This is the story of a visit to Bangladesh that took place from Saturday, May 27 to June 15, 2006. It is a journey through an amazing country, beautiful and desperate, in the words of a European beholder.
Day #1, May 27: Arrival and first encounters.
It is the usual thing: “Sit down, please! please sit down…” and everybody gets up, “well there is nothing that I can do now”, the member of the cabin crew says to herself and to me. We have touched down in ZIA International Airport in Dhaka and there are many Bangladeshi workers who have left behind the oil fields in the Gulf to visit their families, recalling the George Clooney movie “Syriana”. It is time for the immigration queue.
“Excuse me, Sir, are you a foreign investor?”, the approaching official asks me, but I have to deny that and he loses interest in me: “Ok, ok, just you stay there”, he waggles his head in reference to the queue designated “Foreign Passports” in which I find myself stratified in between the privileged “Crew”, “Foreign Officials”, “Foreign Investors”, and “Visa on arrival” queue on the left, and the lowest of the low on the right: “Bangladeshi Passports”, where the queues seem endless and processing time infinite. There is no place like home! In a globalising world the foreign investor is first in line, locals not counted.
Immigration goes OK, and when he notes that I am Danish I reply: “Yes, indeed, but I didn’t draw the cartoons”. However, the Special Branch officer handling my entrance remains indifferent, presumably not picking up on my attempt at provoking a reaction – and that was probably for the better. Then the final check after the relatively short wait for checked in luggage, where some sort of arbitrary selection occurs, a selection in which racism appears to be to my advantage, between those who have their luggage X-rayed once more and those who are simply allowed entrance into bustling city of Dhaka with no further ado.
No trace of my local contact at first and since it is an hour since the plane took down, according to plan I might add, I detect a slight, not exactly worry, but the first stir of a traveller’s instinct somewhere between thought and expression, and when it finally finds a word for itself to be expressed – that stir, I mumble to myself “Ok, we might have to improvise”, realising that having had things arranged in this manner, a local to pick me up, has suspended my otherwise seasoned traveller’s usual preparations: I have no local currency, no tour guide, no map and the nearest person to give me my local contact’s mobile phone number is my girl friend at the edge of the Amazonian rain forest in Ecuador.
Two-three seconds of random thinking gives way to reflection: “Aahh…”, even though I am out of the airport building and into the first layer of the inimitable chaos of the Indian sub-continent I am still behind a fence – which I then begin to survey. Soon I see the smiling face and cheerful waving of Samir’s arms, and a handshake, a hug and a reassuring “Wait here and I’ll get the cab” later, I am cruising through the streets of Dhaka, soon forgetting the typical lecture, that I know so well from India, by some middle class non-resident Bangladeshi who assures me that British rule, as long as it lasted, introduced discipline and order in this country of lazy, dishonest and opportunist low-life humans, a discipline that has long since vanished his regretful face tells me with no words. I offer but laughter as a response, for this is no time to tell him how wrong he is: the taxi has arrived and we’re off.
For someone who has never been on the sub-continent it is easy to describe the traffic, although it still has to be experienced – despite the explanatory power of a metaphor there is nothing like being there, inside the metaphor in the flesh. The feeling of being on the road in this part of the world could also be conveyed by analogy, to which we may first turn: if you have ever been in an Italian city, or even Paris on a “good” day, just multiply the traffic by a hundred and decrease road quality by the same degree, remove the demarcating lines between lanes – not just the lanes in the same direction that is – but miraculously do not multiply the number of accidents: like a tropical ant-highway to and fro a pool of honey the colourful ways the always horn-honking crowd organically slip in and out of each other, defying all expectations of the need for imposed order, is truly amazing.
Our final destination is a university campus in a semi-rural setting relatively far outside Dhaka. It is an immensely and relatively huge campus for the “modest” population of seven thousand students, who are normally all resident. Unfortunately it is summer holiday and most students are away. Fortunately, unless, of course seeing them as mosquito breeding grounds, the campus is a cornucopia of green, lush swamps and patches of lawns, wild flowers and trees. On this campus you have to find the buildings hidden in the green, on Lancaster University campus, by contract, concrete has eaten almost every little bit of nature.
My room is big and “I should have brought my wife” it is cheekily commented with reference to the double bed and forgetting all about my feminist education in Europe I try to level with the guys and say that “Maybe I need a Bangladeshi wife…?” causing a wave of laughter and the need for a confirmation: “You are talking about a Bangladeshi Lady?”, but I have to get a hold of myself and the situation and kill the topic by making it clear that I am of course only joking. There are two fans and two light tubes in the ceiling, a characteristic naked bulb on the wall and a separate toilet where there is not only a shower, as opposed to merely a bucket, a scoop and a tap, although it is of course there for good measure, but the shower also works surprisingly well: I am in a place where government money appear to be well spent. The bathroom is inhabited by the largest cockroach I have seen in a long time – not since the Andaman Islands or Kerala have I been confronted by such a beast. My entourage of helpers and curious onlookers finally leave and I take a liberating shower during which I explore the possibility of coaxing the roach to vacate the premises with a scoop full of water, but it shakes off the challenge with a shrug and seeks refuge behind the door where I let it spend the day.
Sweat and dust removed, I lie on the bed and read a Linux magazine I have brought for distraction (and research, as there is an article on the upcoming GNU GPL v.3, which is a case study in my thesis), but it has been days if not more than a week since I had a good night’s sleep and soon my eyes close; but not for long: Samir returns with rice and dhal, decorated with a raw baby onion and two fresh green chillies. I eat happily reminiscing about the good old days when the ways of the sub-continent were novel – I am soon full and the chilli is making my exhausted body waver with dizziness, my vision blurry, the ground beneath my feet shaky and a quick hand wash later I am in dream land.
Four, five hours of sleep, in which I wake up once to remove the by now charged laptop from the socket to protect it from the lightning to which the very loud thunder bear witness, and I am ready to begin my exploration proper. The rain, which I later in the evening learn was the first monsoon rain this year, has stopped. What a welcome! I have arrived with the monsoon.
I begin to wander in increasing circles away from my room, looking out for the person who was supposed to collect me two hours ago, as I realise when asking someone about time. It is not long before the General-Secretary of the students’ Journalist Association calls me into their meeting room. He’d seen me pass by the window and the initial and mutual “Indian” head-shaking soon turns into an invitation: “How can I help you, what is your purpose of visiting this place, and where do you come from?” are the questions with which I am met. I explain that I am visiting a little local NGO, loosely affiliated with the Anthropology Department, and that I will travel to see some of their social work and developmental projects, but that I am also interested in meeting computer science students interested in Free Software. It is not long before I am on the phone, Saturday night at 7pm, to a Professor of Computer Science, who refers me to one of his colleagues whom he will give a call on his mobile and with whom I have, I am now told, an appointment on Sunday morning at 9.30am. “You better come see us in the normal office hours” he notes and I make my first mistake of cultural ignorance: “But it is Sunday tomorrow, is it not?”, I ask, only to be told that “In Bangladesh Friday and Saturday are holidays”. It is not with shame or embarrassment that this experience leaves me: it is with great pleasure that I recognise that I am outside the realm of Christianity – “Jesus (is gone), what a relief!”.
