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Published: April 24th 2013
The last entry seemed a tad dreary and self-pitying, and certainly didn't do Bangladesh justice, so I thought I'd augment the blog with some of the numerous crazy and fascinating experiences I've managed to cram into a chaotic two weeks of endless bus delays, tribal festivities and hardcore backpacking that came to an end yesterday. I write now from Kolkata after taking an earlier-than-anticipated bus back over the border for fear of getting caught up in the huge hartel (strike) that's kicking off now. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I crossed the border - it was a stressful 48 hours, attempting to outrun the all-encompassing wave of strikes - but I can also treasure many unique memories from the plains to the hill tracts of Bangladesh.
I devoted a large chunk of my second day in Chittagong to seeing the infamous "ship-breaking yards" that are scattered on the beaches 20km north of the city. They are basically where super-tankers go to die, and workmen rip them to pieces and use these pieces to make new boats. They have been recently demonised by the Western press for poor working conditions, and accidents and fatalities are frequent. Suitably intrigued by this air of controversy, I set out in the mid-morning heat to attempt to witness these apparently barbaric yards which only exist in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. To achieve this, I had to break free of the swirling parades and marches celebrating Bengali New Year - a quest that culminated in a hazardous chase over Chittagong's busiest intersection as a dozen half-naked paint-wielding kids endeavored to ruin my new Dhaka Gladiators cricket shirt. I managed to give them the slip before there were any fatalities. I took one of the rattly CNGs (compressed natural gas tuk-tuks) north to the beaches and was offloaded onto a dubious-looking dirt track that wound down-hill to the obscured coastline. The locals all fixed me with icy stares; clearly, they knew what I was up to, and didn't want another nosy white man calling their families' bread-winner into question.
The track led to a closed steel gate with "SHIP BREKING YARD" painted boldly on the front. Assuming an air of nonchalant superiority, which incidentally is not difficult to achieve in Bangladesh, I pushed through the pedestrian gate and nodded civilly to the stationed guard, meanwhile suppressing a gasp at the sight in front of me. I walked on casually and thought I'd be able to soak up the breath-taking scene in peace, but I was called back by angry shouts from a man who turned out to be the yard manager. I told him I had business interests in boats, and after a nervy period of contemplation, he granted me 30 minutes snooping time, but regretfully forbid me to take my camera from my bag. As I walked back toward the sea, I winced as the manager gave the security guard an earful for letting me through. I hope I didn't cost him his job.
The white lies had paid off. In front of me was one of the most monstrously intimidating but strangley seductive sights I've ever seen. The stretch of sand that belonged to this particular yard boasted about 5 or 6 super-tankers. One, to my left, had been chopped clean in half from side to side, the gaping belly yawning out at me mournfully as the waves lapped insignificantly at the rusting hull. Others further to my right rose like miniature cities from the swell, the sounds of hammering and sawing echoing enticingly from within. I couldn't see any workers from where I was, but clearly the boats were in various stages of decay, and a brand new tanker lay further to my right - a Frankenstein patchwork of scraps from countless donor boats, coming to life before my eyes. The urge to take photos was almost irresistible, but the scores of armed guards watching me from raised towers dotted over the beach stayed my hands. I spent the 30 minutes in servile awe of these impossibly big machines before leaving the yard cordially, sneaking round to a gap in the wall and getting a token photo of a small part of the beach. If you fancy taking a look, the yards are visible on Google Maps if you zero in on Chittagong and move a little to the north.
