|As we reached Benapole at the Indian/ Bangladesh border we were unloaded from our luxury coach which had provided sandwiches and water in with the price and after haggling with money exchnagers we were ready to go into the process of getting from India to Bangladesh armed with handfuls of Banlgadesh Taka's.
After being well and truly processed (I have no idea how many rooms/ people/ forms and signatures I saw) we struggled to our new bus to dump the bags ... it was straight away that I noticed we were being watched, and for a change it wasn't the cops! Everyone was intriugued by us ... but in a friendly, polite and inquisitive way. Within minutes at this border town (normally hell holes where you don't stay long) we had received free chai from a street vendor, been offered cigarettes and had many people posing for pictures .... how damned nice these people are!! It took me by surprise after India and I found myself still being wary ... but with no reason to be as it seemed Jason's self-developed equation of friendliness and honesty being directly proportionate to the number of tourists was being well proven.
As we left our new found friends at the border town we settled down to watch the flatter than flat scenery pass by as our driver swerved, braked, but mainly accelerated us towards Dhaka. I can't quite put my finger on it but the place seemed more relaxed, friendly and simple than India ... and as we trundled on I smiled at the thought of exploring this new place and people.
En route to Dhaka a fellow passenger informs us that it will be too late to find a hotel (is this possible?) and we should stay at his house for the night ... and here again we received full Bangladesh hospitality as the women of the house rustled us up a full meal at about 1.30am and the younger brother took great delight in continually filling our plates whenever we thought we were making some progress thru the heavy laden table.
Well rested and fed at breakfast again, our host took us to his workplace which I can only describe as a sweatshop where males in sarongs sit around in small rooms heating, melting, shaping and assembling gold jewellery .... the heat was intense on the 4th floor as the guys worked around bunsen burners and heated coals. Within 2 minutes I had rivers running down my back and we took refuge in our host's office which was the size of a broom cupboard ... but an air conditioned broom cupboard so we squeezed in before overheating occurred.
Later in the day we had arranged to meet with another of our fellow bus passengers who was keen to show off his western friends to his girlfriend and 'the Dhaka Playboys' the self named friends of Shohagh. We saw the tasteful memorial grave of assasinated President Zia (his wife is now President) in a peaceful setting and sat on the banks of the river as the sun set. The sunset was the signal for Shohagh's girlfriend to call it a night and straight away the Dhaka Playboys had a look of mischievousness in their eyes where a quick glance at Jason told me we could be in for an interesting evening.
Before we even reached the go faster striped Vauxhall Nova lookalike, a small brown bottle had appeared from the tailored jacket of one of the guys ... not sure if it was the MD or the Marketing Manager that had this but we were ushered to keep it out of sight as myself and Jason downed half a bottle each awaiting the promise from Sholagh that the sensation of "whooooaaaaaaaaa" and eyes rolling to the sky should soon take effect ........... we didn't hold out a great deal of hope when we sneaked a look at the bottle to see that we wouldn't be coughing for a while at least as Phenidyll cough syrup was our drug of choice!! Sholagh seemed confused when we weren't reeling around the floor in a state of enlightenment.
We squeezed into boy racer Nova ... 6 of us and were taken to a Swiss/ Bangladesh fast food place to eat with the elite of Dhaka as the MD and marketing manager had a business meal there also ... not sure how they held it together after all that Phenidyll ;-) We were certainly living life to the full in Dhaka ;-)
We turned down further offers of visits to their own villages outside Dhaka as we needed to see more of Bangladesh in the 2 weeks we had before Christmas with St Martin's island our goal at the very south of the country. But first, we headed for Chittagong, partly hoping to catch a cricket match of India vs Bangladesh but this was delayed (but once they started playing it was a joke as India destroyed the Bangla's for fun) and to visit the hill tracts and meet the indigenous people with tribes such as Chakma, Tripura and Marma among many in the area.
Access to these areas is restricted due to the ongoing unrest and tourists are apparently fair game for the tribes to take as hostage .... red rag and bull anyone?? Despite an attempted covert entry to Rangamati from Chittagong, the buses wouldn't sell us tickets without a written letter of permission. Our hearts dropped as we remembered the bureaucracy and cost involved with visas ... but we headed to the council offices (heart sinking further at this point) and after wandering aimlessly between red brick buildings and small court proceedings, we found a lawyer between cases and only too willing to assist us in achieving our aim. We went from office to office as he chatted with people behind piles of neatly ribboned papers until he found the right man and basically we had to beg to be let into the Rangamati region, so our letter "We, the undersigned wish to apply for ... please, please, pretty please ...." was written and we were accompanied across town to another office that faxed our application to the Rangamati Police .... within a total of about 2 hours and not one 'baksheesh' we had our papers .... amazing :-)
We arrived for the bus the following day waving our entry papers and off we went. There were 2 checkpoints on the way and both knew we were coming!! At the last checkpoint a very amiable (no difference here as everybody seems this way) policeman told us we could not leave the hotel without informing the police so they could escort us wherever we went.
