Tuesday, 27 July 2010

more delhi...

26th July
Arti has had to leave for Mumbai for more research, so I have moved to another friends house. Aiman and I study together in the UK and she is back in India for the holidays. Hopefully we will be a good influence on each other and get some work done.
Aiman and her housemate Apoorva took me on a tour around Delhi – showing me the sights and all the dug up areas in anticipation of the commonwealth games (good luck getting it all finished by October!) Aiman is an amazingly calm driver amidst the jams and wandering people - we end up going to City Select mall which has many UK and US brands – Zara has just come and it is doing really well. As it is Monday morning, it is relatively empty – but after lunch it begins to fill up as middle class kids seek respite from the constant heat.

We go from this relative calm to Janpath market, which is in Connaught circus. This is the flea market in Delhi. Most tourists end up here at some point, and if you have always wondered where travelers get their uniform of harem pants and head scarves – this is probably it.

I am about to head out and buy ingredients for the simplest dish I can think of to cook for my hosts – spaghetti! But I will try to grill some aubergines too. Luckily it has just rained and the temperature has dropped to a luxurious 25 degrees, what a treat.

India's best practice brands

24-25th July

I am sure that you will all be pleased to know that I am on the mend now. I have spent the last few days recuperating with friends in Delhi. It was great to stay with a family and have home cooked food.

Was able to mainly rest and recover, we took little excursions to Dili Haat – the BEST place to go shopping in Delhi for useful trinkets. The Sandhu’s were slightly disappointed at my lack of shopping enthusiasm. I only have myself to blame as the last time I was here I doubled my luggage weight in a matter of days. But I did find some very pretty embroidered slippers, which I really needed.

We also visited Fab India, where again I was able to control myself. Fab India is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was started in 1960 with the idea of marketing traditional Indian crafts, it is now HUGE and the stores are always packed with Indians and foreign tourists. They sell good quality printed cotton and silk clothing and homeware at fixed prices. Fab India promotes a different mode of producer empowerment through community owned companies, where a minimum of 26% of the company is owned by the workers.

Anokhi is similar to Fab India, but slightly more minimal in their designs and in their shop layout. It has not taken off in quite the same way as Fab India and their stores are relatively quiet. Instead of sourcing from around India, they make all of their products in Jaipur. Their focus is on the revival of traditional textile techniques. Their block prints and appliqué is beautiful. I have to persuade myself that buying a queen sized quilt is not necessary, I have succeed for the time being and have left it for another lucky customer.

Delhi Couture Week

23rd July

My friend Arti, with whom I was staying, is currently researching a book on Indian Fashion, so she was able to obtain an extra pass to Pearls Delhi Couture Week. The pass that she had wrangled for me was for Anamika Khanna, a very popular, very high end couture designer in India. The shows are all held in the 5*Hotel, The Grand in Vasant Kunj, Delhi where the fancy doormen open the car for you to attempt to get out in a graceful manner. Inside, there was a mix of Delhi socialites and the odd American buyer. There were miniskirts and ball gowns; I even saw a diamond tiara! A slightly different experience to my journey so far.

For me, the idea of couture in India immediately brings to mind heavily embellished, jewel encrusted saris and lengha in rich colours sparing neither money nor retina. But Anamika Khanna’s show was brilliant, it didn’t disappoint with the Swarovski crystals and gold thread, but it was all done with restraint and with a lot of Western influence. The garments were of course opulent and way over the top, but they were interesting and modern too.

At the end of the show, who walks down the runway but Anil Kapoor the Bollywood actor, probably best known in the West from his role in Slumdog Millionaire. Using celebrity to promote your brand, fair enough. Using a male celebrity for women’s wear? Novel concept.

The next show was for JJ Valaya, the top bridal couture designer in Delhi. However, I did not have a pass for this show and with a running nose and spluttering cough I did not like the idea of facing the surly security guards. Arti assures me that I did not miss much, just an example of my original impressions of Indian Couture.

If I had enough guts (and maybe if Arti was not there to embarrass) I would have questioned the bejeweled socialites of their shopping practices and if the welfare of those that make their clothes enter into their thoughts. I can only imagine that the answer would be no…

Friday, 23 July 2010

Train to Delhi

Having left Miki in Dhaka on his way to China, as I sit here on the train to Delhi, I feel very much alone and sorry for myself. I am bitten all over, my right eye is swollen, I have a racking cough and a fever, why is it when I was travelling with someone I was fine? Now, I am far less than fine and feel like having a little weep into the slightly soiled sheets. To top it all off, there is no privacy in 2nd AC. Indian families, although very friendly and inclusive, are also very inquisitive – I have been plied with dubious ‘medicines’ which I felt obliged to take as they watched and sticky sweets which I had to reject (much to the pain of the lovely woman offering them.) Last night, I was kept awake not only by my copious ailments, but also by tinny Bollywood tunes being blasted from mobile phones and the old man sleeping next to me hawking and singing jai ram. The train is of course delayed by 3 hours and there is no reception for me to call Arti.

