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Published: January 9th 2005
Chittagong Hill tracts
Legs dangling from the train, book in hand, watching the Indian plains slowly trundle by. The scenery is beautifully flat and patch-worked with irregularly shaped harvested fields dotted with palms and ancient trees stretching as far and wide as the eye can see. Women in colourful saris carry bails of hay on their heads to serenely primitive villages seemingly built from the stuff. Wispy smoke from cooking fires hangs horizontally and motionless in the air above, whilst water buffalos blissfully unaware of their contribution to the scene bathe in lily filled ponds with birds atop their backs… Every time I look up from my book I’m spellbound - the people and landscape seem entwined in one magnificent timeless collage of life. I have an overwhelming urge to leave the train and walk off on the confusion of paths into the hazy horizon, and would no doubt be welcomed in every home from here to Timbuktu… That to me is romance.
Centuries past when man ended his wandering ways this was civilisation. But civilisation is a process; a becoming, and in stark contrast to the Indian countryside, 21st century Calcutta is an abomination. The train arrives during morning rush hour though
everything seems strangely quiet? We hail a taxi and cross Howrah Bridge (the most heavily congested in the world) passing only a handful of cars en route, cruising the filthy empty city streets with only the many homeless that make this their home on display. It’s as if a bandage has been removed exposing a festering wound; It’s like a scene from the morning after the night of the living dead.
We later discover the Marxist government of West Bengal (in power since the 1960’s) has called a stringently enforced strike; no shops, no business and no public transport. So with the Bangladeshi embassy also closed, a great day for sightseeing! …The three-eyed extra terrestrial incarnation of Kali, The Norwich Cathedral clone renamed St. Paul’s, and the British Raj’s attempt to eclipse the grandeur of Taj Mahal in the form of the magnificently marbled Queen Victoria Memorial…
At 6pm Calcutta is back to its chokingly polluted self again. This is one of the cities where rapid economic growth has been witnessed in recent years, transforming India into a regional superpower, and with it, all the problems modern urbanisation brings. But if you can look past the decay, filth and
poverty, for which Calcutta is renowned, it possesses a very definite character. The dilapidated state of the once grand buildings from a bygone era seems to give them even more prominence.
But forget India for now… we’re off to Bangladesh.
Initially it has the grimy appearance of India though the people aren’t hawking, hassling and asking for money. It isn’t like Pakistan either, with many people wearing western style clothes, the poor wear sarongs instead of trousers and it seems only the pious wear Shalwar Kameez - though more in the Middle Eastern style. Strangers buy us tea and cigarettes and are generally welcoming and fascinated by our presence - and this is a border town!
“I can’t believe they’re all so føcking friendly…it’s freaking me out” is Marks initial reaction.
I feel contented and breathe a sigh of relief; for despite my preconception that friendliness and honesty are directly proportionate to the number of tourists - you can never be 100% sure.
Bangladesh is flatter than flat, and with the Mouth’s of the Ganges draining into the sea here the land is blessed with an abundance of fertility and water. In fact it appears to
be swamped in the stuff - and this is the dry season. The whole country seems to be just a few centimetres above the water line and it’s not difficult to see how the monsoon wreaks havoc here every year.
But its beautiful - the fact that the whole country is laid bare for all to see makes it somehow more honest and inviting… The Bangladeshis themselves certainly ascribe to that definition.
On the bus ride to Dhaka a fellow passenger offers to let us stay at his house owing to the late hour of our arrival. We accept, and are customarily fed too much food prepared by women who ghost invisibly about the place behind curtains and half-open doors always beyond view of our prying eyes. Men outside the family mustn’t lay eyes on the women - though they steal looks at us whilst a brother spoons tiny curried fish into our mouths
Next afternoon we meet up with Shohagh, another guy we’d met on the bus who brought along his girlfriend to meet the exotic westerners. We visit a peaceful landscaped park, which houses the tastefully minimalist grave of assassinated president Zia (whose wife is now
The sun sets in a blaze of glory over the smoggy Dhaka skyline, signalling the end of the night for Shohaghs girlfriend and the arrival of the boys. Three mobile phone wielding suits including, director and marketing manager promise to show us Dhaka by night. Alcohol is illegal in Bangladesh, but we’ve been promised a more than satisfactory substitute. Shohagh raises his hands and head to the sky, rolling his eyes - “woooooooow” is the promised affect and a small brown bottle clandestinely materialises. Mark and I neck half a bottle each, but what is it? I steal a look at the label ‘Phenidyll’… ‘Cough Medicine’???
