“It’s my tribute to Route 66!” Sujoy Vai struck a pose outside his Route 6 eatery and pointed towards a street crowded with auto-rickshaws, bicycle vans and battered buses. “Don’t you know we’re on Bangladesh Route 6?”
With his shoulder-length graying hair, sun-beaten face, faded T-shirt, jeans and sandals, Sujoy could have passed for an extra from Easy Rider, or a member of a rock band that had never abandoned its freewheeling style and scruffy dress code. I guessed he was in his early 50s, and had been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ version of the rhythm and blues standard, first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 and then by many other artists from Chuck Berry to (I was surprised to learn) Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. At the Route 6 De Lounge (to give it its full name), he looked a bit out of place among a young, clean-cut clientele, with neatly pressed shirts and pants and short haircuts. But Sujoy, who may have renounced capitalism at one time in his life, is doing well in business—the restaurant cum coffee house cum smoothie bar just outside the main gate of the University of Rajshahi is a popular hangout for students and faculty. They buy into the American culture motif with their Facebook endorsements. “Oh man, it is simply awesome,” wrote one. “I am just loving it, dude.” This is probably untranslatable into Bangla.
I didn’t want to seem picky and point out to Sujoy that the real Route 66 sign was white with black lettering, not the red, white and blue logo of the interstate highway that he was using for Route 6. At least it was more creative than the Outback Fast Food & Coffee House down the road, which shamelessly reproduced the restaurant chain’s logo. And the Route 6 food was good, if not exactly what you’d find winding from Chicago to LA--the standard Bangladesh mixed menu of Bangla, Indian, Chinese, Thai and Continental dishes, with the Route 6 burger, of course. I had the lemon chicken.
My UNICEF colleague Yasmin Khan and I had come to Route 6 for lunch with four faculty members from the university’s anthropology department. It was the first day of my second visit to Bangladesh on a project to assess university curricula and research capacity in communication for development. At almost all the universities I’ve visited, I’ve met with anthropologists, and I’ve always found them to be a lively and engaging group. Lunch at Route 6 was no exception—my questions about curriculum and research interspersed by their debates over the challenges of fieldwork.
There are only three flights a week from Dhaka to Rajshahi on Bangladesh’s western border. The flights did not work with my tight five-day schedule, so Yasmin and I had to make the 250 km (150 mile) trip by road. In most areas of the U.S., I’d allow three hours for a 150-mile highway trip, more if it included city driving. In Bangladesh, the standard driving time from Dhaka to Rajshahi is six hours, so we left the city at 6:30 to avoid the early rush hour traffic. To be frank, rush hour in Dhaka is a moving target because traffic flow is capricious; a journey that can take 15 minutes at one time of day can take two hours at another. There’s no good way to predict travel time because the snarls seem so random. I’ve had clear runs at 8:30 a.m., and hit stalled traffic at 11:00 a.m. Anyway, we made good time leaving the city and made it to Rajshahi in 5 ½ hours. The return trip took … well, you’ll just need to read on.
Route 6 is the major highway running east-west across the north of the country from Sylhet near the northern border with the Indian state of Assam to Rajshahi on the north bank of the Padma, the name given to the Ganges after it leaves India. To join Route 6, we drove northwest through an industrial region, passing dozens of garment factories; at one factory gate, a large concrete blue and white sewing machine welcomed workers to another day of sewing, dyeing and finishing. It was time for the morning shift—on both sides of the road, women were getting off company buses or walking to the factories. Although the garment industry is a major sector in the economy, and has provided employment and a measure of financial independence for thousands of women, working conditions in some factories remain poor and safety standards loosely enforced. The authorities have too few fire and building inspectors, and officials are easily bribed by factory owners to overlook violations. On April 25, mourners gathered at a monument in Savar to mark the anniversary of the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza multi-story building factory which housed several garment factories. More than 1,100 died and hundreds were injured in what the Bangladesh media call “the world’s worst workplace disaster.” Although several criminal cases have been brought, four years on none has gone to trial.
Beyond the garment factories, the industrial landscape turned dark and desolate—mile on mile of smoking brick kilns and power plants, grime covered buildings and loading yards lined with rows of Tata trucks, their brightly painted and decorated bodies spattered with mud. We took the bridge over the canal that crosses the industrial region, where trucks were loading and off-loading building supplies from nouka, small cargo boats with high prows. Dhaka is experiencing a residential and commercial construction boom. On both sides of the road were mountains of sand, and stacks of bricks, PVC pipes, rebar, lumber and the long bamboo poles used for scaffolding and to temporarily frame walls while bricks are being laid.
