Having somewhat got over my frustration at being in a luxury hotel (oh happy frustration, some might well say), my Bangladeshi homies took me for a ride last night. It crossed my mind that after some of the less than generous things I had said about their fine country, they planned to batter me insensible with a coconut and leave me floating face-down in a jacuzzi; but in fact they wanted to show me some of the real Bangladesh. And a far nicer place it looks close-up than from behind a hotel compound wall.
It is quite uncannily reminiscent of the Indonesia of the 90s - incomes are rising, leading to more cars on the road without more roads necessarily being built; above street level there are mind-boggling tangles of wires carrying cable TV and broadband Internet access into the apartments of the rising middle classes, old houses are beng replaced at a rapid rate by new apartment blocks to squeeze more accomodation into the city. Occasional power brownouts are the result, above all, of so many people being able to afford fridges, AC units, TVs and computers. These are all signs of a country on its way somewhere; as is the laudable development of grameen banking - a Bangladeshi invention.
There are still some beggars about; many of them congregate around the hotels in the hope of tapping the sentimental guilt of suckers like me, of course - the equivalent of walking out of a posh London hotel to be accosted with the words "Big Issue?"; but also the streets are safer than you may imagine. I fussed about leaving my bag in the car when we arrived at a cafe and parked in the street. "Leave it there, it'll be quite safe" my colleague told me. So I did, and it was. That's not something I'd like to try in Reading. Complete strangers make eye contact, and smile, and greet you politely - again a marked improvement on Reading.
I am reminded, re-reading my last posting, of the 'Goodness Gracious Me' sketch in which Dave Lamb played a British reporter with a repertoire of cliches; standing with grim-faced concern talking about "the grinding poverty" and similar while happy Indians clustered around him, beaming broadly and saying "Mark Tully! Mark Tully!"
Furthermore, a story that has gathered much media comment is about an elderly woman abandoned by her successful, professional children to live on her own, which the papers are lamenting as an introduction of "Western values".
As the Bible should have said "Before removing a mote from another chap's eye, remove the plank from your own eye - then you'll have a plank handy to hit the blighter round the head with if he makes a fuss."
I would very much like to come back for longer, learn a modicum of emergency Bengali (perhaps from a colonial era language book, just for entertainment value. I could stride around in pith helmet and khaki shorts bellowing "Tell the men not to clean their rifles with sandpaper" or "Look here! I'm going to ask you six questions..." while Boyo stands by with dustpan, brush and valuers guide to Gypsy teeth). It would be nice to get out of Dhaka - to see Tagore's compound, or the world's longest unbroken beach at Cox's Bazaar. It would also be nice to stay somewhere more in touch with the country around it, to stop me being such a wuss about things.