Part 1 Bangladesh Travels

Day One-  Travelling and Arrival in Bangladesh.

bangladeshflag After a sleepless night, I rose early at 5.00 a.m. to make my final preparations for my visit to Bangladesh. My car arrived at 7.00 a.m. and we made a two hour journey to Heathrow, I was to meet the group at 10.00 a.m. at Terminal 3. Only one problem, I had only met the group once for forty five minutes in July!

After standing around for a moment, I saw that a group of people were congregating and greeting each other, after plucking up the courage, I went across and introduced myself. I was slightly worried about the check in, I was convinced that my baggage was overweight; I was later to find that it was, we would be changing at Dubai, the airport has strict conditions on the size and weight of baggage that people can handle. After checking in we then headed through the usually security checks, to my surprise I didn’t set off one alarm. I also had a random shoe check. I spent time in departures with an art teacher called Kathy; it was nice to speak to someone who was as scared and excited as me.

We departed Heathrow at 14.00 p.m. on a United Emirates flight to Dubai, we were seated as a group which was great, I was sat next to Kenny and Paul, the Head and Deputy from a school in Tower Hamlets, whose school has a significant Bangladeshi population. The flight was uneventful, we were well fed and watered and I managed to fit in the last Die Hard film. No sleep though.

We arrived in Dubai six and a half hours later, it was late at night and the city was lit up, a mild 300C at 12.00 p.m. Perhaps the coat and black jumper I had chosen to wear was not the best idea! As the plane taxied we viewed the Dubai tourism video, a great little geographical video, but as Kenny, also a Geographer suggested, ‘Where were the poor people’? It reminded me very much of the work of Noel Jenkins, there is also a webcam if you’re interested in viewing the city. We can a very quick turn around in Dubai, after passing through the security checks, we were in duty-free heaven, here some purchased a tipple for the week ahead, Bangladesh is a Muslim state, alcohol is not sold and only served in Hotels, at highly expensive prices. We also learn in Dubai that England have lost the Rugby World Cup!

As I was in the duty-free shop, the final boarding signal came up on the display board and I rushed to the gate, ironically we then spent a great deal of time in the holding area, as the plane was prepared and people were seated, we were to understand the reason why as we finally boarded the plane…

Dubai is very much reliant on migrant workers, especially for the rapid urbanisation that is taking place. Hand luggage took on a new meaning, as mostly, young males carried home consumer and household goods brought with their wages. By the time we boarded the plane there was little space for our own possessions. The cabin crew were having little fun trying to convince people that huge bundles could not be safely slotted into the overhead hangers, or repeatedly telling passengers to sit down and fasten their seat beats. I was starting to lose a little confident when the plane was ready for take off and one of the stewards had announced that they hadn’t locked the door! United Emirates lived up to its reputation and the flight was uneventful. It was interesting though to be woken from a small snooze at day break to three Muslims scholars, knelt backwards in their chairs, praying towards Mecca. During the flight a French member of the cabin crew enjoys telling us again that we lost the rugby!

bangladeshmap We finally arrived in Bangladesh, a journey of over five thousand miles, at around 9.00 in the morning; we had made up significant time. It was clear as we land that Dhaka International Airport was not like other international airports I had visited before, the runways were devoid of aircraft and the terminal and grounds looked a little unkempt. After a scrum to get off the plane, we walked through to immigration, on the plane we had to complete two forms, Bangladesh is not easy to visit, you have to apply for a visa and need a sponsor in the country. There was then a scrum for baggage, after seeing what came off the conveyors I was surprised that the plane had took off! It was liberating as the luggage came out just to join everyone jumping and walking over the conveyor to find each others luggage.

500 Taka note We then travelled through to customs, the queue was massive, but as we soon learnt, being a foreigner in Bangladesh has a distinct advantage, we bypassed any customs without any of our baggage being checked, much to our embarrassment, as the nationals waited in line. This was in fact lucky for me, there is conflicting advice on whether you can bring currency into the country, some sources say only a 1000 taka, around £7, others, such as the Post Office, state that it’s no problem. £7 may not seem much, but this is a country where the average GDP (Gross National Product) is around £1,500. I never do find out if I have committed an offence, but we later do discover that Bangladesh has a problem with counterfeit money being struggled into the country.

