Sunday, March 28, 2010

Travelling in... Bangladesh: Misery Island

You can’t escape the poverty of Bangladesh when you travel around the country. Its a way of life, and yet borne in such a way that you never feel threatened by it, even if trying to rationalise or live alongside it is not as easy. The people are always friendly in a manner that seems to overcome the daily crap they must wade through to keep on surviving. When travelling round the country this Christmas this certainly inspired my dad, so that he felt it necessary to inform every Bangladeshi that stopped to talk to him: “Bangladesh is a very beautiful country!” When you are stopped by approximately 147 Bangladeshis every hour, this does get repetitive, but learning tolerance is one of the beauties of going on holiday with your parents.

That is except on Moheshkali Island, a day trip from Cox’s Bazaar. As a tourist day out it promises to be a lot of fun: a speed boat ride across the Bay of Bengal to a remote island with a Buddhist and Hindu temple, all the fresh coconut you could hope to drink and then home in time for sunset back on the beach. We had to pay some extra money for the tour company to arrange it all, but it seemed preferable to the trip to a dry waterfall that they had planned for us.

But the moment we disembarked on the jetty of the island, it was clear that this was not like the mainland. There were so many mullahs disembarking the boats that it we assumed we had inadvertently joined a pilgrimage, and the religious harmony of the island suddenly seemed less certain. And that was followed by an ugly session of haggling with the collected rickshawallahs who proceeded to physically fight each other for our custom. It didn’t help that our guide had never been to the island before, nor actually guided a group of foreign tourists but that is common in Bangladesh so not such an issue.

After seeing the sights, where again the guide tried to convince us that temple we were seeing was Hindu even with a huge Buddha in front of our faces, we decided to tour the main market as had become our family holiday custom, as a means of getting a breather from one another and for my dad to tell another 286 Bangladeshis that they lived in a beautiful country. But this time he didn’t. Relative to the island the market only got more depressing and poorer, with no maintenance and nothing to buy other than elaborately carved dry fish. A separate lesson that I learnt that day was that no matter how elaborately you carve a dry fish, it still stinks like dried fish (i.e. death).

There were no women in the streets, there was no interaction with the locals apart from our original rickshawallahs who protested and followed us around for 30 minutes not content with the 50% tip we had given them. At one point we saw a kid being dragged by his hair in to the middle of the street and beaten with a stick (thus proving his guilt as he could have just run away?). There was still a small crowd around us, expectantly waiting for my dad’s proclamation. But after what we had seen, he wasn’t going to say it.

Whether its very nature as an island causes the poverty to be concentrated, or isolated, or both, I have no idea. But on Moheshkali it was so intense that we ended up naming is Misery Island. It was a good experience, once we managed to fight our way on to a pontoon across a mudflat which fought its way through thirty pontoons on to a speedboat home. But it was intense, and a little miserable and nothing like the rest of what I have seen before or since in Bangladesh.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Dhaka Life: The Bangladeshi Green Cross Code

The other day I was a passenger in my Italian friend’s car on a day trip out of Dhaka. Halfway home, it was commented that I am an angry passenger. At the time I happened to be leaning out the window, pointing and screaming death threats at a rickshaw who was about to block our path so it is hard for me to evade the accusation. As I have previously blogged, if I'm at fault its because I’ve gone mad after 10 months of riding a motorbike and having to deal first hand with Dhaka traffic. But I reflected on this further, and I can’t blame only motorised traffic, as pedestrians are equally a hazard as in Bangladesh, crossing the road is treated as a blend of the classic computer game Frogger, and Moses crossing the Red Sea.

Lets be honest, there is no point in “stop, look & listen” like I was taught at school as you know exactly what you will see and hear on a Dhaka street: car-to-car traffic that won’t stop, motorbikes that ride on pavements (guilty), rickshaws that live in a world unto themselves, and traffic police who aren’t interested. So instead the Bangladeshi Green Cross Code is built on the premise that nonchalance is the key to pedestrian safety.

