers. It's pretty easy: you bunch the fabric together in the front, tie a knot, and essentially tuck the ends of the knot into the waistband so that they don't come undone. We'll see if I can remember how to put my lungi back on once I'm stateside. Another memorable event that evening was watching the president's inaugural address from across the world. CNN International had it playing live, and I couldn't help but be reminded that I wasn't in DC the last time President Obama had an inauguration. Last time I was in California, and there was a little piece of me that was sad that I couldn't be "home" to experience Obama's second inauguration because I had missed the first. That all being said, it was still neat to be able to see and hear his speech from as far away from Washington as a person could possibly get and still be on the same planet.

One last thought I wanted to share about today's events, and that's the Dhaka cough. After our riverboat cruise the other day, I had acquired a pretty nasty cough. Mikkela dubbed it the Dhaka cough because apparently a lot of people get in while they're in country. There are multiple resources that say that Dhaka is a rather polluted place, but this really brought it home for me. I felt fine, so I didn't think it was some sort of cold or even bronchitis, but it was unpleasant. According to Mikkela, some people come into country and have this cough until the day they leave. That's no good! After a few days it generally got better, but even on my last day in country I was still hacking from time to time. Even though I felt fine otherwise, I have a new appreciation for those who suffer from seasonal allergies. Not fun!

Day 6: Old Dhaka – 1/22/2013

After having been on so many adventures already in and around Dhaka, I wanted to spend a day playing tourist and seeing some of the sights and sounds of historical Dhaka. Not knowing much about this nation, I first read my guidebook to see what it could tell me about the country. Without going into too much detail, at around 1000 AD, Bangladesh was an outpost in Mogul empire, which was headquartered in Accra, India. Various regimes and spheres of influence controlled the area that is today Bangladesh, but it's important to note that the Bangla language is essentially the same language that's spoken in West Bengal, India (where Calcutta/Kolkata is). After India's war for independence, the majority Muslim portions of the Indian sub-continent were partitioned away from India and given the names East and West Pakistan. Since all foreign funding and the capital were in West Pakistan, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) fought for its independence in the early 1970s. The father of the nation, Bangladesh's equivalent to America's George Washington, is a man named Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or more familiarly Bangabandhu. In the early days of independence, he was gunned down, along with several members of his family, in his home. That home is now a shrine to his life. Because the home has been maintained in how the place looked from the early 70s, it honestly reminded me a fair bit of Graceland. The living quarters were a similar size (huge for that time) and had the same level of technology (read: a singular TV in the living room). We weren't able to get much out of the museum itself because nothing was in English, but you could very much feel the somber atmosphere and the need of these people to remember the struggles they went through to gain independence. Interestingly enough, his daughter is the current Prime Minister of the country.

One of the sights I was keen to see while in Old Dhaka was the Liberation War Museum. It was definitely worth the price of admission, about $1, to see some of the artifacts--including skulls--from the liberation war. The museum, for its level of organization, was pretty impressive. Nothing too fancy, but it definitely told the story and showed a lot of the different pieces of how Bangladesh, or "Land of the Bangla [speakers]" came into being. Because we only can relate to things from what we know, I particularly enjoyed the portion of the museum that talked about international reaction/support for Bangladesh's war for independence. Neither the UK nor the United States were explicit supporters of the movement, but the U.S.'s Counsel General in the country at the time sent word back to Washington saying that we should support the Bangladeshis. Because of his support, he's considered one of the few outside heros to the country. After the Liberation War Museum, we headed over to Lalbagh Fort, one of the few green spaces in downtown Dhaka. We were given a private tour of the bathhouses by one guard, who definitely wanted a modest tip at the end, and walked around seeing all the locals generally milling about. Mikkela found this place particularly interesting because this is one of the few places that young couples could come and visit for a while and be alone. Granted, everything's still in full view of everyone else, but you could find a little alcove somewhere and chat with your honey. It was all quite sweet because in the States a place like this would be run over with punk kids or young couples trying to hump each other. Since this such a modest/conservative country, all these couples wanted to do was have a few moments alone together to actually chat.

