Thursday, March 30, 2006

Culture Vulture

As I've mentioned before India has rarely been unified and was usually made up of a patchwork of petty, warring kingdoms. So it is easy, whilst travelling around, to visit various erstwhile capitals like I did on my way from Varanasi to Bhopal.

My first was a "must see" on the India circuit, being the famous temples of Khajuraho. They're known for their racy, and fantastically preserved, Kama Sutra sculptures. Rather annoying though, is the fact that many of them are quite high up on the temple walls meaning you have to crane your neck to see them and you can't get a decent picture; a sort of top-shelf censorship of the Middle Ages I suppose. More interesting for me, not least because the entire population wasn't out to fleece me, was the small town of Orchha. Its present-day population of about 8,000 is almost certainly less than what it used to be in its heyday, as can be testified by the imposing fort and palace, far-flung city walls and plenty of beautiful, old mansions in various stages of crumbling disrepair. I originally planned to see it as a day-trip but was disarmed by the relaxed atmosphere (and the oppressive midday heat of Summer which makes siestas a very popular activity) and exploration possibilities, and not to mention the river that was actually clean enough to bathe in (certainly a first for India!). The biologist in me was also excited to get his first sightings of vultures in India, soaring through the skies, as the once common birds have almost been wiped out in the Subcontinent due to the use of the drug Diclofenac, a painkiller administered to cattle which causes renal failure in the majestic birds.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


It may sound like a new coffee flavour from Starbucks but for religious Hindus the ultimate goal of life is to achieve Moksha, or an escape from the endless cycle of life and rebirth. This can be achieved in several ways, like leading a good and pious life full of selfless deeds and the like, or you could take the, in my view, easy way out and be cremated at Varanasi and have your ashes scattered in the Ganges. Varanasi is the most holy place for Hindus. The city is built on an outer bend of the Ganges, which makes for great photos as you can always see the entire riverside. And it is by the river, at the ghats (steps leading into the water) which line the entire bank, that every facet of Indian life is distilled. There are, of course, the sacred, auspicious ghats where people are ceremonially cremated, there are some that are just for bathing and ablutions, there are some for just washing clothes and there is even one that seems to be exclusively for sadhus (itinerant, ascetic holy men).

The ritual cremations are the main draw for tourists, or at least those, like me, who are more than slightly interested in the morbid and macabre. The cremations must occur within 24 hours of death so there are numerous "dying houses" where the old and infirm eke out their last days. When they do finally kick the bucket they are wrapped in cloth, placed upon a bamboo stretcher, covered by a muslin shroud, topped off with a few patties of cow dung (honest!) and carried down to the cremation ghats through the narrow streets. Once there they are dipped one last time in the holy river before being placed on the pyre. The area around the cremation grounds is piled high with wood that is meticulously weighed for each pyre so that the fee, per kilo, can be calculated (everything here has a price). Then it's on the grill for 2-3 hours until the ashes can be collected and scattered. Before arriving I had been set a challenge by a friend of mine, called Anna, whom I had met in Rajasthan (an interesting girl with a disturbing penchant for livestock as she bought herself a camel in Pushkar and has lately suggested buying a cow as a useful "shield" whilst travelling the risky streets of India) of spotting 3, or more, bodies. Unfortunately it must have been a fallow period for deaths and so I didn't have the "luck" of seeing any floating in the river or being nibbled at by the resident canines like Anna did.

