Monday, February 14, 2011

Benapole Is The Largest Land Port In Bangladesh – There Are 172 Villages Under Sharsha Thane!

Except for fatter mosquitoes with meaner stings, Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh is almost the same as I left it some ten years ago. Immigration, customs and baggage clearance is pretty efficient however and I am out of airport into milling crowds outside in less than 30 minutes. The traffic, usually choked, chaotic and unruly I remember, is absent today; result of a strike called by government opposition against corruption (snigger, snigger), stock market, spiraling food, gas prices and power shortages. The drive to our hotel with a seedy name of Sweet Dream Boutique Hotel is a breeze.

I have been to Bangladesh before, several times, with corporate America, as head of International Finance. These were shielded trips, everything first class, from chauffer driven cars to the luxury of Sheraton and meals at some of the finest restaurant foods in the world located in the affluent area of Gulshan. This trip is on a much more modest budget, in service of poor and marginalized minority Muslims on behalf of Comfort Aid International. This trip includes Mujaahid Shareef and Nazir Merali from Orison Charitable Trust of UK as CAI partners to better lives of this community; Aliakberbhai Ratansi of Al Imaan from Mumbai join in as well.

Our first meet is with an all women group, Bangladesh Ladies Welfare Society who are active in the support of education for the poor and marginalized in Bangladesh but desperately struggle due to many funding issues. CAI will support about 100 of most vulnerable children and have committed US$20,000 to this cause. An additional US$5,000 is committed to the welfare of widows whose monthly stipend of US$10 has been stopped due to donor funding gaps.

Real adventure commences as we tour the interior, rural Bangladesh; to Jasore by air and then driving to Noor Nagar, Dobghata, Parulia, Patkelghata, Vlashi, Sharsha Sadar, Narayanpur – remote villages where CAI and OCT have partnered to repair / build small mosques that are shockingly deteriorated / damaged. The drives to these villages are long and stressful with toenail curling stunts from all drivers that see last second swerves avoiding oncoming or other traffic on narrow blacktop roads. It is a miracle we come away unscathed the three days we went driving all these places.

At Narayanpur, an English teacher, God bless him, seated between Mujaahid and me in the vehicle, decides to impress Mujaahid with his English. Speaking with considerable enthusiasm into Mujaahid’s ear, he announces - Benapole is the largest land port In Bangladesh; there are 172 villages under Sharsha Thane! Startled, Mujaahid nods his head wisely and replies, maashaa’Allah. The man is not to be discouraged, he robustly repeats - Benapole is the largest land port In Bangladesh; there are 172 villages under Sharsha Thane! Mujaahid seems alarmed at this, but humors the teacher who is intent on convincing Mujaahid for he goes again - Benapole is the largest land port In Bangladesh; there are 172 villages under Sharsha Thane!

The rest of us have convulsed into uncontained laughter by this time. Mujaahid tries, unsuccessfully, to divert conversation to me, but our teacher seems bent on convincing Mujaahid that Benapole is the largest land port In Bangladesh; there are 172 villages under Sharsha Thane! This is repeated 4 more times before we mercifully reach our destination and Mujaahid is put out of his misery.

When we are ready for takeoff to Dhaka from Jasore later in the day, the stewardess on our GMG Bombardier Dash 8 36 seat aircraft informs us the aircraft is overloaded and our luggage will follow the next day; this announcement is followed by instant pandemonium and some rather colorful Bengali choice curse words. The stewardess is unmoved, she shrugs her delicate shoulders and says – Your luggage goes, you go or none of us go, take your pick. The air calms down considerable, instantly.

I will have none of this nonsense. I storm towards her and with the most pronounced American drawl I can manage, say: We have an early morning flight to catch tomorrow; our luggage must accompany us to Dhaka on this flight. This is a (white) lie, our flight back to Mumbai is day after tomorrow but we have a packed day of appointments tomorrow, I do not want to be chasing around the airport for our luggage. Miss Delicate Shoulders looks me up and down, purses her lips in apparent frustration and directs a baggage handler to reload our bags, much to the chagrin of others. As we take off, I say a prayer for our bags not to endanger the flight; we land in Dhaka 30 minutes later.

After a busy next day, I have an hour of luxurious deep Swedish massage at Scissors and Razors, a professional all men spa across the hotel later in the evening. The masseur, a young teenager, is an expert with his fingers and hand as he relaxes and eases the aches, pains and stress of last few days out of my body. At US$20, it is well worth the treat.

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