That night, Mikkela and I ventured to the airport to catch a plane to Singapore. Because she had purchased our tickets together, I was essentially a diplomatic spouse and got into the airport with no problems at all. In between checking your bags into the first ticket counter and getting to the gate where they do your requisite security screening, there's an emigration/passport check. Once we were past that point, we were "inside" and didn't have any issues. I was actually pleasantly surprised because of my debacle trying to get into the country, so I guess having a diplomatic passport (and knowing where to go) helps get through the process easier. For whatever reason, Asian airports prefer to have you go through security at your gate rather than a central checkpoint after you've checked in. This doesn't help the boarding process, especially when you've got a significant portion of those flying having never been on an airplane before. We took a low-cost carrier, Tiger Airways, and set back for the not quite four-hour flight to Singapore. Since you have people who've never been on a plane before, the flight attendants had to regularly spray out the bathrooms because people didn't know they were expected to flush the toilet. That was one thing I was very much looking forward to, among other things, in Singapore: clean and modern toilets. Not that it bothers me all that much if I need to go pee on the side of the road (or wherever), but the smell of sewage is exactly the most pleasant thing.

Day 7: First Impressions of Singapore – 1/23/2013

It’s not quite a four-hour flight from Dhaka to Singapore, and the only times that planes leave out of Dhaka’s airport, it seems, is some absurd time at night. Because we left at something like 11:00pm (local time), we got into Singapore at 5:00am (two hours ahead). After having spent something like a week in Bangladesh, I had become desensitized to a lot of the toils of traveling in the developing world: traffic jams at all hours of the day potentially preventing you from moving down any indiscriminate road, potholes the size of a CNG, and mosquitoes everywhere! I say this because Mikkela and I were literally the first two people off the plane, we had our immigration card filled out properly, and were promptly let through immigration without the batting of an eyelash. I was dumbstruck at having an airport far too clean for my standards, and even having a touch screen in the bathroom asking each patron to rate the level of cleanliness (it’s actually illegal in Singapore to not flush a public toilet). Far too much order, I say! The large sign at the beginning of the baggage claim area even very clearly told us from which baggage carousel our bags would be coming out! What??

Beyond the order and general cleanliness, I must admit that I was a little let down. Let me explain: I have a pretty active imagination. I’m always disappointed with the movie version of a book I’ve read, because the visualizations that pop into my head while reading the book invariably can’t be made into reality most of the time. Same goes for what I had pictured in my head for Singapore. With all that said, it was nice to be able to pop into a cab, tell the cab driver where we were going, and generally get a sense that he knew what we were saying. Granted the roads were empty at 5:00am, but it was a treat just to have a car ride that was freely moving and with signs on the side of the road that told you which exit to take to go to anywhere! We finally made it to our friend Sarah’s apartment and promptly crashed, but not before making a general plan to meet her for lunch at her place of employment, Google, that afternoon.

Google is a pretty unique place to work, regardless of location around the world. During grad school in California, I’d hear constant stories of innovation, not only on the technology front but on the employee happiness front too. Sarah told us exactly what to say to the cab driver that we were to take to get to the CBD, or Central Business District, where Google’s offices are located. We checked in with the receptionist in the lobby and she handed us a paper card that was to serve as our pass to get through security and into the elevators. What was remarkable was you stuck this card into a slot where the elevator call button would ordinarily be, and a screen would tell you which shaft to stand next to for the next available elevator. Getting into the elevator, there aren’t any buttons to push to reach the floor you’re trying to get to; Instead, the elevator already knows to drop you off at floor…say…30. Sarah escorted us into the cafeteria area, and she explained that there was always some sort of western dish, an eastern (Asian) dish, and some sort of vegetarian dish. In addition to the hot food line, there was a sizeable salad bar, as well as a juice and coffee station. I was told later that the former American Ambassador’s wife insisted on the fresh orange juice pressing machine—hey, I’m not going to argue there!

After lunch, Mikkela and I took a little while to orient ourselves. Having never been to this city/state before, I had very little idea of where we were in relation to other things. The aptly named Singapore River passes through the island of Singapore, which naturally would create numerous quays for all the boats that travel along the river and coast. We started at Raffles Quay and made our away around the block to our first food Hawker Center, Lau Pa Sat. Not knowing it, but my Lonely Planet guidebook and placed this at #2 on its list of Hawker Centers to experience while in Singapore. Hawker Centers are food courts, often covered but exposed to elements, that sell traditional food at rock bottom prices. We just wandered around in amazement at the assortment of foods available: Korean barbeque, noodle dishes, fresh fruit juice stands, dumplings, and more stalls of unidentifiable (though, I’m sure, amazingly delicious) food you could count! Because Singapore is so close to the equator, it’s pretty much constantly hot and humid, which means there’s a labyrinth of underground tunnels connecting major commercial centers and subway stations. We somehow made our way into one of these tunnel systems, and popped out over at the next quay, Boat Quay. After orienting ourselves, Mikkela and I wandered over to Chinatown, because why not start your tourist experience in the wonder that is any city’s Chinatown. Even though I was literally on the other side of the world from my home at that moment, it really did feel like being back in San Francisco’s Chinatown with all of the people and, more specifically, the smells that I picked up from all of the different stalls. We stumbled upon another Hawker Center in Chinatown, but eventually we made our way to the subway/metro system to meet Sarah on the edge of Little India.

