Copyright: Ian D. Richardson Email: email@example.com
On my arrival at Dhaka Airport, there was a misunderstanding, to my advantage. When I approached Immigration Control, a security guard came over and asked what nationality I was. "Australian", I said. He looked rather startled and insisted I come to the front of the queue. This is nice, I thought, as the guard and the security guard engaged in animated conversation with an immigration officer. My passport was studied, then the immigration officer exclaimed: "He's not Israeli . . . he's Australian!" This being a staunchly Muslim country, the arrival of an Israeli obviously is a cause for some special concern. Still, having taken me to the head of the queue, they were kind enough to process my visa without further delay.
Seeing the quantity and size of the luggage coming off our plane, I was surprised we had managed to stay in the air. Most of the passengers appeared to be travelling with all their worldly belongings, including their bedding, which was mostly bound around their cases with heavy duty netting. There were also a number of large TV sets. Ghetto blasters were also another popular item. Just about every second Bangladeshi passenger brought one on as cabin baggage.
I was met by a representative of my hotel, and he called a taxi for me. As I sat in the waiting room, I was making some notes. The hotel representative politely enquired. "I see, sir, that you are writing. Are you, by any chance, a poet?" (Not that you'd notice, I thought.) He then proudly informed me that he had got an English degree at Dhaka University and knew all the great classics of English literature.
The highway outside the airport was a mass of large buses, open-sided mini-buses, three-wheel motorised rickshaws (called baby buses) and bicycle rickshaws. Chaotic is hardly an adequate description. It was a huge tangle of vehicles and pedestrians, but everyone seemed to be going in roughly the correct direction. The buses were exploding with people as they barged their way through the other traffic, furiously tooting their horns while passengers hanging out the doors and windows - and sometimes sitting on the roof - gave hand signals to indicate where the vehicle might next be heading. It was quite fun to watch. It was heart-stopping to watch the bicycle rickshaws charge across the paths of buses, with apparent total disregard for their safety.
As we got closer into the city centre, the taxi would be approached at the traffic lights by beggars. One kept pointing to a dreadful growth on his eyeball; another waved the stump of an arm at me. It is very pitiful to see this and emotionally painful not to respond, but if you give money to one beggar, you end up being besieged by them. As I was to learn later, most of the beggars of Dhaka are controlled by criminals who take a share of their earnings.
The restaurant in my hotel offered a special Valentine's Day dinner, as it was February 14. It was somewhat bizarre that I should have had it all by myself. The main course was chicken breast in a heart-shaped pastry case with vegetables. As I looked around the restaurant, I could see just one couple; the other diners were a family and scattered groups of businessmen. So much for a romantic atmosphere. As I left, I was given my "Special St Valentine's Day Gift". It was a small paper bag covered in red hearts and containing a T-shirt, a Coca-Cola yo-yo, and a certificate giving me the history of St Valentine. Weird.
Because of jetlag, I had a terrible night's sleep, waking up at 1am, 2am, 3am and just about every a.m. until I finally fell into a deep sleep about half an hour before the alarm went off. I felt ghastly and wished I could postpone the planned day trip to Mymensingh where Florrie Cox, Frank Paice and Hedley Sutton were once stationed, but I already had the train tickets and arrangements for the visit had been made with two Australian aid workers there.
The "I want to go home" feeling was reinforced when I reached the main railway station. The train for Mymensingh was described as an Inter-City Express. The image this generated failed to match the reality. The train looked as though it had been sitting unattended and unloved in a railway siding for several decades. The carriages were built had the appearance of the trains that used to run on Australia's railways in the 1940/50s, except that this one, with its 15 carriages, was being hauled by a large, relatively-modern diesel locomotive, rather than a steam engine.
The trains in Bangladesh come in three classes:
First Class: "Oh well, at least the
seats look reasonably comfortable".
Then, if you really fancy living dangerously, you can travel an unofficial Fourth Class, i.e. on the roof of a carriage. People often die doing this, of course, but it's free.
