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Bangladesh

Too many kicks on Route 6

Rajshahi, Bangladesh

“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.
 

Old Dhaka

“I deeply regret to inform you, sir. The museum is closed.” The young man who met me outside the Liberation War Museum in Puran (Old) Dhaka seemed genuinely concerned about his surprise visitor.

“But the museum website says it is open from 10 to 5,” I protested.  I had arrived shortly before 11.

“As you see, the museum is closed.” The man gestured towards the locked gates, and a guard slumbering in a chair under a tree in the courtyard, his rifle resting on a small table. He pointed to a sign on the gate. “The museum is closed on Sunday.”

“But today is Friday,” I said. Clearly, there was a communication gap. It turned out that the museum staff had taken a mobile exhibit to the campus of Dhaka University, and the museum would not re-open until Monday, after I’d left Bangladesh.

I was disappointed because I’d been looking forward all week to a visit to what the Bradt Travel Guide described as “Dhaka’s best and most memorable museum,” documenting the 1971 war that ended with East Pakistan separating from West Pakistan and becoming the independent country of Bangladesh.  The museum’s six galleries document the war in photographs, newspaper clippings, artifacts and testimony from rebel fighters and those who suffered.  The conflict was marked by atrocities on both sides. Pakistan’s army ruthlessly targeted the Bangla professional classes, torturing and killing hundreds of university professors, writers, artists and students, calculating that by eliminating the country’s political and intellectual elite, the resistance movement would lose leadership and crumble. Bangla rebels, backed by the Indian army, showed no mercy to captured Pakistani soldiers and collaborators. Millions of Hindus fled across the western border to India, abandoning, homes, farms and businesses. The memory of the events of 1971 is still marked in speeches by politicians and articles by Bangla intellectuals. Those who fought in the war are celebrated as national heroes. Although the most prominent collaborators were tried and imprisoned or executed in the decade following the conflict, the courts are still hearing cases of alleged war crimes. 

I had not endured a hair-raising half-hour trip in a CNG (auto rickshaw), dodging buses, trucks, vans, bicycle rickshaws and other CNGs, to visit a mobile exhibit. It was time for a plan B. I pulled out my Bradt Travel Guide and called Tauran Islam, the director of the Urban Study Group, an NGO that offers walking tours of Old Dhaka.  Was there a tour that I could join?  He said the morning tour had already started, but that he would call one of the volunteers and see if it was possible to join the group. He called back a few minutes later. Fortunately, my daredevil CNG driver was still there; seeing that the museum was closed and that his passenger had no idea where he was in the maze of streets in the old city, he correctly figured he could make a few hundred more taka. I passed the phone and Tauran gave him directions. We set off again on what was perhaps an even more harrowing and bumpy ride through narrow streets, crowded with pedestrians, carts, bicycle rickshaws and porters carrying loads on their heads. 

We met Ana and another volunteer at a large 19th century merchant’s home, built in brick with colonnades and balconies. Like most of the historic structures in Old Dhaka, it is in serious need of restoration. Years of baking heat and monsoon rains have taken their toll. The stucco had peeled off the walls and columns, exposing the brick, and the wooden balconies sagged. But at least it was still standing and, with funding, could be restored to some of its former splendor.

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Old Dhaka, the area between the central part of the city and the River Buriganga, began its life as a small river port with bazaars. From the 17th century, under the reign of the Mughal emperors, it became a major commercial center, based largely on the production of muslin, a high quality woven cotton exported to Europe.  Several Mughal-era buildings—the Lalbagh Fort and Choto Katra, a large merchant’s house—survive. Dhaka attracted foreign traders, most notably Armenians, some of whom stayed, built large houses and became rich landlords; in 1771, they built an Armenian church and gave their name to the Armanitola neighborhood of the city. It also attracted Hindu artisans, who established workshops and small shops. The names of the two main bazaars, Tanti (weaver) and Shakhari (craftsman), mark their importance in the commercial life of city; today, many Hindus still live in Old Dhaka, and the side streets have small Hindu temples.

