11 June 2008

Week 40: Lake, hills, ocean, and sand: Cox's Bazar and Rangamati

40th-1st in Dhaka 6/4

After a good night’s rest back at home, Ben and I headed over to Ayon’s for lunch. Farhan had come over as well, so Ben and him got to meet for the first time. Lunch was delicious as usual, and Ben got to experience Bangladeshi hospitality at its best, getting fed more food even after he felt he could eat no more. I think he thought he was going to burst. Afterwards we laid around for, essentially just letting the massive amount of food we ate digest. (pic: Farhan/Ben in an unplanned before/after picture of our very filling lunch at Ayon's house)

From there we quickly went and bought bus tickets for ourselves and Jen and Ben to go to Rangamati this weekend. We got stuck with the back seats on the bus, and are hoping that won’t be too bad.

Ayon, Farhan, Ben, and I took rickshaws down to the Buriganga River to see Old Dhaka and Ahsan Manzil. The river was just as busy as always, and we just missed the closing time of Ahsan Manzil, so we could only view it from outside its gates. We then got in a boat to tour the Buriganga for a bit. Although this is my fourth time doing this, it is my favorite thing to do in Dhaka, and each time provides new things to see. Today was my first time doing it at sunset. Farhan was very nervous, he didn’t like the busy atmosphere and being on the water in the middle of it. (pics: Farhan/Ben/Ayon on a boat in the Buriganga River, ship on the Buriganga River passing in front of Ahsan Manzil, sunset over the Buriganga, Ayon/myself in the boat, Ben on the Buriganga, two boatmen in front of a sunset on the Buriganga)

Farhan and Ayon left after that, while Ben and I headed over to the Hindu area of Old Dhaka to look at some of the jewelry shops, and to look into buying some pink pearls. We bought some individual ones in the idea of turning them into cuff links. (pic: weighing pink pearls in Old Dhaka)

40th-2nd in Dhaka 6/5

Today is 9 months.

We both posted our blogs today, and thus ended up spending a lot of time at home. We took turns, and it took the majority of the day. We broke for lunch.

But just so you don’t think we spent all day lounging at home, we went out to Bashundara City in the evening. I bought some DVDs that I’d wanted to see and some Ben recommended to me. We walked each floor, but not intending to buy much. Also got a pre-bus ride snack, a dosa. (pic: Ben poses in front of the eight-floored Bashundara City's central atrium)

We came home and got our stuff prepared for our trip. Lastly we headed out to the bus station to catch our night bus to Rangamati. Jen and Ben met us there. It left about a half hour late, and the back seats ended up being pretty bumpy. Would not choose those again if I didn’t have to. But I did my best to sleep. At least it was AC, overall I didn’t mind.

40th-3rd in Rangamati 6/6

We arrived in the morning at Rangamati. We had to go through several security checkposts, and each one had my nerves running full speed. I was worried we’d be denied for an odd reason. Well things went fine, we checked in to a handshake and a smile at the first checkpost and wrote our names and information, didn’t need to get off the bus for a handshake and some question asking at the second, and the third without a smile or a handshake required us to write our names and info again. Then we were in!

The road up was really windy curvy, and a bit scary. I started feeling nausea and so did Jen.

At one point the bus driver, who was clearly driving faster than I would’ve chose even in a car, caused the bus to swerve. It fishtailed several times as we went around a turn, and it was scary, very scary. The second it finished the bus riders exploded in yells and told the driver to take it easy!

Rangamati is a town based on a series of islands. The lake which surrounds the city, and winds through the islands is Kaptai Lake. It is man-made by the damming of the Karnaphuli River which runs through Chittagong, which occurred 1960s. The dam provides power for Chittagong. When the dam was first built, it flooded the entire area, and caused the tribal people living there to move to higher ground. The palace of the king of these tribes is now underwater! Thus the city is the tops of several hills, now islands. Small bridges and causeways connect them all, forming a city that has a very unique character for the country. There are no rickshaws as the hills are too big, and instead CNGs work as a jitney system. One main road goes through all the islands and it is here that most of the activity occurs.

