My Trip to Bangladesh

Since everyone has been bugging me for news about my recent trip to Bangladesh, I thought I'd put my thoughts up. The motivation for the trip was to explore a business opportunity. I won't go into the particulars of the business, but our main goal was to determine whether it would be feasible to open an office in Bangladesh from which to do work. Also, please forgive any typos, grammatical errors, etc. I'm pretty busy right now, so I don't have time to do a perfect job.

The trip began with 1 short flight (2 hrs.) and 3 medium long (6-7 hrs.) flights. Total travel time was around 30 hours including layovers, etc. The flights weren't all that bad since the planes were relatively new, had movies, games etc. The only annoyance was while flying from Bahrain to Dhaka there were people smoking, even in the non-smoking section, even after they had been told not to. It took me a while to figure out, but most of the guys on the plane were returning home from working in the Gulf region. In any case we arrived at Zia International Airport in Dhaka around 8am. Customs and baggage collection were no problem. We were then supposed to meet a driver from our hotel. Naturally he wasn't there. We waited in a fenced in area in front of the terminal where the taxis waited. It was fenced in because there were hundreds of people waiting just outside the gate. Waiting for what, I have no idea. I suppose watching people arrive at the airport is as good as anything else to do. Much to our relief our driver did eventually show up.

I almost had a heart attack driving back to the hotel. Traffic lights mean nothing (much like a bus driver in Turkey once described, traffic lights only indicate that the power in the city is on). Lines on the road mean nothing. The roads were jammed. Right of way is determined soley by size and courage. If you've got the courage to ride your rickshaw out in front of that big bus, the bus driver will probably not hit you... assuming he sees you.

The roads are packed in the following order. First add busses and trucks. In whatever space is not used by these, add cars. Generally the cars are small and Japanese. Some SUV's owned by the richer folk. Next in whatever space is still available add baby taxis. These are small 3 wheeled covered scooters that taxi people around and emit rather noxious fumes. Next come the rickshaws jammed in wherever they can fit. There are the sort of rickshaws that have bicycle power as opposed to feet power. Finally come pedestrians. They're all there, going about their business. All honking. Essentially wherever you need to go, somebody or something will be in your way. There isn't really anything you can do except honk and let the other vehicle know you're there. Horns are used incessantly. They're used more just to let other people know you're there than anything else. You couldn't count to 5 without hearing a horn, even sitting in the hotel.

The drive back to the hotel was also my first sight on BD. The number of people was pretty overwhelming. They were everywhere.

We finally got to the hotel, rested for a bit and then ate in the hotel restaurant. That afternoon we did some admin sorts of things, lining up interviews, etc. That evening I crashed hard. I'm assuming Brian did too.

Up bright and early. We met with a guy who owns and investment company. He wanted to help us set up our company and possibly rent some space to us. We had tea and cookies.

Can't remember if we ate dinner or not, but I crashed hard again.

Woke up early again. We went to Dhaka University to advertise for possible recruits. We hadn't been able to schedule any sort of meeting with anyone, so we just had our driver take us there. Of course he didn't know where to take us, so we ended up at the engineering school. At this point we just got out and started asking people where the math department was. Eventually we were pointed in the right direction. We ended up meeting with the chairman of the department and giving him our spiel. Another faculty member then volunteered to take us around to various other departments. We met all sorts of heads of departments. All were quite nice and offered us tea each time.

Both BUET (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, or something like that) and Dhaka University are right next to each other. Together they are the premier schools in BD. The facilities that we saw were pretty meager. Old desks, no AC (even in the chairmen's offices). Most buildings appeared to be about 50-70 years old... which is about the age of the schools. I saw a few computers in the Computer Science department, but not many others. About a week after this we walked through the campus a bit with a guy who had gone there and saw some of the nicer areas. Still nothing to write home about, but nicer than the rest of the city.

That afternoon we headed to North South University, the first private university in BD. Here we were received with flowers and more tea and more cookies. Met a bunch of people, including the vice provost-someone or other who was the president of the school. We didn't get any resumes (to our dismay) but we scheduled a talk for the following week. Also the guy who showed us around NSU offered to show us around the city. He taught entreprenurial classes there so he had a special interest in us.

On Thursday we went to the Grameen IT park. Basically a guy is setting up an IT park in Dhaka just like you see all over the US. The office will provide all of the facilities needed to run an IT company. This includes backup power, security, cleaning, phones etc. Pretty nice place. This is appealing to us since we'll have less infrastructure stuff we'll have to deal with.

