Impressions of Bangladesh – a loooong, superficial essay

A difficult task to describe my impressions of Bangladesh, but I’ll try. So much has happened in the two weeks I was there, I don’t even know where to begin. I hardly think and feel that I know a place after only two weeks. I think even spending a few years in a place, you still can hardly understand it… But here it is.

Myanmar refugee camp
Tagged along on Mikey’s journalism assignment to report on a Myanmar refugee camp near Teknaf. Certainly an eye opening experience, and one of those experiences you don’t enjoy, but were glad you saw. The conditions in which the Burmese refugees live are atrocious. The smell of human waste, and body odour – basically a human zoo of 7,000 people crammed into a tiny plot of land – permeates the air. I could even smell it inside our hired car from a ways back on the road. The children in the refugee camp, though malnourished, actually seem pretty happy, friendly, and full of joy, as kids usually are. Though they don’t know anything outside the camp. Whenever we’d stop on the road, a huge crowd would basically form around us, so we had to keep moving into the rows of shanties.

Bengali people in the tourism industry
All of the people I’ve met in the tourism industry are just amazing. So hardworking, and they really enjoy their jobs, getting to travel and meet people. We stayed in an Eco-cottage across the road from the wild Elephant sanctuary near Teknaf. I had quite a lengthy conversation with the owner. Very smart, and super nice guy, with an extremely pleasant demeanor. I feel for him a bit – in the way that he’s smart, eager, hard working and motivated, but the opportunities, or amount of tourism dollars flowing through just aren’t there yet. I really want to see him succeed. He asked me to tell my friends to come visit, which I would wholeheartedly, but in reality, I don’t think any of my friends would come. But the good news is that Mikey’s guidebook will help put them on the map, and in a few years, his business will take off.

And on that note…

Travel and tourism in Bangladesh
Mike says the best reason to visit Bangladesh is not its sites (of which I’ve found a bit underwhelming – the beach at Cox’s Bazaar doesn’t compare to any which I’ve visited, the temples just haven’t stood the test of time and monsoons, and so on), but its people. Half the time I was in Bangladesh, I didn’t have anything to “do”. I’ve found it really hard travelling in Bangladesh, even though Mike has made it as easy as it could possibly be, taking care of all the travel arrangements and itinerary. I think as a woman travelling in a Muslim country (though Bangladesh is downright modern compared to any other Muslim country, due to its Buddhist presence in the past), I definitely had a different experience than a man would. I didn’t feel comfortable just striking up conversations with random people (usually men, since the average person I’d encounter on the street was 95% likely to be a man), even though Bengali people are extraordinarily friendly.

In fact, when Mike, Bel, and I were in a coffee shop in Chittagong, a local struck up a conversation with Mike. He told us he went to university in Toronto but had returned home. Obviously quite wealthy, even by his appearance – polished leather shoes, two fancy mobile phones. He invited us to his house for dinner, but Mike declined as we weren’t in Chittagong for long. Later I asked, was he for real? Apparently it’s quite common for Bengali people to be hospitable and open their house to others, and whatever dinner they would have served would be the best they could afford. It just blows my mind that people could be so open and hospitable, with no hidden agendas.

Travelling as a foreign woman in Bangladesh
But going back to my thoughts on travelling in a Muslim country as a female… Maybe these are self-imposed limits, feeling like I can’t just strike up random conversations with people. Part of it is due to my shyness as well. But the scarcity of women in public is a bit intimidating… A woman in a burka, riding a rickshaw (accompanied by a male of course), stared at me as she passed. I’m pretty sure her mouth was open, even though it was covered by the burka. I had felt like all I do is sleep and stay in a lot, not doing much. But I mainly only had this feeling in the cities.

City vs. Countryside
Mike had the right idea to get the hell out of the cities as much as possible. Even walking a few blocks in Chittagong would absolutely exhaust me – the heat, humidity, noise, stench of garbage, pollution, incessant begging, with beggars following me for blocks, open-mouthed stares from groups of men on the street who look at me like I’m from another planet… I felt more like an outsider and bystander than someone experiencing a country.

The hilarious thing is, Mike said when he was scoping out hotels in Cox’s Bazaar, instead of being greeted by friendly and professional staff, the man at reception would stare at him, mouth wide open… Not exactly ready and welcoming for international travellers?