The metro system in Singapore is so ridiculously easy to use and efficient. You enter into any station, and the way you acquire a ticket to get into the system is by interfacing with an ATM-type machine with a touch screen. You literally tap station you want to go to, the system determines the fare, and you get a card spat back at you in a matter of seconds. You then swipe the card on a pad next to the turnstile and you look for the clearly marked sign for the platform. Once on the platform, it’s evident to even a first timer which side you should stand on, and a sign tells you when the next train is arriving. I should add that I never had to wait more than four minutes for a train. Another thing I liked about this system is that there were interior doors to the platform, and by that I mean you had a set of doors on the platform that prohibited you from somehow getting onto the tracks and mucking up the system for everyone else. Not only did this keep the system running smoothly, but you knew exactly where the train was going to stop so you could line up on either side of the door to wait for passengers to disembark. There’s no comparison when looking at this system and DC’s metro system. It just makes me want to shake my head and sigh thinking about how good a public subway system could be.

The understatement of the year is that Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Mikkela and I were meeting Sarah near Little India, but in a neighborhood called “Arab Street.” As you may have guessed, this was the Arab quarter filled with bars, lounges and restaurants for the tourist and Arab populations. We found a jazz bar with outside seating at the end of an alley and decided to order a beer tower, since that’s what multiple tables had. Five liters of Tiger beer, their local brew, might sound like a lot, but it’s never a question of quantity, but rather a question of time. And we had all night. That being said, I was thankful when one of Mikkela’s friends joined us from the American embassy to generally socialize and help us drink our beer. We ended up finishing the evening at a Turkish restaurant we found on Arab Street. So to recap: we started the day at an American based company, walked through Chinatown, took the metro to Little India to a jazz bar, and had dinner in a Turkish restaurant. How more international can you get?

Day 8: Wandering Around Singapore – 1/24/2013

The next day Mikkela had some medical appointments to attend to, so that left me to figure out what I wanted to do on my own. I judge a city on how walkable it is, and Singapore is one fine city in which to aimlessly wander! I wanted to get on the metro again and head to my various destinations, but since Sarah isn’t a regular metro rider, I had to find the station on my own. Before I got too far, I found a European style café and had some breakfast—no better way to start your day than with some coffee and BLT-style sandwich, I say! I started generally wandering in the direction I thought the metro station would be, but there weren’t any clear markings along the way. I had to stop and ask multiple times where the metro station was, which got me thinking that Singapore is an ideal primer city for the uninitiated to start traveling. What I mean is just about everyone speaks some level of English, signs are clearly marked, and it’s an interesting place to generally wander around, and public transport is cheap and incredibly easy to use. If you want to start traveling and haven’t done much in the past, this is really your ideal place to start.

After eventually finding the metro station I made my way to Orchard Road, which is the premiere shopping district in Singapore. Besides eating, Singapore is a haven for those who want to shop. While I generally recognize a mall by a vast parking lot and large signs that say Macys, these malls are more like giant department stores of every street corner. One of the malls my guidebook told me to check out is called Ion Orchard, which conveniently enough, is exactly where the metro spits you out if you exit at the Orchard Road station. Ion Orchard is enormous, and a shopper could spend days just in this one mall alone. I quickly found the information desk because I was looking to buy an unlocked mobile phone that I could use anywhere. I was given directions to a Singtel store in the mall, and before I knew it my baby-faced store assistant had be hooked up with a new phone and SIM card ready for action! I did wander down Orchard Road for a bit, which is akin to Rodeo Drive if you’ve ever seen Pretty Woman. All the brands are here, including a roadside Garrett’s (Chicago popcorn) stand, in case you were hungry.

Later that afternoon I headed up to the Botanic Gardens, which I’m told are very much worth the visit. Unfortunately, the minute I got off the metro at the Botanic Gardens stop it started raining. I made into about halfway through the gardens and had to take shelter underneath a gazebo. What I found there was quite spectacular: the gazebo was right next to a honest-to-God turtle pond! All around and within the pond turtles were swimming, sunning, and generally thriving in their environment. A mother and her two children (of Asian descent but speaking perfect British English) were feeding the turtles the equivalent of pellets you’d throw into a fish pond. My feet were sore and I was sun baked, so it was a refreshing moment just to sit back and relax. If I had another day in Singapore, I would’ve happily wandered through that garden, which includes an orchid farm that I’m sure my camera and I would’ve loved to capture in a picture format. Oh well, something for next time.