In 2004, an old building in Shakhari Bazaar collapsed. The government, supported by developers who saw an opportunity to grab prime real estate, proposed that many of the historic buildings in Old Dhaka be demolished for safety reasons. Historians and conservationists opposed the proposal, arguing it would destroy the city’s cultural heritage. The controversy was the impetus for the founding of the Urban Study Group by Tauran Islam. It campaigned to have several streets and buildings designated as historically significant, and thus protected from demolition. Some building owners opposed the designation, saying they did not have the money to maintain or restore their properties. The debate over preserving Old Dhaka echoes conflicts in other countries, with government agencies, developers, property owners and preservationists taking their disputes to the courts and the media. The Urban Study Group may have met its original goal to have the buildings saved from demolition, but it will be a long struggle. The British colonial-era buildings we visited were all in need of serious and costly restoration. And they are being used as homes by hundreds of families. Only the most enlightened of landlords will throw out the tenants, losing the rental income, and invest in restoration. In Western countries, a government agency might buy the buildings and restore them, but Bangladesh is a developing country and the government has other budget priorities. It’s difficult to argue for the allocation of public funds when schools and health clinics are under-staffed, and roads need to be repaired to keep the economy growing.

One example is the so-called Water Palace on the bank of the river. “These are residences for families of the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Ana. We were standing in the stone central courtyard, looking up at washing draped over the balconies as children (who probably should have been at an under-staffed school) ran around. Many government agencies provide free or low-cost housing for their staff, partly to compensate for low salaries. I doubt the Bangladesh army will support preservation efforts. Part of the palace has been taken over by Old Dhaka’s spice bazaar. Outside, trucks were unloading sacks of garlic. We wandered through the bazaar—a feast of colors and aromas—and emerged at the waterfront.  


The river was busy—large passenger boats embarking for destinations in southern Bangladesh, small cargo ships, and motor-powered boats loaded with vegetables for the city’s markets. The nearest was piled high with cauliflowers. “They have come from Barisal,” said Sunny, another Urban Study volunteer who had joined us, naming a city in the delta area. Porters piled the cauliflowers into broad baskets and formed a human chain, carrying the baskets on their heads and passing on to the next link. On the dirt bank, pumpkins, gourds and other vegetables were stacked high. Below us, a group of boatmen waited for passengers to ferry to the other side of the river.


This was where I met the rest of the group—seven German students, who were on one-month internships in the textile and garment industry. “We don’t have many clothing factories left in Germany,” said one. “So there is a lot to learn. Some of us are in fashion, I’m in textile technology.” They had taken a trip on the river in two boats. As they disembarked, somewhat precariously, Sunny asked me if I wanted to do a boat trip.  I looked at the wobbling craft and the dirty water and decided that walking was safer.


Our next stop was Dhaka’s main Shi’a mosque, Hossaini Dalan. Most Bangladeshi are Sunni Moslems, but a small Shi’a community exists in the old city. The women had only two headscarves between them so it took 15 minutes or so for the whole group to visit the mosque. From there, we walked to the merchant houses of the French Quarter. The group kept getting larger as more volunteers—all of them students—joined us; at one time, I counted at least a dozen volunteers. Although their English skills varied, all were enthusiastic about their work and proud to show us the city’s heritage. “We learned from the preservation movements in the West,” Sunny told me. “They inspired us.” We arrived at a large, colonial-era house, with emblems for Bangladesh’s professional cricket clubs painted on the walls, now used as a student dorm where some of the volunteers lived. Each room housed four male students in basic conditions—hard-wood beds, a couple of chairs and a small balcony. We shared samosa and bananas in one of the rooms and did the requisite group picture outside. The students who lived there said they were fortunate to have the cheapest accommodation in Dhaka—3,000 taka (about $35) for the year.


