Friday, March 1, 2019

Bangla What?

Bangladesh is my 46th country. Like many of the places I have ventured to in the past, news of this location was met with a variety of responses. "You're going where?" What", "Why would you go there?", "It's so dangerous" and my personal favorite, "Dude, you are so weird". There were long confused stares with heads tilting back and forth like a confused dog trying to digest what I said and not sure if what they heard was true. I like these moments.

As you get older, teaching opportunities start to decrease because ageism is a real thing. It does not mean there are no jobs, but you will work a bit harder and put in some effort to finding one. The results can be a location which might not be one of the standard/expected locations such as Korea, China, or Thailand. However, when you push away from the beaten path you may find yourself somewhere you never expected. Hello Bangladesh!

Dhaka. What do you envision when you hear the word? Better yet, have you ever thought of the place? Personally, I figured I would completely overwhelmed. No, let's be honest. I had NO idea what to expect. However, I was not shocked nor panicked. Maybe it is a long list of travel and working experiences in developing countries, including India and Nepal. Regardless here I sit in a lovely coffee shop in Gulshan in a serene caffeine trance, entrenched in the city that I will now call home. No this is not a paradise and yes I am having short moments of WTF am I doing here. The people I have met in my short time are bonded by the same challenges that I am about to hit head on. Good thing I have a hard head.

This trip has been in the works for over a year. I delayed last September to go to Mexico, which as you know was a complete disaster. I then delayed a January departure to scout out a different job opportunity in Mexico. Unfortunately that job just wasn't for me which is too bad because I really wanted it to be. Finally I committed. I jumped on a flight out of Toronto and with stops in London then Colombo Sri Lanka, I found myself in Dhaka, 30 hours and 11 times zones later.

When was the last time you had a lunch menu on a flight?
British Airways and Sri Lankan Air were great. I suspect because they were long, trans-oceanic flights. The meals were good and we had real cutlery. There was delicious coffee and free booze for the taking during the entirety of both flights. Seriously, the Sri Lankan Air stewards from London to Colombo kept a constant pace up and down the aisle with the cart of happiness. For those who don't know, I don't usually drink on any flight. It is just personal choice, well that and the fear of a border guard having a bad day and my ability to be sarcastic at the wrong time with booze on my breath. That would never end well for me. Coffee it is.

I had all the required documents from the school and was supposed to get a 3-month entry visa from the Bangladesh Embassy in Ottawa. Through sheer neglect and not being 100% sure what the hell I was going to do, I failed to get it. I had to rely on a new service being offered at the Bangladesh border, a 30-day visa on arrival. This service was initiated within the last year to encourage tourism. Yes, there is tourism in Bangladesh. The agent in London who was passing me through security inquired about my Bangla visa. When I told her about the Visa on Arrival now available, she coldly dismissed me and called a colleague over to talk about it. They searched their little computer, whispered and stared at me knowingly, wanting to tell me I could not board the flight. BOOM, they both became quite polite to me when it was confirmed I could get my visa at the border. To her credit the woman smiled and said "shit, you learn something new every day on this job". I suspect there were more than one person who had arrived at this gate without a travel visa and craziness had ensued. I skipped through with more than a touch of a childish "told you so" in my step.

The visa on arrival process is fast and simple. Just have EVERYTHING that is needed. One you enter the immigration area the desks are on your right as you pass through the door. They are well signed, and you cannot miss them. Go to the bank window and pay your $51US. The agent will give you a receipt which you take to one of the police or immigration agents available and they will give you a form to fill out. Make sure you have the address of where you are staying. If you don’t have anything booked just look up a major hotel and get that address. Also have a phone number in Bangladesh as a contact. Again, it is your hotel that would word fine. If you are showing up without a hotel reservation and feel like "winging it", well good luck with that choice.

It is also advisable to have a flight booked to leave on a specific date. I read stories where they don't ask however in my case they did. I usually use Orbitz as you can cancel you booking within 24 hours for Free. I booked a flight from Dhaka to Bangkok on March 24th and the agent asked to see the details. I jumped on the free airport Wi-Fi and cancelled the flight once I was through immigration and waiting for my pickup. The entire process took about 30 minutes which included me filling out the form and waiting in line for a bit for the dude in front of me. Passport stamped. Welcome to Bangladesh baby!

If there is any advice, I can give you if you come here, have an airport pickup. The number of touts, taxi drivers, soldiers and general chaos once you walk out the doors can be a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated. Once you walk out the doors you cannot get back in, something I thankfully read on a blog site during my trip prep. My pickup was late because of traffic which I found out because of the free Wi-Fi. I am not sure why I did not buy a SIM card at the airport, they were readily available.
When Mr. Z. showed up in the school van I obviously stood out and they easily found me. The doors flew open, I jumped in and we rolled into the sun drenched, dusty streets. My first observation was a train that was running alongside the highway. Sure enough there were people sitting on roof of the various train cars. I was happily told that during the busy times there were hundreds, if not thousands perched upon the train. "Sometimes people fall off and die but that is life in Dhaka" Mr. Z. happily exclaimed.

Dengue, Chikungunya and Malaria spray. Not something you run to Shoppers Drug Mart for.

30 minutes or so we pulled into my apartment building in Gulshan 2. It is considered one of the better areas of Dhaka and is where most of the Embassies are located. It is probably the worst best area of a city I have ever been to.  When you jam 15 million people into 304 sq km, that is 47,000 people per square kilometer, it is going to be a bit of a gong show. I fell asleep about 15 minutes after went to my apartment. I woke up about 3 hours later, drank a glass of water and fell back asleep until morning. Jet lag doing what it does best.

OK Bangladesh, bring it!

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