Dhaka Carnival

February 23, 2013

dk290I was thinking of Herbert Money this evening as I picked my way through the smokey warm dark evening of a boisterous Dhaka street. He wrote home in 1927 from Peru recounting his delight at being witness to a revolution in the streets as a President was told he was no longer needed. Actually I think in that case El Presidente was shot. Tonight this place is in an uproar and I know Herbert would love being out here with me.  However by the time I was heading home the police were standing down, taking their grenade launchers, shotguns and assault rifles home. Along with small packets of dinner of course. No point in being out here if you have to go home to cook I guess.

Read more

Poor Options

April 23, 2012

Its hard to believe more than a decade has passed since I was here last.  It only seems like yesterday that I was bashing through the traffic of Dhaka behind a certain Mr Chowdary (their equivalent of “Smith” it seems) who was anxious to jam as many fleeting business meetings as possible into the time we had between arriving from India and our connecting flight to Chittagong. It seems little has changed (why should it?) though the hour of arrival (midnight) means the zoo into which you usually arrive in these South Asian airports is less like feeding time than usual. The hotel is quite a run up the road so we join the river sound of horns and beeps and flow along in the dark, as best we can avoiding large construction trucks that drift across our bow every other minute or so.  For a section of road I am in one of those sets for cheap science fiction movies as sparks rain down in showers of orange light from points unseen, pouring out of a dark sky and cascading to a bouncing mass of pinpricks of light that die on the ground.  Read more

Toilet Humour – Bangladesh

April 23, 2007

Bangladesh is the last place in which you want to be afflicted with giardia (this blog refers). Especially when the toilets are usually a hole in the ground. While recovering under some unknown medicine administered by my friend Zia, I kept within a short sprint of the hotel toilets, or at least something civil. I cared less if they were soundproof -that consideration had long fled after the bowels had dramatically erupted at the beginning of the trip. But I was worried about my flight out. A sudden attack of cramps, and the need to pass a stream of liquid the consistency of water came only with 3.6 nanoseconds notice. Not enough time to even undo a seatbelt. With a sigh of relief I managed the flight from Chittagong to Dakhar without mishap. It is about an hour. Then I was worried about the two hour wait to clear immigration. Again no mishap.

But as I waited in the departure lounge the urge hit me and I bolted for the men’s room, grabbing a passenger list from off an unattended counter. (I was guessing there would be no paper). There I was confronted by a single toilet stall with a ceramic bowl. The alternate “hole in the floor” squat was submerged under two inches of water (this is an INTERNATIONAL departure lounge for goodness sake!!) The western ceramic bowl option was not much better. The cubicle was also under under two inches of water. Literally. My shoes and socks were soaked. But the complicating factor was the position of the bowl – it straddled the stall. To sit in it as presented to you was to invite falling in. All of this seen, and options assessed in 2 nanoseconds, while hands fumble for the belt, random thoughts contemplating how to keep the suit dry given the flight we are about to board, while other brain function is trying to juggle briefcase and laptop case.

Finally perched facing the stall of the wall, trouser hems pulled up above the calves, rest of trousers caught at the knees. Laptop and briefcase perched on the knees as well. Water now soaking into your shoes. Of course, being a western toilet there was no hose. But nor as there any paper. As I had anticipated. Unfortunately I had dropped the passenger list in the puddle but printer paper is not absorbent anyway and tends to only smear things around. I sat there for a few minutes contemplating whether or not Thai Air would let me on the plane given the odour that was sure to rise off me. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had a newspaper in my briefcase. One from India, and Indian newspapers happen to be printed on the softest tissue on the planet. Sadly it covered the business activities of a business colleague in Hyderabad. He had kindly pressed the article on me and I was happy to accept it. Boy was I happy to accept it – now! I waited until my name was paged before carefully using the paper, reversing the juggling and balancing act and tip toeing out to the lounge in sodden shoes. Thai Air were fantastic – I insisted on a seat right next to the toilet and they did not argue. I fancy the wild glint in the eye did the trick but it may have been a stray odour after all.

Self Diagnosis in Bangladesh

February 13, 2007

I arrived in Chittagong late in the afternoon in a BAC-111, an aircraft even our air force has retired. The aircraft touched down and immediately the passengers felt the main undercarriage touch the asphalt they were on their feet, opening lockers and surging to the front of the plane. The nose wheel had yet to touch the ground so we were moving along quite quickly. Would have been interesting if we had stopped suddenly or had to rotate and go around. Everyone on the subcontinent wants to the first in every line. It seems to be wired into their genes.

