You can get a cup of chai by the side of pretty much every road in Bangladesh, but finding decent coffee has been a struggle - until now.
I was back in Dhaka over the weekend, for the first time in a year and a half, and one of my first visits was to the city’s newest and finest coffee shop, North End: http://www.northendcoffee.com
Located on the first floor of what used to be a garments sweat shop, the place is a credit to its American owners, Chris and Rick Hubbard, who I’ve known since our sons attended the same school.
They both worked as teachers in Chittagong some years ago, but then lived in the US where Rick worked for Starbucks and Chris trained as a chef.
About two years ago, they returned to Bangladesh with the twin goals of creating much needed employment, and introducing to its citizens the pleasures of locally roasted coffee.
Most of the beans that Rick roasts are imported, but he is also buying from farmers in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is the only place in the country where coffee can grow.
He says that years ago one of the aid agencies handed out lots of coffee plants to farmers, but then forgot about the project. Happily the plants survived and Rick is now trying to find out where they all are. He says the beans aren’t great, but he can work with the famers to improve them.
In the meantime he can blend them with finer beans to make a tasty brew.
We had cappuccinos and Chris’ cinnamon rolls, and they were delicious.
One of the great things about Bangladesh is that there are so many people (both Bangladeshis and Bideshis) with so much positive energy, trying to help the country out. Chris and Rick are one couple, our other friends Andrew and Jan Jenkins are another.
They kindly took us out on their boat for an afternoon, which was a real treat for us and the kids. They used to moor it on the outskirts of Dhaka, but the city is growing so fast and the water is so polluted they now have to leave it at Savar, 30 Kms away.
But what that meant was that we were in the countryside in no time. We saw black and white Pied Kingfishers, and green Bee Eaters swooping low over the water. There were fishing boats with coloured sails drifting slowly downstream and children playing by the banks.
Best of all we passed very close to two (or three) Ganges River Dolphins, known locally as Shushuks, an endangered species.
Close by, fishermen were stringing a net across the river as dusk fell, but Andrew thought the dolphins, which have poor eyesight, would be treated well if caught by mistake.
“Sushuk sounds very much like the Bangla word for child, shishu,” he told us, “and that’s what the fishermen sometimes call them as well.”
Andrew and Jan have been working, on and off, in Bangladesh since the mid-Seventies. Their experience gives them some very interesting insights.
The big gripes of everyone I met this weekend were the worsening traffic and high rents in Dhaka. They are definitely awful, but as Andrew reminded me, in the Seventies Bangladeshis were actually starving to death. The population has more than doubled since then, but the country can now feed itself.
Andrew reckons that if the economy continues to grow by about 6% a year, foreign aid may start to be reduced in 15 years time.
The challenge now seems to be managing wealth (i.e. too many cars) rather than managing poverty (i.e. too little food).
Not bad for a place condemned by Kissinger as a basket case. He should drop by for a coffee one day to see how it has changed.