Posted: 26 Aug 2011 06:55 AM PDT I wish I had Internet access along with electricity over the 12 days I spent recently in the rural areas of Bangladesh so I could have posted daily updates so I would not have to write a 10,000-word blog entry of every experience and detail. So I will give you the start of the journey, a few experiences in the middle, and the final journey home to Dhaka to save time allowing the photographs to tell the missing pieces of my experiences in rural Bangladesh.
If all of Asia could be categorized into sporting events, well then Bangladesh would hands down be the X-GAMES. For those of you who do not know what the x-games are, well they are one of the greatest sporting events where snowboarding, wakeboarding, skiing, dirt biking, snowmobiling, and even climbing are taken to the next level of excitement. Most people in Western Canada have been skiing and/or enjoyed a day or two cruising the slopes while enjoying the views of the Rocky Mountains. The X-GAMES also has skiing, however the events slopes are littered with several 30-40 ft. jumps, metal rails where competitors slide gracefully across pulling off the most insane maneuvers, and to top it off, reaching speeds up to 50km/hour hurling themselves up to 60 feet in the air while attempting aerial tricks landing backwards…. ALL for a stupid metal with the letter “X” on it and free beer. What could be more exciting??!…Seriously watch the X-GAMES it’s ______ ß(Enter an awesome word here).
Bangladesh is a lot like the X-GAMES except alcohol is illegal here….. HAHAHA!! Bangladesh is without a doubt in my mind the most extreme out of all the counties I have visited so far in everything both good and bad. There are millions of more people, the drivers are crazier, the people are the friendliest out of the 55 countries I have visited, there is food EVRYWHERE, poverty is EVRYWHERE, people stare at you constantly (Only if you’re a foreigner or a arguing local in the middle of the street), everybody sings, everybody dances, everybody has a cell phone… sometimes even two or three, there are tea stalls EVERYWHERE making it impossible for even Starbucks to make a dent in the market, people spit as much as they breath in a day, the weather is intense, Bangladesh is a place where you catch a child trying to steal your wallet and in 1 hour the thief and victim become best friends (Will explain later), the food is awesome, the smiles here are endless, and it’s one of those places that everyone NEEDS to experience.
Life here is extremely difficult for most residents of Bangladesh both in the big cities and in the rural areas of the country. A resident of Bangladesh recently told me that the unemployment rate has reached 40% making it extremely difficult for both educated and uneducated people to find a job to support themselves and their families especially when the majority of households have only one breadwinner, which usually is the man/husband. Over the last couple weeks I recently went back to Bhola Island to spend more time with the fisherman and residents of the Bhola District. I only came back to Dhaka after my first visit because their was an opportunity for me to get access into the ship breaking yards in Chittagong but that unfortunately had to be put on hold, but I have not given up on that opportunity just yet… SO, I decided to head back to the island to finish what I started.
My trip unfortunately started out on a sour note. I left on Friday, August 12 so I would miss the weekend rush as everyone here travels on Thursday because Friday and Saturday is considered the weekend with everyone returning back to work on the Sunday. I hopped into a CNG which is a motorized tricycle with a steel like bubble compartment that surrounds the machine with a seat for a passenger behind the driver (Google it). We agreed on a price before I stepped into the crazy machine and as we were half way to Sadarghat where you catch an overnight ferry to Barisal, my driver tells me he needs to get gas and that I have to pay for it on top of the fair that we had already agreed on. Laughing in his face I say “NO”. He persists, and I persist more. The arguing now begins. So I unlock the door of the CNG and get out while laughing out loud letting him know I’m not a fool and proceed to find a new ride without paying my driver. Not ever 5 minutes later and only walking 100 meters, my eager CNG driver speeds up beside me, steps out of the vehicle, and is furious. I notice now his hands have become fists, his teeth are clenched, and he is puffed up like a cobra ready to strike. A little taken back, I immediately make myself look bigger which is very easy to do in this country and approach on his advance calling his bluff. I stop 4 inches from his face and point to my face asking him to take the fist swing with a couple simple hand gestures. He immediately backs off and as I turn around I notice we have already attracted an audience. Suddenly a little Bengali Boy no more than 18 years old asks me in very good English “Is there a problem” I tell him what the situation is and he responds by telling me that my driver wants me to pay for his gas as well as the fair…. Something I already knew. After about 20 minutes the CNG driver, the young English speaking Bengali, a group of random men, and myself are all still arguing. Momentarily their attention is off me and I notice another CNG driver trying to grab my attentions from the side of the road motioning for me to get into his vehicle. I casually approach with out the arguing group even noticing, we agree on a price and off we went before the group even noticed that I have left scene. We arrive in Sadarghat; I pay the driver, buy my ticket for the overnight launch, and set sail at 7:30pm.
