Bangladesh is on the move, but is it going anywhere? The mass of rickshaws and mini-taxis on Circular Road in Dacca leaves the impression that everyone is pedaling everyone else around in a circle.
A group of legless men was assembled at one particular corner in the capital. "They are a chorus," I was told. "They sing and people give them money."The stench of open sewers and the constant harassment by beggars are only two of the many annoyances for visiting business people, or anyone else, in this impoverished nation.
Another bother is the mosquitoes, which materialize in hordes at sunset. Sleeping under netting is a must. And, of course, don't drink the water.
Tea is the beverage of choice, thanks to 200 years of British rule. Bring along a large jar of instant coffee if you are a coffee drinker. Coffee is not available in most restaurants.
The prices aren't bad in dollar terms. A meal for four can be had for $2. It would include heaping servings of rice, curried chicken and shredded lettuce. I got a very good haircut in Chittagong for 20 cents. Shirts and garments are also values.
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THE RICE HARVEST is nearly complete in the countryside, where the air is much fresher than in the cities and the people are gentle and friendly. On morning walks alone, I was inevitably invited into someone's home and offered food.
I watched the cattle being driven in a circular fashion to trample mounds of rice straw to remove the kernels, which are then soaked in the pond before being dried in the concrete courtyard. Young women chase the chickens which are constantly trying to get at the drying rice.
The burning question in one village was whether the visiting American preferred the large- or small-grain rice. Actually, I preferred the large
grains that had been boiled an extra time, but I was expected to eat the smaller, more refined grains.
Every house in the countryside has its own pond, sometimes one in the front (where the men bathe) and one in the back for the women. Most of the ponds have ducks and tiny fish which are caught in nets. Nothing goes to waste. The government-owned land alongside the roads is planted with green beans. It
hasn't rained in months, so everything is covered with a thick layer of dust.
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GOING TO MARKET is the main social function for most villagers, but they don't buy much of anything. The market stalls are crude sheds and the gatherings begin at nightfall. Half a dozen men collect around a kerosene lamp or a candle and discuss politics or sing songs.
The men return home for dinner around 10 p.m. The streets are dark and a flashlight is advisable. The tinkling sound behind me lets me know that a bicycle is about to pass. A louder ring signals a rickshaw and a still louder beep heralds a mini-taxi. By the sound of the bell, you can tell whether you must move to the side of the road or if it's just a bicycle coming up behind you.
Driving on the main road from Chittagong to Dacca is like playing Russian roulette. The bigger the vehicle, the more right of way. High-speed passing with horns blaring is de rigueur.
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THE USE OF CHILD LABOR is disconcerting to the Westerner but a matter of survival here. Children can be seen eating their meager lunch of bread at the gates to a garment factory in Chittagong around noontime.
Flocks of huge, black, scolding crows give an ominous aura to this port city of the south. The crows are visible from afar, since buildings are restricted to four stories. The new Biman headquarters (Biman is the national carrier) provides a hint of a future with sleek, modern buildings. The way of life here, which has lasted for thousands of years, won't go on forever.
The family values and traditions that sustain the populace through incredible hardship are inspiring. But most of the successful people are the ones who find a way to escape to America or Saudi Arabia.