The meeting with the journalists is over, I have been tracked down by my entourage and the exploration commences. We walk through campus and up to the main road and into the little village-like strip of chai, food and other shops, just a few hundred metres from the campus gate through which we exited. We drink chai, eat puris with a spicy dhal and a chick-pea, cucumber salad. We talk and the exchange is soon really interesting. I find myself in deep conversation with a bloke who prompts me with his thought patterns to ask what he is studying. “English literature”, he says and I approvingly say that it is good ; “Is it?”, he asks in extension of our talk on globalisation and social hierarchies, “should I not be studying Bangla literature?”. I can only say “Very clever!”, but we soon agree that the study of “otherness” and the interfacing with other cultures is an essential set of activities required for breaking down the in part socially constructed fear of “the other” and the horrible ways in which this perhaps “natural” fear is enhanced and blown out of proportion by conservative and capital forces who exploit it for their own profitable ends. We condemn Rupert Murdoch and George Bush, we use the war in Iraq as a prime example of the arbitrary imposition of values by the rich and powerful, we touch on the fact that it may well be that the most religiously fundamentalist country in the world is the U.S and I tell the example of the U.S. Smithsonian Institute’s removal of any reference to hemp, despite the boats with which America was discovered had hemp ropes and sails, despite Jefferson being a hemp farmer and decrees that forced early American farmers to grow hemp and despite that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. In the illuminating documentary “The Hemp Revolution” the spokeswoman of the museum is asked how that can be: “It only confuses the children”, and so, with the nature of political hierarchies, war, the war on drugs and in Iraq, and the concept of corporate mass media as tool with which to manipulate the popular imagination behind us, it seems there is only one topic left to debate before the basic ground has been covered: women.
Before we make it back to campus we sit about outside the shops on the concrete lining of a “flower” bed: “Bangladeshis like leisure and they like to gossip – this concrete “bench” is made for gossiping”, but there is little to gossip about during the summer break and so we remain with politics. But there are other Bangladeshis who like gossiping or rather they like the gossipers: I have been introduced to the local mosquito species. The sun has set, the night is upon us. Prayer songs, frogs and crickets melt into an inferno of noise and my feet itch violently from the blood suckers’ intrusion. It is time to get up and walk back to campus where we continue our talk about women in society.
We look at the veil from the perspective of ownership: behind it is hidden my woman and only I shall be permitted to look at her without cover, or if still owned by her father, he alone shall decide who can see her. We look at it from the perspective of psychoanalysis: she must be veiled in order that my desires and lust are controlled, from which it follows that we talk about religion and sin as a substitution for self-reflection, and how that violent repression of human energies may find expression in wars on “the other” and we even mention Michel Foucault and the related (to suppression) function of prisons and mental institutions. We have made full circle and an intellectual relation has been established. We turn to practical issues: how can men help break the vicious cycle of women’s’ oppression? I say that one first step might be in the relation between men and not between man and woman: when your friend says or does something nasty or uncool towards a woman, if he stares at a woman or even grabs her in a way that obviously makes her uncomfortable, then do not laugh with him and pat him on the shoulder going “You’re my lad!”. Instead let him know that he is not your friend if he behaves like this to women – and try to find together, amongst men, the strength to sustain such critiques of each other.. lost for words: try irony.
The ice is broken and the monsoon has arrived: the tensions are lowering. We go back to my room and hang out for a while – it is nice, but I realise that the room is getting filled with mosquitoes: dammit. Later, after having evicted the cockroach from the bathroom with the help of a glass and a subsection of the Linux magazine, taken a shower and clad myself in my new and oversized lungi, I sit on my bed, coughing in the mosquito coil (rather cancer than two thousand bites) and borrow these words in the hope of keeping my blood to myself: goodnight and good luck!
Day #2: Sunday, May 28: Cloudburst
Yesterday the monsoon came knocking in, today it was knock out. It is certainly the wet season now. After an interesting talk with a computer science professor about Free Software and ten minutes on their network with a dial-up connection to the internet we swung by the English Department where one of my assigned guides, who are by now my mates, studies: “Do you want to meet my teacher?” he’d asked as we were about to pass by the department, “Why not!”, so there we were. Some hand-shaking here, some head-shaking there and the Chairman of the Department appears with a smug, involuntarily comic, self-important “Helloouw, I am (so and so), I am more punctual than the Sun and the Moon, come to my office”. It was not an option and soon I was air-conditioned, chaied up and eating biscuits with the man of the chair. A few minutes into the conversation an extraordinarily sexually gesturing woman appears and upon discovering that I have come in from the cold, so to speak, England that is, she waggles in her dress and smiles a pretentious “Keuwlll” to signify her liberated stance. She teaches literature and an introduction to poetry and prose − “She used to be my student, now she is my colleague” her boss and my host comments on her departure with a sly grin worthy of a king who just sent away his concubine: in his dreams!
One of my mates, an assigned guide that is, comes to rescue me: “He has an appointment at 1pm” he offers obediently in Bangla to the chairman for whom it is below general dignity to just surrender anyone or -thing to just anyone: “Who are you?, he patronises. But he is my mate and my guide and the chairman assumes a new position to remain in charge: “You are responsible for this man’s well-being, you are an ambassador for our country”. Saved by the bell – not me, him! For he has just been praising Denmark, its milk and its freedom and on my way out of the door I give him the cliff notes on the last ten years of the rotten state of Denmark: the racism and the ultra-right wing conservatism and war-warmongering, the neo-liberal disruption of the world’s favourite social-democracy and the end of the welfare state – indeed inquire about his awareness of “the cartoons”: “Yes, but of course the general people are not like that”, he attempts and I leave with the assurance that certainly not only Denmark, but Europe as such is slipping into an area of racist darkness. He seems to be in denial, I am gone, but left with the command to come back once before going home.
We are heading towards the office of EARTH (Empowerment, Autonomy, Research, Training, Health) the NGO reason I have come to share my blood with mosquitoes, as the cloud bursts. We get out of the rickshaw and run for a laugh through the sea in the air. I spent the rest of that afternoon in the office topless in a lungi. My appointment with Samir at 1pm begins with his arrival at 6pm – we had a great lunch, by the way – and we make plans for the excursions that we are going to make, the workshop I am going to run and take into account the Spanish lady, who is volunteering with another NGO and who is coming to visit EARTH on June 4. The workshop is penned in for the 10th and I am much looking forward to our three-four day trip to the hill tribes in the South-East, but the first longer trip we’re going to make is to Shell-Hell in the North-East and we will leave for there after meeting in downtown Dhaka with some feminist activists. There will also be time to behold starvation in the North-West: my stay has been planned and a bit more than two exciting weeks, but of course moments of sadness and depression are ahead.
