8 Sep

I’ve sheshed the desh, a little sooner than expected, and I’m home with my Mum and my lovely family and friends. Mum says visiting Bangladesh was the hardest trip she has ever done.

Bangladesh has given me the most amazing stories to fill my mind and this blog, but there was so much more that I had wanted to say.

I had wanted to share more about the people I met.

Like Mr Mintu – full-time drive, part-time translator, bargainer, confidant, gossiper and all round nice guy. Founder of the phrases, “many tensions feeling”, “eyes water coming, m’am” and “you, Andrew, heavy love?”. He looked after all of us so well. His wife has just had their second baby, a little girl called Bosha.

Julia Ahmed, colleague, friend, definition of the empowered woman. She has committed her life to improving the situation for women in Bangladesh, working at the grassroots, at the very heart of the problem – the underlying perceptions and mindsets that establish women as inferior. She’s also a Medical Doctor and speaks Bulgarian. She’s been my mentor and I know I’ll see her again.

Dahlia Ahmed, Julia’s sister, premier Tagore recitalist, and a pretty amazing woman herself. They come from a family closely involved in the Liberation War – Julia, Dahlia, and all their siblings, are now doing great things all over Bangladesh.

My coconut lady, Shirina Sharsh, is a deft hand with a sickle, and can always pick the sweetest. She’s unique in a male dominated industry. I visited her at least weekly for my last three months, and always enjoyed having a sit and chat with curious kids and other customers. Her two little daughters go to a nearby madrasa. Go and visit her at Banani Bazar.

Shehab Shamir, founder of the Bangladesh Youth Environmental Initiative. When I first met him, he explained his goal for the organisation – “In Bangladesh”, he said, “we’ve already got the money. What we need are leaders who know what to do with it. I want to help to create the next generation of Bangladeshi environmental leaders”. I’m not sure if he knows it yet, but he’s going to be one of them, and probably not just in Bangladesh.

Shuki, a lovely young lady I met each day on my commute home. She and her brothers lived with her Aunty, and sold flowers and other things in the traffic each day. My first purchase was a ridiculous balloon, and I started preparing myself with an stock of bananas for her and all the other kids at Gulshan 1 circle. I wish I had done more to help her and her family. And I didn’t get to say goodbye.

The Mirpur gals.

And of course, other expats.

I had wanted to write more about everyday life for me and others.

Early morning rickshaw rides. Roadside cha. The curious and invasive stares. The day a bulldozer bulldozed dozens of stalls outside our office to make way for car parks – the car parks have since been re-occupied. Buying a bag of the fattest, pinkest lychees you’ve ever seen, and eating most of the bag before arriving home.

Earthquakes. Men selling live chickens and ducks to your doorstep, to deal with the power outages. The odd beauty of a smoke-stack. Turag River, partially filled in over the year I was there. The lack of open space.

That answer-less debate about giving money to those who ask for it. The extremes of rich and poor, and my place in that. The ethics of bargaining. The ethics of not bargaining. The satisfaction and headache of bargaining.

Buying strings of jasmine flowers to festoon the house – Mr Mintu’s best barginning effort was about 50 strings for 100 taka, downtown, when the going rate in Gulshan is only 10 for 100. He nearly cried with joy.

About how you can feel so much affection, hope and so much despair for a country and all I met, at the same time. How I can be happy to be home, for now, but know that I’ll be back.

Bangladesh – Inshallah – I’ll be back.

A prayer by Rabindranth Tagore

29 Jul

Bow my head to let it touch the ground beneath your feet
Let all my pride be drowned in my tears.
In seeking glory, I’ve only been debasing myself
I’ve only been denuding myself of life time after time
Let all my pride be drowned in my tears.
Let me not proclaim myself through my own work
Let me fulfill only your wishes through the life that I live.
Let me feel your ecstasy and savor the grace you confer
Enfold me fully in your lotus-petals. O Lord,
Let all my pride be drowned in my tears.

Translated from Bangla by Dr. Fakhrul Alam

Village Times

22 Jul

During Sally’s visit to Bangladesh, I scheduled in some ‘village time’ to experience a bit of rural Bangladesh, and get some much needed respite from Dhaka. A friend’s NGO had just started offering weekend packages – two nights and two days at a rustic guest house, exploring their schools and projects, and eating rice and curry.

We took the evening flight to Jessore. On the way out of the airport, our car was stopped by a policeman, and the car keys temporarily confiscated – our very young driver had been speeding to meet us in time. We were warmly greeted at the guesthouse, and settled into our cozy rooms.

Thus began two intriging days in Kaliganj, and two days of epic sweating. It was hot.

The guesthouse faced the NGO school, and when we woke up the next mroning, Sally had already been up for an hour taking pictures of gorgeous schoolkids. Upon spotting a waving bideshi with a camera across the way, kids were promptly abandoning their classrooms.