Pedestrian crossing follows a very specific method, and is so consistently practiced in Bangladesh that it is clearly being taught somewhere. As a responsible NGO worker, what I seek to do in the following is document this invaluable indigenous knowledge as a means of ensuring its effective transfer amongst safety conscious Bangladeshis of generations to come:
  1. You must first wait until there is a particularly dense amount of traffic passing, as there is no fun in crossing if you can’t piss off a driver and risk your life;
  2. Raise your palm and place it open in the direction of the traffic that is about to mow you down, as this makes you more visible as a target to hit for oncoming traffic;
  3. Walk into said dense traffic, remembering it is essential to always walk, even if it would be much safer to run or even not cross at all;
  4. Do not look at the traffic, as this would help you to see it coming towards you and move out of the way when a car is going to hit you;
  5. Smile, because it shows that even though you are fully aware of the hazard you are creating, you are better than that. Also, we all want to die with a smile on our face;
  6. If possible, accessorise your crossing with some children or small livestock, making sure that they are dragged along behind your kamikaze run to increase the potential likelihood of something getting hit.
And as usual, the stats back up the quality of indigenous methods. The 1999 paper titled “Road Accidents in Metropolitan Dhaka, Bangladesh” reports that “pedestrians are the worst victims of road accidents, and accounted for 54% deceased and 34% injured”. If the above method does continue to be implemented so effectively, those figures will only increase.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pause and Rewind: Hypercholesterolemia

This may be the last blog that I write. No, I am not being persecuted by a foreign government. Nor am I involved in an illicit activity with illegal types. I’m not about to board another Biman Bangladesh flight and neither am I going to serve my country in a corner of a foreign field. It’s even worse: I have genetically high cholesterol.

For the past year I’ve tested myself for cholesterol (the bad type), originally as part of a standard health check-up for work, and now I can no longer ignore the sad fact that is my health. Upon realising the unavoidable nature of my condition I confronted my parents to locate the guilty party. My mother’s response in two e mails was this (ad verbatim):

"I have perfectly high cholesterol so don't look in my direction, because I drink wine everyday -like my dad- to counteract the fucking cholesterol."

Seperately, this makes me wonder how I survived into adolescence in her care. So following my mother’s lack of concern and support, I turned inwards to examine my own lifestyle as recommended by the doctor. But I don’t smoke, do so much sport that my lower-back aches chronically when I get out bed every morning, my girlfriend is even more against fatty foods than I am, and thankfully alcohol has no link to cholesterol.

Instead I’ve noticed that my cholesterol level is in fact linked to me growing up. The first time it was detected as being over the risk level, I had just signed up for the company pension. This could pass for coincidence were it not that the next time I tested so high was just after I had moved in with my girlfriend and gone curtain shopping. My rate didn’t drop at the next test, done just after I had planted a vegetable garden on our balcony and only last week it peaked at its highest level after I’d confessed that I enjoy not getting overly drunk so that I can wake up in the morning at the weekends, and be productive with that time. The evidence is clear, and the implications earth shattering as I discovered when I did like any other rational patient and checked out the implications online.

I confronted my girlfriend with this relationship defining issue the same night whilst we prepared dinner for friends who were coming round. She told me as usual to stop being a hypochondriac, and that I had picked the wrong kind of basil from the balcony and the napkins I had laid the table with did not match the runner. As I said, it could be the end for me soon.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Travelling in... Bangladesh: The Sundarbans

Birmingham claims to have more canals than Venice (22 miles in fact) and more trees than Paris, but it’s still crap. The Sundarbans probably has more canals and trees than Paris, Venice and Birmingham combined, and yet still in this country where superlatives rule, it disappoints. It the world’s largest mangrove, home to the Bengal tiger, the mouth of the Ganges, UNESCO Heritage sites (2 apparently, as you wouldn’t expect the Indians and Bangladeshis to actually share the same forest). But unless you are a persistent (and wealthy) explorer, you are likely to see nothing more than muddy water, floating logs disguised as crocodiles, trees, a couple of monkeys, perhaps a baboon, some solitary birds and a lot of shouting Bangladeshis. The peace and quiet of riding down the river is a great escape in Bangladesh, but even that is not assured and not really worth the 8 hour bus ride to actually get on to the boat in the first place. Last week I embarked on a 4 day trip with 12 ½ Australians, dreaming of a journey that mixed Neighbours with Heart of Darkness. It remained a dream after all.