During our afternoon I try again -in continuation of yesterday’s attempts- to have a conversation with Shakira, who works for EARTH. She is a twenty-four year old woman with a very shy and cautious attitude towards men, especially if they are twice the usual size. “I just want to relate to women as a human being, but they always see themselves as women first, human beings second”, Jamal confesses to me later at night when we are walking home and he is asking me about Colona and about women in general. He is a new generation of young men, who is trying to break free, but women like Shakira are being left behind in Islam’s and Bangladesh’s cultural and social construction of women. She hides her face in her hand most of the times I talk to her, although by now she is otherwise comfortable around me and has begun to answer some simple questions, such as when it was her time, after Kamil and Jamal, to tell how old she was, “Twenty-four” she said in perfect English, and “Thank you very much”, when I praised her lovely food, the best so far in Bangladesh, especially the aubergine (which were fried in soya oil with mustard seeds, salt, chilli and something else that I can’t remember) and also the mashed potato rolled up in little balls with fresh onion and other bits are certainly worth a replication at home.
Our socialising with Shakira comes to an abrupt end when she pronounces her somewhat unfounded fear of walking home alone, and first both Kamil and Jamal say no, in jest, to walking her home, Kamil then pinching her in a kind manner to suggest to her that there is nothing to fear and that women nowadays are allowed to walk on their own (talk of self-discipline) – she simply runs off. But she doesn’t find a rickshaw and is soon on the phone (everybody has got a mobile phone and at least half of them with a camera it seems) so Kamil and Jamal, after all, have to brave the monsoon-darkness, come to her rescue and walk her the fifteen minutes home. Samir and I will meet them later for dinner, only after they have been home to change their soaked attires.
It is dark by the time we make our way to the same restaurant as we had last night’s dinner in and there is a power-cut. Wet and muddy, but less blood-suckers at the table. When we’re all gathered and food is being served the lights are back on and my soft white skin fair game. In the end I have to leave and a few photo sessions later we’re at my dormitory where I have to establish a boundary: “I do not want to look at photos now, just want to go to bed, – I’m sorry to be so rude” and I am left to my own devices and a test of my patience: the bites are getting too close to my sanity for comfort.
I shit, I shower and brush my teeth – there is a power cut, it comes back on again, I slumber for a moment, then regain some sort of second wind and finish today’s entry: goodnight and probably no luck. Tomorrow I am going shopping in Dhaka where I hope to find some mosquito repellent.
Day #3: Monday, May 29: Shopping in Dhaka at special price.
When Brad Mehldau’s piano woke me at 8.10am this morning I had twenty minutes before Jamal was coming to pick me up and it was a bit more than three hours since I first woke up, eaten alive. Had managed to cover most of my body with three pieces of cotton, leaving just my skull for the bloody feast, so it was not exactly with a plain head that I woke up. “Are you ready” he said as he came in and I was dressed in a towel and sleepy eyes, “No, but I can be very soon” I said on the way to the shower where I helped a half-dead cockroach to its final swim in the loo (yes, I must admit that I took the hard core poison that Kamil had given me for a swing in the bathroom to impose a ban on mosquitoes, which brought some unexpected dwellers out of the woodwork (or whence they came?)).
Jamal also do not indulge in breakfast and happily sleeps until 2pm, so we were a great pair at 8.35am making our way across campus, but woke up with a great cuppa that Shakira made for us. It is quite difficult to be allowed to do anything – there are women for that, and it is equally difficult to pay for anything, there are men for that (although they have no money?). Another cup and Samir was almost ready for our expedition to the great city of Dhaka. Oh, I forgot to mention that we paid a visit to Kamil’s room – his knee was really bad from too much walking (six years ago he had an accident and damaged the ligaments in his knee really badly – those crossed ones that keep the leg from being a sloppy mess). I took many pictures of their hall or dormitory – a room cost 50p a month and looked pretty much like a Grizedale room, maybe a bit bigger (and they cost more than two hundred pounds a month, I believe). As a matter of scale, Jamal paid for the dinner for the four of us tonight and that weighed in at around 50p, too.
We took the bus to Dhaka and many pictures on the way. Passed a peculiar almost suburban settlement on the riverside where many many flags were waving: Argentina, Brazil, Germany and so on. Yes, the goddamn football world cup, – who gives a shit? Obviously some poor Bangladeshis! On the other side of the river there is a vast territory of brick making ovens: chimney after chimney surrounded by huge stacks of red bricks. There must be zillions of them − what a sight. I must take pictures.
Dhaka is another one of those places like Calcutta or Old Delhi, although not quite as full on, nevertheless pretty heavy going. Shopping with a local is interesting, for he is appalled by the prices they offer me and tell them that this is not on. Then then the haggling commences, which is everyday here whether there is a foreigner involved or not, and it appears like quite an aggressive affair with some serious miming. In a bag shop it reaches new heights and I have to return twice to try to drag Samir along. In the CNG (an abbreviation for the natural gas that drives the rickshaw scooter we were in and a term for the scooter itself) on the way home Samir is still upset and says “But he was crazy that bag man” and I laugh, thinking to myself that he should have let go of that a while ago, “…no, really – he was abusing me for being one of those who make foreigners clever” and only then did I realise why the haggling in that shop took such extended form: there was something altogether different at play. The shop owner accused Samir of scabbing somewhat, he should let the stupid foreigner be ripped for all he’s got.Another one of those ethical dilemmas presented itself of which there are as many as you can be bothered to observe and notice in a normal day around here. “Don’t give them [referring to beggars] anything”, Samir’s mate from the days of studying anthropology said to me when we were saying goodbye after he’d bought us lunch and were standing in front of the IT company where he is now a manager in the software division, “…if you do, you will just have a whole circle of them in half a minute all going ´gimme some´ ”, and before I could even find some words to respond to this, and I wasn’t short of mouth because I have never given the whole beggar issue much thought − oh, yes, I have thought of this many times − he said “If you want to give anything, give it to me or Samir and we can pass it on” while handing the woman with the baby on her arms a coin with the Bangla words that I understood: “He has no Taka” (as the local currency is called).
I bought a shirt with a Dunhill label that is small enough to not show and odd enough, given its origins, should anyone notice; some three-quarter length army-style shorts ; and four T-shirts reading “Wonderful” above an outline of the country and “Bangladesh” below in a way that seems to me to be ripped from the Red Bull logo, but maybe I am wrong. In any case I’ve got them now and they’re quite funny and cost 60p each. I also managed to get some plastic sandals, suitable for the climate around here and my return to Ecuador.
