Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 5

Dhaka (Bangladesh) - Sonargaon (Bangladesh)

Travel in places where there are no tourists

I was disappointed that the producers of The Amazing Race 21 seemed to have gone out of their way to make Bangladesh look unattractive. But I was pleased that they ventured to a country where there are no foreign tourists.

There are travellers (mostly domestic) in Bangladesh, and there are foreign business people and foreigners visiting friends and family. But no foreign tourists. In my years selling airline tickets around the world, everyone I sent to Bangladesh had either a business reason to go there, or friends or family to visit. (They all enjoyed their visits, although it's not a large sample.)

Many Bangladeshis work abroad as contract laborers, especially in West Asia where they are on the bottom of the elaborate stratification of occupations between different nationalities and ethnicities of "guest workers" in the Gulf countries. There are also sizable communities of (authorized and unauthorized) immigrants from what is now Bangladesh, and their descendants, in the UK, USA, and other countries. The best-known Bangladeshi neighborhood abroad is Spitalfields, near the Docklands in the East End of London, which was originally settled by Bangladeshi merchant seamen. Most of the well-known "Indian" restaurants around Brick Lane are actually run by ethnic Bangladeshis; the same goes for those on East Sixth Street in Manhattan. Most international travel to and from Bangladesh is by those travelling for work or visiting friends and relatives within this Bangladeshi diaspora.

The cheapest bucket-shop tickets between Europe and East Asia are sometimes on the national airline, Bangladesh Biman. So some backpackers have spent a night at a transit hotel in Dhaka. But that's the extent of their visits.

This may seem strange, but it's actually the norm. There are no tourists in most places.

For most people in most of the world, and for almost everyone in a Fourth World country like Bangladesh, travel means travail, not tourism. People travel because they have to get somewhere, not because they want to. Travel is thus inextricable from the factors that compel people to get from one place to another: jobs, education, family events, medical treatment, religious pilgrimages, ritual obligations, and so forth. Travel without a purpose -- which is what tourism appears to be -- is unknown and incomprehensible (or comprehensible in terms of local conceptual categories only as some sort of self-directed pilgrimage or spiritual quest).

That's also true, it's important to note, for large numbers of people even in the First World who are typically overlooked in discussions of travel of, by, and for the jet set. Anyone thinking of exploring the USA with a Greyhound bus pass, as many foreign backpackers do, or who isn't going to do it but wonders what it might be like, should read Kath Weston's thought-provoking book of working-class anthropology and storytelling, Traveling Light: On the Road with America's Poor.

Jeremy Seabrook has written extensively and sympathetically about life in Dhaka, in books such as "In the Cities of the South" (which I recommend very highly), but not so much about travel in Bangladesh.

A larger percentage of both human and freight transportation is by bicycle and tricycle in Bangladesh than in any other country in the world. On a bicycle, you can't rush past the places in between the landmarks, so of necessity bicycle travellers like Dervla Murphy and Willie Weir travel mainly (and if they write about their travels, write mainly) about places where there are few or no tourists. But while both of these bicyclists have written about travel in India (and Murphy about Pakistan), neither -- so far as I know -- has written about travel in Bangladesh.

In light of the dearth of tourists in Bangladesh, and its negative reputation (which The Amazing Race 21 does nothing to counter), it's perhaps not surprising that one of the few books to include a detailed description of travel in Bangladesh has its explicit focus on unpleasant, non-tourist travel: Carl Hoffman's The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World... via It's Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes.

"The Lunatic Express" has serious problems, most notably a lack of skepticism about reputations for danger, a chronic failure to distinguish "dangerous" from "uncomfortable", and a general lack of any scientific assessment or comparison of the various risks of travel by different names in different places. By his own admission, Hoffman had become a literal adrenaline junkie after years of work as a journalist in war zones and other "extreme" locales. Finding life in the USA intolerably tame, he separated from his with his wife and children and eventually set off in search of danger on the trip that formed the basis for his book:

I had in mind... to escape not out of the world but right into its messy heart. To experience travel not as a holiday, but as it is for most people: a simple daily act of moving from one place to another on the cheapest conveyance possible. A necessary part of life...

For most of human history, travel, after all, was an arduous necessity... people traveled not for the pleasure of it but because they had to.... Today, however, we think of travel as joy seeking, the pursuit of pleasure, of vacation, and tourism is the largest industry on earth... But tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, barely 300 years old. As a journalist who frequently ended up in some of the worlds oddest corners and crevices, I gradually began to realize that the big numbers of today's tourism industry obscured a parallel reality, excluded a whole river of people on the move. Excluded, in fact most of the world's travelers, for whom travel was still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail.

Unlike Hoffman, I'm not looking for trouble when I travel. But what makes the book valuable is that by travelling to places like Bangladesh where there are no tourists, and by travelling -- as most people do -- "hard class" rather than "soft class", steerage rather than in a cabin, he immersed himself among people who most tourists never meet.

Not being accustomed to dealing with foreign tourists, the people Hoffman met treated him the only way they knew how to treat any solo stranger: like a fellow traveller and fellow human being. To the best of their ability, they shared their lives with him, and often took him into their homes. On a ferry in Bangladesh, Hoffman saw the country around him like this:

It was wonderful, but awkward and exhausting, too.... I wanted to look into every boat, every house. I wanted to touch each person, to taste every meal, to open them up and slip into each like a suit of clothes. But I couldn't. The world was too big. Too diverse. There were too many languages and not enough time; it was easy connecting with people like the families in first class. We had a shared language, technology, worldview.... But to pass the days with the poor was something else.... The deeper I pushed, the harder it became to know them, the more ignorant, curious and powerless I was. Each was a world unto its own that I could glimpse but never know.

You don't have to go to Bangladesh (although I certainly would if I got the chance), or to anywhere more dangerous than home, for these to be useful insights. But you won't learn these things if you confine your travels to the "must-see" destinations or the first-class lounges of the world. It's where there is nothing specifically "touristic" to see or do, and no tourist ghetto or five-star hotel in which to hide, that you are most likely to see and experience the reality of local life.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 28 October 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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