Sunday, August 9, 2009

"We are going to hell, so what can you do?"

As I was walking down the Nakhalpara railroad tracks that were bordered by tents and pieced-together houses, a weathered old man with a slightly arched back and white beard had apparently had enough of my "tourism", and let me know it in broken English. I didn't quite understand what he said at first, and my confusion left him despondently muttering something about his English being so bad that I couldn't even understand it.

You can't fault him for his angst. He had less wealth and income to his name than the value of what I was carrying in my two front pockets (iPod, cellphone, voice recorder, and wallet, in case you were wondering). And here I was, coming in with all my wealth just looking around, asking questions. Admittedly, it was condescending. But, I argued, with the help of my translator, that if no one knows about it, no one can do anything. It's a tough line to walk - you want to learn, but you don't want to patronize.

Hot, cramped, and ignored, the slum population in Dhaka has grown enormously since the country's liberation in 1971 from West Pakistan, especially in more recent years as the rural population moves to the city to find work (and Dhaka is THE city in Bangladesh). Their standard of living, on the other hand, has not increased. Over the past month I've gone into the slums on numerous occasions to try to figure out how everything works. I've seen so much it's hard to choose what to tell you without making this a novel, so I'll try to first give you a little background, from what I've found so far.

Korail slum, which most say is the biggest in Dhaka, has an estimated population of 120,000 in about a 3 square km area. This is even more amazing when you considerthat all dwellings are one-story shacks. People are everywhere. Think of trying to cram 400-500 people, in homes, on an area smaller than the size of a football field. And I thought Vandy dorms were bad. The slum itself is almost like a miniture town inside the city. They have their own barber shops, tea stalls, snack marts, and restaurants.

Mr. Anish (2nd pic), a rickshaw puller and our guide, showed us one of the restaurants. The food, which had already been cooked, looked like it had been sitting there for a while. He said that a plate of rice costs 4 Taka (one Taka is about 1.5 cents), fish was 20 Taka, egg was 15 Taka, chicken curry was 30 Taka, and smashed potato was 3 Taka. The food was just sitting on this shelf that looked more like a book case than anything you’d see in a restaurant (see pic). To wash the plates there was a jug on the floor containing murky yellow water that was splashed over the plates before they were dried and set back on the stack for the next customer. He said it was “good food" but he didn't eat here because it was too expensive. He explained, “All this, low classes food. But the mineral water, clean.” He poured some over my hand to show me it was cold.

Drinking water here is available for purchase at cheap prices from a water line that the city has provided. I haven't figured out the arsenic levels in it yet (which is a problem in Bangladesh), but the residents seem to think it is pretty clean (even though they said they generally get sick every two weeks to a month).

Bathing and cooking water is free, but at a price. It comes from the highly polluted Banani Lake. They brought up a bucket of water from the reserve, and while it didn't have any weird color shades or large chunks, you could see particles floating to the top and the random bug here or there. They said they had mostly gotten used to the water, but many people did still get skin rashes about once a week. Seeing babies or young children with speckled rashes on their heads or bodies, either from water or heat, is not uncommon. In the next post I'll try to cover some of the other stuff I've seen. Hopefully I'll get to it sooner than later.

1 comment:

  1. Aaahhh! That food looked soooo unappetizing...and right before we were about to put our burgers on the grill. I know you've been sick lately and hope you're feeling better. Love your stories!