An American Abroad

Bangladesh: Abbas and His Family

I was thirsty and Dhaka is a mostly-dry town. My guidebook said there was a bar at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon, and so on my second night I decided to do my usual camp-out with a book and a beer. I ducked out of my hotel and started talking to a tuk-tuk driver who was parked there. For some reason, he didn’t want to take me to the Pan Pacific. While I was talking to him, Abbas approached me and offered transportation in his bicycle rickshaw. Why not?

It was my first trip in such a conveyance. Dhaka traffic is quite possibly the worst in the world, and after watching Abbas navigate through it, I was convinced that he has nerves of steel, legs of iron, the observational prowess of Sherlock Holmes, and the cunning of Odysseus. We also talked about my plans to go to Painam Nagar the following day. He clearly knew the area and spoke English pretty well, so I agreed to engage him as my guide there.

This was something of a first for me. I’ve always been able to get around in foreign countries without a guide, but it took just 36 hours in Dhaka to convince me that my usual MO wouldn’t work there–at least not in the five days I had left.

After our visit to Painam Nagar, Abbas invited me to go with him to the Biswa Itjema and also to have dinner with him and his family. I accepted both invitations gratefully.

Abbas picked me up at 6:30 in his rickshaw and took me to a residential district of Dhaka. After being in commercial districts exclusively, it was a pleasant relief to be in the areas where people actually lived. It reminded me of my street in China: lots of little shops lining the streets and a friendly community vibe.

We stopped. Abbas locked up his rickshaw and led me inside a dark concrete hallway. I could see that several doorways entered off of it and for a moment I thought this was all Abbas’s house. But I was wrong.

Abbas, his beautiful (and pregnant) wife and their two sons live in a concrete 12′ x 12′ room, most of which is taken up by a very large bed that I presume the whole family sleeps on. No table, one chair. There is a common kitchen and bathroom off the hallway that is shared by the other tenants.

I sat on the bed while some of the neighbor kids came in and played. Then Abbas’s wife brought in dinner–a bowl of rice, a bowl of chicken curry, and a plate of sliced cucumbers–and set it on the floor. The food was delicious: more proof that you don’t need a gourmet kitchen to make wonderful meals. Abbas and I and his youngest son ate on the bed while his wife and older son sat on the floor. We all ate everything with our fingers, per Bangla custom. I felt honored to be there. I wouldn’t have traded that meal for one at the nicest restaurant in town. It was, however, a sobering look into the lives of millions of people.

This is Abbas, his family, and a neighbor girl in their one-room apartment:

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I spent the next day with Abbas as he toured me through Old Dhaka. That was my last full day in the city, and I was sorry to leave. On the morning of my flight back to China, Abbas came to the hotel and brought me a present:

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This is Bangladeshi rickshaw art, hand-painted tin panels that fasten between the rear wheels. Abbas had seen me admiring them and had apparently gone to a rickshaw maker and gotten them for me. I was touched and offered to pay for them. He refused.

One other thing Abbas did for me was to put me in touch with another American he had spent time with in Dhaka, a writer for the Washington Post. One comment he made about our mutual friend stuck with me. He said if Abbas had been born in the United States, he would probably be an MBA now. I agree. But as it is, I am glad to have someone to look up when and if I return to Bangladesh.


  1. The people are magnificent! They do so well with so little, and are happy to give it to a stranger. I will never forget Ali, my 14-year-old guide, who would only accept a lukewarm coke in return for two days of service. He spoke english beautifully, and lived on a street corner in a large cardboard box with his mother, who was ill, and his younger sister and brother. He was the sole breadwinner, and I finally convinced him to accept a five dollar bill on the day I left Dhaka. There were tears in his eyes as he said goodbye.

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