My carriage was very dusty and obviously hadn't been properly cleaned for a very long time. As for the decor, it was a rapid step back in time. But the seats were comfortable and a definite improvement on Economy on my flight to Dhaka.
The train left on schedule. The gap between the tracks widened as we moved away from the platform, and there I witnessed the astonishing sight of rows of vegetables growing right up to the rails.
As we rattled our way through the suburbs of Dhaka, there was a much less attractive sight: kilometre upon kilometre of pathetic little shelters housing those at the bottom of the social heap in Bangladesh. It was dreadful. The shelters were each about the size of a small tent, not even high enough to stand up in. Yet, in these, whole families existed, somehow scratching out an existence. Some of the shelters were so close to the tracks that I felt as though I could reach out and touch them. When I asked someone what happened to the people during the monsoons, the simple reply was: "They get wet."
About half an hour from departure, the train reached the outskirts of Dhaka and picked up speed. We were soon making our noisy way through the irrigated paddy fields. My spirits began to lift.
This being the dry season, a scattering of fields was given over to wheat and other crops. The countryside was criss-crossed by levy banks, used also as footpaths or roads, by the farmers. It was a tranquil, beautiful sight, watching the sprinkling of men and women tending their crops, cows and goats, though it would be insensitive not to recognise that the farmers have a very hard, uncertain life.
Later, we went through one of Bangladesh's few forests. The trees had large oval-shaped leaves. I asked my fellow passengers what they were. I was given three different names, and the only agreement was that they were some sort of hardwood, perhaps teak or mahogany.
Most of the houses along the route appeared to be mud brick, though some were made of woven bamboo, while a few were of house bricks as we know them.
Although the train claimed to be an express, it stopped at several stations along the way - each a hive of commercial and human activity. Inevitably, beggars would come to the windows seeking money. Being the sole westerner on the train, I was a particular target.
On the train itself, there was a constant flow of people selling food and drink. There was no way that I was going to buy either. Everyone I spoke to about going to Bangladesh warned me not to eat or drink anything outside the main hotels or in a private home.
As is usual in February in Bangladesh, the sky was cloudless. The temperature was about 30c. For most of the trip we had the windows open. This was because a) the windows were so dirty that they obscured the view and b) the carriages were unventilated and very stuffy. The downside was that when the train went through the drier areas it kicked up lots of dust which was often blown inside.
About two hours into the journey, I decided to risk the toilets. Bangladesh is infamous for its toilets, but when you have grown up in the Australian bush with disgusting outside dunnies and dunny pans, you can handle just about anything. In truth, the train's toilets were not nearly as bad as I feared. Like most toilets in Asia, it was a "squat" one with a hole and two places to put your feet. In this case, everything went straight onto the tracks - just like it used to do with the trains in Australia in the days of steam locomotives.
On the way to the toilet I came across the buffet/kitchen. My first sight was a large sloshing wet patch across the carriage. I hoped it wasn't from the toilet, and happily it turned out to be no worse than water spilling from large, open-topped water butts, from which the "chef" got water for the tea and washing up. Everything was being cooked on a couple of small primus stoves. The tables were not occupied by diners - there were no chairs or stools - but by the overflow of passengers using them as seats.
My arrival in Mymensingh was another experience never to be forgotten. I was to be met by Beavan Peel, a Baptist aid worker, and when I had earlier asked on the phone from Dhaka how we would recognise each other, he just laughed. "There'll be no difficulty because we'll be the only white people there," he predicted. And he was right. At least a thousand people must have poured off the train, joining the hundreds of people who were already there. The only problem was that I followed a group of passengers off the train, not onto the platform, but onto the tracks. Fortunately, Beavan's Bangladeshi assistant, Tarposh Mir, spotted me looking rather confused on the railway tracks.
Mymensingh station, though large and no doubt once quite impressive, was very run-down and shabby. Beavan said many of the people milling about us lived on the station platform. Some even had their cows with them.
