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Briefly Bangladesh

The destination was Thailand, not Dhaka, but the cheapest flight to Bangkok from Kathmandu, meant an overnight stay in the capital city of Bangladesh. At Zia international airport, along with a small group of fellow travellers also flying on Biman Bangladesh Airways, I was shepherded through immigration and into the back of an ageing minibus. As we passed through the wrought iron gates the crowd of people surged forward and surrounded the bus. Security guards, wearing army fatigues and carrying submachine guns pushed them back and we were able to pass and make our way, through the streets, still busy, despite the midnight hour.

The next day I wanted to explore the streets of Dhaka and make the most of my brief stay, I doubted that I would necessarily return to Bangladesh anytime in the near future. The hotel staff said that I wasn't really allowed to leave the hotel, even though I had paid $20 for a visa, so insisted that a member of their staff accompanied me whilst I explored the area.

The area surrounding the hotel was obviously home to Dhaka's more affluent residents. Large, multi-storey houses stood protected by tall iron gates and brick walls and the streets were quiet except for tri-shaws plying the area for trade or ferrying passengers.

Every street in Dhaka would lead to a new experience, so it didn't matter if I turned right or left as I exited the hotel. Opposite, under the shade of a tree was a small wooden shack selling cigarettes and boiled sweets, I said hello to the owner and received a big smile in return. Despite protestations from the staff and their concern for my safety, I felt safe and had a good feeling about my unplanned adventure.

The stares I received were inquisitive rather than threatening. As I walked towards the railway tracks I passed a boy of about twelve years old. He was carrying 8 chickens, 4 in each hand, held upside down by their scrawny legs. They dangled there quiet and impassive, ignorant of their impending fate. The sight of me stopped the boy in his tracks and he stared wide-eyed as I walked by. The women labourers were too busy to notice me. Under the relentless sun they smashed rocks by hand, and in shallow baskets balanced on their heads they carried the rubble to the building site. Only the toddler, sitting on the pile of rocks, covered in dust seemed to notice me. On every street block, there seemed to be at least one construction site.

In a park some teenage boys played cricket. I stood on the edge of the sun scorched grass, enjoying watching them play. But once they saw me, they abandoned their game in favour of looking at me. In some countries I would have been intimidated by a group of teenagers, surrounding me holding cricket bats, but I could sense no malice, only intrigue. In broken English one of the boys asked me where I was from. When I replied England, rather than invite me to join them in a game of cricket, he replied. 'England. David Beckham!'

I left the boys playing and walked towards the railway. By the side of the train tracks, scrap merchants worked at separating stinking, festering rubbish into small mountains of recyclable materials. I stepped onto the tracks and left the shady prosperous residential area behind. Up ahead a dusty potholed road crossed the tracks and forty or so tri-shaws, but only a few private cars, waited for a train to pass, before continuing on their way. Every vehicle, bus, car or van was dented and scratched.

I followed the swarm of traffic along the narrow road, lined on each side with small shops. Slabs of meat hung from a hook outside a butcher's shop. The meat was covered in a cloud of flies, the butcher smiled as I took a photograph but made no attempt to wave the insects away. More care and attention was given, in another shop, to the sale of colourful and sickly looking sweets. I passed shops selling tired and bruised fruits, others were stocked high with fabrics, some with battered and used electrical goods, and white goods far beyond sale or repair in the west. Nobody paid me much attention, just a surreptitious glance, before continuing on their way.

On the other side of a bridge, spanning a river gushing black with polluted water, a group of people, mainly male, gathered around a man wielding a stick. As I got closer I could see he was prodding a snake. Fearfully I stepped back and I crossed to the other side of the road. A small lane led from the main road so I headed down it to investigate and to escape the sight of the snake. Soon the noise of the road was lost in the narrow alley way. The path was sodden with mud and rubbish and led onto ramshackle, single storey houses. As I walked, several women emerged from the wooden huts, but on seeing me quickly dived back to the safety of their homes. The path ended at a central courtyard with a communal tap and toilet; unable to walk any further I turned back. The guard from the hotel had been walking with me the whole time and I could sense he was getting impatient to return; sadly conversation had been very limited and we had exhausted sign language awhile ago.

I was glad to see that the snake was now lifeless in the road and the excitement passed, the crowd had started to disperse. As I made my way back to the railway tracks and the hotel, a group of children started to walk alongside me. Their feet were bare and filthy black but still their smiles were bright white. We walked together, making each other laugh by pulling faces. They looked dirt poor and I suspected they were probably street children. All I had to offer them, not having any local money to buy them some food, was some water. After taking a sip each they then poured the rest away, keeping the bottle, which was probably worth more to them than the water it had contained. As I turned right to walk back along the railways tracks they waved goodbye and carried on straight.

Just as the sun had started to cast shadows on the streets, I returned to the hotel. I would be leaving for the airport for the last leg of my journey back to Bangkok that evening, but I was glad to have had an insight into Bangladesh and its people. Maybe I would return, but less briefly.

By Stratford Blyth

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