If Bangladesh were a person, she would be a youthful teenager, full of life and energy but with a decidedly emotional temperament to which wisdom or logic could not be easily applied. You would regard her as full of potential and while she seems eager to learn, a scarcity of sensible role models and life opportunities has limited her capacities, thus you couldn’t yet be sure who she would be in her adult future. You would watch her struggle vigorously in all that she did, and despite the fact you might conclude that the cards are stacked against her, you could never fault her spirit or her resilience, not for a second.
To witness this resilience amongst Bangladeshi people is the single most striking and memorable feature of a visit to the country. Against a long list of challenges – poverty, political pandering, natural calamities and now climate change – millions of Bangladeshis have but one possession and almost nothing else: the strength of their spirit and their willingness to carry on. Thankfully, unlike the country’s early days of uncertainty, there are more and more encouraging signs of maturity nowadays, despite distinct growing pains. Of the eight United Nations-defined Millennium Development Goals (poverty elimination targets), Bangladesh is widely acknowledged to be ‘on track’ for meeting half of them, although a burgeoning population and a rather incomprehensible political system blunts these extraordinary achievements.
Demographic and political acne aside, travellers will discover Bangladesh’s true beauty lies well outside its crowded and polluted cities. In a country beset by water, river journeys offer the most memorable way to see and experience a place that is more than 50% underwater during the rainy season. Interestingly, these are also the same areas that may be lost to the sea in a climate change scenario, with some companies being bold enough to offer ‘global warming tours’, and with all the current media attention these might very well become popular one day.
Visitors will also find a rather surprising amount of cultural diversity behind Bangladesh’s persona, as Bengal has long been a meeting place of Arab traders, Arakanese raiders, Mughal masters and dozens of ethnically unique indigenous groups, most of whom share more similarities with southeast Asia than India. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, with its geographical and ethnic wealth, is the focal point of this diversity but remains the country’s best-kept secret. While Islam permeates the nation’s affairs, attitudes towards the religion are in fact much more liberal. Significant populations of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians reside within Bangladesh’s borders. One of the country’s founding cornerstones lay in having a political identity that remained separate from a religious one.
The ‘sights’ in Bangladesh don’t compare to those of its neighbours, but that’s not really what a journey to the country’s many temples, mosques and monasteries is all about. Compared to the ‘been there, done that’ travelling mentality of many global nomads, it is both refreshing and compelling to know that one can still have honest and real experiences in a country that remains so unexplored and unknown to foreign tourism. While this could be considered both a blessing (Bangladesh’s utterly sincere generosity is often surprising to India-hardened travellers) and a curse (luxuries are few and far between), travellers will certainly leave knowing that if they’ve survived in Bangladesh, there are few other places where they’d feel out of their depth. Furthermore, those who decide to engage with Bangladesh on a deeper level (ie: as volunteers, development workers or business people) will often be rewarded with even greater opportunities to see the story behind the horrible headlines Bangladesh often produces.
Last but not least, no introduction would be complete without reference to Bangladeshi hospitality, which is best experienced in the countryside or in the homes of local friends. Each Bangladeshi considers it both a pleasure and a duty to be of service to a foreign guest, and will often offer visitors far more than they can sometimes themselves afford, and with nearly unstoppable enthusiasm. This hospitality is so generous that most notions of Western kindness do seem paltry in comparison. The best thing you can do is accept such hospitality graciously and repay the favour in whatever way you feel capable and in whatever timeframe you see fit; certainly, printing and sending photographs back to your hosts would be the absolute least you could do. But do be aware that some visitors, having been so impacted by the level of poverty and lack of opportunities, have decided to set up entire slum schools or countryside hospitals funded entirely on donations. Or write travel guidebooks.
Above all, it will be that resilient teenager spirit that leaves the longest lasting impression. It’s in the eyes of the cyclone victims who smile in the midst of a relief operation; it’s in the happiness of the street children who you discover are still children at heart despite enraging conditions; it’s the survivor spirit living inside the widowed woman who attends NGO training to improve her lot and says that she can inspire other women to do the same. To meet this young and youthful spirit up close is to understand the nature of the human spirit.
To listen to the audio version of this page, please use the below player.