Bangladesh's friendly skies

Fly Your Own Airline. That was the slogan of United Airways (not to be confused with the larger US-based carrier, United Airlines), a private airline in Bangladesh. It was emblazoned across the aircraft and at the check-in counter of the domestic terminal of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal airport. I’d like to think it meant the crew would invite you to take over the controls once the plane has reached a safe cruising altitude and take a selfie in the cockpit against a background of flashing instrument lights, but it was probably just the product of a brainstorming session with a marketing team to make passengers feel part of the airline family.

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I didn’t have the opportunity to test the slogan because United Airways, notorious for delays, flight suspensions and poor in-flight amenities, ceased operations in mid-2016, but I’ve flown with three other private airlines—Regent Airlines, Novo Air and US Bangla. All connect to domestic destinations and offer a few international flights, mostly to India and Southeast Asia. After the government airline, Biman Bangladesh (Air Bangladesh), lost its monopoly of the skies in 1996, the airline industry literally took off and competition is cutthroat. My total bill for three round-trip domestic flights came to under $250, and all airlines offer special discounted fares.  If you plan ahead, you can fly almost anywhere in the country for under $60 round trip.

Bangladesh is a small country, so the flights are short. My first flight to Jessore in the west on Novo Air took just 30 minutes; it was 45 minutes to Chittagong on Regent and a seemingly interminable 50 minutes to Sylhet in the north on US Bangla. With short flight times, everything in the cabin happens at breakneck speed. The attendants race through the routine announcements and safety demonstration (in both Bangla and English) in a couple of minutes, including the requisite quotation from the Koran, roughly translated as “God (Allah) is almighty, without him we would not be safe.” Immediately after the seat belt sign is turned off, and almost before you have time to lower your tray table, the cabin attendants are running up and down the aisle, doling out boxes with sandwiches, cookies or cake and a bottle of water. There’s more glitz to the packaging than the food inside the box. “Celebrate Spring with the bite of true delight,” promises US Bangla on its bright yellow boxes with a floral design. “True delight” consists of a soggy bun wrapped around processed chicken, a slice of sponge cake and a mint wrapped in teeth-challenging plastic. But there’s no time to debate truth in advertising because it’s a mad rush to collect the trash before the seat belt sign goes on again and the plane begins its descent. The standard request to “sit back, relax and enjoy your flight” seems irrelevant because it’s non-stop action most of the way.

For those of us accustomed to long lines at check-in, surly gate agents and tiresome security checks, taking a domestic flight in Bangladesh is remarkably hassle-free, the security measures relaxed and the staff helpful and friendly. At the terminal entrance, your luggage goes through a scanner while you walk through the security gate. No one tells you to remove your belt or empty your pockets, so you invariably set off the alarm. The security agent points a scanner in your general direction, then waves you through. No ID is required at check-in. There’s one more scanner for carry-on, but you don’t have to remove your laptop, or take off your jacket, belt or shoes. There’s a list of prohibited carry-on items—the usual ones (handguns, knives and other sharp objects) and a few oddball items such as tape measures, tennis rackets, cricket bats, pool cues and catapults. Your one-liter water bottle?  Carry it on board. The value-sized shampoo bottle? No problem.

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I got to know the departure lounge at Dhaka’s domestic terminal pretty well. I usually headed for a corner area where there’s a sofa and two easy chairs—a standard living room suite that would not look out of place in a low-rent apartment. The fake leather is showing its age, but it’s the most comfortable place in the lounge. The thrift store ambience is enhanced by a couple of other upholstered bench chairs across the room. There’s a small tea and coffee stall and a place to buy sweets and pastries. It all feels rather homely.

You have no problem finding your gate because there are only two. Although the domestic terminal handles 50-60 flights a day, the system works well. There are a couple of monitors for departures, but the standard announcement to board is made by airline agents strolling around barking, “Regent—Chittagong” or “US Bangla—Sylhet.” If you’re dozing, they’ll wake you up to check where you’re going. The slightly surreal atmosphere continues on the bus, where the soothing pre-flight muzak track is distinctively but confusingly Celtic—soft acoustic melodies on piano, flute and, harp.