Day 1: To the boat
I met up with the group, and am hoping for huge amounts of Australian banter. I have now mastered this with most European nations (except Germans and Austrians because it always lapses into thinking about, if not actually cracking WWII jokes), but find the group far too nice and unwilling to rise to the bait. Indeed, I am only called a “Pom” twice on the whole trip, and not once a “fucking Pom”. We endure a 9 hour trip from Dhaka to Mongla, and my geography of Bangladesh is so bad that I have no idea where we are once we board the boat. The boat is clean and seems seaworthy, and reminds me of the deck that Leanoardo di Caprio lives on in Titanic. By the end of the evening I have already stood on the bow and sung Celine Dion (whilst sober).
Day 2: On the boat
We wake up to find ourselves in the Sundabarns and with two armed guards on board. It is not clear who they are here to guard us against (each other, other tourists, clearly not tigers as that fight is a foregone conclusion, pirates?). I’m rapidly inspired to take several photographs of the trees, and even more quickly realise that this is going to be a very boring photo album if I’m only able to photograph from the boat. After a couple of hours Julie seems bored and tries to inject life into the trip by tallying the wildlife that we see from the roof of the boat. This in turn gets tedious once she starts to classify the wildlife by size, as most of it is spotted from a distance and thus very difficult to judge when trying to classify between a “medium” and a “large” white bird. I stop participating once she claims to have seen two dragonflies on the shore which is about 20 metres away. After lunch is consumed, which closely resembles breakfast, and also every single other meal we eat on the boat, we unsuccessfully go for a walk to find tigers. Still, we get to see a lot of mudskippers and some tiger prints, so we know the tour company is competent enough to at least fake those for our photo albums. Also, the Bangladeshi tourist on the boat has the Celine Dion song on his phone and he plays it for us several times.

Day 3: Early morning bird watching
By now we have realised that our guide is a fake. He is in fact the joint-owner of the tour company on a jolly, and he not only knows nothing about the area we are visiting, but also nothing about how to guide a group of tourists. His method is the Bangladeshi father approach: do what I say, even if it is unfounded and makes no sense, and questioning that is a huge disrespect. Again, I would like to say that the Australians showed the greatest disrespect but in fact I was guilty in this department. It started badly when he got us in a boat to do some bird-watching at 7am. Our boat had no motor and so was well equipped to glide between the mangroves, penetrating never-before-visited inlets to spot unique wildlife. Instead we sat in a subdued silence, inventing histories of what we were seeing and trying to take a great interest in anything that looked remotely different from the tree-line (look, a piece of fruit that you can’t eat hanging on that branch). This descended into a realisation that the armed guards are there to protect the guide from us, as he continuously photographs himself in various Napoleonic poses (although Napoleon was small like a Bangladeshi!), and the silence of our boat was punctuated repeatedly by similar landing parties of Bangladeshi tourists eager to know which countries we came from. The guide hit bottom when he tried to prevent us swimming in the sea in the Bay of Bengal for the following two moronic reasons:
1) Saltwater is bad for your skin
2) In 2004, 11 students from Khulna University died whist swimming in the sea. Noone knows why?
So we swam in the sea and it was wonderfully refreshing.
Day 4: Back home
I was woken up by Rosie and James plotting to jump in the river, as a provocation to the guide. So I joined in the little sortie, which caused a huge panic amongst the crew as they feared we would be devoured by the non-existent crocodiles. The guide sulked for a bit, then said to me in a very ironic way: you are special. You can do whatever you like. I felt bad as this is exactly the same way that my mum used to castigate me when I was a kid (actually, my mum would finish her sarcastic remark with: …and someone will punch you on the nose. Except for that they never did, so you were wrong mum!). The boat had taken a short-cut the night before, so we were able to visit a very poor village on the way home. It would be able to write more about the village, but that was all the information provided by the guide, though it is an especially insightful observation to provide in Bangladesh. Amusingly, there were lots of kids out and about, and when we asked why weren’t they in school we got the answer: today is a holiday. What impresses me with this answer, is the way that it has spread across Asia as a means of replying to nosey foreigners when they come to ask why you’re kids don’t bother with an education. How is it broadcast, and how did it reach so far? If we can capture this knowledge, we could apply it to spreading similar helpful messages such as “don’t ask me for help in applying for a visa to my country because even if wanted to, I can’t”. We ate one last lunch, which was exactly the same as breakfast, and dinner, and all the other meals we had eaten on the boat, and then disembarked for the bus journey back to Dhaka.

