RIVER ISLAND OF JAMUNA TO DHAKA
The rivers rule here, creating a landscape of great beauty, but…
The man walks across the dusty courtyard and rubs his hand along a muddy line on the wall of his house. It’s almost to his shoulder, over the heads of his two sons. This year the river flooded that high. Twice. Twice it covered their fields, drowning their crops. Twice they started over, with seed kept dry in the rafters. He shrugs. There is no other place where they can rent land so cheaply, so they risk the river’s caprice.
The place is a sandbar, a ‘char’, in Bengali, an ephemeral place in any language. Char villages are common in Bangladesh, chancy, hopeful adaptations where land is scarce, the edges between river and sandbar blurred.
The man has rowed us across the river to this one where he and his 3 brothers and their families live on land rented from someone far away and borrowed from the river. We jump onto the sand. Rice fields go right to the shore. The farmers add more rows of seedlings as the river drops in the dry season. The char looks substantial. We can’t see across it. We walk up the slope past beached canoes, then through the fields where the chars grow lentils, and other crops, for food and to sell in the market on shore.
Our boatman, his brothers, their wives ands kids welcome us in the wide courtyard in front of their houses. Boatman’s two sons stick close to him, but smile at us. The women hang back, but are very up for photos, especially selfies. They bring out plastic chairs, then tea and ‘biscuits’ (aka cookies, wafers, crackers)., We leave photos, and a small gift. These people have little that is permanent. They give their gracious hospitality freely.
The ride back to Dhaka is long. We break for lunch in the town of Bogra, then follow Obaidul to line up outside a ‘sweet shop’ for an ‘Obaidul Surprise’. Later he unwraps it after rice and curry in a roadside eatery and spoons it out of its terra cotta bowl. We meet dessert nirvana. Bangladesh ‘curd’ is to mortal yoghurt as the Hope Diamond is to tinsel. It is insidious perfection, the apotheosis of milk. We are addicted at first taste, helpless junkies.
Our curd fix can only last so long. We are wiped out as the long day drags to an oozing close in the traffic jam of Dhaka. Sweet Obaidul says he has another surprise for us. Can he come by in a few hours, just before midnight? We beg off, too tired. Tomorrow? He nods, but his eyes do not. (Spoiler Alert: he gets his moment!)
DHAKA TO SRIMANGAL
“May my son wish you Merry Christmas?”
Obaidul’s brother-in-law joins us at the Dhaka rain station “to help us get on the train”. This suggests we are in for a ‘cultural learning experience’. We are.
Lesson One: we, plus a village of Bangladeshis and their bags and trunks, and dozens of children can fit through a 24 inch door— at the same time— providing there is one guy yanking from above and a brother-in-law cum full back/bulldozer pushing from behind, laws of physics be damned.
Lesson Two: Remember to smile. That elbow in your gut or regions further south was not intentional.
Lesson Three: Reservations are a fiction. Obaidul has booked the 5 of us reserved seats in a six-passenger compartment. He enters first, to scope the landscape. The compartment is occupied by a family, spread generously over our seats. Obaidul kindly moves them on, negotiates with neighboring compartments, a commuting diplomat moving people from here to there, and back again, until we 4 all have seats.
Lesson Four: the minimum number of people you take with you on a trip is everyone you ever knew. Our compartment mates spread over the other two seats in acceptable and flexible configurations of husband, wife, son, daughter, mother, mother-in-law, cousin, friend of the family, friend of the cousin of the mother-in-law’s neighbor, and so on up, down, and across the family and village relationships essential to comfortable travel.
Lesson Five: Get over it. Smile. Have some tea.