Some of you may have heard of the Grameen Bank before. They were the ones who pioneered micro-lending. This is where small loans ($100 - $1000, give or take) are given, usually to women, to help them start small businesses. They have been quite successful in both making money and helping people who otherwise wouldn't have had much of a chance. Their business model has been copied in many other places.

After visiting the IT park we checked out Computer World. Basically this was a mall that housed only computer stores. You can get hardware cheaper in BD than here in the US since there are no import duties and there are good connections to Singapore where a lot of the hardware is made.

That afternoon we went to visit and IT firm. The building was pretty hard to find, but when we did we met with some pretty sharp guys. These guys were doing all Java and Oracle. I think they were the only ones in all of Bangladesh who weren't singing the praises of Microsoft. If you think MS has a monopoly here, its nothing compared to BD. Of the approximately 50 people we interviewed only about 5 had any experience with Unix at all, and most of this experience consisted of ls, cd, etc. The sad part was that this included many computer science students! Visual Basic seemed to be the holy grail.

Anyway, this IT firm we visited happened to be in a garment factory, aka, a sweatshop. When we left we asked for a tour through the sweatshop to see what it was like. It was pretty much what the name implies. It was really hot. The workers were primarily young and mostly women. Some were sitting at sewing machines, others sorting buttons by hand and others cutting cloth by hand. I think aside from the sewing machines, everything else was done by hand. The finished stuff we saw actually looked pretty nice. Note that I didn't see anyone who looked really young, but there were definitely kids in there. A lot of Bangladeshis don't seem to bothered by this. Since a lot of kids don't have parents, don't go to school and have brothers and sisters to support people think it is just as well to work in a garment factory. While they're probably right to some extent, I think there is also an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to it.

This evening we went out to dinner somewhere other than the hotel. In most western cities it would be pretty weird that we hadn't gone out to eat yet, but in BD this is fairly normal since going out to eat isn't really a part of their culture. I think it is a fairly new thing introduced by foreigners and the more westernized Bangladeshis.

We took a baby-taxi to get to the restaurant. It was so small that I couldn't see out the front. I think this is just as well, I'm not sure I would have wanted to see anything. I sure did smell lots of things. Primarily exhaust, but also lots of other fun smells. It was also very dusty. Generally unpleasant, but cheap. The ride only cost us $1.

Anyway, we went to a Chinese restaurant. The food was so-so. After a few minutes some sort of party began. It took us a while to figure it out, but it was a wedding. I'm not sure if I ever saw the bride, but the groom was there sitting on a special bed. People were coming and going, but eventually some priests (but not priests since they weren't catholic) came and performed a small ceremony with just the groom. Then they celebrated with donut holes that had been soaked in some sort of sweet liquid. They gave Brian and I one each and filmed us as we ate them. They were nauseating but we smiled anyway. As we were leaving one guy started talking to us. He was the first person to ask us what our religion was. We chose Christianity to avoid any sort of problem.

We decided to take a Rickshaw back. Our driver couldn't have weighed more than 100 lbs. and he was working pretty hard to pull both Brian and I. Still hot and smelly. He took us through the bazaar that was right next to our hotel. Plenty of people milling about, even at night.

The next day, Friday we went into Old Dhaka. Brian wanted to take a boat trip on the river, but we had a really hard time communicating that to the driver. I think he had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to walk around down there. After doing so I think I agree with him. There were people everywhere. Lots of kids were following us around. We did find a boat to take us out on the river. It was pretty nice, if only because we were away from the hordes of people. Here are some links to some of the pictures I took from the river. The kid who is in the pictures of Brian and I was just a tag-a-long. I think Brian eventually paid him 20Tk ($0.40) when we left. He was happy. 1, 2, 3 4, 5.

I consider the various bazars (there are more than one) to be kind of like the Bangladeshi K-Marts. You can get whatever you need there. A hammer? Fine, over at that booth. Cucumber? Next mat down. Rebar? take a left at the end of the ally. Shirts? No problem.

I didn't take any pictures of the Bazaar or of Old Dhaka because I felt kind of uncomfortable doing so. For whatever reason I just never felt right.

We eventually left the bazar and had the driver take us to Bangladeshi restaurant. We had him eat with us, which was good because there were no menus. I was successfully able to communicate the fact that I don't eat meat. The food was so-so. It consisted of Rice, Dal (lentils), some strange vegetables and different types of vegetable balls.

That afternoon we met up with Quazi, the guy from NSU. He took us around to some of the nice parts of Dhaka. We saw the Parliment building, a couple of parks and then went to Baskin Robbins. On the way home we stopped at a store that sold cheap western clothing. Brian found a $300 North Face Gore-tex jacket for $25. Not a bad deal.

