Category Archives: bangladesh

The Rules of the Road

The Buriganga River runs through the capital. I went down to the docks of the teeming river port in Old Dhaka where dozens of river steamers and a few big paddle wheelers were moored, ready to take people all over the country. Remember the country is pretty much a giant river delta (the size of Iowa) and the roads are slow, so the rivers become an indispensible transportation network.

I took a boat trip, but only a short one, and on a small boat. I sat on the floor of a wooden taxi boat, just a few inches above water level. The taxi boat was propelled by a single large oar, wielded by a standing boatman. I was the only passenger. We dodged the big river steamers and the hundreds of competing taxi boats that were transporting people and goods across the broad river. My driver spoke virtually no English and I never did understand his name, but I will call him Bangla (which means Bengali.) Somehow we communicated enough that he knew to take me to far side of the river as my guidebook had suggested.

When we got to the far side he said something like, “Go shore,” which I interpreted to mean we would pull up on the far bank and take a walk. We came ashore next to a schoolyard where I instantly became the center of attention for five classes of elementary schoolgirls. They ran up to try out the three English phrases they had learned: How are you? What is your name? And, what name your country? (America turned out to be a popular answer.)

From the school, Bangla led me through a warren of alleyways, no more than two to three people wide. I thought he was just showing me around, but after 10 minutes of zigzagging through the area, he ducked under a three foot high doorway; I bent over to follow into a small courtyard with 10 single rooms opening onto it. Each room housed a family and all the families were a related extended family unit. We sat in Bangla’s 10×10 one-room home. His wife brought tea and cookies. His three young toddlers showed up on foot or in the arms of the grandma. The doorway and single window were soon crowded with extended relatives peering in at the unexpected stranger who had appeared with the boatman.

Throughout my third world travels this sort of home invitation has happened before and I still never know exactly why I have been led into someone’s home. In this instance, I didn’t know whether this visit was a ploy to get me to leave money for the extended family. If not, offering money for genuine hospitality would be a major insult. Or maybe it was just a thrill for Bangla to show me his home and to show his relatives his foreign customer. Anyway, once he took me back across the river to my starting point, I paid him our agreed upon fee, 100 Bangladeshi taka ($1.25) and then gave him a tip of 100 more, “for your good service and for your family.” I doubt he understood what I was saying, but he gratefully accepted the money.

On Wednesday I went to Kasherpar village with a business colleague, Muzammel. He had invited me to spend the night at his farm in the countryside so that I could observe renewable energy applications in rural areas. Kasherpar is 100 miles SE of Dhaka, near the eastern border with India. Bangladesh also has a northern and a western border with this all-encompassing neighbor.

To reach Muzammel’s village required five frightening hours to travel 100 miles on Bangladesh’s highways. In fact, this journey ranks among my top ten scariest highway drives of all time. It took two hour just to get out of traffic choked Dhaka where red lights seem to be a suggestion, not a command. Once on the highway I learned the rules of the road: Pedestrians (yes there are pedestrians on the highway) must give way to rickshaws. Surprisingly there are rickshaws too, and a pedal powered rickshaw moving at 8 mph is quite an impediment to a car flying up behind at 60 mph. This is not a safe highway situation. So the rickshaws in turn yield to cars which are supplicant to trucks. But the large cross country buses lord it over all of us.

Now let’s put this into practice on the two lane highway. Our driver begins his passing maneuver, overtaking a slower moving car, but here comes a rickshaw head on – – it will swerve to the shoulder. We are bigger. Now back in our driving lane we spot a large bus passing a truck, thus both lanes are filled with multi-ton vehicles bearing down on us, head on. Theoretically we have the right of way – – we are in the correct driving lane. But the bus, is still coming straight at us, its driver makes no effort to return to his proper lane. So we do what the rickshaw did earlier, we slam on our brakes and veer to the shoulder. Catastrophe avoided. But my heart rate has increased and it never subsided. We repeated this drill every other mile on the way to our destination (or about 50 times over 100 miles.) The last hour of our drive was in the dark and I discovered that the majority of vehicles at night drive with their lights on.

The final half mile was pleasant though. That’s when we turned off the highway to Muzammel’s village. Down a twisting, tree lined road, past a few small shops, homes, rice paddies, and a country mosque, lay Muzammel’s farm – – a most idyllic sanctuary. He uses this as a retreat from hectic city life (and I would guess a retreat from frightening highway traffic as well.) By the way, the return trip was equally harrowing and ranks among my 11 scariest rides ever.