On the way home we stopped for gas and I got out and soon found myself in the service station’s owner’s office answering the usual business (“Where are you from? etc.); back on the road we nearly rammed a police-man and some serious tension ensued. He was in the middle of the road waving us to the side and the CNG driver did not respond positively to that at first. It looked bad, it could cost a lot of money now: the police have the sticks and maybe even guns and they’re as happy to use their power as they are corrupt. Then they see me and Samir and hear the name of the university and realise that they are about to exhibit their worst side to a foreign academic and instead of beating the driver to a bloody pulp they shake my hand and wave us along. The next baksheesh-seeking wanker (read: policeman) doesn’t care about me or anything but the 50 Taka that he demands (a meal for three!) and he is still angrily gesturing with his little stick, the twat, as we move on.
Back home we manage to reach Colona who is boarding the plane in a very short while in Quito to cross the Atlantic, making me feel the way (that I never understood) my mother felt worried about me, and I have a quick chat with her before going back to the “class-room” where a group of 10-12 “under-privileged” children, the poorest of the poor, are gathered for their thrice-weekly playing, reading, writing, singing and dancing lessons. They are great, lovely kids. At first quiet with wild staring eyes, then soon bombarding me with questions and teaching me Bangla and applauding enthusiastically as I repeat the usual phrases. They almost get into fights when I get the camera out and take some pictures.
One girl especially suddenly gets all fond of herself and wants to be in all the pictures, angrily pushing and shoving the others. So I tell her off in a mild tone and the photo session continues. They also sang me a Tagore song which is about how we are all kings of our kingdom and that we recognise no leaders – and other revolutionary material. Great stuff. They have a bite to eat and they’re off, waving and smiling and posing for the last shots.
We gather in the office talking about the kids and Shakira is thawing a bit, it seems, as she answers in the affirmative that her, Jamal and I could cook together sometime in order for her to pass some skills on to me. I had already tried that way of getting her to utter something back to me yesterday and she had sort of nodded to the idea of cooking together. Perhaps I should keep asking her the same question, as Kamil also reckons that she is shy because she is self-conscious about her English. Nevertheless, she can text in English, as I learned when I asked if one could text in Bangla and the answer was “No, she can write text-English, but she can’t speak it”. Maybe I should start texting her?
The day is over and fittingly the power cuts; we lock up and head in to campus, where oddly there is power, for dinner.
In our usual spot the food was disappointing last night so we go elsewhere and are treated well. They all find it hard to believe that I am vegetarian. In the afternoon in Dhaka Samir had said to my request (why do I have to repeat it all the time?) for vegetarian food that “No, it is OK, he is inviting us for lunch, you can take some fish”, and I said “But I don’t want fish” and so we all had vegetarian, although I said that I did not mind whatever they ate. Of course it is nice to share food and so we did. While eating the religious thing comes up: “Are you vegetarian because you have been in India”, I am asked and embark on a greater anti-industrial and animal treatment rant. It is funny how Christians in India put such an emphasis on their meat-eating permission to distinguish themselves from the Hindus, and how the Bangladeshis, as Muslims, almost always eat meat and think of Indians when they hear the word vegetarian. Must we always define ourselves against “the other”?
On the way to the restaurant we procured mangos and litchis, which we cut open and peeled after the food. “I usually do not like mangos too much”, I said, “sometimes I find them a bit bitter, or rather perfume tasting”, – “Ahh, those are Indian mangos, I don’t like them”, our host noted and continued to proclaim that he is a mango freak and that next week the best variety hit the market, the name of which is also used for crippled people, as they are soft and squeezshy as a mango presumably. In other words, Colona should be here: it is mango season and “Bangladesh has the best mangos in the world, not like those in India, they are no good”. And likewise, never have I had such good litchis.
But that was a flashback, we have just had dinner and are now sitting in the chai-shop next to where we usually have our dinner. The owner of our usual diner, a nice and amusingly beetle-nut-red smiling lady asks us how our dinner had been and Jamal informs her that due to the sloppy situation last night we had abandoned the year-old, indeed cross-generational tradition (Samir used to as student and still eats there) and eaten elsewhere and I added, “Yea, we want our money back”, but Jamal had already told her that he laughs to me, then we all laugh, and she grins red and running beetle nut “that tomorrow night there shall be a vegetarian feast” (of course in addition to the proper muslim treat).
We stagger back to my room, talking about ganja availability on campus, Bangladeshi mystics who are a kind of Sufis that play music and have a ganja-celebrating festival where they toke till the cows come home – aah, the good old days – I tell them about Himachal and making charas with the peasants and spending long time with Sadhus, which brings us to the local mystics. They are approximately four hours away in a village – that is to say that from there you can find them, they do not have any home as such. I hope I can make it there!
It has been a good day, the essential things I went to Dhaka for, umbrella and repellent, I forgot. I did manage to change money and buy some clothes, though, so should I get wet I can always change; but then Jamal breaks the news that there is a mosquito net under my pillow and we put it up while I feel rather silly. It is a very good net: there are hooks in the wall for it, and after a shower in the light from a head torch (power cut) I sweat today’s entry inside it listening to Brad Mehldau – the day ends as it began.When the power comes back on I see a cockroach convention and silently damn Samir for having killed one with a sandal earlier. I told him that it was a bad idea, since they excrete some hormone or pheromone or whatever it is that signals to the rest of the tribe that dinner is served. Also ants soon find such a treasure. I decide to chase them out with a spray can – after all the room is too small for all of us. The fans are turning at full speed, both doors and two of the windows are open and I escape the chemical warfare zone and wander in my African lungi around the rooftop of the Teacher Student Centre (TCS) where tomorrow morning my nominal host, yet another Chairman, yet another cup of obligatory tea and the optional biscuit is awaiting me between 8 and 8.30am. The night is cool, the wind soothing and I feel happy to be alive, great that I have friends waiting for me at home and lucky that I am here. If only Colona survives crossing the Atlantic then all is well. It is twenty four minutes past midnight and I have nothing more to add, except to note that a mosquito net not only brings great freedom of mind, but also provides that exotic feeling of being with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn on a boat trip – or something.
Oh, dear God (I hope she is listening to me, that black lesbian), it is suddenly 2.25am – I have been downloading pictures from the camera, rotated them and deleted some severely flawed ones. More than a hundred and seventy so far. Tomorrow I am going on a field trip to visit a couple of most likely depressing scenarios, but more about that later – now I really must go to sleep.
Day #4: Tuesday, May 30: The EPZ, the NSA and those at the receiving end.
