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Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 2: The Road to Rangpur

Beaudin Bennett - Blog Entry 2: The Road to Rangpur

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Like many good adventures, it started with a late night phone call.  I was in bed, watching a movie on my laptop and basking in the privilege of privacy, enjoying the feel of clean feet on flannel sheets and gloating at the impotent buzzing of insects outside of the mosquito net.  “Would you like to go to Rangpur?” the voice on the phone said.  It was Faruque, the Secretary General of the Welfare Association for the Rights of Bangladeshi Emigrants Development Foundation (WARBE).  “Yes,” I replied hesitantly, knowing that this would mean missing a wedding Friday evening to which I had been invited, but also enticed by the thought of escaping the noise and smog of Dhaka for a few days. 

Rangpur, from what I had heard, was a northern region of Bangladesh known for its “rural areas”.  Parts of Dhaka almost seem rural to me – I passed a large, black bull grazing in a field on my way to work today; a few days before I observed some goats standing idly in a dusty inner city cricket pitch and I must not forgot to mention the rooster that someone recently acquired and installed, along with his harem, in a small pen on the patio below my window.  His punctuality is unnerving.

To hear Rangpur described as a “rural area” caught my attention.  I enjoy witnessing ways of life that seem unconcerned with the passage of time – or at least unconcerned with acknowledging its passage – and I figured a trip to a place Bangladeshis considered ‘the boonies’ could offer a glimpse into this country’s past.  It could be a chance to pare away the layers of social, economic and political class present in the city and get down to the rural character of Bangladesh, which is still the backbone of Bangladeshi identity.

“People there are very lazy,” was one frank and openly prejudiced comment I received when I mentioned the pending trip to Rangpur.  A rural area with “lazy people” sounded like a welcome reprieve from the first few weeks of city living.  “Be at the office tomorrow at 9 in the morning,” said Faruque.

A second phone call, an hour later – this time from Saiful, the foundation Chairman.  “You are coming to Rangpur?” he enquired.  “Yes, I am,” my, by now, sleepy reply.  “Ok, you show up at 9, maybe 9:30… bring some clothes and things and your laptop, OK?”  I reply that I will pack my things and be there by 9:30.  “So 9:30 or 10:00, be at head office.”

The next morning I have tea and oranges (“…that come all the way from China…”) before tidying up my small, spartan apartment and shaving.  I’m worried about attracting insects or rodents into my residence and have become obsessive with making sure there are no food scraps lying about.  I don’t mind creatures big and small outside of my living area.  But when they crawl over your face at night or shit on the sink draining board it can be both enraging and oppressing.

My bag is packed and I am dressed in clean, semi-formal clothes.  Wearing a button-down shirt, which seems to be the modus operandi for many Bangladeshis, I lock the door to my apartment and head down the stairs.  Past the fourth floor landing where my asthmatic friend Mashruk lives (he was with me when the CNG we were riding in got wedged between two buses prompting much banging, rattling, and the wrenching sound of metal-on-metal as well as rapid-fire Bangla curses between all drivers involved), past the second floor where an ornately carved, solid hardwood door leads into the apartment of the ever-hospitable Farhan and his family, past the first floor that is home to my landlord Harun who was a senior officer in the Bangladeshi Navy and warned me against ever inviting female friends to my apartment (“this is a family establishment” sort of thing), and finally to the ground floor where the young female domestic worker, if she happens to be at the door when I am coming home, will leave the door open a crack and peer through the opening with one eye, observing my lanky, white-skinned, sandalled strangeness as I ascend the stairs. 

Continuing my journey to the office, along the railway tracks, a train blows past as I snap a picture of the people riding on the sides of the locomotive and the one lone boy seated on the coupler of the last train car, feet dangling in the wind.  My boots, speaking of feet, were polished only a few days ago.  Now there is a ‘tan line’ where my pant leg meets my boot.  Above this line is leather – black and shiny and pliable like street vendor fruit leather.  Below this line is the grime, dust and dirt of a few days walking Dhaka’s streets and alleys.  I cross a busy street and hire a rickshaw for the final distance to the office.  The rhythmic motion of a pedal-driven contraption, coupled with the distinctive creaking of the axles and the clack-clack of the bamboo ribs of the folded rain cover, are by now a comforting sensation evoking an odd sense of peace and tranquility (at least on this back road).

When I arrive at our head office Hassan, WARBE’s driver, is in the garage, talking with the two security guards-cum-drivers who live in tiny rooms at the back of the garage.  A quick evaluation of the overall social climate upon arrival and my gut instinct is that we will not be leaving for some time yet, even though I was told to be there by 10:00 at the latest.  Intuition proves correct.  Hassan and the two guards offer me vegetable curry and roti for my second, more significant, breakfast.  I am formally introduced to these two short Bangladeshi men I wave to every morning when I walk into work through the garage and up the stairs – Midjan and Joshim.  For about 7,000 taka a month they provide driver services and 24 hour a day supervision of the entryway to the apartment building where WARBE has their office.  At roughly 80 taka to the dollar that is not much money.  On the other hand, they have somewhere to sleep and a consistent income, which is more than can be said for many.  I have not seen Joshim’s accommodations but Midjan lives in a tiny room, large enough for a bed, nothing more.  A thin rope along one wall serves as a wardrobe and he has a small TV on a shelf in the corner, for watching cricket matches.

After an hour of loitering about, practicing my Bangla and packing the mini-bus for the trip to Rangpur, the trio invite me for tea.  We walk to the edge of the walled neighbourhood where a tea stand set up at the edge of the railway tracks is the premier local venue for rickshaw wallah gossip sessions and the cha breaks of day labourers.  The white washed wall is covered in blood red paan spittle stains.

We never did leave for Rangpur that day and after tea with Hassan, Joshim and Midjan I got a phone call:  “Today’s program is cancelled.  Be at the office tomorrow at 10am, OK?”