Our final visit was to the Shakhari bazaar, where most of the shopkeepers are Hindus. There was a short diversion to a bangle shop, and then we were halted by two men who wanted to show us their Hindu temple. We turned down a side street, and walked through a dirt courtyard to a patch of open ground—an oasis of peace.  The temple president explained that developers were trying to take the land to build a high-rise and buying off politicians to make the deal go through. The temple was not particularly old—and so would not meet the criteria to be designated as a historic structure—but it was where he and his neighbors had worshipped all their lives. We took another group picture, and hoped that the image of the temple president and a group of concerned bideshi (foreigners) would end up on social media and perhaps help in the campaign.

 

The East End of Bangladesh

“Don’t take the piss, luv. I’m bleedin’ knackered.” I caught the last part of the mobile phone conversation in the lobby of the Valley Garden Hotel in Sylhet, a bustling city in northeastern Bangladesh. By his dress and skin color, the speaker—a man in his 30s—looked Bangladeshi, but the accent and word choice were purely London. The man picked up his bag and went to the elevator.  He looked as if he’d just arrived after a long flight.

Which he probably had. There are flights from Heathrow via Dhaka to Sylhet on Biman Bangladesh, the national airline, and other connections via Dubai and Delhi. They serve a community of Bangladeshis—or Sylhetis as they prefer to be called—who have settled in East London since the 19th century.  The first came as merchant seamen, hired on in the southern port of Chittagong by British trading ships. When World War One broke out and young British men were conscripted to fight in the trenches, the demand for seamen increased and more Sylhetis took to the seas. Leaving their families was difficult, but they earned more money than they could working in the tea plantations. Between voyages, they lived in cramped quarters in London’s docklands. Some left the ships to take factory jobs, and sent the money home. As Muslims, they maintained their culinary practices. In the 1920s, a Sylheti opened a curry shop that became the foundation for a thriving Bengali restaurant industry, centered on Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets. Bengalis of Sylheti origin comprise only 10 per cent of the South Asian population of Britain, but 90 per cent of all South Asian restaurants are Sylheti or Bangla-owned. Of course, the Brick Lane entrepreneurs adapted to British taste and climate, cutting down on the heat and spices. But they have been remarkably successful. Today, the Bangladeshi restaurant industry is estimated to be worth $6 billion a year.

Some of that money comes home to Sylhet in the form of remittances to support family members. It goes towards medical and educational expenses, and daily living needs. British Bangladeshis have built mansions outside the city to use when they visit. Most of the time, a colleague told me, they stand empty, with a guard, a maid and a gardener on staff. In a society where, despite its Muslim principles, material possessions are valued, the mansions represent a family’s social standing—a concrete (or usually brick) status symbol in a region where many people remain desperately poor.

According to economic statistics, the Sylhet Division is the wealthiest region of Bangladesh outside Dhaka. But the wealth is unevenly distributed and the region lags behind others for health, nutrition and education. On the tea plantations, many workers are from the Indian states of Orissa and Bihar. They are the descendants of workers brought in by the British during the colonial era; they have struggled to preserve their Hindu religion and native languages and have never fully integrated into Sylheti society.  Bordered on the north by the Indian state of Meghalaya and on the east by the state of Manipur, the Sylhet region is among the most ethnically diverse in the country, with villages of Manipuri, Khasis and Tripura people in the hills, practicing Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The region has its own language, Sylhoti, with ties to both Bangla and Assamese. My travel guide claims Sylhoti has over 10 million speakers worldwide, some of them in East London.

