Cox’s Bazaar in the 1980’s

It must have been in the late 1980’s when I visited Bangladesh, although I can’t remember the year, but I do remember I was still a student, studying for my M.A. in northern India and Nepal. At the time, a tourist could stay in India for up to 6 months each year and in Nepal for up to 5 months each year, so I was left with a month out of each year that had to be spent elsewhere — I chose to take a month long holiday off in Bangladesh. It was my first trip to a Muslim country and I didn’t really have any expectations built up in my mind. I arrived with an open mind and heart — made close friends and enjoyed true hospitality with two families there. The Muslim culture maintains the tradition of friendliness to strangers and many Muslim families will welcome a traveler into their home whereas the opposite is true in Israel with fundamentalist Jewish families. It is a lesson well worth reflecting upon given the present (2009) events ongoing in the Gaza strip. I have just lived for two years in Mae Sot, Tak Province in Thailand where there is also a large Muslim community made up of both Burmese and Bangladeshi Muslims — a thoroughly peaceful and well-integrated community, I might add.

I remember traveling across the border from India — overland by bus from Nepal through the countryside and onwards by bus to the capital of Bangladesh, Dacca. I tried to stay in a guest house downtown but was refused by the first one I entered — I am sure it was because I wasn’t a Muslim but I found another one. I only stayed a day or two, then was ready to go on. My final destination was a little fishing town at the bottom southeastern tip of Bangladesh called Cox’s Bazaar. On the way, I stopped for a night in Chittagong. I followed a sign I saw advertising a local drama being presented at the university in town. There, I met Reza, an English teacher at the university who was in charge of the drama club’s presentation. I also met another Bangladeshi at the guest house who befriended me and invited me to try the local girls at a nearby hotel. The same thing had happened to me on my first visit to Georgetown in northern Malaysia. This was not the kind of hospitality I was looking for although it is also a cultural traditionthat’s been around for ages.  Reza took me on a tour of his university campus and invited me to visit him and his family on my departure from Bangladesh. I think I accepted the right invitation at the time. Reza lived in Dacca and I took his address and contact details for when I would return to India.

I ended up spending two weeks in Cox’s Bazaar. I was traveling with camping equipment and once I had registered a room in a local guest house, I set up my tent on the local beach and left my bags at the guest house. It was a beautiful stretch of beach — far off the beaten tourist track. I am sure I was the only Westerner in town.

As I swam on the beach and took naps in my tent, my only visitors were local kids also swimming at the beach. They couldn’t speak much English and I didn’t know any Bangladeshi but we still managed to communicate. The beach was nice but the water was full of tiny, brine shrimp and it was like being tickled all over your body to lie down in the water on the beach. I was able to talk one of the kids into showing me his home. A modest bamboo construction near the beach, it was to be my home for two weeks. I met the kid’s mother and arranged a homestay — paying a very modest fee for room and board. I was surprised that the boy’s mom could make this arrangement without her husband’s approval. I met him later. He was a local government official and his family ended up taking me out of Cox’s Bazaar to a relative’s home on a nearby island. We traveled there by local boat and, of course, had a lot of local, freshly caught fish to eat.

Local boat construction is still done by hand and the boats are made out of wood. Later in my life, I was to see very similar boats — albeit larger — made by hand in South Korea. I spent a lot of time on the shore near Kunsan, S. Korea and rode my bicycle out along the mud flats there at low tide. Many of the Korean fishing boats I saw there reminded me of Bangladesh. The fisherman’s simple lifestyle doesn’t change much from place to place in the world. I also spent time on the beaches of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in south India when I was starting out as a student and living in a nearby village. Except, on that Tamil beach, the boat was even more primitive — a dugout made from a single tree more than anything. Of course, at the time in Bangladesh the thought of a tsunami or cyclone was the furthest thing from my mind. I had seen high waves coming into the beach during a cyclone in the Philippines when I was a young man in the U.S. Navy and stationed in San Miguel — near yet another offshore island where I went swimming in the sea. Only now (2009) can I look back on these times lived on islands and near the sea (and in Taiwan during another cyclone) and reflect upon how much the world has changed. I was born near the sea in New Orleans where my relatives lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. The only question I have in my mind now is how many other natural events like these the world will have us witness.

In counterpoint to these reflections are my memories of visiing Reza’s family in Dacca. I remember his family’s kindness and the delicious meal we shared. Reza later visited me in Nepal and I was able to return his hospitality. We made a trip together to a higher place in the Indian Himalaya. I took him with me on a pilgrimage to Badrinath — a Hindu temple at 15,000 feet elevation. We were accompanied on our trek by a Japanese woman we had met on the way. Pilgrims and tourists share an intercultural space that I wish we all lived in. A lot of the world’s problems could be solved in this way. There is quite a lot of difference between the snow and ice at a high mountain temple and the coastal lowlands of Bangladesh. I would rather live in a village in Bangladesh than at the temple we visited. However, depending on one’s timing, the temple might be a safer place of refuge during a monster tsunami like the one that washed over the continents of the world thousands of years ago. Mysteries like this from the path haunt my present. An earthquake in Chengdu, China accompanied by a cyclone that marched ashore in Burma — both during May of 2008 — reminded me of what our earth can do when the world becomes unbalanced. While in Dacca, Reza took me to see the Bangladeshi parliament building. It reminded me of a castle surrounded by a moat — as there is one surrounding this building. Perhaps the world’s governments and kings feel safe and secure in such buildings. Or, perhaps they are symbols of the security we all want to feel. We look to the world’s governments and authorities with our blind trust all too often. With what this universe we live in can throw at us all, it brings us home to our true situation. It is better to live with that simple truth — in the end, we ALL die. Death doesn’t discriminate although there are genocidal predators in the world who would have us think otherwise. Their illusion is losing its power day by day. Whether we are a king, president, or a so-called powerful politician — when we are born and when we die, we are all equal. Remembering this truth and living each moment as though it were to be your last is the ART OF LIVING. I find it all more interesting than the games we all play with each other to hide a painful truth — that we can only accept our future with help from a higher source of reality. Finding, identifying and becoming related to that source is perhaps the only pilrimage worth being on. If so, I will attempt to make its realization my goal.

January 2, 2009 … DBlue

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