The Resorts of Banderban

We debated for a while whether or not we would visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts, with the Canadian Government listing it as a "Avoid All Travel" area with the instructions "there is an extreme risk to personal safety and Canadians should not travel at this time". Somehow the Chittagong Hill Tracts were firmly fixed on the itinerary the minute we knew we were heading to Bangladesh. The area is a narrow strip of land sandwiched between India and Burma, home to the only "highlands" of Bangladesh (and its main source of timber). At partition, 99% of the population of the area was made up of ethnic minority groups. Today, almost 50% of the population is Bengali. Many of the Hindu tribes people fled to neighbouring India at partition, but after Bangladesh's war of independence, the government began resettling Bengali people to the area (an often cited reason for this resettlement is the tribes people siding with Pakistan during the war of Independence). A political party representing the various ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts was formed in the early seventies and began a 25 year armed struggle with the government. In 1998 a peace-treaty was signed promising the return of all stolen land and guaranteeing rights of return to those who fled the country. Not surprisingly, there is continued dissatisfaction with the implementation of the peace accord. The native inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts continue to be marginalized while land is still taken from them. The area was finally granted the "right" to use cell phones 2 months prior to our arrival. Despite the safety warnings, the area is a popular domestic tourist destination, as it boasts the country's only "mountainous scenery". And in a country with one of the highest population densities in the world, its such a lovely contrast to enter the sparsely inhabited hill tracts, only a three hour bus ride from Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city.

We arrived in Banderban, one of the region's largest population centres, on a Friday morning. Our guidebook recommended tourist facility slightly outside the town as the best place to stay in the region. Had we had a map and an idea of where we were going we would have resisted paying the rickshaw-cartel the "fixed price" to get there, but we didn't have much bargaining power. Cycle-rickshaws ply a small strip of Banderban, but everything else is too hilly and for anything over a kilometre or so you are stuck in a CNG (motorised rickshaw). Our motorised rickshaw chugged us up to the Hillside Resort. It was just close enough that Yann would definitely have suggested we walk had he known the distance, but just far enough and uphill enough that it would have been painful, so I was not-so-secretly grateful for our lack of map.

By the time we arrived at the Hillside Resort, we were already pouring sweat from our short walk up to the front desk. It was still fairly early in the morning but we could feel the intensity of the heat and humidity of the surrounding jungle. We had not seen any backpackers in Bangladesh except for a couple in Dhaka, so we were pretty surprised when we were told that there was not a single bed left in the complex (including one of their 36 dorm beds). We offered to sleep outside, or on the roof, but apparently even their tents and roof spots were taken by employees. The two managers were extremely apologetic, offered us a place for the next day and served us a huge plate of freshly cut pineapples. We ate them the huge airy dining hall overlooking the hills and jungle below, wondering what we would do.

We had seen a guest house on the road on our way up to the hillside resort and we asked about it. We were told that it was probably outside our price range, but we decided it was worth a try since it was on the way to town. It took us only a few minutes to get there, we were already sweaty and tired and we were walking downhill. (On the way, we crossed the huge tour group from Chittagong arriving to the hillside resort to take up all their beds). The place didn't look to be particularly booming but the gates were open so we walked in. We were greeted by a skinny Bengali teenager who directed us to a nice shaded gazebo. He couldn't speak much English, but he understood that we wanted a place to sleep. He quoted us the same as the other resort, but we would have our own private cabin with balcony overlooking the river below. We were feeling incredibly smart.

The skinny boy led us to the main building on the property where we met the owner, one of the first fat people we had seen in Bangladesh. He spoke English and he had children living in Canada. He was in the process of being interviewed by what seemed to be local media. He insisted we sit down and watch the interview in what turned out to be his "cottage". He was loud and confident and he called on a few more servants to serve us drinks and snacks. We felt pretty uncomfortable, and were really just trying to figure out if it was possible for us to stay the night and how much it would cost us. The owner just kept telling us to "take the cabin of our choice". Some of the cabins were still being built, and they were quite luxurious from the outside. Only two of them had working fans though, so we picked the one of the two in the shade.

