Yep, it was a long time ago. My university offered a subject where the students actually went to Bangladesh for a three week study tour to study International Development in Bangladesh. Don’t panic Australian taxpayers – we had to fork the money out ourselves! And it turned out to be an amazing experience.
I’ve never studied abroad – this was the closest I got to it. It would be an eventful three weeks. I’d been twice to India before this trip, but this was a relative unknown for me and the others on the trip. As it happened the Professor who ran the subject was married to a Bangladeshi, hence his ties with the country and contacts.
Essentially we would visit three main places. The capital, Dhaka, would be our main base. We would learn a bit about the country there, visit a museum, a night at the cricket even, and here about several NGOs, not to mention visit the Australian Embassy. Then we visited Bhola Island, which required us to take what was to be quite the ferry ride, and visit schools and the like on the island which was reputed to be one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh. The third part was a visit inland. I’m not sure (and my diaries do not survive) exactly where we went but it was near the town of Puthia, and we stayed in a disabled children’s home.
I would probably have a different take on what I saw and experienced today. A lot of international development really depends on who funds it. There are countless examples around the world of organisations basically employing people from their own country, dictating to the country where the project is how it will be. The matter of control is a huge issue in my mind. The idea to take a group of students to learn about international development is both a good and bad idea simultaneously.
Still. There was a lot of preparation done by those running the subject. The very idea of taking a group, probably around in 30 when you included staff, to Bangladesh and loose on the locals sounds horrifically daunting to me. So many factors to consider, not least of which was the fact that Bangladesh is a dry country – alcohol is a no-go for Muslims which make up nearly 90 per cent of the population. The most densely populated non-city state in the world we were told.
Which is the first shock you get before you go – the country is around the size of my state here in Australia, Victoria, which is home to under 6 million people. The population of Bangladesh? In 2013 it was 156 million. I think it was around 130 million in 2002. Staggering!
So, it was an evening in November 2002 and a group of students from RMIT University, Melbourne, boarded a Thai Airways flight to head to Dhaka, Bangladesh. We stopped in Bangkok, we arrived late at night. I remember we all had breakfast together before heading out to what is now the old international airport Don Muang, and we got on board to fly to Bangladesh.
We were a group of leftie hippes naturally. We were a range of ages, although mostly mid-20s. We were all a buzz as you could imagine, and it was only a few hours and we touched down in Dhaka. Outside the airport we were greeted with a big banner welcoming us to Bangladesh. We had arrived! Months of meetings and planning and now we were in a mini-bus rumbling through the Dhaka streets.
To see the faces of those who had never been to this part of the world was something to behold as they stared at the traffic and the chaos that you find in any large city on the sub-continent. And Dhaka is as mad as any Indian city that I’ve been too. The pollution at the time was stifling – however Bangladesh made a couple of major decisions and banned plastic bags and two-stroke auto-rickshaw engines. In 2004 when I returned the air was far more breathable.
But yes – auto-rickshaws abounded. The traffic was huge. And it took a long time to get to our guesthouse in Dhaka. The Kushiara Guesthouse would be our home away from home for much of our three weeks there. I had my own room by chance there, and we would have many meals and become good friends with those who worked there. It was a special.
However, it would not be long – one day – before we would head south by ferry (a hell of a ride!) to Bhola Island. So, please come back next week to find out about that! Until next time – May the Journey Never End!