The square outside the station was packed with bicycle rickshaws. Beavan and his assistant organised a couple to take us to his apartment, via a few spots he thought might be interesting, such as the site of the old Baptist Reading Room and the local Baptist Church which was recently attacked with a fire bomb by Muslim extremists.
The big difference between Dhaka and Mymensingh was immediately apparent: there was hardly a motor vehicle to be seen. Instead, the streets were occupied by sedately-moving streams of bicycle rickshaws. The only sound was the soothing tinkling of their bells.
Mymensingh looked even more rundown than Dhaka. The Town Hall, for instance, had once been a wonderful brick building from the age when the region was a British colony. But it now looked a ruin because plants were growing out of every crevice. A sad thing about Bangladesh is that almost nothing is cared for. There seemed no such thing as routine maintenance.
We stopped by the Victoria Mission School for Girls. This was originally set up by the Baptist missionaries from Australia, but is now entirely staffed by Bangladeshis. Beavan introduced me to the headmistress, Miss Nath, who showed us about. There were about 450 pupils, all neatly dressed in blue and white uniforms. She said she remembered her parents talking about my missionary great uncle, the Revd Hedley J. Sutton. It also turned out that Tarposh Mir's grandfather had been taught by Hedley.
Next, to Beavan's flat for lunch. It was behind the local sports stadium which looked as though it had been built several centuries ago, but was in fact a mere 10 years old. Again, there was no maintenance, a situation exacerbated by very poor quality concrete having been used. The Beaven's flat was in a very ordinary building, but was a real oasis inside, though I was told that it was incredibly hot in summer. One of the first things I noticed were low-voltage lights glowing in glass-fronted book cases. Beavan said the lights generated just enough drying heat to stop the books rotting in the high humidity.
Beavan's wife, Marion, was at the flat, and we sat down almost immediately for a typical Bangladeshi meal of rice, vegetables and chicken, prepared by their cook. The meal was eaten in the traditional way, with the fingers of our right hands.
I hugely admired Beavan and Marion, who are from Launceston. They decided to become aid workers after a visit to Asia and saw all the poverty there. Once their children had grown up, they joined the Australian Baptist Missionary Society and were sent to Bangladesh. Beavan was a microbiologist with the Tasmanian Agriculture Department. His main aid work is with Bengali women, helping them set up credit co-operatives, so that they didn't have to rely on loan sharks for credit. He also advised on health matters. One of his biggest tasks was to stop the practice of suspending toilets over dams or streams also used for washing and sometimes drinking. He said the health problems were enormous. Most of the surface water is polluted and/or disease ridden. Some time back, tube bores were sunk to draw clean drinking water from underground supplies, but this is causing the water table to drop, and in the process, a chemical reaction is now causing dangerously-high levels of arsenic.
When the monsoons come, a third or more of Bangladesh disappears under water. These annual floods are welcomed, provided they aren't exceptional, because it is the silt that makes the countryside agriculturally viable. The Bangladeshis put hardly anything back into the soil; everything is recycled in some form of other. The cows pats, for example, are all gathered up (by hand, I might add) and dried out, or rolled around sticks of timber. This then becomes the fuel for the stoves. Even the leaves from the trees are swept up and used either for making paper or for burning. It is quite common to see old ladies sweeping up along the roadside for anything that can be used as fuel or sold.
Marion teaches English to the locals, and this is popular, as English is considered very important by most educated Bangladeshis. Both Beavan and Marion are, in turn, learning Bengali (also known as Bangla). As a result, they can now have some direct communication with the poor. Beavan says most of the people he deals with are illiterate. An important part of his work with the credit co-operatives is to teach those involved to read and write, so that they can read contracts and the like and sign their name, rather than just leave a thumb print.
