Bangladesh: When you say no, you actually mean yes.
“There is no hotel called AirBnB at this address,” the immigrant official snapped, glaring at the pleading phone in my hand. His hair stood loosely upright and his eyes flickered with frustration as the people banked up behind me. Another flight had arrived, he didn’t have time for this. I smiled and tried to think of a way to explain how the most lucrative hotel business in the world worked.
I was ushered into another line and faced with a new prospect. “It’s my friend’s house,” I tried. The man smiled, amused. “When you say no, what you actually mean is yes” I tried to negotiate. Finally, he hammered my passport with the stamp and I was out into the thick night air. This was Dhakka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
I was travelling with my friend Samantha, an American who can make you feel like anything is possible. We were in Bangladesh to meet some skate rat kids who need a skatepark, to see if we could possibly build one for them. Bangladesh is one of the most intense places I have ever been.
Dhakka is surprisingly quiet for a city of its size. The streets are packed with tom toms (tuk tuks) and rickshaws and people’s voices are easily discernible over the din of traffic. The rickshaws are inscribed with intricate, colourful detail, men peddling hard through the thick, sudden downpours. The main street is lined with food carts, one USD enough to feed two people for dinner. The traffic is dense, moving throughout the city arduous, made worse by our timing. Two students were killed in a bus accident the week before we arrived, Dhakka’s youth took to the streets in a unique and heroic protest. They set up road blocks, checked licences and split the traffic into lanes according to vehicle type. Teenagers were calling for the regulation of bus licensing and more order on the streets. Traffic accounts for twenty thousand deaths per year in Bangladesh, and a bunch of kids were trying to change it. Things escalated while we were down on the coast, a Ukraine-esque civil war threatened to break out as the government sent in thugs to violently break up the crowds.
We flew down to Cox’s Bazar after a few days in the capital city. We loaded longboards on the roof of a tom tom and hurtled into the damp streets. People watched us from all directions, wide eyes peering under the awnings in astonishment as we followed our host on his motorbike ahead. We stayed with a family in a three-story building overlooking the labyrinth of alleyways that wrapped about us. The streets were lined with colourful doors, open in the evenings with women and children swathed in headscarfs textured with patterns and rich colouring.
Everywhere we went people watched us. Men sat a little too close in the small street-side restaurants as we dipped our chapati in dahl and rickshaw drivers turned their heads as they zipped by, staring as we carried our surfboards to and from the beach each day. We walked past big hotels converted to UNHCR and UNICEF offices, the heat making our long clothing cling to our bodies. The humidity was exhausting in a way that can only be experienced from within the confines of long dresses and covered shoulders. The ocean was bath like and brown, the Bay of Bengal colliding with the Ganges delta to create an opaque mess of wind chop and river water. It was less than ideal surf conditions, yet the kids we came to meet plunged in regardless.
Bangladeshi Surfer Girls and Boys is a small surf club run out of a dim storage unit on the edge of the longest beach in the world. The asymmetry of the gender relations in Bangladesh make engaging in sport, particularly water sport, risky for women and girls. Gender based violence seems particularly normalised and victim blaming the common practise in incidence of rape and assault. Shame attached to such occurrences and little in place to hold the perpetuators accountable, mean that breaking social custom to go surfing is a big deal. The club runs to offer support and equipment to the kids, teenage girls who are members offered an opportunity to hang out unwatched, engage in something fun and for a moment step outside of the pressures surrounding them.
One of the girls we met was Sume. In another life she would be the type of girl you could see going on to excel at university, her spirit alight in her quick moving eyes and loud voice. She is socially dominating, speaks quickly and confidently, telling the people around her how to behave. She is entertaining and inquisitive, welcoming us into her family home to meet her parents and see the books she is reading.
Her house was small. The living area bare except for a small sofa, a small television and her mother sitting on a rug on the floor rolling beetlenut. Her father also sits on the floor, he smiles curiously at us, her mum offers us some beetlenut, lips and gums stained deep red. Sume shows us her room, a stack of books proudly on display on the shelf. She asks me to take a family photo, materialising draped in rich burgundy fabric, her baby niece smiling excitedly after playing with a chicken in the mud outside.
We took some of the kids from the surf club down the coast in a tom tom in search of waves. The coastline is lush, a full spectrum of greens lining the highway, the beach stretching on and on and on. We passed banana shaped fishing boats, men carrying their catch back and forth, the unique shape of the boats designed to brace the high windy seas. The waves were never really good. A few days it was fun and surfable and the area south of Cox’s Bazar seemed to belong to a different world to the city itself. We skated on the empty road with the kids, only the occasional tom tom passed by and we ate bananas and bread as we zipped back north. Only a few of the kids could speak English, but the barrier seemed minimal as we stoked out on waves and skating.
Finally, the heat got too much and we decided to leave early. I changed my flight to Johannesburg and booked a new domestic flight back to Dhakka. When I went to check in they told me my longboard was too long for the plane they had on loan. I argued with the attendant until he walked away, leaving me wondering how the heck I was going to get my board to Dhakka in time for my international flight. I approached the attendant again and someone whisked my board away. I could see them trying to fit it on the plane on the runway. They tried the first hold, but it was too long. The second hold was also not big enough and finally I could see them trying to cram it into the last hold. It was in. I was on. “See,” I said to the attendant,
“When you say no, you actually mean yes.”
Full gallery here.