Leaving home at 5.30am on Sunday morning, to meet the buyer and designer travelling with me at the airport, I was clear in the knowledge that this was going to be a long and tiring week. What I hadn’t really taken into consideration was how many laughs we would have along the way! It’s this that keeps you going on one of these trips, when the lack of sleep, the long days, occasional bouts of Dhaka belly, and the endless hours spent in the car feel like they might tip you over the edge.
Our journey out, via Abu Dhabi, was uneventful, but I was very happy to make use of the free spa facilities in the business lounge at Heathrow, before getting on the first leg. Being a daytime flight, I found it impossible to sleep, but with the time difference, we arrived in Bangladesh at 5am local time, thus missing a whole nights’ sleep….not the best way to start! Having made it through immigration in double quick time, whilst waiting for our luggage, we amused ourselves by playing the Generation Game with the unusual items going round on the conveyor belt, which went something like this: cardboard box (several!), plasma tv, lone tube of toothpaste, childs buggy, small man…..yes, an actual person, going round and round for some reason best known to Bangladeshi baggage handling. I wish I had had my camera to hand! Our hotel car was ready and waiting, so we were whisked off without further delay.
Arriving at the Radisson in Dhaka, we had time for a couple of hours sleep, a shower, and a quick visit to the buffet for breakfast, before being picked up by our key Bangladesh agent, for our first appointment at 10.30am. There then followed two hours in the car, weaving our way through the completely chaotic, and frequently frightening, traffic. There are clearly no rules on the roads of Dhaka, and even if there were, I don’t think anyone would follow them. The general theory seems to be, the bigger and the louder you are, the more power you have to push your way through. Every car, bus and lorry looks completely battered, and with tuk tuks, pedestrians, the occasional cow or goat, and in one instance during this visit, an elephant, wandering amongst them, it is pure madness. It is always a relief to get out in one piece, with nerves slightly frazzled, and the only advice I can offer for coping with this is to always, always wear a seatbelt and keep your camera at the ready!
Our first meeting was at a shirt factory we have been dealing with for years, so we proceeded to go through the details on existing orders, brief them with new styles and ideas, and berate them for failing to make any of the photoshoot samples we require for a shoot taking place in South Africa next week. These meetings are frequently a real test of patience – you ask a question about whether something is possible, to which the answer is usually yes, yes, yes,yes, ah, no! It takes extreme powers of persuasion, and you have to be very clear about what you want, repeating it many times until eventually it sinks in. It rapidly becomes apparent why these visits and the face to face communication are so important. There are a multitude of opportunities for misunderstanding via phone or email!
Lunch arrives, and with it the next dilemma, to take the risk??? It is the usual (in this situation) curious mixture of local Bengali, accompanied by special fried rice (“vegetarian” which clearly has chicken in it!), and pizza, all of it usually, at best, lukewarm. I am starving, I take the risk!
On to our next visit, a vast jersey factory I know well, making many of our t-shirts. It is an amazing, vertical set up – knitting, dyeing and finishing its’ own fabric, before cutting, printing and making the garments themselves. We take a tour of the factory, which has its’ own water treatment plant, ensuring that no dirty water from the dyeing, printing and finishing, is discharged into the local environment. I feel very strongly about the ethical factors involved in producing garments here, as does the business I work for, so this sort of thing is always high on my agenda when visiting our manufacturers. We look at potential here, start negotiating some of our bigger t-shirt orders, and begin product development on some new styles.
7.30pm and its back into the car for the two hour journey back to the hotel, even more hazardous in darkness – a few near misses and a scraped wing mirror along the way, as we get squashed between a lorry and the central reservation. We make a beeline to the hotel buffet for dinner and a well earned glass of wine, before heading straight to bed, shattered.
Day 2 and we’re all feeling much better after a full nights sleep, with the luxury of a 9.30am pick up, and we’re off again, weaving our way through the bedlam to the first of three factories, a knitwear company, where we struggle a little to get our message across. Frustration sets in, but we persevere until we get to a stage where we think they understand what samples and styles we require, in which specific construction and colour – unless you specify every single detail, the resulting samples could be dreadful, so it is worth taking the time to be very, very clear about what you want, though I still leave with a nagging worry that the resulting samples may never materialise, and if they do, they may look nothing like we expected.
On to our second factory, and a repeat of yesterdays lunch – deep pan, supposedly vegetarian pizza, possibly vegetable rice, who knows? It is not that I am vegetarian, far from it, but one of my colleagues is, and when it comes to meat here, if you cannot identify exactly what sort of meat it is, it is generally best avoided anyway.
Finally reached our third factory at 5.30pm, a jersey wear factory that specialise in t-shirts and polo shirts. Having toured the factory, we sat in the office under very poor lighting, and by this I mean almost impossible to see, trying to select colours for our AW13 ranges. At one point, we suffered one of the frequent power cuts (Bangladesh produces roughly 30-40% less power than it actually needs), plunging us into absolute pitch black darkness until the reserve generator kicked in. I think we reached the point of uncontrollable delirium during this meeting, suffering an unstoppable fit of the giggles as we tried to decide whether the pantone colour “crown jewel” was appropriate or not for a t-shirt – childish and unprofessional, but I was beyond the point where I could hold it together and ended up with tears streaming down my face, while they all ran around trying to find me a tissue! This was followed by yet more hours in the car, arriving back at the hotel at 9.45pm, a repeat of the previous nights buffet dinner, and bed.
