Chittagong, Jan 2002

Dhaka - 18 Jan 2002

A bizarre thing just happened. I went out with Nilmini for lunch ... we walked a few hundred meters down a busy divided street, with the traffic, so rickshaw wallahs were plaguing us the whole way to pick us up. We had lunch in a huge empty Indian restaurant and were walking back, against the traffic, when we encountered an entirely naked woman, maybe 18 years old, coming toward us. She was nubile but no beauty. Her head was recently shaved and she was uniformly brown all over, as though customarily naked. She followed us for what seemed like ages, begging constantly in a whiney voice, plucking at us. I looked in my wallet for a bill to get rid of her but couldn't find one small enough, so of course she redoubled her efforts, concentrating on me. Nilmini was hanging back. People were watching, apparently more interested in us than her. I didn't see men looking at her lasciviously. She was behaving just like any other beggar, though perhaps more insistently, except she was naked. I don't understand this at all, in the context of Islamic modesty; she must be mad, but she didn't seem to be.

Bangkok - Jan 28 2002

I've just got a few minutes to bang this out and then rush across the street to an internet cafe to send it before I meet the guys for dinner.

I'm in Bangkok now. We spent the morning at one of the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) offices and then I went with Gord to another office where we connected a notebook computer we'd brought with us, with the AIN portal that we made at VMS (evolutionB) on it, to the BAAC network. It sort of works, but not well enough so I have to talk with someone at VMS as soon as they get to work tomorrow, which will be midnight here for me.

Last night we hunted for a Japanese restaurant that Gord recommended, on a journey involving two Sky Train rides and a half-hour traversal of dark alleys that in Dhaka I wouldn't have entered in daylight with an Uzi. On the way we encountered a man with an elephant who offered me a plastic bag with a bunch of small bananas in it. I caught on that if I bought the bananas the elephant would allow me to feed them to him (or her) so after haggling the price down from 20 baht to 10 (30 cents Canadian) I gave the man the money and took the bag from the elephant and fed her, one at a time. She'd pluck the banana from my hand with her trunk and with a sweeping motion, thrust it under, into her mouth. I had to get almost underneath her to see this.

We passed many bars with crowds of uniformly party-dressed women sitting outside, looking bored. Each bar had a differently-coloured dress. Coming from Bangladesh where on the street you see at least 100 males for every female, this was startling because it inverted the ratio precisely. Barkers urged us to enter, showing us cards depicting a variety of sex acts, either with diagrams or lists:

girl-boy
girl-girl
girl-boy-girl
boy-boy
girl and bananas (saw that earlier)
etc.

Dinner was okay, and a change from all those Indian meals in Bangladesh. I chose something bland because I've got a nasty sore on my gum, where an upper wisdom tooth would be. I'm not sure why; maybe it's lack of salad greens, or curry burns, or who knows what. I think it's getting better.

On our way back to the Sky Train we walked along a street which is normally choked with traffic but on Sunday nights is blocked off for a street market. There were buskers (musicians, dancers, hill-tribe people in costume), portrait sketchers, henna tatooists, cd pirates, and all manner of kitschy knick-knacks set out for sale. There was even a woman splicing jute rope into animal shapes, including a very good llama which I considered buying but decided that it was too expensive a joke.

Bangkok - 30 Jan 2002

Now I have time to chronicle the Chittagong trip (back in Bangladesh).

We worked really hard up to the workshop on Wednesday Jan 23, putting in 12 and 14 hours every day to get the presentation material ready, incorporate new material in the portal and the mapping applications in response to review suggestions from our Bangladeshi partners, and do several dry runs. The stakes were high - it all culminated in a day-long session of presentations, speeches by important people, and an interactive exercise to extract peoples' expectations of an environmental monitoring information network. It was attended by a cabinet minister, an MP, several top bureaucrats, the Canadian High Commissioner and about 100 people from government and non-government water management organizations. I did three demonstrations of various internet-telephony technologies. In the end we thought we did well, although the proof will be in the pudding: when the Bangladeshi government and CIDA sign the Memorandum Of Understanding that will set us up for the next phase, on which my job and others' at VMS may depend. Like Joerg said: “Show me the money.” It was a stressful time exacerbated by little exercise, irregular meals and jetlag.

I was not a happy camper by the time it was over, and I fretted about going to the Chittagong Hills. I had committed myself by buying a $150 non-refundable air ticket and as the time drew nearer to go I was torturing myself with dark fantasies of my throat being slit by dacoits and all other possible misadventures. My plan was to fly early Friday morning to Chittagong (on the southeast coast on the Bay of Bengal), take a bus to Rangamati (3 hours), a town on an archipelago of hilltops that emerge as islands in the man-made Kaptai Lake; possibly spend the night there, then take a boat down the lake (4 hours) to Kaptai, a smaller nondescript town, and another bus back to Chittagong (3 hours), in plenty of time to catch the 9:10 flight back to Dhaka Saturday night. The Bangladeshis in the hotel and at work were full of advice, some good (don't go down the lake as the single passenger in a boat) and some impractical (go with a hired Bangladeshi guide), mostly from people who'd never been there and don’t plan to go.