The 70 year old farm house has been in his family for 70 years. He has created a sustainable farm that runs on renewable energy – – a real benefit in a poor country that can’t afford to import enough oil and natural gas to supply uninterrupted electricity. The farm has solar panels for home lighting. It also has a biodigester which turns cow manure into methane gas to fuel the kitchen stove. As well, the biodigester processes the manure into high quality fertilizer for his fruit trees and vegetable gardens. He can even feed it to the tilapia in his fish pond. Muzammel keeps cows for milk, and goats, pigeons, ducks, and chickens for meat. Every meal we ate there came from fresh, organic farm produce. My delicious and healthy breakfast consisted of fresh grated coconut meat with homemade date syrup poured over, then eaten with a type of Bangladeshi pancake. Oh so good.

Three random observations:

  • I learned that village girls might get married (arranged marriage) between ages 13- 15. The national law that sets 16 as the minimum age is not always observed in the countryside. Usually, the husband is around 25. Sometimes he is getting ready to go work in the Middle East, perhaps as a construction worker. He wants to get married (and receive travel money from the bride’s family) before he leaves. So maybe the teenage newlywed female gets pregnant shortly before her husband departs. Now she is home alone at age 13 with a young baby. The husband will return home after 2 or 3 years, maybe only to visit before signing on to a second tour abroad. In my view, this is not an ideal arrangement for a teenage girl.
  • Trains are slow and crowded in Bangladesh…with poor people riding on the roof, just like in the movies.
  • Working class Bangladeshis, even those who speak little English, show great deference to foreigners. They would call me, “brother” or “boss.” I am neither, but I appreciate the totally unwarranted respect I receive from absolute strangers.

The Rickshaw Risk

The food here is pretty good. Sort of like the Indian food we find in restaurants in the States. Just not as diverse; but one can still find chicken biryani or jalfreezi, curried fish, spicy vegetables, and breads: paratha, roti, naan.

But rice is the main staple. Put chicken or fish right on top of a mound of rice, add some sauce, then with your right hand only (no utensils), roll up a large marble-sized ball of the combo and pop it straight into your mouth. The Bangladeshis are so dexterous at this. I, on the other hand, can create the round bite, but I can’t effectively move it to my mouth. It usually seems I have created an exploding ball. White rice, soaked in sauce with bits of chicken, flies all over the place…including onto my shirt. The only time I don’t end up with chicken on my shirt is when I order fish.

Rickshaws in the dark are tough to see. No running lights and no reflectors makes them nearly invisible at night. And since the soft sound of pedaling is drowned out by traffic noise, they are essentially silent; so in the evening when I step off the curb into the path of a fast pedaling wallah, I have not seen him coming, I have not heard him coming. At the last minute he will ring his little bell, giving me a fraction of a second to recover to the sidewalk. And in turn, the rickshaws are equally threatened by cars: the drivers can’t see unilluminated rickshaws. And many streets do not have functioning streetlights…not enough electricity to go around. I have vowed never to ride in a rickshaw at night. Just too risky.

I did take my first rickshaw ride last week in the daytime though. Actually felt kind of guilty at first. Here I am, an able bodied man and I hop in behind a skinny little rickshaw wallah and have him pedal me around town. I would have preferred to pedal myself, but that just isn’t the way things are done around here. I did note that hundreds of thousands of local people were filling the hundreds of thousands of rickshaws and this is a very practical way to get around. Non polluting. Takes up less space than a car. Cheaper than a taxi: 14 cents vs. $1. Ultimately, I enjoyed the ride. Fast enough to get around, slow enough to see things, and a fresh breeze on my face. Maybe not a fresh breeze, but at least city air blowing across my face. Only the bus to my right and the lorry to my left made me feel slightly vulnerable. But never at night.

The national sport is cricket. So is the national passion. When I walk past a dirt lot or a pocket park I spot multiple pick up cricket matches underway. In a country that has a paucity of land and a plentitude of people, there are usually more matches in play that common sense and space would allow. Hard rubber balls are flying everywhere. Just like my rice at lunch. Even though I lived in London for three years, I don’t know much about cricket, never really followed it. I do know that it is about as deliberate as baseball. Someone once timed the true action in a baseball game. While it normally takes 3 – 3.5 hours to complete nine innings, the actual elapsed time when the ball is live and in play is a whopping nine minutes. And I’m not making this up. I read it somewhere so it must be true.

I went to a business conference in Dhaka where I discovered that Bangladeshis love their cell phones…and they just can’t seem to turn them off. While the Canadian Ambassador and the Bangladesh Director of Infrastructure and other luminaries were speaking, phones were ringing in the audience. And ruder yet, audience members were answering…and talking. Fortunately for me, one row behind, a guy talking loudly on his cell was engaged in a conversation far more interesting than the Ambassador’s presentation that he was drowning out.