And so once again I draw the conclusion that there is nothing really worth visiting in Bangladesh that you cannot find better in a neighbouring country. But there is some consolation. I would rather go to the Sundabarns any day over Birmingham.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2010 Tajik Elections: Memories from the last one

Last weekend, Tajikistan held another election which was vacuously criticised by the OSCE as having "failed on many basic democratic standards". No real suprises there then, on many levels. It made me think back to my own experiences as an election monitor for the 2006 Tajik elections, and I managed to dig out my recollections from the time.
Tuesday November 7th 2006
Polling hall no. 10 (Dushanbe)
Wake up at 4.30am, put on my best observing clothes and go to first polling station. Not as hard to find as I had feared, so we are in good time. It is still dark, but here there is very loud music playing, lights and general excitement from the staff. At 5.30 they are so excited they start dancing to the music, and these are the local election officials… Everything opens fine and seems that old people all around the world have a universal habit of waking up early so they can finish all their tasks before 10am.
Polling hall no. 11 (Dushanbe)
Visit another school, manage to piss off chairperson who tells me to vote or sit down. Turn down my first interview with radio liberty, and am filmed at length in my best observers pose.
Polling hall no. 25 (Dushanbe)
Arrive at the ministry of energy and Tajik joint-stock board, who for some reason are allowing voting in their vast lobby. After 5 mins not much is happening so we go for breakfast, as instructed by the chairperson. Turns out we are having a full breakfast when we are led into a room laid for lunch, with the CIS observers eating plof, shashlick and drinking cognac and vodka. When the Tajik director of the stock company comes in, a personal friend of the president, I cannot refuse the vodka any more and so for the first time in my life drink some vodka before 7am.
Observe more polling halls throughout the morning. Only violations I can see are family voting, so one member takes the ballots for the rest and votes accordingly. Felix, my German partner in crime ends up promising to set up a different free school lesson to each director we meet. For some reason the older women are finding him very attractive.

We have visited and observed 8 stations, drank about 20 cups of tea, Felix now has offered feng shui as well as taekwondo and sign language classes to half of the district, though I am not sure he is able to teach any such course, and we are half way through the day. Some kebab at the Turkish restaurant refuels us for a quick siesta, before heading back onto the road at 3pm.
Polling hall no. 37 (Dushanbe)
Turns out to be the state concert hall. Director is drunk as a skunk, and our best friend. Proceeds to sit us on a sofa and tell us about his trip to Paris under UNESCO, and also how proud he is that out of 2500 voting in his station, only 25 people are left to cast their vote! “What an example of democracy” he claims, “what an example of corruption,” I think and duly note it down. More tea...
We get to the count, I think that we are nearly finished as it is 8pm. Yet they take another 2 ½ hours to count 800 votes, which translates into them basically manipulating the figures so that they do not show the polling mistakes which the raw figures represent. We are supposed to be home at 11, yet they decide to have dinner before taking the results to the central station. At this point I consider crossing the line between observing and interfering saying I want to go to bed, but think better of it.
Instead we finally finish at 1.30. It was incredibly interesting to be involved as I was, and quite uplifting as I think one day democracy can work here. The turnout apparently 91% which for whatever reasons, can be translated into something positive if there are options for them to choose from.