Beavan and Marion enjoy their work, but they do find the isolation difficult to deal with at times. This is particularly the case with Marion, who cannot easily go out of the house alone, as she used to in Australia. She would be followed and stared at everywhere she went. She said she could drive, but this wouldn't be considered right by many of the locals. There are only nine westerners out of a population of about 800,000 in Mymensingh. Of these nine, there are just two women.
When Beavan and Marion first arrived in Bangladesh, they lived in a community outside Mymensingh, and they had no telephone and often no electricity. In Mymensingh, they at least have electricity most of the time, and more importantly, a phone and access to the Internet. They use email all the time and find this a wonderful thing to have. For other news of the outside world, they listen to BBC World Service.
If you think they have it tough, spare a thought for Hedley Sutton and his fellow missionaries early this century. There was no radio, no electricity, no telephones, no air conditioning and no rickshaws - just the railway, a smattering of motor cars owned by the rich, a few push bikes, bullock carts, boats, the occasional horse and gig, and lots of shoe leather. Communications were confined to telegrams transmitted by Morse code and letters. Additionally, they had to face all the terrible diseases endemic in the area without the protection of immunisation or anti-malarial drugs. Admittedly, there would have been a greater number of westerners, as the Indian sub-continent was still under British rule, but this must have been a fairly modest consolation. Especially so, as the Baptists didn't get on well with their Roman Catholic rivals, and the British rulers were pretty indifferent - sometimes hostile - towards the missionaries, because their evangelism often caused trouble with the Muslim and Hindu religious leaders.
It is extraordinary that the missionaries who were sent to India believed that they should not only educate and otherwise help the locals, but as an essential part of their work, should convert the whole country to Christianity. It didn't succeed. In the case of Bangladesh, just one or two percent of the population is Christian after more than two centuries of evangelism.
These days it is illegal in Bangladesh for missionary workers to seek conversions, and Marion and Beavan entirely agreed with this. Beavan said some of the things done by the early missionaries in the name of Christianity were quite wrong. One example: converts from one of the main local tribes were forced to stop conversing in their own language and to speak only Bengali.
After lunch, Beavan and Tarposh took me on a further tour. First stop was the European Christian cemetery. It was quite small and very tidy, mostly because it has a caretaker. In addition to keeping the grass tidy and tending a few flower beds, the caretaker had turned all the graves that hadn't been sealed into vegetable plots. I would hope that the occupants of the graves wouldn't have objected.
As we rode about in our bicycle rickshaw, we saw lots of posters advertising the many political parties taking part in the coming elections. Because at least a third of the Bangladeshi population is illiterate, each party has a symbol, which is used on the voting paper. So, there was the Elephant Party, the Umbrella Party, the Chair Party, the Pineapple Party, the Fish Party, the Bicycle Party, etc etc. There was even a Bucket Party. Heaven only knows how the politicians get across their policies to the country, though we did see several rickshaws getting about with loud speakers proclaiming the message.
The most important part of the visit to Mymensingh was a tour of the Baptist compound. This was much reduced in size from when Florrie Cox and Hedley Sutton were there, but it still covered several hectares near the banks of the old Bramaputra River.
The Baptist mission station is now run by Bangladeshi Christians, as Hedley Sutton had always worked towards. The building that housed the boys' school run by Hedley for so many years still stands, but is now a hostel and in rather a sad state. We visited the small upstairs chapel, which is now a bedroom and study area for students. The former accommodation area for the missionaries and staff is also rather rundown. However, the Baptist Church building is still in good order, and was being used for a community training session when we called.
A fair-sized section of the compound is used as a craft and recycling centre set up by Australian Baptists. There were a couple of open-sided workshops, mostly occupied by women. They were producing made-to-order paper from recycled newspapers and magazines, used clothing, and leaves from all sorts of plants. Other workers were making boxes and various other small items, while in another workshop, women were weaving various sorts of fabric. If I understood the situation correctly, the women were self-employed, so were paid most of the money from the orders. In another part of the compound there was a training centre for disabled people, who get a particularly raw deal in Bengali society.