I only went to sleep at 3am and obviously missed the between 8 and 8.30am appointment – moaning and twirling at 8.40am when Jamal knocked. “Do you want to see the pictures I have taken so far?”, I ask him in order that he does not get bored with my slow moving into the shower via the loo. Of course he does and when I come out he sees a picture of Colona, too, on request in colour, after having been told that the funny arty-ish black and white one on the desktop is her. We get moving, a rickshaw is waiting downstairs, but we do not make it far: my appointment is still on we’re told upon interception by an assistant. Yet another cup of tea, yet another talk about the same things and the putting Europe up on a pedestal. It bores me, but I keep it together. A professor of geography; judging from the conversation I would probably fail a paper of his in an undergraduate class, – well at least close to it: what distorted nonsense this man is talking to me, and he cannot listen. “The students are afraid of him”, Jamal tells me when we’re back on track; “Why?”– “because he commands them”; “I can imagine, and he doesn’t listen either”, I add and we laugh in agreement. Another day in Bangladesh has begun.
In the office we have tea – I go and ask Shakira if she can make some tea and I go with her to see where and how she does it (for future reference, I really cannot keep asking the girl for tea!). It turns out to be Lipton, owned by Unilever and I point to the calendar back in Samir’s office “Do not harm our environment”, it reads and I rant on about Unilever and plastic bags and where is the local tea – after all Assam is a neighbouring state. None of them can remember the times before the corporate take-over of tea – in Bangladesh, next door to the heart of tea-land, there is no tea on the local market. Another depressing moment and this is just the beginning of the day.
We walk to the road, get a bus, then a CNG (scooter) to the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) where we hope to go for a tour around the premises. Here your Nike shoes, Rebook T-shirt and a lot of that stuff you can buy cheaply in high street shops such as GAP and H&M is made. Security rejects us at the gate, there is almost a state of emergency, signified by a lot of para-military police, due to unrest, as they call it, which unfolded May 22 and 23, just a week ago. “Are you a buyer?” a man dressed in leisure-wear asks me in good English and the conversation ensues. He is smooth and I later wonder why I didn’t think twice about him popping up like that, but then again, people always seem to pop up out of nowhere. Yesterday buying shorts there was suddenly a bloke speaking really good English offering his help – he’d lived twenty-five years in Switzerland and was just home for a visit. I tell him that I am from Lancaster University and just interested in seeing the place. He fills me in: I need permission from someone in some office and we walk there. “I am affiliated with them on some level” he tells me when we approach the security head-quarters of the EPZ which employs fifty-thousand people, and while I am seated with some grim looking soldier-like characters the mystery man takes Samir to the side and when their chat is over Samir comes asking “Do you still want to see this place?” and I reply that I am already seeing it, since this process is quite interesting in itself. We end up in some office, one step down the ladder from the permission granting authority and for a while we’re alone in his office. “That guy”, says Samir, “is NSA” an all too well known acronym, although I was unaware of Bangladesh having an institution with that same label. The man in charge is busy for the next hour we’re told and leave the building, meet one of Samir’s friends, who works in EPZ as a manager, outside the security building and go for chai and snacks across the busy main road to talk about the situation.
The unrest has been led by union leaders who force some of the workers to follow them in a demand not for the general workers, but for the union leaders themselves. I can’t help thinking of industrial action in British universities where there is also an alarming lack of solidarity with the lowest paid people in the institution: is it always like this, there being no solidarity and unified action of the poor against the rich, will the poor always be exploited by leaders who can easily be bought by the rich?
Samir’s friend tries to convince me that labourers get a decent incremental pay rise and that since there is a lack of skilled labour they already get as much as they can, since they could demand more. This type of backwards-logic, authority-praising nonsense I just can’t stand and I begin to, well, ask the kind of questions that lead to the statement above that the action was for themselves, the union leaders, and not the general labourers. I am confused and annoyed – can I believe this guy? the rest of his talk is capitalist wanna-be rubbish – and we leave to head for what later turns out to be one of the many traditional handicraft villages affected by the EPZ letting out its poisonous, chemical waste water.
On our way to the pottery village we are discussing potential NSA action and paranoia from England comes back to me – it’s a universal fact that if you ask questions the dark forces come a knocking, dividing and trying to conquer your sanity.
We have to cross the river to get to the village and talk to some cow herders who are washing their two cows. They used to do this daily, but only now that the rain has come can they at last do it again after a long time.
The cows get skin fungus, they all itch and get prickly skin if they go into what has become very smelly water. This also means that it is harmful to them to retrieve clay from the river bed, and we’re talking about a pottery, handicraft village. The village is lovely as are the people and we have good fun with the camera, which is proving to be a great bridge across the linguistic gap.
I call a friend when we’re back in the office to get help with some background research – there is next to no bandwidth here – and when later reading some of the newspaper articles he’s found I am somewhere between puzzled and annoyed by Samir’s lack of reaction to previous investigations – which he said had not occurred when we talked about media coverage and potential help from me in that context?? It is to recur again and again this strange way of statements made, contradicting evidence uncovered and then – nothing. No word, no visible or audible reflection, just silence or diversion or some incoherent sentence about “yes that has happened”, despite the reassurances a minute ago that it had not, or vice versa. They speak Banglish wrapped in Bangla logic – and it gets on my biscuit. This kind of cultural difference is so difficult to deal with for a rational European like me – I have no problem with all the other strange things and here, I love eating with my fingers, I don’t mind too much going to people’s offices and homes all the time and all the other things that set Asia and Bangladesh in particular apart from Europe, but this completely random association with facts and numbers is a bit tension creating, but the icing on the cake is the absent acknowledgement of having been proven wrong: like a lying child.
We eat lunch and i spend a little time with Shakira in the kitchen and later I do the dishes, but not alone for long, as she comes helping. No chance that I’d be allowed to do it by myself. “Am I doing it good enough?” – the answer is “Yes”. While eating I also manage to ask a few questions about which spices she used for the biryani-like rice which is obviously coloured with haldi.
I am tired and sleep for five minutes across three chairs, wake up to a tea, look at my email briefly and realise that my appointment in London on June 16 has been cancelled – dammit! I could have flown back into Manchester in that case and been home cheap and easy, now I will be stuck in The Big Smoke. Too much for one day and I walk the long way back to my room to be by myself and writing this account. After a shower I write to up to this point, awaiting Samir and a musician friend of his who wants to take me to a tailor where I can get some thin cotton trousers made for my sweaty body (and to take to Ecuador where nothing of that kind seems to be available). When will they come? Today? I lie down and rest.
Day #5: Wednesday, May 31: A Land of plenty contradictions.