Our large host insisted that we drop our bags at the cabin and come back to socialize with him at the main lodge. Yann and I always have trouble saying no in these types of situations and we ended up back at the lodge listening to our hosts monologues. Among the various things he talked about, the highlights were probably his $15 000 membership to the Chittagong Golf Club, his love of local alcohol that he could purchase from the tribes people who he "allowed on his land", the fact that the daughter of the tribal family living on his land was a prostitute, that he thought he should feed his baby deer alcohol to get it addicted and subsequently dependent on him, his decision that the resort would not be for "uncivilized locals" but for respectable guests like us. We were introduced to his collection of exotic pets that he had manage to capture from the jungle: the baby deer, a tiny monkey chained to a post in the sun and a civet cat. To top off the awful exposé we got to meet his mistress, who was hiding in the bedroom and didn't want to be seen. He forced us to enter the room and look at her as she screamed and covered her face. According to him she was actually a well-known t.v. personality. Over the course of our discussions we would often be left alone for long periods of time when our host would disappear to his bedroom or elsewhere. When we would try to leave the servants would insist that we stay seated in the dark living room. At the first opportunity we escaped the lodge and walked back up the hill to make sure that they had reserved us a bed at the other place. We felt sorry leaving all the servants to their empty resort. We figured they were being treated only slightly better than the tribes people living on "their owners land". In the afternoon we walked along the hillside and sat admiring the jungle and river below. We saw how far the Chittagong business man's property stretched out. Land that was undoubtedly procured via corrupt government officials and locals. He talked about installing an in ground pool at his resort, while the surrounding villages did not have electricity or running water. We couldn't wait to get away from this place. Eating dinner was as uncomfortable as our earlier socializing. We wanted to eat in our cabin, but we were ushered to the dining room to eat with the owner. The owner's girlfriend didn't want to eat with us. We were served a dinner consisting of rice and lentils, while the owner had his own meal prepared. The dinner came 4 hours after we had requested it. Before dinner we were served local alcohol, which had been diluted with warm milk. Neither of us were interested, but our dinner wouldn't be served unless we finished our drinks. In the brief moments we were alone, I managed to toss most of it down the sink (by now my dislike for our host had turned into paranoia and I was pretty convinced that this was a poisoning attempt). We made plans to get up early and did not want anyone to wake up to prepare us breakfast. After much insistence we settled on an order or toast.

In terms of comfort, our night was one of the worst ones spent yet in Bangladesh. By dusk the huge jungle bugs had come out and invaded our cabin. The cabin hadn't been used in a long time, judging from the vast amount of spider webs and bug carcasses. We found a mosquito net covered in pieces of dead bug and quickly got it up to protect our bed from any intruders. The net was so thick that the minute amount of air being produced by the ceiling fan could not reach us. The power was off for many hours any ways which made us appreciate whatever amount of coolness that the fan could provide us. We were soaked in sweat but too terrified to face the prospect of the army of bugs accumulated outside our mosquito net being free to land on us. In fact we both slept holding the net underneath our bodies to make sure that nothing could get in. Any time one of us moved the other would make sure that the net hadn't been disturbed. I few times in the night I braved leaving the safety of the mosquito nets to have a shower. It was the only way to cool myself down, although the effects only lasted a few minutes. Yann has a better tolerance for heat, and is also a lot more afraid of bugs, so he just sweated it out.

Our bags were packed and ready by 7am. None of the staff were awake to make us breakfast, which was a relief. But the owner's car was gone and we couldn't find anyone to pay. After enough shouting, one of the teenage staff appeared to figure out what was going on. Once our departure was figured out, all of the young staff members appeared, including some that we hadn't even met yet. It took the whole group of them to figure out how they were going to charge us 3 times the price they had originally quoted for our stay. While we waited they managed to scribble down an itemized bill, with various incidental fees and a higher room rate because we had a "choice cottage". We figured that since their boss was gone, they were trying to get something for themselves, which didn't bother us. We laughed at them, questioned a few of their charges, then paid the original room rate and about 3 times the going tourist rate for the lentil dinner. They seemed slightly disappointed.

We were so happy to not have to see or talk to the owner again, we left as fast as we could, and raced up the hill to the other resort. We were there long before our room would be ready, so we sat in the dining hall and admired the jungle scenery that lay before us. Free of in ground pools, for now.

To Chittagong

When we got to the Dhaka train station, we were ushered behind the counter of the ticket office, where the attendant booked us our seats. For our night train to Chittagong (Bangladesh's second largest city) we opted for the slightly less luxurious non-AC cabin. We were spoiled however by the ticket salesmen, who had reserved a private two-bed cabin for us (what a lovely surprise). We gushed about the lovely train to locals, who didn't believe that they could possibly be as nice as in India!? Hmmmmmm..... Arriving early in the morning in Chittagong, we headed to the strip of hotels around the train station, many mentioned in the guidebook. Of course, we had to first check out the cheapest of the bunch. We agreed to take the room before the gigantic rat scuttled passed the door in front of the largest cockroach carcass we'd ever seen. Thankfully the rats and cockroaches were discreet and this was the last we saw or heard of them. Other than the staff barging into our room unannounced every hour or so to offer us something, we were very satisfied.

The main purpose of our Chittagong visit was to pick up a permit for travel to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. An area of Bangladesh bordering Burma, whose non-Bangla residents have been fighting with the government for a few decades (more on that later). We rickshawed our way to the District Commissioners office, who issued us a permit within 30 minutes for all the areas we wanted to visit. We had expected a more difficult time getting permits, so we now had the entire day to visit Chittagong. Chittagong's main tourist attraction has long been the ship breaking yards, where ships from all over the world come to be taken apart piece by piece hundreds of Bangladeshi workers. The yards have now been closed to foreigners for a few years, due to tourists raising world-wide publicity for the awful working conditions of the yards' employees. We decided, that being the country's busiest port, we should spend some time at the water. We took a rickshaw to the main boat terminal following these instructions from the Lonely Planet: "You can hire a boat from the boat terminal to go across the river (Tk 20, 10 minutes)to the fish harbour and market. The Marine Fisheries Academy is housed in a new building with a small museum."