Five hours later we are in Srimangal. This is tea country, mountainsides covered in coiffed rows of the world’s second loveliest crop. The beauty hides great ugliness. Women pick the tender new leaves, tossing them into sacks on their backs. In 8 to 10 hours they are expected to pick 20 kilograms. That’s 44 pounds. They carry that load on their heads to the weigh station. For the day’s work they are paid 102 Taka, about $1.20. IF they weigh in at 20 kilos. If not, they are docked. For anything over 20 kilos they get 5 or 6 Taka. That’s 6 or 7 cents. I take photos of the women until Obaidul tells me this. Then I can’t.
“He says Luis looks like Donald Trump.” And Obaidul laughs. 40-ish Luis doesn’t to us , but he is Caucasian, not female, like Elfie, or bearded, like me and Dennis, so close enough among the choices now on offer for people who don’t see many foreigners. We’re in a mixed village of Bengalis and tribal people, most Moslem, some Christian, off in the hills. “Even here people know about him. ” Like everyone we meet here, they are gracious. They don’t hold it against us.
“Welcome. Where are you from? The guy waves at us over his stock of snacks and munchies. His English is excellent. “I have a friend in California. He was Peace Corps. He taught me English.” This reminds us of what We the People can be.
After dinner, we gather for Obaidul’s surprise…and he delivers. In the doorway is a pile of gift-wrapped boxes double wrapped by long arms stretched to the limit and topped by a delicious grin, with a side of something heavy in a bright pink. Paper flies. Each of us has our very-own tiny pedicab, brilliantly painted with wildly imagined design and color, just like the real thing. These are wonderful, wonderful gifts. Obaidul beams, then delivers the coup de grace out of the pink side order. We have two bottles of ‘champagne’…local-style, so non-alcoholic grape juice with aspirations. Can it get any better?
A knock on the door stops our feeble but enthusiastic shared excursion into a Christmas carol about 30 seconds in. The little boy barely tops his father’s knee. “May my son wish you Merry Christmas?” He may. And does. There’s enough ‘champagne’ for all of us. There is no alcohol, forbidden to Moslems, so even the tiny messenger gets his sip.
And people ask us why we travel.
We get around the hills by ‘Father and Sons Tuk-Tuks’, always at the ready on the path below our hill top cabins in the forest. Father is a garden gnome Santa Claus. I swear he twinkles. Sons are sturdy, wide-shouldered, with the handsome broad faces of the indigenous peoples of these hills.
Younger Son, Oolie, stays with me when Right Foot opts out of hikes in the national park. I miss out on the aerial acrobatics of the rare gibbons, but a dog adopts me, I meet a professor of history, some armed guards, and a man working with the one million Moslem Rohinga refugees from neighboring Myanmar, “We already have so many people, we can’t take them. But we have to take care of them. It’s the right thing.” The refugees are Moslem. He is a Christian, the kind I recognize, and in short supply much closer to home. I don’t see the gibbons, but am not short-changed.
Tea in all its avatars is the deal here. Most famous is ‘8-layer tea’. A concoction of 8 different flavored and colored teas (honey, cinnamon, ginger, yada yada yada) it takes half an hour to assemble so the colored layers don’t mix. They do as soon as I tip my glass. As the song goes “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” This one packs ‘em in.We’re non-committal, but respectful.
In the late afternoon, Oolie and I sit out another hike, this one to the birds in the marshland. He teaches me to recognize the Bengali numerals 1 to 10 using the license plates on the tuk-tuks and cars sitting empty of birders. 1 and 2 look a little like their counterparts in our Arabic numerals. Zero is zero, so that’s three of the ten down. The figure that is a perfect 8 is actually 4. The perfect 9 is actually 7. That’s five down. Four looks like a lowercase block letter ‘b’. Six looks like a crescent moon facing East. Five looks like the crescent moon had too much to drink and is listing westward. That’s eight down. Three and nine confuse me. Eight percent is not a bad score on my first test. Then the sun sets, and my lesson boards drive away. Oolie and I wait in the dark alone for the flickering lights far away across the marsh to reach us.
A handicraft fair plus amusement park plus food court is the hot spot in town tonight. We join the hordes. The kids head for the rides with Dads. Moms head for the heaps of saris and shawls. Red is a big seller. I detect the sleazy hand of China.