Since I had a phone at this point, I texted Mikkela and Sarah and made plans to go to Little India that night to actually experience the Indian side of the district. It took us a few attempts to find an adequate restaurant that all three of us were willing to try, and the funny thing was because most of the “Indian” restaurants were actually Bangladeshi. There’s a sizable Bangladeshi laborer population in Singapore, the equivalent of America’s migrant Latino population. Because of this, there needs to be a place for them to congregate and socialize, and apparently it’s in Little India. Our main reason for going to their area again was because of the Mustafa Center. Like I said, Singapore is THE place to shop. One of the 24-hour shopping malls in the Mustafa Center, which I’d equate to a level up from your average Wal-Mart, but a rather similar idea of goods sold (read: everything). Mikkela was in the search for an LCD TV that she could bring back with her to Bangladesh. Beyond describing the Mustafa Center as a higher caliber Wal-Mart, it’s worth noting that the salesman that sold Mikkela her TV personally took the product out of its box and tested to make sure it was functional and ready for use (i.e. did the initial setup) for us while in the store. Outside the Mustafa Center, it’s also worth noting that this was the only place I saw a single piece of garbage on the streets of Singapore. And by garbage, I mean a stray cigarette butt. Even the South Asians wanting to spit into the street found a trashcan. I liked Little India because it was the only part of town that I felt wasn’t completely sanitized. That and you could find amazing food for dirt cheap and a 24-hour shopping center to provide your every desire.

Day 9: Getting Lost in Singapore – 1/25/2013

The next morning I had told Mikkela about the European style café I had found, so she followed me along for a cup o’ Joe and a croissant. She wasn’t feeling very well, and as luck would have it, there was a clinic the same building that housed our café. I later learned that Mikkela walked into the clinic with no appointment scheduled, saw a doctor almost immediately, was prescribed some pain medication and a cough suppressant, and was out all of about $40. Not only does Singapore have cheap food and spectacular public transportation, but their healthcare is incredibly easy to use and inexpensive. Again, these are lessons that the United States could learn, but that’d just make too much sense.

I left Mikkela all happy with myself knowing she was going to see a doctor and I knew how to get to the closest metro station. My guidebook had told me that the Singapore Zoo was not to be missed, so while the guidebook told to get off at metro station x and take bus y to the zoo, I looked at the map detail of the zoo and thought that if I got off the metro just two stops further down the line I’d be within walking distance of the zoo and wouldn’t have to wait for the bus. Yeah, I should’ve looked at the scale of the map realized that it was still a pretty insanely far distance away, but everything’s clearer in hindsight. May I remind the reader that Singapore is only 85 miles north of the equator? In other words, it’s hot and humid ALL THE TIME. I get off the metro and start walking in the direction I should be going. After about half an hour, I’m alongside some major road watching pretty steady traffic drive by, and I notice I’ve been the only person on foot since I started this journey. Not a good sign. After another fifteen minutes or so, I find a shady spot and start reevaluating my plan. I do have a smart phone at this point, so I pull up Google Maps to see where I am in relation to where I want to go, and I’m not even halfway there! I can either start walking back, admitting defeat, or I can continue on and be suffering from a case of heat stroke by the time I get to the zoo. I choose the former and end up heading back toward the metro station. I passed by a 7-11 in an apartment complex right next to the station, so I buy some chips and a big gulp full of Fanta to replenish fluids.

This experience is fraught with lessons to be learned, dear reader. In a country so densely populated, there shouldn’t be very many times that you find yourself alone. While there were cars and trucks whizzing by me the entire time—and I’m in Singapore, so there’s basically no chance of anything happening to me—there’s probably a reason why no one walks down this particular road. Another lesson learned is to come properly prepared for an adventure. I just had some flip-flops, no sunscreen, and very little water for this journey. Not a smart move. And lastly, guidebooks, while ubiquitous and generally not adventuresome, do include useful tips from time to time. You know, like how to properly get to a rather prominent tourist attraction within a tiny city-state. It really isn’t that hard. <sigh>

After admitting defeat and replenishing my liquids, I decided I still had time to check out another attraction on the other side of the island: Gardens by the Bay. This is a brand new botanical garden that’s just opening up as part of a giant complex next to Marinas by the Bay, Singapore’s response to the Las Vegas über hotel and casino. Gardens by the Bay is, strictly speaking, a man-made path along some very sculpted and manicured dunes that leads you to the center of that park/garden. Within this center lie a dozen or man-made trees the size of giant redwoods. Each tree is a metallic cylinder about 100 feet high that blooms out into a magnificent canopy comprised of metal branches. The tops of these metallic trees are flat, so it leads me to believe that the garden plans to introduce live plants into the top to make a real canopy as the project continues to grow. This whole area, I should add, is open to the public and ogling tourist alike. It’s right near the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest “observation wheel” (just like the London Eye). It’s a wonderful place to loaf about, catch one’s breath, and generally enjoy the ocean breeze nearby.