I woke up around 9.30am and realised that my great plans for a visit to the computer sciencedepartment for email download and a head shave had failed. 10am was the time Samir and I were to leave for today’s visit. First to an area where EPZ labourers, and others, live. There we visited what is probably best described as a Bangladeshi crack house, but only after visiting the local union leader who seems to be the local don. He is helping with the drug addict programme, at least potentially. He seemed to be another one of those Asian men who sits in an office and has other people to do everything for him, including running off to get me some ganja?!
In a quarter of Dhaka we visited an NGO called HASAB that works with HIV/AIDS infected people and had a good talk. Managed to slag off politicians, capitalist pigs, corrupt NGOs and to begin the process of helping the addicts we visited earlier, since HASAB has worked with a ex-addicts who has set up self-help groups. Perfect! This way we can simply bring the self-help group to the addicts, facilitate a similar process in their area and something will have been achieved – the first sense of something that can be done.
Outside HASAB there was a student riot in a neighbouring college building – three and a half years into their programme and the government has still not given permission for their degree scheme, health science which is new to Bangladesh and therefore yet not approved. Strangely the students were complaining about the private institution going ahead with the scheme without permission, rather than demanding that the government approve their degree. It is just such a strange place!
A lot of time is left over before the next item on our agenda so we find a “nice” place to eat.
We go hunting for alcohol in Gulshan (the rich quarter), for others that is. Everybody, to exaggerate slightly, comes to me for it, or via Samir they tell me that they’d be happy if I’d score some booze for them. Actually they seem to use beer as a generic term, – in any case, I am becoming an alcohol pusher on popular demand so since we have some extra time on our hands we might as well check out the situation. “Where can we get some, then?”, I ask Samir, who, as I slowly uncover, hasn’t got a clue. But instead of telling me that he knows nothing he drags me to a fine club for diplomats and the super rich where they of course do not let us in. I try to tell Samir that if they did let us in and we were to buy a bottle of booze it would cost at least 4-5000 Taka and that I do not have that kind of money on me. As the process unfolds I realise that the naivety he exhibited when he was in England is not geographically bound. You can call Samir a lot of things, good hearted and kind are some of them, but streetwise he is certainly not. So I find myself teaching him how to find out things, what kind of people to ask and so on. How bizarre, I am piloting a local. We find a bar that is not open yet, but where they will sell us take-aways. We have a look at the selection, which comes in two prices: 1800 and 3500 Taka, the lower price is for some obscure French and Lithuanian vodka, as well as some more recognisable, but undesirable labels like “Grant’s”. We do not see any of the expensive ones, but supposedly “Johnnie Walker Black Label” is among them. We have our second thoughts and the bar owner goes grumpy. At least now we have an idea of prices and availability.
The Dhaka Skyline
In the Tourist Board’s bar where we have three cans between us of some Dutch brew called “Breda”, which upon closer scrutiny and much to my amazement has been produced for export to Ecuador! What are the chances of me buying an unknown Dutch brand of beer in Bangladesh that has the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health’s warning on it? It must be a sign, but it can’t be from God, since it is most unlikely that God, although me does move in mysterious ways to perform, around here should speak through beer.
The women’s thing is a bunch of nouveau riche women behaving badly, erhhh, I mean like men. They speak English, well they try to anyway and sit about in a sad display of self-importance in some four-star hotel. What am I doing here? But it soon comes to an end – Kamil was just there to pick up some award for a graphical design he did for a project of theirs. “It is a bit weird that a women’s group is handing out awards to only male students”, I wonder loud to the others and Kamil reponds that, “They tried to get some girls involved, but couldn’t find any, – you know what, they talk about human rights, but they themselves are afraid to realise any of them”. We get out and meet the beggars – after all we’re in the rich people’s and tourist area and the main attraction are the beggars, or me, whichever side you look at it from. They want money, I give them laughs of which they probably do not have too many and when we finally get into a taxi and on our way, they are running after the taxi laughing wildly as I make faces to them sticking my tongue out and squeezing my nose up against the window. “Pakal, pakal”, they shout after me and yet another Hindi word comes back to me: that is the term we used to throw at people asking for ridiculously high prices in India – it means crazy.
The taxi is pulled over at police check point, but business as usual when they see me: carry on. How come the police is always racist anywhere in the world, but always to the benefit of the fairer skinned?
I have written this half in note form, half in prose, as I did yesterday’s. It is twenty-nine minutes past midnight and I have to head for Sylhet in the North-East at 8am, so I better get some sleep, but that also means that the next three days of writing will take place off-line, as it were, or should I say on paper? Goodnight!
Day #6: Thursday June 1: Heading North.
The first time I woke up I was happy to see that I still had some time to sleep, turned the computer on to set an alarm clock with music (my only such means). When Jamal came at 8.50am I had been up for twenty minutes or so and was kind of ready, but unsuccessfully tried to have a shit, a situation that was to go on for almost three days: constipation in Bangladesh, now there’s an unexpected condition. Met with Samir at EARTH, who had errands in Dhaka, so we all went together, passed the bank where his brother has a “petty job” in the export section to change some money. Got a ticket to Sylhet, but had to settle for an air conditioned bus: it is difficult for me to convey to people here that I do not think that all things expensive are best and that I am happier off with the cheaper option in most cases. The contradictions are a cultural matter: Samir wants to make sure that I am all right, but in doing so treats me like a little child from whom options and possibilities are kept secret, only one way being presented as what is best for me. Firstly, I do not like the horrible recycling and sharing of germs that air conditioning entails, secondly, I do not really like to travel with wanna-be-rich Bangladeshis, that is those who can afford to travel in such manner. The train is by the far the better, more amusing and exciting mode of travel:
Anyway, the trip went quite well, with the usual backache and the mental torture of the horn symphony that is road travel in this part of the world. I asked Jamal about the fact that he and also Kamil are nice to people in a way that most others aren’t, which is to say that people, even Samir to some extent, treat rickshaw pullers like servants, talk down at them and so on. “I am following the tradition in a sense, the good tradition”, he answered thoughtfully when I suggested that they were breaking with the tradition. “I want to hit them”, he said when I asked how it feels when a friend treats “also human beings” like servants – but he had not reflected upon this issue before and no one of his friends talk about it either way. Interesting, I thought, the seeds of a cultural revolution growing in a bed of “unconsciousness”, but perhaps Jamal and Kamil are just unusual characters, rather than heralding a new age?!
