Bangladesh in 5 days
Bangladesh is the birth country of both of my parents. They love their country and I grew up with stories of how families are organised by structure, unconditional love, the smell of the rain, the social gathering that occurs in the evening peace after prayer, call of the birds and the daily struggles people face.
It is also where I travelled recently with my husband to meet our families, since my first and only trip as a little girl.
Experiencing Sylhet, a metropolitan city situated in the Northeast region through the eyes of a grown up, and equally very wide eyed at the same time made me feel like I knew nothing. Like a child again. So much has changed.
We passed through two airports to reach our final destination.
Hazrat Shahjalal International airport is the capital airport of Dhaka and of most visual significance. Inside the terminal passengers are dominated by huge multiple white umbrella columns that dwarf the activities below on the tiled floor. They stand magnificently tall, reminiscent of the signature water lilies, an homage to the natural and lush environment that you will see all around you in Bangladesh.
Sylhet airport was a moment of sudden change starting from when we queued up to casually pass through immigration. There is a suspicion in the air now regarding foreigners whom come to the country and if they hold conflicting agendas, mostly associated with political movements and party leader following. After questions and eye balling they realised we were not on a covert mission nor interested in political association by any means and finally the police let us through.
Note: the police force are immaculately dressed in uniform, wearing navy and silver. Their belt buckles are like shiny chrome trophies and they hold the silence.
The temperature hit is immediate, we stepped out into the daylight burn of around 36 degrees and it almost collapses your throat. Its dense and no shade will satisfy you for long.
We were greeted most sweetly by brothers and sisters and the next generation with beautiful long stemmed flowers gifts and huge smiles, there is a lot of happiness and positivity to see and share, we believe smiling is free and a charity that is most gladly shared and received. It was the best welcome.
Unsurprisingly society is founded and upheld by family life and history. There are also many examples of extreme differences in society on the two sides of the taka.
I soon saw the bridge between poverty and a steady upper middle class that have equal ownership of Shylet.
Family homes ‘basha’s’ are typically stunning modern homes/apartments in gated plots. Away from the hustle of the outside. An example interior consists of gorgeous hand crafted heavy furniture that adorn very spacious rooms and floors are tiled with lavish stone. Most family homes like this also have maids, drivers and a proven eco system of aid that helps to operate large families smoothly and facilitate modern living. The difference compared to the west, mainly UK is fascinating, the homes are easily far greater in real estate coverage and the quality of life is rather wonderful when you follow the family eco system. Everything is at hand should you wish it.
Then If you cross the bridge you will see how much help everyday people desperately need, poverty is more than normal to see when you leave the basha and the trappings of this cycle that go with it. The lack of education, basic human rights, living situation is a very harsh reality for generations of families that work harder than anyone else to get by for very very little. There is no welfare, no benefits, no systematic aid process to help the millions of poor living day by day in Bangladesh. However there is human spirit and empathy everywhere, begging is most common because everyday folk, workers, casual passer by’s and folk riding rickshaws and CNG’s will do their best to spare taka for some one more needy. I saw charity giving every day in the most public and private situations. Some people are happy to part their last notes to help someone eat and that is the most grounding thing I will see my whole life. Everyone is grateful for what Allah SWT has given them and feels a obligation from deeps within to give back, however big or little.
There is a lot of charity work across the country, some of my travels took me from Kumapara to Sreemangal where we passed ‘BRAC’ offices http://www.brac.net/ , a fantastic organisation dedicated to empowering the poor and fighting for their educational rights. There is so much goodwill in this country and intent to survive, be a success, stand tall and the impact is infectious.
