Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eid Holidays

My second Bangladeshi Eid-ul-Fatir has been and gone, and this year I managed to join the hordes leaving the city once again, making a return trip to Khagachuri in the Hill Tracts, where I spent a couple of weeks in May working on research training with the staff at Georgia’s organisation.

Planning for Eid is a momentous operation, requiring anyone wishing to leave the city to book bus and train tickets two or three weeks in advance. My original plan to visit the beach resort of Cox’s Bazar was scuppered by leaving only 12 days advance to book the bus (in normal times, a day or two is sufficient), so instead I managed to grab a last minute ticket to visit Khagachuri.
Buying a bus ticket in Bangladesh can be a hassle, as even if there is space, because often the guy selling the ticket is concerned that the seat will not be suitable for a bedeshi. The reality of course, is that none of the seats are suitable for a bedeshi, nor even a Bangladeshi, as most buses are a composite of welded parts, rust and broken glass, and have seen more battle damage than Stalin’s tanks did. It took significant debate to convince him that I didn’t mind not being at the very front of the bus (the perfect position to see the hurtling oncoming traffic and to fly through the windscreen after one emergency brake too far).

People pour out of Dhaka for Eid: at least half the 14 million people were expected to leave to go to their home villages, carrying enough luggage for a Himalayan expedition, and hampers of food for the (relatively) short journeys that they were to make. The consequence of this frantic exodus is, of course, that it becomes impossible to move in the traffic. Having boarded my bus at around 7.15 am, it was 10.30 before I actually left the limits of Dhaka, a distance equivalent to perhaps travelling from Marble Arch to Liverpool Street. It was then another hour to go two kilometres to the first bridge over the Buriganga, as this single span crossing was facing four or five lanes of traffic at either end desperately trying to force its way on. A year on, the idiocy of Bangladeshi driving still confounds me.

The route to Khagachuri is mostly along the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, the ‘M1’ of Bangladesh. This metaphor applies only as far as them both being the busiest routeways in each country.
The comparison stops there. The highway is mostly a single span road, at times the sides of which are crumbling due to erosion of the embankment it runs along. There are rickshaws, CNGs, cattle, people walking and the constant zigzag driving of daredevil bus drivers all going at their equivalent breakneck speeds. A journey in Bangladesh is typically periods of ludicrous speeds, whizzing past rickshaw pullers and paddy fields, interspersed with death-defying breaking and furious shouting by drivers, over periods of 6 to 12 hours. This is normally accompanied by the booming decibels of some ancient Bollywood soundtrack making even thinking hard work. My own bus managed to hit two other buses and smash into the side of a concrete bridge on its dash through the Bangladeshi countryside.

The journey gets worse, however, when the turn off to Khagachuri is reached. What starts is three hours of switchbacks up the hill sides, with the bus lurching from side to side and regularly taking corners at incredible, terrifying angles whilst trucks and other buses coming the other way at similar speeds narrowly avoid collisions. There are bridges to cross that are barely wide enough for the bus to fit across, but are negotiated at fifty miles an hour, and potholes three feet deep dismissed as if it were but leaves on the ground. Add to this the tendency on this particular journey for the Bangladeshis to be sick, often without warning even to themselves, and the relief at arriving can become clear. Having watched people staring out a window before vomiting suddenly and to their own great surprise, and others consume trolley loads of food before throwing the waste out the window, to get off (after the customary army check), after 11 ½ hours into the cool night of the hill tracts was fantastic.

The hills were so much cooler than Dhaka, capturing the early winter winds from the Bay of Bengal, but also the tail end of the monsoon: as I write today, the floods have returned to Khagachuri and are up to 12 feet deep in places. But on Friday evening, taking a rickshaw through the small collections of villages that really make up the down, the sight of fireflies dancing across the rice paddies as the last of the sunset glow vanished was a welcome sight after the dust and dirty grey of Dhaka.

