Bangladesh has left an image in our minds of many smiling, curious faces against a background of green. The faces are of men, women and children, although fewer women, that immediately gathered in small crowds whenever we stepped outside and happened to pause for more than a few seconds. The trick for turning the faces from curious stares to wide smiles was to acknowledge the attention and say “hello, how are you?” However, without that tricky ploy one could get quite intimidated by the instantaneous celebrity status that comes with being a foreigner in Bangladesh. Certainly it also helped to cover up, and our Bangladeshi acquaintances appreciated Ruth’s stylish Salwar Kameez, bought in Nepal and custom fitted in India.

Bangladesh is the planet’s most densely populated country, if you exclude the city states, so we were keen to avoid the really big centres, in particular Dhaka, its capital. This resulted in a circuitous route from our entry in the North West of the country as we made our way East then South to Chittagong, where we had a date with a container ship. Our route took in innumerable small villages: centres of local commerce arranged along the main road with small stalls, chai stops and markets dominated by men, this being a strongly patriarchal Islamic society. We stayed in hotels in the larger towns, getting out in the evenings to take a cycle rickshaw to the best local restaurants. Here we could really flaunt our celebrity status to receive embarrassingly eager service. One waiter, after persuading us to try paan, a spicy and chewy traditional after-dinner aid-to-digestion, was very concerned to know if we were “suffering OK?” Back in the business hotels, no backpacker or tourist ghettos here, the over-eager service continued: one incident required four hotel employees of escalating status to replace a broken telephone just so the manager could call to check that we had our passports safely returned after check-in.  

The cycle rickshaws were another highlight: the dominant form of transport in a largely car free countryside. They are beautifully upholstered for the comfort of the passengers and painted lovingly with scenes from the owner’s personal view of utopia, usually involving a big house by a lake with a fast car parked outside. Others had portraits, we assumed of film stars, or brand labels perhaps piggy backing on a reliable image. All had bells, and with the absence of cars, to go out on an evening in a sea of rickshaws all jostling for position was a colourful, tuneful, social travelling pleasure we more developed folks have forgotten in our noisy, steel boxes.

Once out in the countryside the many faces are far off, working on the vast, flat plateau of green that is Bangladesh’s greatest natural resource and how it sustains its immense population. Unlike the Fens or the wheat belts of the world, this flatness is largely hidden by small scale geography of terraces and dykes arranges to catch, drain and pool flood and bore water onto different leveled fields for differing crops, depending on their thirst. Each small section of fields is split by tree lined dykes that act as dry causeways dividing land and linking villages of mud, wood, bamboo and corrugated iron. Poo and straw is again a major building material, as well as an excellent fuel and everywhere there are poo patties thrown at walls or layered around sticks to dry. The latter was a novel method to us, hereby named poo-sticks. The whole scene is never-endingly attractive in its order, colour and variety. 

After a few days of this we headed South and made our final dash to Chittagong, where we had left time to arrange shipping of our Landyvan to Fremantle. Chittagong is Bangladesh’s second largest city and its major port. Its low cost base has made it popular for storing containers close to the region’s largest hub in Singapore. It has also grown its own industry of ship wrecking, a controversial, labour intensive task of breaking immense floating vessels that have passed their use-by date back into their constituent parts. The evidence for this is all along the port road leading into town. Mile after mile of market stalls and yards displaying every imaginable component of a ship: brass portholes and cleats; life rafts, belts and rings; water tight doors and hatchways; immense anchor winches, propellers and the anchors themselves; and of course the gigantic marine diesel engines lifted whole out of the ships they had spent their lives pushing to be dropped here at the side of the road in Bangladesh.

Much of this equipment is refurbished and finds its way back into ships for a new life, however much of the steel plate, rod and tubing as well as kitchen equipment and cabin furnishings finds its way into the local economy, either as found or refashioned using entire tool shops also requisitioned from these broken-but-not-yet-dead vessels.

Once in Chittagong we launched ourselves into the world of international shipping. Although we had an initial contact we were eager to understand something of the opaque pricing system before we committed to an agent, shipping line and customs broker. Once round the houses for the first time we soon discovered that everyone knows everyone else, that there is some level of pricing flexibility and that business in Bangladesh is a warm, personal, often family matter. We found ourselves treated to dinner by our shipping agent, a family business run by three brothers, as well as watching the daughter of one of the brothers perform in a business-case competition run for local schools and the university. Every effort was made to ensure that as novices to the process and visitors to the country we would make it through unscathed. The arrangements still took a week, however we were enjoying our food and appreciating the colours and the hospitality of new friends so we hardly noticed the time pass before we had sealed the Landyvan in his container and boarded the slow train for Dhaka. A sad parting, however Mr Landyvan was on his way to Fremantle, where we would be reunited in 6 weeks.

Other than an occasional flight, this was our first foray into travel without the landyvan and the novelty was exciting. We had packed light, partially in expectation of our next 6 weeks in the tropics and partially as a reaction to the sense of liability that Mr Landyvan represented. Our first journey was short, a train journey from Chittagong to Dhaka airport, however even this was full of novelty. We chose to go first class, more for the lack of a queue to buy tickets than for any additional amenities enjoyed – apparently the most significant difference is allocated seating. Once on board our special treatment continued: The train guard (with a gun rather than ticket machine) discretely left his mobile number with our neighbouring passenger in case we should require special protection, while our other fellow passengers were at pains to ensure we were happy and that we did not leave any luggage close to open windows where it could be snatched at crowded stations. In the event all this was unnecessary and we enjoyed our, slightly longer than expected, journey through a slice of Bangladesh not visible from the road. Perhaps life without the Mr Landyvan wouldn’t be so bad after all. 


Last Updated (Saturday, 19 June 2010 01:24)