No Place Like Bangladesh
April 6, 2017
Hello from the Searles Valley in California. We’re camped here for the week, catching up on work stuff between the Death Valley Noobs Rally last weekend and the Rawhyde Adventure Days next weekend. This is where I’m posting from:
After Sri Lanka (covered in the last post), Ash and I headed north to Bangladesh.
I was really excited to visit Bangladesh. We were introduced to Taufik, our manufacturing partner there, through our friends at Trew Gear. Taufik has an extensive background in seam-sealing and outerwear sewing. He started as a work-study officer on the sewing floor, supervising the production of garments for major U.S. outdoor brands, ensuring their work processes and tasks were allocated efficiently. Now he owns a 50-employee design & development company in Chittagong.
Taufik focuses specifically on seam-sealed, waterproof/breathable garments. They make all their own samples, and they work with a few carefully picked factories in Dhaka and Chittagong for production. When Taufik’s team sends a production order to a factory, they send their own managers to oversee production. As far as I know this is a totally unique business model.
At Taufik’s office in Chittagong we got our first look at the new apparel samples. That’s Taufik in the pic below.
The new eVent fabric is awesome. Problem solved.
Working with Taufik and his team, we made many revisions, too many to list. One major change was the zippers. Zippers on motorcycle and ski apparel aren’t truly waterproof, they’re actually water resistant. Waterproof zippers are what you see on diving dry-suits. We wanted to experiment with real waterproof zippers, but as soon as we put on the latest sample, we knew it was a mistake. They’re cumbersome to operate and you need to lubricate and maintain them, which nobody will remember to do. Plus we’re not at all confident they’d survive the dirt and grime of moto travel. So we’re switching back to the YKK Vislon, which is pretty much the gold-standard in high-end outerwear. That means we need zipper garages and internal gutters on all our vents and openings.
This is Taufik testing a zipper by pouring water on top and letting it sit. Good idea.
Here’s our jacket broken out into individual pattern pieces on the computer. For samples, they print this on a large-scale printer, cut out the shapes, lay the pieces on a sheet of fabric, trace the individual pieces onto the fabric, and cut them with scissors.
Here you can see the cutting process, and the stack of paper patterns on the corner of the table.
Sample-makers are expert sewers. Each sample-maker works on all different parts of a garment, so they need very broad-based sewing skills. This is different from a production sewer, where each person performs only one simple step, and doesn’t necessarily know how to make an entire garment from scratch.
We were totally impressed with Taufik’s operation. We’re in good hands.
It was Ash and my’s first time in Bangladesh and we wanted to see more of the country. I asked Taufik if he knew anyone who would lend us a motorbike. His buddy loaned us a 150cc Honda ‘Unicorn.’ A mini-bike for our mini-trip. We packed clothes and toothbrushes in a Scout 25 duffle, and strapped it to a side rack on the bike. Taufik was a little sketched-out about us riding in the countryside alone – he nearly insisted on an escort – but we wanted to wander, and in the end he let us go.
Bangladesh doesn’t get a lot of tourists. GDP per capita is around $1,200 per year. It’s a 90% Muslim country that was separated from India in 1947 along religious lines, with Hindus on the India side and Muslims in Bangladesh. Originally Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, which is totally bizarre since Pakistan is 900 miles away. Bangladesh gained independence through a brutal war in 1971. Taufik schooled us on the history.
On the map, we saw some mountains along the eastern border with India and Myanmar. The area around Chittagong is flat, so we headed for the hills.
Chittagong traffic is nuts. It’s on par with Old Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City. A hot, dusty, seething mass of wonky, smoke-spewing vehicles of every conceivable size & shape, fighting over every inch of forward movement, with scooters and rickshaws filling the gaps. Honking and gridlock throughout the entire city. Out in the countryside though, different story. The roads open up nicely.
Here’s Ash boarding a ferry (hint: she’s the one wearing a helmet, not a veil).
Everybody was outrageously friendly and welcoming. It was awesome. We peeled off onto some small, winding country roads, which were mostly made from cobblestone. We stopped in some little villages to drink tea and chat.
Ash and I played cricket for the first time. We stopped to watch the game, and the kids invited us out to join, very excitedly. Ashley is good. Me, not so much.
We also explored the markets. So friendly. Everyone wanted a selfie with us. It’s a nice feeling.
Eventually we got to the hills. At the bottom there was a military checkpoint and a big sign: no foreigners without prior permission. The soldiers turned us around.
We learned that the ‘Hill Tracts’ are occupied by an ethnic minority, and there’s a history of conflict with the Bangladesh government. The government is wary of international NGO workers and/or reporters posing as tourists. Also there have been some issues with domestic terrorism. We didn’t know anything about that until we arrived at the checkpoint, but we immediately started researching. If you’re interested, here’s some info from Wikipedia: Chittagong Hill Tracts Conflict.
After being turned around twice at two different checkpoints on two different roads (very kindly, we might add), we gave up on the Hill Tracts and backtracked to a small town, where this really nice family rented us a room for the night. Not much English was spoken, but lots of smiles all around.
Somewhere in Bangladesh, there’s a house covered in Mosko stickers
One small problem. On the way back to Chittagong, the Unicorn’s front brake locked up and sent us tumbling on the pavement in traffic. No injuries, just a couple bruises, bent crash bars, and some scratches. The caliper was misaligned, causing it to overheat and lock up. At first we couldn’t even push the bike. We used the rear brake to get a little further down the road, found a mechanic, and were back on the road in a couple hours.
Because of the crash, we returned to Chittagong late, but still in time for a wonderful Bangladeshi dinner at Taufik’s sister’s house. No silverware, everyone in Bangladesh eats with their hands. Amazing food and hosts. Nice photo-face Taufik.
Our short moto adventure in Bangladesh was off-the-charts amazing. We wished we had more time. The next one will be longer.
From Chittagong, we returned to Dhaka, where Taufik’s friend Rana gave us a tour of the new factory he’s building. They only have a few lines running at the new factory, but it’s a beautiful facility, on par with the most modern sewing shops I’ve seen in China and Southeast Asia. There’s even a daycare facility. I love the colorful headscarves on the production line.
This is the view from the not-yet-finished factory roof deck. That’s Rana on the right.
This is the view of Dhaka from our hotel’s rooftop bar on our last night in Bangladesh.
Did I mention that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where alcohol is illegal? You literally cannot get a drink except at a small handful of high-end hotel bars catering to foreigners. A shot of Johnny Walker Red costs $30. In the local markets we found a rice moonshine served in used plastic bottles. It was flammable and undrinkable: we tried both.
Back in the US
After 48+ hours in airports and planes, going from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, then Sri Lanka to Singapore, Singapore to San Francisco, and finally to Portland, we were home. We brought the samples with us, and reviewed them with the rest of the team.
Maia revised the specs and sent them to Taufik a couple days later. Revised samples are being made now. I feel really good about the status of the apparel project.
Maybe you noticed that somewhere in this blog post Ashley cut her hair. It’s a funny story. Ask her.