reflexion on Bangladesh

Nota bene: The following is correct and true to the extent of what I am able to recollect.

At 4:21 a.m. I set out for Bangladesh. It was the 14th of December 2004 and the semester was over. I had stayed up through the night, cleaning my dorm room, manically forcing what clothes remained into my suitcases, or walking up and down campus, staring at the stars and the flickering lights of Santa Fe off in the distance.

I made my way to the front of the school before the appointed pickup time. Over the absolutely dead campus lingered a reticent and corpulent moon ready to break at the seams. I was completely alone, but before I could actually think about what I was about to embark on, the airport shuttle pulled up.

Everything proceeded quickly from this point. The shuttle transported me from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Each action that followed was perfunctory. I went through vexatious security checks, followed by waiting both at the gate and on the plane itself. Then, takeoff! Upon arriving at the Baltimore airport, I had to wait six hours for my connecting flight, which would take me to London.

At Heathrow, there were more security checks — and more waiting. Nevertheless, it was an amazing place in itself; I gawked intently, trying to see it all and understand it all. Children flocked around their parents, while these were seemingly lost in their own worlds. When I found the gate for my flight to Dhaka, I sat down to wait. And as I waited, it hit me on the face: I was going to Bangladesh!

Before I realized it, the waiting area was inundated with people. Mothers played with children on their laps or cradled them in their arms, young couples showed signs of affection and so on. Amidst these scenes of daily life, transliterated into an airport setting, I had the inescapable feeling of standing out, though hardly anyone seemed to take notice.

There were inexplicable delays, but after the confusion and the plane’s arrival, we began to board. What happened during the span of the next fourteen hours is nothing more than a muddle. On several occasions, I awoke only to be stupefied by an overbearing drowsiness. When the plane began to make its descent into Dhaka; I anxiously peered out my window, hoping to find the skein of twinkling lights that typifies a city after dark. But no such luck; whatever was outside was nothing but pitch black. I was able to discern an exhausted flicker of light once in a while — perhaps I simply imagined it.

Dhaka International Airport was unmemorable, almost, had it not been for its dilapidated white walls and imbricated floors of black and white tiles that had been waxed one too many times. At customs, after looking at my passport, the customs official looked at me perplexed, and he had a right — according to my visa I was a tourist. From customs, I proceeded to the baggage claim.

Having retrieved my belongings, I made my way to a small musty parking garage. After a few minutes of confusion, I was retrieved by my ride. And off we were.

The highway was empty except for the occasional large truck loaded to the brim. Also, every so many miles, I would spot a wooden cart being pulled either by a horse or a man, but mostly by the latter. But this was not the most astonishing part: these men-drawn carts were almost always traveling in the wrong direction! I quickly learnt that road rules were mere formalities; lanes seem more placeholders—or limits on vehicle width—than indicators of direction. Once arriving at what would be my home for three weeks, I fell asleep.

The first week was, in one word, nightmarish; the twelve-hour time zone difference resulted in jetlag. Furthermore, across the street was a mosque. At four in the morning, loud speakers would belch out the first call to prayer.

My home, located in the Baridhara zone, was an oasis of calm — if one does not take into account the calls to prayer. Here are concentrated the vast majority of foreigners. It was also relatively safe — armed soldiers constantly guarded all entrances to the zone. From my balcony I could hear the sounds of a bustling and vibrant city, waiting to be explored.

From my first expedition into the madness that is Dhaka, I immediately learnt one thing: Foreigners are rare in Bangladesh. I was instantly transformed into some fascinating and exotic animal in their midst. Having grown up in the Bay Area, where diversity is commonplace, I was taken aback by their reaction. Children were especially intrigued, and en masse, often barefoot, they would tread after prattling amongst themselves.

I also saw the ubiquitous and excessive poverty that asphyxiates the majority of the people. Unfortunately, the plight of the poor is exacerbated by motor vehicles. The racing vehicles and pressing throngs clash constantly. The people suffer more than the cars. On the side of the road, I saw numerous accidents debated. Once, in my short stay, the car I was in hit someone. The people seem not to fear the cars; and the drivers don’t seem to care much about hitting the people. Wherever I went in the city, there was never a shortage of poor people missing limbs chanting “Baksheesh!” a fantastic word meaning alms, bribe and much more.

But where there is deplorable poverty, decadent wealth is to be found. Dhaka is a rapidly growing city — the cityscape is littered with rising mini-skyscrapers. Most buildings are never completed, a legal loophole that exempts them from paying certain taxes. Also the cityscape presented an interesting spectacle: Newly built edifices stand next to piles of rubble as far as the eye can see.

Many Western-style shops also dot the city, though most seemed abandoned, bereft of customers. Bored to death employees come to life, redeemed by the presence of these mythical consumers for whom these shops exist. The existence of wealth is also testified by the presence of banks, a ubiquitous phenomenon occupying almost every block on the main boulevards.

But the signs of wealth and prosperity — I saw several luxury car dealerships yet not once did I see one of these cars on the road — are overcome by the overwhelming manifestations of poverty. People literally live from hand to mouth. Yet, most of the faces I saw were always smiling! Although they seemed, at least to me, to be enslaved to what Marx calls ‘human metabolism,’ i.e., basic human necessities, they seemed free. Though they may have been hungry and penniless, their sole possessions the clothes on their backs, they appeared to be honestly happy. Such was my impression. And for all our freedoms, we Westerners seem to not be genuinely happy, enslaved by our desires to have more possessions. In satisfying the needs of ‘human metabolism’ have we lost our happiness? By this observation, I do not wish to posit poverty as being a noble condition; if anything, it is a truly human catastrophe. I simply wish to note my observation. Bangladesh was an amazing place, it made me stop and reflect on my own life.