Archive for April 2009

Bandarbans

About two weeks after my first brush with the great outdoors of Bangladesh, it was time to head out again, the confines of Dhaka proving to be unbearable. Thus, we headed out for Bandarbans, the “forest of monkeys”, in the east of the country, located in the Hill Tracts surrounding Chittagong, the second-biggest city in Bangladesh. It is notable for having the highest elevation of any countryside in Bangladesh, a fact that we would truly come to appreciate.

We took off from Dhaka late Wednesday evening. What we had, foolishly, not considered was how much attention we would draw at the train station. Though we’ve gotten used to plenty of staring and being surrounded by people, it is different to be surrounded by 50 or so, transforming our little circle into an inferno of body heat. We were luckily able to escape this cauldron when our train finally arrived.

We spent the night on the train and were woken up at 6am in Chittagong. The driver that was provided by the agency picked us up and we started our journey further east. As we passed through villages and green rice paddys, slowly, but surely, we noticed that we saw hills creeping up in the distances and before we knew it, we were climbing up steep slopes. It is difficult to convey the sense of finally seeing and experiencing elevation after months in unyielding plains. As we climbed higher and higher, we could see the endless plains beneath us and the rivers winding throughout until we finally reached our destination atop one of the mountain ranges.

Our resort was composed of about a dozen huts with space for two in each of them. Two of us got a hut overlooking the valley below and thus we set up camp there. We were then treated to breakfast and then left to our own devices. After a refreshing nap, we hopped onto a jeep and were whisked away to our first sight. We all felt like kids again on the back of the jeep, with our driver firmly intent on breaking his own best time as we sped up and down rickety roads. Our destination was the largest Buddhist temple in Bangladesh; a majestic, glistening golden structure atop a mountain. The setting was so peaceful and meditative that we would have very much liked to stay there.

The night was spent on the aforementioned veranda, drinking our wine, overlooking the jungle at our feet and far into the distance. The next day, one of our guides took us around his village and even invited us into his house for tea. He is of the Bawn tribe and exemplifies the struggle the minorities in Bangladesh. He and his fellow tribes are the indigenous people of Bangladesh, having been pushed further and further into isolation by the massive migration of Bengals into this country after the partition of India in the late forties. What makes their case even harder is that they are noticably different ethnically and are not Muslims, making them very prone to discrimination and abuse. The entire situation in Bandarbans is one of desparate control by the central government to extend their reach and keep the tribes from autonomy. In fact, it was a bureaucratic nightmare to get into Bandarbans as we had to pass several government checkpoints along our journey and were turned away once when we tried to visit another tribal village because we didn’t have the necessary papers. This vast government control stems from massive unrest that the region experienced throughout the nineties. Overall, the situation in the Bandarbans of the Bangladeshi central government controlling ethnic minorities of different religious denominations, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity, fighting over land and autonomy, is a fascinating study on the effects of displacement and post-colonialism.

In the afternoon, we were accompanied by the same guide to the river that snaked its way through the hills. To get there, we journeyed up and down hills through countless banana trees along barely trodden-upon paths which skirted dangerous precipices, all of which, hazardous as it was, ended up being great fun. When the dense vegetation finally cleared and the terrain evened out, we beheld the river lazily making its way through the river-bed, little huts dotting the landscape alongside it. After taking in the scenery, we took a swim in the river, though it was less of a swim than a drift since the water at that point was only about a foot and a half deep. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity to take in the green hills surrounding us while being caressed by the cool waters.

After the swim, we got on a boat and drifted along the river, towards a bridge where we disembarked and made our way back home. After this relaxing day, we spent the night reminiscing on the veranda. Dotted along the hills we saw fires, signs of the unfortunate slash-and-burn still practiced in the forests.

The next morning was spent lounging around more and saying goodbye to our guide. Unfortunately, the city was calling us again and we boarded the train back home after a 3 hour bus ride to Chittagong. Once again, a fantastic  weekend spent learning about this amazing country, its people and also getting some much-needed rest.