Our hotel, Hotel Sufia, was on the water's edge. My room with Ben had a toilet that didn't refill after you flushed and the bathroom light was out, but it was nice hotel otherwise. The back of it had a dock that led down to the lake. (pics: view out of the back of our hotel onto Kaptai Lake, Jen/Ben/Ben on the stairs to our hotel's dock with a goat with green horns climbing up)

After resting up, and a small lunch, we went on a walk that was suggested to us by a friend. It started out on one of the furthest out and most developed islands. From there we crossed several bridges to go between three more islands before coming back to the main road. The hike was very interesting. Although following a road the whole way, it had plenty of climbs and drops, and brought us past several villages. (pics: Ben posing on a bridge on our hike through Rangamati's islands, Ben with Rangamati's hills and dried up lake in the background, Jen/Ben/Ben cross a bride which seems to be missing a few pieces)

At one point we stopped in at a bamboo structure which housed eleven looms. Since it was Friday, it wasn’t fully operating, but two loomers were there, and we asked these two men, and the crowd around us about the work, how the looms operate, and where the products go. Found out a lot about their village and its history, as well as why these businesses exist here in the hill tracts and not in the major cities. (pic: Ben inside the loom workshop, movie: loom worker performing his trade)

Later we came upon a small Buddhist temple and monastery. We talked to some of the children and monks who were there. Then some of the kids led us across the street to a Hindu temple, where people were just leaving from a midday gathering of prayer. They asked us to sit, and offered us some of the sweets they had made of coconut and rice. As well, they served us kichuri. Despite already eating lunch, we put the food in our stomachs. (pic: Hindu temple and its visitors where we were served food along the road we hiked in Rangamati)

The entire hike we were questioned by locals about our home nation and why we’d come to Bangladesh. It was a good 3 hours or so, and we were tired by the end. We came out near New Market, and there we bought our bus tickets for going our separate ways in two days (Ben and Jen to Dhaka, Ben and I to Cox’s Bazar.) (pics: view over the hills of Rangamati, crossing a dried up part of the lake by a bamboo bridge where you would usually have to ferry across)

In the evening we went out to dinner at the Roof Top Restaurant a restaurant that specialized in serving food indigenous to the tribal cultures of the region. We tried bamboo and chicken dishes cooked in traditional ways. It was a nice break from the typical Bangladeshi cuisine. The place also had a nice open air atmosphere.

40th-4th in Rangamati 6/7

Under suggestion from our friend, Ben and I headed next door for breakfast, as opposed to taking the free breakfast at our hotel. It’s the same food, but we were told the hotel’s food was very oily. We sat down next door and then got approached by a man…the hotel owner! He asked us why we weren’t going to take our free breakfast at the hotel. He seemed hurt. I asked him why he was eating here and not at the hotel. Seems a bit ironic that he chooses not to eat at his own restaurant.

Today we had planned to go out on Kaptai Lake. As foreigners, to do this, we have to have police escorts. This is a requirement which is annoying, but can have repercussion if you don’t follow the rule. The region has had bursts of violence, many times targeting tourists in recent years, so despite their not being any present current threat, the police are still required. So in the morning I had to take a CNG with a hotel staff member across town to a police station, where we had to bring back 3 police escorts! When we arrived they were still in their pajamas, so I had to wait 30 minutes while they changed into their uniforms. I had to pay the large taxi fare both ways. The police officers all had guns to protect us.

