At 24, I announced that I was traveling to Bangladesh for a month by myself. "Whatever for?," "why Bangladesh?," and "are you crazy?" were the reactions I got most often. Bangladesh is an unusual choice for a first-time solo female traveler. Home to a predominantly Muslim population, the country’s conservative culture was drastically different from the one I was raised or ever lived in, so it's natural that many people were surprised -- and even worried.
About to graduate with a Masters degree in Finance, I should have been job-hunting relentlessly. Instead, I had my heart set on an internship at the Grameen Bank, a microfinance institution in Dhaka, where I could learn about their unique efforts to eliminate poverty and bring about positive economic change in rural Bangladesh. Casting aside all concerns, I decided I would go with an open mind and embrace everything there was to learn about the culture and the people.
The result? There was far more than I could have imagined.
A Different Set of Rules
I hadn’t paid much attention to the warnings from well-meaning friends, dismissing them as paranoia that came in equal parts from media-fueled negativity and concern for me, their friend who was a complete rookie at solo, or for that matter, any travel. But there were lessons to be learned, and I had barely stepped out of the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport and into a taxi when I got my first taste.
As the car sped through pitch dark highways, narrow roads that wound through busy markets, and sleepy slums, people, cows, dogs, and bicycles jumped out of the way with an unfathomable casualness, even as my heart threatened to lurch out of my chest and out through the half-open window. It was a literal culture shock, to say the least.
Over the next month, I’d learn a thing or two about road transportation in Dhaka; the unwritten rules and the superhero-like reflexes and agility that taxi and rickshaw drivers in the city seem to be endowed with. I’d spend many rickshaw rides praying for people, strays, and cattle, clutching the edge of my seat with one hand and tossing the windswept hair off my face with the other while yelling, “Dheere dheere” (slowly, slowly). Most evenings the driver would respond by baring his pearly whites and revving up the engine further, especially if he’d be driving in the wrong direction on a one-way road.
I’d also master crossing the street in the impossible chaos of Mirpur, the neighborhood I lived in along with other foreign interns at the Grameen Bank. This involved a dangerous game of nimble zigzagging around vehicles and holding up one hand firmly in the direction of oncoming traffic as a sort of statement on the lines of, “You don’t scare me.”
Where Are The Women?
Within my first few days in Mirpur, I began to notice the lack of women on the streets. Everyday, I’d walk from my hotel to the Grameen Bank offices along with fellow interns. Vegetable sellers, street vendors, and slum children who should have been in school would wave to us in greeting and yell, “Hi! How are you?” the only English they could speak. But most of the people on the street were men; where were the women?
Humayun, our program coordinator explained that in the lower-income population that lived in the area, it was common for women to stay at home and do housework while the men went to work as vendors, handymen, laborers, craftsmen, and drivers. This wasn’t the case in other, more modern areas of the city, where women attended university and worked to support their families.
While in the beginning my group of four female interns drew curious glances on the street, we never once had any untoward incident where we’d feared for our safety. Once, we were at a local bus station, trying to get on a bus to the town of Sreemangal. After a few attempts at English mixed with a few words of Bengali, a very amused looking group of men pointed us in the right direction. As we walked to the back of the bus to the only vacant seats, we realized that it was full of men, all looking equally amused. But they were both helpful and respectful, even if they were slightly puzzled by the four foreign girls giggling at the back of the bus, off to Sreemangal on their own.
However, the contrast to our lives back home was remarkable. It was hard to picture myself walking down the street alone at 10:00pm like I would routinely in Dubai, with all the curious pairs of eyes on me. A bit intimidated, we ensured we were always in a group or at least in pairs. The guys in the volunteer program looked out for us, waiting up late until we had arrived safely at the hotel.
Dressing to Blend In
We’d been advised to dress modestly while in Dhaka and especially while visiting the homes of borrowers during our time living in the villages where the branches of the Grameen Bank operated.
I’d usually wear a long-sleeved, medium-length loose-fitting cotton top or shirt that wouldn’t cling to my body over jeans, trousers, or thick leggings and wrap an orna or stole around my neck. This was appropriate in casual settings and for work. Most young women, even in the more modern areas of the city, dress similarly. Bare legs, arms, and low necks are frowned upon, and swimwear is a no-no on public beaches.
While in the beginning it might have seemed strange, I got used to dressing to fit in quickly and found that it was not only comfortable, but also practical. The loose-fitting cotton tops kept me cool on warm afternoons, and I used the stole to protect my head from the heat.
Dressing modestly helped us blend in and made it easier to break the ice and initiate conversations with locals, whether it was young college students in Dhaka or shy village women who were covered from head to toe. Our choice of attire made us seem more approachable and showed the locals that we were being respectful of their culture, even though it was quite different from our own.
