Monday, May 12, 2014

Inspired by Iceland

After landing at Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, I hopped in a bright green rental car and hit the road. Before getting too far I wanted to stop at a grocery store. From the road, I spied a store called Husasmidjan, which looked like a grocery store. I got out of my car and went in, only to realize it was a home improvement store. Why didn’t I study Icelandic when I was in school. I looked at the sign again and it now made sense. Hus, is Icelandic for House. Not far away I did find a supermarket.

My destination that first evening was Vik, a small village about 200 km southeast of the airport. But what should have been a two hour drive turned into four hours, as I kept stopping along the way to marvel at the scenery. Iceland is like that beautiful woman you see that doesn’t wear makeup. Brimming with confidence, the country invites you to enjoy its natural beauty.
Iceland is known for its waterfalls and it took just an hour to spot my first one. Located beside the main road that circles the island, Seljalandfoss (foss means falls in Icelandic) looked majestic from a distance. It was even more impressive close up. The water pours over an overhang, so it’s possible to walk behind the falls. A unique view to be sure (good to have your rain jacket handy).


Seljalandfoss is visible from a distance on the Ring Road heading east

The overhang of the falls allowsvisitors to walk behind for a different perspective

Driving on, I saw more waterfalls. How magical this land, I thought. The large Skogarfoss begged me to get out of my car. I wasn’t disappointed, especially after climbing the hundreds of stairs (I started counting but lost track) to the top of falls, where you can watch the river being forced over the edge. The view from the bottom is equally breathtaking.


During my travels throughout the country, I noticed that some people had even built their homes next to waterfalls. Who needs to buy a water feature when you’ve got a natural one in your back yard.

It was almost 9:00 PM when I got to Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland. A lone white church, its roof covered in red, sits on a bluff overlooking the village. It’s the one on the cover of my guidebook, so I tried to recreate the image (minus the wildflowers that hadn’t yet bloomed) with my camera.

Not a bad recreation of the scene on the cover of the guidebook
The next morning, I continued driving along the Ring Road to Jokullsarlon, an iceberg lagoon, about 200 kilometres away. I hadn’t gone more than five minutes down the road when I turned off and drove a short distance along a farm path before getting out to admire another waterfall. This was much smaller than others I had seen, yet still significant enough to deserve a look. I climbed a wooden step ladder that had been placed over the barbed wire fence, and stood for a moment at the base of the falls revelling in the fact that I was the only one around. It was quiet except for the sound of the water falling into a small pool before being carried away to the ocean.

With a population of just 350,000, and almost two-thirds living in the capital, Reykjavik, there are times you’ll feel like you have the whole country to yourself. There were often long stretches of road where it was just me. I’d stop the car in the middle of the road, get out to take a photo and drive on.
With Icelandic pop songs filling the car, I drove on, mesmerized by the vast lava fields covered with green moss. I half expected to find a group of trolls living amongst the rocks. On further inspection, I didn’t see any trolls, but the pillowy-soft moss was surprisingly several inches thick.

Moss covered lava fields
The scenery is ever changing
Several hours after leaving Vik, I pulled into the parking lot at Jokullsarlon. The glacier has receded seven kilometres over the past hundred years, leaving behind a lagoon filled with icebergs. When ice breaks away from the glaciers, it will either stay in the lagoon and melt or float out to the ocean. A herd of seals inhabits the lagoon and can often be seen swimming in the water or basking atop one of the icebergs.
I joined a handful of others for a boat ride through the lagoon. The power of nature was on display here as we looked at ice that was formed a thousand years ago, some of which contains volcanic rock and dirt.   
Difficult to spot maybe, but there is a seal in the middle of the photo

Back in my car for the drive back to Vik, and with only a quarter tank of gas, I began worrying that I might run out of gas. Why should I have been surprised? I had already driven 400 km. On the way, I had only seen one gas station between here and Vik and a pump next to an abandoned building, which I figured wouldn’t be operational. I started doing the math in my head to see if I could make it back to Vik (200 km) with a quarter tank. Not likely, I surmised.