Yes that’s right everyone, woe is me! I expect your sympathy by post.

Kolkata and Sasha

22nd July 2010

Woke at 5.30 to be taken to the recycled sari market at 6am by Bipol who works at Sasha. – what a sight to behold. Colourful sari’s as far as the eye can see, it is a textile consumers paradise. It felt like I was at a slightly more ethical Primark, and all I wanted to do was buy, buy, buy!

The market is held on the side of the road, with men and women sitting on the ground surrounded by stacks of bundled saris and the odd polyester western wonder. It starts at 2am and finishes at 8am – there was no shortage so I wondered what it looked like at 2. Bipol was not keen on me taking photos, so I had to do so furtively, probably attracting more attention than if I was a little more obvious. We came across the supplier who Sasha buys their second hand cotton sari’s from and we were led to their ‘warehouse’ it was a tiny room piled to the ceiling with vibrant cloth, spilling out of their bundles. I was made to pick one – 30 rupees (50 pence). Back at the market I am slightly dubious of the ethics, the saris are apparently sourced by a wholesaler who travels around villages buying used saris – some of these saris look totally new, others are stained and ripped. The wholesaler then sells to the stall holders. Even so, I went slightly crazy and felt the need to buy a sari for each of my friends I am to meet in Sri Lanka (this includeds you Hatty!) So girls get ready to get dressed up, next stop – anklets with bells!

At the Sasha office, I worked with the product development team on bag and purse designs – my passion is weekend bags – what is more beautiful than a well designed hold-all I ask?

After lunch of masala dosa I had to head to the train station, where the train left at 5. Sealdah train station in Kolkata, is the largest train station in Asia – so it was not at all overwhelming and smelly. There is still elegance left, if a little grubby.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dhaka to Kolkata

It is lovely to be in India again, but the journey was not so great. What should have been a 12 hour bus journey - took 16 hours! Luckily, I have recently been able to sleep anywhere so it is all a bit hazy. The border crossing was hillarious - it was like a Monty Python sketch, being pulled this way and that - they even ushered me through without an arrival stamp, it was only back on the bus that I realised and went back and insisted they give me one.

Kolkata is beautiful, for some reason I had it in my head that it was horrid - but it is leafy and a nice level of busy and there is an excellent bookshop. I just had a major splurge on dinner at a place well known by tourists called Flurry's - chocolate mud pie! Brilliant!

Tomorrow I am going to a market where they sell secondhand saris. I will be accompanied by another producer of People Tree's called Sasha. The market opens at 2am and closes at 8am, so I am being picked up at the ungodly hour of 6am - better be worth it.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Chittagong to Dhaka

19th/20th July
So wake up to Miki looking even worse, he starts to think about getting a flight back to Dhaka. I balk at the idea - $100 – that’s like a 5th of my budget! So we decide to part ways at Chittagong. We have to get a non-AC bus, which means more than the heat, that it is even more rickety. But I forget about it as we roar through the countryside and the wind hits my face as does stray bits of tree.

We reach Chittagong and Miki is feeling well enough to agree to come with me via night train to Dhaka instead of fly. So we wait around until 10pm for our train. We booked first class non ac, it is not first class – it is shit class. It is so dirty, but we do have our own lockable compartment, and we can open the window, which is not possible in AC. I sleep well, I love sleeping on trains, the gentle rocking motion and hot air send me off. Miki is not so lucky and is attacked by bedbugs.

Silas is at the station to pick us up, so lovely and easy just to be led to an auto and dropped at the sparkling clean YWCA in Farmgate where I shall reside until my night bus to Kalkata.

Sad to be leaving Bangladesh, but excited about seeing India again!

Monday, 19 July 2010


18th July

Again, some of us just cannot hold our drink… I am down at breakfast at 8.30 as agreed, but we don’t manage to leave until 10.

We rocketed through jaw dropping scenery, hills and banana palms on one side – lake Kaptai on other. The roads were clear, but this did not stop the copious amounts of potholes and speedbumps. Glad that I don’t get car sick!