The lake is currently very low, just before the monsoon season. Islands are showing that would normally be under water during typical water levels. As well, the trees start about 40 feet up every bank. Our hotel would actually be right on the water, but currently it sits 40 feet above water level, hanging out over the land on its stilts. However, I don’t think the low water level detracted from the prettiness of the region. It was neat in fact to see hints of what the land looked like before it was flooded. Made me also realize how careful boat drivers have to be during all seasons not to drive over the tops of hills just under the water’s surface! (pics: the city of Rangamati as seen from Kaptai Lake at low water level)

Our boat was about 30 feet long, and had chairs for us and our police escorts. The boat driver sat in back and operated the two stroke engine and the rudder. We could stand or sit out on the bow if we pleased. The lake was very pretty, and when the engine was off, very quiet. It had villages all around its sides, and boats crossing it with people on board. Boats all about the same size as ours. We headed through, and Ben and I realized at one point we were heading on the river’s original course as the sides of the banks were rock, and were shaped as though they weren’t just land that had been flooded. (pics: boats docked at Shuvalong on Kaptai Lake, Jen/Ben on the boat with police officers in the background for protection, bow of our boat as we travel across Kaptai Lake)

In this area we stopped at Shuvalong Waterfall, which had a very low flow, only able to be seen from up close. So, we got up as close as we could. All of us guys climbed the waterfall’s bottom most rocks. This was not easy in the sandals Ben and I had on. (pics: Ben at the base of the waterfall (in orange) while Ben and I are a level below (in gray and blue), Shuvalong waterfall at a low flow)

We had lunch at Cheng Peng Restaurant, and had some chicken cooked inside a bamboo shoot, along with rice. The views from the restaurant, which is the middle of the lake on top of an island, are of the city and the surrounding water. We walked to the top of the island for a better view. We also had to pay for the police escort’s lunch, which on top of the tips we gave them at the end of the day, was all we had to do for their accompaniment. (pics: view of Kaptai Lake from Cheng Peng Restauarnt on an island in the middle of the lake, myself/Ben posing in front of Kaptai Lake)

Midway between these two places it started to rain. It stopped, but a second burst came later, and at this point the boat driver insisted on going back to port. We missed out on seeing the hanging bridge on the other side of Rangamati, the king’s current palace, and a Chakma Buddhist temple. The rain stayed on when we got back to the hotel, and meanwhile we played my favorite Bangladeshi card game “29” until past the rain’s end. Dinner was shrimp cooked inside a bamboo shoot. (pics: rain pours down as we hide in a rocky cove of Kaptai Lake, Ben/Ben watch as rain pours down around us as we travel)

40th-5th in Cox’s Bazar 6/8

Ben and I got up early to leave the hotel, and picked up the bus outside on the curb. This first bus ride brought us to Chittagong. We had to sign out at the checkpost. We arrived in Chittagong after 2.5 hours, then had to get a rickshaw across the north side of the city to the bus station at which we could catch buses to Cox’s Bazar. The scenery on the way down was highlighted by the hills of Bandarban to our east the entire time. Otherwise, it was typical Bangladeshi scenery. Ben and I listened to a mix he had made of songs from our crew days the entire way down.

After arriving we changed into swimsuits, went and bought bus tickets home for the next night, and also got some snacks as we hadn’t really eaten yet.

Then we headed to beach! It was a gorgeous sunny day, but we have no pictures as we didn’t bring our cameras because we wanted to go swimming. The water was warm, and playing around was tons of fun. The water also had a strong current, and we kept finding ourselves far from where we’d entered.

Walked south from Sea Beach Road where we had first gotten to the beach. The sand was decently soft. There were very few beachgoers at first, but we found them all later, clustered around a 200m long stretch where there were umbrellas and chairs, a bit of a corralling effect. Didn’t seem like people left this spot. Just in front of reaching this, we found a large sea turtle shell. Inside the remnants of a turtle were still there, and wild dogs were picking at its bones and eating what was left of its flesh. There were large lifeguard stands that had the signs “Watch Bay” on it, perhaps a reference to the popular show Baywatch? Farther south as the land curved, we saw hills towering over the seas. The dunes next to the sea were all well covered with vegetation: small greenery closer to the sea and coniferous trees behind that. Much better protected for erosion than beaches in the US. (pics: the only place on the long beach that people were hanging out at in Cox's Bazar, tree and shrub covered dunes in Cox's Bazar)

We walked back up to where we started, enjoying the last of the sun before it set behind some clouds.