Comments (1) »

Sundarbans

Though I extended my internship for another month, I’m starting to feel the pressures of time. Thus I plan to get a lot of traveling done before I leave for home in mid-May. The following is an account of how this feeling manifested itself in action.

After spending two and a half months in Dhaka mostly, it was time to get out. Though now somewhat accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city, a respite was sorely needed. Thus a couple of interns and I booked a cruise through the Sundarbans, the greatest natural wonder that Bangladesh has to offer. “Beautiful forest” in Bangla, it is the world’s largest mangrove forest, extending into West Bengal in India. Overall, the forest covers 10.000 square kilometers, with 6,000 sq. kms in Bangladesh, which is enough to be called the property of Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is essentially the gigantic delta of the Ganges which weaves its way through into and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal.

800px-sundarbans1

It is home to incredible flora and fauna, making it an extremely vibrant eco-system. The people of Bangladesh have always profited from the fertile soil that the delta provides and it also has other  benefits for the country of which I’ll speak of later.

As for the trip itself, we started out last Wednesday evening on a rickety bus-ride out of Dhaka and to a river. There we boarded our boat which was to be our home for the next 3 days.  The boat was very well equipped to handle the 35, mostly Bengali, guests. Our cabins were quite cramped but that gave us even more impetus to spend as much time outside to marvel at the surrounding landscape. That first night we knew right away that we had made the right decision. Great food and great service, combined with the boat offering many places for relaxing, assured us that we were in for a treat.

We were still quite close to Dhaka and therefore had to actually travel for the whole of the next day to even get to the Sundarbans. It was one of the most relaxing days I’ve ever had. I’ve also never had a day where I did so little. Of course I have plenty of days at home where I have nothing to do, but I always find a way to come up with an activity like going to a movie, going outside, etc. However, confined to a boat in the middle of nowhere for an entire day proved to be throroughly relaxing since even the most minute planning, even of activities that bring us joy, are combined with some small measure of effort, concern and worry.

Needless to say, there is little to report from the rest of the day, except for the fact that, lying around the boat all day, we engaged in quite a bit of people-watching. We realized, of course, that most of our fellow Bangladeshi guests were upper-class, with some from the rare middle class rounding out the group as a whole. Thus we got a bit of a glimpse into the symptom that unfortunately afflicts so many developing countries. A large percentage of the upper-class guests that we observed and encountered were extremely snobbish and prone to complaints. The staff of the ship, some of the nicest and most accomodating people I have met in this country, were subjected to various complaints. The pinnacle of that behavior that I observed was when on the second full day, lunch was served and upon entering the room, a girl in her early twenties from one of those families simply sighed “Fish again?” My perception might of course be skewed but getting the same delicious food day after day while your fellow countrymen and women struggle to even get the most basic sustenance for their families on a daily basis seems like the better side of that deal. Thus, we were somewhat puzzled but then greatly entertained when we overheard a bunch of “them” talking in Bangla. Though we couldn’t get at their overall conversation, the quick succession of the words “GTZ”, “smoking”, “drinking” and “lying on the deck” let us know exactly what they thought of us. Anyways, while we had virtually nothing to complain about throughout the trip, our ire was almost always aimed at one of the upper-class offspring and their sigh-inducing behavior.

After an uneventful day, we spent much of the night lying underneath the stars talking and simply enjoying the fantastic view. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many stars. Also, because it happened to be Independence day, the rest of the group were in a very festive mood, which manifested itself in many of the Bangladeshi men and women singing beautiful songs of country, love and the longing for both throughout the night, providing a magical soundtrack to an already enchanted evening.

As we finally surrendered our post atop the boat around 2am, we realized that we were getting close to our destination. The lights of civilization had gone out a long time ago and instead of fields, our eyes were now presented with thick vegetation along the riverbank. We went to bed excited at the prospect of exploring these thick woods in the mroning.

We got up bright and early at 5:30 the next morning, with the sun still hiding behind the tree-tops. We were to have three stages of the day. The first, for which we had gotten up so early, was exploring the forest by boat, drifting through the mangroves and looking for wildlife. Setting off on our boat, we realized just how dense the forest around us had gotten. Especially with the sun just breaking out of the trees, the forest looked quite gloomy and dark. Unperturbed by this, however, we set off. 

