Women in Dhaka wait in line to cast their vote, Dhaka
Postscript: Having been here barely five months it can get complicated understanding the mindset of people in another culture. I was very cynical seeing absolutely no alternative between the two candidates but after talking with friends these past few days my opinion has shifted. I didn’t quite realize the historical significance of the elections. Bangladeshi’s have experienced so much turmoil , corruption and political unrest since their independence in 1971. The fact that Sheik Hasina and her constituents won by such a large margin gives people tremendous hope. It’s a fragile situation and things can ignite at any time but the important thing was that the people kept their cool and a credible election took place. It’s a first step.
The people of Bangladesh have waited seven years to vote for their next Prime Minister. The mood in my neighborhood- and all over the city was very up beat and festive. Everything was very well organized as people patiently waited in long lines to cast their votes. One third of the people at the polls are first time voters. Part of the reason for the jubilation is a return to democracy following a two year period of a “caretaker” government.
Jamaat-e-Islami Party Rally, Kurigram
After close to two years of a military-backed interim government, the state of emergency was lifted last week and elections are due to take place on December 29th. During the past few days there have been lively demonstrations and rallies throughout the country but hardly any coverage from the western press. Better to take a look over at The Third World View, an excellent blog by Rezwan, a Bangladeshi living in Berlin.
I got an early start from Sikkim and reached the Bangladesh border by early afternoon. Interesting to travel through three distinct countries cultures by land in half a day. First impression back in Bangladesh is the amount of people everywhere- even compared to India. Every few miles is another bustling village along the road. The entire country is the same size as Wisconsin with over 150 million people.
Yet another coincidence. Less then two hours into Bangladesh on a local bus, my mobile phone rang and it was Stijn Pieters, a Belgium photographer I had spent some time with a couple of months back in Dhaka. He called from Rangpur, the place I was heading to. We ended up traveling together in the region for the next four days. Some of the university and apartment building in Rangpur reminded me of Eastern bloc architecture. Just a few kilometers outside of town by richshaw we visited a village and were immediately welcomed by the local steering commitee of over 50 people.
I decided to visit Sikkim last minute without a travel permit but the customs officer at the border fortunately issued me one on the spot. Try doing that anywhere else! Getting to Sikkim was half the fun. I went by shared jeep from Kalimpong through gorgeous countryside. The passenger next to me who helped with the border crossing had a sister who was a brain surgeon in California. The scenery reminded me of the cascade mountains in Oregon. Clear blue rivers and dramtic mountain peaks. The only difference were the hundreds of monkeys that lined the road. Two Tibetan passengers told me they can be very aggressive and grab food right out of your hands if you leave the car window open.
Darjeeling is famous for the little blue “Toy Train” that runs on an 18 inch wide track gauge. I opted for the shared jeep from Siliguri since the train takes nine hours for the sixty mile trip. Most of the people here are Nepali and it feels like a different world from two hours ago down in the plains of India. Passed through some tea plantations and many billboards with advertisments for boarding schools. No coincidence that friends Salman and Mesbah from Dhaka both went to school in Darjeeling. Many of the schools were started by British missionaries over one hundred years ago and it’s a visual disconnect to see the modern- looking students walking alongside the Nepalese porters who live very close to the earth. It’s really nice to escape the noise pollution of Dhaka in this quiet town of about 90,000. There aren’t that many travelers here and after 7 pm the streets are deserted.
Woman’s demonstration for Ghurkaland, Darjeeling
The Ghurka’s have been involved in a long bitter struggle with the government of India and West Bengal for a separate state. On my third day thousands of woman arrived in town on buses and staged a demonstration. Many also sat along the road on a twenty four hour hunger strike. Since Darjeeling is close to borders with China, Nepal and Bhutan it’s doubtful that the Indian government will give in to their demands. Still the Ghurka’s are a formidable force. More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars and in the past fifty years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The name “Gurkha” comes from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded
The North Bengal / India border in Burimari was one of the quietest places I’ve seen. The emigration officer was busy watering the trees outside the hut as I approached. Because all of the buses between Dinajpur and the border were not “gate locked” (see previous post). I hired a driver- thanks Mesbah- for the 100 mile trip. Otherwise it would have involved over seven hours of very local buses. Besides it gave me the chance to call my wife. The landscape was pastoral with hardly any motorized transportation in sight. Only rickshaws and people drying grain on the pavement.
From the border there was another two hours to Siliguri. The hub for transport to Darjeeling. There was a strike up in Ghorkaland so I had to spend the night in Siliguri regardless. The smells and color brought back memories from my last time in India many years ago. In the morning at the bus station a man aproached. He looked like a vendor but looks can be deceiving. It turns out he was an English literature professor at the local university and had recently finished his PHD on the relationship between the writing of Salman Rushdie and multiculturalism. We shared a cup of tea before I got back to photographing the spectacle before my eyes.
Beautiful eleven hour train ride up to Dinajpur, close to the India border. It was nice to get “off the road” from the blasting horns and watch the landscape of green and yellow mustard fields go by. At the train station a man waits for me with a flower. It’s Siful, the driver who takes me back to NGO where I’ll be staying for five days. Mesbah is a student at IUB and his mother’s family runs Aloha Social Services of Bangladesh. She has been a woman’s activist for over twenty years. The name of the NGO was inspired by some of the doctors who come over from Hawaii every year to provide medical care. They also partner with a German NGO called Shanti. This region is one of the poorest parts of the country.
‘Local” buses in North Bengal
I wasn’t planning to be in Bangladesh for all of the cow sacrifices but ended up celebrating Eid-Ul-Azha. with Mesbah and family. We took a few side trips to Thakurgaon and Saidpur and there learnt the important meaning of the word “gate lock”. The only problem was that all of the buses in the area were not “gate locked” so they stopped every other mile to pick up and stuff in as many passengers as possible.
Fattening the family cow in preparation for Eid-Ul-Azha
In a couple of days Bangladeshi’s will celebrate Eid-Ul-Azha. I noticed that quite a few cattle markets have sprung up around town in preparation for the holiday. Muslims who can afford to will sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows, and goats) as a symbol of Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) sacrifice. According to the Koran, the meat is divided into three shares, one for the poor, one for the relatives and neighbors, and the last to keep for oneself. The remainder is cooked for the family celebration meal in which relatives and friends are invited to share. The regular charitable practices of the Muslim community are demonstrated during Eid-Ul-Azha by the concerted effort to see that no impoverished person is left without sacrificial food for the holiday. Eid-Ul-Azha is an affirmation of what the Muslim community ethic means in practice. People are also expected to visit their relatives, starting with their parents, then their families and friends.
Salman Saeed was in my interactive media class but his real passion is photography. He has only been shooting for a couple of years but his boundless energy (ah youth) and charming manner have served him well. Besides, the guy has a really good eye. Salman has been a huge help showing me around Dhaka and traveling with me to Kustia last October. A few months ago during Ramadan, Salman shot this video clip of me in action with his Canon G9. It was only towards the end of the evening that I had a clue what he was up to.
Postscript: A few weeks ago in Sylhet I dropped my little Fuju point and shoot. Salman once again came to the rescue and brought it to a friend who repairs cameras . A few hours later he called me to say that the camera is all fixed and working again. Good timing since I’m taking off for winter break in a couple of days to travel in Northern Bengal and Darjeeling.