That night we went to a restaurant we had heard good things about from several of my friends. It is called Mermaid Café and is right on the beach side. You pull up by rickshaw to see a giant sign for the restaurant, but no restaurant. You inquire to a man sitting by the sign about it, and he will then lead you on a 5 minute walk along the beach by flashlight between the dunes. Our friend had warned us about this, otherwise we would’ve been a bit apprehensive. But instead it was a really cool way to approach the restaurant. We could see it from the distance all lit up in lights, and could hear music as we approached. It was in the style of a beach bungalow, lit by hanging lights. The man with the flashlight brought us right to the entrance and then went back to get more guests. (pics: Mermaid Cafe in Cox's Bazar at night, Ben happy to enjoy a crepe in Bangladesh)

The food was great. A great selection of seafood served in a variety of styles. They also had crepes for desert. They invited us to see their kitchen and a small art gallery they keep on premises.

40th-6th in Cox’s Bazar 6/9

A trip to Maheskhali Island was suggested to us by Aaron, so in the morning we headed over to the port of Cox’s Bazar to take a speedboat over to the island, about a 15 minute ride away. The tide was out, so in order to reach the speedboat, we had to walk over strung together thin boats that worked as a temporary dock. We had to pay a small fee to both get onto the real dock, and another walk along the temporary dock. (pics: seafaring boats at dock in Cox's Bazar with people paying the dock fee to ride the boats to Maheskhali Island, the string of small boats used as a dock extension)

Upon getting to the island, we were surrounded by rickshaw wallahs before we could even leave the boat. They were all crowding the temporary dock of strung together boats. And they followed us up onto the jetty. A bit impractical as there wasn’t much space up there anyway. Well we decided to not take a rickshaw and get some breakfast in town instead. Two rickshaws, however, followed us along the entire jetty and into town asking us to ride with them, at least a quarter of a mile. I’d never seen such persistence. They then waited outside the place we ate at hoping to get our business. That kind of annoyed us, so we decided to take a different rickshaw after breakfast.

We first stopped at a Buddhist temple complex within the town. They had several images of the Buddha housed in a variety of temples. A man there explained only a little to us about the place. He did tell us the island had a population of 200,000 people. I was shocked. Had no clue it was so big, but looking at a map later, I realized how big of an island it actually was. The same rickshaw then took us to the next spot.n the east side of the island there are decently tall hills. (pics: Buddhist monastery on Maheskhali Island, stupa next to the monastery in Maheskhali)

On top of one of these hills there was a Hindu temple and a Buddhist stupa. We looked at both and also enjoyed the views of the island. (pics: view of the hills of Maheskhali island with a hut on top of one, view of the city of Maheskhali on the island)

At the bottom of the hill when we got down the same rickshaw wallah was still waiting for us, and he followed us as we walked the long distance down a pier. He wouldn’t give up on our business. Ben and I sat at the end of the pier for a bit, watching some fisherman, and then considered what to do next. We thought about hiking in the hills along the island, but rickshaw wallah (and another that’d shown up) warned us that the people there aren’t good people and its dangerous. Well whether they were trying to scare us and make us take their rickshaw somewhere else, or telling the truth, we decided against it. Ultimately we decided to take a small boat back to the main dock a bit of distance around the island. We left our disappointed persistent rickshaw wallah on the jetty. (pics: Ben posing on the long pier on Maheskhali Island, fisherman fishing at the end of the pier)

Upon getting back to Cox’s Bazar city, we went to the beach, took some pictures, even though it was not nearly as nice as yesterday. Very windy, and rain was threatening. But still warm. We played in the water a bit keeping an eye on my camera on land. (pics: Ben near the edge of Bay of Bengal, Cox's Bazar's beach, kids playing in the Bay of Bengal in Cox's Bazar, Ben posing near inner tubs at the popular area of the beach in Cox's Bazar)