The tea plantations—or tea gardens, as they are somewhat romantically termed in Bangladesh—stretch across the low hills along the road from the airport to the city.  Compared with the rest of the country, the region’s climate is cooler and wetter, making it (like its northern Indian neighbor, the state of Assam), ideal for growing tea, most of it for export. The day we arrived, there was a hartal—a strike by transport workers protesting at an increase in the price of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which fuels all the auto rickshaws and many buses, trucks and cars.  As we left the airport, we passed two trucks with troops from Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a para-military force. UNICEF’s security people had warned us to be careful because some roads had been blocked by strikers, but the main road was clear and mercifully free of traffic, so we reached the hotel in what our driver assured us was record time. Still, there was trouble elsewhere; the Sunday newspaper carried a picture of a government official’s SUV that was damaged by strikers. By early evening, the strike was over and Sylhet returned to its normal traffic congestion, its narrow streets clogged with auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, vans and trucks.  Sylhet is a major shopping destination, with some of the best discount clothing outlets in the country.  Many British Bangladeshis (perhaps including the man in the hotel) come here on shopping trips; after paying for the flight and excess baggage, they’ll still come out ahead compared with shopping in the UK. We joined the crowd to make a short shopping trip then returned to the hotel. UNICEF security had warned us not to be out on the streets after dark.

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Every hotel I’ve stayed at outside Dhaka has its idiosyncrasies, and the Hotel Valley Garden was no exception. The main challenge was figuring out which button to push in the elevator. Our rooms were on the 6th floor, but if you pressed 6 you ended up on the 7th floor. The restaurant was on the 4th floor, but accessible only by pressing 3. The hotel staff were used to it and reflexively deducted one from the desired destination but we made a few detours before figuring it out. Unfortunately, the card in the room with instructions on how to stay safe during an earthquake did not include “Do not use the elevator, or if you do remember to deduct one.”  Maybe it was installed by the same company that designed the restaurant menu that offered “milk sheik,” “corn flacks” and “poltry.”  I will remember the Hotel Valley Garden not only for its clean room and good dinner but for its numerical and linguistic license.   
 

Bangladesh's Friendly Skies

Fly Your Own Airline. That’s the slogan of United Airways (not to be confused with the much larger US-based carrier, United Airlines), one of Bangladesh’s four private airlines.  It’s emblazoned across the aircraft and at the check-in counter at Dhaka’s domestic terminal.  I’d like to think it means the crew will 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’s probably just the product of a brainstorming session with a marketing company to make passengers feel part of the airline family and keep flying United.

I haven’t had the opportunity to test the slogan because I haven’t flown with United, but in the past week I’ve taken flights on the three other private airlines—Regent Airlines, Novo Air and US Bangla. All of them fly to domestic destinations and offer a few international flights, mostly to cities in India and Southeast Asia.  After the government airline, Biman Bangladesh, lost its monopoly of the skies, the airline industry literally took off and the competition is cutthroat. My total bill for three round-trip domestic flights came to under $250, and all the airlines offer special discounted fares.  If you plan ahead, you can fly almost anywhere in the country for under $60 round trip.


Of course, Bangladesh is a small country, so the flights are short.  My first flight to Jessore in western Bangladesh on Novo Air took just 30 minutes; it was 45 minutes to Chittagong on Regent and a seemingly interminable 50 minutes on Saturday 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. Hmm, 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 in the aisle most of the way.

Most short-haul flights are on 40-50 seater turboprops, including the French ATR 500, manufactured in Toulouse, and the Bombardier Dash 8. My return flight from Chittagong to Dhaka was on a Boeing 737, but it was the last leg of an international flight bringing migrant Bangladeshi workers from Oman in the Arabian Gulf. 

For those of us who have become 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 waves a scanner in your general direction, and then you are free to go. No ID is required at check-in. Then one more scanner for carry-on, a stamp on the boarding pass and you’re in the departure lounge.  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—all 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. 

I’ve come to know the departure lounge at Dhaka’s domestic terminal pretty well after three flights in a week. I usually head for a corner area where there’s a sofa and two easy chairs—a standard living room suite that looks as if it was salvaged from an apartment.  The fake leather is showing its age, but it’s the most comfortable place to sit.  The thrift store ambiance 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’s only one. Although the domestic terminal handles 50-60 flights a day, the system works pretty 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. Then they take your boarding card stub, and you go through the door to the bus.