Fortunately my spirits were lifted by two sweaty squash episodes at the Canadian Club and the prospect of having one of my colleagues as a companion, so by the eve of my departure I was feeling quite positive about the whole thing. I look back to my youth remembering the insouciance with which I set off on all manner of perilous journeys and marvel at how, at 53, how cautious and fearful I've become. I hope this is not a trend towards complete cowardice at 60, a shut-in in a dim apartment.

As it turned out, my colleague was unable to get a seat on the early plane, having left the reservation so late, and I was unwilling to wait for a later flight even if I could change my ticket, so before the call to prayer at dawn on Friday morning I was out on Gulshan Avenue in the dark waiting to flag down a baby-taxi, on my own. In the gathering light on the way to the airport buffeted by the cold morning wind I had a great shiver of exhilaration ... the adventure begins!

Lately I had been living with a looseness in the bowels as they say so in the Chittagong airport I prudently visited the toilet before venturing out into a toilet-less world where men squat to pee in the gutters (standing would be immodest) and god knows where they shit. It was a hole-in-the-floor-between-footprints model, just fine if you're wearing a lungi. No toilet paper. You can skip this next bit if you're squeamish ... usually there's a teapot-shaped vessel you dip in a bucket of water with your right (food-eating) hand, reaching around behind you and sluicing it down the crack of your ass, while with your left hand between your legs you massage your rosebud til it's squeaky-clean. This particular facility had a hose with a button-actuated nozzle for the purpose, a hair-trigger with a nothing-or-firehose response, so by the time I was finished trying to hit my rectum from various angles the back of my pants was soaked and the walls of the stall were dripping. I was sure that after all the cursing and giggling people would be curious to see who'd emerge but no one paid any attention. Thenceforth, to this day, I wash my hands at every opportunity, try not to touch things with my right hand and even briefly considered wearing gloves, like Howard Hughes.

Chittagong is a city of 1 million people, with its primary industry being the wrecking of ships which end their days on miles of beaches like corpses being dismantled by ants, plate by plate of steel cut and pried off and carried away to be exported as scrap, or reused in the construction of frankenstein Bangladeshi river barges, or paving gas stations in Chittagong.
To someone like me insensitive to the subtleties, it's indistinguishable from Dhaka: dirty, reeking, chaotic, noisy and above all, way too full of people. I should say, way too full of men, because I conducted a small statistical experiment until I ran out of patience counting more than 100 males before I passed a female on the sidewalk.

They seem to relish the crowding. Friends walk hand in hand, or sit closely with unconscious intimacy, one clasping the hand of the other, in his lap. There are furious arguments with voices raised over the din of horns and 2-cycle motors, spluttering through betel-nut-stained teeth. Beggars wander about with outstretched palms, with perhaps six fingers, or no hand (just a stump), or the hump-back of the very old or the pathos of the very young. I'm like honey to bees and when I refuse them they nudge me softly, insistently, until they give up and move on, often watched from a distance by the beggar-master to whom they give their take. All my small bills go to beggars and rickshaw-wallahs.

I took a baby-taxi all the way from the airport to the bus station identified in the Lonely Planet guidebook as the one from which buses to Rangamati leave. The driver kindly directed me exactly to the ticket-wicket and I pushed and shoved with the best of them to thrust my 100 taka note through the grill. The ticket-seller spoke English well enough to make me confident that I'd find the right bus at the right time. I was falling back into a case of the mild willies again, with the incessant gratuitous blasts of bus horns, air thick with diesel-smoke, plagued by beggars and staring people. I bought a half-liter of water and some biscuits, retreated to a waiting area and read a few escapist chapters.

An hour later someone urged me onto the bus, a battered pachyderm with a ladder up the side to the roof for cargo and passengers who can't fit inside. I got seat 14A, slightly less than a femur-length behind seat 13A. Even before we left I regretted requesting a window-seat but consoled myself that I might be safer so tightly constrained if we crashed. A tiny woman took the aisle seat giving me a reproachful look because the strap of my pack was on her side of the armrest. Presently the bus lurched out into the street and we were off, winding interminably eastwards through the city, past cabinet-makers, wrought-iron workshops, mattress manufactures, steel office furniture makers, tire retreaders, babytaxi mechanics, loiterers, street-food vendors, a cobbler, etc., endlessly fascinating. Kevin had left me his camera which I kept at the ready, but by the time I'd finished savouring a sight, it was gone, and so was the opportunity to photograph it: an abashed young seller of oranges berated by an older orange seller; two school-boys bragging; a Buddhist shrine in a shady glade, oxen troikas eyes rolling trotting slack-hipped down a busy street, two proud Hindu girls in their best dresses outshine a Muslim woman in burqa, ...