At this point I start texting with Mikkela and Sarah to ask them where to meet for dinner. We settle on a seafood place right in the center of town, right along the Singapore River. I use my cell phone to tell me the best way to get there and I’m off. Once I get out of the closest metro stop, I don’t know which direction to turn. I whip out my phone once again (God I love technology!) and it easily guides me to my destination. One of the two foods you absolutely must try while you’re in Singapore is chili crab, which is a wok-fried crap that’s been cut into quarters and doused in God knows how many spices. The crab itself is huge, something akin to the Dungeness crabs found on the West Coast of the United States. Now, I love my some crabs. I was raised on Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and was taught early on how to crack and pick at these shelly bastards. Their taste is divine, but nearly as divine as the goop they excrete and mix with that becomes the paste or sauce that comes with your crab when it’s served. This paste on top of a bed of fried rice is quite possibly the most heavenly thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. After a day of sweating buckets and walking miles, it was the ultimate (and unexpected) reward to such a laborious day.

Before I end this thought, I want to share with you what happens next. Because we’re not far from Sarah’s apartment we walk back, which takes something like ten minutes. Once we’ve settled in, I make our group a round of gin and tonics. All of this may not sound too strange, but the reason why we’re drinking at home is because it’s insanely expensive to drink at restaurants here. Booze is plentiful, but it costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 for a 375ml bottle of Bacardi rum! At the 7-11 I was at earlier in the day, a 12-pack of locally brewed beer was also somewhere around $40. While you’re welcome to “sin” (read: enjoy life), you’d better be prepared to pay for it. It amazes me that Hawker Stands can present a huge plate of food to you for less than $5, but if you’d like a cocktail or beer to go along with it, God help you!

Day 10: DTF? – 1/26/2013

Although I’m sad to say it was our last day in Singapore, Mikkela and I nonetheless had an errand to run for one of Mikkela’s colleagues. We were responsible for bringing back kilos of two specific fruits that are only available in tropical climates. One is called a lungen, which is similar to a lychee nut, but closely resembles a nutmeg. You squeeze open the lungen to find a fleshy inside, about the size of a cherry, with a pit in the middle. Like a cherry, you eat the outside flesh and discard the seed, only the flesh is milky white and the taste is sweet and juicy like an Asian pear. We also were responsible for bringing back mangostines, which look like and are about the size of a large plum. Their purple, outer skin is quite thick and the fruit inside is segmented into wedges, like an Clementine. Again, the fruit is sweet and juicy, but much more silky and soft. Both of these things I’d never had before, but part of the journey is trying new things and learning that you love tropical fruit (something I already knew on account that I bought a bag of Asian pears and a perfectly ripe pineapple to bring back with me).

To find these things, Sarah reached out to her colleague who had lived there for a couple of years and suggested a part of time town that has a fruit market open most days. We hopped in a cab, found the first fruit stand that met all of our requirements, and were off to meet said colleague at a local café. One thing I must say about Singapore is that coffee is never far away. After having fretted about where I was going to get my next cup of coffee in China some years back, it was SO NICE to know that coffee was available everywhere. I even learned how to order my own personal style of coffee, “Kopi-C kosong,” or coffee with evaporated milk but no sugar. Tropical fruits, cheap public transportation, and coffee all rolled into one city. What more could a boy want in this world??

