I arrive at 1am. My uber driver does not speak english, but gets me to my hotel where I’m ushered in. I set the AC to blow like a gale force wind cutting the hot and humid heat to an familiar Canadian chill.
The next morning, the newspaper informs me that hours before my arrival, students had blocked the main airport road in protest. Days before, a city transit bus had killed two students as it raced another bus to the stop. These buses are privately owned, mostly by politicians, and pressured to get as many fares as possible. The fact that many bus drivers were on the road without licenses or the proper training, to be taking that many lives into their hands, had now boiled to a head. The newspapers that day verified the massive difference between registered vehicles and licensed drivers. So, in peaceful protest, the vast majority of students took to the streets primarily blocking major intersections in order to check licenses. This successfully moved the needle in terms of drivers license registration, but not without violence.
The additional issue was that since accidents did continue to happen, the busses were then essentially torched in protest which sparked the bus drivers to go on strike! I spent these days reading the news, drawing on a map where smoke bombs, and baton wielding unmarked men (reportedly from ‘vested quarters’) had been attacking students. Laying myself out a bit of a ‘where not to go’ map.
On Aug 4 the 3g internet was officially slowed down to 2g nation wide and turned off in many cases, like that of MY PHONE. Just off, too bad, so sad. As I continue to trace out where I won't be going I started to realize I'm drawing a near perfect perimeter around my hotel.
Fortunately I was 6 storeys up. Unfortunately, going outside was very visibly a non-option for the time being. That time being DAYS, by the way. It gave me some time to better learn the lay of the land, also to begin to learn the local language ‘Bangla'. Every morning I came down to the buffet breakfast and would try to say something in Bangla to the staff, laughter ensued, then they would properly pronounce whatever I written it down in what looked like a child's first attempt at forming characters.
Feeling somewhat trapped, very far away, I took advantage of my geographical location in the only way I could - try to show people I meant business by using the email subject “Dave in Dhaka NOW - looking to make clothes ethically with transparency”.
Still protests going on (dang) and I begin to wonder if the Globe and Mail is giving this any international attention. In that search I come across a Bangladesh research paper supervised by Dr. John Richards of Simon Fraser University. A deeper dive into Dr. John and I learn he is a policy professor who has undertaken teaching and research in Bangladesh over the last decade. I send him a greeting and gentle prod for ethical clothing production leads, ‘Dave in Dhaka’ as the subject line.
To my surprise he responds very quickly with the phrase ‘you are taking the issue of corporate responsibility very seriously’. Thanks Doc! He also gives me the names of a few notable contacts and a couple ‘Dave in Dhaka's later they both very quickly respond!
Mr. Rabiul, an NGO owner and University Administrator, not only wanted to meet, but have me tour the university followed by lunch at his home. “Let us first become friends before we talk business” he said.
Dr. Nazmul, although in town for an intensive workshop was also quick to offer a very flexible amount of time to me and so a 7am meeting was scheduled with he and his wife in the days to come.
That day’s Bangla lesson was learning how to ask to rent a ‘saikel’ (bike) because although I was fearful to go outside, I thought I would be safer on the move.
What I did not anticipate was the bike breaking down. Fortunately, this happened in the least crowded place in the city. Least crowded except for the armed police every 50 feet, who all help me to establish that this was the National Parliament grounds, and the places not to go were basically every direction except the one I came.
One officer asks me if I am a journalist. Thankfully, I had learned babshai (business man) and ‘dorjhi’ (tailor) which in combination sort of made sense as a job and purpose for being in Bangladesh. I next imitate the sound of the machine as I pretended to sew, which really drives the point home. With that the officer told me how proud he was that I was here. So, pretending I’m strolling the National Parliament on purpose, I walk my broken bike, every 50 or so feet an officer points me in the only direction I am allowed, slowly leading me back to the start.
I manage to grab an uber and surprise him with the fact we will also be taking my bike. We put the front wheel in his trunk and then lay the rest of it across me in the back seat.
En route, the driver is asking me with much anticipation the reason I have come here. Babshai and Dorji is not quite doing the trick. It is this conversation I finally learn that garment in bangla is literally pronouned ‘garment’, as was the translation and pronunciation of designer. The driver also becomes the first of many who offer to connect me with a factory owning friend.
I gave him my correct phone number and my incorrect hotel room number. Moments later I am hysterically laughing in the shower, in sheer, utter, gleeful relief.