Our hosts took us to South Asia’s oldest Bodhi tree grove, just nearby. The Bodhi is the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. We only gained frustration, trying to escape camera phones. My ‘village-check’ SK failed as camouflage. We began to sweat.

We visited Rebecca, who runs an organic compost business. She fed us jackfruit and showed us her witchetty grubs.

We met these stunning Rayban models, and sweated. This village offered some prime baby-spotting opportunities for Sally.

We visited a small school that had been built from the donations of a fellow volunteer. We felt as proud as the kids, teachers and parents who had come to look at us, while we looked at them. The teacher’s mum has cooked us some kind of treacly doughnut and served us mango.

Throughout the tour, our host was jovial.

“One of our colleagues has a very sick mother. We are going to pay our respects”. What we didn’t realise was that – the detour was for us to pay our respects. We were lead to her small house, and peered at this tiny, ill woman being fanned by a relative in her mud brick room. We were then fed fresh mango.

We hung out at an organic farm, and sweated some more. Mum’s sweaty ‘do rag’ was now saturated.

While chilling, or perhaps baking with a granddad  and his grandsons, our hosts informed us that we had been invited to the wedding of one of their colleagues. Hot, sweaty, confused, we tried to decline.

“We don’t want to go – just to be tourists…”, I told our host.

“Well… we’ve already told them you’ll be going. And you’ll need to take a gift”.

We wandered over to the next door village, where we were shown the young groom, the even younger bride, and shook hands with the local elected representative, our heads spinning. I directed young men to turn their camera phones away from us, towards the sad bride. When the extent of our sweating was registered, we were steered into a small ‘good room’ to sit and be fanned.

My stomach started churning. Oh god. Oh, oh god – loose motions. Thankfully, I had spotted a toilet near the good room. I sweated boiling sweat and emptied my bowels, and left feeling much better.

When the fanning in the good room got too weird, we escaped back out to the marquee, where guests were lining up to be fed biryani and our favourite wedding dessert, ‘mishti doi’.

Ten minutes later, the churning returned. When I emerged from the toilet, I could see people muttering. A teenage boy was moving around, whispering the bangla phrase I will never forget.

“Patla paycana”.

Loose motions. Loose, loose motions, And now the whole village knew. Our host looked to me, panicked.

“Yep, yes, it’s true” I said. “And now everyone knows!”

Mum and I were taken back to the car in a flat-bed rickshaw, sweating and fearing the return of the churns.

We made it back to Dhaka that evening, exhausted, dehydrated, confused and morally conflicted – a genuine village experience.

In our short trip, we’d experienced a tiny, dense sliver of the richness of Bangladesh – food, crowds, heat, sickness, health, 150 million people, in the space little bigger than Tasmania, living, loving and dying, as always, together.

Andy summed it up.

“All we needed – for a complete trip – was a birth”.


2 Jul

Due to a range of reasons – potentially deserving of a pretty awesome PhD – Bangladesh and Myanmar served as the perfect locations for Sally to indulge in her favorite passtime: Baby Spotting. During her two week visit, we spotted hundreds of babies, and were able to document some of the best sightings.




There is alot that I could say about these little kids – theirs is, often, not a childhood that I recognise. Where are the seatbelts? Where are the food pyramids? Where are the hats and shoes? I think that Sally’s pictures have captured an intersection – these kids carry the weight of their countries’ history, with the joy and contentment of a new start. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar are going through incredible change.

Or maybe… she’s just trying to send me a message…


An Englishman, two Australians, eight Burmese and one Missing Purse

30 Jun

Sally and I last week ventured to Myanmar, described by the man who booked our flights as “more than just the land of the golden pagoda!!”.

Our adventure had taken us through Yangon to Bagan, an epic 42 square kilometres of ancient temples in the country’s heart. Armed with two cameras and easy-to-remove shoes, we hired a horse and cart and headed out into the fields.

Our cart driver, Tum Tum, knew all the best sites, and we trotted along, spotting stunning golden tipped pagodas, ornately decorated temples, ten-foot Buddhas and dodging over-zealous souvenir peddlers. We were in old-thing heaven.

Late in the day, we were heading to the white pagoda, a huge climb-able number from where we could see sunset. Heading in, we were asked to show our pagoda passes, and rummaged around in our bags.

It was then we discovered – Sally’s purse was gone.

Since there are no ATMs in Myanmar, this was something of a big deal. Sally had been carrying all her currency with her. This was going to put a serious dent in our shopping budget.

We remembered that we had had the purse at the very last temple, as we had paid the woman who had unlocked the gates. We immediately re-tracked our path in the cart, and then back on foot, but the purse was not found. We headed sadly back to the white pagoda for a cloudy sunset.

When we got back to our guesthouse, we told the man at reception that we would need to go to the police station the next day, if, for nothing else, to make a police report. Unsettled, we went to bed.

