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Day 121: Dhaka

Dhaka, Bangladesh 
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Evidence of the building boom, on the way out of Dhaka. There are over 2,000 brick kilns around the capital alone.
Michael Palin - HimalayaShe apologizes for her executive outfit, but she has a big business meeting later. I ask her if the endemic corruption everyone talks about here hinders her work. She shakes her head. Bribes are a commonly accepted part of the system, if you want things to get done fast.

'They call it speed money,' she says. 'It's not always such a bad thing.'

Passing by a field of lentils, with fragrant blue flowers and clumps of bamboo with bee-eaters darting in and out of them, we reach Athalia village. In a month's time, when the monsoon starts, we could not have walked here, for the surrounding fields become a lake and stay that way for half the year.

A reception committee is waiting to meet us as we scramble up the bank, and we're led into the village, composed of around 30 huts of palm thatch and corrugated iron. The huts are built on hard, smoothed mud, freshly treated with liquefied cow dung, which seals the clay and keeps it waterproof. There is no electricity here. The village phone has been held for the last four years by Mrs Abida Sultan, a short, middle-aged woman with prominent, gold-rimmed glasses and matching gold watch. She is shy and rather quiet today, continually readjusting her pale pink sari modestly over her head, in a way that makes me think she wouldn't wear it like this if we weren't here. Her phone is in a plastic cover with a purple trim, and she grips it tight as she answers Naila's questions.

Being the only phone-lady for miles around means Mrs Abida Sultan is in demand. She must be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. She is making between 7000 and 10,000 taka profit every month, about 70 to 100. A rural family needs about 5000 taka a month to survive, so, unlike most of those who live in Athalia, Mrs Abida Sultan can comfortably break out of the life of subsistence. Grameen Phone has enabled her to send her 19-year-old daughter to university, something she could previously never have dreamt of.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 121: Dhaka
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Dhaka
  • Book page no: 275

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