I am woken up at 4:00am and told we have reached Barisal and I have to immediately get off the ferry as they still have 3 more hours of river to cover to reach another town where the remaining passengers will be disembarking. Stumbling across the decks and onto the gangway exhausted, I walk into Barisal to a small hotel that I had stayed at previously from my first visit and crash on their lobby couch as I had to be awake in 2 hours to catch another passenger ferry to Bhola Island. 6:00am comes; I get up and am told by the owner of the hotel that payment was not necessary for me crashing on the couch. I graciously thank him and I walk back to the docks to catch the first ferry of the morning. 7:00am comes around and were off to Bhola. Still exhausted from the previous nights sleep I immediately pass out and the 2-hour ride becomes a blur. Around 9:30am I am woken by a Bengali man poking me to wake me up as everyone has already started disembarking onto the Island. Still half asleep, I step off the vessel and hop on a local bus that will take me to Bhola station where I will transfer to another bus that will take me to a little town called Daulatkhan. 2 hours later I arrive and I am in the exact room I stayed in from my first visit. My room consists of 4 concrete walls, a concrete roof, a bed, a chair, a sheet, a mosquito net, a fan, and a bathroom with running water.
By now it’s around 11:30am and I slowly start to unpack. From my first visit I had the opportunity to meet some of the island officials that look after all the municipalities on the island. Having been given their mobile numbers, I decide to call a few of them. After a few short conversations and not even an hour later there is a knock at the door and it’s Ratan the chairman of the district of Bhola. We have a few laughs and he immediately invites me to stay at his home, which is only few kilometers east of Daulatkhan. I tell him I already planned to stay where I am for the first night but I will accept his invitation and see him the very next day. The rest of the day I spent reading, going into town and visiting a few of the tea stalls from my first visit laughing and enjoying the locals company and having large groups of Bengali’s follow me around while being asked fifty times in 2 minutes what country I am from.
At around 9:00pm and completely exhausted from the trip to Daulatkhan I decide it’s time to get a good night sleep. I put my headphones in my ears and listen to THE DEBATERS on CBC for an hour until I slowly drift off to sleep. At around 11:00pm I wake up suddenly to weird scratchy noises and barely noticing some moving object in the dark but it looks about the size of my forearm. I turn on my headlamp and 3 inches from my face with only a mosquito net separating the two of us is a rat. I honestly thought I was still dreaming and this rat suddenly jumps off the bed and hides somewhere under it. I quickly place my pillow at the other end of the bed and realize that this is not going to be a quite night. So I pick up my book, and start to read. Suddenly again there are noises and I notice this rodent starts to climb the side of the bed scurry across the headboard and jumps onto the window ledge and out the window. Now I’m on the 2nd floor of this building and there is nothing but a 15ft drop beyond the window shutters. Thirty minutes later the little beast jumps back in the window and scurries the same way he came from and back under the bed. By now I’m actually kind of curious as to what this thing is doing. This same routine goes on for another hour and I still can’t sleep. So after the 3rd time this rat heads outside to god only knows where, I quickly shut the window shutters and immediately praise my quick thinking out loud of course that I have out smarted a rat. 20 minutes later I hear chewing noises on the window shutters from the outside. Now I could just put my music back on to ignore the stupid thing but with 15 hours a day without power for the next 12 days, I can’t be wasting all my ipod battery life on my first night because of a stupid rat. I punched the shutter with my fist cursing out loud… finally, silence.
The next morning I wake up to knocking at the door. Still extremely exhausted after a very restless night even after the rat incident, I open the door and there is one of Ratan’s friends saying it’s time to go. Still trying to wake up, I gather my things and head out the door. I pay for the room which came to a grand total of 300 Taka ($4.28 CAD), jump on a rickshaw with this man who’s name is Jamal, and proceed to Ratan’s home 3km outside of Daulatkhan. Upon arrival, I am greeted by Ratan, his family and his daughter’s family where we all have breakfast together. After breakfast, Ratan shows me to my room which is relatively the same as the previous place I stayed at in Daulatkhan and I start to unpack and get settled in for the next 7 days.
During my 12 days out in the rural parts of Southern Bangladesh I photographed fishing villages, met village elders, politicians, NGO leaders, and had some amazing encounters with the Bengali people. I would be lying to say it went smoothly and everything was happy go lucky good times, however as culture, mentalities, and customs are completely the opposite from what I am used to in the western world this will give you an idea on a daily basis what goes on in rural Bangladesh. I would have random people just barge into my room and stare at me for no reason, taking photo’s with their phones, touching my equipment, and not leave when asked. It would bother me when people would question my character and intentions because of my religious beliefs or education back round. The most frustrating is being severely taken advantage when it comes to the cost for everything I try and purchase, to the point where it’s insulting and getting the response your white so you are rich. I know people stare because they are curious, I know it’s hard to convince people that it’s ok not to believe in a religion and that a degree is not what makes a person who they are, and yes they see an opportunity to make some extra cash… well hey if it’s going to put more food on the table, then I guess I would probably do the same if I was in their situation. But at the end of the day it wears you out mentally and becomes a real challenge trying to convince yourself of this every time it happens, and it happens at least a dozen times a day…. NO EXAGGERATION!!