Or perhaps you will travel by car. For no clear reason, every airline provides a couple of cars to shuttle passengers to the plane. I assumed this service was for VIPs, government officials and disabled passengers who found it difficult to board a bus. But it seemed entirely random. For the first flight to Jessore, my UNICEF colleague Yasmin and I had chauffeur service to the plane with the driver stashing our carry-on in the trunk.

After a short flight and fast onboard service, you expect your checked baggage to arrive promptly and intact. Unfortunately, although Biman Bangladesh surrendered its monopoly of domestic routes, it still handles—or rather mishandles—baggage at every airport. Delays are longest for international flights because of lack of equipment and baggage handling staff.  It’s a 45-minute flight from Kolkata to Dhaka, but one passenger told the Dhaka Tribune that it took five hours for the luggage to reach the carousel. According to a report by the airport authority, an average or more than 100 passengers a day file claims at the lost and found office; either their luggage went missing, or items were stolen. According to the Tribune, “ground handlers routinely pick out suitcases from flights they know are bound to be filled with valuable goods, such as flights from the Middle East or India.” Closed-circuit TV has failed to stop the pilfering by Biman Bangladesh staff.  Private airlines and consumer advocates are pressing for an open tender to allow a private company to take over baggage handling.

Swimming to Bangladesh

Midway through the first afternoon of the August 2017 UNICEF workshop for university faculty on communication for development, one participant rubbed his head and glanced towards the ceiling. Sure enough, a steady drip of water was coming through the acoustic tile. He shifted his chair. Soon, drips appeared in other places. People started moving tables and chairs, and a janitor placed a bucket below the leakiest spot. Then someone noticed water dripping onto the lectern and rescued the laptop. I looked up at the acoustic tiles, many of which were stained brown and black. This was evidently not the first time rain had come through the roof of the University Grants Commission building in Dhaka. No one complained or even commented. In monsoon season, you expect to get wet.  

There is flooding in Bangladesh every year, but the floods of 2017 were the worst in a decade. The first rains came in April, fully three months ahead of the normal monsoon season, inundating paddies before farmers could harvest the first of the three annual rice crops. After several weeks of rain in July and August, rivers and streams in the north burst their banks, inundating thousands of acres of farmland and washing away homes, schools, shops, vehicles and livestock. According to the government’s Meteorological Department, on a single day, August 11, almost a week's worth of average monsoon rainfall was dumped across parts of the country in the space of a few hours. By the time the rains eased, and the floodwaters began to recede, almost 150 people had lost their lives, 700,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed and up to a third of agricultural land submerged. The waters destroyed rice crops and washed out the fish ponds that provide the main source of protein for the rural population. More than eight million people sought shelter on higher ground or on narrow levees, erecting flimsy shelters of bamboo poles and tarpaulins, without food, clothes, clean water or sanitation facilities. 


"People are used to seasonal flooding but nothing to this degree,” Corinne Ambler of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) told CNN. “This is a different level—for miles around all you can see is water, the flooding has transformed the countryside. People were fearful they would soon begin to starve." By the third week in August, most vegetable prices had shot up by at least 50 per cent, with the price of onions and chili—essential ingredients in many dishes—doubling. The flooding was the most serious since 2007 when more than half the country was affected and more than 1,000 people, most of them children, died. In August 2017, across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, more than 1,200 people died from flooding and landslides and 40 million were affected.

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For the Bangladesh government, NGOs and international relief organizations, providing clean water and sanitation were the major priorities. Floodwaters provide breeding grounds for water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, malaria, dengue and Japanese encephalitis. Reaching stranded communities was challenging because the floods washed away roads, bridges and railroads. A newspaper front page photo showed a woman walking along the buckled tracks of a railroad in a badly-hit region of the northwest. The force of the waters had washed away the track bed, and submerged the tracks for three days, leaving them looking “like those of a roller-coaster.”