Stopped at a few more check points where they painstakingly filled out our info twice. By the time we arrive at the hotel no one is feeling well. I recover after a little rest, but the others seem determinedly grumpy.

We head for Boyon textiles, the last group we have to visit. They have only just begun to work for Folk, and do not look as well organized as the others we have visited. Overall, the atmosphere is nowhere near as uplifting as the others, but not entirely depressing. As per usual there is a powercut, so they are in more darkness than they would be usually. The women seem unfriendly at first, but as we get talking to them – they begin to smile and chat. This group only weaves orni – or scarves. They employ about 60 women weavers and 20 men.

Most of the women here have been to school up until class 6 (about 11). There is no doubt they would be in a worse position if they didn’t work here as there is not much work for women to be had. Again, there biggest expenses are food, and half their wage is spent on this. Their children all seem to go to school, and their mothers want them to become either teachers or doctors.

Back at the hotel (another one with spectacular views, this time of lake Kaptai) I meet Gerry. An Irishman, who works in consultancy for the ILO and UNDP (directly involved with the Millennium Development Goals) He takes me for a drink at a bar! Who new there was a bar here! Sadly, Miki is feeling too worse for wear to indulge in alcohol, but I jump at the chance to sit in a bar! They are out of beer and wont be getting any more until Friday, so I have to settle for the delightful combination of gin and sprite as Gerry tells me about his work. He started off a charted accountant, but twenty years ago he decided it wasn’t for him and walked out. Since then he has been working on local economic development through the improvement of value chains. In Rangamati, he has been working on coconut, turmeric and banana – figuring out the barriers to farmers success. I tell him about my research so far into Fair Trade, he seems unimpressed, he doesn’t believe there is any future in hand woven textiles and that these women need access to technology to make it an economically sustainable business model.

I come away feeling deflated, surely Gerry would know. 20 years specializing in this?

Biplob leaves for Dhaka on the night bus, we wish him well and he makes us promise to phone him or Silas as soon as we have booked our tickets. Miki is not well, he has a fever and his face is swollen again (looking a little like Rocky) so it is best we stay the night here and make a decision in the morning.

Banderban and the hill tribes

17th July

We agreed to meet at 8.30 for breakfast. Either some of us do not know how to set their alarm, or the rice wine hit others worse than some. So after our slow start we start our journey to Banderban – sadly we had to leave Silas (the wonderful representative of Folk Bangladesh) in Chittagong to head back to Dhaka and get the People Tree delivery on track. As we headed out of Chittagong, we started up into the hills, I had been hoping for a little respite from the heat – but no. The forest that covers every scrap of land is covered in tropical looking species including banana palms and colourful birds. We have to stop a few times to hand out photocopies of mine and Miki’s passports and fill out our names in triplicate. But the check point army fellows all seem very jovial so it is not as scary as I thought it would be.

We finally arrive at the hotel. It appears to be carved into the hillside. The staff are so friendly – and they quickly carry our bags to our rooms. We have our own little huts, with mosquito net covered porches and the most amazing view you have ever seen from a toilet! We even have cute little gecko visitors that don’t even make really creepy noises in the middle of the night…

After lunch we head towards the village of the Tripura weaving group. Biplob (our other lovely Folk guide) assures us it is just a 1k walk down the road. Yes, 1k up, 1k down, all in 100% humidity – I look like a shiny drowned rat, I actually have a different coloured t-shirt on then when I first started!

Finally, after a deaf defying slope that flipflops just simply are not made for, we arrive at the village. The people here do not look Bangladeshi at all, especially the women who seem to have adopted the tribal look more than the others, flesh tunnels in their ears and thousands of beads around their necks.

This group of 12 women weavers only works for Folk Bangladesh, so when they don’t have work from them they rely on their husbands incomes who are predominantly day-labourers. They weave traditional cloth on back-strap looms. For this they need amazingly stretchy hamstrings as they sit with their feet straight out in front, the loom is tied to a post and then strapped around their bodies for support.

When working for Folk, they are able to earn about 200 taka per day, their biggest expense is food with about half of their income going on this. There is a school in the village set up by the Catholic church, most of the children attend, although some of the women don’t seem particularly bothered if their children do or don’t go.