But it’s funny how an unpleasant experience can turn into good one. On one particular occasion, the son of the maid who is a 9 year old Bengali boy that helps his mother cook, clean, and run errands for Ratan was sitting on my bed starring at me….surprise-surprise. My wallet was next to him and I was directly across from him reading my book. As I looked up his hands were on my wallet trying to pry it open ever so slowly. Our eyes met and he quickly pulled his hands away. I immediately stood up and the kid went running out the door before I could open my mouth. I went to Ratan and told him what had happened as my patience was already thin enough with all these random strangers coming into my room an hour before. The little boy got a small beating from both his mother and Ratan. After a few hours I managed to cool down and over the 7 days the little boy Siraj and I went from being arch enemies to playing hide and seek, scaring each other at every opportunity possible at night, and building homemade helicopters with batteries, a mini rotor, a pen, a paper clip, and a couple electrical wires. I couldn’t help but fall in love with this kid as I used to do the same mischievous things when I was his age, so I purchased him a lunghi (Sarong for men), which he was SUPER STOKED about and wore it the final day I was on the Island.
On another day Ratan organized a boat where we would head out to an island called Hazipur Char where the residents were facing a few major problems. Ratan, a group of other Bengali men, and myself boarded a wooden vessel and headed out to Hazipur Char. The boat ride took about an hour where we traveled at least 15 kilometers to get to our final destination. When we immediately arrived in Hazipur, I was completely shocked at what I saw. The people on this particular char were living in some of the worst conditions I have ever seen where residents were literally living with their livestock sleeping and living in animal waste, their water source was severely polluted resulting in drinking the river water, and their homes are in the middle of the Meghna river with no protection from the storm surges that hit this region of South Bangladesh every year. On top of all this, half of their cattle have died in the last week due to unexplained causes. The elderly villagers said that when the vet came to deliver all the vaccines for the cattle, within 7 days they started rapidly dying off. After witnessing all this I don’t think I have ever contemplated my own situation in life more than I did after that day. I don’t mean to preach but this is why I always encourage people to travel so you can experience what other people’s lives are like and really think twice about complaining over 30 minutes of extra traffic back home. Be thank-full you can afford a car, you live in a country where you have a paved road to drive on, and a job to travel to and from at your own convenience.
After Bhola Island I decided to travel to Kuakata as everyone says good things about this small little beach town. Needing a little RnR, I decided it would be a great opportunity also to get a chance to photograph some beach life in Bangladesh. I Spent a 3 days in Kuakata and decided it was time to head back to Dhaka as I would be starting a little part time job teaching Hip-Hop at a international school for kids aged 7-17. For those of you that do not know me, I am a classically trained dancer and danced professionally until I discovered photography. My Bus was scheduled to leave at 5:00pm traveling through the night and arriving in Dhaka at 5 or 6am the next morning. August 22nd at 5:00pm arrives, passengers are all on board the bus, and suddenly the bus refuses to start. After 20 minutes a tractor pulls up and starts to push us from behind in hopes of roll starting the bus because it’s a standard. The bus finally starts after several pushes and were off. The first two hours of the bus ride was a maze of potholes that covered the road with 2 feet of mud, and speeds up to 50km/hr… a complete roller-coaster (Will have video on Youtube very soon- http://www.youtube.com/user/jeremyfokkens?feature=mhee ). After the bumpy ride we finally hit some decent pavement/compressed dirt and the bus quickly picked up speed and we started to leave some distance behind us.
In Bangladesh there are many river systems and not very many bridges, so in order to cross the water you need ferries. The ride back to Dhaka consisted of 5 ferry rides where one of them we waited 4 hours to board. The final ferry ride was the worst where the tug boat that was moving the barge snapped it’s lines from the side and swung around the backend and made the entire vessel list dramatically causing the buses to almost lean on one another. I nearly crapped in my pants and was ready to jump ship. Between the chaos of the ferries our bus driver managed to cause 2 accidents, 2 fist fights, 2 flat tires, the most erratic driving I have ever experienced on any local bus in any country, a dropped transmission, a dropped gear box (when I mean dropped I mean it fell off the bus and was ready to be sold to pick-your-part), and taking 20 hours to cover 350 kilometers… AND upon arrival in Dhaka my favorite coffee shop was closed so I could not even enjoy the one thing that would of made everything…. OK!!
I hope you enjoy the photographs and would love to hear your thoughts, questions, criticism, or if you just want to say “HI” that’s cool to. Tell your friends about the blog if you feel like it so we can inspire people together and show everyone the amazing world of traveling and it’s experiences that come with the territory.
Thank-you for reading and have an awesome day!!
My friend Sohel on Bhola Island.
A Bengali boy quadriplegic without a wheel chair.
Men fishing on the disappearing chars off of Bhola Island.
Siraj- The boy that tried to steal my money.