Development intern working with the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This is the first of two instalments that share his experiences.
“Each time I go to a place I have not seen before, I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know.”
– Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, 1963
If you, like Paul Bowles, want to go somewhere that is as different as possible from the places you already know, find a globe, locate the Indian Ocean, drag your finger northward to the northernmost point of the Bay of Bengal and the Mouths of the Ganges, and check out Bangladesh. This primarily Muslim, South Asian nation has a population of roughly 160 million people packed onto the alluvial plain of the Ganges Delta and rivers draining the Himalayas. Except for a small border with Myanmar, the country is surrounded by India.
I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, in January 2013 as part of UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) Students for Development internship program and was met at the airport by a representative of my placement organization, the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants (WARBE). It was a cool morning when I left Victoria, and to my surprise, it was no warmer in Dhaka when I arrived by plane some 60 hours later.
Dhaka was unkempt, dusty and definitely different. It was, as I had expected, nothing like I expected, and after two months of living here, I still know little of Dhaka. It is a complete stranger, exceedingly difficult to understand and never the same. Twelve–15 million people are believed to live here, though it’s difficult to get an exact census. When I complete my internship in June, I hope I will have something definitive to say of Dhaka, despite its nebulous nature.
A few sensory vignettes may help to sum up Bangladesh. It smells of mango flowers, cardamom and kerosene. Its landscape — flat except for a few green hills on its periphery — resembles a piece of warm naan bread. The land is intensively cultivated, growing crops from rice and wheat to potatoes, carrots, sugar cane and okra — the varied colours of the crops give the land the quilt-like appearance of the Canadian prairie in summer.
Bangladesh tastes of curried mutton, chili pepper, dates and cha tea sweetened with condensed milk and sugar. Bangladesh is skin sticky with sweat and gritty cracks and calluses on the soles of your feet from days spent hiking back alleys in sandals.
Finally, Bangladesh is the sound of motor vehicle horns. They come in many versions — all of them eventually irritating — and are the most pervasive and inescapable sounds in the entire country, except for in the most remote locations. If you manage to escape the horns, then Bangladesh is the sound and feel of the rocking-chair motion of a pedal-driven rickshaw, the creaking of the greasy axle and the clack-clack of the bamboo ribs of the folded rain cover evoking an odd sense of peace and tranquility.
It is also a country of hospitable people, eager to assist and honour-bound to see to it that you are fed and sheltered — the makings of a vagabond’s paradise. The tired looks, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and casual rudeness of immigration officials, coupled with the omnipresent press of curious humanity (“What is your religion? What is your country? Are you married? What is your mobile number?”) can be a backpacker’s nightmare, regeneration, or both. Your enhanced visibility, in my case due to my height, long hair and Caucasian features, leaves you feeling exposed. You are forced to rediscover modesty and humility and adopt an air of affability and nonchalance in the face of constant human interaction.
The sum of these differences may be disconcerting, but the diversity is the spice of life in a country with no shortage of spices.
Public political life marks a conspicuous point of difference between Bangladesh and Canada. With the exception of Québécois and First Nations Peoples, our recent protest movements seem orderly, reserved and almost complacent. Massive crowds and no room to move, let alone breathe, are the hallmarks of a Bangladeshi demonstration. So, too, are the stink, noise and intensity of too many people in too small a space. Paul Theroux said, “nothing is more revealing of a place to a stranger than trouble” — political controversy and protest offer the traveller valuable insight into the national psyche. And there has been no shortage of trouble in Bangladesh since my arrival.
Next week, in his second and final instalment, Bennett will write about political unrest and peace in Bangladesh.