On the Saturday morning, Georgia and I made a trip out of Bhoropara, the village of Kajen, one of her colleagues at work. Even to leave the town, bedeshis are required to inform the army, and on occasions require an enormous police escort. Luckily, this was not required for us, and we were able to take a ‘jeep’ out of the town. The hill tracts are some of the remotest parts of Bangladesh, and the village we went to was considered one well connected by our lack of need of a police escort; indeed our very permission to visit it was dependent on its proximity to Khagachuri. Yet to get there we were still required to take a journey along a number of smaller and smaller roads of similarly deteriorating state of repair for some 30 minutes. We were passing through the forest proper, with small clearings filled with rice paddy surrounded by thick vegetation and a low canopy. After yet another pot hole, the tarmac road gave way to a redbrick herringbone path, along which our jeep bounced and banged its way up the hill side. A short time later we were halted and out of the jeep, as the road came to an end.

Yet this end of the road was still not the village. We then began an hour long hike up hills, through paddy fields and along small streams to get to the village. By this time to sun had risen fully and the early mists had burnt off leaving behind an impressive humidity, making it not long before I was once again sweating gallons in Bangladesh. The landscape here is very impressive: the hills are not large, being just the products of the last ripples of Himalayan uplift, but they are so unusual for this delta country that the mere existence of topography is refreshing. The hill tops are covered in thick vegetation – banana trees, creepers and ferns, and through these well worn paths weave a drunken path up and down. Around the hills, the small patches of flat land have been cleared and cultivated for centuries, so that neat, green squares of rice fill all the space around: the rice paddies appear like green clouds hiding all but the tops of restful mountains, such is their uninterrupted spread. When the trail came down into them though, the squelching of the waterlogged fields was a quick reminder of our diminutive height.

On and on we trekked, until eventually we came to the hill top village. The indigenous people (of which there are 45 groups or so in Bangladesh) traditionally live in hill top villages, in bamboo houses. We stumbled, somewhat bedraggled by sweat, into the village. The isolation is quickly apparent. There is no electricity or water – a tubewell serves the whole village. Most of the houses are small, two or three roomed bamboo shacks much like can be seen in Southeast Asia, and sufficiently different from the mud homes of the plain land Bengalis.

We sat in the ante-room of Kajen’s family home and I watched fascinated as he distributed some gifts to his mother from England. I am sure that whoever packaged up that bottle of Nivea moisturiser did not expect it to end up in a remote Tripura village in Bangladesh. We were visited by a gaggle of children, a parrot with a small grasp of the Tripura language, a cat, chickens and ducks. It seems that in this house, anyone or anything was welcome to wander around, except when the chickens found their way into the rice sacks in the corner, at which point minor pandemonium ensued as they reluctantly fled the scene of their crime pursued by a (always) woman of the house.

The Tripura are in fact a matriarchal society, very unlike the man’s world of mainstream Bangladesh, and Kajen’s grandmother is the matriarch of the village. She is a Hindu widow and consequently cannot be given meat, eggs or liquid foods, though the exact reason for this, other than ‘tradition’ was not made apparent. We were able to go for a walk, and did a small circuit of the collection of centres that make up Bhoropara. We managed to walk into a funeral, a rather embarrassing event as we instantly upstaged the dead man’s special day as the kids left to follow us on our walk, and others sent their stares.

It was difficult to remember that this is not considered a remote settlement. Though Khagachuri was a three hour walk away, where goods could be sold at market, the people were quite well connected to what was happening in the town, and many were relatives of people I had met in my previous visit. But this doesn’t disguise the lack of services. Schools are run by local NGOs, there are no amenities, and the nearest shop is one hour away on foot. Access to healthcare is non existent. Though people seem to do very little, it is a hard life. The tyranny of village life seemed omnipresent.

The next day, we went on a picnic with some of Georgia’s other colleagues and their families.
This was my first Bangladeshi picnic, and will certainly be my last. As always in the Desh, it is important to expect the bizarre, and when Georgia informed me that a picnic committee had been formed, and there was a project co-ordinator, resource manager and so on, it was clear some trepidation was needed.

We managed to find our way through the rain to the house of one of the party (who are all Tripura or Chakma) from where we set off in convey. We had been told we were going fishing and having a picnic, so after a brief walk to a huge river, we assumed that this was the place: how wrong this proved to be. Instead, we all clambered on to a small boat and were paddled across the river in relay, whilst a small boy frantically tried to keep it afloat with swift bailing. It seemed appropriate to go Bangladeshi, so I abandoned my shoes at this point (later to be regretted) and we set off through the paddy fields. The early rain had turned the small paths into slippery, soft, muddy slides, and I spend much of the time dancing along the path desperately trying to find something to grip on to.

