Bangladesh does not spring to mind when the topic of tourist destinations arises. On arrival to Dhaka with its 14 million population, it is easy to see why, as the crowded streets with chaotic traffic would perhaps make many travellers wish they were on the next aeroplane home. However, as with so many places in the world, first impressions can be far from the truth. Dig deeply and there will be marvels to be found. Admittedly in Dhaka you do have to dig down a long way to find these hidden treasures, but they are there.
My first impression of Bangladesh was from the aeroplane as it flew over the Ganges Delta. The sun was setting and the slivers of sunlight dancing on the mighty Ganges were a sight to behold. However, I was 10,000 metres up in the sky and certainly far from the madding crowd.
This trip to Bangladesh was to be an eye-opener for me. My wife and I were booked into the BRAC Hotel. Until this visit I had not heard of the BRAC organisation. It is arguably the world’s largest and most successful NGO and unlike Grameen Bank, BRAC is not well known outside Bangladesh. Initially BRAC was the acronym for Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee, then it changed to Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee and today as it has offices in Africa, BRAC is the acronym for Building Resources Across Communities. I will not go into lengthy details on the wonderful work that BRAC does as it is explained in Ian Smillie’s book, ‘Freedom from Want’. This book should be a “must read” for all politicians as BRAC’s founder Fazle Hasan Abed has addressed and resolved many problems that plague developing countries. He has done so much for so many and certainly, in my mind, should have been a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I had no idea what I was going to discover on my first day as I wondered out onto Kemal Ataturk Avenue towards Lake Banani in the suburb of Gulshan, the Diplomatic and supposedly the wealthiest area in Dhaka. I was surprised that the early morning traffic was only moderately heavy. After the disorganized fiasco that I had encountered the previous day on my journey from the airport it was a pleasant surprise.
Lake Banani was really a revelation. There were small wooden boats going back and forth from the small corrugated iron and wooden shacks on the far shore to the avenue, ferrying school children, adults heading further afield to their work places and salwar kameez and sari-clad women brightening up the landscape with their colourful attire.
A wooden boat pulls into the shore a few metres from the avenue and 12 people clamber to fill the boat, six on each side sitting on the gunwales as the boatman poles the boat from a raised stern, 500 metres to the other side of the lake. During busy periods there can be up to six boats going to and fro at one time. Other times people patiently wait until their boat fills before pushing off to the other side or if there are very few customers the boatman will head off with only a few passengers. The fare is only one Taka one-way, so with a full load the boatman grosses US$0.18 per trip. Certainly a hard way to make a buck.
I sat above the lakeshore and concentrated on the people and surrounds only to be disturbed by some young schoolboys who asked where I was from. I suppose to them, a foreigner that could be interested in their normal day-to-day activities was unusual. How often would a foreigner with an array of camera equipment sit and watch them with such interest for an hour or so? Their English was good and they appeared to be quite knowledgeable about my country, New Zealand, possibly because of cricket. One thing that I have discovered along my travels is that there are two things that unite the world – sport and music. Before I depart to a new country I always check what their national sports are and the current situation of those sports. It’s amazing how locals will befriend someone who knows something about the country they are visiting. So the next hour or so my photography was put on hold as I chatted to the school children whose group gradually got bigger as more inquisitive children amassed around me.
Two attractive women in bright orange saris appeared carrying huge plastic bags on their heads, warily made their way down from the road to the lakeshore. My local friends informed me that they had collected paper for recycling, however I could not ascertain whether they just sold their collections or used the paper for their own use. The bags were at least twice the size of the ladies and the way they walked in their long saris with such poise and grace amazed me.
School was out and the children who lived on the other side of the lake thronged to the shore where the ferryboats were waiting. Obviously some were eager to get home as they immediately scrambled onto the boats. Others just stood around chatting to friends. One thing that amazed me was how white the white was on their uniforms, no running water in their houses, clambering on and off boats, walking through wet mud-soaked ground to get up onto the road, yet the white was “detergent-advertisements white”. The young girls appeared more animate than the boys who were happy to just sit and wait. The girls were jesting with each other, playing tag and generally seemed very happy. Their joviality perplexed me, they lived in what appeared to be sub-standard housing, no running water or electricity and the daily grind of an uncomfortable boat ride and long walk in high temperatures to school and back yet they all appeared to be contented.
However, we from the so-called developed world complain about what these people consider trivial matters. Perhaps we all should learn from these charming people of Dhaka.