Anyway, getting back on track… In the countryside, villages look more beautiful and healthy than people in the cities. Some of them are downright stunning! Going back into Chittagong, I can see that no one in their right mind would live in the city instead of the countryside unless they had to.

My bug phobia
Bangladesh is definitely not good for my bug phobia. In Mike’s friend’s flat in Cox’s Bazaar, we entered the dining room, flicked on the light, only to come face to face with two motherfucking giant roaches, just hanging out on the floor. They were seriously 2” long and 1” high. Mike left the light on and left the room, saying they don’t like the light and they’ll go hide. Every time I’d encounter a roach in Bangladesh (and it was often), I’d scream, running out of the room. In Mike’s friend’s flat in Chittagong, the power constantly goes out, several times a day, and would stay down anywhere from minutes to hours. That was the only time I’ve been scared of the dark; every time I’d go to use the bathroom, I’d fear for my life that the power would go out and the roaches would come out.

The first night in Chittagong: I went to go brush my teeth, and opened the door to the bathroom, peeked inside and saw one crouching in the corner. I held back my scream, as I didn’t want to freak out Monica, who I had JUST met, and was sleeping in the room nearby. I thought, okay, maybe I can get over this… And just as I was about to step in, I looked down and saw a roach just millimeters below my toe. I brushed my teeth in the kitchen instead. The power went out as I was brushing, and I was so thankful I wasn’t trapped in the dark with 2 cockroaches.

One thing I liked about the more rustic places we stayed in Bangladesh, is that they were generally free of roaches, and at night I could sleep peacefully, sealed off from bugs inside a mosquito net.

I’m not taking anti-malarials, and am instead trying not to get bit, especially between dusk and dawn (when malarial mosquitos are active). In Bandarban, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, checking into my room, I see right on the front page of the newspaper, 242 malaria deaths in Rangamati (another district in the Hill Tracts, from 2005 until now). Eeeps. Our local guide in Bandarban told us how he contracted malaria while guiding in the Chittagong Hill Tracts; he was 95% dead, but recovered. The Irishman he was guiding (an expat in Bangladesh) didn’t make it… The other tourists were fine as they were on anti-malarials. A very real danger that maybe I’ve been too lax about.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are also a volatile region, and the Canadian consulate advises against all travel to this region. However, Mike knows how to weigh local advice with the overly cautionary government advisories, and though we needed to apply for a special permit, and be accompanied by police escort in order to visit a remote village, I felt entirely safe. The reason why it is a volatile region is a complicated one, but basically, nothing would happen to us while we were on an organized tour with a local guide, and with police escort. The minority village visit was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The region has just re-opened to tourists, and even then, the village rarely gets visitors. So they put on a special traditional dance show, just for the three of us (Mike, Bel and myself)! We had a fantastic spread for lunch at a local’s hut. (We were going to do a homestay, but it had rained the previous 4 days in a row, and we had cancelled the overnight stay in case the hills would just be too muddy.) And they gave us some drinking vessels, made from a dried gourd – absolutely beautiful. The best souvenir I’ve ever had; I just hope it makes it through Canadian customs home (I’m not even going to try to get it through Australian customs).

My near heart attack
I had left most of my belongings in Mike’s friend’s flat in Chittagong while we went on an excurion in the Hill Tracts. When we returned, I started reorganizing my bags, only I noticed it looked like someone went through my belongings. My cell phone was missing. Shit. Whoever stole it could have been talking for hours on it, racking $1000’s of dollars in airtime against my account. I told Mike that my cell phone was missing, and he made some calls. Apparently another girl who lived at the flat had noticed some missing money as well. I couldn’t be 100% sure it had gone missing from inside the flat, as I had also stupidly left it inside my bag while it was stowed in the bottom compartment of the bus to Chittagong. I was trying to think after I notified my cell phone company, what’s done is done, but I couldn’t stop stressing about it. But, the next day, my cell phone was returned by the cleaning lady who said it “fell out” of my bag. I looked at the “recent calls” made, and it looks like only five minutes of airtime was used before my battery died, costing me $25 at most. I thank my lucky stars. I heard the cleaning lady is going to lose her job now as well… And oh yeah, my phone now has a security code lock on it.