At 11:30pm, we got a knock on the door.

“The police are here to see you”.

In our pyjamas – Sally, regrettably, in an ‘Angry Birds’ top – we went to reception, where we were greeted by a policeman. We knew he was a policeman because he was wearing a lungi, a t-shirt that said ‘POLICE’ on the back, sandals, and had a walkie-talkie clipped to the top of the lungi. He was munching on a fresh roll of betel nut. The man at reception translated for us.

“He needs to know exactly what was in your purse”.

We had a reasonable idea about how much cash was in the purse, the main cards and so on. Mum showed her passport.  The policeman eyed us suspiciously, and called for back-up.

Two more policemen showed up. These fellows were in proper blue uniforms, one wearing thongs, but had no bags and no purse with them. Then all the guesthouse staff showed up, half to help and translate, and half just for a look. Mum and I sat wide-eyed on the lounge, as we were asked to write out a statement, of all the items in the purse.

But there was a problem. How many kyats had there been in the purse? Embarrassingly, we got down to a 20,000 kyat ball park – about $30 – but could not say for certain. “Were there any coins, madam?”. Mum was certain she had removed all the Australian coins. More men showed up. They talked loudly between themselves, but no-one would tell us what was going on.

It became apparent that the purse had been found, but its location was not clear. The police laid out a statement, written by a one ‘Anthony Richards, Englishman’, detailing exactly – like, exactly – what was in the purse. Cash. Cards. Receipts. Other rubbish that people carry in their purse.

We were getting impatient. We had been sitting there for an hour already.

“But WHERE is the purse NOW?” Sally exclaimed.

One of the policemen un-buttoned his blue top, and pulled out the purse. It had been nestled against his belly the whole time. Sally and I broke into nervous and hysterical laughter.

Everything was pulled out of the purse and checked against Mr Richards’ statement. Cash – US and kyats. Cards, right down to two Flight Centre business cards and a magnet from the Bardon Physiotherapy Centre. All receipts. A bus ticket. 40 Australian cents, in a twenty, a ten and two fives. We spent half an hour checking everything off the statement. We’d never seen such accountability!

We were obligingly given the name of Mr Richards’ hotel, and although it was so late, Mum called to say thank you.

“Actually, it was our cart driver that found the purse, but he gave it to us to hand to the police”. They themselves had spent a good few hours with the police, writing this bloody statement.

Finally, the police took a photo of the head policeman handing Mum back her purse. Case closed!

Exhausted, we headed back to our room, in a state of nervous excitement. We got a knock on the door. It was the man from reception.

“Madam – your purse! Again!”.

In our exhaustion, we had left the purse on the lobby table.

The following day, tired but with buoyed spirits, we headed out to see more temples. In one temple – darkened to preserve ancient frescos – we saw a huge, majestic Buddha. The top of his crown was lit by a thin stream of light from a high, unseen window.

“Any later in the day and you would have missed this sight,” Said the caretaker. “You’re very lucky!”.

“More than you know!” Mum replied, and we left an offering.

That afternoon, trotting back to our guesthouse, another cart pulled up alongside us. The driver and Tum Tum had a spirited discussion. “He is the man who found your purse!”. Of course – he recognised Mum from her driver’s licence.

We stopped to give him a reward and to say thank you, thank you! The purse had been found in a bush, and they must have passed only moments after us.

After having spent the previous afternoon cursing every Buddah we saw – “how could you let this happen?” – Mum then vowed to become a Buddhist. This has so far only involved her taking pictures of Buddhas, but we’ve been left with a striking sense of what it might mean to be a Buddhist in Myanmar – more than just pagodas.


Concert for Bangla Desh

10 Jun


In 1971, George Harrison organised the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’, to raise money for humanitarian relief. Bangladesh was facing the aftermath of a cyclone, and was in the midst of the liberation war.

Two concerts were held in Madison Square Gardens on the same day, bringing together Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar – who had initially brought the idea for a benefit concert to George Harrison – as well as Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and a team of super cool musicians, glowing in the fading light of the 60s.

The final song, George Harrison’s ‘Bangla Desh’, features some memorable lines, including, “I don’t understand, but it sure looks like a mess”.

The concert and subsequent album and documentary raised millions of dollar over the next few years – not without controversy – and the funds that made it to Bangladesh were administered by UNICEF.  Ravi Shankar later said of the concert, “In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion …”.

Do yourself a favor and buy the album. It’s music for the heart and mind.


You can buy the album and DVD here. Proceeds go to UNICEF for work in Bangladesh, Angola, Romania, Brazil, India and countries in the Horn of Africa. By-the-by, I don’t work for UNICEF, but I kinda wish I did.


5 Jun

In the month of May, we took 836 photos.

Here is a selection of some of the best.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.