The road was just wide enough for two buses to pass one another and still remain on the pavement, forcing other traffic off onto the shoulder. Even out from the city the roadsides are a procession of laden rickshaws, people on foot, goats lounging catlike in the dirt, all a whisker away from the vehicles hurtling by. Negotiating Bangladeshi streets and roads appears be a skill acquirable nowhere else. The system works according to the laws of fluid dynamics and the intelligence of the elements in it as they execute their vectors, often avoiding being fatally in the same place at the same time by centimetres and milliseconds.

Some mild anxiety pangs returned, contributed to by the half-liter of water that had by this time reached my bladder, knees bruised by the restless movements of the passenger ahead of me, uncertainty about whether I would shit my pants before the "express" bus stopped somewhere, and more uncertainty about the trip logistics ahead.

After an hour of dead-straight road with small farms on each side, low hills loomed and presently the bus dropped down a gear to take a uphill curve. For the next while we laboured up through sparsely forested scrubland, in which rare flat places were cultivated but few people showed themselves, a shocking novelty in a country the size of New Brunswick with 140 million people. Suddenly we swung around a corner revealing a 4x8' sign, white with red letters, warning that foreigners require a permit to go further, and a police kiosk. Unforewarned and with little presence of mind I failed to duck out of sight in my window and was spotted by the constable, who gestured to the driver to stop, and ordered me off the bus. No sooner had I descended than the bus departed, leaving me and the policeman standing in the empty road. That took care of three anxiety sources so I wasn't as indignant as I might have been and interrupted the policeman to enquire about the facilities.

Now that you know all about Bangladeshi toilets, I can spare you that, saying just that it was a great relief. I came back to the roadside and sat in the kiosk with the constable, a portly fellow with a mullah-like beard, a woolen pea-green uniform with webbing belt and shiny black boots. I couldn't see a weapon anywhere. He informed me sternly in very halting English that several months ago several foreigners had been kidnapped and held (for ransom I supposed) for several weeks, and thenceforth all foreigners require a permit, etc. I would have to stay put in the kiosk until his superior came to review the situation, precluding offering him a bribe to take the next transport going by. So we made tedious small-talk for quite a while, in which he explained my situation a few more times, we traded family details (I think) and he whined bitterly about how he works a 24-hour shift. I gave him a Canada key chain from my trinkets-for-the-natives store. When he returned to his newspaper, I pulled out a book, which he took from me officiously and riffled, apparently looking for pictures.

Finally his plain-clothed boss strolled up and took his seat behind the desk in the kiosk, looking at me briefly. His English was better. I began to think that the bad vibes I was getting from both of them had to do more with defensiveness about the inconvenience they were causing me, so I assured them that I accepted the situation and was grateful for the concern of the Bangladeshi state for my welfare. The boss got up, wished me well in my travels and as an afterthought asked if I'd had lunch. I said no, then extrapolated ahead to the likelihood that I'd probably regret accepting an invitation to eat anything there, for reasons discussed earlier, and added quickly that I had food in my pack, thanks very much.

Pretty soon a bus came rumbling down the hill, back toward Chittagong, so I got on and hung from a hand-strap in the center, crouched down a bit. Almost immediately someone plucked at my arm, indicating a seat freed-up by a young girl now sitting in her mother's lap. That gave me an aisle seat with knee-room if I sat sideways. The girl found me fascinating, continuously sneaking peeks at me, which suited me because she was the prettiest little thing, and I could sneak peeks at her too. I gave her a Canada key chain in gratitude for her seat. Her mum was quite comely as well, Hindu, about 35, but life-worn. She had a lovely scent. That's a remarkable thing about Bangladesh ... everyone is very clean, without the body odours of more pungent people I've encountered. They bathe as least daily, it seems, in 50-meter-square ponds with concrete stairs descending into unsavoury-looking water left by the monsoon. From the bus flashing by I could see people standing waist-deep, fully clothed, washing themselves and their saris at once. In the shanty-village beside the EGIS office building in Dhaka desperately poor people, dispossessed by some rural catastrophe, bathed similarly at the water faucet.