After our fruit market/café outing, it was time to DTF. Let me explain. DTF, or Din Tai Fung, is Singapore’s answer to dim sum. You go to a restaurant, order your food in advance by scribbling on something like a sushi menu, and when your number’s called you get seated and promptly showered with baskets of steamed dumplings. After the chili crab, this is one of those MUST EAT dishes in Singapore. I’m not clear on how or why we ended up choosing the place we did, but I’m really glad we did. We took a cab from the fruit market back to the Marina Sands resort (where the Gardens by the Bay botanical garden is). The actual Marina Sands is a hotel/casino/shopping mall on the scale I’ve only seen in Las Vegas before. The hotel/condo complex is a series of three towers that rise up some fifty stories to another block of building that rests on top. This block, parallel to the ground, holds what I’m sure are ridiculous restaurants, nightclubs, and spas for the you luxuriate in and swim out to your infinity pool on top of the city. That’s the “residential” side of complex, if you will. The commercial side holds a casino and shopping mall that would take hours to explore, but like the rest of Singapore, it’s ridiculously easy to navigate. We ask the information desk how to get to the restaurant we’re looking for, and they give us the stall number. So like the Hawker Food Stands, each place of business has its own address, which makes it all too easy to find. It’s usually something simple like “floor # - stall #,” so we were looking for something like 1-33, which would be on the first floor, stall 33. Interestingly enough, Singapore uses the European floor numbering system, so the “first” floor is the first floor above the ground floor, unlike China while uses the American system where the “first” floor is the ground floor.

So we find our restaurant, and like any other American girl in the mall, we lose Sarah immediately to the draw of Banana Republic. Mikkela and I eye the menu and put our order in for a lovely selection of dumplings, stir-fried veggies, and fruit juices. You wait outside like you would a service counter until your order’s called and then you’re seated. Our food started showing up promptly, which is good because Mikkela and I had a flight to catch sooner rather than later. We proceed to stuff an amazing assortment of dumplings into our faces and have to whisk off again to the airport. Before I leave the idea of din tai fung, I must share with you that the locals call this restaurant experience “DTF-ing,” as in “we DTF-ed last night.” In my primordial brain I know the acronym DTF as “Down To F*ck,” so hearing that people DTF-ed last night pretty much makes me giggle every time.

Mikkela and I cab it back to the airport, and because this damn country is so orderly, we’re at the counter to check-in our bags before we know it. Mikkela had bought an LCD TV, which is nicely packed inside her suitcase, so we tell the check-in attendant we need a “fragile” tag on this bag. She simply tells us to put it off the side with some other random suitcase and it’ll be taken care of. Anywhere else in the world I’d object, but you know that Singapore will properly label/handle this bag. We get through security fine enough, though in Asia they don’t go through metal detectors until you get to your gate, so really security was passport control. Once we’re inside, we have Changi Airport at our disposal. I had heard about the free foot massage chairs and the hotel inside the airport that wouldn’t require you to go back through immigration, but I hadn’t heard about the sunflower garden or the movie theater room that was available, for free, to all passengers 24-hours a day. I wanted to take a picture of a sunflower in the foreground and a jet airplane in the background, but true to Asian stereotypes, there was a group of tourists busy taking pictures of inanity. The food court was also open 24-hours, so if you needed a fresh coconut or some laksa (a Malay noodle soup popular in Singapore) at any given point, it’s definitely available to you.

Last Days in Bangladesh – 1/27-29/2013

After flying back to Dhaka with Mikkela, I had a whole slew of emotions and thoughts going through my head. I was relieved to be back because at Mikkela’s I had my own bed, and if I wanted to sleep in or just take a little quiet time at any point during the day, I could shut the door. I was also relieved to be coming back to something familiar. While Dhaka was by no means my home, everyday in Singapore was exploring some new part of town, and after a while you just need to be able to go back to your own familiar place and be content there. I think this is what I was talking about at the beginning of this write-up saying that I like to go home at the end of the day and recharge. There was also a sadness in the air because I hadn’t been keeping specific days straight, but I knew that once we came back from Singapore my days with Mikkela were numbered.

The weekends in Bangladesh are considered Friday and Saturday, since Friday is the equivalent of the Sabbath in Islam. For whatever reason, it’s local custom for the commercial centers in various neighborhoods to take a day off during the week. In the part of town that Mikkela lives in, that day is Sunday. I say all this because Mikkela and I had a pretty relaxed day our first day back in Bangladesh. While we flitted about a bit (we went to the grocery store and bought eggs, for instance), it was generally quiet. Mikkela had arranged with her housekeeper to make some food for Sunday night, and we had a couple of her closer friends come over for a sort of low-key going away party for me. It struck me at this party how wonderful this group of people is. They come from all walks of life—from local Bangladeshis to crazy black girls from West Philadelphia to former military badass chicas—and yet they all can happily get together and enjoy each others’ company. I’ve come to appreciate those moments when you realize that a group of people is genuinely happy to be together, and that was one of those moments.