The reason we 'require' protection is due to an insurgency initiated in 1973 to counter what many tribal groups believed were injustices meted out against them by the Bangladeshi govt. Under British rule only tribal people were allowed to own land here. But after the country achieved independence in 1947, becoming East Pakistan, their special status was eroded. In 1960 the construction of a dam submerged 40% of their land and displaced over 100,000 people. During East Pakistan's short bloody war of liberation against West Pakistan in 1971 the tribes sided with the Pakistanis. So when they were defeated with help from India and the new nation of Bangladesh was created, the tribes weren't given any favours. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi's began moving into the area and the tribal groups became a minority in their own land. A peace accord was signed in 1997 but many rebellious factions continue the struggle in a situation where the government is taking the land from the people by violence and with very little known by the outside world about this, the indigenous people have no voice to inform the world of their battles.
Our plan was, of course, to visit these killer tribes and see if the rumours of them being human flesh eating monsters was true ... but first our escort had to be arranged and as we sat in the Police Station it seemed we were to have the Rangamati Police Force with us in a tight huddle, but we negotiated a settlement of only 3 escorts carrying Enfield 303 rifles and life jackets!!
We crossed Kaptai Lake, a huge man made lake that swallowed more of the indigenous people's land to the islands where we met Chakma and Tripura tribes-people who strangely didn't try to eat our flesh, take us hostage or terrorise us in any way. If anything they seemed amused by these camera-toting pink people and were very shy to have pictures taken but on one island we were offered 'Tripura whiskey' and with the ban of alcohol in these muslim countries we were more than willing to try ... so with 3 armed Police, a drunk elder of the tribe and a door full of children watching we downed what tasted like hot vodka ... just what you need after a day in the sun!!
I would have liked to stay longer and get deeper into these areas with the tribes but Christmas was appraoching fast and I didn't fancy being stuck in an alcohol free place with no chance of some party time, so we headed south to Cox's Bazaar which forms part of the worlds longest beach. It is Bangladesh's answer to Blackpool, but much better ;-)
I was ready for this ... 5 months of travelling and no beach time. We headed for the beach and within 1 minute we were surrounded by about 30 people all tipping their heads to one side and saying "your country?" .... "your name?" with great smiles on their faces. The group varied in size for about 3.5 hours but never less than about 10 people and probably max'ing out at about 30 at some stages. We sat and chatted for hours with those that could speak English and posed for numerous photo's with locals. Then, turning the tables on the numerous sellers we saw our opportunity as a small boy who was selling eggs ran an errand for us and with two MBA's sat there we saw an opportunity too good to miss. We already had the market stood around us and using the incentive of a free ciggie with each egg we had sold about 6 eggs in 15 minutes for the boy who was ecstatic when he returned. Good to know all that education comes in useful now and again ;-)
It was swiftly out of Cox's Bazaar the following day for Teknaf, the most southerly point on the mainland. The boats to take people to St Martin's island were packed the next day and we were in sever danger of capsizing before we even left the mouth of the inlet to the river as a boat supposed to hold about 30 people had between 80 and 100!! Chaos ensued only to be brought under control by a local military officer shouting from the riverbank that certain people had to get out ... this had taken 2 hours in the blazing sun and we hadn't left the river yet.
Finally we set off with a reasonable number of people and as we entered the main river we could see Burma (Myanmar) on the other side of this wide river which opened to the sea. It was so close and we could see temples and a military base ... but no visa, no go .... well, maybe on the way back we could just call in????
At St Martin's we went to the most southern point and hoisted the tent on the beach in the knowledge that looking south there was no more land until you reached Antarctica. The plan was for a week of "survivor' techniques to live from the land and sea, so armed with fishing line, hooks and bait we were all set. Well, we thought we were until the hermit crabs scoffed all the bait during the first night and then we realised the coconuts we planned to drink and eat had all been removed by the locals to sell ... so 3 days were spent starving, lying on the beach and a few aborted attempts to catch fish with a home-made net of bamboo and washed-up netting ... the only thing we managed to catch was our legs on the rocks as fish slowly swam near, then changed into overdrive as you approached with the net. Jason's attempt to 'catch' a sea cucumber was also unsuccessful as it didn't take to being handled too well and squirted stringy, web-like white glue all over his hand.
We admitted defeat after 3 days and started the haul back up to Dhaka where Jason would head west back to India to meet his girlfriend whilst I could head for the peace of Thailand. I think someone must have overheard our conversation discussing the trip into Burma because as we started back up to Teknaf from St Martin's island, we saw 16 Bangladeshi Navy warships along the centre of the river ... maybe we'd leave that sojourn for another day.
So that brought the conclusion of my time in Bangladesh to a short end, and also the end of travelling with Jason since Kashgar in China. I found Bangladesh to be a very interesting and yet simple place. The honesty of the people was refreshing (apart from the odd Dhaka taxi/ rickshaw driver trying to overcharge) and the country has a lot to offer someone looking for somewhere different .... all this adds to the fact that I'd like to go back and explore the regions I couldn't see in the time I had.
So now I was off on the first flight of the trip since arriving in China and head for the relaxing environment of Thailand for a couple of weeks of nothing ...