We boarded a boat taxi on a small dock, we were quite certain that we were not at the main boat terminal, but according to the map we were in the right place. On the other side of the river there was no sign of a bustling fish market. We followed a long pathway next to a tall, barbed-wire fence. We ended up at a dusty, empty square with a few small shops. We were greeted with looks of surprise as we inquired "which way to the fish market?". Someone eventually managed to explain that there was no longer a fish market OR that there was no fish market that day OR that the fish market was only in the morning OR that there was never a fish market here in the first place. On to plan B, to the Museum! Even more confusion about this one. Finally someone understood Fisheries Academy/Navy/Army and we were led through fields, onto the other side of the barbed-wire fence. Our local guide dropped us off at the main administrative building and said goodbye. We entered the quiet building looking for someone to show us to the museum. Someone eventually appeared directed us to a room where staff seemed to be eating lunch. An older man got up to talk to us: "You want to visit our museum?" (incredulously). "Ummmm yeah". "How do you know about our museum?" (now suspiciously). "Ummmm, actually its right here in our guide book" (extra cheerily). The fact that their Fisheries Museum was mentioned in an international guidebook was all it took to really perk people up.

We ended up in a waiting room awaiting instructions. The older man popped his head out of the neighbouring office: "Can I have the book please?" (we gave him the guidebook). A few minutes later he exited the office, quite pleased: "Ok, He will see you" (excitedly). "Ummm who will see us?". "The principal will see you!" (obviously!).

Now we were in the spotless, air-conditioned office having been granted an audience with the principal of the Bangladesh Fisheries Academy. We had a long friendly talk, the principal spoke perfect English and gave us a description of the school. We felt completely out of place in our grubby clothes but we kept it cool, even though we were thinking what the hell are we doing here? Once we had passed the examination, we were finally allowed to see the museum. We were escorted there by two academy teachers and one lab technician. The sign on the door said "Museum", which we suppose is how the writer of the guidebook might have heard of its existence. Clearly, the writer had never visited however. It wasn't a museum at all. It was the school's biology lab! A collection of fish from the Bay of Bengal sitting in jars, suspended in formaldehyde. We tried to seem as interested as possible, but there only so many brown flaky fish bodies one can be impressed by.

The two teachers who showed us around were extremely friendly and talkative. They were shocked and appalled to hear that we were teachers visiting as part of our 3 months of vacation. After taking a few photos with us, they called down to the dock to make sure that the military taxi didn't leave without us. We were given a ride back to the other bank, along with other employees of the Bangladesh Navy.

Rickshaws Through Dhaka

Our first afternoon in Old Dhaka was spent with our guide Jewel. He had a limited repertoire, so we followed him to the three destinations that he knew. Despite our usual reticence to follow guides, I had convinced Yann to follow him. The main reason for me wanting to follow him was the belief that it might cut down our time in the heat. We stopped first at Ahsan Manzil (or the Pink Palace), one of Dhaka's lovelier buildings, a short walk away from the main boat terminal. I was too exhausted to walk up the stairs of the palace, so I hid in the shade while Jewel and Yann visited the museum inside the palace. My rest was interrupted by requests for photos with me, and I spent most of the time in the sun posing, until a guard shooed everyone away. The three of us then hopped on to a rickshaw to the Sitara Mosque, a lovely little mosque a short ride away. The mosque gates weren't open but with a little shouting by Jewel we were let in for a private visit. The mosque is completely covered in mosaic, some parts restored by a rich donor (using Japanese and English china) and other parts original. Each of the four mosque towers are tiled in white and scattered with blue mosaic stars. We were warmly received by the caretaker who showed us Mount Fuji on the Japanese tiles. We weren't as lucky finding the caretaker of the imposing Armenian Church. We had to content ourselves with views from outside the gates.

Our last stop with Jewel was Shankharia Bazar, more commonly known as Hindu street. One of the last enclaves of Hindu craftsmen (shankharias) in Bangladesh. This narrow, rickshaw-packed street is home to dozens of tiny workshops. In our short visit we saw artisans making harmoniums from scratch and an old man carving bangles from conch shells. Shortly after we parted ways with Jewel. Partly because we were exhausted and partly because he had a head-on collision with another pedestrian. This left him very much confused with a huge gash above his eye. Despite Jewel's earlier promises, he demanded twice the price that we had agreed to pay for his guide services. This wasn't particularly surprising, but was disappointing nonetheless.

