Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wild Zen

Bangladesh is a country full of contradictions. From my bedroom window I can listen to the sounds of birdsong and feel as though I’ve been dropped in the middle of a jungle and moments later be ripped back into reality when the horns start honking and the engines start revving. Walking the street you pass a well-dressed lady in an exquisite sari, adorned with jewels and a few steps later a beggar whose body is so crippled that he has no hope of ever working again. On the way back from school you’ll see homes made of tarp held together with sticks, and just a few blocks down a sprawling mansion. And, as Mike pointed out, the traffic is absolute chaos with drivers and pedestrians disregarding road signs and traffic lights, yet you rarely see a fender bender and cars are surprisingly undented (the local buses are an exception – they look like banged up tins). The contradictory nature of this country struck me again yesterday.

Mike and Ann belong to a boat consortium. The Peacock, the boat, is currently being repaired. When they invited me along to go check on the progress, I imagined that we’d be going to a harbor and looking at a fairly ordinary boat. I was wrong.

Silt boat
We left school around 2 PM and headed towards the “harbor”. Near the airport we turned off the main road and crossed some railway tracks on which vendors had set up shop on pieces of cloth. Mind you this wasn’t along the tracks but literally over them (yes, the tracks are still used). Then we lurched through a bazaar similar to the others I’ve described. We wound through these narrow roads and finally made it out into the countryside. Just a few years ago this countryside didn’t exist. People have gradually been claiming the river areas and pumping silt into them creating vast expanses of sandy ground where the river and rice paddies used to be. This causes severe problems during the monsoon season when run off from the Himalayas causes flooding - with every inch of river that is taken away there is less space for the water to go. The speed bumps we were going over were in facts large pipes that had been laid across the road and were pumping silt to fill up another part of the waterway.

The “harbor” parking lot was a local school’s field and the “harbor” was really a muddy riverbank. But waiting there was a floating meditation room. We stepped onto the Wild Thing, which would take us to the Peacock. Colorful pillows padded the deck and served as back rests along the sides. A thatched canopy provided shade. We pushed off from the shore and Ann unpacked the tea, which we enjoyed with some delicious cookies.

As we chugged along the river at about 5 miles an hour, one thing became very clear immediately. The Wild Thing, with its zen feel and leisurely pace, was not very wild at all. Clusters of people waited on either side of the river. They were waiting for the ferry, a large canoe, to take them and their belongings (bags of cement, vegetables, goats and other goods) across. A man napped under an umbrella in his canoe. Just outside of Dhaka and away from the bazaar, life seemed to be moving at a much slower pace.

As we neared the Peacock, we noticed a group of boats all stuck together in the middle of the river. The captain informed us that, weighed down with silt, all of these boats had run aground. Thankfully we’d arrived at our destination because getting around them would have been impossible.

The Peacock was on the beach. Tilted on its side, it was missing a deck, had holes in its side and looked as though it had just been unearthed during an archeological dig. Yet I could see how glorious it was and would be. Mike, Ann, and Karen walked around advising the repairman in charge while I sat back and took it all in.

“When will you be done?” they asked.
“In one month,” he replied.

I hope he’s right, because a month from now I’ll still be here. 

The pristine, green rice paddies surrounded us as we made our way back through the inky waters. The river is literally black because cloth and leather factories upstream dump all the chemicals and dies into the river. We finished up our gin and tonics (drinking in a dry country) just before we got back on land. 

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