A long time later, since getting bundles of produce up and down from the roof of a stop-everywhere bus takes time, we pulled up in Chittagong, in the same bedlam. By now it was 3pm and I considered getting a ticket to Kaptai, which you'll recall is the other town on Kaptai Lake. If now forewarned I could get by the police control point, I could complete my trip more or less as planned. However, deciding between kicking back in a decent hotel immediately, compared to another three hours on a bus arriving in the dacoit-infested dark shithole hinted at in the Lonely Planet description of Kaptai, was a no-brainer so I set off to find the Hotel Meridian, described in the same book as a good-value high-end doss. By four I was showered and sitting in bed watching a comfort-movie (Robert de Niro in Cape Fear - HBO). After the movie I descended to the dining-room for the meal I enjoyed the best of any this trip: red snapper a la meneure with garlic sautéed green beans. The culture-shock washed away. It was Friday so the place was packed with well-to-do families, having what we'd call Sunday dinner.

Next morning not so early I took a rickshaw to the station for the Cox's Bazaar buses. Cox was some sort of India Company type who renovated a settlement previously infested with Bay of Bengal pirates, the guide book says. Bangladeshis go there for vacation because it's the only beach in the country if you don't count shifting riverbanks. Local legend has it as the longest continuous beach on the planet ... 120 miles or so. The guide book wasn't very encouraging but movement seemed preferable to hanging about Chittagong all day waiting for my flight back to Dhaka so I bought a ticket. Again, the villainous-looking ticket seller was a sweetie making sure I understood which bus, when, etc.

I got the front window seat with legroom and terrific views out the side window and through the enormous windshield. The driver looked quick-witted. A young man with teeth rimmed red from betel nut flung himself down beside me, clearing his upper respiratory passages in the disgusting manner of Bangladeshi men and never women (in my small experience): first a convulsive gagging retch from deep in the larynx, followed by a brain-shuddering adenoidal rattling of sinuses, and finally collection of the products of the two previous operations in a noisy glottal expectoration. This was so successful that he had to get up again to spit out the door.

The ride down to Cox's Bazaar was four hours counting the lunch break. The two bus boys kept the driver in lit smokes and betel nut cones. With the Bangladeshi driving style and frequent news of head-on bus collisions, riding in the front is nerve-wracking until you resign yourself fatalistically (I've had a good life, my children don't need me anymore, I'm insured). Then you get into watching real life unfold. A man struggles through a muddy paddy directing a plow behind two oxen; two guys stand over an irrigation channel rhythmically swinging a conical canvas bucket between them, slinging water up into a paddy; women tend a rice plant nursery, as bright a green as you've ever seen off drugs; people poking single rice plants into a flooded paddy, like hairs into a bald man's head. There's no free lunch here; if you don't pull some kind of weight you don't eat, get sick and die.

When eventually we arrived at the Cox's Bazaar terminus I was fretting, accounting for the four hours back to Chittagong, about how little contingency I was leaving for catching the 9:10 plane back to Dhaka, so I resolved to look into getting a flight instead, first thing. The ride through Cox's Bazaar to the airport didn't inspire me to linger. No charm at all, just your usual haphazard moldering three story buildings hanging over each side of the street, shop after tawdry shop, a sea of rickshaws flowing each way. I just wanted to swim in the Bay of Bengal and get out of there. At the airport I learned that the next and only flight out that day was leaving in half an hour, for Chittagong and Dhaka, leaving not enough time to add to my "famous seas" collection if I took it. Again I took the wussy way out: bought the ticket and flew out of there. When we touched down in Chittagong I nipped into the terminal building and got my ticket changed to continue to the flight to Dhaka. I sat beside an elderly British woman, Silvia, who works on an education project and had just conducted a workshop in Cox's Bazaar with a crowd of school teachers from various provinces of the country. She told me that there was a major tizzy when some of the women went swimming, in their saris but without the shawl, getting the wet t-shirt effect. Somebody complained, a man I'd guess, and the education authorities got all bent out of shape, demanding film from cameras in case pictures had been taken. There's no accounting for culture.

Silvia offered me a ride into town from the airport so I got dropped of outside the Canadian Club at 4:30, in time to find two of my colleagues having an early supper. I had a beer with them and invited a fellow I hadn’t met before to our table. He's a CNG (compressed natural gas) mechanic here working on a CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) project that's encouraging the conversion of baby-taxis from vile belching 2-stroke gas burners to CNG.

Facts (according to Dave):

Next day I flew to Bangkok to help the AIN project for four days. Same idea, except instead of water management it's micro-financing farmers. I installed a notebook computer on their intranet with an AIN portal on it so the bank loans officers can play with it and feed back to us. The project seems to be falling apart on the customer side, for lack of money. This does not bode well for my continued employment.

Bangkok is a whole other story which I haven't the energy to go into now. I'm on the plane back to Vancouver and my battery is down to 17%. Highlights: back in civilization again; amazing city; had a body massage; traveled around on the SkyTrain to the various bank facilities. For sure William Gibson and Neil Stephenson's sci-fi novels borrow from here.


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