We are ushered into what appears to be their town hall, all the buildings are on stilts so it’s a little climb. On the table they have a spread of food, they give us the BEST pineapple I have ever tasted. They then give Miki and Me a cloth each, Miki’s is narrow and long scarf – called a risha, mine is wide – the size of a sarong and is called a rinai. I ask what it is for, and am told it is the traditional skirt (duh! They are all wearing them) it is in the most beautiful intense turquoise blue. I am manhandled to stand and the women start tucking it into place, for a slightly horrifying second I thought they were going to pull my trousers off. They seem pleased with the result and I am touched. I bow toward them, and one of the tribal women takes off one of her beads and places it around my neck, deep breaths.

As we are leaving (and I am seriously dredding the ascent, the local kids challenge Miki to some football, Spain is the reigning champion after all…

The climb is made slightly easier by the setting sun and faint breeze, but I still have one of the most amazing showers back at the hotel, with some Amy Winehouse in the little porch we have a snifter of the local ‘brandy’ (again with their misleading, loose terminology)

Cox's Bazaar

16th July

Arduous journey overnight to Cox’s Bazaar despite having the whole back seat to lie on, however this means little if the roads are potholed and your driver is a psychopath. I ended up ‘sleeping’ with my arms braced against the seat in front of me. I woke up with the sun to find that Miki’s sporting two swollen eyes, which are not journey wounds, so we stop at the main town of Cox’s for Miki to see doctor (who happens to be the niece of Dadi the leader of the Rakhin group). She gives him a shot of steroids and advises him to take anti-allergy tablets, Miki is devastated when she suggests it may be an allergy to mango…

Outside the doctors house we saw where the weft yarn is dyed. The yarn is wrapped onto boards, which is then painted with dye in stripes, this creates a multi coloured pattern on the fabric whilst still being a plain weave. It is traditional technique from the Rakhin Group.

Finally we get to see the ocean, it is muddy. Our hotel is great and looks over a really beautiful building site, but there is AC. The weavers of the Rakhin group are based on Moheshkhali Island, right next to Cox’s Bazaar, we need to take a boat to get there. We head off towards the dock in a battery powered rickshaw imported from China. The dock is rickety, and the sun is hot. We step into our motor boat and after 10 minutes of charring in the midday sun we speed off to the Island. It is great to feel a breeze, its like we’re in the Bangladeshi version of Baywatch.

At the other end there are cycle rickshaws waiting to charge a fortune to carry us to the end of the pier, one was so enthusiastic he drove straight over the end. The local fishermen were drying fish along the banks so there was a somewhat pungent aroma in the air. The island seemed to be a lot more chilled out, most of the inhabitants are Buddhist and were originally from Burma.

There are four weavers in this group, none of them are married or have children. I have never seen such a giggly bunch of women – I am surprised they get any work done at all. But they do, and while they are working with Folk (which is about 8 or 9 months out of the year) they earn about 3600 taka per month. They get paid 23 taka per yard they weave – they average about 6 yards per day (they could do 8 or 9 if it wasn’t for the gossip…)

They all enjoy their work very much, but, they are worried that their craft will die out. As there are only four weavers in this group, I was very curious to understand why – they make such beautiful fabric, it seems a shame to make so little. When I asked the women if they were going to train anyone else, they explained that they had already tried, but no one wants to do the hard work of hand-weaving, young people would rather learn how to use a power loom as 100 yards can be made per day on the power loom – therefore they will earn more money (but only if they can find a good employer). So it seems that Ikat woven by hand on this idyllic little fishing island really will come to an end as these women become too old to carry on. So this begs the question, if no one is willing to sustain this tradition, is it a sustainable way of production? I really hope so.

Before we leave, the eldest of the group lead me upstairs to put the mysterious mud they are all sporting onto my face. She has what looks like a slab of rock and a rolling pin – she pours water on to the slab and rubs the rolling pin on this, it begins to form a paste – she then smears it on my face, neck, chest and ears and I instantly feel cooler – as the tiny breeze touches it, it feels like full on AC. What a find!

The speed boat ride back is truly a Baywatch moment as we skip across the waves and get bounced and jostled, I seem to be the only one enjoying it and everyone else looks a little green.

After a shower and a change – we head towards the beach at sunset – what a sight. The beach is heaving with holidaying Bangladeshi’s, all taking photos of each other in the surf. I get photographed too, tip: for those wishing to take a sneaky picture – turn the stupid noises off your phone! We head back to the hotel to sample some of the local rice ‘wine’. An interesting take on the word. It is strong, it is burny and it tastes like homemade rocket fuel – which I suppose it is. We then head for dinner at the Mermaid. What an experience, the tables are all surrounded by water and subsequently mosquitoes and they are pumping out The Black Eyed Peas. The food is good and so is the grape shesha.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Best practise or farce?