We cram into a sporty Clio-clone whose 40bhp of raw power have us tearing off into the night weaving through meagrely manpowered cycle rickshaws. Our destination is oddly enough an upmarket fast food restaurant where we slurp soft drinks amongst the families of Dhaka’s elite… -nightlife Dhaka style! I can’t recommend the cough medicine, but a unique experience nonetheless.
They offer to show us around their village on the Friday but we decline because our time in Bangladesh is short. Christmas is right around the corner and I’m scheduled to
meet my girlfriend and mother-in-law back in India, and Mark doesn’t fancy the idea of spending Christmas on his own in Muslim Bangladesh. Leaving us less than two weeks, and a visit to the tropical island of St. Martin is our ultimate priority.
But first things first; the Chittagong Hill tracts - home to Chakma, Tripura, Marma and 11 smaller tribal communities. Predominantly Buddhist and Sino-Tibetan in origin, each tribe has its own distinctive culture, dress and dialect, some of which are matriarchal.
In a country without tourists this is the toughest place to visit - with permits from Dhaka taking 14 days to issue. Travellers are strongly advised against visiting the idyllic Chittagong Hill tracts due to ‘ongoing civil unrest’… An opportunity not to be passed up in my opinion😉
We turn up in Bangladesh’s second largest city Chittagong, just 60kms east and try to jump on a bus, though none of them will let us board without permits. To obtain these, we’re advised to head up to the law courts where the district is governed using the inherited buildings and laws of the British Raj. We join the chaos and after half an hour chasing red
herrings we find ourselves a lawyer between jobs who helps us navigate the endless corridors and rooms where people sit behind bundles of bureaucracy tied in neatly bowed ribbons. Most of the inhabitants seem to be reading newspapers or chatting with their colleagues in a world far removed from the melee outside. But we have the right guide, who eventually finds the right room and the right man who makes the right phone calls.
What’s required of us is a begging letter -‘a prayer for permission to visit Rangamati’. We don’t hold out much hope of all this being completed in the calendar year, and are already preparing ‘plan B’. But after visiting another building across town and exchanging faxes with the Deputy Commissioner of Rangamati via the Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong - ve have zee papers!
Next morning we pass two checkpoints and though they’ve clearly been expecting us we’re thoroughly vetted. We’re ordered to visit the police station before leaving our hotel everyday so that we can be properly protected from the marauding tribes. An obligation that would be easy to avoid - but wouldn’t an armed escort be fun? I’ve experienced this kind of protection before
in North Western Pakistan but not at this ratio; after haggling, we’re to be accompanied by just three policemen with life jackets and rifles after persuading them that four was a little impractical!
The reason we ‘require’ protection is due to an insurgency initiated in 1973 to counter what many tribal groups believed were injustices meted out against them by the Bangladeshi govt. Under British rule only tribal people were allowed to own land here. But after the country achieved independence in 1947, becoming East Pakistan, their special status was eroded. In 1960 the construction of a damn submerged 40% of their land and displaced over 100,000. During East Pakistan’s short bloody war of liberation against West Pakistan in 1971 the tribes sided with the Pakistanis. So when they were defeated with help from India and the new nation of Bangladesh was created, the tribes weren’t given any favours. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi’s began moving into the area and the tribal groups became a minority in their own land. A peace accord was signed in 1997 but many rebellious factions continue the struggle in a situation not too dissimilar to that in North Eastern India.
across the great artificial lake that’s swallowed most of their land to newly created islands housing many of the different tribal groups. It’s hard to imagine this scenery is just 40 years old. Some of the tribes were perhaps unsurprisingly a bit shocked by the sight of three armed policemen escorting two hairy pink camera-toting-voyeurs around their villages, but were extremely friendly and seemed as excited by it all as us. In a Tripura village we even manage to procure some ‘Tripura whiskey’; which tasted like hot vodka. A rare treat due to the total lack of alcohol in Bangladesh and even the policemen downed a glass of contraband - they enjoyed their day out!