By the time we arrived back at the hotel, the heat rash that had appeared after our train ride from Delhi to Kolkata had pretty much covered most of my body. We had spent our first night in a room without air-conditioning, but after seeing my heat rash, Yann agreed that it might be beneficial to have it. This doubled our hotel bill, but was enough to get my skin back to a somewhat tolerable state. We had failed in our attempt to withstand the Bangladesh summer without using air-conditioning. It felt extravagant in a country with a dire lack of power. Millions would be attempting to get a good night's sleep without even an operational fan.

On our second day in Dhaka, we decided to tackle the city without the use of a guide. This required special planning due to adorable but extremely annoying "English speaking" rickshaw guides that hovered around our hotel entrance trying to sell us their full day tours. We left with an old gray-bearded rickshaw driver, who we knew would end up costing us more than it should because he was cute and skinny. He got us to the ruins of Lalbagh Fort, one of Dhaka's main attractions, elsewhere it probably wouldn't be given much visiting time, but in Bangladesh, the sights are few and far between, and we wanted to make sure to give them our full attention. We spent a few hours roaming around the unshaded grounds, there isn't much left of the fort, but the grounds are well kept, and we felt sheltered from the noisy and crowded city that surrounded us. After the quiet of Lalbagh, we headed back into the heart of Old Dhaka for a visit to Bicycle Street. We had no problem explaining this site to our rickshaw driver, its the city's headquarters for everything Rickshaw. Each shop specializes in some aspect of rickshaw making and repair. But what we were really there for was the rickshaw artwork. Nearly all of Dhaka's 400 000 + rickshaws are adorned with colourful artwork, on the seat, or as a back bumper-like flap. Basically every possible surface of the rickshaw has some painted metallic cut-out, plastic streamers of fake flowers attached to it. Popular themes include: the Taj Mahal, bloody Bangla movies involving big women and big guns and the serene cabin-in-woods scene (this one is actually quite sad, because it is exactly the opposite of everything that is Dhaka). We caused quite a commotion on Bicycle Street when we pulled out our cameras. Every single shop-owner, pedestrian, child wanted a photo taken of themselves. Men carrying heavy loads on baskets balanced on their heads would stop and insist that we photograph them. We could have spent the entire day there and the requests would have never stopped. In the late afternoon we headed to the sombre "Museum of Liberation" celebrating Bangladesh's bloody civil war with Pakistan (then West Pakistan). The country is extremely proud of its stand to protect its language rights, which were at the core of the conflict with the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan. We met a young man later who summed up his thoughts about his country: "We are very poor, we don't have very much, but we have two things, we have our beautiful language, and we have our religion".

We had successfully navigated ourselves through the incredible chaos of Dhaka for a complete day of sight-seeing, despite our inability to utter a single word in Bangla. In fact, our initial plan of bargaining for prices with a calculator was quashed on our first negotiation, when we realized that Bangladesh does not use the same number system as we do (this is actually the first country where we experienced this). So despite most of the rickshaw drivers unable to speak English (and many illiterate) we relied entirely on the help of strangers to help us get around. Actually we never even had to ask anyone for help. Within seconds of flagging down a rickshaw driver we would be surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, the best English speaker of the bunch (usually not too great) would somehow figure out where we wanted to go, explain it to the driver AND negotiate the price for us. Often the crowd would be arguing with the driver in our favor. Without fail, every time we needed to get somewhere, someone would appear to help us. We had a wonderfully pleasant day, despite the hot humid weather.

A River Cruise in Dhaka

We were up and ready to explore Dhaka by 7 am. We thought that this would be the best way to tolerate the heat and humidity of the city. Apparently we were the only ones with this idea, at least in the area around our hotel. All the shops were still closed and there was almost no action on the streets, in sharp contrast to our arrival at rush hour the night before. We delayed our departure an hour or so, but it didn't really matter, because it was already hot and sticky.