My next stop - the lake-side town of Rangamati - was where I danced with a bunch of policemen as I alluded to in my last blog post. Now, I'd freely admit that I'm not the best dancer, and the lack of alcoholic encouragement in this largely dry country didn't help grease the boogie gears, but I went for it anyway, surrounded as I was by gyrating rings of delirious coppers. I only found out afterwards, as I walked back to my hotel with the receptionist, that I'd just partied with policemen. The next day, I saw some of them on duty at the tribal water festival! Witnessing the water festival seemed like a stroke of good luck, though actually it continued to drench me and others for days afterwards. My new friend Mizan - a Muslim student lodging in the basement of my hotel - had got wind of the tribal celebration and so we cruised down to a faraway marquee to watch the tribal girls and boys splash each other with tubs of water. There was a big press presence because the US Consulate was the guest of honour, and I somehow managed to blag a place amoung the camera men and video cameras (white man privileges again) inside the tent, where I managed to get some half-decent shots. Every now and then someone would ask me what ISO or shutter speed I was thinking of using, which tested my blagging skills to their maximum, but I held out for 2 rounds of mad splashing before leaving to take a quiet cruise on the lake. That morning, after I'd gone for a run with Mizan, I returned to my room to have a shower, and found a giant spider in my bathroom - bigger than the size of my hand, and resembling a Huntsman. It took me 20 minutes of self-motivation to confront the intruder, and I eventually cornered the blighter using a deft water splashing technique of my own. I then squashed it with my bucket and left it in the corner as a warning to other creepy crawlies. That night I wrapped myself extra-neatly in my mosquito net!
Spiders soon began to haunt my every step, though. In the lush rolling tea estates of Srimongal, I ventured into a National Protected Forest, where a looping trail wound deep into the pressing and humid jungle. I pulled my imaginary explorer's hat over my head, and ducked between branches and bushes without a guide. After 20 minutes of tentative tip-toeing down the path (I'd seen enough adventure movies to know a lone stroll into a jungle rarely ends well) I inadvertently put my foot through a huge rotten log and after tugging frantically, wrenched it back out, horrified to note the mass of squirming leeches that were going mad on my trainer at the promise of fresh blood close at hand. Jumping up and down desperately, I backed into a huge tangle of webs and glanced up to see a sickeningly big spider scrambling up the remains of his web, inches from my stricken face. I feel sick just writing this. I think it's probably the most scared I've ever been, and from then on in the walk, I used a stick to probe for webs at every step, limping like a blind amputee as I went. Earlier that day, I'd been lucky enough to see a tribal ritual involving chicken sacrifices. I took a video of one of them. I can confirm that chickens appear to live on for a while after decapitation.
My journey to Srimongal from Dhaka was by train and here I'd seen plenty of locals travelling on the roofs - something which has ceased in India since the introduction of deadly overhead wires. Naturally, I wanted to give it a go, and 2 hours into the 4-hour journey, while stopped at a small station, I climbed up onto the roof from the rattling doorway of my carriage, and perched myself cross-legged on the hot curved surface. There was only one man on my carriage roof, but there were dozens further up towards he front of the train. I waved confidently down at the platform, but when shop-keepers down below spotted me, they all urged me earnestly to get down. I laughed off their warnings for a while until one shouted in English "Ali Baba, they rob you and throw you off!" This actually seemed to be quite likely, and already I was drawing inquisitive (or sinister?) stares from the roofs further along the train. I imagined myself being robbed on the moving train roof, and realised there would be nowhere to go if they decided to mug me. They could even push me off. I asked the bloke on my roof where I should go to get down, and he answered darkly - "impossible." Great. I managed to scramble down eventually with help from a shop-keeper, and retreated red-faced to my seat once more. My folly delayed the train by 45 minutes as angry policemen looked for someone to blame for my erratic behaviour. I think the warnings were probably not representative of the Bangladesh train-roof-travelling class, but they were enough to but the frighteners on me. New respect to Mum for doing it all those years ago!
Like I said, I'm now in Kolkata awaiting my flight out of the subcontinent to Bangkok, where I meet Chris. I'm armed with a fascinating Burma guidebook for the month ahead, and it looks like I'll be needing quite a few crisp $100 notes, too! Tonight, I (hopefully) will be going to the huge IPL cricket clash of Kolkata Knightriders vs. Mumbai Indians in the huge Eden Gardens Cricket Stadium (cap. 90,000)! I'm just about to go out to track down a black market ticket, which is sure to cost me an arm and a leg! If I manage to get in, it'll be a fantastic way to end my 3 months in India, Nepal and Bangladesh - a celebration of the eccentricity, flamboyancy and brilliance that might aptly sum up my memory-packed time here. In my tentative probings of this part of Asia, I've uncovered a countless multitude of additional sights that I want to visit on subsequent trips, and I'll be sorry to leave. South-east Asia promises to be just as rewarding, though, so I won't be looking back!
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