I’m still looking for something squishable in jackets. At the pile in ‘Men’s Wear’, Jacket Guy dives deep and tosses me two down jackets, one a bilious magenta flattering to no known human pigment, and sporting a thorough lack of panache. The other has a hood, a size not hidden in an excess of Xes. and is eminently backpack-squishable. The label says ‘UNIQLO’, but it lies. The jacket is black, but I’m not fussy. It’s 300 Taka, about 4 dollars. I’m definitely not fussy. Should I bargain? Obaidul sets me straight. “Bob, come ON. Its 300 Taka .”
It’s time for my bulky, heavy, non-squishable $6 bargain courtesy of driver Mubarak a few days ago to move on. I lay it over Father Tuk-Tuk’s shoulders. He doesn’t get what’s happening for a nano- second. He looks down at the jacket, runs his hands down the zipper, then looks at me. I nod. His whole being twinkles.
And me? Guess?
BACK TO DHAKA
There are goats munching at tidbits along the tracks, but they scamper when the train pulls into Srimangal station. They know the mayhem to come.
As do we. We grab our bits and pieces, prep our elbows, abandon our Western notions of public courtesy, hurl ourselves through the crowd to the doors and onto the train, human bowling balls rolling a strike, and smug about it.
Obaidul’s diplomacy is hopeless before the demographic explosion that has claimed our compartment. We make do, 3 of us on one side. Elfie is on the other side in one seat. A guy, three women, a teenage girl, her 2 sub-teen sisters, and 2 young brothers, maybe 3 and 5, take turns, never less than 5 at a time, filling the other two. The sisters are lovely. The little boys are beyond that, and thoroughly defeat any churlish notions when the smaller one extends his arms upward asking Luis to lift him into the bunk high over the seats, foreignness ignored.
Part of a shared, if crowded, landscape, we sip tea and settle down for the long ride back southeast to Dhaka.
Hours later, down the street and around the corner from our hotel, we find curd.
DHAKA OLD CAPITAL
“Are you Japanese?
The mansion is abandoned now, not quite a ruin, still holding on to details of great beauty. Most are bits faded trim along the balconies hanging over the ballroom. Some are washes of color on walls protected from the monsoon and graffitists, both indiscriminate vandals. There are dozens of these mansions in the old city outside Dhaka. For decades these were showplaces for the wealth of Hindu merchants.
Holiday crowds from Dhaka fill the one narrow street now to see the ruins. Similar crowds created them. The monstrous anti-Hindu rioters before, during and after Partition divided the Indian sub-continent by religion did not see beauty here, only ‘other’. The last of the Hindu families were driven from here in the 1960’s. Aung Aung, our articulate reflective driver in Myanmar got it right. “Religion is more dangerous than nuclear.”
Today Hindu families return as tourists.
Back in Dhaka Obaidul and Mubarak get us to the ticket office for our river trip back south on January 2. By now we are familiar with the complexities encrusting arrangements here. People are unfailingly helpful, want to get it right. Ordering a simple meal for 5 people when there are only 2 choices (chicken, beef) on the menu and were all ordering the same one (chicken) can take many minutes, leading inevitably to “that was chicken, right? And 5?”
The Boat Guy is taking no chances, double and triple checks. We need 3 tickets down on January 2 and 2 tickets back on January 7. Boat Guy needs the day of the week, too. Calendars flip, days revealed, a Thursday and a Tuesday We want seats topside, above the water line. We settle down for the long haul, but things go quickly. BG invites me behind his desk to pick our seats. There aren’t many free on the seat map, but I pick 3 nice ones next to the windows on the side facing the middle of the river. Obaidul provides a contact mobile number. I provide a passport. Inevitably…”That’s January 2, right? 3 seats?” The printer provides tickets. Boat Guy provides envelopes. Obaidul checks the tickets. They’re for tomorrow, December 29. Sunday. This explains the dearth of seats. We start over.
