Friday, March 9, 2007

Bangladesh: Bandarbans: 16-18 February 2007 (Written 20 February 2007)

It was easy for me to get a CNG downstairs at 7am on the 16th. A Friday, it was quiet. At the bus station I had a quick breakfast and boarded. I sat in the front next to another girl – the only other girl on the bus. She spoke just a tad of English and was very friendly. She immediately made it her personal responsibility to take care of me.

I don’t know what it is; I had gotten a decent amount of sleep the night before, I was really interested in seeing the scenery…but I couldn’t stay awake! During the first three hours, every time I’d become conscious I’d determinedly watch as villagers worked in beautifully alive green rice fields, or stare at the vast networks of rivers littered with boats, and my eyes would just close against my will. Very very interesting.

At our rest stop, Kanon Restaurant, I had a chicken burger that was extremely spicy and my female friend paid before I even finished eating. She took me to the toilet, literally, and think she would have come in the stall with me to make sure I knew what I was doing had I not smiled and told her I would be ok. The next 7 hours of the bus ride (our bus broke down for an hour somewhere) was uneventful except for the carefully timed offers of caramel candies that she produced. What a gem. In Bandarban, she took me in a rickshaw to where I could get a baby taxi to the Hillside Resort. I got in one, and within 5 seconds of it moving, it had hit a moving bicycle and a huge crowd gathered to survey and vocally offer counsel. The man was uninjured, his bicycle was less happy. A bunch of locals advised me to get out and get in another baby taxi, as this procedure was bound to take awhile, and finally, I arrived unscathed in Milonchori.

The Hillside Resort owned by Guide Tours is wonderful. Located really up in the hills, with great panoramic views of the Bandarban Mountains, its friendly staff and great restaurant were just what I needed.

On the 17th I went with my guide, from the local Bawm village, to visit a Bawm, Marma, and Tripura village. The Tripura women struck me the most; arriving in their village an enormous snakeskin was being dried on bamboo rods, and older women wearing nothing on their torsos but dozens of beaded necklaces walked about, silver earrings shaped like arrows pointing upwards piercing the length of their ears. There was no pretense, no sense of being in an open-air museum as I’ve often heard northern Thailand has become; this was their home, they were going about their business, I had walked in on it, and they didn’t really care at all. Cool.

In the afternoon, we walked down to the river, a beautiful, green, leafy descent, and climbed into a small boat. The boat drivers actually propel the boat forward by pushing against the bottom of the river; they find the perfect shallowness or depth to maximize movement and we moved lazily along the Sangu River. We passed numerous villages, watching people wash, farm, play; life was living. Layers of mountains disappeared in the distance behind each other, and there was light boat traffic in all directions. Serene and peaceful.

Arriving in Bandarban town, we walked through a bit of the fruit market where locals were happy to have me photograph them, and I decided I would come back the next day to spend more time there.

On the 18th I went down to Bandarban town, knowing that there would be the tribal bazaar held every Wednesday and Sunday. What a sight to behold; women in burkhas walking alongside Chakmas with bright, boldly-colored wrap skirts and headdresses, Tripura women with baskets resting on their foreheads, and a dozen other tribes gathering to buy their household goods. I realized that unintentionally markets have become a favorite hangout of mine, watching people come together and engage in a pleasant setting. Immediately after having this thought I went a bit too far, past the vegetable section, and landed in the meat section, which was monitor lizards or something very similar, chopped up in chunks and placed on skewers. Looking 10m ahead I saw pigs’ heads and I decided to head back to my less graphic or aromatic tomatoes and pumpkin.

It was coincidentally also a holiday where the local king collects taxes so I stopped by the ceremony, but I really didn’t get too much out of it, since I couldn’t understand what was being said, and all that it appeared as to me at that stage was an elderly man sitting in a very nice chair, talking to a crowd. It was hot.

I started my walk back up to the Resort and happened to pass by a primary school that had just gotten out for lunch. 5 excited, smiling children ran up to me shouting “Salaam aleikoum” and we chatted a bit, played with the camera, and I proceeded to start making cranes. A crowd of at least 20 gathered as I clumsily folded paper and even passing rickshaws stopped to see what the spectacle was (nothing too exciting). As I continued along the road, the youngest girl, a very feisty ball of energy aged 6, took me by the hand to take me to her village. I obliged, and it was amazing; that there was a village literally on the main road, yet it was clear that there were so few, if any, tourists visiting her village because presumably every tourist drives in to town and back.

I took a break, and then headed up to Tiger Hill, where at the top is a red-roofed building with breathtaking panoramas of the hills. A straight uphill walk, I was alone, and dozens of small colorful birds flitted around in surrounding tree branches. I was hypnotized by the wind swaying the tall bamboo and pampas grass. My legs were starting to turn into jelly by the time I arrived back, and I was warm and cozy, dozing off by 7.30pm.

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