#6 Bangladesh, Feb. 14, 2009

Dear Everybody,

“HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!” On my morning walk I saw this message in English scrawled across the street!

Another day, another bicycle rickshaw excursion in Chittagong, this time to the riverside (Sadarghat) where they were loading a passenger boat to Barisel. People living nearby were bathing in that filthy river! There were big ships and little boats all over the place, very like in Dhaka.



This time we actually found the Zia Memorial Museum where Zia, the Prime Minister from ’77 – ’81 (but perhaps more importantly, the military leader of the war for liberation in ’71) was assassinated. Blood spatter on a wall and rug were preserved under glass as well as bullet holes in the floor. Later his wife became PM.

I was trying to book a tour for a visit to Rangamati and its hill tribes as you need permission to visit them, which is easier to do on a tour. The Bengal Tour people said they were fully booked but gave me the name of a local man who perhaps could help me. I called him; the local man turned out to be Didar, the guide for the New Zealanders whom I had met on the boat in the Sundarbans. He processed my application for permission for me, allowing me to go to Rangamati independently—the best of both worlds. He also invited me to a birthday party for his two-year-old son on Thursday evening.

I made a trip by tuk tuk to the Ship-Breaking Yards, just north of Chittagong about 11 miles from my hotel. This is where old, big ships are brought and dismantled, piece by piece, mostly by hand. I could see the tops of the ships over the wall, but I couldn’t get in to see them up close because Greenpeace has fussed about the horrible working conditions and child labor, which has made the ship-breakers very sensitive to outsiders. This is one time being an LOL with gray hair didn’t help—I suspect there are quite a few of them in Greenpeace. I tried five gates; one man was very cordial but definite—“No, it’s for your own safety, nothing else,” but others were more hostile.

On the way back, there again was a “bamm!” This time it was a blowout on the left rear tire of the tuk tuk. (No, I don’t make these things up!”) No problem, the driver had a spare, which was just as bald as the one that blew out. We immediately attracted a crowd of a dozen young boys, some of whom pushed the tuk tuk up on two wheels while the driver slipped a wooden post under, like a jack. In 10 minutes the tire was changed and we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a bus to Rangamati with permission papers in hand. It took awhile to get a bus as I was sent hither and yon because the bus drivers don’t like to take a foreigner (Didar had warned me) because they have to wait for them to fill out papers at the police checkpoints. Finally one acquiesced and I got to Rangamati.

I hired a boat for the afternoon to tour the Kaptai Lake, a most beautiful artificial lake made form damming a river for hydroelectric power in 1960. This flooded much of the land of the Chakma hill tribe who weren’t compensated adequately. This led to a guerrilla war between the Chakma and Bangladesh army that lasted from ’79 to ’97 when an agreement was finally worked out.

The weather was perfect, the lake, exquisite and the two Chakma villages were charming but it was sad to think of all the trouble caused by this beautiful lake. Because of the past conflict we were required to take two police as an escort. The only trouble we encountered was the diesel engine on the boat. The boatman had trouble starting it initially and then had lots more trouble again when we had stopped at a village. Then on the way back it conked out in the middle of the lake and that time it wouldn’t start no matter how many times he cranked it. The solution was to wrap a bit of cloth around a stick, soak it in diesel fuel, then light it, and thrust it over or down a pipe sticking up on the end of the motor (exhaust??) while cranking furiously. Eventually this worked and we were on our way. I was pleased that the whole boat didn’t blow up!

The next morning I visited the superb Tribal Cultural Institute Museum, which was all about the eight different hill tribes. Some are Buddhist, some Hindu, and some Christian. It gave me a better understanding of the different ‘costumes’ that each wear. I had photographed quite a few beautiful women wearing these outfits in a market as I walked through town. These people look kind of ‘Burmese’ compared to the Bangladeshis—the hill tribes extend over the Myanmar border.

Later I stopped in at a Buddhist monastery. I was required to remove my shoes—even for walking on the grounds between the buildings—and my visor cap. A lady visitor introduced herself and took me to see their holy man, motioning me to kneel in homage. I did kneel, but on marble floors these old prayer bones objected, so my homage was short-lived.

The bus driver back to Chittagong was a real cowboy. I was very relieved when we arrived as we had come within inches of catastrophe several times. His strategy was to blare the horn unceasingly and just pass however he wanted. Oncoming traffic, after blinking lights furiously, were simply forced to stop.

Didar’s party, which was held at a community center started at 8:30 PM with about 200 guests. Mostly the women sat in one room and the men in another, but there was some mixing. Didar looked spiffy in his gold dhoti (tunic-like coat) and his wife was gorgeous in a red sari with lots of gold on it. The two-year-old son also was beautifully dressed in red and gold. The rooms were decorated with lots of streamers and balloons and there was a huge birthday cake, which they cut and served before dinner.

Dinner was served at 9:00. It consisted of many delicious dishes with fish, chicken, mutton, shrimp, vegetables—several of these, one very spicy—and, of course, rice. All dining rooms and restaurants have sinks for hand washing since we eat with our hands. It does have the effect of everyone leaving the table immediately after the last bite to wash. Sometimes, as the waiters did here, they bring a bowl of warm water and a bar of soap to the table for women.

It was a lovely party and interacting with several young English-speakers was fun since they all (always) express much admiration for Americans and say things like, “I am so lucky and honored to be able to meet you and talk to you tonight.” How could you not like this party??!! One of the young men saw me back to the hotel, which I really appreciated since often the tuk tuk drivers act like they understand you and know where your destination is, but sometimes they don’t, and at night I didn’t want to end up who knows where. In fact when I came to the party, the hotel man had explained to the driver in detail where I wanted to go. I got let off at a restaurant and while it didn’t say ‘Community Center’ I assumed this was the party venue. Wrong! But I had the address written down and it turned out to be about a block away—the restaurant doorman walked me there.

Yesterday I took the train to Comilla where I shall visit some 6th to 9th century archeological ruins today. It’s nice to be out of the big cities and in a smaller place, even if the hotel did run out of water this morning. Not to worry, they brought two big plastic pails of water—never mind that they are too heavy, while full, for me to lift to flush the toilet. Oh well.

Stay tuned,


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