We got back from our three day visit to the South West of the country on Monday evening. As we were reminded before we left this was not a holiday but a learning experience…and so it turned out to be – the whole trip was probably more successful in preparing us for our work over the next ten months than the previous 3weeks of induction have been. And apart from a pretty testing journey, and some bowel problems, I think that everyone enjoyed our escape from Dhaka.
We set off on Friday morning at 8am; eleven volunteers plus Suleiman (our driver) in a rather tight VSO mini bus. By 10am we were beginning to discover even more of the contrasts to life in Bangladesh. Literally hundreds of cement factories initially dominate an otherwise very flat countryside – their existence guaranteed by the infinite sand and silt reserves available in the river beds and flood plains. Though eternally present on our journey, soon their imposing and polluting chimneys gave way to an almighty see of green.
The impressive sight of hundreds of acres of paddy fields does not however mean that you will be overcome by a sense of peace or tranquillity. No, this is Bangladesh and I don’t know if I will ever be able to describe life here as peaceful. Instead, you cannot but get a sense of just how densely populated this country is, how perversely dependent its people are on flooding and how hard they work just to get by. Over the course of a 600km journey, we were possibly never alone on the road – never more than 50metres away from a rickshaw, bicycle, tractor, elephant or just simply random groups of people walking along the roads. If you can picture that, try adding in the absolutely mental driving culture here (a full post will be dedicated to this at some point) where abiding by the rules of the road is more likely to get you killed than keep you safe. To survive on roads with no white lines where the worse the bend the better the overtaking opportunity, where overcrowded non-roadworthy buses hurtle past without any consideration, you either join them in their recklessness or you shut your eyes and hope for the best – Suleiman did the former (amazing driver though) while we did the latter. Every vehicle is in a mad rush to get to the ferry-crossing before the next vehicle, why? Well I’m not sure. On our outward journey we ended up queuing for over three hours to get onto the ferry while on our return we skipped past 3 mini-buses to squeeze into the last spot after waiting for only 15minutes. In the first instance all vehicles were waiting for about three hours and in the second, only cars and mini buses didn’t have to queue. All the coaches and trucks probably queued for even more than three hours. As I say I’ve yet to figure this one out.
The madness of the roads really makes for a difficult trip especially when that trip is 15hours long. In deciding to go to the world’s largest mangrove forest we probably couldn’t have picked further away. Having said that at least now I know what the trip entails and what the village where I will be working looks like.
During our 3days in the region we were put up by a partner NGO in one of their training guesthouses – the place was pretty nice and the people very accommodating. From there we were brought along to witness some of the local democracy activities including the meeting of a youth group and a women’s group who’s Chairpersons themselves sit on the local Union Parishad Committee (lower level than county or city councils). Though a bit staged to impress the foreigners, it was great to get a taster of the type of work my own organization do as well.
As actual fun activities seem to have been banned from our induction, three days on the outer limits of the Sundurban meant only 3hours in the forest itself. As I think I mentioned, what makes this forest special is the fact that is a collection of islands, themselves submersed in water, and covers a total area of 10,000 square km. We travelled around the islands on a local boat piloted by boy about 9years old. While as ever with kids meeting foreigners here he was all smiles and jokes as his father snoozed, but I couldn’t help wonder why he wasn’t in school. We only set foot in the forest itself for about 15minutes so any chances of seeing deer, dolphins or tigers were pretty limited. From the boat we did see a few monkeys in the trees but I am still anxious to tackle the tiger and this trip definitely whets my appetite for a return.
So perhaps I was wrong – peace can be found in Bangladesh after all and thankfully I’ll be based only an hour or more away from this haven.
A final word about photos: I will upgrade my camera very very soon so I was grateful when my fellow volunteer Kevin lent me his Nikon D40 for the day trip to the forest. So some of the photos in the slideshow (I've moved from Flickr to Picasa) are my own and the rest are the work of Kevin and another volunteer Sanish.
If you want to see more of Kev's photos from our time here check out:
Ciao for now
- A lot of sad things happening in the South East of the country where indigenous peoples homes have been burned and I think 7people have been killed. I’ll go into this in more detail soon but our volunteers have been evacuated from the region. Thankfully I’ll be based very far away from this area.
- I’ve almost finished induction but for practical reasons I won’t be leaving Dhaka until Thursday. Really can’t wait to get started; a month of in-country training is too long.