In what we all thought at the time was my last day in country, Mikkela took me out for Korean food one last time before we parted ways. She had already taken me to this restaurant before for my birthday, but this was going to be a smaller affair, though with the same actors. What makes this Korean restaurant special are a few things: 1) the proprietress has taught her staff imperial Korean dishes, which means detailed presentation and exquisite flavor, 2) if she’s there she comes out and greets Mikkela like some long lost daughter, and 3) she takes care of her staff. By that I mean she feeds them, trains them, gives the uniforms they’re expected to wear, and she gives them the afternoon between 3:00 and 6:00 off to go about their business and run errands. We saw that maître d’ out and about one day, and it works out wonderfully for everyone. Because the whole place runs so well—which says a lot because nothing runs as planned in Dhaka—both the restaurant staff and the diners have a marvelous time. Not to mention the fact that the food is superb!

The plan here was for Mikkela’s driver to take us from the Korean restaurant to the airport for me to check. After having a little actually finding the check-in counter, the employee behind the counter smilingly tells me that, oh no, my flight’s ready to take off so I won’t be able to get on. I look at my watch and I’m nearly two hours early, so in so many words I ask this poor man to repeat himself. He makes a couple quick taps at his computer and he tries to reassure me that everything’s take care of and that I’m booked on tomorrow’s flight that will be leaving at the same time. That’s all well and good, I thought, but I didn’t have anything in writing that told me that I had a reservation on tomorrow’s flight out. He waves the thought away and says that he’ll write his name down in case there are issues tomorrow. Right buddy, you’re going to be off in the market sipping on a coconut when I try to find you to ask about my reservation. That doesn’t help my situation! He tries to convince me that everything will be fine, but I’m pretty much in panic mode at this point because I was all ready to start my 24-hour journey back to DC, and it’s NOT HAPPENING. We drive back to Mikkela’s apartment resigned to the fact that we’ll have to try this again tomorrow. First thing I do is write a strongly worded email to the company from whom I bought the airline ticket, and within an hour or so I’m getting a call from the local representative from Turkish Airlines assuring me that he sees my reservation in the system for tomorrow. This makes me feel a little better that two separate people have told I’ll actually be able to leave tomorrow, but it doesn’t solve the problem that I have nothing in writing stating this. So we try again the next day. We find the Turkish Airlines ticket counter, get in line with the other passengers (I see the old man who was in front of me the night before undoubtedly having the same confused conversation I had the night before). When it’s my turn at the ticket counter, I hand the man my passport and after no time at all he hands me two boarding passes, one for my first flight to Istanbul and one for the flight from Istanbul to DC. All he essentially says to me is “enjoy your flight,” and that was that. How the hell can it be that easy when they just randomly changed the departure time for me flight the previous night?!?

The best part of this story is after sleeping in because I had an extra day in Dhaka, I get an email response from Orbitz. It starts out with the usual “we’re sorry about your inconvenience” drivel, but then it goes on to say that the person writing this message back has just gotten off the phone with a Turkish Airlines representative stateside and they’ve confirmed my flight out—AT THE ORIGINALLY POSTED TIME—from Dhaka the following evening. So if I hadn’t done what my local airport employees had told me to do and listened to the company I bought the ticket from, I would’ve been stuck in Dhaka for yet another day! There obviously had been some sort of misstep in communication between Orbitz, Turkish Airlines – America, and Turkish Airlines – Dhaka. We’ll never know all the details to this travel mystery.

The Journey Back Home

Now that I was actually on a plane and starting my journey home, I was happy go get back into a normal routine in a place that I knew how to get around, but it’s pretty heartbreaking leaving someone like Mikkela behind. Before this trip she had been on two of my biggest adventures: traveling for two weeks in China, and a year or so later taking a cross-country road trip from one coast to another. Now that she’s working in the State Department overseas, I envision countless adventures ahead. But right now I’m sad that I’m leaving my friend for another year until her assignment in Bangladesh is up and she’s in DC for training for a while.

I learned this on my trip to China, but when you travel for days, you actually lose or gain a day when crossing over so many time zones. Case in point: I left on a Tuesday night and arrived in Bangladesh on a Thursday morning. What happened to Wednesday?? On my way back from Bangladesh, I’m leaving on a Tuesday night and getting back on a Wednesday night. You’d think that’s only 24-hours lost, right? Oh no, you’re forgetting about the time zones that you’re crossing through. All told, I figured it’s taking me about 38 hours of travel, from the time I arrive at the airport to the time I leave the final destination’s airport. It’s exhausting just to think about, and this is coming from a boy that doesn’t really sleep on planes!