I drove a little slower hoping to nurse the fuel I had left. About 20 minutes down the road, I spotted the abandoned building with a gas pump out front. To my surprise (and relief) it worked. What a fantastic system. Who needs a gas station with an attendant when all you need is a pump in the middle of nowhere.
With a full tank of gas, I continued on to Vik, marvelling at the ever changing scenery. Above me I saw the contrails of passing plane, presumably on its way to North America from Europe. They don’t know what they’re missing, I couldn’t help but think.
Inspired by Iceland. That’s the latest marketing slogan to promote tourism. These are more than just empty words slapped on a brochure or website. It’s not hard to feel inspired by everything this country has to offer.  
View more of my Iceland photos

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dhaka: as real as it gets

After breakfast on my second day in Dhaka, I slipped out the front door of my hotel hoping that Salim wouldn’t be waiting. He seemed nice enough and I know he was trying to earn some money, but I yearned for the freedom to just walk, and not be paraded from place to place. I looked around and didn’t see him. Fantastic, I thought.

I had only got half a block, when I heard someone calling behind me. I turned and saw Salim pedalling his rickshaw toward me.   
“I take you today. Where do you go?”
I told him I just wanted to walk, but I could see that it was hard for him to understand. He was probably wondering why this white guy would want to walk around a chaotic city in such hot and humid conditions.
“I take you and then you can do walking,” he pressed.
I told him not today and carried on.
I came to a large intersection and stood in the middle for a short time on a raised platform a few feet off the ground. I was in awe at the feverish pace of the traffic that was moving in every direction. Oddly it seemed choreographed, but as one local told me about the traffic: “It’s a big problem. There is no discipline.”
The challenge now was for me to get to the other side of the road without getting hit. I watched others standing next to me take the plunge and start crossing. I hesitated too much and missed the opportunity. For a fleeting moment, I wished I hadn’t spurned Salim. It would have been much easier sitting in his rickshaw. But travel isn’t supposed to be easy, I told myself.
Armed with that bit of philosophy, I made my move and stepped into the traffic. Never before had I felt so nakedly vulnerable, as I did in that moment. It was frightful watching buses, cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws coming at you like precision guided missiles. Keep walking. Keep walking. I kept reassuring myself. Relieved was I, knowing that I had survived. To be sure, Dhaka is not for the timid.  

My intended destination was a slum settlement in the area of Kawran Bazaar, where small dwellings no more than five or six feet high had been scrapped together on either side of the railway tracks.
Before setting off I had written down the streets I needed to get this area, which was about four kilometres away. Find VIP Road, then right on Hare Road, which turns into Minto, then a right on Kazi Nasrul Islam. Sounded easy enough until I started walking and realized there were no street signs. I knew to keep Ramma Park on my left, but then I came to a major intersection and all was lost. I went up to a traffic officer and asked if he knew what street this was.

“Kazi Nasrul Islam Street,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Kawran Bazaar,” I replied.

“You’re going there on foot,” he questioned, incredulously?

He pointed to the general direction. I thanked him and pushed on. 
A hard life next to the tracks
I finally came to a set of railway tracks, and sure enough there were rows of small shack-like homes. There were no trees to offer protection from the sun. No electricity. No running water. I could only imagine what it would be like when the monsoon rains came. At first, I felt like an uninvited guest but that was short lived as people came up to me without hesitation. Not to beg for money, but out of curiosity.
Everyone was very welcoming. Some asked where I was from, while others reached out to shake hands.  
Trains run regularly through the slum

One young guy, who I suspected to be in his early twenties, followed me as I walked along the tracks. He warned me a train would be coming soon. In fact, trains pass through regularly during the day mere feet from these people’s homes.
Not surprising disease lives here. I could see it in the cloudy eyes of many people, yet despite the terrible environment in which they live, they all had such warm smiles. I saw this too when I was in Jakarta, Indonesia [the place that gave rise to the White Man Walking moniker]. What is it about people who have so little, yet have such a bright spirit? They have every reason to finger the world and yet they choose to smile instead. There’s a lesson there for all of us. 
I noticed a young girl cooking over a small fire. I knelt down to take her picture and she opened herself up with a shy smile. Further on, a group of children posed for a photo and clamoured around me trying to see their faces on the screen. This is as real as travel gets. This isn’t the fiction of an all-inclusive in Mexico. 