The Dhaka-Dinajpur line at Kauguan in August 2017 after flood waters washed away the track bed. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

The Dhaka-Dinajpur line at Kauguan in August 2017 after flood waters washed away the track bed. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Dhaka escaped the worst of the flooding, although rising water in streams and lakes washed away banks and inundated the rough shacks and market stalls where poor families, many of them migrants from rural areas, eke out a living as bicycle rickshaw drivers and roadside vendors. Roads in low-lying areas were under knee-to-waist high water. Urban planners blamed the waterlogging on inadequate drainage and pumping systems and accused government officials and contractors of corruption, shoddy construction and poor maintenance. Over the years, private developers have filled in sections of the canals and rivers that serve as the city’s main drainage channels. Culverts that feed into the waterways are often clogged with garbage and building materials.

The morning after the laptop rescue the rains came again, heavier than the day before. In the lobby of the Ascott Palace Hotel, my colleagues and I waited for the hotel van, wondering how we would reach it without being soaked to the skin. For the staff, it was a familiar challenge. At the entrance, a canopy extended several feet into the street. The van drew up and a guard held up a brightly colored umbrella, almost four feet in diameter, to cover the three steps from the canopy to the door, while still remembering to give us the customary salute. 

Three days of monsoon rains in July 2017 left many roads in Dhaka under water. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

Three days of monsoon rains in July 2017 left many roads in Dhaka under water. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Most travelers were not so lucky. Bicycle and bicycle rickshaw drivers pedaled unsteadily through the torrent, one hand on the handlebars and the other clutching an umbrella. Cars sped by, their tires splashing them; one poor cyclist got a double whammy when cars passed him simultaneously on both sides. Auto-rickshaws—the so-called CNGs, powered by compressed natural gas—stalled out, forcing their drivers to push them to the roadside. Street cleaners and construction workers, carrying bricks in baskets on their heads, had no protection from the downpour.

Rickshaws and vans push through the water in Chittagong after six hours of heavy rain in April 2017 left many areas of the port city flooded. Courtesy  The Daily Star.

Rickshaws and vans push through the water in Chittagong after six hours of heavy rain in April 2017 left many areas of the port city flooded. Courtesy The Daily Star.

Most workshop participants showed up late that morning. One said it had taken him 2 ½ hours to make a five-mile trip across the city, but he was nonplussed; he was from Chittagong, where flooding is usually much worse than in Dhaka. On a previous visit in April my UNICEF colleague Yasmin Khan had translated a newspaper cartoon. It depicted the portly, bespectacled mayor of Chittagong, happily floating on an inner tube, while his constituents struggled through the flood waters. The caption read: “Mayors come and go but citizens continue to suffer.”

Destination Dhaka

Zoning appeals

You don’t need a PhD in anthropology to figure out that some social practices broadly accepted and followed in Western countries are either alien—or simply ignored—in other cultures. A case in point is the orderly line or queue. 

It’s certainly annoying when someone jumps in ahead of you at passport control or while you’re in line at a bank or waiting to pay for your groceries, but it’s hardly a crowd control issue. However, queue-hopping becomes a problem when a lot of people do it simultaneously. It certainly creates a challenge for global organizations such as airlines that need to control human movement.

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I had met my colleague, Nicola Christofides from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, in Dubai. Our flight to Dhaka in Bangladesh on an Emirates Boeing 777 was full, as it usually is, with migrant workers returning from the Gulf states. It was the Bangla new year, and many were returning for the holidays. All passengers had boarding cards with their zones listed.

