Editor's note: Transcript senior staff writer Joy Hampton is traveling with a U.S. State Department-sponsored group to Bangladesh. Journalists from Bangladesh visited Oklahoma in 2013.
Bangladesh at last
Our Oklahoma delegation arrived in Bangladesh after several grueling hours on various airplanes. Unfortunately, our luggage — or at least most of it — did not arrive with us.
The hospitality of the Bangladeshi people is already shining. We were greeted by several university and media folk and assisted by two very determined gentlemen in the search for our luggage and getting through customs. Of course, with no luggage, customs was a breeze.
After lengthy sessions of paperwork, we were given cold hard cash — $3,870 taka or about $50 each — by airport officials to buy something to wear. Many of us only have the clothes on our backs as we were forced to check our biggest carry on bags when we left Chicago.
Our Bangladeshi friends greeted us with flowers and bottles of water then chauffeured us in a mini van through a bustling city where every public transit bus has scraped sides, dented fenders and broken windows. Vehicles pass on the streets in close proximity, explaining the long scrapes on the sides of the buses. Honking is continuous.
Our driver navigated quickly and confidently, threading the van through the traffic that he said was not as bad as usual because of the boycotts and blockades currently in progress.
We did not see any sign of the political unrest. People were friendly and curious and helpful. Internal strife triggered by the upcoming election on Jan. 5 has resulted in violence, but none of it has been directed toward Americans. The conservative Islamic opposition party is concerned the election won’t be fair without outside intervention to oversee the election and is protesting.
Bangladesh is a relatively new country. Once part of India and colonized by the British, English remains a common language, and they drive on the left side of the street.
The current Bangladesh government is a secular Democracy, but it is an Islamic nation — only a small percentage of its people are Hindu and a tiny percent are Buddhist. It was originally established as part of Pakistan in the separation of 1947, but India lies between and the people of the western portion of Pakistan and the eastern portion now known as Bangladesh don’t speak the same language. There are cultural differences as well.
For those and other reasons, Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971.
Dhaka, where we are staying, is the capital and home to about 19 million people. They are friendly folks, even when careening through the streets.
Buses come in many shapes and sizes, including an occasional double-decker British style. All of the larger ones look like they’ve seen highway combat.
Taxis take many forms. There is a small type with a single front wheel and two back wheels. The bodies of those are mostly green metal cages. The green color is probably meant to convey that these “baby taxis” as they were once known, are environmentally friendly as they are fueled with CNG.
Bicycles pull brightly painted rickshaws and carry from one to four people crammed in and sitting on each other’s laps. People also ride bicycles and motorcycles and it’s not uncommon to see multiple people on either mode of transport. Bicycles are also used to pull trailers that may be loaded with everything from furniture to lumber to hay bales with a family sitting on top.
It is also not uncommon for more expensive cars to have large, heavy-duty grills attached. I have seen the grills displayed for sale at special shops. In Dhaka, driving can be combat.
There are no clearly defined lanes, but traffic surges forward all at once with every manner of vehicle pushing and pressing for its space. The rickshaws and other cyclists must make way for the motorized vehicles, of course.
Rickshaw drivers are very thin and wiry and pedal with amazing speed and power, maneuvering through the dense, pulsating flow of traffic. Only a few of them wear masks over their faces despite that they are sometimes stuck in the midst of fumes from vehicles for long periods during heavy traffic.
People walk the sidewalks and edges of the roadway in all mode and manner of dress from women in beautiful saris to families in traditional Muslim garb and men in Western clothing.
Bangladesh is a panorama of clashing economies with aging multistory apartments next to shiny new buildings. Construction is going on everywhere, but some of the apartment buildings look so degraded I think they would surely be condemned in the States. In Dhaka, brightly colored laundry hanging from the balconies tells me they are occupied.
Nineteen million people have to live somewhere.
Those aging apartments are not the worst of it by far. In some places, rows of corrugated tin shacks line the street and stretch down intersecting alleys. During the day, many of these are stalls where people sell fruit, bread, clothing or other goods. At night they lower an awning or pull a tarp across. That tiny space becomes a home.
Juxtaposed against this incredible poverty, there are colorful billboards everywhere, advertising luxuries in a city where many may not get enough to eat.
We see the occasional thin dog roaming about, but those are few and far between. I saw a goat in one yard we passed, and I’m not sure if that’s a cultural difference or another sign of Dhaka’s lack of urban zoning and regulation.
Several times a day, the call for prayer rings out, but it is a secular city, and nothing slows down despite the devotions of some of its citizens.
Dhaka is teeming with life in a way that makes that phrase have new meaning for me. I can feel it, like a pulse, this vibrant urge to survive and prosper amidst such a swelling of humanity, some competing at the most basic level for the commodities life requires. And yet, these people act cheerful, even hopeful.
The poorest make me wonder what I, in my privileged life, have ever had to complain about.