By 9 am, we were standing in front of the Sadarghat boat terminal, being swept away by a boatman, promising us a tour of the Buriganga river. I think he saw the hesitation in our eyes, because he didn't even let us say a word as he ushered us through the crowds of people and onto a tiny wooden craft sandwiched between too huge passenger ferries. Yann looked utterly terrified (although swears he was only slightly worried) as we slipped through the narrow gap separating the two boats and into the open water. The man who had intercepted us at the entrance tot he boat terminal, was in fact not a boat driver, but an "English speaking guide" named Jewel, who had subcontracted our oarsman. According to Jewel, his mission was not to make money, but to make sure that Bangladesh was known to the world as a wonderful place for tourists, "yo pwoblem is my pwoblem". Almost immediately into our river ride he began pitching us his tour of Old Dhaka. We didn't pay too much attention to him, we were too busy watching everything going on around us. There aren't as many boats on the river as there are rickshaws on the streets of Dhaka, but the traffic is equally disorganized and chaotic. We felt slightly vulnerable as we were rowed down the river next to boats that probably couldn't even tell we were there. We docked on the opposite river bank and visited a small fish and produce market. Right next to the market was a grade school, where Jewel's two boys attended. He was happy to introduce us to his children, who spoke the best English among their schoolmates. Within a few minutes of our arrival, it seemed like the entire school had come out to greet us. Women at the local market lined up to have their photos taken and shake our hand. A produce vendor threw potato peels at me until I finally understood that she wanted me to bring her to Canada with us. The village lined up on the edge of the river to wave goodbye as we pulled off. One of the most enthusiastic sendoffs we've ever had. Jewel then brought us further down the river to his neighborhood, where he wanted to show us his home. He lives in the ship-building district, where huge ship hulls seem to be formed anew by hammering scraps of metal together. Its unbelievable that these ships eventually become sea-worthy. Thousands of men, young and old, work all day hanging off the ships bashing pieces of metal together. You can hear the sounds of hammers clanging against the ships frames from every direction. Most of the local shops sell old ship parts. Jewel brought us to his friend's shop where men were actually building soldering machines from scraps. We navigated through the maze of ships and ship parts until we arrived to Jewel's house. One small room where he sleeps with his wife and two boys. A kitchen is shared between a few other families housed in similar one-room homes. His room was perfectly tended to, with all the pots and pans carefully hanging on the wall and all the family's possessions neatly tucked away out of sight. We spent a few minutes resting while the neighbors gathered at the window. Everywhere we visited, crowds gathered around to have their photo taken or to inquire about us. We were always greeted with smiles and laughter. Jewel proudly informed us that these were "his people" so we need not worry about anything happening to us. Although, he couldn't guarantee "full protection" on the other side of the river, back in Old Dhaka. This is where we were heading next. We had given in to Jewel's tour offers and decided he would show us around for a few more hours, even though it wasn't his turf and he was slightly annoying.

Montreal to Dhaka

We briefly considered a direct flight to Dhaka, until we saw the price difference between a flight to Delhi. We landed at midnight in the suffocating heat of the Delhi summer, spent a few hours in the usual cockroach infested room in Pahar Ganj, Delhi's budget travel ghetto, before boarding a train to Kolkata the next afternoon. Yann and I had been debating whether or not to travel in air-conditioned cabins (I was for it), but in the end it didn't matter, because there were no berths left in any of the air-conditioned classes. After a day waiting in the sweltering heat of Delhi, we were already exhausted by the time we boarded the train. In non-ac train travel, sections are divided into open compartments containing 8 berths. Six people, including us had already arrived in our compartment when a family of 5 showed up. Forcing our sweaty bodies to be that much closer together, I demanded to see their tickets, which of course they claimed to have, but never produced. After a brief argument, the other foreigner in our compartment began to cry. I blame the heat and exhaustion for my frustration, I watched the family all night trying to get sleep huddled together on tiny bunks, with the father curled up on the floor beneath them. By the next morning I was trying to make amends for my rudeness and was thankfully forgiven. The family shared their homemade lunch with us and invited us to have dinner at their home upon our return to Kolkata.

Even with a bunk to ourselves, sleep was pretty much impossible. Up on the top bunk where I was hidden away, there was no air from a window nor a fan. I lay rolling in my own sweat, soaking up all the dirt from the sheetless bunk, until I was a filthy, soaking mess. Yann, on the middle bunk did a little bit better. But we still had a long 8 hour day sitting 9 people on the two bottom bunks. By the time we arrived in Kolkata, I had convinced Yann that we absolutely needed air-conditioning. But lugging our bags around checking our hotels proved to be too exhausting and I booked us into an ultra-cheapie room with only a crappy fan and filthy sheets. Yann was perplexed by my change of room choice, but all I wanted was to lie down.

The next morning we had a bus to catch to Dhaka. No one at the hotel could confirm the departure time, but we had read that buses left at 5:30. So we set our watches for 4:45 and arrived in plenty of time to board the first bus of the morning (we opted for the AC bus). It took about 3 hours to travel the 84km to the India/Bangladesh border, we were surprised that the road linking these two main roads was barely the width of two cars.

Border crossing was particularly jovial, especially on the Bangladesh side, where the customs officers invited us to have tea with them. The Indian officers were a bit more of a pain, forcing Yann to go back through customs to change his Indian rupees into Bangladeshi takas (we haven't confirmed if this was an actual rule, if he wanted a bribe or if he was just being difficult) We were too worried that our bus would leave us behind, so we didn't argue too much (although I put in a valiant effort). As I filled out our immigration forms the sweat was pouring into my eyes and all over the forms, I don't know that I have ever sweat so profusely in my life. Yann was having a good laugh, claiming that he "loved the heat".