Or maybe to the car. For no clear reason, every airline provides a couple of cars to shuttle passengers to the plane. I assumed that this service was for VIPs, government officials and people who find it difficult to board a bus. But it seems 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.

Besides one short delay because of low cloud cover over Jessore, all the flights were right on time. The US airlines and maybe some European ones could take a cue from Bangladesh’s private carriers for convenience, service and price. 
 

On the road in western Bangladesh

In Bangla, they call it a “van,” one of the many imported English words for which the Sanskrit-based language has no equivalent. Somewhere in the linguistic transfer, the word lost its original reference to a sturdy vehicle of transportation with a cab and enclosed cargo area, powered by an engine. It also lost a lot of RPM. The Bangladesh “van” is a tricycle with a seat for the driver and a short flat bed. It’s the low-cost and definitely low-emission utility transport found everywhere from country roads to crowded urban highways.  And you can carry almost anything on it—stacks of cattle fodder and sugar cane, sacks of rice and vegetables, a basket full of live chickens or a couple of goats, household furniture, metal pipes, firewood, bamboo scaffolding poles or your whole family. The “van” has no gears (and maybe no brakes) so it’s tough pedaling with a heavy load on the back. Fortunately, most of Bangladesh is as flat as a pancake so the main challenges are the potholes, speed bumps, and the trucks and buses that careen wildly across the road, pushing the van chalaks (drivers) onto the dirt berms.  There’s an upscale motorized version with a longer bed, where the driver perches above a motorcycle engine. These are used for transporting bricks, lumber and building materials.  You can fit two cows, a stack of tires and mattresses, or a couple of beds and tables on the motor-van.  Or a larger group of passengers. 

Any road trip in Bangladesh is a study in the social hierarchy of transportation. My first was a journey on the main north-south route in western Bangladesh, from the regional capital Khulna to Kushtia, a large city on the banks of the Pabna River, one of the last tributaries to flow into the Ganges before it meets the other great river of South Asia, the Brahmaputra, on its way to the Bay of Bengal. By road, it’s a tad under 100 miles, but the trip took us almost four hours.  And we were not on a van but in the air-conditioned comfort of an aristocrat of the road—a gleaming white UNICEF Toyota Land Cruiser.  The single-lane highway is straight most of the way, but it’s clogged with traffic—trucks, buses and auto rickshaws as well as the vans. Our driver who had done this trip many times expertly weaved in and out of the traffic, missing collisions by important inches. The right of way, such as it is, definitely belongs to the largest and heaviest vehicles. The buses, with passengers sitting on the roofs, relentlessly pushed ahead, their horns blaring and the driver’s assistant hanging out of the door, waving at slower and smaller vehicles to move aside. The brightly painted Tata and Leyland trucks joined the chorus of horns. With almost every vehicle using its horn, it’s difficult to figure out who’s getting in the way of who, but that’s the way they drive here. You have to wonder if the bus and truck drivers use a jumper wire to bypass the steering wheel so that the horn is permanently active. If you’re busy dodging and weaving and riding the bumps, you don’t want to add the tiresome task of actually having to push the horn. 

Many studies have shown that Bangladesh’s road system is totally inadequate for the traffic it carries, but shortage of funds and corruption have left many major highways, especially in rural regions, in a state of disrepair.  In monsoon season, roads and bridges are washed away, and traffic faces long detours. The Khulna-Kushtia highway takes a heavy pounding from overloaded trucks. I don’t know if there’s a law on the books about weight limits, but if there is it’s almost never enforced.  There are definitely no weigh stations on the Khulna-Kushtia road, and if there were, a few hundred taka ($1 = 80 taka) would likely ensure the right of passage. Trucks are piled high with bricks, building materials and agricultural produce, lashed down with ropes; often the tailgate is left down, so that the load hangs a foot or so off the back of the bed.  Because they are loaded so high, the center of gravity shifts upward, making the truck liable to keel over if the driver turns sharply to avoid oncoming traffic.  We saw a couple of trucks lying on their sides on the road bank and another jacked up with its cargo precariously leaning to the left. We saw no accidents but the statistics are horrible, with an average of 17 deaths a day on the country’s roads.