Finally in Sylhet and we spend the last half hour in a traffic jam moving very little distance to the bus terminal where Jamal’s “senior”, another Economics student, meets us and bizarrely, without asking me about what I want to do, takes us to a viewpoint in the pitch black darkness. “Why are we here?”, I ask, “To enjoy the atmosphere and the scenery”, “I wish I could see it”, I mumble in a half-hearted attempt to conceal my annoyance. We spend only 5-10 minutes there – the rickshaw ride out of town to get there took longer! – and on our way back we procure some local liquor, because I answered yes when asked if that was desirable. I did not realise what it involved. We meet with our “decisive local guide’s” cousin and he takes Jamal and a hundred Taka to some secret shop where a rice wine is for sale that an Indian/Hindu tribe “has been using for centuries” and without which “they cannot work”. So with the peasants’ brew we sneak to the outskirts of an old golf course – “people don’t play golf here any more” – to drink it and I feel like twelve again, or did I ever feel like this? It turns out that only Jamal and I want to taste and he doesn’t like it. It is a weak, but kind of OK rice wine, perhaps around 6-7% alcohol at the most, there is half a litre, so nothing worth writing home about in terms of intoxication, but pleasant enough.
While waiting for the procurement to be arranged Pradeep commenced one of those terrible speeches that would make Hitler happy: “Bangladeshi people are small and weak, they fear even Rajastanis and Pakistanis, and tremble before the Europeans”. The third world is underdeveloped because they are small and weak and, to put it in colloquial terms, I guess he wanted to say “because they can’t get together” and they fail to do so due to the combination “of their physical inferiority”, in itself a horror, “and the mental imposition that physical inferiority causes”. “That’s racism”, I venture spontaneously and in hindsight I am not sure that I would rephrase that substantially. “I think you’re wrong and that, if anything, what you’re saying is rather a manifestation of hundreds of years of successful brainwashing by white people”. It is difficult to continue the discussion, but he proceeds to praise Europe and its ways. I tell him that it is a horrible place full of racists who would piss on him and make him clean loos. These kinds of encounters make me sad and angry in a mixture I can’t quite grasp or balance. I try to ignore him a bit and when forced into debate I bitch about the evil Fortress Europe.
We head back to the hotel which is close to the mosque – in other words the pilgrimage centre of this holy city. I have a head shave, talk to Colona for half an hour at four Taka (5p) a minute and go to bed, it is around midnight.
Day #7: Friday, June 2: Welcome to the Jungle.
I did wake up a couple of times earlier, did see Jamal fumbling with his alarming phone clock, and we both knew we had to get up, but two sleep-in minds sleep in better than one, as if that wasn’t enough. It was after, well, nine, ok, make it ten, when Jamal woke up to my voice and he mumbled, after looking at his phone “We’re late”, and so we began to prepare. Before getting Jamal into gear I had been trying to have a shit, but three days running and the shit just wasn’t, although, as it reads in my notes (included here to do my wishes for the text at the time justice), a minor turd departed from the digestion chambers.
On the road again and we sit in the usual masterful position behind a poor man on a flaky bike pulling us through the chaos – we’re on this freshly red painted and I dare say beautiful iron bridge when the monsoon catches us and the next two and half hours on buses are spent wet. Roll with it, darlin’. The first bus is about two hours towards the South West corner of this Northern-Eastern-most state of Bangladesh, Sylhet, which borders on the Indian state of Assam – we are in other words on the doorstep of the home land of tea and appropriately after changing bus we’re soon cruising through tea gardens (that is what they call the plantations) and jungle, which looks much like the Amazonian rain forest.
What a sight – and all we need is a tiger or Mowgli to make this the stuff of dreams. I think of Eric Arthur Blair’s account of his Burmese Days, I dream of coming back, of finding a way to develop my connection to this miserable, fantastic place and hit my head against the wall again: money.
We find a narrow gauge rail track that is obviously used, judging from the state of the tracks, although we see no train. Walking along we leave the narrow windy jungle road and the fairly frequent horn-honking mini buses behind – welcome to the jungle!
There is a village, “What does the sign say?”, I ask Jamal who takes a look at the sign at the entrance to a little settlement in the jungle, “Restricted Access” he replies and we need no further cue. Spotting a villager we ask for permission and enter upon an affirmative head waggle.
We’d come to find the left-overs of four villages that according to media reports had been levelled by a Shell-Hell explosion some years ago, but it was media creation the old man reckons, he’d heard the blast and seen the fire (which couldn’t be missed), so there were some serious flames, but the media poured virtual petrol on the gas fire, it seems.
Nevertheless, it’s a Shell Hell:
Snapping a lot of shots, one causing a lifted finger from the security guards at the pipe line construction site in the now all sealed-off area where the explosion once happened, then caught a bus back down the road and stopped at the Bangladeshi Tea Board Resort in the vain hope that they’d serve us up some supreme brew. Of course not, but we meet a tourist guide whose boss is “as seen in the Lonely Planet Tour Guide” that I somewhat wish I had with me, but couldn’t get in the book store on campus, missed opening hours for it in town and failed to find in any of the airports I passed through – who cares about Bangladesh? He speaks a lot, a lot about himself – where he’s been, what languages he speaks, such as Nepali and Hindi. He likes his job and I am added to his collection of distinguished foreign addresses in his little book kept in a bag with some poser pics with fair-skinned creatures. He takes us, well we get a rickshaw that I ride for the three of them, Jamal, Mr. Mouth and the rickshaw puller, to a Hindu village in the jungle in the middle of the tea gardens and rubber tree plantations where we can buy tea that has been stolen from the factories – non-profit tea you could say – and that is just the kind we like.
But alas, they’re out of stock and we have to settle for a tea shop that serves coloured cups of tea… up to five colours, which cost forty Taka (a normal cuppa chai cost three), so we settle for a glass of three colours at five Taka.
“It is just tea”, Jamal reasoned and so it goes. Chatting about what it may actually mean, coloured tea, we sit and wait for more than five minutes, maybe ten, then it arrives and the two extra colours are the result of a weak tea with a ginger/lemon mixture. It is nice and we leave.
But what is tea, really? For a lot of people in the tea gardens it is bonded labour. Here you are born to work for a third of a dollar a day, under strict supervision.
Luckily we’re only ten minutes from a train station form which Sylhet can be reached in two to two and a half hours – and in this town we find stolen tea, but later at home we realise that the tea is entirely without fragrance, almost without taste, a sad moment.
More than an hour before the scheduled departure, it is almost six o’clock and Jamal who has by now been corrupted, he knows for instance what kind of people are best labelled wankers in the best of English manners, laughs at the fact that we have managed to have breakfast before sunset, a measure of the state of being and principle that I had jokingly taught him was central to my efforts to live a sorted life. “We can eat anywhere, we’re hippies”, he’d said earlier when we agreed that it was a big mistake to leave behind our bags in Sylhet and not just go with the flow. I maintain my vegetarian barricade and we struggle as usual to find a place where vegetables does not mean fish as well, but manage, and break our fast as the sun sets.