It is always an interesting moment as you leave an airport and take your first deep breathe of a new country, as we walked out the heat and the buzz of Dhaka, the capital city, came right into my face. The entrance to the arrivals area was gated, the faces of the Bangladeshi families waiting for there loved ones were pressed against the railings.

We were to be picked up by a bus from the Sheraton Hotel, our home for the next week; we were warned that we may get crowded as we left, but the railings prevented this. Interest in us was a continuous theme throughout the visit, it has been said that Bangladesh is the one last place where any everyone can feel like a superstar, there was nothing sinister about the attention, people were just interested and foreigners are a rarity. If you are white and tall you are perceived as being beautiful, often people would come and greet you, shake your hand and ask for a photo. Paul who was slim, tall and had dark hair was particularly popular, he was later nicked named by the group as James Bond; I tended to get less attention, because I’m shorter and tubbier! I was later nicked Gary Barlow.

View from the hotel The journey to the hotel was a bit of an eye-opening, this was my first LEDC (Less Economically Developed Country), the unplanned development, the clear inequality, beggars often came to the window in the short journey, and the interesting interpretation of road safety, which I’ll come to later… The military also has a strong presence; civil rule was suspended in the country in 2006, because of corruption and growing violence between supporters of the two main political parties, Bangladesh has since been running a caretaker system, with a figure head, not a dictatorship. The Bangladesh constitution has a clause that allows an interim government before elections, a way of making sure that elections aren’t rigged by the ruling party. Some though are concerned that elections have not been called since, the interim government states this is due to the volatile political situation. Elections are now due to take place at the end of 2008. As a western you can be quick to condemn the lack of democratic rule, but many of the Bangladeshi people we later spoke to were happy with the calm that the ruling body had brought about, and the work they had done in tackling corruption. Later Peter, who was our interpreter, told us that Bangladeshi people have had little experience of democracy and like strong leadership; you have to remember that Bangladesh is a young country, independent only after a civil war with Pakistan in 1971.

After a short journey we arrived at the ‘five-stars’ Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, greeted by metal detector and friendly solider, terrorism against Western targets is a continual possibility, there has been growing concern over the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. We checked in and were shown to our rooms, luggage is brought up and I make the mistake of a forgetting to tip the luggage man, I have no change, so run out of the room and give him 500 taka, around £3.60, a huge sum, we later laugh at how happy he must have been to take up our luggage, many of the group gave equal or larger amounts. His may seem a little mean, but the average wage in Bangladesh is around 2000 taka a month, about £14.

Sheraton Dome We had time to unpack and a short sleep, before we had to meet in a conference room to be briefed by the British Council, Razza, the Health and Safety Officer, will escort us on longer journeys in a separate car, in case of emergencies or illness. We aren’t allowed to travel outside on our own and need to provide details of where we are going, if we wonder out in a group. Razza also warns us that you ‘live by the traffic in Dhaka’. Anyone seeing a theme here? After the brief introduction Miron, a young British Council representative, provides us with an overview of the somewhat complex educational system in Bangladesh. After this we need to prepare for a meal with Delwar, our sponsor and chairman of our host rural school, Velayet Hossain. Most of us congregate in Paul’s room for a pre-dinner drink; I also get the chance to see part of the Rugby World Cup final.

We meet for a beauty buffet and exchange conservation with each other and Delwar. Delwar has an interesting philosophy with regards to education, his school, which is held as example of good practice, is vocationally orientated, it aims to provide youngster with the skills of self-respect and self reliant. At 81, he is a fascinating and inspiring character, I look forward to our visit tomorrow. After exchanging gifts with Delwar, we retire; I’m full, but tired. I’m also happy that I’ve spent a day in Bangladesh without any illness…

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