It was pretty clear that the guys from Zabarang had not told their wives either about the trek that was to ensue, because they had come bedecked in salwar kameez and smart shoes, and were soon also slipping down the hillsides. On about our third descent, by which time my feet were a mixture of mud, straw and cow shit, we were stopped because there was a ‘small type of snake’. Upon clarification it emerged that the ‘small snakes’ everywhere were in fact large leaches. My bare feet seemed remarkably vulnerable at this point. Trying to walk down a muddy slope in bare feet whilst also hoping over lurking leaches is not an easy task, and it was not long before I had succumbed to gravity (though thankfully, not the leaches).

Finally, after a fourth climb and an hour and half of walking we made it up to a small bamboo shack perched precariously on the hill side. This was to be our picnic spot. I walked rather gingerly across the platform, as it seemed immensely fragile, especially with two bedeshis, 12 Bangladeshis and their food on it. The hill had more of these platforms sporadically spread across it. They are built by jhum cultivators whilst they tend their crop. The indigenous people are sometimes known as jhumvasis (in a slight derogatory way) because they practice the slash-and-burn agriculture known locally as jhum. Those who are too poor or too unlucky (and usually both) to own land on the valley floors grow rice, cucumber and tamarind on precarious slopes. They build these shacks to live in for two or three months whilst farming, and then move on to new parts of the hill side.

The longevity of their stay on the hillside explained why there was a small stove made of clay build into the shack, but also explained whilst there seemed to be an inordinate number of pots with us as baggage. Georgia and I were quickly inducted into the idea of a Bangladeshi picnic, which is really the transplanting of the kitchen to a new location. Everyone immediately sat down to peeling chillies, onions and garlic, trying to hack off pieces of frozen pork and chicken and lighting a fire. It was already by now 11.30.

Eventually some cooking was going, and it seemed that someone was responsible for each dish, meaning a coordinated game of musical chairs ensured as space was negotiated at the stove. When some cooking was eventually underway, it was time to go ‘fishing’. This involved sliding back down the hill side to the small stream at the bottom, which we walked along upstream towards the sound of a distant waterfall. Our hosts then proceeded to flick over large river stones and rummage in the water underneath, trying to find small river crabs. By the time we had reach the end of the watercourse, we had acquired a small collection of very small creatures. Some shak (spinach leaf) was washed in tiny plunge pool, and then the crabs were ripped open and their claws dismembered ready for the pot. We struggled back up the stream and then up the hill, were finally we could do a little eating.

The crabs were quickly cooked, and then banana leaves were laid out on the platform, from which we could pick spinach, fish and crabs. Then, the rice wine was brought out. One cannot drink this potent brew without food, which is made extra spicy in order to induce a sweat. This particular proof was apparently 90%, and had a kick like being hit by a Bangladeshi bus driver – it was lethal stuff, even when mixed up with some 7-Up, the half a cup I was served was too much. It was not long before Georgia’s colleagues were droopy eyed and slurred, and their good natured banter accelerated to bizarre degrees, with stories of some sending girls to the house of another to make his wife jealous, and others talking about a baby still not named after 10 months, and too much more besides. The naming of Tripura children is quite a ceremony. There are only certain letters that the names can begin with, and so a set of options are written down and attached to candles. The candles are lit and the last candle to burn down becomes the baby’s name. One of our two minor accompanies, Joshua, was named by another volunteer that left in August.

Sometime around 3.30 we finally had lunch, eating rice, chicken, pork and fish from huge deep green banana leaves spread out on the ground before we finally moved off the platform and staggered back to the main town, drinking some green coconut water on one stop, and waiting for Diman, a vivacious programme co-ordinator at Zabarang, to eat again at another house. With the rice wine, the falling light, constant food stops and the broken boat, it was a while before we got back to the flat. But, it was absolutely worth it. Though a Bangladeshi picnic is a troublesome affair, the trouble is worth it; the views and the food, the company and even the rice wine were elements of a very memorable, and special day.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

YfD Applications for 2008 open

If anyone is interested in applying to VSO as a youth volunteer, applications have opened and run until January 2008. It is a good opportunity to gain overseas experience in a manner which is not economically unviable, and also in general manages to avoid either taking up job opportunities locals could undertake or making frivalous contributions.
At the very least, my picture is advertising it...see www.vso.org.uk for details