Walking back to my hotel, I noticed a section of brightly colourful flowers planted along the sidewalk. I touched them and realized they were artificial. It was the only thing I encountered in the city that was fake. Warts and all, Dhaka is as real as it gets.   

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Madness in Dhaka

It was close to one o’clock in the afternoon when I arrived at my hotel in central Dhaka. I felt like collapsing onto the small bed, and recover from the 27 hours of travel, but I knew that to do so would be folly. Needing to stay awake and shake off the jetlag, I washed up and hit the streets.

Stepping outside the hotel, a rickshaw driver approached me. “Where you go? I take you.”
I waved him off and kept walking not really too sure which direction I was going, but I thought if I keep moving I might lose this guy whose I saw was still trailing behind. I soon realized that I had better stop and look around for some landmarks or I might not be able to find my way back to the hotel.  

“Where you go?” I heard as the rickshaw driver was now standing next to me.
I just wanted to wander. I wanted the freedom for my feet to take me wherever. The one place I knew I wanted to see was Sadarghat, the city’s frenetic riverfront port. It is here that multi-decked ferries, century-old Rocket Steamers, barges, and small wooden boats ferry people on the Buriganga River.

The driver said he’d take me to Sadarghat, but before he’d also take me to the National Museum, Lalbagh Fort, and a host of other places that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

 “How much money,” I relented, tired of the chase.
“You no worry about money,” he said, reassuringly. “If you like, you pay 100 Takas, or 300 or 700. Your choice. You  no worry.”  

Salim and my wheels in Dhaka
He spun the rickshaw around, and pedalled out into the notoriously crazy traffic. It was like gladiator on wheels as everything that moved—colourful rickshaws, small three-wheeled motorized taxis called CNGs motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, and even people walking on the road—fought for every bit of open space. And the incessant honking and ringing of rickshaw bells. Everyone appears to have accepted the madness. I even saw a cow standing in the middle of the road seemingly oblivious to the chaos.   
Salim had short cropped black hair, sprinkled with grey, and a similarly coloured beard. He wore a short sleeved red shirt and a lungi, a traditional long tube-like skirt similar to a sarong. This was the dress of every rickshaw driver in Dhaka. It’s estimated there are more than half a million rickshaws rolling through the streets of Dhaka, and each is colourfully painted. Like many rickshaw drivers, Salim’s teeth and gums are stained bright red. This from chewing a green leafy plant called Qat, a mild stimulant. After chewing for a short time one’s saliva turns bright red.  

Central Dhaka
Salim pulled up in front of the National Museum and got off his bike. He came back a minute or so later and told me the museum is closed. I didn’t tell him, but I was glad. Apologies to curators worldwide, I find most museums intensely boring.
We pushed on, and Salim pointed to a monument a short distance away telling me it marks the 1971 war with Pakistan. He would point out two others. Bangladesh, like Pakistan, used to be part of India. When India was partitioned in 1947, the division was primarily made based on religion, so the predominantly Muslim areas became known as West and East Pakistan. But religion aside, the two regions had little in common. The geographic and cultural divide led to war, and the birth of a new nation, known today as Bangladesh.

Crowded streets in old Dhaka

The air was hot, humid and heavy from the grime and pollution that washes over this city. At times, I was assaulted by the pungent smell from heaps of rotting garbage. Stopped in traffic, Salim turned to me and asked my religion. I always find it awkward to answer in such pious places, because people don’t understand that it’s possible (and quite okay) to not worship a God.  Not wanting to complicate matters, I told him I’m Christian. It’s not entirely a lie I suppose, given that I was baptized.  
Minutes later he brought me to a small Armenian Church. It was locked, but someone went away and came back with a key to let me in. The church dates from the late 1700s, and services are usually held just twice a year.

