05 November 2011

Breaking ground in land of many faces:

A woman in Chittagong. Picture: James Muecke 
IT'S off the beaten track, but Bangladesh has rewards for the adventurous.

BANGLADESH, a land famed for its fiery curries, man-eating tigers and a cricket team that can beat England, is little frequented on the Aussie tourist trail. I was in the country for a week, at the invitation of Santos, to meet ophthalmology colleagues in the capital Dhaka, to explore the need for support from our blindness prevention organisation Sight For All. As my weekend at either end had been lost in transit, I took my break in the middle of the week and headed off on a short tour between working days.

I started my journey in Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city and a busy port on the Bay of Bengal that ships fabrics from its burgeoning garment industry all over the world. Chittagong is dusty, noisy and ugly with few redeeming features, but the hospitality of its people is renowned. Despite the large population, the atmosphere is not desperately polluted - Bangladesh has the world's cheapest gas and so most vehicles run on compressed natural gas. Even the ubiquitous green 3-wheel "baby taxis" are known endearingly as CNGs.

Perhaps Chittagong's most interesting attraction is the infamous shipbreaking yards, home to a highly controversial industry where enormous vessels are dismantled along the beaches to the north of the city. The precinct is now off-limits to tourists due to recent bad press - environmental degradation, child labor, atrocious wages, and an appalling safety record. The "breakers" have a working life of only a dozen or so years, usually returning to their villages in the impoverished northwest of the country crippled, blind or with the threat of incurable asbestosis.

The steel from the hulls is melted down, rolled and recycled, providing the country with much of this vital commodity, however objects from the decks, such as beacons, lifebuoys, and anchors are sold along the frantic highway that skirts this notorious stretch of coastline. The ships' fluorescent orange life rafts, hailing from faraway ports such as Monrovia or Panama, are commandeered by local fishermen.

From Chittagong I travelled to the remote Bandarban region of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the rugged green highlands close to the border with Burma. It's a lush and densely forested area of great natural beauty, home to 11 different ethnic groups. The 3-hour drive follows narrow dusty roads and passes through sleepy picturesque villages fringed by golden-green rice paddies waiting to be harvested. The roads are home to the usual mix of death-defying villagers, heavily laden wooden carts, brightly decorated rickshaws, painted trucks laden with bricks, buses spewing thick black exhaust, maniacal minibuses overflowing with humans and their cargo, and suicidal goats, all vying for control of the one and half lanes available. The zippy 3-wheeler CNGs seem to occupy all remaining space, whilst the route is narrowed even further by piles of unprocessed tobacco waiting to be collected. Sheaths of unthreshed rice and bundles of hay are also spread out to dry on the warm asphalt but are no obstacle for the vehicles, which drive over them.

I stayed at the friendly but basic Hillside Resort, perched high above a verdant valley, the Sangu River meandering gently past way below, a patchwork of fields lining each bank. Plumes of smoke rise from the tall chimneys of brick kilns that punctuate the slopes on the adjacent side, mist clinging to the hazy grey mountains beyond. I appeared to be the only foreigner at the resort (if not the only tourist), the extreme heat, the threat of monsoonal rains and recent security concerns with insurgent gangs all contributing to its isolation. What was I doing here?

The region is predominantly Muslim, however, there are clear elements of various other faiths - Hindu women in brightly coloured saris and Buddhist monks in saffron robes, as well as the indigenous hill tribes in their traditional dress, one of the major tourism draw cards of the area. The tribes around Bandarban are predominantly Christian, often with 4 different sects and as many churches in one small village. Amazingly, they all seem to live together in harmony and the former troubles appear to be political rather than religious. I was relieved to read that tourists had never been kidnapped or targeted in the attacks.

