Memories of Bangladesh

On April 24th a building housing shops, a bank, and garment factories collapsed in Savar outside of Dhaka.  As of the first week of May, the death toll has risen to 650.  This first week of May has also seen a resurgence in political and religious unrest as reports indicate that 20 people were killed as part of protests.  My heart aches for this place that sits so close to my heart.  I’m still trying to find the words to express what I think and feel about the tragedy and developing situations.  In the meantime, I’ve been reading through my old journals and archives, re-reading and remembering moments of my life in Dhaka.  Below are some snippets. I hope they add to the picture, add to the face of a nation that’s struggling. The more I learned about Bangladesh, the more interested I become.  This is a young country, partitioned from England in 1947 and independent from Pakistan in 1971.  The events of the 1970s (war, natural disasters, famine) seriously depleted the population.  Corruption and poverty are crippling the nation, but there is a pride and a backbone to Bangladesh that shines through.   I lived in Dhaka, one of the loudest, most crowded, most polluted cities in the world.  People are flocking to the capitol looking for work and an income to send home to their families.  Around every corner, there seems to be a new story.  The rest of Bangladesh is sprawling flood plains, beautiful rice fields, and little corners where time seems to have stood still.  From Dhaka, it only takes a few hours and you can find yourself exploring Buddhist Vihara from the seventh century, indulging in a cup of tea at a tea plantation, or walking along the world’s longest continuous beach.

Everywhere I look in Dhaka, street vendors are selling their wares.  In the morning I pass the first:  The cucumber man.  He is in his thirties I guess and sets his rickety table up by the bus stop.  In the afternoon the line for the bus will wind down the block and I imagine he will do a brisk business with those waiting.  His table is full of cucumbers.  Half peeled, half not.  I’ve been tempted by the vendor, but I’ve seen the flies landing on the peeled vegetables and turned away, I’m terrified of the so called ‘Dhaka Belly’ and will do anything to avoid its curse.  At first I thought the veggies were just sold as they were:  plain crisp cucumbers that the customer could just bite into.  But as I paid more attention, I noticed the process.  A customer comes over and makes their request.  The vendor then starts shaving an already peeled vegetable, placing the thin pieces into a small bowl.  Next he adds spicy mustard which he keeps in a water bottle.  The two are mixed together and then scooped into a cone made of newspaper and handed to the customer.

In the afternoon the Cucumber Vendor is joined by a man selling roasted nuts.  The new vendor sets up his small table across the street, near a small kiosk selling cigarettes (by the pack or individually) and phone cards.  The small table is covered with six bowls; five hold various types of nuts the sixth popcorn.  In the evening another addition appears on the cart: a small butane flame used to freshly roast nuts or pop more popcorn.  The smell reminds me of Christmas in the states ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’