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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.

1 comment:

Jean said...

Lovely story. Nice last line.Like I was there.Put it in a book.