15th July 2010

This morning at approximately 8.30 when it was already an oven temperature, I seriously regretted deciding to go to the factory. It took over 2 hours to get to Teknagpara by auto. I turned up late and dusty and there is no use trying to describe my hair. Roger was there to meet me though, and I was soon whisked to the 9th floor and served tander pani (cold water) and my spirits were slowly revived. We spoke for a little while about Bangladesh and what it is like living here as an ex-pat, no social life to speak of, and constant power cuts. The factory employs over 3200 people. It solely makes knitwear, last year they made almost 2 million garments for a major UK retailer – they are hoping to expand this to 5 million this year.

Roger took me for a tour around the factory floor by floor. It is relatively cool and no one seems to be sweating. In fact I couldn’t find anything to critisise. There was enough space, there was good lighting, no one looked miserable (more than can be said for any British work place). But it did lead me to wonder if this was a front for the Bangladeshi garment factories that we have become used to hearing about in newspapers. I asked Roger, he seemed genuinely shocked that I would think that (and I suppose to have the balls to ask…) He says that the factories that operate with workers forced into these unpleasant conditions do not last for very long. The workers can generally find better work elsewhere or the factories fold due to poor management and not being able to hold onto the staff.

The workers in this factory get paid a piece rate, so depending on the difficulty of the garment they are working on they will be paid accordingly. The machine operators are the highest paid on the factory floor and they will be paid between 6,000 taka per month for an average operator, up to 9,000 taka for an outstanding operator. This sounds too good to be true, but I can’t really push the subject.

This factory also offers free lunch, English lessons and a health service.
So I left with an offer to go to the ex-pat club, apparently beers are only 150 taka, and a feeling of confusion. What is real? Is it possible for two such different factory models to operate within the same city – even the same street? Is Roger telling the truth? I am sure that the factory I visited is real, but is there another based around the corner with appalling conditions? I pondered this as I sped and bumped my way back to Dhaka.

Tonight, we are heading to the Chittagong hill tracts where we will be meeting some of the producers who work with Folk Bangladesh, another group that supply People Tree. These areas are restricted and we had to apply for permits, a big reason why we have been in Dhaka for so long.

Old Dhaka

14th July 2010

Today I didn’t have to do anything or be anywhere so it was the perfect time to get lost in Old Dhaka. After twenty minutes stuck in a rickshaw jam worse than any little gridlock in London we decided to get out and walk into the winding streets that are impenetrable by car (although we saw a fair few very sad looking ponys – I wonder if they have a pony shelter in Bangladesh?...)

Entering the old city meant that we had left relative calm – yes that’s right we were walking into Lucifer’s furnace. It was hot, for the first time in days the sun had broken through the dense cloud cover and it was pounding on our faces and my back was a river of sweat, so with the sticky tone set for the day we discovered Bangsal or Bicycle road where every shop sells bicycles and also rickshaw art. Miki decided that he would like to buy a piece, but of course he was only offered top quality Korean vinyl – very tasteful and only 600 taka, how could we resist? However we managed and moved on to Shankharia Bazaar or Hindu Street – it was great to see women walking around the streets in this area, I have begun to feel very outnumbered in Dhaka.

After a dodgy lunch we went to the pink palace, there had been a downpour whilst we were indoors and my feet were now covered in mud, maybe not the best plan to wear flipflops… The pink palace was an oasis of tranquility and there was shade and somewhere to wash my feet. Apparently this was a place of beauty when it was first built, where visiting statesmen and dignitaries from all over the world would stay, but now, after years of disrepair and half-arsed cleaning it is looking more than a little shabby. The highlight was seeing the skull of the Nawab’s favourite elephant, it is huge and its eye sockets are too – why is this? Elephants eyes are tiny?

Miki, as always made a good friend at the palace who wanted to take us to see the Ostrich, one of the many (very ironically named) Rocket’s. They are giant paddle boats of a time long gone (somewhat like the pink palace) that steam from Dhaka to Khulna every couple of days. There is first class upstairs and second class below – I am sure that in the beginning , in 1929, the Ostrich would have been spectacular. It was shady on the boat so we stayed until the sun was beginning to dip, then we mentioned to the guys hanging out with us that we would like to take a trip on one of the smaller boats, so with a snap of his fingers, Ashish (the manager of first class) got a boat to pull alongside and we were able to jump on. Now if I am making myself sound cool with this, it’s all a lie… these boats sit SO low in the water, and they rock and the massive ferries loaded with sand and people do not seem to care. So I gripped the sides, hoping that crocodiles don’t dwell in the Buriganga and tried to look relaxed so the locals – and Miki - wouldn’t laugh. It got easier to enjoy as the dude, who seemed to think it was a good idea to stand got off (why would you stand?????) and I realized that no one else was falling in. It is definitely the best way to see Dhaka – thousands of people, transporting, selling and making things from their boats – the smiles and the waves but no one able to stare for long.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Shuvo Weavers

