We traveled down in two minibuses, about twelve volunteers together, with the further dozen staff from various NGO’s in another. More delegates were due to join us the following morning when the conference was underway. As I have found is usual in Bangladesh deadlines simply melt away and we left an hour and a half later than scheduled (not bad actually). I was looking forward to the journey as it was the first time I’d get to see beyond the city itself since my arrival and I was keen to get out into the countryside.
Even before we left the city behind I began to notice differences in what I’d seen to date. Dhaka is an enormous place packed with over fifteen million people; you can get a sense of its size if you compare it with London which has a population of around nine million. The only areas I’ve visited so far is the prestigious Gulshan district where all the Embassy buildings arelocated, the Heed Language School, the British Council and a variety of Hospitals I’ve registered with since arriving here. Typically a trip to one of these places takes about 40 minutes in a CNG. On this occasion we were traveling much further, in completely the opposite direction and through a totally different part of the city.
Funny enough the first thing that struck me was the number of lorries I began to notice. It seemed that just about every other vehicle traveling in both directions was a lorry, and we sped past more parked up or broken down by the side of the road. I also noticed several lorry parks where they were lined up neatly…row after row. These were far from ordinary trucks though; all of the huge long nosed cabs were bright yellow with ornate fluting around the top. They were open backed and seemed to be transporting just about anything you could imagine. I even spotted one with an enormous bull standing quietly in the back despite the absolute mayhem all around. I didn’t want to think where his journey was destined to end.
The yellow cabs themselves were covered with beautiful paintings of many varied and vibrant colours. Painted birds flew across some; I saw many with colourful garlands of flowers, and people’s faces stared back at you from others. There were paintings of rural scenery, of rivers, tigers, and intricate geometric patterns; somehow each looked slightly different. Colourful decoration appears to be a theme with at least some modes of transport here in Bangladeshas every rickshaw on the road has every inch brightly painted. Regardless of how rusty, dusty or old the rickshaw the paint is regularly touched up, including hoods and even mudguards. Buses on the other hand look as though they’ve been botched together by hand from papier-mâché. They’re covered with so many scrapes and huge dents from impacts with other vehicles that they barely have any paint work left!
Workmen traveled in the cab’s passenger seats but there were many more sitting perched high up on top of the transported goods in the open air at the back. All wore colourful cloth wrapped around their heads reinforced at the top especially for the purpose of carrying heavy loads. Some wore tatty old dirty vests, others loose shirts and all wore lunge, a type of sarong and typical dress for the manual male workers. Clearly these were poor, hard working laborers. Once again it struck me how small and thin they are for such grueling work. They had obviously loaded the merchandise onto the lorry and were now traveling (amongst it in most cases) to its destination where they would shovel and haul it all off again. Whatever else Bangladesh is short of manpower certainly isn’t amongst it.
Reaching the edge of the city I spotted the first paddy fields I’ve seen here, but they were neither numerous nor did they reach out to the horizon as I had pictured in my mind, at least not in this part of Bangladesh. These were small, irregular patches of land that enterprising individuals were using to grow rice, either for their own consumption or perhaps to sell at their local market for a meager income. The rice plants themselves looked a healthy fresh deep green, which was all the more surprising considering they were surrounded by and squashed between enormous brick kilns which dominated the horizon in place of my imagined paddy fields. Within moments of seeing the first, scores appeared, literally reaching out in all directions as far as the eye could see. Each had a central chimney that towered up several hundred feet, with pitch black smoke continually billowing out into the sky. Here then was the source of the majority of Dhaka city’s chronic air pollution. There were thousands of bricks around every chimney, most piled up neatly but some were spread randomly around. I found this a sinister scene for some reason, but it was the workers, many of whom were women, some fairly mature that created a somber, almost depressing mood within me.
Organized into mixed gender labor groups of around a half a dozen I watched them from inside the minibus as we drove passed. They were splitting a recent firing, swinging enormous hammers to separate a vast incalculable number of bricks, then transporting them on their heads to a pre-destined spot where yet more workers loaded them onto queuing lorries waiting to drive them into Dhaka city to supply the building trade which is putting up new homes, hotels and office complexes everywhere you turn.
The workers looked so small dwarfed by enormous blocks of brick waiting to be processed. The dusty, dirty, backbreaking hard work evident even as we whizzed past in our air-conditioned vehicle. It was a stark and ancient scene, a mini representation of pyramid building. The brick workers at kilns further from the road looked like tiny ants, the chimneys towering above, everywhere smoke gathering. This in reality was looking modern enslavement full in the face. These rural people weren’t farming. Industry on a massive scale had moved in on their doorstep. Bricks ferried to Dhaka city build huge modern complex for foreign banks and up market shopping malls not that many miles away, but they represent a totally different world to this hellish existence.
I scanned the scene carefully but couldn’t pick out any heavy machinery, quite a shock but there was nothing mechanical to be seen anywhere, probably why it initially had such an ancient look. Only man and women power was represented here. Their collective energy, and a couple of hammers between each working party. And giving the 21st century game away? Those gaily painted yellow lorries, suddenly mildly ludicrous to me in this new context.
I started to look out for the brick laborer’s homes. Where had they come from and where would they return at the end of yet another day filled with what constituted hard prison labor. All I could spot were a handful of corrugated iron shacks thrown together amongst the piles and piles of bricks. But there was no sign of life around them, no children or old people cooking as you often see elsewhere. It was a lifeless and barren view and my heart sank. I hadn’t expected this and no one had mentioned it to me. An established imposing industry, with truly terrible conditions, on an awesome scale. It offered work of course, but witnessing women scrambling over the brick fields in sari, their heads covered represented traditional Bangladesh servicing the western appetite of their rich fellow countrymen. It was nothing but misery and awful to see.