Bangladesh Thursday Doors

Thursday Door – Scenes at the roadside

A dark blue truck recklessly overtook our minivan on the road to the clinic. It was the Dog Support Unit for the Rapid Action Brigade, known as the RAB. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of another acronym. Rapid Action Brigade Including Dogs or “RABID”.

Along the roadside, I watched a man carrying a bendy bamboo pole with a clutch of empty blue barrels tied to each end. As he walked, the bamboo flexed. The trick was to time one’s steps with the bounce in the pole, so you were lifting off your foot when the pole was rebounding upwards.

Other men carried earthenware pots in this way. Some cyclists are loaded up with so much plastic stuff that they must need assistance to get back in the saddle once they have stopped. There are some doors in this post, be patient.

The green paddy fields are turning gold as the rice ripens. Each patch has been planted at a different time, so the harvest is phased. Traditionally, they have two crops a year, but with “Chinese” hybrid rice, they can plant a third crop. The rice is all harvested manually, using small sickles. There is very little mechanisation here. To level the fields after the harvest, farmers use oxen or buffaloes to drag a ladder over the ground.

Farmers plant a dead branch in each plot of paddy as a perch for fork-tailed drongos and flycatchers, which keep down the numbers of insect pests. Men take their cows out on a rope so they can graze for their breakfast. Small boys try their luck fishing in the irrigation channels. Two boys sit astride the walls of a bridge, playing ludo or draughts with pebbles.

School uniforms are very smart. Some boys have to wear a military style cap. Girls wear a white headscarf over a primary coloured long shirt dress or kameez. I was amused by a group of boys wearing brightly coloured skullcaps while they played soccer on a dusty field.

A pregnant goat lies in a bed of ashes, still warm from last night. Men cluster outside a shop selling breakfast food. One of the rundown shacks has been named “Dubai”, probably where the owner earned the cash to build it.

In the small towns we pass through en route for the clinic there are tea shops with strings of gaudy foil packets of snacks, hands of bananas and plastic gee-gaws hanging from the roof. It is usually very quiet when we drive out to the clinic because we leave so early in the morning.

At Court Bazaar, there is more action as the market is in full swing. There are carcasses of beef hanging from hooks. Piles of fruit and vegetables, sacks of different types of rice displayed on stalls. In the mud at the edge of the road, there are cycle rickshaws, e-rickshaws with an electric engine, CNG (powered by natural gas) and TomToms (powered by electricity). Lorries and buses joust for position, horns blaring constantly.

At the roadside, there was an umbrella lashed to a post, providing a patch of shade or shelter from the rain, depending on the weather.

At night when we return after dark, the bazaar is more alive. People throng the narrow streets in droves. They don’t dawdle; they look like they are on a mission to get stuff done. The bright lights of jewellery shops make the necklaces sparkle enticingly. The energy-saving spiral bulbs over the fruit stalls attract moths and flying insects. The pharmacies are also well lit, displaying versions of all the popular drugs. I like the restaurants, with their roadside kitchens shielding the diners from the passing traffic. Pakoras and parathas sizzling in massive cauldrons of boiling oil. Flatbreads being cooked on skillets.

Men packed into a pickup or an e-rickshaw. An empty chicken delivery truck. A group of men working on the roadside, putting down a sidewalk with crumbling bricks arranged in a herring-bone pattern. The toxic soup of fish farms and prawn hatcheries.

The furniture shops make what they sell. No flat packs from IKEA here. They specialise in intricately carved bed heads and doors. The barber shops do deep cleaning facial massages as well as shaves, beard trimming and haircuts.

The ubiquitous piles of fetid rubbish rotting by the roadside add to the scented aroma of biryanis on the evening air. A grocery store has a television blaring out into the street, surrounded by a cluster of small boys sitting cross-legged and goggle-eyed.P1310409

What a privilege it has been to live and work here in rural Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Thursday Doors

Opening doors to meet the locals

The local Bangladeshi community doesn’t see many white expatriates, in the flesh, out of doors, on the street. They see us flash past in minibuses and four-wheel drive SUVs, plastered with the logos of aid organisations, with little steel pennants on the front wing for a flag.

Occasionally they catch a glimpse of MSF expats walking from our team house to the office or buying ice cream from a local shop. Otherwise, they only see expats when they are ill and need to visit our clinics in the camp.

MSF has a strict security policy, restricting where and when we can roam. I often take a morning constitutional around the paddy fields and market area, as this has been designated a safe area.