13th July 2010
Monju, the managing director of Artisan Hut came to pick me up from the hotel at 10. He is not impressed with our choice of residence and would prefer we were in the much quieter, posher district of Gulshan.
We are going to visit the Shuvo Weaving group in Norshindi – it is a long drive compounded by the traffic and we finally reach there at 12.30. The weaver are about to finish for the day as they get a 1 and a half day holiday. The difference between this set up and Swallows is immense. Most notably, all the weavers are men, the only women are the bobbiners – which is a comparatively lower skilled and paid job. The other thing is, because there is currently a power cut, it is very dimly lit and it looks dark and foreboding. I know that the weavers here are well looked after, they get lunch provided every day and their wages range from 3500 taka to 5000 taka per month so it is far more than they would expect elsewhere, but I can’t help but feel taken aback by the contrast with this and the other projects that I have seen.
Because the project is based in Norshindi, it is cheaper to live here than in Dhaka city, but it is still convenient for transporting the fabric to Monju’s tailoring unit.
After lunch I am taken by Monju and Shafi Mahamud (the Shuvo weaving director) to the Norshindi market to meet the yarn wholesalers. Monju and Shafi have been struggling to get good quality yarn for export, the vast majority of yarn that is sold in this area is only good for domestic product. They are currently trying to figure out ways that they can procure yarn with more stability .
The most fascinating thing about this market is the cycle rickshaws hauling along GIGANTIC loads of unbleached calico, every second vehicle that passes is overloaded with the stuff and the poor rickshaw wallers have succeeded in being more shiny than me!
Getting back to the lovely Hotel Pacific is even more stressful than before – instead of 2 hours it takes 3, and even then we are stuck in traffic jam about a ten minute walk from the hotel for about 20 minutes before Monju decides that we should walk. It turns out that we were stuck behind a Hindu festival procession – just what you need in the crowded streets of Dhaka.
I am very excited, because I have managed to arrange a visit to a Dhaka garment factory on Thursday, however it is probably the picture of best practice because why else would the guy have so readily agreed to take me there????

The cheap(er) side of town

12th July 2010
As People Tree are no longer paying our expenses, Miki and I decided to find a much cheaper hotel in a slightly more dodgy area of town, we decided on a part of Dhaka just north of Old Dhaka in the illustrious Hotel Pacific. The room is pokey and the bathroom is not exactly clean (unless cigarette butts and hair in the drain count?) But you can’t go wrong for 400 taka each right? It is not AC though, so we shall see how that works out for us….
We went for a wander at night and found a little restaurant packed with locals and serving roast chicken kebab – they were AMAZING. Just carbs and protein, no vegetables – who needs them anyway? Miki went for a shave in a barber and then proceeded to eat one kilo of mangoes. After gathering an admiring crowd, we decided it would be best to head back towards the hotel.
The good news is that although the final was only a day ago, they already seem to be forgetting who Spain are (the mango seller did give him a champions discount though) they much prefer talking about NZ and Daniel Vitori (and I pretend to know what wickets are…)

Jute, pots and brass

11th July 2010
We left again at 8am conscious of Safia’s evening flight back to the UK. On the way we were due to make two stops. One at a potter and the other a brass works. We sped past the lush green backdrop only to screech to a halt as Safia had seen some jute being harvested. And what a wonderful site it was! Three men waist deep in water cutting down the giant stalks of Jute, to go along with the interesting sight was also an interesting smell, the jute that was lashed together in the water sitting there to ret gives of a rather whiffy odor. All along the side of the road were the stack of the jute being dried out in the sun. I was sad to hear from Suraiya that these farmers receive very little money for all their labour, as so often is the case, most of the money goes to the middle man in the markets.
Mrinmoy Pottery is up a very long, slippery muddy track which was not particularly easy in flipflops, although the dude guiding us seemed to prove me wrong… Mrinmoy Pottery has been going for 14 generations, through exporting with the help of Prokritee they are able to more than double their earnings. We were each given a blessing bowl which I fear will be smashed before the end of my journey.
We were of course running late, so the stop at Dhamrai Metal Crafts was very short. The building was straight out the raj, perfect shabby chic although erring more toward the shabby these days. The guy that was making the wax moulds was doing so by kerosene lamp – it could have been one hundred years ago.
So we tried to speed back to the hotel, but of course that is impossible in Dhaka, traffic was against us. But luckily the lovely Monju was there to take Safia to the airport so she had time to pack and bid us farewell – it is very quiet without her!