After getting our immigration stamps, we exited into Bangladesh, where we now had to track down our bus. We were faced with dozens of bus company stalls, all identical in appearance, all with Bengali signs. English seemed to have completely disappeared within the span of 100m. Being the only two foreigners on the buses passenger list, we were tracked down pretty quickly by the bus company employees who ushered us to the waiting room. We were soon joined by dozens of Bangladeshi men, who we believed to be bus passengers, but who turned out to be people coming to talk to us, or just get a glimpse of us. Every conversation began with "your country please?" and would end with "your relation please?" to which we would answer "we are husband and wife", great approval and nods followed by a "thank you thank you". The young boy at the bus stand taught us the Bengali sentence "Ami Bangladeshke volobasi","I love my Bangladesh".

The rest of our bus ride to Dhaka passed through similar scenery to that on the Indian side, on an equally narrow road. But when we arrived at the ferry crossing, we got our first view of the Bangladesh we had pictured in our minds: a vast muddy river, stretching out for miles, occupied by dozens of passenger ferries, fishing boats and cargo ships. The banks of the river dotted with thatched roof mud houses and children swimming. Not a hill to be seen anywhere. The children playing on the river banks were amazingly quick to spot us on the upper deck of the ferry and waved continuously at us while our ferry slowly passed them view. Other ferry passengers were eager to ask us where we were from and what we were doing in their country. As we approached Dhaka, our bus slowed down to a crawling speed. We had now been joined on the road by hundreds of auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, pedestrians, trucks, all honking. When we pulled into the bus company terminal, we had no idea where we were nor how we would possibly be able to navigate the traffic. We stood on the sidewalk for minutes watching the gridlock made up mostly of cycle-rickshaws. We weren't even able to cross the street. Meanwhile, on the sidewalk, a steady stream of pedestrian commuters were blowing by us (and the traffic), we were in the way no matter where we stood. Yann couldn't even utter a word, we felt (and must have looked) completely lost.

It didn't take long before a few people had stopped to help us. They flagged us down an empty cycle-rickshaw (there were not many of these available), a teenage boy who couldn't speak a word of English. Somehow our crowd of helpers managed to understand where we were going, and explain it to our tiny sarong wearing driver. Without a word, he dove into the traffic. We sped through the city, our tiny sarong-clad driver changing lanes and forcing his way in front of oncoming buses and cars. Under over-passes and through garbage-filled back lanes, our driver's shirt was now completely soaked with sweat as he rode his one-speed bike for almost half an hour. It was the most spectacular ride through a city we've ever had. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we paid him the demanded fare, 25 takas, that's correct, 40 cents. Five days after leaving Montreal, we were finally in Dhaka.

A Walk in Lima

We took a 26 hour bus ride from La Paz to Lima. Along with a pair of French tourists, we managed to be the only tourists lured into a "customs checkpoint" at the border by some unscrupulous guards. We were asked to show them all our money and they sifted through our bags. The four of us made sure that at least two people were present at each of the checks and the guards seemed to back down when it was clear that we suspected them of bad behavior. The actual checkpoint, we found out soon after, was about 100m up the road. The "luxury" bus we boarded at the border came with an extremely serious (and nutty) travel attendant who ushered us quickly onto the bus. She decided that it was her job to keep anyone from exiting the bus at any time. This was a huge pain, because we hadn't purchased a lot of water, knowing that we would be able to buy some en route. We decided that this was not a customary procedure, as most of the passengers were getting angry and began hurling out insults directed at our hostess. This caused the utterly crazy woman to become increasingly militant until she was waging a full out war on her unruly passengers. One of the few Western tourists on the bus had to leave us quite early on, the attendant had told her that the bus bathroom was only for peeing, but was not letting her exit the bus to use other facilities!? The poor girl looked utterly distressed as we left her in some town. When we exited the bus in Lima it was the first breath of non-recycled bus air we had taken in over a day, we were excruciatingly thirsty and completely exhausted.

Lima is a sprawling, confusing city. We were relegated to the rich tourist district of Miraflores by lack of creativity and adventurousness. With only two days in Lima, without even a map or guidebook, we didn't plan to do much (we were only in Lima because it saved us money on the plane tickets). We visited the amazing sights of Miraflores: (1) Two blocks of giant tourist souvenir warehouses (highly recommended by the adorable American couple we met) (2) The modern ocean-side shopping mall (where Yann bought a small Dunkin' Donuts coffee). Despite the riveting excitement of Miraflores, we had our fill of llama trinkets and pashmina shawls and wanted to see other neighborhoods of Lima.

