Suddenly everyone seems to be getting tired of Dhaka, and heading out to explore Bangladesh. Its not the easiest place to travel, with a very limited tourism set up in-country whose emphasis is not on customer service. And let's be honest, there is very little that is spectacular or worth seeing, transport is limited and unreliable, accommodation sparse, the food repetitive and basic, and no one really speaks any English making it incredibly hard to communicate. The other day I was in Mymensingh and trying to find the house of Zainul Abedin, a famous artist who drew the 1943 Famine. None of the rickshaw wallahs, nor anyone in the street could either understand or guide me, even though the artist is one of the most distinguished in Bangladesh. Don't get me wrong, it does have its own Lonely Planet guide which must signify something, and it is a great country to travel around if you have the time and patience. But if you weren't already here then does the country really have anything original to offer?
Except for one place. Lama Bazaar is village with a Buddhist monastery near Cox's Bazaar, though seemingly located in a village in the middle of nowhere that consists of a dusty lane. As soon as you go through the gate of the temple you can see that the place is different, with buildings that have multi-layered wooden roofs that are not typically Bangladeshi, even along the Burmese border. And inside the main building I was genuinely surprised. We'd already visited some Buddhist monasteries, but they were all new and concrete and colourful. But here I was faced with a huge, shining, bronze Buddha in a dark, cool and quiet, wooden room, for once sensing an authenticity and originality that is unique in Bangladesh. There were no crowds and no cars, but you were in rural Bangladesh and not the Radison. It is a truly peaceful and pleasurable place to be and somewhere you would want actually to be.
In the next building along was the head monk, who seemed to be playing a one-man game of noughts and crosses for the benefit of the gathered worshipers. When we went into the room, he threw us a cursory glance, followed by a couple of sweets, and continued playing (I wonder if he knows the killer opening move which means you will win?). I had the impression that he was suffering from a particularly nasty cough as there were lots of offerings of cough medicine, and also a lot of Gillette razors so I guess he must be rather hirsute. But again, the place retained an atmosphere different to that of anywhere else I have been to in Bangladesh.
Whilst I pseudo-meditated in the presence of the head monk and tried to keep up with his puzzle game, it did strike me that Bangladesh doesn't have anything with the scale, beauty, or impressiveness to distinguish it from its neighbours. And there seems to be no attempt to share the history of the sites you can visit, to the point that two competing temples (one Buddhist and one Hindu) on one mound in Ramu near Cox's Bazaar both claim different reasons for their name, and no one seemed able to authenticate either, and definitely not the guide? Certainly, there was no real information available for the temple I was sat in, beyond it housing the largest bronze statue in Bangladesh which was cast in the Arakanese style. But tourism is a big issue and often discussed issue in Bangladesh with them looking to establish 2o11 as a tourism year. The attraction of foreign cash is obvious, and the country claims to have the natural wonders to make it work. I'm not convinced though.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Thursday, February 11, 2010
This week I read the following statistic from the government of Bangladesh:
Every day 20,000 metric tons of human excreta deposited on public lands and waterways and is one of the main causes of contaminated surface water.
I guess it isn't just a case of building more toilets, but perhaps I'll switch to using bottled water when brusging my teeth... I checked out what my own organisation is doing and came across this video which provides one form of solution that to me seems quite effective. Afterall, who would want to risk being chased through their village in flagrante by a bunch of kids dressed as chickens and blowing whistles. Nothing like some good ol' community peer pressure!
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Public transport was expensive when I was a student in London, but that wasn't the main reason I cycled. I remember reading an interview with a cycle courier from London (I looked up to the guys and even started dressing like them when on my bike) who said that the best thing about cycling in London was that it was like being in a computer game, but in real life. That nailed it on the head for me: you're cycling fast, weaving through traffic, over-taking bendy busses and jumping red lights whilst swearing at pedestrians who think they are entitled to do as they please. But if cycling in London is like a computer game, then it is a very sophisticated computer game like Grand Theft Auto IV (without the violence perhaps), where the designers have spent a long time programming all of the different components to resemble real life so that drivers follow the traffic lights and cars will slow down when they approach a junction.
Driving in Dhaka is also like a computer game, but one of the games from early 1990s when they weren't so sophisticated (RoadRash springs to mind when I ride on my motorbike). Traffic is bad in Dhaka, but at least in a jam the cars aren't moving. Once they are, anything goes. After 9 months in the country, as far as I can tell there are only 2 driving laws in Bangladesh:
1) You only need to stop when you cannot continue in the direction you wish to travel in. That means that you do not have to stop at junctions, traffic lights, level crossings, and that "right of way" lies only with the person who gets to the way first. The inverse of this rule also applies for busses which can stop wherever and whenever they like, mainly without indicating but with a young man stood in the door waving his arm (so don't say you weren't warned when you have to swerve around passengers who are disembarking in to the middle of traffic).
2) You should try to stick to the left hand side of the road, but only when possible. That means that you can drive down either side of the road without fear of the police stopping you, even when traffic is coming head-on towards you. If you end up blocking traffic doing this and completely congensting the road, then so be it and make sure you don't acknowledge this (more later on the last point).
Those 2 rules make driving in Bangladesh an almost spiritual obsession. In order to be able to drive successfully, you need to be able to get rid of all the rules you learnt and lessons you took till you can drive according to two basic principles. Noone respects a careful driver, as they only get their car scratched and beeped at more often. And you need to be able to drive without getting frustrated or angry and this is my favourite part of driving in Dhaka. When a driver does something completely stupid so that they block up traffic, and will sit their with no expression on their faces. They have achieved driver Karma, and are completely at peace knowing full well that they were just following the 2 Bangladeshi driving rules, and so the rapidly developing traffic jam replete with rickshaws, CNGs, bikes all refusing to budget for fear of losing space and accompanying it with a symphony of car horns, is not really their fault.
But it can get violent and if there is an accident you can expect a good fight. One drawback of only having two driving rules is that it makes it very easy to follow them, and therefore hard to portion blame when inevitably there is a smash. Normally smashes are light, as traffic is never faster than 40kph, but even a small scratch whilst waiting at a traffic light can bring out an angry driver demanding all sorts of compensation. Once, out of the belief that I had genuinely not caused the scratch on the side of someone's new Toyota, I brushed my bike against their car again only to put another scratch into the paintwork in the same place. I didn't hang around to find out what the driver thought.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Since I arrived in Bangladesh last year, the government has attempted to tackle issues of productivity and traffic (seemingly related in Dhaka) through playing with clocks and opening times. But shifting the clocks by an hour or so is child's play and certainly not the kind of action a "strong" government that is successfully able to execute 5 murderers only 38 years after they committed their crime. Seemingly emboldened by their newfound power and popularity, the government has now moved on to shifting entire days.
Its latest decision, now that it is so capable of upholding the rule of law, is to have a rotating weekend, whereby seven different parts of the capital will have a day-and-a-half off on alternate days. Thankfully I work for an NGO so I will not be forced to take Sunday and Monday as my weekend, though I do find myself wondering whether this decision will not only cause more confusion? A quick and unscientific survey of my office staff say that it won't for two reasons: shop keepers will continue to do as they like and most don't even have a weekend; and noone listens to the government on these kinds of things anyhow.