But along with the magical and mystical aspects of India, Varanasi also has more than its fair share of the seedy and squalid. As well as innumerable, and horribly persistent, touts offering marijuana and hash, hotel rooms, rickshaw rides, "Ayurvedic" massages, silk handicrafts and much more besides there is a lot of what I have come to call the Indian Dichotomy. For example shopkeepers and householders are punctiliously clean when it comes to their homes and little patch of pavement in front, often devoting large chunks of time to sweeping all manner of dust and rubbish towards their neighbours or onto the "common ground" of the road; but then they won't think twice about throwing litter there or spitting huge gobs of red paan onto the just-cleaned area. Similarly the Ganges is not only a holy place, but also a communal area for washing and recreation; and yet they treat it like a toilet, literally. And then there are the clothes that are washed with great effort every day by the dhobi-wallahs. Firstly I'm not sure how clean one can possibly get anything using Ganges water (one of the most polluted rivers in the world), but then they leave the clothes to dry on the dusty, cowpat-covered ghats. Somehow I'm not sure if I'll ever understand what goes through people's minds here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

University Challenge

In India the state of Bihar is generally regarded as being the country's basket case. Any problem, you name it Bihar's got it: a Maoist insurgency, tribal rebels, dacoity (banditry to you and me), crippling poverty and economic and political mismanagement and corruption (a bizarre example of the latter occurred a few years back when the chief minister was arrested for his alleged role in a corruption scandal and was subsequently replaced by his illiterate wife!). The air is dirtier, the traffic more vicious, the noise more grating and the power cuts more frequent (a dozen or so today), than anywhere else in India. The majority of the population are poor, uneducated farmers, who are preyed upon by politicians and big businesses.

Things, however, were not always so. The fertile Gangetic Plain, which traverses the state, once made it a prosperous and thriving area. The city of Patna was the capital of India's first great empire. The region is also particularly holy as it was home to Gautama Siddhartha and Mahavira, founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively. Therefore the place is awash with holy sites, especially those related to Bud's life and teachings. Perhaps the most notable of these is Bodhgaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and spent seven weeks sitting around and philosophising. The tree is there, though it is but a grandchild of the original, and is the focus of prayers and pilgrimages of Buddhists from around the world. The small town of Bodhgaya itself is like a little tour du monde of Buddhist architecture, as every country with a major Buddhist population has its own temple there. There's a Thai wat, a Tibetan gompa, as well as Japanese, Bhutanese, Sri Lankan and Chinese temples. It's good if you're on a very tight budget and can't afford to see the countries first hand, but the old adage that "they don't make 'em like they used to" is very much true here. All the temples seem slightly fake and out of place. The spiritual ambiance is also dented somewhat by the hordes of pushy touts and beggars, most of whom should have been at primary school, preying on the generosity of visiting Buddhists.

But it's not just religious sites that make up Bihar's rich past. I'm certainly not the first, nor the most daring or most original traveller (but perhaps the most cynical?); many have preceded me and many more will follow. For us Europeans Marco Polo was the trailblazer, but he was preceded by two Chinese, Buddhist monks, Fa Hsien and Xuan Zang, some 800 and 500 years before him. These two pioneers crossed thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain, encountered endless difficulties (Xuan Zang's adventures became very popular in China and Japan as the story "Journey to the West" and gained a wider audience, myself included, in the 80's as the Japanese TV series Monkey), and left behin their homes and friends to visit Nalanda. Whilst we Europeans were groping our way through the Dark Ages Nalanda was the world's first university, accepting students from all over the Buddhist world (a hefty chunk of Asia at that time). As well as your basic theology there were also courses in mathematics, astronomy, logic, the sciences and medicine. At its peak it had 10,000 students and the best university entrance examination ever: prospective students had to make their way to the campus and if they could out-argue the gatekeeper then they were allowed in. Genius! OK, there's not much to see any more, just your standard series of low walls (these were the students' cells, this was the refectory, these were the study rooms...) and the remains of some seriously large stupas. But there's an air of serenity about the place; and sometimes it's not what you can see, but rather it's what a place represents. I try to imagine what uni life must have been like back then. I guess there was probably less slacking, smoking of pot or watching of daytime TV than when I was at uni. That's progress I suppose.

P.S. Today is No Ruz, the Persian new year, so to all of you to whom I didn't manage to send a personal e-mail "Eid-e shoma mobarak!" (Happy New Year!)