Walked farther than yesterday, and finally decided to go climb one of the hills behind the city. They looked to be of similar height of what we could see down the shore, so figured this should be just as good for views. And it was. It was tough finding a way up, as villages were along the base of the hills tightly packed with no way to get close. But we found a road the cut through the hill, and there was a path to climb to the top of the hill from there. There were a few other guys up there who were doing the same thing as us, looked to be kids from the villages below. The views allowed us to see all of Cox’s Bazar, down and up the coast quite a ways, and far inland. Neat to see the villages just below us bustling and the new hotels along the ocean. (pics: Cox's Bazar's hotels and ocean as seen from the hills just behind the city, village along the edge of the hills in Cox's Bazar)

We headed back to the hotel, dropped off the camera and went back to ocean to play in the water. The sea was very rough. It would pull us along the shore a good distance in just a small amount of time. Kept having to get out and walk back up. Sat in the sand, enjoyed the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal.

We showered and got ready for our bus. Had a small dinner, and I showed Ben fried rupchanda fish (pomfret.) The bus ended up getting delayed one hour, and we played cards in the ticket office until it left. Bus ride ended up starting around 11:15pm.

On all the travels Ben and I have done here, our primary sustenance has been water, Choco Marie biscuits, and bananas. We’ve been trying to avoid having stomach problems on the bus. The biscuits have been incredible, filling me up after only a few.

40th-7th in Dhaka 6/10

The bus got in later due to its late departure time, but also because it is having to take a longer route. The Meghna Bridge we found out later is under repair, so the buses are having to go north through Narsingdhi, taking an extra 2 hours on the trip. This is going to cause rolling delays. We still got into Dhaka around 9AM.

After resting from the trip, Ben and I ate some lunch at Nando’s. He had wanted to check it out as he’d seen it South Africa, but hadn’t eaten there. And we are lucky to have one here.

From there we went to the Green Line ticket counter in Kalabagan. Ben bought his ticket to Kolkata on Friday. Ticket was very cheap, and buying it was incredibly easy! Compared to the hassle I had for buying plane tickets, I think the time saved buying bus tickets makes up for the length of the ride!

I then took Ben to the Liberation War Museum. I had to go help at an orientation session in Baridhara, so I gave him specific directions on how to meet up with me later. Although I was a bit worried, I had total faith he’d be fine.

The orientation session was for my former language program AIBS. Jen, Karen, and a former student Luke were all invited by Tony Stewart, the program director, to give the new batch of fifteen students a short orientation on life in Dhaka, answering any questions they had about life here and the program itself. After a short introduction by Tony, he left, and left us to chat. The kids were still tired from arriving just yesterday, but we still had a session for about 50 minutes. They asked questions about getting around, clothing, food, health, and we were glad to talk about it all. We also raised several topics we thought they show know about. (pics: new listening classroom at AIBS, 2008's batch of summer Bengali students at AIBS at orientation)

The program has almost all new teachers from last year. Only Santa remains from even the teaching staff I had (Nadia and Shakil left take jobs in other countries, and Farrah quit.) Two of the new teachers were Fulbrights to NCSU last year and taught Bengali there (just like how Naira and Farhanaz taught me the year before.)

I met up with Ben at Gulshan-1. He had no problems getting there, and received help from several people on the bus and at the bus counter. Was very happy that it went all right. We walked to Time Out for dinner and with the goal of getting some paan we could trust. We tried out the mango drink that is only available in this season, very salty and a bit spicy. Dinner was fine, Ben tried out Bangladeshi Mexican food, and I got some Malaysian noodles. Then we got try the paan they serve there. I ordered one that they said was not too sweet. Ben and I stuffed it in our mouths and chewed away. It wasn’t as bad as the last few times I’ve tried it, now that I’m getting used to it. Ben handled it much better than I did my first time. (pics: our paan at Time Out before eating, Ben putting the paan in his mouth, the various ingredients that are put inside paan)

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