Once again Rina’s brother and sister-in-law hosted me to a wonderful day. Lunch in their beautiful home was delicious, followed by a little excursion a few miles out of Dhaka to his ancestral home. We visited the house of his cousin, a former MP and now the ‘Chairman of the Municipality.’ The living room was chock-a-block with Victorian furniture, photos and momentos of his political life—pictures of him with Jimmy Carter, Benizer Bhutto, and Bangabandur Sheik Mozibur Rahman, the 1971 ‘father of Bangladesh’ along with momentos and photos from his ‘Freedom Fighter’ days. Unfortunately he was away, but I met his wife and son. After tea we all made another little trip to see the Liberation Monument set in sprawling, flowered, beautiful grounds.
I can’t get over the progress Dhaka has made with using natural gas to power vehicles. More than 60% of the cars have been converted—an easy one-day process, I’m told, which also allows gasoline to be used if natural gas in not available. Here, natural gas is about one-tenth the price of gasoline. I also observe that most of their trucks have been converted, a move advocated in his TV ads by T. Boone Pickens for the USA. What a good stimulus project this would be—some government subsidies for vehicle conversions and gas station conversions!
So why, then, is Dhaka (pop. 15 million) so polluted? I got the answer on our excursion. From the road I could see a hundred tall smokestacks from brick factories, all spewing black smoke. If they could afford scrubbers on these, I think most of their pollution problems would be solved.
Sunday morning after a very early forty-minute rickshaw ride to Bengal Tour’s office, I boarded a bus to head to the Sundarbans, the mangrove forest with hundreds of Royal Bengal Tigers in the wild. As we headed out of town, we encountered a passenger train with dozens of passengers riding on the roof of each car—the cars were all jam-packed inside, too.
As we crossed on the ferry I had another jhaal muri—kind of a trail mix with puffed rice, crisp noodles, bits of tomato, cucumber and hot green chilies with spices, all shaken together and delivered in a cone made from old newspapers—delicious!
We arrived in Khulna and boarded our 26 passenger boat—we were 19 passengers, eight Bangladeshis, nine New Zealanders, a UK woman and me. As we started toward the Sundarbans, we passed the Rocket paddleboat that I was on when it hit the pier (they were welding on it!) and then passed under the Rupsa Bridge without hitting it! Other Bangladeshi passengers said they had read about the Rocket’s accident in the newspaper as did my friend, Susan, in Dhaka papers on the Internet.
The water in the Sundarbans is semi-salt water and we caught a few glimpses of dolphins. Two beautiful brahminy kites (some of the passengers brought birdbooks) followed our boat for quite awhile. Our dinghy reached the ranger station whose jetty consisted of some wobbling logs and boards five feet above the water that ran for about 60 feet. Talk about scary! We all managed to cross without coming to grief, and had a nice walk in the forest. We saw tiger poop, fresh tiger paw prints and five-feet-high scratch marks on trees, but alas, no tigers. Our little walking group was accompanied by two well armed rangers, ostensibly to protect us from attacking tigers, but more likely from kidnapping bandits although this incident occurred a long time ago. For four full days we explored the Sundarbans, identifying and photoing many birds, wild boar, crocodile, deer and monkeys, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) no tigers! What a beautiful, remote, dramatic place this is!
Back to Dhaka and then to Chittagong by train, which is Bangladesh’s second city. The train took 8 1/2 hours with only one view—miles and miles of rice fields with occasional groves of trees separating plots of land. The landscape was totally flat and intensely green. The people were working so hard, planting some fields, tilling the land on others (some with oxen but some with a mechanized vehicle) and harvesting others. It seems one can stagger the planting of rice.
On the train I had a nice visit with an Australian couple, who were here visiting their son (I met him, too) who was working for the UN in an Australian program very much like our Peace Corps. The parents were staying ‘for a fortnight’ which, the father opined, would maybe be more than enough. They had been quite overwhelmed by Dhaka, as everyone is, including me. When I came back from the Sundarbans, riding a bus all night, arriving in Dhaka during morning rush hour—well, I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of traffic before! One of the Bangladeshi women had her driver meet her at a bus stop and offered to drop me at my hotel—how nice! But it took forever with all that traffic, and horns were constantly blaring as they always are.
In Chittagong I hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me around although it was difficult to communicate. I saw the requisite mosques, a Bhuddist Monastery, a Sufi’s tomb and then in attempting to go to the Zia Museum, I was taken to a kind of Disneyland place that had not-so-small replicas of many of the famous buildings in Bangladesh, some of which I had visited and some that I shall see on my later travels. There was a ‘space needle’ with a revolving restaurant where I had lunch and viewed the city. Some students from out of town eagerly posed for pictures with me, which they took turns taking with their cell phones. I discovered this place was called the Zia Complex—hence the mixup.
Chittagong is a much ‘easier’ city than Dhaka although it has a population of 4 million. My hotel here is rather upscale—bath with hot water, TV, phone, quite a large room, two towels, English newspaper under my door, generator for when the power goes out—all for $7.85. It is near the train station in a poor neighborhood so when I went out this morning for breakfast, many people, yes and whole families were just getting up from their blankets on the sidewalk next to a wall where they live. What a life for them. How can they do it?