Bangladesh through another lens

After traveling extensively across the world, you can become immune to the beauty of your home country.

I go back to Bangladesh almost every six months, as my parents and extended family still live there. But I rarely stop to take in and enjoy the country as I would when visiting a new destination.

When my German in-laws expressed an interest to visit and get to know Bangladesh in lieu of attending the Bangladeshi wedding I did not wish to have, I was nervous. My country is gritty, awkward, and unpolished. Could I show everyone its good sides?

My now-slightly-over-one-year-old-husband has been to Bangladesh before. But he has lived in south Asia and southeast Asia before and is a seasoned traveler. He, cleverly enough, had sounded out the country before agreeing to marry me as well. And it had been good enough for him.

It would be my in-laws’ first time in South Asia, which can be an overwhelming avalanche of emotions and experience. Nevertheless, I was game. I was going to show them what a great place Bangladesh is, despite India always stealing our proverbial tourism thunder.

Along the way, I discovered a few things myself.

If you’re looking for a new travel destination that’s both off-the-beaten-path and will pay back manifolds for all the effort you’ve gone through to get there, Bangladesh is the place for you. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s dusty, but in all of that, there’s beauty, resilience, and good food – loads and loads of good food.

It is beautiful here

The Lonely Planet calls Bangladesh the greenest jewel in South Asia. You wouldn’t know it if you just stick around Dhaka. Dhaka is as any big, busy capital is – loud, full of people and it takes forever to really get anywhere.

But if you venture out just a little, there’s a lot to discover of the country. I myself make it out very rarely when I visit home since it’s all about catching up with family and friends and running errands.

Experiencing life outside of the city lends a lot more credibility to the assertions of the Lonely Planet. Whether you go visit the gorgeous tea plantations in the north-east of the country or go tracking Royal Bengal Tigers in the Sundarbans, you will be confronted with lush, green vegetation. Rows of rice paddies and mustard flowers will greet you, and you’ll want to stop and take photos everywhere.

Tea plantations, Srimangal

There are lots to see, but pace yourself. It’s not a place you can rush through in 7 days and see all the highlights. To really enjoy Bangladesh’s beauty, you need to go at a leisurely pace

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Boat ride through the Sundarbans. The Sundarbans Reserve Forest (SRF), located in the south-west of Bangladesh is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world.
The Buriganga River in Dhaka
Madhabpur Lake, Srimangal

You need to stop, make conversation with locals, drink some tea by the side of the road, take selfies with curious citizens who can’t believe you made it out here, and be greeted by plenty of smiles and warmth.

We love a good, satisfying meal

Did I mention the food? Please don’t let your experience of bad subcontinental restaurants in the west tell you what South Asian food is like. It is flavorful, healthy and will include deliciously healthy vegetables you’ve probably never even heard of. Bangladeshi food specifically is creative, full of spices (not to be confused with hot), and will leave you salivating for more.

One of the things we take for granted is frequent meals. There’s your tasty morning breakfast – veggies and lentils with some parathas or chapatis – followed by a mid-morning snack with tea around 11am. Then you’ve got a nice lunch around 2pm, potentially rice, veggies, a side of meat or fish, and some lentils. This is followed by your 5pm tea-time. We wouldn’t be a proper former British colony without tea-time, now would we? And of course, a shingara (what is known as a samosa in most western, Indian restaurants) to go with that tea, please!

As late evening rolls around, it’s time for dinner. By now, you’ve hopefully emptied your stomach and are ready to tuck into a delicious plate of rice with accompanying curries and vegetables.

A home-cooked meal

To be honest, most people on most days will skip the snack. But after a filling breakfast at 9am, my German family was mortified at the thought of eating lunch again at 2pm. By the third day, they had to break it to me – this was way too much food. A big breakfast, followed by dinner at 7pm would be just fine. As delicious as Bangladeshi food is, it was simply too much.

We had to scale back!

Respect towards foreigners

It’s hard to know how your compatriots treat foreigners. Do they stare? Do they make people uncomfortable? Are they annoying? Are the men creepy?

To my great relief – they were none of that. People generally are respectful, curious about where you’re from, and eager to practice the two sentences of English they’ve learned in school. Aside from requests to take random photos which can become overwhelming if too frequent, most people will maintain their distance and even if not able to express their enthusiasm in a language you understand, will let you know that they’re glad you’re there.