The industrial wasteland finally gave way to an agricultural landscape of rice paddies, interspersed with fields of corn and mango plantations. The region also produces jute, used to make rope and fabrics, and once a year some fields are a blaze of yellow—mustard seed. Along the roadside, farmers were selling seasonal vegetables and fruits—eggplants, watermelons, cantaloupes, bananas, jackfruit, pineapple and green coconuts; in May, there will be mangoes and lychees. This is fertile land that produces three rice harvests a year. In the past, the seasons have been predictable enough to allow farmers to know when to plant and harvest, but this year the weather turned against them with heavy storms in April—at least a month ahead of the normal start of the monsoon season. Flash flooding in some regions ruined the first rice crop, called the Boro; in others, farmers harvested early, salvaging what they could. In some years, Bangladesh is a rice exporter, but this year prices will be higher and some regions may face shortages of the daily diet staple.
Along the road, the rice fields were a patchwork—large areas of dark green, broken by squares of a lighter green where the rice had been cut. The harvested bundles are fed into machines that separate the rice from the stalks. Small trucks and vans—both the motorized and cycle versions—piled high with rice stalks wobbled along the road. When the fields flood, cattle will not be able to forage and the stalks will be used for fodder. The people of this region have adapted to the climate, building levees lined with banana trees that lead from their homes to the main road; when the rains come, these pathways—just wide enough for a motorized van—will be the only safe way to travel. The levees also protect fish ponds—a vital source of protein for the population.
Like the Ganges, India’s other mighty river, the Brahmaputra, changes its name after it enters Bangladesh from the northwest—India’s so-called chicken neck. For centuries, the broad Jamuna, flowing north to south, has been both a highway and a barrier to travel and trade, separating the northeast and northwest regions. A fleet of ferries carried freight and passengers across the river. The Jamuna bridge, completed in 1998, is 5.6 Km (three miles) long, the sixth longest in South Asia. It also carries the railroad and a gas pipeline, earning it the prosaic title of the “Jamuna multi-purpose bridge.” To the south, construction is under way on an even longer bridge across the Padma (Ganges) to link Dhaka to the southwest region. Despite their economic impact, it’s worth noting that these two bridges are the only ones crossing the two largest rivers; elsewhere along their courses, ferries are the only option. And the southern regions remain divided by the vast Meghna, formed by the confluence of the Jamuna and the Padma—not so much a river, more an inland sea.
As two-lane highways go, Route 6 is broader than most. And it has one advantage over most roads in Bangladesh—a tarmac path alongside it for slow-moving traffic, mainly the bicycle and motorized vans. There’s no doubt this has reduced traffic accidents. On most roads, trucks, buses and cars swerve madly as they pass the vans, but with them consigned to their own road, everything seems more orderly. However, the buses still swerve as they careen along with horns blazing, the driver’s assistants hanging out of the doors gesturing to other traffic to move aside. I don’t think that bus drivers are genetically or culturally more inclined to reckless maneuvers than other drivers. The problem, Yasmin said, is that bus companies operate on low profit margins and insist that their drivers make so many trips per day; knowing that they will get stuck in traffic at some point, they hit the gas when traffic is moving, and any other vehicles had better move aside.
Rajshahi, famous for its silk industry and as an agricultural processing center, sits on the north bank of the Padma. On a hazy morning, the south bank—the Indian state of West Bengal—was a distant blur. My companions and I walked down from the levee to the shoreline across a floodplain of sand, mud and long grasses. The ice cream vendors were setting up their stalls, and a boy was wiping tables at a restaurant. When the weather is nice, this is a popular spot for paddling and picnics. In monsoon season, the river laps at the edge of the levee and sometimes covers the road. This morning all was calm. A few fishing boats were pulled up on the shore, others were on the water catching hilsha, a popular fish served fried, grilled and in curries. I pointed to a line of boats with radio aerials. “The Border Patrol,” said Rama Saha, the local UNICEF officer. “They’re trying to stop smuggling from India.” I asked her what was smuggled. “Cattle are the major contraband,” she said. “The Hindus can’t eat beef, so there’s money to be made bringing cattle across the river.” I asked her what else. It was a diverse, even bizarre, list—saris, matches, medicines and fentanyl, the notorious heroin additive. Much is sold on Rajshahi’s central bazaar, where Indian-made goods (legally and illegally imported) dominate.
After the chaos of Dhaka, Rajshahi seemed a relaxed place, relatively free of pollution and traffic jams. According to my e-mail, our hotel booking was at the “Seiz Razzak.” This puzzled Yasmin. “The word makes no sense in Bangla,” she said. I checked online. “Oh, it’s Chez Razzak,” I said. “That means ‘at the home of’ in French.” The desk clerk confirmed that Razzak, the owner, often traveled to France and wanted to give his establishment a French name. That evening, as a storm lashed the city, we went up to the seventh-floor restaurant to order dinner. No menu, and no dinner—at Chez Razzak you have to order in advance. All the staff could manage was tea and a packet of cookies.
On the return trip to Dhaka, we hit heavy traffic in the garment suburbs and around the airport. During the day, to reduce congestion and pollution, long-distance trucks are not allowed in the city, but at 8:00 p.m. they fill the roads. The journey took us nine, yes nine hours, and I didn’t reach my destination until 11:30. Much as I like Route 6, it gave me too many kicks. Next time, I’ll fly.