Was it a frivolous gift or a lifelong memory?
A group of needy Bangladeshi children get a day of fun at an amusement park.
Sixty Dollars admits one child for one day to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Sixty dollars admits 20 people for one day to Fantasy Kingdom, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
I discovered this not long ago when I was in Dhaka. Now all we have to do is find those 20 Bangladeshi children to take to Fantasy Kingdom, I thought.
Behind us were the gates of Fantasy Kingdom, the brightest, cleanest, and most out-of-place sight in all of Bangladesh. The walls are plastic but look like sandstone. Standing atop them are two very happy cartoon kids – sentinels looking out to the crowded streets and the surrounding garment factories.
"One girl and one boy would be best," Ruma said. She is a 20-something Bangladeshi sportswriter who had taken the day off to help me with my crazy idea: Take as many kids as we can – who live in the park's shadow but haven't been inside – into the amusement park. Riding a roller coaster is a luxury they'll probably never know otherwise and, as a lifetime roller-coaster enthusiast, something I hoped to change.
"I want 20," I replied.
Ruma approached three boys. As she talked, they stared at me before running off to find more kids. It wasn't long before we had a crowd.
We lined up the kids – shortest to tallest – and started passing out tickets. A group of men in the back pointed to an elderly man. I pushed my way through the onlookers and handed him a ticket.
Inside the park, there were no lines. We were the line – our personal ride-operator followed us wherever we went. For our first ride, we chose one that I know as "the spider" from the rural county fairs of my childhood. The kids hooted and hollered as it spun.
Until this point, our group was somewhat reserved, but "the spider" changed things. They started acting like kids – all of them, even the old man.
They talked wide-eyed to one another with waving arms. I knew what they were saying: "Did you see me? I wasn't holding on." Or, "Did you try spittin'? I did and ...."
These children weren't used to being kids. They have responsibilities such as jobs.
Habir is a garment worker, as are Russell and Zumon. Habir is only 18, but is a five-year veteran of a factory. He supports his family on $115 per month.
Five of the children are street scavengers. They pick through trash for plastic bottles they might be able to sell.
A 9-year-old girl, the youngest of our group, wasn't wearing shoes or a shirt, but she was wearing earrings.
Also in our number were two shopkeepers, a 14-year-old herbal doctor, four food vendors, and two barbers. The elderly man, Mr. Azhar, is the father of seven. He has a white beard and whiter teeth. His distinguished face is lined with years of smiles, pains, and labors.
"Who has been here before?" I asked Ruma to translate.
Only Russell raised his hand.
The average American family can generally afford to pay $60 for a child to visit Disney's Magic Kingdom. Any Bangladeshi who can afford the $3 admission into Fantasy Kingdom is relatively rich.
In Bangladesh, some parents can't even afford shirts for their daughters. I bought a baby-blue one that had "Fantasy Kingdom" written on it for the shirtless girl with the earrings. It cost $1.
There are two roller coasters in Fantasy Kingdom. I pointed to the big one in the distance. The kids cheered. As we marched off, the barefoot kids didn't complain about the scalding hot, sunbaked stone. They just skipped.
I boarded the train and took the front car with Mr. Azhar. He eyed the seat belt and was bewildered. I buckled it for him and pulled down the leg bar.
He followed my lead and held up his hands as we ratcheted our way uphill. He dropped them at the top, hanging on hard. His head fell to my shoulder as we rounded a sharp curve. His quiet laughter was in contrast to the high-pitched screams of the kids behind us. By the ride's end, we were both laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes.
On our way out, I read a sign at the gate telling the mythology of Fantasy Kingdom:
"Once upon a time ... Prince Ashu and Princess Lia ... spent their days in fun and frolic, dancing and playing with the people of their kingdom. But with time, this mysterious kingdom disappeared because the people had forgotten how to smile.... Prince Ashu re-created his lost kingdom here so that people would forget their worries and again learn to smile and have fun."
For some in Bangladesh, $60 is a month's wage. Maybe I should have done something more practical for the kids with my money. After all, every kid deserves to have shoes and a shirt.
But if while walking by on their way to work or while picking through trash, they look up at the park's high-arched gate and remember the roller coaster and how their stomach was in their throat and the wind in their hair, and escape just for a bit, it was money well spent.
We live in a turbulent, imbalanced world. It can be depressing to think about. But we all have the right to a little fun.
For a few hours, we were the kings and queens of Fantasy Kingdom. And we had a blast.