Friday, March 17, 2006

Run To The Hills

As I travel around various British ex-colonies I see a rather strange trend. As soon as the new dominions were safely acquired the first thing the Brits would do was flee to the hills. On every available piece of high ground they would build hill stations to get away from the oppressive heat of the tropics (their insistence on wearing heavy, stuffy European clothing at all times probably added to their discomfort). Perhaps the most famous of these is Darjeeling. Situated in the north of West Bengal, close to the Nepalese border and with fine views (on a clear day) of the world's third-highest peak, the mighty Kangchenjunga. Though it is for its tea that Darjeeling is most renowned, and it holds the record for the most expensive tea in the world (Makaibari Silver Tips, vintage 2003, sold for $400 a kilo). The town sits, perched precariously, on the edge of a steep ridge, so the streets and paths are a befuddling snakes and ladders board: often you think you're going in the right direction only to reach a dead end, or suddenly turn downhill away from where you're headed. Still, the temperate climate and charming colonial buildings make traipsing the back alleys a pleasant pastime, and it's a relaxing place to recuperate from a fortnight of rather hectic travelling when I didn't stay in any one place for more than one night.

I actually arrived on the second day of the Hindu festival of Holi where people throw coloured powder and water on each other to celebrate ... I'm not sure as I couldn't find anyone to explain it to me properly. But who cares? you get to make a mess and annoy people and get away with it. Does it matter if no-one remembers why? I, however, chose to keep a safe distance, not because I'm a killjoy, but I'm not great at washing my clothes at the best of times and I really didn't want the extra work. The whole town, even several days, and a bit of rain, later still bears the purple marks on the streets, like the remnants of some hard-fought battle (even the dogs are tinged purple).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


The northeast Indian state of Assam is known throughout the world as a centre for tea production and indeed the fertile Brahmaputra plain, which is the defining feature of the state, is filled with tea plantations (unlike anywhere else in the world the tea plantations here are grown on plains not on hillsides) as far as the eye can see. However, in India at least, Assam is perhaps better known for its oil and its iconic animal, which adorns every company emblem from motor oil to shaving cream: the great one-horned rhino.

The huge, hulking beast (the fat pie can often weight over 2 tonnes) usually makes its home in Assam's Kaziranga national park, where about two thirds of the world's population is concentrated. The park is also home to a healthy population of elephants, deer, tigers, pythons and plenty of bird life. But, like all Indian national parks, it is a bugger to visit. You have to go on an organised jeep safari tour, which follows a set itinerary over which you have no control. This is all well and good for groups of travellers, but for a lone vagabond like me hiring out a jeep for myself is prohibitively expensive (hold that thought and I'll come back to it in a bit). So my only chance is to sit around and wait for a group that would be willing to take me along with them. You'd think that that would be easy as anybody would jump at the chance of having a charming, knowledgeable and vivacious addition to their group (which would also reduce their costs) but I had to wait over an hour and a half before I was picked up (maybe it's the beard). Funnily enough I ended up with a group of three Afghans now living in India. This allowed me to wow them with my Farsi. Okay, maybe not wow, as my Farsi is nowhere near as good as it should be and their Kabuli accent is very unfamiliar to me. Still, it was a bizarre experience to be trundling through this nature reserve with a bunch of middle-aged Afghans (and I don't even know what they were doing there as they didn't seem particularly interested in the fauna) telling me I should visit Afghanistan as it is "really nice this time of year" and it "isn't at all dangerous". But I didn't care, I got to see some rhinos, plenty of pachyderms, deer, a python (being rather boring, just coiled up on a rock), some eagles and a hoopoe (which is a bird I've always wanted to see, just because it has such an odd name).