I like interacting with the locals. Despite speaking only a handful of Bangladeshi (or “Chittagongi” in this area) words, I can get by with pidgin English and lots of sign language. I hadn’t had a proper haircut since July (done by a Pakistani barber in Green Lane Road, Leicester), so when I finished clinic early last week, I went into Ukhiya to look for a barbershop. Unlike Delhi, there aren’t any barbers plying their trade on the pavement. Well, Ukhiya doesn’t actually have any roadside pavement yet. I was given some general directions by a friend so I managed to find the shop easily.

I am quite used to being the object of people’s curiosity. They don’t glance surreptitiously at me; it is a full-on, open-mouthed stare. I engage with the starers, greeting them and they are obliged to interact: “Salaam Alaykum.” “Alaykum Salaam.”

When I walked into the hairdressers, all the clipping stopped for a moment as the barbers noticed a foreigner in their midst. Even the customers were eyeing up my reflection in the mirrors. But the boss ushered me into a seat and within a few seconds, everything went on as before.

There was an old television fixed up high in the corner of the room showing a Banglawood movie. After some sharp words from the boss, a minion came over, picked up the remote and started stabbing at it. He had been told to look for a foreign station. The only one was a sports channel, showing grainy video of a football match. How about that for hospitality?

One of the barbers came over and established I wanted a haircut. He tied a tissue around my neck and draped me with a plastic cape. Now the difficult bit. What kind of cut do I want? Most Bangladeshis have a short back and sides, some with quite elaborate styling on top. My barber, Mr Sharma, had a good style. I pointed at his hair, then at my hair and smiled. No joy.

How much did I want off? I said, “Chota,” which means “a little bit”. “Speak Hindi?” he asked and rattled off a few phrases which I didn’t understand. Then I played my trump card. I knew the Chittagongi/Rohingya word “alpo”, which also means small. “Trim, small, alpo, understand?”

He nodded and set to work with comb and scissors on one side of my head. After five minutes, I came to the conclusion that alpo meant leave a little, rather than cut off a little. We had crossed the Rubicon now, so I let him continue.

Every now and then, the television commentator got excited and instinctively I turned my head towards the TV screen to see who had scored. The barber grabbed my head and repositioned it as he wanted. I suppose the TV is for the benefit of those waiting, rather than those being scalped.

Mr Sharma kept clipping. I now knew his first name, Liton (or maybe Lytton). He could see I was sweating in the sultry heat, so he turned a fan onto me. This made my hair fly up so he sprayed it with water to keep it in place.P1320674

I was reassured when he used a new razor blade to shave the edges and clean up my neck down to the shoulder blades. He soothed the razor burn on my neck using a machine like a large shaving brush, which vibrated and showered me with talcum powder.

My rampant eyebrows were trimmed and he dealt with my nostrils and ears. I probably paid extra for the obligatory head, neck and shoulder massage – the full Monty. There was some discussion over the price. Locals pay about 50 taka, 75 if the salon is air-conditioned, and 100 -150 taka in the big city, Cox’s Bazar. I gave Liton 100 and he was happy (about 90p).

Liton Sharma, hair stylist, wearing a Ma Durga teeshirt


The haircut took about 45 minutes, and it was getting dark as I left the shop. Outside, a group of children sitting on a handcart started giggling as I walked past. They had been watching the performance. I didn’t have time to chat, so I walked briskly back to the house, wondering how hilarious my new haircut was. It looked fine in the salon…P1320954

Yesterday, I was waiting at the roadside for an ambulance coming from the clinic with a seriously ill patient. It was 7:30am and I attracted a crowd before a man shoo-ed people away. We chatted. He understood why I was there and was able to explain to all the curious bystanders. They were satisfied. He had 100kg of green chillies in four burlap sacks. In the mouth of each sack was stuffed some fresh grass. A goat joined us and kept nibbling on the grass. I wanted to see what would happen if it ate a chilli, but the man waved it away. A little boy dressed in his Friday-best white outfit came over to practise his English. A grizzled old rickshaw driver was also curious. He cycled past a few times, then came over to make my acquaintance. I tried asking him how old he was. He understood my age but didn’t know his own. The frame of his cycle rickshaw said “A Long Life”.P1320951

A succession of barrel wallahs passed me. The low sunlight made photography difficult and I should have used video to capture their bouncing gait, in synch with the oscillations of the bamboo pole across their shoulders. The trick is for them to keep moving.P1320946

The ambulance arrived and I accompanied the patient to Cox’s Bazar.

PS This piece was written a month ago when I was still working in Bangladesh.