DILLINGHAM, Alaska – When the voice at the other end of the line said he was a police inspector curious about my activities in Bangladesh, I can’t say I was too surprised. I had been warned by foreigners and locals alike that poking around the country would attract suspicion from the authorities and that surveillance of citizens was commonplace. But being a reporter working on a tourist visa a mere 72 hours into my 30-day visa made it a particularly delicate situation.
And how did they get my number? I’d only had the phone for a couple of days. I had just wrapped up a meeting with the International Labour Organization, a UN agency given the unenviable task of trying to promote human rights and common decency for the country’s workforce. The ILO’s task in Bangladesh is not an enviable one. As the most densely populated country in the world, Bangladesh is hemmed in by India and Myanmar (Burma). It exists as a virtual prison for nearly 180 million souls hemmed in by the creation of East Pakistan when colonial India was split along religious lines. Since the “War of Liberation” in 1971 East Pakistan has become Bangladesh, a predominately Muslim nation of Bengalis while their Hindu brethren live across the border in India’s West Bengal with Kolkata (Calcutta) as its capital.
The ILO bureaucrats had all filed out of the conference room as I mumbled my replies to the inspector who wanted to know what exactly I was up to as a tourist in Bangladesh. There was no way in hell I was gonna tell them. For what drew me to Bangladesh was the golden goose of the country: the garment industry. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s this impoverished nation has become a massive sweatshop for international textiles and more recently for big name fashion brands like H&M, Levi’s and secondary brands like Wal-Mart.
As I said, I had been in the country a mere few days and had spent the bulk of my time sitting in Dhaka’s infamous traffic jams shuttling myself from one NGO office to the next meeting with smiling, good-natured self-proclaimed labour leaders that gave one the impression they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. For Bangladesh is the land of the NGO. As one of the poorest nations in the Asia, it is the place to be and be seen if you’re of the Oxfam, War on Want, CARE set. There are literally thousands registered all vying for foreign funding including some forty-plus labor unions that claim to represent garments workers. But when I would explain my concerns about garment worker health by these so-called labor leaders, I would be met – at best – by quizzical looks, cups of tea and promises to “look into the matter.” That said, the tea wasn’t bad.
The conversation with the inspector was brief. He had sounded surprised when I told him I was a tourist – something I took as an ill-omen as he’d probably been tipped off that there was a foreign journalist skulking about. I didn’t feel ill-at-ease until I looked at my phone and realized there was no record of the phone call in the log. A number had flashed on the screen – too quickly for me to jot down before I answered – but now there was nary a trace. Yet as a cocksure U.S. citizen I figured the worst thing that could happen is I’d be deported. I’d seen Midnight Express and (still) dismiss it as Greco-Armenian propaganda; I was interviewing registered NGOs, not wearing a girdle made of hashish. But I didn’t want to get my friends in Bangladesh in trouble – and therein lay the problem. I’d been staying with a very well-established and wealthy family who I’d been given a letter of introduction from through a mutual friend. Hosting a foreign journalist could prove a liability for the family and its business interests. Not wanting to attract undue attention from politically connected secret policemen which could bring retribution against the family, I immediately checked back into a hotel.
Not one to forsake a dinner invitation, I was was dining with my new friends at about 10 a.m. when a new number flashed on the phone. Special Branch again. Where are you now? They wanted to know. “I’m on my way back to the hotel,” I said. The reply was immediate: We’d like to meet with you. Tonight. I became the haughty tourist. “I’m about to go to bed. But I can meet you first thing in the morning – at my hotel.” That seemed to placate the inspector. Who was that? My host inquired. “Umm… that was Special Branch. Again.” The color drained from her face. She gave me a hug good bye as I left to meet my fate. Yet despite me being a political liability, the dinner invitations kept coming – secret police be damned – and was continuously plied with tea, sympathy and beef biryani.
It was pitch black as I motored back to the hotel. The power was out in the neighborhoods, not an unlikely occurrence as the temperature has been rising leading to air conditioner use, and the streets were chock full of desperate-looking internal migrants who had fled their villages seeking work in the sprawling metropolis of Dhaka, population 18.5 million. I was riding in what’s known as a CNG – it’s a three-wheeled contraption fueled by compressed natural gas – hence the acronym. Now a word or two on the CNGs of Dhaka. Several months back it was mandated – presumably for safety reasons – that all passengers be enclosed in a metal cage. The result is that the passenger is often locked inside a wrought iron grid and can only be let out by the driver. A friend told me a recent anecdote of a CNG tipping over in a flood – this was before the cages were mandated – and he and the driver were able to swim to safety. Had the cage been installed both would have surely drowned. So CNGs in Dhaka are not my preferred mode of transport. Some found the cage reassuring, others told me not to take them late at night as crooked CNG drivers could drive you to a back alley and you’d be at the mercy of the guy and his accomplices.
So we’re motoring through the not-so-deserted streets riddled with the day’s filth and debris with brown, grey and black high rises mostly built during the East Pakistan era. Just before reaching the hotel, a traffic policeman flagged us down. Fortunately the cage was unlocked and I was able to climb out to observe the proceedings. I felt that – as a foreigner – I may be able to keep the cop from shaking down the hapless driver for too hefty of a bribe. The policemen looked malevolent with their khaki uniforms, long bamboo whacking sticks and low-slung bolt-action rifles. Their eyes were afire with the power vested in them by virtue of the arms they carried and the impunity that a police officer operates in a developing country. In essence, they scared the shit out of me. I didn’t see any money exchanged but the look on their face told me that downtown Dhaka was not somewhere you wanted to be after hours.
As I walked into the lobby I knew right away something wasn’t right. The bellhops and front desk were eyeing at me strangely. I pressed the button for the elevator and as I waited for it to make its descent the stares were unabated. I couldn’t stand it and asked what it was all about. Men have been here. Asking about you, the desk manager told me. He seemed concerned. I asked if he had left his details. He produced a business card from a Special Branch inspector; I hastily copied down in my notebook in detail and thanked him.
When I got into my room I was not alone. With the flick of the switch, several poodle-sized cockroaches scurried – not to safety – but just this way and that. I am not normally a squeamish person but when an insect is larger than my thumb and has no outward fear of my presence… I’ll admit it, I lost it.
Trying to move my luggage to high ground I realized they were everywhere. I was ashamed to hear myself crying out audibly as I shook my luggage and one cascaded down to scurry up the wall. I drained what little I had left of my duty free scotch, left the light on and passed out in exhaustion.
The next day I emailed a fellow couchsurfer from the eponymous website explaining the situation. A fellow foreigner teaching at one of the international schools, kindly offered to let me stay in his palatial apartment in the diplomatic quarter. As I checked out of the hotel I could tell the staff were curious.
Was I a spy? Or just another stingy journalist? We all know the answer to that question.