The soundtrack to Bangladesh
Bangla is such a melodic language. Often times, people would just randomly burst into song – rickshaw-wallahs, construction workers, people on the train… Taking the train is definitely an experience. On the train, passengers, buskers, hawkers of pakora, fruits, and snacks, and beggars would all break into song. Whenever the train stopped at a station, beggars would come on, singing beautifully. The most shocking thing I’ve seen in Bangladesh was a woman beggar, with acid burn – her nose was missing, and her face was horribly disfigured. Normally I don’t give to beggars, and her case I would, but I was just so shocked by the sight of her face, I couldn’t move. She was singing the most beautiful, sorrowful song I’ve ever heard.

Border crossing into India
Ah, border crossings in 3rd world countries are always fun… Mike overstayed his 60 day visa, so we were worried about possible problems at the border. (The border crossing we used isn’t on the internet nor in guidebooks, but based on local advice, it is a functioning crossing.) Ordinarily you would pay the overstay fee at the airport, but overland could have different “rules” or ways of doing things. We tried to pay the overstay fee at the bank 15 minutes before the border, where we paid our “border crossing fee” of 200 takka, but they had no idea about it.

So, onward to the border, where worst case scenerio, Mike would try to pay the overstay fee “to” the immigration agent. The guy there wasn’t very friendly – in fact, he was almost hostile when Mike didn’t have his Bangaldesh departure card. Mostly he was pissed that we interrupted him reading the newspaper. He scrutinized his passport and visa expiry dates. (At this point I was worried the differences between my new Canadian passport and his old style Canadian passport would cause a problem.) But at this point a small group of Bengalis entered the office, forming a rare lineup, and the agent didn’t notice the overstay – we completely lucked out!

Walked over to the Indian side, where right in our sightline, was a Wine Store! What a welcome from a Muslim, alcohol free country. The Indian immigration agent was so friendly in contrast. Definitely the deadest border crossing I’ve ever been to, being first in line both times.

Almost clear of Indian customs, the customs agent asked to see our personal electronics. On the underside of Mike’s laptop, he had stuck an old, used up Chinese visa that he had peeled out of his passport to make room for new visas. I burst out laughing, though it didn’t seem like the customs agent noticed that it was a visa.
In the Indian customs office, a driver was trying to get us to hire him. He quoted 2000 rupees and wouldn’t budge at all on his price. We ended up hiring a jeep instead of his compact car at 1800 rupees instead. We stopped in the town of Dawki to get some rupees on the black market, literally… From a woman selling fish on the street. Then down the road for alcohol! Two large bottles of beer and one of gin, for less than $4 Canadian! We were on our way!

But first, the other driver who we talked to in the Indian customs office jumped into the front bench of our jeep. I guessed he was leaving his car in Dawki at the border and going home to Shillong for the day.

Cracked open a cold beer to drink in the jeep. Bad idea. To get to Cherrapunjee, it’s practically a vertical ascent of 1500 m from the sea-level flood plains of Bangladesh. In 60 km of road. Cherrapunjee looks deceptively close to Dawki on a map, but it’s a two hour drive to go 60 km, whipping back and forth like a snake at high speeds. Needless to say, we both weren’t feeling so hot with the beer in our bellies.

However, the drive up was absolutely breathtaking. We drove up through the clouds! The warm monsoon air of Bangladesh hits the hills of Northeast India and condense, forming clouds. Absolutely stunning and ethereal. And it’s only at this time of year, during the monsoon, which is not the “ideal” time of year to travel, that you can see these thick and rolling clouds, as well as the appearance of dozens of waterfalls, coming from the top of the hills. These waterfalls are formed just by the amount of rainwater that falls during the monsoon season!

We found out during the drive that the other driver who tagged along for the ride is actually a school teacher going back home for the weekend. He had excellent English! He speaks English, Karsi (the local dialect of the minority group present around Shillong), Bangla, Hindi, AND Nepalese! I felt a little bit dumb with mainly knowing only one. Oh, the interesting things you find out during a journey…

Driving up into the clouds of India


2 thoughts on “Impressions of Bangladesh – a loooong, superficial essay

  1. Must be neat to tour places with someone who does it for a living. Reminds me that job options aren’t necessarily limited to the traditional professions etc. Really enjoyed the observations on being a female traveller in a muslim country. Sounds like you’re having a hell of a time and that I’ll be living through your travels in the foreseeable future. Hopefully, you’ll be able to break away for the wedding next summer though!!

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