I first saw Dhaka on a sweltering afternoon in June 1972. The two-hour flight from Bangkok over Burma and the Bay of Bengal gave me time to sit back in air-conditioned comfort and feel that everything was going my way. Here I was, from the wrong side of the tracks in small-town Ontario, setting out at the age of thirty-two to open up the first Canadian diplomatic mission in Bangladesh. Life was good. Around me elegant flight attendants served exotic foods and supplied ice-cold beer in the luxury of Thai International business class.
Approaching landfall, the aircraft descended through black monsoon clouds until we could see the lush green delta of the Meghna, Ganges, and Bramaputra Rivers. From that far up, there were no signs of the recent catastrophes that had hit the new country of Bangladesh: the cyclone of 1970 that killed half a million people; the just-ended civil war against West Pakistan in which hundreds of thousands died; the massive smallpox epidemic that was still ravaging the population.
The landing at Dhaka International Airport was rough — the tarmac was still pockmarked with crudely repaired craters left over from the heavy bombing by the Indian air force the previous December. Workers rolled the airport’s only functioning set of stairs up to the aircraft door and the petite attendant smiled as she opened the door to . . . another world. A stench of humid, sweet-and-sour air poured in, smothering the sterile air-conditioned comfort of the cabin. A mob of half-clad beggars waited, clamouring piteously for baksheesh, or charity, as I descended the rickety staircase. Some with hands but no feet hobbled on their knees, grabbing at my clothes. Others, with feet but no hands, stuck damp stumps of their festering limbs in my face. Their eyes were wild and their skin pitted with smallpox scars. Within seconds I was drenched in sweat.
There was no protocol officer to greet me, even though I was Canada’s new acting high commissioner. In fact there were no officials of any sort present to keep order as I fought my way through packs of mendicants to the immigration counter and then to the baggage reception area. Once again I was besieged, this time by porters fighting among themselves to carry my one bag. I grabbed it myself and joined a half-dozen other expatriates competing for transport into the city. A solitary taxi waited at the exit. Watching all those old American war movies then paid off. Like Milo Minderbinder of Catch-22
in wartime Italy, I pulled out a carton of American cigarettes and held it aloft as our safari-suited band of brothers bore down on the driver. I was the chosen one. The driver flashed me a smile, opened the back door, and, leaving the others behind, drove me to the only modern hotel in the city, the Intercontinental.
Afterwards, curious to learn more about this city that was now my new home, I made my way, fascinated and appalled, through the crowds that choked the roads and sidewalks day and night in Bangladesh’s capital. The streets were filled with bicycle rickshaws decorated with hand-painted scenes from the civil war, pushcarts manned by sweating labourers, buses with more passengers on the roof than inside, wandering cattle, and wagons and stagecoaches drawn by skeletal horses. Overhead, tangles of wire cluttered the telephone poles and the sky was black with crows and, yes, vultures. Cloying smoke from the burning dried cow dung used for cooking hung in the air, mixing with the acrid smell of black exhaust fumes spewing from ill-maintained bus, truck, and car motors and the odour of tens of thousands of unwashed bodies.
Women modestly enveloped from head to foot in burkas, black garments with openings for the eyes and nose, and men dressed in dhotis, a type of skirt, thronged the thoroughfares. Mentally disabled people, often naked and filthy, competed with stray dogs foraging for food among the garbage heaps. In the absence of sanitary facilities, men and women, their mouths crimson from the juice of betel nuts, squatted in the gutters with as much dignity as they could muster. Others exposed the corpses of their loved ones on the sidewalks, begging for money to accord them a decent burial. In this, my initial encounter with South Asia, the colour, vibrancy, and authenticity of local life that I was later to discover were overwhelmed by poverty and human misery.
Beggars surrounded me just as they had at the airport. About five hundred metres from the hotel, I gave a small coin to a half-blind man crawling along on the sidewalk. Another, more robust, individual snatched it from him and a crowd sprang up clamouring for more. I turned and headed back to the hotel with the wretched of the earth following behind, howling. The wronged recipient of my bounty wobbled after me, crab-like, wailing that he had been robbed and appealing for another handout. I did not want to run — after all, I was Canada’s acting high commissioner.
I walked faster. Somehow the beggar kept up. The crowd followed, hoping I would weaken and offer another coin that they could steal. I went faster but the half-blind beggar kept coming. The crowd stopped at the hotel property line but the poor unfortunate continued through. The uniformed doorkeeper opened the heavy glass door to let me in and slammed it in his face. Literally. I looked back — his face and body were squashed against the glass, his tongue hung from his open mouth, and his protruding eyes met mine. I went up to my comfortable room but did not sleep well that night, and not for many more to come. I had not counted on this when I joined Canada’s foreign service.
Excerpted from On Six Continents by James K. Bartleman. Copyright © 2005 by James K. Bartleman. Excerpted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.