A lot of money from the native Bangladeshi’s in the Western world is pumped back into Shylet to boom the economy and support charities. As a result you will see orphanages and mosques amongst some of this very outcome. Architecture too, is a glamorous manifestation of this process. Family titles are hand painted on gate pillars of elaborate basha’s in either Bengali or English sans font styles. Reminding me of old Hollywood poster titles, immaculate typographic style and romantic at a glance. We whizzed past visions of modern living, most reaching towards the sky, surrounded in picturesque balconies and idyllic porches that circle the whole basha. There is a wonderfully logical cubic build to a lot of these homes, the roofs are flat and ideal for spending time in the evening to cool down and the colour work pulls out the linear details and geographical lines. Very satisfying graphical solutions amongst the free trees, vegetation and private ponds. Pink and yellow are popular paint choices. Possibly a throwback reference to the famed Pink Palace of Dhaka, rulers of the city in the 19th and 20th century. My niece would love any of those homes ; )
Education is a economical privilege and badge of pure pride in Bangladesh for students and parents, we visited ShahJalal university of Science and Technology and its absolutely massive. Huge campus grounds with internal lakes, wildlife and beautiful curated spaces to relax, socialise or study. Being inside the securely guarded grounds of the university is like stepping out of the country in secrecy, its completely serene with a sole focus on education and empowerment. There is no hustle and bustle, street begging, racing CNGs, vendors nor retail here, this is escapism. Passing through the iron gates here mean you have a better chance at life and your in the perfect place to try your best. To my surprise people come to the university to spend time as an outing, drinking local lemonade and eating spiced bitter fruit and taking selfies in the sun, being at any university in the country is a special moment. We took pictures by the Shaheed Minar — a tribute of the liberation of war, located up a red brick stair way ascending above trees and campus grounds. My mum told me about this sculpture when I was young, its a symbol of struggle, bloodshed and war.
The education value system is very competitive and extraordinarily valued as direct reflection in your standing within society. However sadly it is almost impossible for a young graduate to secure a decent first job. Consequentially everywhere around me I was surrounded by high achievers, further education students and graduates giving their all in Masters, PHDs etc for the hope of standing out … yet facing the reality of barely gaining an interview for a good job. There is a ready workforce in Bangladesh, qualified and more than worthy of being the ‘future’ we want for the country. Millennials are highly educated and wanting the best for their futures, the job market situation is forcing them to find work in other countries such as Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, England and parts of Europe, Canada and the US most popularly. I asked the question … what will happen to Bangladesh if the talent is forced to leave and make a life else where? Everyones hearts believe they will always return for a chance of making a better Bangladesh.
Rainfall is very special. There are periods of blazing heat and then sudden downpour, the droplets are fat and the beat is loud and furious. Wherever you are in the basha you will hear the drumming.
It’s the perfect cinema … standing on a balcony or under a roof and watching the rains descend and smash upon the earth, steadily watching the puddles grow larger and the huge leaves of the greenery playing ping pong with the rain. I heard that rainfall ‘bishti’ is likened to poetry and it’s like the longing in the heart to see and feel it again and again. Indeed its quite hypnotising.
It is most easy to say how beautiful Bangladesh is. The landscape is mostly defined by the huge rivers, wetlands, incredible biodiversity and plant species. Monsoon season is another world and blankets the delta in water. The breadth of water is extraordinary to see from high. In an age of technology and infrastructure, seeing so much natural beauty in its glory was moving and has left permanent pictures in my mind and heart.
Human life is a struggle for those that are not privileged — which sadly is everywhere, the government still has a lot of work to do to reach those that are in most critical need and fight the aged battle of corruption and blackmail, to deliver to those most needy. Waste management and sanitation are still big ongoing projects. Drinking water and non chemically treated foods are everyday risks to be mindful of.
Happiness and real love is the best currency in the country, everyone is your friend, smiling travels faster than a text and you would never feel lonely or without support. There is always a helping hand and invitation to take shelter or have a real conversation. My most mentally photographic moment was seeing a group of boys playing football, no shoes, no equipment. But all so blissfully happy to be free and to be playing with friends whilst 2 elder onlookers watched from the shade, it took me back to when I cycled around my hometown with my younger brother in the summers, they were the best times in my youth and the feeling of what it means to be free. Happiness is freedom.