10th July 2010
We attempted to leave early this morning, to be able to visit three producers. The first we visited is called Bagdha hemp knitting enterprise, another Prokritee project. We drove for about ten minutes and then got on cycle rickshaws where we bumped along for about half an hour through what can only be described as tropical rainforest! It was green and wet and there were animals running around and small children and smiles everywhere. When we finally reached Bagdha, there were even more smiles to be met.
Bagdha employs over 200 producers all of which are women. They knit hemp and jute products for export all over the world including The Body Shop. They do most of the processing at Bagdha including combing and spinning.
I was lucky to meet a lovely young woman, Jhumur Akter who is 18 and has been working here for the last 2 years. Previously she had worked in a garment factory in Dhaka for six months, she hated it. She was paid 1400 taka per month and it was a struggle for her to survive. She had gone to Dhaka, partly because she couldn’t find a job close to her village, but also because Dhaka seemed glamorous to her. She was very disappointed and felt very alone. Now she is earning 3000 taka per month and is still living at home with her mother, so she is able to save some of her wages. She Is also able to receive all the benefits of Prokritee including sick pay and festival benefit of 20%, there is also a saving policy which the artisans can borrow from at a rate of only 1%.
From Bagdha we also visited Keya Palm Handicrafts and Biborton Handmade Paper, which again are both part of Prokritee. At Biborton they make many different kind of handmade papers including water hyacinth (which is a terrible water way weed) and jute. We saw the entire process of paper making: chopping, boiling, beating, sieving, compressing, drying (not sure of the technical terms).
It starting raining again at Keya, which was a welcome relief from the relentless heat.

To South Bangladesh we go

9th July 2010
Safia, Miki, Suraiya (designer and manager for Prokritee) and I headed south to Barisal where we were to meet rural handicraft producers. After a slow start we left Dhaka at 8am after bidding farewell to our other companions who were heading back to UK. We drove for several hours until we made it to the ferry, whilst waiting to load we saw an elephant from the car – it was very friendly and tried to put its trunk in the window. The ferry ride was smooth, even after Miki had told me the statistics of sea accidents in Bangladesh, higher than their road accidents apparently. After another few hours of driving it got greener and greener and wetter and wetter, at one point we were driving along a road with water either side, with no sign of barriers for floods.
Our guest house (where we arrived very late) was made entirely of corrugated iron, and subsequently it was a little warm – say 38 degrees. My hair is starting to resemble a poodle.
The project we visited – Jobarpar Enterprise – makes handmade cards for Fair Trade distributers for Traid Aid in NZ, People Tree in UK and Japan and 10,000 Villages in the US. They mainly work in one large room, sitting at tables doing their craft work. Whilst we were there they were making a large order for Trade Aid, they all genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. At about 5 there was a massive down pour, which kept going and going, it did little to cool the air but it was quite spectacular.
We were able to interview a few women about their work and home lives. Jianti is 25 and has two children Prosanto who is 11 and Prinka who is 8, she really enjoys the work and appreciates being able to take work home sometimes. She says that if she was doing another job in this area, she would not be able to afford to eat (the rice pickers earn on average 70 taka per day, for 6 months a year). On average she earns about 3500 taka per month, if she has overtime this can go up to 5,200. Working for Jobarpor means that she is able to get extra medical support of 100 taka per month if she or any of her family were to fall ill. She also gets a percentage of the company’s profit every year. At the moment she spends all of her money on her family, she thinks it is very important for her children to finish school and be able to get good jobs.