On the advice of our hostel staff we took a taxi to the historic downtown centre of Lima, rather than take public transportation "which would require transferring buses in a bad neighborhood". We were skeptical about all the warnings, but we had no guidebook, and the only map we had was a small tourist pamphlet. Since most of Lima's sights are concentrated within a few blocks, we knew once we were downtown, we didn't have much searching to do. Our taxi driver dropped us off at the Plaza Mayor in time for us to watch the bizarre changing of the guards ceremony. Bizarre, because spectators have to watch it from outside the gates of the Presidential Palace, actually from across the street. Crowds of school children, families and tourists jostle for position on the sidewalk, across the streets from the gates of the palace. To make sure no one gets to close, a row of riot cop stands between the crowd and the palace. I watched the routine while Yann was entertained by a grumpy old Peruvian man, who spent 20 minutes pointing out all the similarities between the French, Italian and Spanish language. After the excitement of the changing of the guards was over, we wandered around the Plaza searching for something to visit. We walked along a pedestrianized street until we were behind the Presidential Palace facing the Rimac river and a large hill in the distance dotted with brightly-painted homes. We decided to cross the river to get a closer view. As we crossed the bridge, we noticed the lovely colonial architecture and a large church in the street directly in front of us. We strolled down the street heading towards the church, carrying our large day bags, and our even larger cameras hanging around our necks. We left the majority of the palace riot police standing on the bridge behind us. We could still spot the fluorescent yellow reflectors of the single police officers stationed at every street corner in the distance, so it didn't feel like we were leaving the tourist district. I remember making two brilliant observations as we walked along; "Boy! people sure like to whistle around here!" and "Boy! That's the third person who passed us making the sign of the cross!". Yann made the third astounding observation "Look, those people across the street seem to be waving at us!". Once we concluded that the shopkeepers had in fact leaped out of their stores to wave us down, we stopped to analyze the complex flow of information coming to us in the form of subtle clues. At the same time, we bumped into the last visible policeman stationed on the street. The kind shopkeepers were looking out for us, and were in fact desperately waving their arms and pointing towards the Presidential Palace. The policeman, after instructing us to hide our cameras, stood in the middle of the sidewalk blocking us from moving forward. The policeman kept repeating "peligroso", which neither Yann nor I knew the meaning of (so much for our "Speak in a Week" Spanish CDs). It took us a surprisingly long time to decide that we should in fact head back towards the plaza. We were actually pretty frazzled and we sped back from where we came from, to the sound of the same whistling, now taking on a new and slightly more alarming meaning. Oh, and we looked up "peligroso" in our pocket dictionary once we were back in tourist territory: "dangerous".

Thus ended our Lima exploring, we were both mad at ourselves for our bad judgment and we concluded that such naive travelers could only be set loose on Miraflores, which is where we stayed for the rest of our time in Lima.

Note: Back in Canada, we came across a blog describing a traveler's day in this same neighborhood (Cerro San Cristobal), where he explored the homes on the mountainside, met locals and had no problems whatsoever...

Fruit in Sucre

When we arrived to Sucre, it was the first time we had been under 3000m since we had landed in La Paz two weeks earlier. Sucre is markedly different from other cities we had visited in the Bolivian Altiplano, and not only owing to the change in climate. It is a city made up of elegant Spanish Colonial era, white washed buildings and churches. As Bolivia's legislative capital, the seat of Bolivia's Catholic Church and home to one of the oldest universities in the "New World" it is not as poor as its next door neighbour Potosi. In June 2008 a group of indigenous farmers was through Sucre's central plaza, forced to take off their shirts and burn the Wiphala and MAS flags (the Wiphala flag is that of Bolivia's indigenous people, MAS is Morales' Party). All this to the cheers of "on your knees shitty Indians", "long live the capital Sucre"... This was the current political climate when we visited Sucre. Tourists like to stick around the hostels of Sucre to learn Spanish and enjoy the lovely weather. Yann and I enjoyed the hot climate and agreed that the city was quite lovely, but concluded that it was also fairly dull. As in Potosi, we visited all the churches and museums including the one that houses Bolivia's declaration of Independence. The views of the city from the top of the Felipe Neri Convent were particularly nice. The highlight of Sucre for us was the central market where we ate all of our meals with crowds of locals. We went there every night for greasy potatoes and chicken, and every afternoon for gigantic bowls of fruit covered in yogurt. The town of Tarabuco is about 65km from Sucre, and its Sunday market is a popular excursion. Tarabuco and its neighbouring villages are renowned for their intricate textiles. We decided to visit, mainly for lack of other day trip options. Most of the vendors in Tarabuco target the visiting tourists. All sell "authentic embroideries" of various quality (after a visit to the textile museum in Sucre, it is difficult to impress). Most of the local vendors wear traditional clothing, but this seems mostly to be a show for the visiting tourists. Away from the central plaza, vendors sell everyday goods and tourists are slightly more scarce. We wandered the back streets for a few hours, but we were still disappointed by the "market". Back in Sucre, Yann and I joined a group of tourists racing to the fruit stalls. Despite arriving past closing time, we managed to get a vendor to sell us all fruit cups through the locked gates. Yann and I enjoyed our last treat before our long trip to Lima.

