Bangladesh Day 5: The joy of people-watching

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We'd fallen in love with Dhaka's rickshaw art--the graphic images on the back of cycle-rickshaws all over town. So we headed to "Bicycle Street," the wholesale marketplace where rickshaw owners buy art for their machines. But Friday was a holiday, something we hadn't counted on. We were disappointed to see the area entirely closed up, so we wandered the neighborhood, and then took a fun traffic-free rickshaw ride to the lovely Sitara Mosque, then to Lalbagh Fort. Finally, we walked to Dhakeswari Temple, where local middle/upper-class Hindu Bengalis were celebrating Saraswati Puja; it felt like the expat Hindu Bengali events I'd grown up around.

Lalbagh Fort was the high point of my day, perhaps of my week. It's a Mughal era fortress complex, very nicely preserved, along with the surrounding grounds. It was fun to look at, but the real excitement began when the grounds began to slowly fill up with Dhaka residents out enjoying a weekend afternoon in beautiful surroundings. This place that was once a space for royalty had now been taken over by the masses. We had stumbled upon people-watching heaven.

We saw groups of women hanging out, kids playing running games, families dressed up for a day out. Several athletic young men bounded over a very tall fence into a prohibited area; when a police officer came by, they sheepishly climbed back over, one by one. A woman in a hijab confided to a friend on her cell phone; it sounded like her parents had gotten in the way of her last relationship. An older women and a pre-teen girl walked by the central building, peering through the windows, trying to see what was inside. A group of well-dressed thirtysomething men and women sat in the grass, huddled around a laptop. Children played, running up hillocks in the grass, and helping each other lower themselves into a garden water tank that looked like a empty swimming pool.

And then there were all the young couples--pairs of men and women sitting together in the grass, on ledges, between bushes. They created a private world around them, smiling, sometimes holding hands, ignoring everyone else nearby. The couples-sitting-in-the-park phenomenon is pretty common in India as well, as young lovers have limited access to private space away from family. I've heard people express irritation at how parks taken over by smoochy couples limits access for other users, but that wasn't happening here. I almost wished we were one of them. The grounds on this Friday afternoon was a lovely vision of all kinds of people enjoying themselves in happy coexistence.

Sharing this historic setting with a colorful local crowd on an ordinary weekend afternoon was one of our most memorable travel experiences, but we wouldn't have known it from our Lonely Planet. Some of the happiest moments on our trip have involved people-watching at parks, plazas, and shopping malls. I love serendipity, but I wish travel guide authors would help us out a bit more; we can't be the only ones who enjoy seeing people as much as seeing a string of sights.

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