Day 3, and off to a factory making denim, and, surprisingly, coats, which is not something I have ever seen made in Bangladesh before. A very impressive set up, and one that I hope we can grow business with. Having put some new styles into work, the car taking us to our next appointment turned up before lunch did, so we had to move on. Now, at this point we were not with our usual agent in Bangladesh, but travelling with other, direct sources, and I have to confess to moments in the car when I was, and there are no other words to describe it, shit scared. As we made our way through the narrow streets, the car became stuck between lorries blocking the road in front, and traffic building up behind, surrounded by people, and beggars knocking on the window. Crowds in Bangladesh can be very volatile, and being slightly claustrophobic, I was very uncomfortable, but we eventually made it to our destination, very relieved to be there. Lunch never materialised here either, they didn’t seem to understand the vegetarian concept, so clearly decided it was safer not to bother – survived the afternoon on a diet of Oreo biscuits. Another word of advice – always carry biscuits/cereal bars and sweets for these moments, and to boost your energy levels for what is commonly known as the 3.33’s – when overwhelming jet lag sets in and you feel as if you just want to lay your head on the table in front of you and sleep.
Having left the factory at 5pm (an early night!), we spent 2hrs in the back of a car with a crazy driver, whose petrol guage was permanently on empty, breathing in petrol fumes and eau de cow as we followed a truck full of cows back to the hotel, leaving us all with a major headache. More on the cows later – they were not destined for a happy ending! Quick change of clothing and up to the hotels’ top floor restaurant for a much needed vodka and tonic, followed by dinner with one of our suppliers. For most of us, our meals were great, but yet again, the vegetarian option proved a challenge; “Zucchini Fantasy” turned out to be a boat shaped half courgette, complete with cracker sails, filled with garlic mushrooms, and garnished with sprouts! Eclectic, and, as it turned out, sickness inducing! On this occasion, the meat option seemed to be the safer one.
Day 4, and more factory visits, but back in the relative safety and care of our usual agents – out to a huge knitwear factory in the morning, and then back into the centre of the city for a greatly improved Indian lunch at the office, before heading off to visit a new, much smaller factory in the afternoon. I have to admit to being impressed by the owner of the factory, clearly prepared to invest in improvements, and very entrepreneurial. He also really seemed to understand exactly what we were looking for, I have high hopes for this partnership! As we arrived they were in the midst of moving the embroidery machinery from several floors up, to the ground floor – cue the unusual sight of seeing an enormous 20 head embroidery machine being winched out of the side of the building, with a man sitting on the end of it!
Back to the now familiar Radisson dinner buffet……..exhausted!
Day 5 and the final push to the end, starting to feel like the walking dead – tiredness and information overload; it is only the company of each other, and the endless comedy moments that are keeping me going. One such moment on our way back from a factory to the office when, at a major road junction in front of us, a lorry shed its load of small coloured plastic balls (of the type found in children’s ball pools). The first sensation was fear, as the sound of gunshot rang out (lorries and cars driving over the balls causing them to pop!), followed by utter mayhem as hordes of men, women and children ran amongst the moving traffic, trying to collect and steal as many balls as possible, and a lone traffic policeman ran around trying to stop them. Moments later all the balls had gone, disappeared into the crowd to be sold on by their collectors.
Having reached the office, we tucked into a much improved chinese lunch; but the highlight was definitely discovering that one of the guys from the office, had cooked our vegetarian colleague a vegetable dish and brought it in from home – what a sweetheart. We then carried on with a further meeting with a new factory, followed by a wrap up meeting with the team to ensure that they are clear about what needs doing and how many samples need to be sent through – we have covered a huge amount in the space of five days and there is a lot to discuss. We finish our working week with a tour of the office – from the window we can see what they have been talking about all week. The Eid muslim festival is approaching, during which each family will sacrifice a cow, or a goat. In preparation for this, thousands of cattle and goats are being brought into the city centre to be sold for slaughter. Every available space has been turned into holding pens for the animals, and the office overlooks a school playground, which is filling up with unsuspecting animals. At this point I cannot help feeling very relieved that we will be long gone before the slaughter begins, and the streets turn red with blood.
On our final evening, a treat, and dinner sitting out by the pool at the international club with our hosts from the office, and an opportunity to socialise and get to know them all a little better. We discuss their plans for the Eid celebrations, some staying for the traditional ceremonies, but many, in particular those who are not local, escaping out of Bangladesh, either home, or on holiday. Despite the tiredness, we thoroughly enjoy ourselves, finally able to relax over a bottle of wine and a nice meal, although the vegetarian option is again, curious! Insalata Caprese as you have never seen it before – an experience for our semi Italian vegetarian. A great ending to a very productive week, before leaving the hotel at 3am, for a flight at 5.25am. Unsurprisingly, I am asleep before the plane has even left the ground.