Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
Foreigners here generally refer to themselves as ‘ex-pats’, regardless of their origin and despite the fact that they are actually here and not home. Some appear to endure their time abroad, at least in this country, rather than embracing the differences. Linda and I have difficulty understanding the fact that several foreigners have been working here at the International School for a matter of two or three years and have never ventured a) outside the city (?!?) and b) into places like the wet markets and the precinct known as Old Dhaka (Puran Dhaka). When we received an open invitation to join a minibus load of new teachers to Old Dhaka, we didn’t have to consult each other. We were not going to miss out.
Lonely Planet has a recent edition devoted to Bangladesh. The author promised visitors to Old Dhaka, ‘unrivalled chaos’. Luckily – or unluckily, depending on your outlook – it was a quiet day. (Friday is prayer day for the local Muslims and the first day of the 2-day weekend.) Despite this, it was still vibrant, colourful, crowded and exciting. We all opted for a ride on a gondola on the river. These are low wooden craft propelled by a gondolier with a long paddle, just like the Venetian version. The gondolieri here don’t sing, don’t wear a uniform and don’t seem to act in cahoots with each other, but that’s an unfair comparison. We were treated to some rare sights including fishers standing on bamboo floating in the river, small boys swimming out to greet us with huge smiles and the quintessential washing on the rocks on the banks.
When we were back on dry land, we walked through the linear fruit and vegetable market, replete with open toilets. (No artificial reverence for the sacred act here.) We drew an immediate crowd of onlookers when we purchased a coconut. Perhaps 50 people were interested enough in the transaction and many had their mobile phones out photographing the incident.
blonde hair in Dhaka
Walking through such places invariably draws stares from the locals, especially the men, who are by far the more numerous gender on the streets. They seem captivated by the novelty of westerners, especially if they have fair hair. These stares don’t seem to be motivated by any antagonism or aggression. Instead, they appear to have a querulous wonderment at their root: “Why would these people want to come to our little country?” Several people have – in a short time – offered cheery greetings and quite a few have asked, “What country from?”
building the nation
Bangladesh is a country on the way up – admittedly from a low base. Our school’s existence stems from local wealthy people wanting to do something for the building of their nation. 65% of our student body are local students and most are avowedly from homes where the sentiment is “we want to build our country”.
I was pleased to hear our CEO advise us of a key statistic: that the birth rate has dropped from 6.8 per family to 2.8 inside the previous 15 years. By any standard that is a remarkable achievement and one which gives this fledgling nation some hope for the future. The evidence is unmistakable: there are too many people in this small country. Dhaka is home to 14 million + and the country has about 150 million. The people seem to be genuine and warm. At no stage have either of us felt unsafe to date and we are enjoying being in this country. We will be taking every opportunity to get out and see as much as we can and also to help where we can. We don’t understand the mentality which keeps westerners cocooned in their ‘bubble’ (as many refer to it).