Road Trip Reveals Beauty of Bangladesh Countryside

Bangladesh group

The 7-hour road trip from Dhaka, the Bangladesh Capital, to the Caritas Regional office in the town of Barisal winds through some remote villages in rural Bangladesh. When the car stops for a rest break, a crowd gathers to get a look at the foreigners. Photo by Kathleen Merkel/CRS

The midpoint of my visit in Bangladesh includes a trip out to the field, something I’m looking forward to with great anticipation. The countryside of Bangladesh holds only wonder for the city-weary traveler. Just on the outskirts of the capital city of Dhaka, I can feel myself relax, which is counter-intuitive considering we are now speeding down a two lane, tree-lined highway where buses, bullock carts, rickshaws and pedestrians all have equal claim to the road. Our driver is very skilled, so I simply take in all that I see.

Through a certain stretch of countryside, towering smokestacks of brick kilns dominate the landscape and I’m reminded that this is one of the more polluting and exploitative industries in the country. Past the brick kilns, everything else is lush, verdant landscape. Jute fields stretch as far as the eye can see, emerald-green leaves serving as a food staple, and sturdy stems providing a wide variety of uses including building materials for huts and fibers for textiles. Skinny cows lazily graze among orderly bright-green rice paddies, and I stifle a joke, assuming my American humor may not translate. (“So that’s where rice milk comes from…”)

Bangladesh boat

Kathleen, CRS public resource specialist, and James Malakar, project manager, Caritas Bangladesh, cross the last of four rivers on their journey to visit one of the new field offices for a project to promote livelihoods in Barisal, Bangladesh. Photo by Snigdha Chakraborty /CRS

Palm trees grow up around thatched-roof huts, and the whimsical haystacks look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. I can’t take enough pictures, and am beside myself with glee each time we pass a golden stack of hay being transported down the road on the back of a bicycle—the driver almost completely enveloped by his cargo.

Here and there I see women walking through the fields their bright saris floating in lovely contrast above the sea of green. Kids are swimming in the ponds not far from where the water buffaloes wade. This is everything and more that I imagined Bangladesh would be.

Stopping to stretch his legs halfway into our seven hour drive, the driver pulls over by a group of huts on the side of the road. People begin to gather outside my window, peering in at me as if they were watching me on television. A woman taps on my window and hands in two cups of tea, watches for a moment, and then walks off. My colleague and I get out of the car, and a large crowd has now gathered to watch the Jolly Pale Giant enjoy her tea. I stare at them staring at me, smiling occasionally through my own awkwardness.

We ask to pay the woman for the tea, but she has disappeared. The driver had spoken with her and explained that she would not accept payment. She said that providing us with tea was an experience that may come only once in her lifetime, and she was honored. I am humbled nearly to the point of tears. A woman who has nearly nothing just went out of her way to show us generous hospitality. Strong, sweet and delicious, it was by far the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. I wish I could have let her know.

In the evening, we arrive at the Barisal Regional Office of Caritas Bangladesh, a lovely campus set up within a town of about 50,000 inhabitants. A local high school is using the facilities for a weekend retreat, and there is a lively, youthful feel to the compound. We’re ushered to the dining hall to share a home-cooked meal with the Barisal staff. Glad that my counterparts have business to discuss in Bengali, I struggle to eat the delicious bony fish with only my right hand, as I see everyone else effortlessly doing. Midway through my meal, I glance up and realize that about 40 teenagers have focused their attention on me, some openly staring, most giggling, and quite a few taking pictures with their cell phone cameras. So much for trying to fly under the radar. I smile and give a messy fish-fingered wave.

I’m surprised I feel so at home so far out of my element. It’s the wonderful hospitality of the Caritas staff that allows me to be open and relaxed, and feel free to ask all the seemingly naïve questions that I have about their organization, their constituency and their culture. I can’t wait to see what the next day will hold when we get to go see a field outreach office that is just beginning work on a new CRS/Caritas livelihoods project. Our journey is taking me closer and closer to where our work finds its ultimate meaning: to the often-remote communities of the people that we serve.

– Kathleen Merkel, CRS public resource specialist, Asia

Bangladesh home

Homesteads like this one in rural Barisal dot the landscape throughout Bangladesh. Rice crops in the foreground indicate the major source of income for the rural population. Photo by Kathleen Merkel/CRS

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