It was a very strange feeling visiting the
compound after having read so much by, and about, Hedley Sutton. Just
to think that this was his home for most of the first quarter of this
century. It was a bit like the feeling I get in London when I walk down
Borough High Street in Southwark, knowing that my Cox ancestors lived
there for 100 years.
Beavan told me about two main worries they had in Mymensingh: One was getting good medical treatment; the other was what to do if they injured or killed a Bangladeshi with their car. Serious accidents are common on roads between towns - particularly involving buses and heavy trucks - and accidents inevitably attract large crowds. The assumption usually is that the driver of the bus or truck is at fault, and drivers have been known to be beaten to death on the spot. As a result, most drivers involved in accidents involving injury or death do "a runner" for their own safety. Beavan said that he would probably have to do the same. It was a terrible dilemma. Coincidentally, I was later reading a guide book on Bangladesh and it recommended quite strongly that drivers should keep going and report the accident to the police at a safe distance from the scene.
My train arrived with the First Class carriage bursting with people, and it was quite a battle forcing my way inside. With the help of a couple of passengers I was able to "liberate" my allocated seat from an interloper.
The sun was getting low in the sky as we pulled away from Mymensingh, and the families living alongside the railway tracks were resting and preparing the meals, while the children played just like children do around the world. There was one group with a wonderful, brightly-coloured kite high in the sky, while another lot were playing cricket with a bit of old timber for a bat and three crooked sticks for a wicket. Others were pulling and chasing each other and generally messing about, as kids do.
For this journey, the First Class carriages were at the front, rather than the back, as was the case on the trip up to Mymensingh. This meant we got not just the dust, but also the occasional cloud of diesel fumes from the locomotive. Because it was so hot, it was necessary to keep the window open. The occasional bit of grit in the eye was a small price to pay.
As darkness fell, the lights came on in the carriage, but they were so weak it was almost impossible to read. There wasn't a great deal to see outside, even when we stopped at a station. Electricity didn't reach a lot of small communities, and even when it did, it was in such short supply that there were long blackouts. Beavan told me that a large part of Dhaka had to be blacked out one evening to allow a major sporting event to take place under lights in the main stadium.
A hotel car was waiting for me at Dhaka station, and soon after getting back to the hotel I headed for the bar for a much-needed medicinal beer. My hotel was one of only a handful of places in Bangladesh where alcohol could be sold legally.
A sleeping tablet helped me crash the jetlag barrier, and I slept right through - a total of nine lovely hours. After a late breakfast, I popped across the road to the Kuwait Airlines office to reconfirm my flight back to London. I was told I needed to be at the airport at 4am. How awful.
Today I took time off to pay a courtesy call on the Dhaka office of the BBC, my employer in London for nearly three decades. I went by bicycle rickshaw and it was not an experience for those of a nervous disposition. The bicycle rickshaws compete for road space with some very aggressive driving by buses, cars, motorbikes, and auto rickshaws. It is a very hard life for the rickshaw boys and they don't live long. Apart from inhaling choking motor vehicle fumes all day, the money they earned - the equivalent of two or three dollars a day - didn't buy enough food to replace the energy spent pulling people around all day. They were grateful when they were hailed by westerners, who usually paid well above the going rate.
I returned to the hotel late afternoon, had a small evening meal and a couple of beers and turned in for the night.
Another big adventure today.
An air conditioned car and driver was organised to take me into the Narsingdi area, just north of Dhaka, to take some photographs for a picture agency that sells my photos.
My original intention had been to go south to Faridpur to visit the Baptist mission station where Florrie Cox and her husband Frank Paice, spent what must have been four very miserable years together during the First World War. The marriage was a disaster because Florence suffered from a rare gender abnormality and was incapable of sexual intercourse and Frank had fallen in love with another missionary. Although Faridpur is closer to Dhaka than Mymensingh, the trip would have taken two days using ferries and travelling over very rough and narrow roads, so reluctantly I scrapped it.