The next morning was a huge storm. While I was in the shower one of the windows in my hotel room blew out. Brian claims to have felt the building shaking. Anyway, there was quite a bit of damage. From these pictures you can see a number of billboards blown over. 6. 7. In this picture you can see some standing water. Its probably about 3 feet deep in the alley. 8.

You can also see lots of some of what Dhaka looks like. I'm not sure that there is a building in the city which is completely finished. Almost all buildings have rebar sticking out the tops, as if they've left themselves the option to keep building if they need to. There are also often many shacks on top of the buildings where people live.

Here is a picture of some storm clouds. I think the bluriness is from the window shaking as opposed to the camera. 9.

On Sunday we visited a few more software companies to meet people and explore joint venture stuff. Again we were given flowers and tea. Fortunately I like tea. Everyone seemed very enthusiastic to have Americans considering doing business in BD. One guy said it was his patriotic duty to offer us help.

Monday. Interviews begin. I should tell you that for the whole week we'd been there, Brian had been lining up interviews with people over the phone, which proved rather challenging given the language barrier. We came up with some questions to gauge candidates problem solving abilities. For example, if you were given a rectangular fish tank filled with golf balls (actually we said cricket balls), how would you determine the volume of all of the balls in the tank. You're allowed to measure whatever you want without taking all of the balls out.

Tuesday. More interviews.

Wednesday. More interviews. This afternoon we went back to NSU and gave a brief presentation. Some of the people we talked to here seemed a lot sharper than some of the ones we'd interviewed. As we were leaving NSU Brian made the mistake of trying to give money to a kid who was begging him. He was immediately swarmed by about 10 more kids. Not a good idea.

Thursday. More interviews. In the afternoon we went to the business school Dhaka University and gave a presentation to some MBA students. Again, these students were a lot sharper than some of our other candidates.

Actually before we went to DU, we stopped in at the American Chamber of Commerce. They had a permanent room at one of the nice hotels in Dhaka. Not terribly impressive but the guy seemed to think that it wouldn't take much to set up a company here. He gave us some info and we then went to the Ministry of Industries to see if we could get the proper forms. After a while we met with some under-secretary of something. He told us that all we had to do was fill out one form, attach various things and that was it. He also told us that there were no fees. This was somewhat surprising since we'd been warned from day one that corruption was rampant and that people were always looking for "baksheesh" or speed money. It was pretty interesting being inside the bureaucracy of a third world country. There were lots of rooms with men typing away. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry. No computers anyway. It took the assistant about 15 minutes to find and copy the form we needed. It really wasn't that bad though. I think because we were Americans we got special attention. I have a hard time believing a Bangladeshi off the street would have gotten the same treatment.

Friday. Our next day off. We decided to go out into the country. We first drove to the old capitol of Bangladesh and saw a meager museum. We then drove a bit further to village where we got out and walked around. This was actually pleasant since we weren't surrounded by people. The pictures should actually explain things better than I can. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. It was very green, wet and hot. All houses and walkways were on elevated dykes. The water level was about 4 feet below the top of the dykes. Apparently they overflow during the Monsoon season (our summer time). The country side was in pretty sharp contrast to the city. It was quite peaceful and the people didn't seem too stressed.

The drive to and from the country side was pretty bad. There was *lot* of traffic. It took about 3 hours to go about 15 miles. Not fun. On the way their our guide demanded that we stop and pick out some music to listen to. We got a tape for about $.60. I'm pretty confident the band won't get any royalties from that purchase!

The next day we went for a walk in the morning around our hotel. We went out through the Bazar. This picture was taken immediately outside of our hotel. 17 and should give you some feel for what it was like. Again, it was very hot and smelly. Upon returning the first thing I did was take a shower. There really just wasn't much nice about it.

The one good thing we did was reconfirm our plane tickets. Apparently when traveling in the third world you are required to reconfirm your plane tickets a few days in advance of your departure or else you lose them. This is supremely annoying. More interviews.

Sunday. More interviews and then we waited around all afternoon for an interview candidate who was supposed to fly in from Singapore but never did. Oh well.

Monday. Our last interviews!!! Somehow I got a cold. It wouldn't have been bad but I didn't have enough decongestant so I was rationing it for the flight home. The last thing I wanted was to be flying with congested sinuses.

Tuesday morning we left. We made it to London without problem where we had an 18 hour layover. We went into town around Paddington Circle (I think), got a hotel and then went out to a pub. The pub was actually kind of annoying since there were more Americans there than English. Oh well, it was still a lot nicer than BD!

The next day we headed back to the airport and made it home!

Ok, here are some random thoughts on BD.