If you happen to venture outside of the city, most small-town folks and villagers will be keen to tell you about themselves and will be happy to let you take your Instagram-perfect photos. Tourists are not that frequent, but not a total anomaly.

My savvier-than-most-tourists husband has even managed to hail a CNG, traipsed to Shadarghat (port of Dhaka) all on his own, and negotiated and rented a boat to ride around Buriganga without issue.

It takes a bit of imagination to allow yourself to end up on such an excursion, but don’t we all need a bit more imagination in life?

South Asian hospitality

If you haven’t been to South Asia before, it’s hard to explain the sentiments behind this.

Hospitality is giving up your own pillows at home to make sure that your guests are comfortable and can sleep well at the guesthouse. South Asian hospitality means insisting continuously that your guests take the better seats up front in the minivan to avoid having to be tossed around in the backseat. (It also means finally recognizing that they perhaps don’t want to sit up front because the sight of oncoming traffic on the narrow highway is so damn scary.)

Other ways that this hospitality materializes is in the form of food. Family and friends will cook delicious food and bring it home to you. Your parents will go all out to feed the guests delicious, home-cooked Bangladeshi meals. Your mom’s colleague will bake 5 different types of winter pithas (e.g. a type of pancakes; a sweet delicacy eaten as snacks mostly in winter) and send it over in large containers. If you happen to have a restaurateur friend (which I do – and his restaurants are the bloody best in town), he’ll make sure you get to try the tehari from his newest venture – just because you wanted some. Basically, everyone will make sure that you go back home to Germany 20kg heavier and still complain that you didn’t eat enough.

Hospitality also means that you can easily walk into a random wedding being hosted next door, explain to the father of the bride that the German guests are curious to see what a typical Bangladeshi wedding looks like, and will end up prominently featured in the official photos of the bride & groom. You will also end up being introduced to the bride’s entire family, and be expected to stay for dinner.

If that’s not the sort of random kindness you typically encounter on your travels, you should definitely head on over to Bangladesh.

The wealth gap

Despite being the fastest-growing economy in Asia according to some estimates, the gap between the rich and poor is hard to ignore. Even as a local, I can see the stark differences between the ultra-rich and people who clearly only earn 2 dollars a day, that too only after back-breaking work each day.

You could stick to the rich part of town and avoid having to be confronted by such realities. You could also venture out of the city, go meet some real locals – people that make up the towns and the small villages sprawled across the 147,570 km² of land.

They’re the ones that will tell you which of their kids go to school, what they do to earn a living, and what they are able to afford as meals with their meager earnings. And once you’ve done that, you’ll not only have a better appreciation of your own privilege, but recognize that regardless of where any of us come from, most people just want the same things – food on their tables, education for their children, and a place to call home.

People are resilient

Whether one has very little or quite a lot, being Bangladeshi and living in Bangladesh takes resiliency. This is resiliency to withstand shitty politicians, neverending traffic, bad air quality, and a terrible public transportation system run by a mafia.

If you happen to live out on the coast, this also means taking a beating every cyclone season, potentially losing your home and your livestock, and rising back up – because, what else is there to do but to get back up and continue living?

The true beauty of Bangladesh is its ability to weather whatever comes its way – natural calamities, fake elections, corruption, or untimely deaths of family members. Without romanticizing tragedy or bad fortune, the Bangladeshi way of getting back up even after multiple stumbles deserves a special mention. If you spend some time getting to know people here, that is what will stick with you the most.

So…won’t you come visit?

After nearly three weeks in Bangladesh, I’m back home in Germany feeling relieved (that no one fell sick), exhausted (from constantly translating between Bengali, English, and German), and content (since everyone had a good time).

I’m also grateful that I got to see Bangladesh through the eyes of people that were new to the region. It made me feel a renewed appreciation for my homeland. It gave me gratitude for the humble place I call home, in all its mind-numbing traffic, amazing food, and wonderful people.

In lieu of organizing a Big Fat Bangladeshi Wedding and choreographing Gaye Holud skits, we chose to invest our time and resources into showing my German family what it means to live here. They would’ve enjoyed a big deshi wedding just as well, but I’m happier to have been able to facilitate a more meaningful experience for my in-laws through getting to know Bangladesh beyond just a glitzy, over-the-top wedding.

After experiencing Bangladesh from a different perspective, I’m also slightly wiser than before.

Photos courtesy of Louisa Suess