Anna Velas-Suarin

In Bangladesh, I experienced humanity’s

innate goodness

With Rose, riding a rickshaw in Dhaka

I still wonder why I didn’t write about this important event in my life many years ago when everything was still fresh in my mind. Maybe I just wanted to keep everything to myself, worried that if this story gets published, the beauty of the moment will be diminished.

Early in my career, I was assigned in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to manage and coordinate the preparations for an international conference, which was going to be attended by civil society groups engaged in social development, environment, justice and equity, governance and empowerment. I was a little anxious on the day of my departure from Manila. After all, it was my first time to be away from home for more than a month (my Dhaka stint was to last for six months). It also bothered me a bit that some people think being assigned in a job in Bangladesh is like experiencing a “hardship post”. While these two things somehow bothered me, I genuinely looked forward to the experience. I cannot explain that, too. Perhaps it was a combination of uncertainty and excitement.

In Manila, my friends put on some bets that I wouldn’t last there for more than a month. Not that Manila is a paradise. Although, I must say, at this point, that despite Manila’s chaos and horrible traffic, I am very much in love with it. But as you know, people somehow think that Dhaka is not always in people’s bucket list. I didn’t ever think of Dhaka or any other place, for that matter, as a place that I shouldn’t visit but of course, I imagine what they may be thinking. Dhaka is unfairly being translated to pictures of poverty, political instability, and floods. It’s somehow like what the word, ‘Manila’ connotes, isn’t it? To many, Manila = horrendous traffic.  But this piece will not really try to argue that. For me, traveling is really about discovering more of the world including its hidden gems. Every place will always have something beautiful to give or teach us. Yes, I have seen poverty in Bangladesh (and in many other places including my home country)—but I have also experienced genuine smiles, friendly people, hardworking and creative artisans, and beautiful places in Bangladesh.

There were many wonderful things that happened to me in Dhaka and I would probably need a series of posts just to share them all with you. But one thing that really stands out is this very touching story of my encounter with a shop-owner.

Almost every weekend, I would go to this marketplace where I would usually get my week’s supplies of food, drinks and personal stuffs like toiletries. Around that time in Dhaka, there was no shopping mall yet. Nothing like Manila’s SM Megamall or Bangkok’s MBK.  The closest that one can find is a 4-storey store called Aarong where Bangladesh-made products are sold (at that time, even Aarong would seem small if situated beside SM or MBK). For grocery and household items, one can only get them in marketplaces that are similar to Divisoria or Baclaran stalls in Manila, only smaller. These shops are nothing modern or swanky but of course, it has that quaint character. It reminded me of small shops and nooks back home or even those in Phnom Penh. Some shops/stalls are airconditioned, some are not. There would usually be 3 or lesser sales staff to attend to the customers. Of course, things could be different now.

Anyway, on that particular weekend, I needed to buy mostly toiletries so I went to this shop where I figured familiar brands are sold. Those silly things that we mortals are sometimes guilty about whenever we are away from our comfort zones…ahhh, forgive my youth and ignorance back then! Nowadays, I guess I am older and hopefully, wiser and would likely prefer products that are locally-made or locally-grown! And for Asian economies’ sake, I hope we Asians can patronize more of our locally-made products, right? After all, we are supposed to be the future!

Not to get sidetracked…the shop-owner helped me find shampoo, conditioner, lotion, tissue paper, and the like. I was so happy with my finds and confidently took out my wallet from my bag….but lo and behold, I realized that my wallet didn’t have any local notes (taka) in it! I just suddenly remembered that I failed to put new notes in it as I was in a hurry to leave my flat a couple of hours earlier. I started apologizing to the shop-owner, explaining that I don’t have any taka in my wallet and that I could no longer buy all the items that he kindly prepared for me. It was all wrapped up in a brown bag and I felt so guilty just thinking about how he helped me with my purchases.

I thought I would just simply leave the shop after getting his acceptance of my apologies. I was wrong. For the next thing I heard was, “No, Madam…you can take everything home with you, no problem…just come back another time so you can pay me.” And with those words, I saw the most sincere and kind smile in the whole world. I think that I was so shocked with that gesture that I was speechless for half a minute. As I still couldn’t believe my ears, all I blurted out was, “Are you sure??” And he said, “Yes, Madam, I am very sure.”

The next thing I knew, I was already teasing him. I said, “Well, for all you know, I may be flying home to my country tomorrow and you won’t get your money anymore.” With that, he simply said, “I am sure you are coming back here.” Wow. I suddenly realized, there are really small miracles that can happen in our daily lives but sometimes, we just miss them or take them for granted.

And so, armed with my package, I happily prepared to leave his shop and whispered a silent thank you to the Supreme Being who makes things like this possible. Of course, I couldn’t stop thanking the shop-owner that I swear, I was ready to hug him right there and then.

One week after that, I went to the shop and the moment he remembered me, his eyes sparkled and said, “See, Madam, I told you, you are coming back!” We started laughing together.

I paid what I owed him, and added some more. I even ended up buying  a whole month’s supply of toiletries!

What more can I say? Dhaka didn’t just give me quiet moments, beautiful friendships, wonderful sceneries, French language lessons, soulful chanting that I hear from a nearby mosque every morning and evening, opportunity to work with committed NGO workers, and unexpected help from officemates (who went as far as bringing a broken shoe to a shoemaker). It also gave me a deep reaffirmation of the beauty of life – that in every corner of this world, there is a little kindness just waiting to happen.

Dhaka can really be a challenging place to most people used to ‘big’ city living. But for me, it is indeed a very soulful place, still full of old charms, of genuinely kind people, of people who still give their trust unconditionally. I would probably never experience that kind of gesture anywhere else in the world. But then again, who knows?!

[This is a repost of an earlier blog from my previous site].


This is not a paid blog but it will mean a lot if you can plant a tree (or trees!) on your birthday. 

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