This highway is particularly crowded because at the city of Jessore, about midway between Khulna and Kushtia, it joins the east-west road from the border with India at Petrapol. Bangladesh imports coal, petroleum and other goods, including cars, from India, and exports textiles and agricultural goods. The coal, from the mines of Bihar and West Bengal, is off-loaded at rail junctions where laborers transfer it to railroad cars that transport it to power stations and manufacturing plants. Some goes to fire the large brick kilns that line the southern section of the highway from Jessore to Khulna. Khulna Division is still primarily an agricultural region where the rich alluvial soil deposited from the rivers provides good arable land.  With ample water supply, it’s a major rice-growing region with paddies stretching far into the distance; fruit, vegetables and peanuts are also grown. Its most important cash crop is shrimp, raised in fresh and saltwater ponds; along the road we saw blue nets stretched across the ponds and small fields of red—harvested shrimp drying in the sun.  

Every few miles, the agricultural landscape gives way to industry, with the tall chimneys of the brick kilns, cement plants and vast factories with rows and rows of workers’ bicycles parked outside. The small-scale industry consists of sawmills with stacks of logs on the roadside ready to be cut and planed by hand. The finished products—wooden beds, tables and chairs—are displayed outside.  Most of the lumber, I was told, comes from private plantations, but some is illegally logged in the Sundarbans, the delta area that has the largest continuous mangrove forest in the world (two thirds in Bangladesh, one third in India) and is home to deer, wild boar, otter, saltwater crocodiles, river dolphins and the last surviving Bengal tigers. Officially, it’s a protected area, but its vastness and lack of roads make it difficult to police.

Khulna, where we stayed overnight after a visit to the university, is an old river port and industrial city.  It used to be a center of the jute industry, but today shrimp is its major export. With a population of just over one million, it’s the third largest city in Bangladesh, but it’s a distant third; Dhaka has a population of 17.5 million and Chittagong, the major port on the Bay of Bengal, 4.5 million.  But it’s still a noisy bustling place, crowded with trucks, buses, auto rickshaws and cars, and the usual traffic congestion. I was happy that the windows at the City Inn closed tightly.      

From UNICEF’s perspective, there’s a lot to do in western Bangladesh.  Poverty rates are high, and many children suffer from poor nutrition. Overall, the country has improved its maternal and childhood mortality rates, but some districts in Khulna Division lag behind. Many children work in agriculture and small industry, so child labor is an issue. On the other hand, why would parents send their children to school when the quality of primary education is poor and the poorly-paid teachers sometimes don’t show up? The government’s failures to provide education, health and social services have created needs which are partly filled by development agencies and by the mosques which operate madrassas. As in other Muslim-majority regions, girls are often married off in their teens.  It’s a social norm that’s hard to break (although UNICEF is trying) but it’s also driven by economics; marrying your daughters early reduces dowry amounts and the number of mouths to feed.  I’ve been told there are also training camps in the region where young Muslim men are radicalized and then sent to Iraq or Syria. At the Islamic University of Kushtia, which has a large department of religious studies, I tried to tread carefully in my discussions with faculty members.  But I need not have worried—they were typical academics, contemptuous of all authority. I would have likely faced more hostility from the motorcycle gang we passed on the road near Jessore, waving red flags. The region, like its Indian neighbor West Bengal, is a stronghold of the Communist Party.  I thought they all looked rather revolutionary chic—sooooo Che Guevara—with their red bandanas embossed with the hammer and sickle.  But I was not about to stop and commend them on their sense of fashion.