We drifted along one of the thousands of tributaries that make up the delta, straining our eyes to see any movement. Of course, the biggest prize was the Bengal Tiger itself and this was to be a continuing thread throughout the day. However, to the lay person, the banks of the tributary offered merely snails and crabs which make their homes in quite bizarre shells. It was only with the help of the guides that we eventually spotted a lizard basking in the rising sun. Drifting along, we maintained venerable silence, truly enjoying the silence surrounding us, save of course for the sounds of the awakening forest. Later on, we saw two green snakes relaxing in the trees, as the rising sun illuminated more and more of the forest in a bright, warm light, revealing the color present in the trees and other fauna surrounding us. With this new lens through which to see the forest, it immediately became evident that we had come during the dry season.  There was a distinct line that could be drawn along the trees on the bank of the river, more than 5 ft above the current water level, illustrating just how immense the changes wrought on this ecosystem by the monsoon are. Later, having spent 2 very pleasant hours on the tributary, we made our way back to the boat, took some breakfast and assumed our regular habit of lying about the boat.

Later, we proceeded to take a bit of a walk through the mangroves in order to reach a beach. It occured to us only then how long we had actually traveled during the night, and although we were surrounded by jungle, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean were just half an hour’s walk away. The beach itself was absolutely picturesque, with long stretches of white sand framed by green vegetation. We went swimming for a good hour and a half in the comfortable waters. Having only so far experienced the, by comparison, frigid waters of the Pacific, the warm waters provided for a very relaxing afternoon experience.

Having gotten back to the ship, we realized that it was only 1pm, even though we felt like the day should be over by now. Oh, the wonders of getting up at 5:30 in the morning! We were taken to the other side of the river to do some hiking, taking us straight into tiger-territory. Were were provided with decommissioned army boots which came in handy in light of the mud that covered our path for much of the hike. We soon came to the realization that if there were any tigers around, they were probably too entertained by 30 people stumbling through muddy forest to do anything to us. We did see some other fauna, like families of wild deer and even some wild boars which scurried away into the undergrowth. Having gotten out of the muddy part, we checked out some of the tiger’s resting places and even, as our guide told us with a smile, the tiger’s “kitchen”. Well as long as the tiger wasn’t going to come check what was in the fridge, we should be fine, we thought. Along the way, we saw a tiger-print here and there with some scratches along trees, which apparently indicated a tiger marking his territory. As we came back to the ship, the skies started to darken and we were soon surrounded by a great thunderstorm. Luckily, the rain largely spared us so we were treated to a spectacular light show as dozens of lightening bolts split the dark skies above the jungle around us.

Our last day was spent just on the boat heading towards Kulna, where we would disembark and board a bus back to Dhaka. Thus, the day passed just like the first. As civilization started to creep back into the view, we were treated to some beautiful impressions of Bangladesh fishing villages. A recuring thought of mine was that while the people of this land and along the rivers might be desperately poor, the thought of giving it up for the slums and dreariness of Dhaka was very depressing.

Just before we left the boat, we had some time with our guide, an Environmental Science student from Dhaka. Speaking with him about the conservation efforts for the Sundarbans, he offered us the most beautiful and simplest argument for the preservation of the tiger and its land. Basically, without the tiger, there is no Sundarban, without the Sundarban, there is no Bangladesh. The tiger still commands so much respect from the people living around and partially in the Sundarbans that they do not dare encroach in its territory. This also saves the forest from being exploited, which lets it play its role as the protector of Bangladesh from the elements. In fact, the Cyclone Sidr that, in 2007, claimed so many lives and destroyed so much property and plunged Bangladesh into a national crisis of unprecedented proportions would have been twice as devastating had the Sundarbans not absorbed half of its intensity before it hit the rest of Bangladesh. Thus, with this amazing testament to the power of nature both to destroy and defend and with relaxing days behind us, we got back to Dhaka refreshed and enlightened.

Leave a comment »