I wish the day had been perfect but it was marred by the all-pervasive practice of state-sponsored tourist abuse that is rampant in India and which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I'm talking about the practice of two-tiered pricing for locals and foreigners. Now I'm not against the practice in principle, like, for example, in Argentina where foreigners pay twice the amount of locals to get into national parks. That's not unreasonable and it means that locals are not priced out of their own national treasures. However, here in India, foreigners often have to fork out 10-20 times more than Indians. For example I would have had to pay $11 just to take photographs in Kaziranga whereas locals only have to pay $1. No exceptions are made for foreigners of rich or poor countries or for students who have fewer means at their disposal (I may not be a student any more, but I feel like one and I do have a fake student card that I bought on the Khao San Road). I also think it makes locals less appreciative and careful of their tourist sites when they only pay a pittance to get in. The priceless treasures seem to have little value for them as they scramble over centuries old statues and wear away detailed carvings with their sweaty hands. What seems odd to me though is that in China the entry fees were often considerably higher than here in India and yet I was more willing to pay them because the prices were the same for everybody and they gave generous discounts to students (and people with fake student IDs). I'm sure there's an interesting psychological phenomenon there somewhere.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Raindrops Keep Falling On Their Heads

People often criticise Scottish (and/or British) weather as being constantly rainy and dull. Obviously they have never been to Cherrapunjee in India's northeast state of Meghalaya, which, incidentally, means "The Abode of Clouds". This happens to be a very apt name as Cherrapunjee holds both the record for rainfall in a single year, at a staggering 23m! and in a single month (9.3m), and the neighbouring town of Mawsynram has the highest average rainfall a year of almost 12m (for comparison London only has 65cm a year). Meghalaya is indeed a strange corner of India as it doesn't feel at all like India. The majority of the population is Khasi, a hill tribe related to the Burmese, and Christian. There are genuine smiles at every corner, people are polite and the women have equal status as men (actually their status is slightly higher) and so you can have a proper conversation (on the whole subcontinent up until now I had only had one proper conversation with a woman). It was here, in a little village close to Cherrapunjee (I just love that name) that I saw one of the natural wonders of my trip: living bridges. The tribespeople of the Jaintia hills coax the roots of rubber trees growing by the banks of streams across to the other side using bamboo "trellises", and after 15-20 years the roots reach the other side and allow people to cross. One of these bridges even has two levels and is known as the Double Decker. An amazing example of harmony between man and nature.

I'd like to take this opportunity, by the by, to have a little rant about that most British of conversation topics: the weather. As I mentioned before, the weather of our Sceptered Isle is often given short shrift and much maligned. I actually really like our British weather. There are no extremes: it is never so hot that you can do nothing but pant under the AC unit, or so cold that spit freezes before it touches the ground; we have no cyclones or tornadoes, no droughts and our floods would be laughed at by the people of Bangladesh. It's a climate you can live in. People say they would like to live in the tropics when what they mean is that they would like to go there on holiday, and preferably not during the monsoons. And anyway, I can afford a coat. And I like hot chocolate on a cold Winter night. But I ought to stop there before I get maudlin.

The more perceptive of you will have perhaps realised by now that I am no longer in Bangladesh. My stay there was perhaps short, but it was certainly sweet. Despite the lack of major attractions; the constant power outages that always seemed to occur whilst I was online (though that might perhaps have something to do with the fact that I spend far too much time surfing the internet, but I do it for selfless reasons: so that you, my readers at home, can share in my travel adventure); the rather unimpressive food which, quite frankly, has made mealtimes a bit of a chore (I sometimes think of Bangladesh as the Scotland of Asia due to their love of deepfrying everything); and the often oppressive curiosity of the locals, I have enjoyed myself very much. Perhaps because of the lack of foreign tourists it was in Bangladesh that I was finally accorded the celebrity status I know I deserve; or perhaps it was the slightly naive charm of the people. It's a shame that because of its poverty and lack of big-draw attractions this oft gem of a country is often overlooked. It has been hard done by in the past and has crippling amounts of corruption and deserves better. Which brings me nicely on to today's history lesson: the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