Back to Dhaka

8th July 2010
I spent the morning going over People Tree samples with Lota in the sweltering product room. After so many years of not understanding, I am beginning to realize that between power cuts and very limited internet connectivity that what they get done is quite amazing. Along with the technical failures, my body also seems to be failing, concentration and energy levels are pretty low and it is a struggle to finish what I need to get done.
We leave for the Thanapara train station after our last lunch of the bony but amazing river fish. The train station is tiny and just like Swallows idyllic complete with swaying palms and wandering hens.
We arrive back in Dhaka feeling slightly worse for wear at about 10.30pm, but there is nothing for it to go out – out in Dhaka, I can’t think of a better place, a dry country, with limited late night transport…. After much investigation, our very friendly hotel manager agreed to take us (Me, Antony, Miki, Louise and Charlotte) to the Radisson hotel out towards the airport, where they have a night club in their underground carpark. The best part about the club is its name, “Thunder Down Under”. It should have been a sign really. At the entrance there is a sign requesting you leave your firearms at the door, the entrance is a smoke filled corridor, and the main area is dark and crowded with people trying to dance like Shakira, but to some unidentifiable Bangra/R&B mix. The women were all very aggressive, not surprising considering (as we found out later) they are prostitutes and we were on their turf…. Beers cost 500 taka, over one week’s wages for a garment worker. Seedy, un-friendly and a little bit un-nerving – just your average night out in Soho.

Thanapara Swallows

7th July 2010
After a 6 hour train journey, an hours bumpy ride, an amazing dinner and a few more vodka’s late last night we finally got to bed.

Early morning walk around Thanapara Swallows village, it could not be more different to the all consuming hum of Dhaka. It is silent, the only noise is the occasional bleat of a goat and women asking you to join them for breakfast (chilli in the morning….)

Thanapara Swallows does most of the textile and garment production process within the compact grounds. They have bobbiners, dyers, weavers, tailors and embroiderers all working by hand to create the amazing products that they export. Everything they make is handmade, nothing is electricity operated. The tailors use treadle singers, the embroiderers only use hand, the bobbining is done by wheel and the weavers all use hand operated looms.

The vast majority of the people employed by Swallows are women, even weaving which is a male profession is done by women here. It is exciting for me to finally see this, having worked at People Tree for 2 years and emailed Santo (the lovely production/sampling coordinator) almost every day – it is great to meet him and everyone that works here.

I went to visit the embroidery team, and got stopped by a woman who wanted to give me a gift. She had made me a friendship band – it is very funky. I sat down with the women and they set about trying to tie it on my wrist (proved impossible by my incredibly sticky arm).

As these women live in the country side, they are still close to their families. This support is invaluable as the children are all looked after well and go to school right next to where their mothers work. Also living in the country side means they are able to grow many of their own vegetables and fruit, which all tastes amazing as I found out when offered a pomegranate straight from the tree. It seems almost too good to be true.

We also looked around the Swallows school, where the children never stop getting excited to be able to beam “Hallo” to the shiny white faces peeping into their classrooms. They mainly study Bangla, English and Maths. Next door is the childcare centre, where the women that work at Swallows are able to leave their babies and toddlers whilst they work. Being able to leave their children in responsible care gives them so much more freedom to be able to earn money.

In the evening, we took a boat ride along the Ganges. It was the perfect way to end such a perfect day.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Slightly delayed post...

6th July 2010
Arrived in Dhaka last night and after a small vodka + briefing session with Safia, Antony and Miki (photographer) we got to bed at about 1am (excellent way to start a working trip…)
Early start to speak to a representative of the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) which has it’s main office close to one of Dhaka’s biggest slums. Because of People Tree’s support to NGWF over the years we were able to talk frankly to the representative and hear an honest account of Bangladeshi garment workers lives.
Much of what he talked about is somewhat covered territory, however, being in a small, hot room made it seem real and not just an isolated incident across the world. He spoke about the minimum wage in Bangladesh as being set at 1662 per month which is approximately USD$24, even at the time when this was set in 2006 it was not enough to live on. The NGWF estimate that families cannot survive on less than 5000 taka per month. We also visited the slums, this is where many of the garment workers live – the rents have doubled in the last two years and now families are often spending over half their income on these small, hot, overcrowded rooms.
When asked by Safia if there was anything that consumers in the west should do, he emphasized that they should not boycott these brands as H&M alone work in over 300 factories in Bangladesh. Millions of Bangladeshi people depend on these brands for their livelihoods, not just the garment workers themselves. Instead he would like us to put pressure on the multinational corporations to make their supply chains as transparent and fair as possible, demanding to know where our clothes are being made and what conditions they are made in.
He does think that Fair Trade is a valid model, but believes it more suited to rural areas and is unrealistic to imagine that it would be possible in the big city with the demands of the mass-market.
Making consumers understand how much their purchases can affect the lives of others is not an easy task, people do not want to know and even if they do – it is just so easy to buy that top from Primark. It would be a different story if everyone was able to experience the slums of Bangladesh I am sure that minds would swiftly be changed. Tourism opportunity????