The Narsingdi trip began with an hour-long battle through heavy, tangled traffic, just to reach the outskirts of Dhaka. Over the next six hours, I witnessed extraordinary scenes, some of them quite dreadful; some wonderful.
The most shocking scene was when we arrived at the bridge over the wide Meghna River. There, on the south bank of the river, I looked down on a vast dump of whitish rocks on which groups of people, adults and children, sat under black umbrellas breaking the rocks into aggregate for the construction of buildings and roads. There was no machinery, just chisels and hand-held hammers. White dust cast a shroud over everything around the site and would inevitably have been breathed in by the workers. I was told that the workers are paid by quantity, with the average daily income less than a dollar. It was truly terrible; a glimpse into the depths of hell.
A close second to this scene were the many brick works on the fringes of Dhaka. Clouds of red brick dust hung in the air, sometimes almost obscuring the workers from sight. What must this be doing to their lungs?
Bangladesh is sits mostly on silt swept down from the hills over thousands of years, and there is very little rock. Consequently, the country relies heavily on bricks for road and building foundations. So, they make the bricks, then pay people to break them up. This is work mainly done by women and children who squat for hours, at home or in small factories, smashing bricks for a pittance.
On a more uplifting note, we came across a number of sari factories scattered about the countryside. The factories themselves were nondescript buildings, but outside were row upon row of brightly-coloured saris drying in the sun. They made a wonderful photograph.
At another spot, we saw hundreds of children lined up outside their school, doing their physical exercises. The boys and girls were in separate groups, each with different colour uniforms. We were up on a high road looking down on the scene. Again, I got some wonderful pictures. A couple of the teachers came up the bank to talk to me. They spoke excellent English and proudly asked me to come down to inspect the school. I would have liked to do so, but I knew that this would end up as a rather long visit, so I complimented them on their work and politely declined their offer.
We saw many schools on our travels. Around lunch time, the roads were full of children walking along with their arms full of books. Though tens of millions of Bengalis remain illiterate, those who can go to school are anxious to do well. For them, education is a privilege, not a right, as in the developed countries.
There was a hitch in our trip when we stopped to allow me to take some pictures of something or other. I got out of the car to walk a few metres back down the road to get a better view, and the ever-helpful driver decided to back up with me. Before I could stop him, he dropped the passenger-side wheel into two deep holes. The car dropped onto its chassis and was well and truly stuck. A crowd soon gathered.
One chap brought along an agricultural hoe and set about enlarging the rear hole, while some others turned up with thick bamboo poles to act as levers. Between about 10 of them, they lifted the car bodily back onto the road, with no damage done. The driver then began some vigorous negotiations with the crowd about how much they should be paid for their assistance. They finally settled on the equivalent of less than an American dollar, which they were going to split up among themselves.
One point that ought to be made is that not everyone is poor in Bangladesh. There are some very rich people here and a substantial comfortably-off middle class. It is quite common to see in the midst of the beggars and squalor people wearing expensive clothes and designer spectacles. The clothes of the female population vary a great deal in style. Most wear very bright outfits, but there are also many very conservative Muslim women wearing a black chador from head to toe, often with their faces completely covered by a black net.
On the way back to Dhaka, we travelled along a road lined on one side by communal ponds, each about 100 metres by 15 metres. The ponds were used to breed fish and to provide drinking and washing water, but they are also where all the waste from the communal toilet was dumped. The toilets, such as they are, were usually a woven-bamboo screen around a small frame suspended on bamboo sticks, just out from the bank. The locals walked out along a pole, steadying themselves on another, higher pole. They then squatted over a gap with their excrement and urine sliding down the bank into the water. On several occasions, I saw people bathing and rinsing their mouths out in the traditional Muslim manner - all within 10 metres of the toilet. It was enough to turn the stomach, but worse, I found it hard to comprehend that this wasn't a central issue of the government's health education programme.