The partition of India in 1947 carved up the land into two countries: India and Pakistan. The latter, however, was comprised of two parts, an east and west one, separated by 1500km of India. All the power in the newly formed Pakistan was centred in the less populous west, and was jealously guarded by the, mainly Punjabi, ruling elite. The Bengali east was persecuted from the start: in 1948 Urdu, and only Urdu, was imposed as the national language, despite being hardly spoken by anybody in the Bengali east; most of the east's income was siphoned off to the west so living standards steadily declined whilst those in the west rose. All these disparities caused simmering resentment in the east which boiled forth in 1971. The then dictatorship of Pakistan vowed to hold free elections which were resoundingly won by the east Pakistani Awami League, securing 269 out of seats in parliament. The western controlled military and political parties refused to accept the result and refused to start the new parliament as scheduled on the 1st of March. Instead they played for time and on the night of the 24th of March they started a genocide of the Bengali east, targetting intellectuals, teachers, Hindus, students and journalists. The Bengalis declared their independence and started a guerrilla campaign against the Pakistanis.

After 9 months of bitter fighting the Indians found a pretext for joining the war and quickly routed the Pakistani army, but not before a large number of Bengalis has died. The Bangladeshis claim that 3 million died, but even if it was a more conservative total of 1 million, the death rate was similar to that of the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. But the shocking thing, is that so little is heard about this in the West. I was barely aware of the conflict before coming here and I considered myself a rather well-read individual. How is this possible? It might have something to do with the complete lack of action from the West. One of the critics of the situation was the Soviet Union, which decried the disregard for democratic process, whereas America tacitly supported the Pakistanis!

Now my regard for America and its foreign policies was not particularly high when I started this trip, but as it has progressed I find almost every dark chapter in post-war history has been compounded or instigated by our friends across the pond, either overtly, or through political intrigue, or by secret funding of paramilitaries, or by economic muscle. How is it that we aren't made fully aware of this? how is it that we seem to let all these transgressions slip by? It makes me feel as if we might indeed be living in some Orwellian world where, despite appearances to the contrary, we are just fed any old crap and we seem to lap it up unquestioningly. I'm unable to express my thoughts very well at the moment (and the internet pay meter is continually ticking) but it seems very wrong to me, especially our apathy and unwillingness to rock the boat unless our own interests are at stake. Hmmm, I seem to have gotten all gloomy, hopefully my next post will be lighter and more cheerful.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ship Unshape

They say that when elephants grow old and know they are about to die they head towards a secret place known to all elephants where they can pass away in peace: the Elephants' Graveyard. For ships there is a similar place, though it's not much of a secret as it is some 20km north of Bangladesh's second city, Chittagong. When the world's maritime behemoths, tankers and container ships, reach the end of their serviceable lifespan they make one last voyage to the Bay of Bengal and, at high tide, sail full steam onto the (once sandy, but now impregnated with oil) beach where they are stuck, high and dry, to be pulled apart for scrap by thousands of workers armed only with screwdrivers and blowtorches. Welcome to the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong.

This was the one and only thing that I knew and wanted to see in Bangladesh, ever since reading an article, and seeing the accompanying pictures, in a magazine about 10 years ago, and it did not disappoint. You can tell you're in the vicinity of the yards as you drive along the coastal road that joins Chittagong to Dhaka. During the shipbreaking everything of value (and a lot that isn't) is stripped out of the vessels to be recycled and reused. So the road is lined with shops with salvage flotsam, where you can get anything you'll ever need, much that you never will, and stuff you cannot even begin comprehending the original uses for, with signs in Chinese: cutlery, desk lamps, lifejackets, sofas, toilets, plates, transformers, lifeboats, doorhandles (doors optional), foghorns, bits of rope, cabinets, bogroll holders, anchors, bleach, radios, generators, kitchen sinks, TVs, stoves, ships' steering consoles (I'd like to meet the guy that buys that one), coat hangers, urinals, ballast tanks, porthole windows, wire, shower heads and much more besides (all of these things I actually did see).