I took a short tour to the Golden Pagoda, one of Bangladesh's Buddhist pilgrimage sites, but it is a relatively new and not particularly inspiring painted concrete edifice. More to my liking was the relaxing punt along the Sangu as it wrapped around the township on its way to the temple. Local women bathed and washed clothes in the late afternoon sun while their children and dogs played in the murky waters and men cast for fish or mended nets on the slippery banks. Other groups of women collected edible snails buried in the mud below the river's edge, their heads bobbing just above the surface as they maneuvered along in their quest. After this introductory sojourn, a welcome cup of black tea was enjoyed on the resort's deep balcony. A cool breeze blew away the stifling heat and humidity of the day, the clouds black, heavy and threatening to burst at any moment.

The following morning I set out with my guide Nelson on a 6-hour trek through the local countryside. Nelson was an exceedingly cheerful young man, a Presbyterian from the Mru tribe, and was a delightful companion on the gruelling hike. He dropped out of high school in year eight and now earns just over a dollar for each 15-hour day, in return for his good humour and navigational skills. Needless to say he was delighted with a tip that was well over his usual monthly wage.

The route, along pot-holed roads, shallow creek beds and sometimes-treacherous muddy tracks, passed alternately through dense jungle, rice paddies, banana plantations and gardens of papaya, mango, jackfruit and pineapple, between villages of the Tripura, Mru, and Bawm minorities. There was little to distinguish communities of the differing tribes, the villages all reassuringly pristine, with tidy huts of woven banana leaf elevated on bamboo stilts, sheltering hay and firewood, and contented hens in hanging baskets. Piglets scampered between the dwellings, assorted ducks waddled casually past, and mongrel dogs attempted half-hearted growls as we entered each village. Young girls collected water from the communal springs, weather-beaten old men, recumbent in the shade of their eaves, plaited baskets from fine slivers of split bamboo, and the elder women looked after cheeky grandchildren while their parents worked the surrounding steep slopes.

The hill tribe communities are exceedingly poor, subsistence farming the daily ritual for most. Slim earnings are made from cutting bamboo, harvesting fruit or fermenting rice wine that they sell at the weekly markets. One old woman with a fever could not even afford the small fee to travel to a doctor whose services were free.

The heat of the day was suffocating, the humidity held prisoner below densely overcast skies - it's little wonder that this is not trekking season. Sweat quite literally cascaded off my face and upper body. Any attempt at rest was met with a cloud of malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

The rewarding fascination of the trek far outweighed the discomforts, yet it was an immense relief when the sky turned black, as if someone had flicked a great switch in the sky. A revitalising cool breeze heralded a torrential downpour just as we set foot back in the resort. I ate my curry dinner in darkness as the resort was held hostage to a power blackout. I fell asleep to the clatter of rain beating down on the corrugated tin roof.

I was woken the next morning by the muezzin's "call to prayer" drifting up from a distant mosque. I wasn't at all keen to wake at 4am but it was already becoming light and so I lay peacefully under my mosquito net and listened to the extraordinary symphony emanating from the jungle's teeming bird and insect life.

After a tasty breakfast of vegetable masala and flaky paratha, we rattled by jeep across the face of the hills to the town of Rangamati and its infamous lake, an intoxicating 3-hour rollercoaster drive away. The incredibly scenic Kaptai Lake was formed by the damming of the Kaptai River in the early 1960s, and in the process displacing 100,000 of the indigenous inhabitants, many of whom are still refugees in India. After leaving the various police and military checkpoints behind, the approach to the lake was mesmerising. The water has insinuated itself between the multitude of peaks to form a collection of jagged inlets, narrow peninsulas and irregular islands.

I took a leisurely boat ride, enjoying the light and colours of the lake. The Kaptai was supremely tranquil, despite the constant hammering of the wooden boat's diesel engine. A little too tranquil perhaps? I soon realised that the vast and complex series of lakes were all but deserted, a rarity on the bustling waterways of industrious Asia. There were only a few lone sailors in dugouts collecting driftwood caught among the water hyacinths. It transpired that the lake was off limits to fishing for 3 months to help replenish its dwindling bounty. Not a good evening to sample the fresh fish curry I had been craving.

Another night in the remote Chittagong Hills, another night in a lonely hotel, another vegetable curry, another blackout. I was ready to return to the chaos and charisma of Dhaka.

Source: Adelaide Now. By: James Muecke. 5 November 2011

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