The Language Barrier
In many parts of the city, English isn’t widely spoken and navigating the language barrier was a challenging experience. I realized that learning a few phrases in Bengali would help in simple everyday situations like giving directions to drivers, asking for directions, and haggling with salesmen.
Within my first week, I began using words like bahinay (left) and phrases like koto dam (how much?) and kemon achhen (how are you?). This often took them by surprise and brought a smile on the face of the person I was addressing. I came to realize they appreciated that I was making an effort with the language.
These efforts, however, didn't completely eliminate the kind of experiences that make travel such an adventure; we routinely spent hours trying to get a certain café, restaurant, shop, or neighborhood because there had been a misunderstanding with the driver, or we’d been pointed in the wrong direction by a well-meaning stranger.
While I was trying to improve my Bengali, I found that many locals were keen to brush up their English skills. We would often be stopped on the street by young college and school-going students who’d ask if we could spend a few minutes speaking to them in English. It was a great excuse for a cultural exchange because we’d have a chance to learn about their way of life, while telling them about life in the cities we came from.
They told us about their homes and families, their love of Bollywood films -- something I was proud of as an Indian --, the coolest cafes and street food jaunts in their neighborhoods, the tailor down the street who'd make us a beautiful salwar kameez and the right price to pay for it, of how they wanted to move to the U.S. to study Medicine and Finance, the best Bengali lines to use for a guaranteed victory in a haggling war at a local market, and invited us to join the celebrations at local weddings. These interactions taught me about their openness, pride, and willingness to share their lives with complete strangers. It also made me realize that despite the differences on the surface, people around the world are more similar than we think; hospitality, curiosity, and the need to share and exchange stories about culture are common qualities of good and kind people around the world.
Tucking into Local Flavors
A huge part of the local experience in any country is learning to love the cuisine and my experience in Bangladesh was no different. During our first few days, we’d walk into local restaurants, the kind that wouldn’t have English menus, and use a combination of signs, Bengali, and English words to indicate that we wanted to order. Usually, numerous plates of food would be brought to our table: chicken biryani, aromatic fish curry, spicy rice, minced lamb in gravy, and soft, warm bread. We’d leave with happily full stomachs and only a few hundred taka poorer.
Slowly, we made a habit of eating where the locals did, both for the authenticity and affordability. We didn't carry a guidebook, choosing instead to simply walk down any street and into a restaurant crowded with local families. We’d point at the plates around us and smile, and more often than not we’d be pleasantly surprised. The adventure in discovering new ingredients, spices, and dishes made us temporarily forget about western food, though we did miss western style breakfasts of eggs, bacon, beans, pancakes, and cereal. On the odd days that we found ourselves missing food from home, we’d head to a pizza place or a Western-style café on the other side of town.
Gratitude and the People of Bangladesh
The aspect that made my time in Bangladesh particularly memorable was the warmth, friendliness, and hospitality of the locals. As tourism is still quite new in the country, the locals aren’t accustomed to seeing foreigners in their neighborhoods, markets, or local restaurants. This means they’re particularly attentive and eager to help even when language is a barrier. They’re also pleased that you’ve chosen to explore their country and want to ensure that you have a positive experience.
Whether it was the stranger in Dhaka who walked half a mile in the opposite direction to find a rickshaw for a fellow intern and me late one evening, the friendly restaurant owner who refused to let us pay, the kind villagers who wouldn’t take no for an answer when we’d say we didn’t want any more tea, or the family that surprised me with an elaborate meal when I was just visiting to drop off a parcel for a friend, I had the chance to glimpse into the heart of Bangladesh: its incredibly warm and generous people.
This experience taught me that living and working in a foreign culture isn’t easy. Social and business etiquette differs, you may have to change the way you act and dress to fit in, and you may miss the simple creature comforts of home, like a good cappuccino, Netflix, 24-hour supermarkets or the luxury of a beach day.
Your opinions may stick out like a sore thumb in another society and you have to be careful not to tread the fine line between expressing your views and offending a local. One time, a local male colleague made a casual comment about how decent women must dress and how modernization is no excuse for them to wear what they please, influenced by television and movies. It took all of my patience and understanding that he was influenced by his own Muslim upbringing in a small conservative town in Bangladesh not to debate with him, something I'd normally do back home. He had never traveled abroad or had any kind of exposure to Western culture and values. While I was entitled to my own opinion, the complete opposite of his, arguing with him publicly would bear no fruit.
But in my experience, there’s plenty to make up for the culture shocks: the unpredictability of each day, immersing yourself in a new environment, finding what drives people around the world, experiencing new festivals, sampling new cuisine, and forging friendships that can sustain the effects of time and distance.