At this conference I also learned that Bangladesh has a vibrant business media. Swarms of reporters and cameramen attended and they packed the space between the speaker and the audience. Half the media trained their cameras on the speaker, the other half aimed their cameras and bright lights at the audience. So many cameramen and such bright lights that I couldn’t see the speaker. But didn’t matter, I couldn’t hear him over the cell phone chatter anyway.

The Crush of Humanity

I am in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where I will spend two weeks evaluating the viability of a new renewable energy venture for a client. Bangladesh is nearly halfway around the globe from Boston so it took a long time to get here, 29 hours door to door. Really confuses the ol’ body clock, but nothing like a good night sleep to get one back on track.

Bangladesh has a lot of people, 156 million, making it the seventh most populous nation on Earth. But it is relatively small, about the size of Iowa. Imagine taking every other person in America and jamming them into Iowa. If you did you would understand why Bangladesh is the globe’s most densely populated country. (I have excluded tiny island nations like Singapore or other odd jobs like Monaco or the Vatican.) But as far as “normal” countries go, it’s the most crowded. And when you factor in the water – – this country is basically a giant river delta where three massive rivers (Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna) and countless smaller ones merge – – you don’t have a lot of land left to crowd onto. There is barely room to move on the sidewalks.

Nor is there much room for the vehicles. Traffic is dense and ill mannered. Drivers weave in and out, just get a nose in front and you can cut off the guy next to you. Horns are always beeping, at night high beams flash an additional admonition to fellow drivers. Vehicles of all types constantly vie for position. Dilapidated buses, fume spewing trucks, beat up cars, overcrowded taxis, and golf-cart-like tuk tuks. But in addition there are several hundred thousand (yes, several hundred thousand) pedal powered rickshaws. These three wheelers are driven by a rickshaw wallah. At crowded intersections, hundreds of them cause traffic jams in their own right, even without the help of the other vehicles mentioned above. And a most colorful traffic jam at that. Every inch of available rickshaw surface – – sides, back, cover, seat – – has been decorated by the wallah with the gaudiest art imaginable. Because Islam has some kind of restriction on depicting living objects, most designs are bright geometric and curlicue shapes.

Traffic jams are a good opportunity for street vendors to peddle their wares. When everything moving grinds to a halt, the peddlers flood into the street, weaving between the jammed vehicles, thrusting their wares up to car windows in hopes that a passenger, in a moment of weakness, will purchase a bag of popcorn, sack of peanuts, bunch of flowers, bath towel , dried noodles, books, and more. One book vendor stood next to the passenger window of my immobile car and displayed his entire library of 30 books, one by one, even though I had waved him away before he had even started. Perhaps he thought I would eventually cave in and purchase. And like many in the third world who admire our new U.S. President, he saved the best for last, The Audacity of Hope. Even though I voted for the guy, I still didn’t buy his book…to the chagrin of the relentless vendor. Still he wouldn’t go away. Only the movement of traffic eventually freed me from the unwanted book presentation through my closed window.

The language is Bengali. 200 million speakers make Bengali the seventh most common native tongue on Earth. (The rankings for you linguaphiles: 1. Mandarin, 2. Hindi, 3. Spanish, 4. English, 5.Arabic, 6.Portuguese, 7.Bengali.) But very few of them speak English, despite Bangladesh being a former British Colony. And Bengali uses the Sanskrit alphabet which looks more like artwork than letters to me. At least I paid attention in yoga class when the instructor announced positions using the Sanskrit term. As a result, about the only thing I know how to say is down dog. The business people I come in contact with are well schooled in English, but I can’t communicate much with the man in the street.

And it is mostly men in the street in this predominantly Muslim country (85% Muslim, 10% Hindu, 5% all other.) Even though Bangladesh follows a relatively secular strain of Islam, women tend to stay home. Those who do come out are dressed in a most colorful, but conservative, sari and cover their hair, but not their face with a shear scarf. Very, very few are veiled.

This is a poor country. Bangladesh ranks 196 in GDP/capita out of the 229 countries tracked by the CIA. (And no, I’m not in the CIA. I just looked up their easily accessible database. You can too.) Because of the poverty, there are beggars and very persistent ones at that; like the lady who stood beside my immobile vehicle (did I mention the traffic jams?) tapping non-stop and irritatingly on my window. That’s when I realized the book vendor wasn’t so bad after all.