Mining in Bolivia

There was no time to rest, even after our three day tour of the Bolivian desert. First thing the next morning, we were on the bus to Potosi. Yann had recovered well and we had received the good news that 67% of voters had supported Evo Morales in the vote of confidence referendum (that had taken place while we were on the tour). In the western highlands of Bolivia (where we were traveling), where the population is poor and mainly indigenous, support for Morales was even higher. We arrived in Potosi in the late afternoon. We made our way through Potosi's cobblestone alleys, past its crumbling colonial mansions and dozens of churches, admiring the massive Cerro Rico mountain that seems to loom over the city from wherever we were standing. Potosi has a grand and terrible history, and tourists come here for glimpses of the vestiges both of grandeur and of terror. Four hundred years of history has shaped Potosi into a city where the divide between the rich and the poor is even more present than in other parts of the country. (Perhaps why Morales and his Movement for Socialism Party enjoy over 80% support, the most of all prefects in Bolivia). It was established as a mining town in the 16th century and quickly the Spanish discovered that the nearby mountain was full of silver ore. The Spanish removed 45 000 tones of pure silver from the from what seemed to be an inexhaustible source of silver. Thousands of native Quechua and Aymara people were enslaved, and sometimes forced to live underground for 3 months (until they died). When the native population had been decimated (hundreds of thousands are said to have died in the mines), African slaves were shipped to Potosi to continue the work. An estimated 30 000 African slaves died, and rather quickly, due to the 4000m altitude. At the height of silver excavation, the population of the city swelled to over 200 000, making it one of the world's biggest cities. It is even mentioned in Cervantes' Don Quixote "I were to requite thee as the importance and nature of the cure deserves, the treasures of Venice, the mines of Potosi, would be insufficient to pay thee."

By the beginning of the 19th century most of the silver had been depleted and the city began to decline. Today, there is almost no silver left in Potosi, neither in Cerro Rico or in the museums and churches. Most is in Europe. We did the mandatory visit to the Potosi Mint, a testimony to Potosi's previous position of power, the coins for most of Europe were produced here for over a century. We visited a handful of churches, mostly for the great views of the city from their rooftops. And we visited museums and developed a particularly liking for some of the Bolivian artwork. We noted the common theme of Spanish conquistadors crucifying Jesus, which, given Potosi's history is quite an apt representation. On our second day in Potosi, we decided to witness what remains of Cerro Rico mining. We took a popular "Mine Tour" with a local company. For 10$ you get a trip to the mining quarter of Potosi (including the miner's market), then a refinery then a visit inside one of the dozens of cooperative mines that operate in the old tunnels of Cerro Rico. Before heading to the market we were first fitted with ridiculous suits, hardhats and lamps. The lamps and hardhats proved to be useful, but the rubber coveralls just served to highlight our invasive presence in the tunnels. We paraded through the small miners' market purchasing "gifts" for the miners on the insistence of our guide. Gifts included soft drinks, coca leaves and sticks of dynamite, all three available at most market stalls. Miners purchase all of their supplies themselves, hence the absence of any sophisticated equipment (including masks). Mines have been stripped of most of their wealth and ore is extracted with the hope of having a high enough mineral content to make decent money. Each cooperative works in teams sharing their meager profits. Miners are mostly uneducated and indigenous and are forced into mining by circumstance. Small children, boys and girls, enter the mines young, as they are able to crawl to small hard to reach corners. Miners usually die within 15 years of entering the mines, from silicosis (caused by the inhalation of large quantities of silica dust). We arrived at the Candeleria mine around lunch time, and workers were preparing to enter the mines for the beginning of their 12 hr+ shift. They prepared their painfully rickety equipment and put on their cloth masks and we watched them enter the mine. Shortly after, our group of about 8 people entered the mine behind them. We were accompanied by two guides, one to lead and the other to help people out if they began to feel uncomfortable. The first few hundred meters of tunnel is wide with high ceilings, it is dark and extremely noisy, due to the hydraulic pipes used to power the carts. The air is stale and stinky, the tunnel is hot and your lungs begin burning almost immediately after entering. It took us about 10 minutes to get to the end of the main tunnel with the ceiling at which point we sat and rested. We were given a description of the following part of the mine. We would descend a few meters at which point we would enter a tunnel in which we would have to crawl until we reached the second level of the mine. Yann had to be convinced to take this tour, and when we turned the corner and watched as people began entering the tunnel on their hands and knees he turned around to leave. Another tourist had already dropped out ahead of him and our guide left with both of them. I was the last person in our convoy. With just the slight descent further into the mine the temperature had already risen and us inexperienced tourists were kicking up dust everywhere around us, (much to the dismay of the miners that had grumpily joined the queue behind me).
It is hard for me to describe the smells and the discomfort of my few minutes crawling through the tunnel. About halfway through the tunnel, I turned around and crawled back, despite the encouragements of my fellow tourist next to me. I knew that if I got to the end of the tunnel I would eventually have to turn back and do it again. I raced out of the mine (as fast as I could), out of breath and afraid.
Outside the mine Yann and I sat in silence covered in dust and feeling pretty lame dejected as we watched a group of even young miners getting ready to enter the mine. For a wonderful portrayal of the lives of Potosi miners we strongly encourage you to watch "The Devil's Miner" a heartbreaking documentary about mining in Cerro Rico filmed in 2005.

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