Saturday, January 17, 2015

Taking A Break – Contrasting Bangladesh

I clear immigration at Dhaka airport and head towards the domestic airport, a short distance away. An armed policeman, a kid really, stops me and asks for my passport in Bangla; I give it to him. His face lights up.
Ah, American hay? He says in broken English. Very nice. Where are you headed?
Chittagong. Tourist.
Very nice. Chittagong very nice. You have baksheesh? For me? Only ten dollah?
No, I say firmly, I have no money.
The kids face clouds up. He looks around, pokes a finger in his nose, extracts a booger after a brief struggle, examines it intently for a moment and flicks it away; it lands on a nearby door of the transit divide. He turns his attention to me, blows stale breath my way and gives me a toothy grin.
No money? You tourist and no money?
I sigh, dig into my pocket and come up with a fifty Takka bill, about forty US cents, which I give him. The kid looks wounded and would have burst into tears but I snatch the passport from his hands and walk away, least he touch the passport with a polluted finger.

One of the perks for working for CAI is the opportunity to visit far-flung exotic gateways and this one is no exception. I have a few days to spare so I am headed to southeast Bangladesh for some R and R. I need the solitude and space to rejuvenate my sagging sprits in light of recent personal life turbulences.   

Bandarband, which literally means monkey forest even though I meet no monkeys there, is a tribal area some seventy-five miles from Chittagong, severely restricted by the authorities; only a lucky few get to visit, under constant surveillance. An acquaintance (lets call him Yakoob) with good connections has gotten me the permit and I look forward to three days of hiking, meeting remote people and trying different foods. 

Yakoob picks me up at Chittagong airport and fights the ghastly-polluted roads and traffic to his splendid house, where I am made comfortable for the evening; we depart for Bandarband after Jooma next day. Yakoob, I quickly realize, is a BIG businessman. I get a massive room to myself and am fed feasts that would make King Abdallah cringe in envy. Three very inquisitive dogs and two cats that roam about the house are my only fear but they leave me alone after Yakoob sternly reminds them to.

As a foreigner, I am made to register twice before actually entering Bandarband. It is a town nothing special to write home about; same grime and pollution, same chaos, same unruly traffic that honk until I worry I will go insane. It has become very chilly in the hills so a thick sweater comes handy.

There are eleven separate tribes, mostly Hindu, that make up the minority tribes in Banderband. A King, who speaks to the Muslim majority government to press for the tribe’s rights and complaints, unites them all. It is the King’s birthday so the authorities have relaxed the ban on alcohol consumption for three days. This is an annual event where throngs of people, majority poor and illiterate Muslims, gather at Banderband, get sloshed and have a huge party. The King receives his subjects bearing gifts of chicken, eggs or a maybe a pig, perhaps from the more affluent ones. We visit the gala event the first night but rowdy crowds and all the locally brewed booze on sale quickly put me off.

A local guy, Yakoob’s friend, takes us boating the next day, and keeps on chattering about how beautiful Bandarband is; I have yet to see much beauty. But it does get quite scenic once we leave the town behind. Two hours into the ride, the boat owner cuts the motor and we sit in complete quiet, save for the river and some birds making merry. Suddenly, a school of large fish takes flight for quite a distance; a truly amazing sight, one I have never before witnessed.

Barracudas, whispers the friend.

The greenery, solitude and pristine waters lull us into a trance broken only by fishermen rowing past us with their catch. Bangladesh gets abundant protein from seafood and you can this bounty in their meals; breakfast, lunch and dinner. We have our meals at a local very busy restaurant where the calorie-laden food is always fresh and wholesome.

It is the final day in Bandarband that makes the trip memorable. The drive to the top of the hills, to Nealgirri is breathtakingly beautiful, through winding roads and floating clouds. Every security post has advance notice of my arrival; wonder what the authorities are paranoid about? I get to hike through local villages and meet people who have yet to leave their villages - ever. The tribal people of Bangladesh are much fairer than the coastal populations and the women strikingly attractive. I see many young men with a bobtail on the front of their scalps; this signifies their bachelorhood; too bad I have lost my hair.

It is the fairer sex that proposes marriage in this culture and the man has to pay the asking price; two pigs (more if she is pretty), an adequate plot of land and absolutely no interference from his parents; they stay separately and she won’t even cook for them. The wife dominates the family and is very protective. The man must reward his wife with a silver belt every year of marriage; gold if he is affluent.

The air, scene and foliage are fabulous and breathtaking at places. The earth, like elsewhere in the country, is fertile and uncorrupted, with groves of banana, pineapple and papaya in abundance. The Hindus of these areas are carnivores so pigs are abundant in all villages.

Later that day, I am in conversation with the Governor of Bandarband who wants aid for an orphanage he is a patron of. He invites the young manageress of the orphanage to come by so I could meet her. Zaw Prue is a strikingly beautiful woman of about twenty-five. She comes by and does something that both shocks and revolts me. Taking off her shoes, she bends down and prostrates to the Governor, to Yakoob and then to me, her head touches my shoes. I leap up, my heart thumping and the hair of my arm all excited.

Bangladesh is, still, pretty much, a landowner’s fiefdom. These few control the wealth of the country and hold enormous sway over the poor, including such obeisance. Although Yakoob, red faced due to my reaction, explains this form of respect is normal in these areas, I am pretty unnerved by this drama.

This fact is reinforced my last day in Bangladesh. Yakoob takes me to see his 590-acre plantation back in Chittagong. It is massive, yes, rich in timber, a variety of fruits, bamboo, wildlife and rubber, all income producing. Squatters take care of the land, all in awe and subservient to Yakoob, the absolute master. At the bottom plateau of the land is a spectacular lake, ideal gateway from the throngs of people, pollution, traffic and commotion barely three miles away. The plantation is appraised at a cool US$65 million.

Talk of contrasts!

Click here for a few photos of my adventure.

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