Zia met me in Dhaka and travelled down to Chittagong with me. His brother was waiting to meet us so there was no problem clearing that little airport and getting into town. Given my day had started before sun up in Hyderabad Zia was pretty sympathetic to getting me to the hotel and leaving me alone until the next day. He agreed we would not start until 1000 the next morning. That sounded like an ideal plan. I have been on the road for 4 weeks now. To the US, England, Germany, Israel and India. Now to Bangladesh and then to Thailand and other points before getting home.

I retired early for the night and was sleeping soundly when at three in the morning I was violently woken by an excruciating stomach pain that in the first instance had me thinking my appendix must have ruptured. One of the kids had a ruptured appendix and their stomach was as tight as a drum. So with the pain and the tight stomach I had now acquired in my sleep that was my first thought. I was unable to unfold and so lay in a foetus position for about ten minutes before I realised I was going to have to get to the toilet immediately if I was not to soil the bed. I crawled to the bathroom and figured after half an hour contemplation in there that I was not dealing with an unruly appendix.

Over the next seven hours I tried to work out what the problem was. I managed to crawl to my backpack and retrieve a Lonely Planet Guide but that made things worse. Everything in the medical section became my ailment. I had rabies for a while. Then malaria. Cholera. Dysentery. Giardia. I had moved from the toilet to the bath and lay there with the guide that was so unhelpful.

Soon it was 1000 and Zia was waiting for me. I had cleaned up but could not get off the floor I was so cramped up and managed to get around only by moving like a crab. After about ten minutes Zia knocked on the door. When he saw me on the floor he simply laughed and said “You have Giardia. I can fix that.” Helping me up we went down the stairs and out onto the street where he organised for me to drink coconut milk from a freshly lopped coconut. The street vendor picked up a straw from off the street and placed it in the drink – we insisted he cut a new coconut and he could not understand our objection to the “clean” straw from off the road. After a quick coconut re-hydration we walked across to a small street pharmacy where Zia asked for a tablet which proved to be the size of a dime. Large and pink. Zia seemed to know the drug so I took the tablet and hoped for the best.

October 1997

(Later in Thailand a government pharmacy confirmed they were tablets intended to treat Giardia but noted there was probably enough in the tablet to dose a small village. But I left Bangladesh three days later with a stomach that still cramped and was very tender. Knowing that it was Giardia I can only guess that I picked it up at a Russian café in Tel Aviv, which in hindsight was an entertaining but thoroughly unhygienic place. It was ironic that the incubation period had me come down with the illness in Bangladesh. But helpful that Zia’s father was the Chittagong “Surgeon general” and that Zia recognised the symptoms of Giardia from long experience.

My enduring lesson of the experience was that I should avoid any attempts at self diagnosis in the future. I was of no help to myself whatsoever).

Ship Breaking – Using Hammer and Chisel

January 4, 2007

As you approach the beach, the first clues that you are in a unique part of the world, more so than usual, are the large numbers of small roadside stalls selling second hand (and new) ship’s stores. Everything from brass fittings to boxes of toothpaste. The second clue, uncertain at first but rising to a background percussion is the noise of metal on metal. Soft, and in the distance, initially I was not sure what I was hearing. But as I walked over the dune and onto the beach I realised it was the sound of thousand hammers on steel. A remarkable tinging chorus of blows ringing across the water and mud in a rolling cacophony of sound, all blending into the one note but clearly made up of innumerable parts.

And there is no hyperbole when I say thousands. Look north and see dozens of tanker hulls pulled up on the beach. Look south and see an equal number. And learn that these ships are being broken up by hand. Hammer and chisel. On some ships the smoke lifts off the deck where a line of sticky bitumen is burning to help soften the steel before the wedges are driven in.

At my feet is a jumble of metal I don’t recognise at first. Then it slowly dawns on me that the jumble is the remains of the diesel engine. The ship it belonged to has been dismantled from around it, piece by small piece and carried away. As the ship has shrunk it has been dragged further and further up the beach by large winches until all that is left is the engine. In this case, the block was pretty much gone and all that remained were the pistons. Enormous things about a metre wide and three metres tall. And those are finally smashed to pieces big enough to carry as well. (I was warned away from a couple of steel ropes lying on the beach. Hooked up to 300,000 tons of ship they regularly snap and the whipping rope takes out two or three people at a time, cutting them in half in the blink of an eye).

Truly extraordinary. It is a place to simply stand and absorb. Even the fact that the movement on the ships is made up of thousands of figures beavering away takes a while to sink into your consciousness. If you are in Chittagong for any reason (there are few good ones aside from doing business with the textiles industry) take a look at the ship breakers, and stay away from the steel ropes. In the meantime you can see some detail on Google Earth – copy and paste these coordinates into “Fly To” and let GE take you there. 22.4218444854 N 91.7348982087 E
August 1999