Having been to church, I climbed back onto the rickshaw and we wended our way through old Dhaka. The streets are narrow and crowded with people, cars, rickshaws and vendors. On one street, several tailors had set up their sewing machines and were doing a brisk business on the side of the road.
Popular mode of transportation to cross the river

We finally came to the Buriganga River. I gave Salim a bit of money, and he headed off to negotiate with the many operators of small wooden boats for a tour of the river. A single oar at the back of the boat cut through the coal black water, pushing aside the garbage that littered the river. We crossed to the other side and with the leftover money I had given Salim, he bought a large bottle of Coke and some biscuits. He had found two discarded plastic bottles in which he poured some of the Coke for him and the guy that operated the boat. He handed the rest of the soda over to me, and in the afternoon heat, it went down easily. It was magical being on the river as the sun was setting. A perfect way to end the day, I thought.

Life on the river

Sunset on the Buriganga River

“We go now to Hindu temple,” Salim said, back at his rickshaw.
I told him I’d rather go back to my hotel.

He pedaled through the chaos on the streets, and every few blocks turned to me and said, “I take you now to Hindu temple.”

Trying to mask my annoyance, I told it had been a long day and I’d like to go to my hotel.

“Ok,” he said, “but tomorrow I take you to national Parliament and zoo (which always sounded like Jew when he said it).
It had turned out to be a good afternoon, but I had no interest in going to the zoo or anywhere else with Salim. I ached for the freedom to explore on my own.

Four hours after leaving I was back outside my hotel. I gave Salim 1,000 Takas, about $15. He rolled his head back and forth and said ok. We both knew that it was more money than he’d make most days, but given that he had ridden me across the city for hours, I thought it was fair.
“I wait for you tomorrow and take you around to see zoo and national parliament,” I heard Salim say as I walked into my hotel.

View more photos from day one in Dhaka

Next Post: White man in Dhaka

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Contrasting travels

I’m on my way to Bangladesh and Iceland. An odd combination I concede. Like syrup and ketchup, two destinations that couldn’t be more unlike. Obscurity is the only thing these two places have in common.

Bangladesh is hot, humid and flat like a pancake. The country acts like a sieve to two great rivers—the Ganges and the Brahmaputra—before they spill into the ocean. Like my two young sons trying to pour a glass of water from a heavy jug, the yearly monsoons overflow these rivers, flooding villages and cities.  In contrast, Iceland is punctuated by volcanoes, glaciers, and the rivers in Iceland seem to flow down to the sea in a graceful manner showing off with magnificent waterfalls.
With a population of more than 150 million, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It’s also one of the poorest and its people have suffered at the hands of poor government and corruption. Anything that moves in the country's capital, Dhaka—people, rickshaws, buses, cars, boats and even the cockroaches—are in a constant fight for space in this teeming city. The difference in Iceland couldn’t be starker. While it’s estimated that there are more than 600,000 bicycle rickshaws in Dhaka, Iceland’s population is a mere 350,000, giving way to wide open spaces and natural wonders.  And if in Bangladesh the earth moves beneath the feet of millions of people, in Iceland geothermal and volcanic activity keep things bubbling underground. Here’s another stat for you. Iceland’s per capital GDP is $36,000 compared to just $2,000 in Bangladesh.  
Bilkis, a gracious Bangladeshi cabin attendant
Looking out the window of an airplane, I’ve always thought that one could be anywhere. The quiet of the airplane’s cabin masks the noise and chaos below. I thought this flying over the green Bangladesh countryside, where meandering rivers have their way with the landscape and run where they like. It could almost be a fill in for the English countryside or parts of Europe. Then peering out the window as we neared the airport in Dhaka, I thought of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz… “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And I’m guessing it doesn’t look like Iceland, either.

Arrival into Dhaka