The gate agent made the routine announcement, inviting first class and business passengers and families with children to board first. The crowd parted to allow a few to make their way to the jetway. When the agent announced, “Zone A,” the crowd surged forward, pushing past the few Westerners who were dutifully waiting for their zone to be called.  The pushing and shoving was all pretty good-natured, but it was evident that the battle for overhead compartment space was on.  For a few minutes, the agents attempted to collect boarding card stubs, then simply gave up. 

On board, passengers ended up in the wrong aisle and had to make the long detour around the bathrooms to reach their seats. The United Arab Emirates women’s under-19 soccer team, on its way to compete in a multinational tournament in Dhaka, boarded en masse and clambered over seats to be with their friends. The cabin crew remained calm. They were evidently used to the chaos.

Communication problems

On the drive from Dhaka airport to our hotel--the curiously named Bengal Blueberry in the Gulshan-2 district--the conversation with the driver, Mohammed Deloa, went something like this.

“They’re selling a lot of fruit at the roadside stalls. Which fruits are in season?”

“You will find many good restaurants close to our wonderful hotel. I’m sure you will be very happy with the choices.”

“Yes, but what about the fruits? It’s April. Are the mangoes good?”

“The Blueberry restaurant has a good menu.  But you may also eat at the food court in the mall next to the hotel.”

Obviously, it was time to change the subject.

“Why is it called the Bengal Blueberry?  I’ve never seen blueberries in Bangladesh.”

“The company has three hotels in Dhaka. The Bengal Blueberry, the Bengal Inn and the Bengal Canary Park. All offer superb service.”

“But why Blueberry?”

“Our staff will make you very welcome.”

Nicola and I decided that Mohammed had mastered a few key marketing scripts in English but was not able to offer much more. I reverted to a standard Dhaka topic where almost anyone with basic English can participate.

“The traffic from the airport isn’t too bad today.”

“No, sir. It is the weekend. Much worse during the week. Only 20 minutes to the hotel. One hour or more at other times.”

We pulled up at the Bengal Blueberry, where a sign advertised the Bluelicious Restaurant. Mohammed dutifully pointed out the entrance to the mall. We resolved to try the food court.

Food Court

I have no ambitions--and certainly no qualifications--to be a food critic.  But I’ve eaten at enough cheap places in malls around the world to offer some insights. I guess I can modestly claim to be a food court critic.

Mohammed was right. The food court in the small mall next to the Bengal Blueberry--two floors up from the Unimart supermarket where I’ve shopped on previous visits to Dhaka--offers an amazing variety of cuisine, and an even more amazing variety of names. Collectively, if rather pretentiously, it is called The Chef’s Table.

Nicola and I decided to skip “The Crack Shack,” which offered nothing more addictive than smoothies and snacks. I eat Mexican at home in West Virginia often enough that “Dos Locos” did not appeal. “Uncle Sam’s” offered crepes and waffles, but no burgers (try “Impulse Burger” two floors down for a Bangladesh Whopper). We passed on “Pizza Guy,” which offered the “Nightmare Firestorm” (probably the one with all the toppings).  There was “Pastamania” and “The Italian Place--a place to hang your hat” (if you have one), “Madchefx” and “Hakka Chaka” (looked Japanese). We considered the Middle Eastern place, but ended up at “Taste of Lanka,” where I had the “Housefull” combination plate. Pretty good, although more generic South Asian than distinctively Sri Lankan.

Should we order more food from The Chef’s Table?

Should we order more food from The Chef’s Table?

Apart from the variety, there are two cool things about The Chef’s Table. First, each establishment has a kitchen and the food is freshly cooked. You pay and come back in 15 or 20 minutes to pick up (or sometimes they will serve you). Second, all food is served on real plates with cutlery--not a polystyrene dish or plastic fork in sight.  After you’ve finished your meal, a busboy clears the table. In other words, restaurant-style service in a food court.

As a newly minted food court critic, the only recommendation I can offer is to Madchefx which put out a board advertising “Today’s Special.”  It read (I am not making this up):

Today’s Special: Buy two meals--and pay for them both.

What a deal!