The entire beachfront, for a distance of at least 5km, is taken up by the yards, each individual one several hundred metres long and belonging to a different company. High walls and surly gatemen protect the yards from landward invaders and initially I was rebuffed from a couple of yards. At one yard I was even physically thrown out (perhaps I overdid my demanding foreigner spiel that time). But I manage to find a way to weasel my way in in the end. There was a sewage pipe that let out onto the beach that led from a village and passed between two neighbouring yards through common land. Once on the beach it was possible to get to the yards from their exposed, seaside underbellies. In this manner I was able to walk from one yard to the next without too much bother, though I made sure to stay clear of the gates and offices (and just in case I have already perfected my bumbling foreigner routine by now to be able to get out of most situations). The sight that finally greeted me was worth all the trouble and more. Along the 2km of beach I explored there were perhaps a dozen container ships, each of them perhaps 200m long (at least originally, as some of them were already in advanced stages of break up). Occasional rumbles of thunder from within the leviathan carcasses would indicate the tearing off of another steel bone. I managed to traverse the muddy miasma that surrounds the stranded monsters (made up of sand, oil and plenty of chemicals with long names that probably aren't much of a boon to your health) and clambered into the eviscerated bowels of a particularly imposing hulk. The workers were quite happy to see me as I was a welcome break from the monotony of their work and I was quickly bombarded by numerous grammatically incorrect variations on "what country?" They were quite happy to let me wander around the ship and said I could go where I liked, but when they discovered I was half way up the ladder to the deck, some 50m above, they became a bit worried and cajoled me down with cries of "no no! problem!" Most of the work, however, was going on further up the shore where men (though there were also quite a number of teenage kids, which is probably one of the reasons the yard owners are loathe to have foreigners prowling around their premises, as they have not received particularly good press from NGOs such as Greenpeace) with blowtorches would cut large steel sheets into smaller, more manageable sizes. These would then be hauled by teams of men and loaded onto trucks, ready to be transported to the local industries.

After several hours of wandering along the beach, clambering over piles of scrap, dodging the heaps of asbestos and trying not to get up to my knees in toxic ooze, I headed back to Chittagong, tired but elated. This was my main raison d'être for coming to Bangladesh and the experience had far exceeded expectations. There are of course many serious arguments against the shipbreaking industry in developing countries: the pollution, the exploitation of the workers and the poor health and safety record to name but a few. There is also a need for the recycling of useful raw materials, though hopefully with more respect for people and the environment. Hopefully that can be soon achieved so that we tourists can have an easier time of visiting these incredible sites where man does battle with his own creation.

P.S. For those of you who are interested Petit and Petite's blog followed the recent saga of the French warship Clemenceau which was being sent to shipbreaking yards in India, but was eventually turned back due to the public outcry over the large quantities of asbestos still on board. The whole story is followed closely with links to news articles in India and France (the blog is in French though).

Monday, March 06, 2006

Back To School

Upon closer inspection there are things to see in Bangladesh. Throughout the country there are some beautiful Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Raj-era remains, an indication of the various waves of conquest to have washed over Bengal. But no matter what their age, whether they were abandoned 80 or 800 years ago, all these remains are to be found in the middle of nowhere amongst paddy fields and banana plantations, giving the impression of being the remnants of some Atlantean cataclysm. Bangladeshis would probably argue that such a cataclysm took place during the period of Pakistani rule from 1947 until independence in 1971, but that's for another post.

It was at just such a site, at Paharpur, which used to be the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas, that I met a group of students. Although met is probably not the right word as they followed me around as I was doing my sightseeing until I gave in and agreed to talk to them. This turned out to be quite fortuitous as they were on a day trip from Rajshahi (pronounced rushy) and I managed to insinuate myself onto their coach and in return I would answer any and all of their questions. It's a strange phenomenon, though not confined to Bangladesh it is particularly prominent here, that when you have a conversation, be it on the street, in a bus or in a restaurant, any information you divulge is spread through the crowd of onlookers (because you will have an audience), often with distortions, added commentary and footnotes. Anyway, I got a free lift out of a place I wasn't particularly keen on spending the night, and so I agreed to pay a visit to the university the next day.