Suffice to say, the tribes didn’t quite live up to the tourist-flesh-eating-terrorist image put forward by the Government. In an ideal world we’d have spent a at least a week in the area exploring and learning more about the inhabitants, illegally adding new destinations to our permit along the way. But the clock was ticking and we still hadn’t seen a beach.
Cox’s Bazaar is part of the world’s longest beach. Buzzing at the height of the Bangladeshi holiday season. We were undoubtedly
...is this is who we were being protected against?
the biggest attraction on the beach judging by the hundreds of pictures we posed for. I reckon every mantelpiece in Bangladesh now adorns our cheesy mugs. Not used to the lack of selling frenzy that normally surrounds two westerners on the subcontinent, we turned the tables. We sent a kid on an errand to buy us soft drinks, in his absence there we sat; two MBA’s on a beach selling his boiled eggs to the locals. Six in 20mins! Using the incentive of a free cigarette with every purchase. On his return, our six-year-old boss was ecstatic.
To reach St. Martins Island, first we had to catch a boat from Teknaf, the most southerly town on the Bangladeshi mainland and within viewing distance of Burmese temples. It’s illegal and apparently impossible to cross from Bangladesh overland to Burma. But if anyone is interested in making this journey with me this spring, trust me, its oh so possible.
At St. Martins we hired a boat to take us to the farthest deserted island, equipped with just a bag of baitfish and some fishing hooks. This was to be the destination of our planned weeklong survivor experience. Living solely off
nature’s gifts. But we quickly realised ‘natures gifts’ don’t take too kindly to a couple of Brits amateurishly trying to capture them for a beachside Bar-BQ.
We arrived at dusk the first day so snails and nameless molluscs were on the menu. Next morning we realised the coastline wasn’t adequate for fishing due to shallow water and an abundance of rocks on the sea bed - besides the bait that had survived the onslaught of hungry hermit crabs the previous night wasn’t holding out to well in the tropical heat. My attempts to catch a sea cucumber were put on the backburner when it started squirting a sticky-stringy-spunky substance out of its ass. When I excitedly discovered the presence of lobsters I bemoaned not coming equipped with the wire needed to catch them, using an ingenious technique I had learnt in Panama a few years back.
It wasn’t going well and the encroachment of Christmas meant our week had been whittled away to just three days. After 36 hours of being gawped at by wealthy Bangladeshis who took pictures, pitied us and offered us crisps and biscuits we decided enough was enough and returned, tanned and hungry to St.
Typical Chakma village
Kaptai lake, Rangamati
Martins. This was the end of line, the most southerly point in Bangladesh and with the Burmese border to the east firmly shut; the only place to go now was back.
Ironically it was the same Christmas that cut our trip short in Bangladesh that ultimately saved our lives. I doubt our pegs in the sand would have held out against the wrath of god. Or for that matter the boats that ferry passengers the 70kms back to the mainland. So overloaded was our boat home that a collision with a rogue coconut would have sent us to the bottom of the Ocean.
Bangladesh is described as one of tourisms last frontiers. I met no tourists in my time their and I can’t say that about any country I have visited before, including Afghanistan and The Sudan. This is a fact that makes my mind boggle? Bordering India, a country that receives 3.36million foreign tourists a year…why? Whilst on St. Martins Island I saw a vision, whether it be a daydream, heatstroke or a mirage; Bush, Blair, Bin Laden and friends were dancing around joyously in Hawaiian shirts with flowers in their hair.
Whole swathes of the planet
now see little tourism due to the irrational Islamaphobia that has infested the educated minds of those living in the ‘free world’. Before I could join their dance off joy they disappeared; but if you’re reading this George W Bush, I say Thank you. Thank you for contributing to another magical experience in an untainted beautifully friendly Muslim country.
Mark flew onto Thailand to meet up with Yoshi on Koh Phi Phi. Fortunately neither of them made it. I headed back to Calcutta where beggars tugged at my clothes, doped-up street urchins greeted me with “Hash, Hash?” and a group of sleazy touts followed me into the lobby of the hotel claiming commission but were sorely disappointed when the hotel owner recognises me from last time.
Even if I hadn’t been here two weeks earlier, I would still have had inkling there were tourists about. When I checked into my $5 prison cell I noticed some graffiti by the pillow:
‘LUTON TOWN FOOTBALL CLUB!!
WE HATE WATFORD SCUM.’
Welcome to the mystical east…
Welcome to India!
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