This time I have a 12-hour layover in Istanbul. Knowing this, I reach out to one of my Turkish grad school buddies currently living in the city. Seda and I were close, not only because we started and finished the same program at the same time while in Monterey, but during our time there we participated in multiple “projects” together. These projects ranged from belly dancing in drag for the school’s talent show to her directing a group of us in a group of dramatic monologue readings for a violence against women project to working as consultants for the City of Carmel to revitalize their commercial downtown. I was happy to try to meet up with her, but I was nervous because she simply told me to meet at the water-taxi station in a particular marina. During my 24-hour delay in Dhaka, I Google mapped the area and noticed that there was a Sheraton Hotel right in that marina area. After going through the proper transfer procedures in Istanbul, I took a nap in the airport for a couple of hours because it was at that point something like 3:00am local time. I found my way to the visa office, which cost me only $20, and hopped in a cab to Ataköy Marina. It really worked out well because I got to the dock something like ten minutes before their water-taxi arrived (right on time), and we had a long breakfast at a local café. Not only is Turkish food amazingly flavorful, this is the land of coffee. While it may be expensive to live a western lifestyle in Istanbul, I must say that it’s a place that could hold your attention for a long while should you ever want to move or visit.

After I saw Seda and her husband off, I taxied back to the airport and made it through security with no problem. I was rather proud of myself at this point because I had successfully gotten halfway home, seen my good friend from grad school, and gotten back to the airport with time to spare before my last leg of the journey started. Although the flight was long (12 hours from Istanbul to DC), everything worked out. I should point out that, like getting into Bangladesh at the beginning of this adventure, the immigration line at the airport was so long that by the time I was through my baggage was again off the carousel and just waiting for me to pick it up. At that point I just gathered up my things, found a cab for the 10-minute ride home from the airport, and simply crashed. Because I lost my cushion day from between I got back from my trip and when I had to be back at work, it took until that weekend for me to feel more or less like a human being, due to the lack of sleep and the inability to fully understand which time zone I was in at that particular moment.

Final Thoughts (about a week later)

This trip was another demonstration of the lesson I had learned on my trip to China: that we’re all such similar creatures. Sure we may do things differently, eat different food, and have completely different views on a lot of subjects, but when it boils down to it we’re all just trying to get by and do the best we can with what we know. You can look at developing countries as poor and unsophisticated, but really they’re just doing things a little differently because their culture and history has brought them to a slightly different place, as compared to ours. Americans certainly haven’t figured out the solution for a modern utopia, so I don’t we should be so quick to judge others on how they do things. In fact, I think we should really sit back and soak in the lessons that we may be able to learn from others when in a new place.

What my continued travels have taught me is humility and a sense of greater awareness. At the beginning of this journey everyone was telling me to lower my expectations of Bangladesh because the streets are filled with sink holes and open sewers, and it’s not an incredibly pretty place. Because I had such low expectations starting out, I was incredibly impressed with the place. Dhaka is a giant, vibrant metropolis that’s obviously in the middle of a rebirth into a world city. I’m not say that commerce and tourists are flocking to come, but everyday there is a more prominent international presence. There are still serious problems, for sure—ever the Peace Corps has had to pull out of the country—but construction is a constant and you’d be amazed what you can find and buy here.

The people of Bangladesh have also really surprised me. I had heard that the people are generally friendly, but what I saw was a huge population just trying to get by. Everyone was working, which speaks volumes about their work ethic. Mikkela says that everyone has to keep a certain level of calm because it’s a hot, crowded place, and if someone were to spark the populace, riots would be uncontrollable. While only having spent a very limited amount of time there, I think there’s a deeper layer that needs to be expressed. I was expecting a conservative country that wouldn’t allow anyone to prosper outside of traditional sociocultural norms. But I met gay men, independently minded women living on their own, and a society that generally allowed women the same luxuries as a man. They even have a female Head of State, something that the United States can’t yet boast!

As someone who can confidently call himself a world traveler at this point, I cannot express the importance of flexibility in your travel plans enough. Coming from a family that likes to plan every detail town to the minute of a vacation, I quite enjoy giving yourself some flexibility when traveling to experience those unexpected gems that you may just stumble upon. With that in mind, I encourage any traveler to actively wander outside of the neighborhood or part of city that’s typically considered the tourist section. People live here, so life happens in some manner. By that I mean locals may do it differently that you, but it all still somehow works out at the end of the day. Start your adventure with that thought in mind and you’d be amazed at what you come across. On the same token, be vigilant, aware, and smart about your travels. Try to wear local clothes as much as possible, and do some research before you leave about local customs and things to generally do while you’re in country. There’s generally some sort of tourist office or even a concierge at your hotel, but take some time to get off the beaten path. That’s where the world really lives.

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