Friday, 12 August, 2022

Straight Talk: Encounter with a New World

Straight Talk: Encounter with a New World

Going out of the country after a break of about of two and half years due to Covid-19 forced vacation was like coming out of a cocoon and seeing a world full of surprises, never seen or experienced before. For few weeks I had to travel to US towards the end of last month and the experience gathered can only be compared to the character in Rip Van Winkle, the popular American short story of yesteryears by Washington Irving, first published in 1819. The story builds around a Dutch American villager in colonial America named Rip Van Winkle who meets a mysterious Dutchmen, guzzles their liquor and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. He awakes twenty years later to a very changed world, having missed the American Revolution.  Someone who has been travelling to different places around the world for professional purposes at regular intervals was really in a depressing state of mind when was compelled to confine my movement within the four walls of my house. Only recently was it possible to resume the normal activities and that too with the required health care precautions.

So when I had the chance of attending my Alumni meet in Honolulu, Hawaii, US, did I express a sigh of relief? Finally will be out of the cocoon and will manage to see the post Covid-19 new world. However from the very beginning the plan to travel outside the country was encountering a series of stumbling blocks. The airlines offered limited flight options and the price of the ticket was on the rise by the hour. Finally a ticket was managed through Dubai to Los Angeles (LA) and Honolulu. My travel agent spent hours finding a convenient and reasonably a less costly ticket and I was all set to leave Bangladesh after a long break. 

The immigration and the airlines people at the HSIA, Dhaka were cordial and helping.  The normal airport chaos seems to have disappeared at least for now. The immigration officer was nice enough to ask me why did I not use the VIP gate and lounge facilities. I politely replied him I no longer hold a VIP status. He was surprised and said that everyday scores of people use the VIP facilities though they no longer hold any such status. I tell him they must be the retired bureaucrats, who are VIPs for ever. The only international airport in Dhaka is to a great extent usually chaotic and have long before outlived its capacity. Currently HSIA has to handle about 110 international flights daily on an average.  Hope the commissioning of the third terminal will ease the situation a bit. Before the start of my journey my travel agent zealously tells me that I must fill a self-declaration health form before I board the plane to be handed over to the US immigration officers when I land in US. Surprisingly at my US port of entry at LA no one asked me if I possess such a declaration. Same is true for arriving passengers at Dhaka. Why put the passengers put to such an unnecessary hassle when no one asks for it?

The Middle Eastern Airlines that I was travelling has an impeccable record for proving excellent service to its passengers. The in-flight service was super and the cabin crew very friendly. Bangladesh Biman has lots to learn from such airlines that too carry passengers to international destinations. The journey from Dhaka to LA via Dubai was uneventful. The luggage checked in from Dhaka directly to LA arrived without any hassle or delay. But the journey from LA to Hawaii aboard a local airline was of a different experience. For the first checked in luggage one has to pay US$ 30 and for the second one, if any, US$ 45. Virtually all US domestic airlines charge fees for all check-in luggage and encourage passengers to travel only with one piece of carryon bag of limited size and weight. The food and even water aboard the flights are available only to passengers for price. Nothing is free and if one does not possess an international credit card he will be in trouble as not only during the flights or even when shopping or filling one’s car with gasoline or buying a ticket from a kiosk to enter a theme park link Disneyland or paying for parking the card is the only mode of payment in most cases. Cash transactions are discouraged in all sorts of purchases. The price of sandwiches can be quite high inside the aircraft; so many passengers carry their own sandwich and water bottle purchased just before boarding the flight at a lower price.

The conference I went to attend was of high quality with 130 participants from thirty countries and socializing brought back lots of faded memories. Hawaii is a dream destination not only for foreign tourists but also for upper class Americans. For years the locals have been struggling for preserving their unique cultural heritage and retaining the open spaces and natural habitat, free from real estate developers. But it seems they are fighting a losing battle as the real estate developers are very powerful in terms of money and political clout. There were number of court cases by the locals seeking redress from the land grabbers. But according to the local conservationists courts often ruled in favour of the real-estate companies. The cultural richness once the Hawaiians were proud of seemed to be fading. Prices of common consumer goods have skyrocketed not only in Hawaii but throughout US. A sandwich in the campus centre costs US$ 8 and outside it is between US$ 10 to 12. In the pre Covid-19 period a sandwich would usually cost US $ 5 or less. Hotel rooms charges from US$ 400 to US$ 500. We had the privilege to stay in the campus guest house with a token charge. Usually in summer universities run lean semesters of six weeks duration offering selective courses. But the story is quite different now. Whether in Hawaii or LA or in other parts of US virtually all universities are completely on summer vacation. Energy and water has to be saved for the normal semester that will commence in September.

In Bangladesh people are in the habit or complaining for every decision that government takes regarding fixing charges for utilities or the escalation of prices of consumer goods. In a market economy it is difficult to control the prices of goods or services in the market. In US or in Canada the prices of everyday goods, including food or services have escalated by approximately 20 to 30 percent. Inflation has gone up to about 9.1 percent. There is a squeeze in the job market. Gasoline prices rise virtually every day and currently it ranges from US$ 6.50 to US$ 7 per gallon. Many are switching to electric or hybrid vehicles that include public transport. A family of three to four members have to spend an addition of US$ 600 to US$ 700 per month. Many supplement this additional cost of living through food stamps and in some states the government gives a token succour in cash ranging from US$ 250 to US$ 300 per person per month. My friends tell me that their credit cards keep them going and at any given time an average middle income family will be indebted to banks and have no savings to fall back in case of family emergency. But one good thing in US is public safety net and social welfare benefits.

Half of American is currently suffering from heat wave and states like Texas, Arizona and California are struggling to supply water and electricity to its citizens. In California from 4.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m.  is considered peak hours for electricity users and the rates of electricity doubles during this time. On an average people avoid using air conditioners, washing machines, dish washers and even defer cooking during the peak hour. I cannot imagine this happening in Bangladesh. What is more surprising is that one cannot wash his car in his back or front yard in many States. There are designated car washing facilities and rates of availing the service will vary depending on the time the service is provided. Such utilities are rationed. Power outages (failures) are not uncommon in many states and it if happens in winter life can be miserable. People have to be moved to safe shelters. At any given time half a million people in US are homeless who have to spend their nights in parks and parking lots or on sidewalks. On the other hand the same country has the highest empty homes in the world. This is an irony which many would like to think as a curse of consumer driven society and an ugly face of capitalism.

I return to Bangladesh in the middle of July only to listen to irrational murmuring and criticism about the load shedding of electricity and predicting that Bangladesh is on the road to becoming a Sri Lanka like failed state not aware of what is happening to the world outside. A section of people lives in cocoons even in normal times and this is an abnormal time not only for Bangladesh but also for rest of the world. The world has changed while everyone was struggling against the Covid-19 pandemic and the change was for the worse.

The writer is an analyst and a commentator