Exploring the Chittagong Hill Tracts

The hillside resort offers a series of tours of the area. We chose the least expensive tour, the one that involved no transportation costs. The tour was consisted of a walk to Haatibandha, a local village inhabited by the Tripura tribe. The walk was described as “a 2 hour walk that should not be undertaken by anyone who is not physically fit”. I wouldn't exactly qualify myself as “physically fit” but I figured the brochure wasn't pitched at backpackers. It took us 20 minutes to get to the village. Our guide was not particularly friendly, but he was local and he spoke many of the local languages. He seemed to be known by villagers. Actually we didn't mind that he didn't want to talk, as a day of small talk in broken English is usually what keeps us from signing up for tours in the first place. The village was dusty and seemed empty. Most of the adults were working in the fields as it was harvest time for many local fruits, pineapples in particular. The eyes of young mothers and their children peaked out from the windows of their bamboo-walled homes. It was too hot for them to be outside playing. A few children came out to get a better look at us, many of them wore crosses or photos of Jesus around their necks. Tripurans were converted to Christianity by missionaries some generations ago. We caught a glimpse of a local elder, wearing the full traditional costume consisting of hundreds of beaded necklace, bangles up to the elbows and heavy earrings stetching our the earlobes. Our guide asked her permission to be photographed which she refused, but another elder was happy to be photographed. She explained that she used to wear traditional costume, but that it was just too heavy in the heat, so she had given it up. To get back to the main road we took a different route, following the banks of the river. In a few weeks the river would probably swell closing off this route, but the rainy season was delayed. The banks of the river were inhabited by poor Bengali settlers, their homes looking significantly more dilapidated than those of Haatibaandha. Their homes seemed to be too close to the river and we wondered how they would manage when the rains came. At least the village was shaded, allowing for a little bit more noon-time activity. The children were out playing and fishing in the river and women washed their clothes. Not unlike in Dhaka and Chittagong, everybody here wanted to be photographed. We ended up back at the road, almost in town, so with the help of our guide we stopped a truck and climbed on to the back. It was loaded with sand which of course ended up in our clothes. Forget the expensive rickshaw, this was definitely the local form of transportation up the road. This ride was free, because our guide new the drivers. (I feel the need to explain this photo due to the extreme dorky expression on my face. Yes, I was very excited. Yes, the young boy behind me thought I was a weirdo. Also, I was holding the camera up so that it didn't get any sand in it, not in preparation for a shot.)

We agreed to continue for the afternoon with our guide so that we could see some villages further away. Being a member of the Bawm tribe, he wanted to show us a Bawm village which is where we headed first. The Bawm village of Faruk Para was right on the side of the road, next to the tourist hot spot Shilo Propat waterfall. A bus load of Bengali tourists were swimming and admiring the tiny waterfall while a few Bawm villagers had set up stands selling “local” blankets. A small store sold cold drinks and village women and children sold their mangoes and pineapples on the side of the road while chewing betel leaves. We ordered a few cold drinks from the store and sat outside next to an extremely old Baum man. We were completely taken aback when he spoke English to us, with a British accent. He expressed his happiness at having tourists visit that were not British: “before....all we had were British, now we even have Japanese!”. For some reason he was very excited about the Japanese, and he proceeded to mention them a few more times over the course of our brief conversation. Yann walked down to the water while I sat with the women fruit-sellers. They were extremely friendly and curious and we made great attempts to communicate with each other. They managed to ask me the key questions of whether or not I was married and whether or not I had children. An older woman gave me a demonstration of betel leaf rolling. Areca nuts are rolled in betel leaf and chewed, (causing teeth and gums to turn red) having the effect of a mild stimulant. When we left the village, the women gave us a mango for the road. By now our guide was beginning to warm up to us. Just a little. We spoke briefly about politics and he expressed his dismay at the current situation for many of the villagers. According to him, villagers could not sell their own produce in the markets across Bangladesh. By law, they could only sell wholesale to Bengalis who would then transport them across the country and sell them at huge profit. The villages were undeniably poor, almost none had access to electricity, running water, health care, transportation, schooling. Multiple NGOs were operating in the area, but a clear development plan involving locals was not evident. The only businesses operating in the area were Bengali, and land-grabbing seemed to be an ongoing problem (despite relocation of Bengalis officially stopping in 1984). Our guide was a young man who seemed to be sad and frustrated. We tried to express sympathy for his cause, but we understood his animosity towards foreigners.

He decided to bring us further up the road to a Mru village. We hitched another ride on the back of a truck, but he could only drop us part way. Soon after being dropped off we passed a father and daughter along the side of the road, hunched over harvesting pineapples with large machetes. The man yelled over at our guide to tell us to come over. He sat us down and sliced open two pineapples for us. They were warm and juicy, and the three of us hadn't eaten any lunch so they were gone rather quickly. They offered to cut us open another one, but we declined. We were covered in sticky pineapple juice and the man offered us the last half of his water bottle to rinse off our hands. Yann and our guide quickly blocked me as I reached for the water. I was extremely embarrassed, especially as I saw the pile of pineapples that hey had already cut, and I thought of how long they had been working in the sun. The village of Noou Para was barely visible from the road and without our guide we surely would have missed the small path leading to it. On our way down, we crossed the village chief who spoke briefly to our guide before heading back to the fields. By now I was completely exhausted, and even on the downhill walk to the village I fell behind. All I could think about was that I was going to have to walk up the same path. The village seemed deserted, but the children and elderly were just hidden in their homes to keep out of the suffocating heat. Our guide managed to get us invited into a village home, where an older couple was resting. Inside it was cool and dark and the bamboo floors were soft to sit on. We were offered some local liquor and the woman decorated me with locally-grown roses. The village women wear the roses as earrings, by shoving the stem through their stretched holes. It took her a while to get one in my ear, and it was pretty painful. (I didn't have to decline getting one through the other ear as it was never offered). Before leaving the woman gave me her beaded necklace, which I accepted. Then she asked for money for it, which we didn't mind. The walk back up to the road wasn't quite as painful as I had imagined. By now we had come to terms with the fact that we would be wet with sweat for the entirety of our time in Bangladesh. There was a small shaded structure along the road and we sat down to have a rest before finishing off the day's tour. Nothing had to be said between for us to agree that we would not be walking back to the resort, even though it would be downhill. The three of us sat in silence and waited for someone who could give us a ride back.