Sometimes I felt like I was being shown off as an exhibit myself, but my guides were sweet enough and it was interesting to see campus life here. Somewhat surprising to me was the fact that all the students were smartly dressed in shirts and neatly pressed trousers, the complete opposite to what a student should look like back in Britain: in old jeans, scruffy T-shirt and decades-old trainers (or maybe I'm being a bit idealistic). I was especially heartened to see girls being fully integrated into university life and interacting with the boys quite freely, not something you will see in just any Muslim country, though perhaps it has something to do with Islam having been introduced by Sufis, Islam's answer to hippies. Unfortunately the female students aren't completely free, having a curfew of 7pm at their halls of residence. One of my guides, interestingly enough, agreed that he disliked the rule intensely, yet he was unwilling to aportion any of the blame on his religion. But I think the most important thing I learned was that one should never shake hands with a Bangladeshi. It's not that they haven't heard of the custom, but they haven't much experience with it. So when you proffer your hand they take it ... and then forget to give it back for the duration of the conversation (which is often prolonged due to the fact that you can't beat a hasty retreat once so immobilised), giving it a squeeze every now and then just to remind you that there's no getting away without his say so.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The City That Never Lets You Sleep

My guidebook says that one of the highlights of Dhaka is "getting the hell out of there", and I couldn't agree more. This is one crazy place, and easily my front-runner for ugliest city in the world. Not that I'm sorry to have come, on the contrary, I have seen some strange things that I am sure I won't be able to see anywhere else in a hurry.

Just getting around is a mission and a half. I've seen some pretty atrocious driving whilst travelling: in Vietnam it looks as if there's no way through but the traffic parts a split-second before impact; in Rio the bus drivers are possessed by the spirit of Ayrton Senna; in India I've been on buses that spend most of their time in the opposite lane playing chicken with cyclists and pedestrians; I've even been in a hollywoodesque car chase in Tehran, complete with rammings and all, but I have to say that Dhaka pips them all. The main means of transport, especially in the old town, are cycle rickshaws. If you don't keep a tight hold of your sanity these contraptions can seem imbued with malevolent spirits out to get you. They come upon you quietly, their only sound being the tinkling of their bicycle bells, a sound so pervasive in Bangladesh that your ears end up blocking out that wavelength of sound altogether (I'm sure there's a Hitchcockian horror movie in there somewhere). You have to be very nimble getting out of the way as the axle bolts, dreaming of being chariot scythes, jut out viciously, ready to tear at your shins. I was going down one narrow alley where the walls of the buildings all had a groove, almost an inch deep, from them. And walking on the pavement, when that's possible, is no guarantee of safety either, as I saw one of the metal beasts mount the kerb in search of its quarry. Riding in them is perhaps safer, but not necessarily kinder on the nerves. A rickshaw ride is like riding the dodgems at the fairground, with hostile bogeys coming at you from all directions. But busy intersections are the most entertaining (partly because the low speeds mean any resulting injuries are likely to be less severe). Here one can observe regular battle royales between the rickshaw-wallahs, each jostling, pushing and shoving for every inch of road, nobody willing to cede despite that being the obvious way of relieving the gridlock. You can easily be there upwards of 10 minutes as a microcosm of Darwinian selection determines who gets to exit the maelstrom 10 seconds before the others. Thankfully the rickshaws are often garishly painted with film posters or various animal motifs, so there's plenty to keep you occupied.

The buses are another interesting proposition. I don't think anybody but the driver and his henchman (conductor) really know where the bus is going. What you have to do is find a busy road and stand on the side where a bus route to your destination ought to pass, should it exist. Waiting by the lights is a good bet as you have more chance to actually ask where the bus is going. It might also be stationary, which makes getting on and off that much easier (only when at least 10 people are getting on or off will the driver deem it worth his while to actually come to a halt, otherwise he just imperceptibly slows down). At busy intersections the conductor jumps off and tries to round up as many people as possible onto the bus. Most of them look as if they're not exactly sure they want to go where the bus is going.