Back to the train station and we establish a large fan club, which brings back memories for me, but is entirely new to Jamal who at one point tells them that it is not a zoo, leaving us with about two-thirds of the crowd, soon growing back to full strength. I need a piss and a harsh voice to do so on my own behind a parked freight train. Photos, more of them and then the train comes. It is great, vendors of all kinds, tea, snacks and a fiddler and a hell of a lot of wankers, erhh, policemen. Upon arrival in Sylhet we try to get train tickets to go back to Dhaka, but nothing available the next morning and we’re both disappointed as Jamal has been converted to the beauty, calm and smoothness of train rides (compared to noisy, risky bus trips on dangerous roads).
It is a tradition that every night in Sylhet I have a head shave, call Colona and browse the pilgrimageshops, in one of which I last night bought a muslim mala, allegedly crystal and made in Iran. It cost a quid, so I take the chance that crystal is something else. I have several times been asked if I was Pakistani and more often if I was muslim (obviously as a Cartoon Dane I have grown a proper beard as a pre-emptive strike), so now I have something to show for it. I make the mistake of eating an ice cream – which was rather silly for I did have a general suspicion, but my sniffing investigation did not reveal anything – and I wake up with eggy burps that taste of a lot of ice cream: a funny tummy.
Day #8: Saturday, June 8: Home Coming.
Before going to bed we had ordered a wake up call for 7am, so at 7.30 we get out of the feathers, or rather the lungis, and pack our stuff, brush teeth and head for a bus operator. It is a quarter past eight and the next bus is in an hour. We haggle for some good seats and find a rickshaw with a decent price – the eternal struggle to get to the point of departure. On the way we see some of the most serious squalor I have ever come across – I think of pictures and of the objectification of misery that it somewhat entails. “It is really not a good thing to take pictures of people’s misery”, I say to Jamal, “but perhaps by showing these pictures to people back home I can better make them realise what the situation is like here” I venture somewhere between sincerity and comfort for my own conscience. We find the bus spot and there is still half an hour. “We can get a rickshaw and go back to that spot and take some pictures” and Jamal agrees, so we get a poor person to drive in the boiling heat to some even poorer people – whose situation cannot be done justice to here and now since there are three people in my room waiting for me to come to dinner (I have managed to have almost two hours on my own!!), but I have the pictures to show for it. It can be written as well, but that takes a lot longer and some careful thinking or concentration. In any case, this is no way for any human being to live!
These photos do not really communicate the misery they depict.
Some miles outside of town the bus suddenly stops and the bloke checking the tickets is chasing ayoung boy down a dirt track throwing what looks like a wallet after him – and we’re all in confusion until the hunter comes back to the cave and explains: the little boy had been hanging on the ladder on the back of the bus, probably since Sylhet, clinging onto the ladder and his life on a journey that was pretty nerve wrecking sitting inside in a reclined seat. He dropped his empty wallet while escaping the punishment from the ticket collector. What courage and deprivation are required for a fifteen year old boy to do so? And had he made it to the great city of Dhaka he would have faced some of the worst slums, pollution, corruption and and exploitation in the world; being one of Dhaka’s fifteen or so (how do you count them?) million people is only a dance on roses for the few and they have been chosen long ago, the rich is the best, fuck the rest.
We have some good chats on the bus and I am truly corrupting his mind, we cover LSD, buddhism, self-exploration, Sadhus and other such related issues – on our next trip we will have to get into sexual liberation, though earlier today when I touched upon it, which is tomorrow in the chronology of things here, it made them, Jamal and Kamil, draw some blank faces.
Once in Dhaka we go on an alcohol mission, but of course it is Saturday and on the day where the prophet is pondered most deeply, as on a X-tian Sunday, the Government shall not be found guilty of hypocrisy: the Duty Free Shop is dutifully closed.
As a good colonialist I am looking to purchase a few things at an absolute bargain price, – I have been dreaming about a fancy shop and a black silk shirt. In India, in Delhi and Mumbai, this is no problem, but proves to be so here. A visit to Dhaka’s biggest shopping mall with expensive clothes and what not: there is no silk, apart from all the cotton they claim is silk, and in general most of the clothes are pretty tasteless, apart from the nicely made traditional stuff. All the wanna-be Western shirts are fairly tacky: ugly patterns, stripes and lines, so we call it a day and head home.
I am looking forward to being alone and I say no to one thing, but am then caught in a previous engagement, “You are important to us people”, so I must go to Babu’s place for dinner. He is a lovely guy with little English and a most wonderful older sister. She’s never been married, “Ahh, that must be it”, I say to Samir as we walking home, “she’s never been ruined by a man’s company”. He reckons she never got married because she didn’t fancy “that sort of thing” and I think out loud, given the local scheme of things, “What a good choice”. She is the kind of woman, or woman of kind, that you need not talk to, and I couldn’t of course as she exclaimed loudly in “Italian” just before I was leaving (translated by the others): “You must learn to speak Bangla”, you need not hear about what she has done, what her name is, what she does and where she goes, to see, feel and understand that she is a most lovely, caring, and bright woman. She looks like love.
“You are going that way?”, I rhetorically ask Samir to pre-empt his next move, “I better walk you to your room, something could happen”, he says, and I laugh and hold him by the shoulders looking down at his one and a half meters of frail Bangladeshi flesh and bone and say “And you’re going to protect me, then?”; we laugh together and agree that I am no child, that all is fine – and I am off to bed.
Day # 9: Sunday, June 9: A no show.
I sleep quite long, get up at around half nine and write for an hour or so on this diary, then head off to the computing department to do my email for the first time in a week. Bandwidth deprivation is great somehow. I am running late for the two o’clock rendez-vous in EARTH when I stumble into Kamil and together we get a rickshaw – only to bump into Samir who is out looking for me: “I thought you got lost”, he says and we laugh at and with him: “You’re the one who looks lost”. He will catch another rickshaw and meet us in the office where Jamal claims that he has made most of today’s lunch. It is nice.
The office is filled with people in honour of the Spanish woman, but she is a no show. She has a meeting and will come instead on June 12, so I can still catch her.
Of the new crowd I am introduced to particularly Shahin stands out, the only problem with whom is “That he does not get into the practice”, but dabbles mostly in theory, but at that he is very well informed although he could do with slightly more radical edge for his own presentation – I guess that is a manifestation of a dysbalance between theory and practice, but it feels good to talk to someone with a slightly similar vocabulary and reading list. He knows a lot about globalisation related Asian publications and will take me to a bookshop to stuck up on that. Nice one.
……….to be continued………. with stories from the South-East Bangladesh, the hills that separate India, Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). This visit, unfortunately, I have never managed to document in writing.
What a fantastic place, but in a (permanent) state of emergency with a very tense atmosphere where tribes seeking autonomy are violently repressed by the military of the three nation states surrounding them! Many live in illegal refugee camps like this one:
Click on the Bangla national fruit (jack fruit) pic to see the whole Bangla foto set.
A big thanks to Emjay for editing the quite “raw” text. It could do with some more substantial editing, but I have not found the time. Is anything ever finished?