By evening we are in curd withdrawal, seriously in need of a fix. And of money for our dealer. Our wallets are empty. I do not have good history with ATMs. The neighborhood one has money but isn’t cooperating (My fault. It involves an excess of zeros. Please don’t ask). The ATM guard points across the road with the universal fluttering hand flips meaning “just keep walking; it’s thataway…somewhere”. A passerby clarifies, in excellent English,”about 600 meters”. Down and back that’s nudging a mile. Right Foot twinges. Tongue reminds him. “Yo, down there, no money, no curd.”
‘Thataway’ starts on the other side of the street/traffic jam/deathtrap. Now fluent in Bangladeshi ‘traffic-ese’ we have perfected our technique. We arabesque and pirouette fearlessly across the road. On the other side we open our eyes.
We head ‘thataway’. By about 400 meters we are away from neon and into heaps of pipes, scrap metal, mechanical stuff, not promising ATM territory. We turn back. I have the handle on those rampant zeros, give ’our’ ATM another shot. Unforgiving, it is now out of money. There is another one right next to it,which we (OK, I) swear wasn’t there before. It is working, has money, appreciates my restraint with zeros, rewards it with the hum of cash.
Tonight’s curd fix held tight, tomorrow’s cash well-stowed, next week’s boat tickets date-assured, traffic safely arabesqued, we head home. Smug. Dhaka has used up its quota of surprises for us today.
The fluent passerby of the ‘600 meters thataway’’ passes by again, waves, asks “Did you find it?”.
Then in the clear bright light of all that neon he says–to me– “Are you Japanese?”
You can’t make this stuff up.
SOUTH TO CHITTAGONG AND THE HILL TRACTS
An hour after US-BANGLA Airlines drops us in Chittagong, my card pops out of the ATM slot. I take it. Money pops out of the cash slot. I fumble with my card. There is a click. The ATM sucks my money back into its maw. It eats my money.
THE HILL TRACTS -BANDARBAN
This is another country.
South Asia and East Asia meet in the lush Hill Tracts of eastern Bangladesh. The faces tell the story, and do so in dozens of languages with roots westward towards India, eastwards towards Myanmar and northwards towards faraway China. This is mountain country, barely connected to the rest of Bangladesh. There are political issues that cloud our access. We require permits to cross into it. Boyish soldiers, draped in camouflage and assault weapons, check on our progress, write our details, wave us on.
The feet of the mountains are deep below the surface of the lakes …and so are hundreds of villages of the Hill Tracts tribes. The lakes are human-made, sacrificing ancient places of the tribal peoples ‘for the greater good.’ The homes of the wealthy and politically powerful never seem to be in the way of ‘the greater good’.
The landscape around the lakes is extraordinary, but our boat putt-putts over graves.
Our third day we drop out of the hills. Driver Mustaq is slalom master of the corkscrew descent to the Sangu River. It is well past monsoon and high-water season. The river, starved, now rides its course way below villages that line it. The steep banks, hidden under high water, are gardens now, sloping walls green with new crops. We ride the ripples of the river past people bathing in the shallows. They wave. Boat Man pulls up below a village of the Marmar people. We slip and climb up the steep bank, then walk along the flat path through the village, past the Buddhist temple and the monk in orange robes. The houses are on bamboo platforms on stilts. Life is at eye level. A man weaves a basket, too busy to wave. A woman looks out through her door, nods, and goes back to the clack-clack rhythm of her loom.
We are a blip, maybe, in their day. They are much more in ours.
Our Boat Guy is big. We pass on Dennis’ $6 warm jacket and my semi-good shoes. I can get by with just sandals. He smiles.
At night exuberant SriLankan-Aussie, Apasara, the only other foreigner we have seen for days, adds a fourth continent to our group, and joins us all for Bangladeshi ‘champagne’ in a welcome to 2020.