Conductor: "The airport! The airport!" (holds his arms out wide as he tries to shepherd two ladies onto the bus)
Lady: "But we don't want to go to the airport, we're off to do our grocery shopping."
Co: "Ah, but they have shops at the airport too." (holding her arm and steering her determinedly to the bus door)
La: "But it's awfully far away."
Co: "That'll give you more time to rest your feet." (as he puts his shoulder to her ass and forcefully shoves her in)

Other Dhaka oddities include women who stand at the side of the road with a stack of flyers hurling them through the windows of passing cars and tuk-tuks. Or the shop that sells only flip-flop thongs, and nothing else. Or the old, stately caravanserai that's been taken over by a clandestine paper and pulp sweatshop that dries its cheap ludo boards on the roof (now that was a surreal encounter!). Dhaka, you either love it or loathe it (or both), but there's no denying that it'll take you at least a week to get the smell out.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rocket Propelled Tourist

A deliciously lazy way of getting around Bangladesh, and seeing much more of the country into the bargain, is by boat. Not surprising really, given the topography of the country, where seemingly short and straightforward bus journeys can be long and tortuous due to the need to cross a couple of half-mile-wide rivers, which Bangladesh has in abundance. The main boat route connects the capital, Dhaka, to the southwestern city of Khulna, and is plied by the woefully misnamed Rocket. The Rockets are paddle boats in the Mississippi paddle steamer vein, but lacking the glamour. Most locals travel either "deck" or "inter" class. In the former they stake out a patch of deck with some bags or straw mats on which they sleep during the trip. Inter class is similar, but there you stay below decks next to the engine. These classes, however, are not available to foreigners, though this is more due to overprotectiveness towards them rather than any sort of discrimination.. And personally, despite being a hardcore budget traveller, I'd rather have a bed than sleep on hard boards, with little room, for two nights in a row.

The trip was altogether uneventful, which suited me fine, I just sat back and watched the river life and read my book. For the locals, however, the journey was monumentally exciting. There was, namely, a foreigner on board. And no matter what I did I had the undivided attention of about a dozen Bangladeshis watching my every move (or lack of it). I was also a captive guinea pig for them to practice their English. Once you get past the "what is your name? what country? what is your religion? what are your qualifications?" barrage of questions, conversations with locals often centre on my home country: how we live, the food we eat, the crops we grow, our customs, our weather. Usually I have to explain how we have no rice, no coconuts and no bananas, an almost impossible concept for the rural inhabitants of the tropics to understand, as these crops are not only their source of food, but also provide building, thatching and other important materials. They know of ice, but cannot imagine it covering the countryside. But here in Bangladesh I have come across the oddest difference yet: rocks. Because the country is one vast alluvial plain all the ground is entirely composed of silt carried along by the rivers. Therefore, no matter how hard you look for them, you will not find even a pebble in Bangladesh (OK, that's not 100% true, there are corners of the country in the southeast and northeast where you can find them, but consider this artistic licence). This poses some not inconsiderable problems for the construction industry. For example, they need to find some sort of substitute when making concrete. They get around this with bricks. The country is pincushioned by a multitude of chimney stacks from brick kilns that line the waterways. Then the totally surreal takes over when chains of men feed the newly made bricks straight into a crusher to make "brick pebbles".

The arrival in the morning to Dhaka is certainly a rude awakening, literally. It wasn't the foghorn, or the other riverine noises, or even the bumping and chattering of my other fellow passengers that woke me. I was woken up by the Buriganga river, the largest open sewer in the world. On this trip I have been to many cities which have more than a hint of eau d'égouts (or should that be l'eau dégoûte?), but Dhaka really takes the biscuit. I'm just thankful that I hadn't showered for a week and so was partially immune, but I'm definitely not going down to the river again in a hurry.