As we reached central Dhaka, we found ourselves in the mother of all traffic jams. We barely moved for half an hour as drivers tooted furiously and exchanged curses. Meanwhile, the pollution levels went off the end of the scale. The air was thick with the dreadful blue fumes from the exhausts of all the two-stroke motors. I looked around to see if I could spot a bus, truck or baby bus not seriously scored down the sides from brushes with other vehicles. There were none. Indeed many of the vehicles looked as though they had been bashed all over with hammers, or at the very least, had been competing in stock car races.
When we eventually got moving again, we found ourselves temporarily stuck in a huge roundabout with two child beggars, aged about five or six, tapping at my window. Guilt finally got the better of me, and I wound the window down and gave them some packets of raisins left over from lunch. This was a mistake. Another beggar, a little girl, appeared from nowhere and had her hands in the window before I could close it again. I had nothing more to give her, but she refused to let go, and my driver charged off with her clinging on furiously. After about 20 metres, he stopped briefly and she finally let go and disappeared into the whirling mass of vehicles.
The all-up cost of the day's outing came to about $60, which I thought was pretty good. The driver was said to speak English, though it was only marginally better than my Bengali, which was non-existent. It improved, though, at the end of the trip when we began negotiating the size of his tip.
My last full day here. I spent the morning finishing my photographic assignments for the BBC and the picture library, then went for a quick Japanese lunch with BBC correspondent David Chazan at my hotel. There were many Japanese staying in the hotel, most of them there for aid and development conferences.
After lunch, I had an appointment with the Australian High Commissioner, Charles Stuart. I thought it might be useful to brief him on my God's Triangle film project. It turned out to be a good move. He had a droll sense of humour and a very good sense of visuals. In half an hour or so, he had given me a whole list of promising locations. He seemed genuinely interested in Bangladesh and liked the people, and had travelled over much of the country. My trip back to the hotel was a 20-minute lung-wrecking journey through the pollution in a baby bus.
I endured a terrible night's sleep. Indeed, it was hardly sleep and it was hardly a night, as I had to be up at 4am to catch my plane back to London. While waiting to check out of the hotel, I got chatting to one of the pilots on my flight. He was Kuwaiti-born, educated in the United States, and did his flying training in southern England. He told me that the crew were expecting some strong head winds.
By 4.30am, I was on my way to the airport in a taxi. There was hardly any traffic. Check-in at the airport went fairly smoothly. It became clear that the Dhaka-Kuwaiti flights are essentially a shuttle service for Bangladeshi workers travelling to and from Kuwait. The only Europeans on this flight to Kuwaiti were myself and four Canadian aid workers. As we queued up to join the plane, the arriving passengers filed past with another shipment of ghetto blasters. There was much joshing and joking between the incoming and outgoing Bangladeshis.
It was bright daylight by the time we took off at 7.30am, but for the first 30 minutes or so it was difficult to see the ground because of the dreadful cloud of pollution lying across the country.
One of the Canadians was sitting next to me and we had quite a good chat. He was a fairly regular visitor to Bangladesh and had once lived there for two years. He seemed to have no trouble conversing with the locals in Bengali. Surprisingly, though, he seemed to know almost nothing about the world outside Canada or Bangladesh. Even some very basic international events appeared to have passed him by. He said the flights from Dhaka to his home in Canada would take 40 hours from start to finish. How ghastly.
We had to change planes in Kuwait, and there was a delay because of a baby that had to travel with a drip-feed and because of arguments with the cabin crew when it was discovered that more than 10 non-smokers - myself included - had been placed right in the middle of the smoking section. The trouble was that almost half the plane was given over to smoking, so it was inevitable in this day and age - even in the Middle East - that there wouldn't be enough room for non-smokers. Fortunately, most of the smoking passengers were sensitive enough to keep their smoking to a minimum. Fortunately, too, the cabin service was excellent.
True to the pilot's forecast, there were strong head winds most of the way back to London, so we missed our landing slot at Heathrow and had to do a couple of extra circuits over London while waiting for another. We finally put down about 45 minutes late.